Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mystery Posters on Dobuita Street | Shenmue I

Mystery Posters on Dobuita Street

In Shenmue 1, opposite the You Arcade on a side-wall running alongside the Maeda Barbershop on Dobuita Street, are a couple of slightly strange-looking posters. Have you ever wondered what they are about?

The location of the posters
The location of the posters on Dobuita Street
Examining the posters, each has a large written heading under which is a black-and-white image of a lady and a small child, and it looks as though a coloring effect has been applied to make it look like a film negative:

Two mysterious-looking posters
The two mysterious-looking posters
At the bottom is some indistinguishable text and a small map with a location indicated by a red dot.

So what exactly is the poster about?

The biggest clue of course lies in the heading: 第九をうたう会. This can be translated as Let's Sing the 9th, where "the 9th" refers to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which is performed with a choir of singers.

We'll talk more about this aspect later in the post, but first let's take a closer look at the image of the lady and child.

A Kowloon Connection?

The image in the poster may have a feeling of familiarity about it for players who have completed Shenmue II - specifically, when compared to the statue of the Virgin Mary and child from the Thousand White Convent in Kowloon.

(Note: baby Jesus is only present in the Japanese version of Shenmue II, having being "censored" out of the overseas versions).

The statue in the Thousand White Convent vs the Dobuita poster image.
Left & center: the statue in the Thousand White Convent in Kowloon (Shenmue II, Japanese version).
Right: the image in the poster in Dobuita (Shenmue I).
Although the poses and relative positions differ, there are strong similarities in areas such as the shape of the child's head, and the pattern on the lady's cape. It is feasible to suppose that the developers made use of the same underlying model as the statue to produce the image for the Dobuita St poster.

Removing the Ghost Effect

Since the coloring of the image in the poster seems to be inverted, let's see how it looks if we restore the original colors with a second inversion:

Left: the poster image as seen in the game; right: after applying a color inversion.
Left: the poster image as seen in the game; right: after applying a color inversion.

That removes the "ghost" effect, and brings the image even closer to the one of the statue. It makes one wonder why the developers chose to use inverted colors for the poster in the first place.

It can also seen that there appears to be a book-shaped object held between them (on the left side of the image). Given the context, perhaps it represents a sheaf of music from which they are singing the Ninth Symphony together.

Speaking of the Ninth Symphony, it has some interesting connections to Japan's culture.

About Beethoven's Ninth Symphony

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - or to give it its formal title: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 - is Ludwig van Beethoven's final complete symphony. Completed in 1824, the symphony is one of the best-known works in classical music and among critics, it is almost universally considered one of Beethoven's greatest works.

An orchestra with soloists and choir, performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
An orchestra with soloists and choir, performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
The symphony was the first example of a major composer using voices in a symphony. The words are sung during the final movement by four vocal soloists and a choir. They were taken from the "Ode to Joy", a poem written by Friedrich Schiller in 1785 and revised in 1803, with additions made by the composer.

The Popularity of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Japan

Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is much loved in Japan, and its performance has become an annual tradition for ringing in the New Year. How did it grow to become so popular?

This tradition can be traced back to the First World War:
In 1914, a colony of German soldiers living in Tsingtao, a city on the eastern shore of China, was captured by Japanese soldiers. World War I had erupted and Japan sided with Great Britain and the rest of the Allies. At the time, Tsingtao was a major German military base and Japan demanded its surrender. When Germany refused, Japan invaded and detained almost 4,000 soldiers as prisoners of war.
- Seattle Times
The prisoners of war were held in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku, until the end of the war, in generally good conditions:
To pass the time during the war years, the German camps set up various activities, comforting themselves with sports but also cultural events. Each camp organised performances of classical German music - including Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. They entertained fellow German prisoners, and eventually also the Japanese locals.

After the prisoners were repatriated, the people of Tokushima started a tradition of playing the Ninth Symphony on New Year's Eve in memory of them.
- History Stack Exchange Q&A
This spread across the country and Beethoven's music is played in every town across the country to celebrate the end of the year. The scale ranges from smaller local events, to those with hundreds of performers, and months of preparation and practice are involved. Remarkably, all lyrics are sung in their original German.

The 3-minute video below reports on one of the largest events, with 10,000 Japanese participants performing.


So the posters are in fact an invitation to the residents of Dobuita to join a group singing "Ode to Joy" as part of an end-of-year performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with a map showing the location perhaps of the practice venue.

For anyone familiar with this Japanese tradition, the posters are a natural fit with the time of year in which Shenmue is set (I also carried out some testing of the game to see whether they are removed from the wall if the calendar month moves into February or March of the next year, but they are not!).

The image on the poster appears to be derived from the model used for the statue of the Virgin Mary and child in the Japanese edition of Shenmue II, with some adjustments made. Also for some reason the colors have been inverted to give it a somewhat creepy appearance, but presumably the intention was simply to show a mother and her child singing together in the choir.

And now you'll no longer need to wonder about the nature of these posters next time Ryo passes them on Dobuita Street.

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  1. Very interesting again dude! Now that you mention it, when a train arrives at a station, atleast i noticed it alot at stations, but different pieces of music are played, i'm pretty sure I remember hearing a little melody to the tune of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony! :)

    1. Very cool! Speaking of train station music in Japan, sometimes they change the melody for limited periods of time, like this one in Shibuya which temporarily used the Star Wars theme :)

  2. I really hope the re-release on PS4&X1 is not going to have any censorship!

    1. That's an interesting point! Although it's hard to imagine them going out of their way to revert the changes unless they were basing the re-release on the Japanese version of the code. Hm...