Monday, May 4, 2020

Ryo's Leather Jacket & Patches | Analysis

This topic was selected by the Phantom River Stone blog patrons via our monthly poll on Patreon and was available for early access.

Ryo is rarely seen without his trusty brown leather jacket (especially in the first two games), taking it off only to sleep, or to do some light sparring with Fuku-san in the Hazuki Dojo.

It is adorned with a number of patches - notably, the tiger on the back which faces the player for most of the game - but are these merely random designs? This is a topic that has been pondered by fans over the years, so

In this post we'll see how the jacket and patches were presented in early concept art, and consider the meaning or intention behind them, if any.

Ryo's Leather Jacket

It should be noted that the leather jacket itself was not present in early character designs

Shenmue has its roots in Yu Suzuki's original concept of a "Virtua Fighter RPG" (VFRPG) and this influence is apparent in the early artwork and development of the game including the character of Ryo who evolved from the Virtua Fighter character of Akira Yuki.

Going back to 1995, a series of Virtua Fighter artwork discs was released for the Sega Saturn, and the images of Akira show the white T-shirt and jeans combination that was inherited by Ryo.
Images of Akira from the Virtua Fighter CG Portrait Series (1995).

Early concept art for VFRPG also shows Ryo in a T-shirt and jeans.
VFRPG Chapter Concept Art, 1996 (screenshot from the Shenmue Documentary Kickstarter trailer)
Footage from the unreleased version of Shenmue that was initially developed on the Sega Saturn shows Ryo in the same outfit, down to the wristband on his right arm.
Left: early concept art. Right: screenshot from footage of the abandoned Sega Saturn version of Shenmue. No leather jacket to be seen!
The later addition of a leather jacket was a deliberate point by the development team.

A comment from the developers regarding this choice can be found as part of the bonus files present on the Shenmue II discs. The reason given was to make his character more distinctive:
"In the beginning, we put Ryo in a plain outfit, a white T-shirt and blue jeans. We found out, however, that he didn't stand out from the other characters in the game. Finally, we dressed him in a leather jacket since it was determined that Shenmue would take place in the winter."

- Developer comment (Shenmue II on-disc bonus files, 2002)

The Patches

A number of patches decorate Ryo's jacket, although early concept art showing the jacket without patches suggests that these were added later:
Early concept art by Kenji Miyawaki, showing Ryo's jacket. No patches are visible.
In the released games, Ryo's jacket has three patch designs:
  • Patch design #1: a rectangular set of red and white stripes, found near the shoulder on both sleeves of the jacket.
  • Patch design #2: a diamond-shaped patch on the front. This patch is of particular interest because it has gone through a number of design changes.
  • Patch design #3: the familiar motif of a tiger with its paw outstretched on the back of the jacket.
Ryo's jacket and placement of the patches (Shenmue I)
I was not able to find any hints or comments from Yu Suzuki or the AM2 development team regarding the design of these patches specifically. However by examining each of them closely it may be possible to make some educated guesses as to their purpose.

We'll consider each of the patches in turn.

Striped Patches

Position: left and right sleeves, on the upper arm.
Description: a rectangular patch of four red and three white stripes.

This particular design of the patch does not appear to have an existing meaning that I could find, but its similarity to the stripes on the U.S. flag is apparent.

The first Shenmue game depicts the way of life of residents in a small-town Japanese neighborhood in the mid-1980s. While the townscape of Yokosuka has a strong feeling of old-fashioned Showa-era nostalgia, the presence of outside cultural influences can also be felt, especially those of the U.S.: from the Coca Cola (in the Japanese version of Shenmue, at least) vending machines dotted around the neighborhood to the sailors from the nearby U.S. Naval base

The very first historical U.S. Navy maritime flag or "jack" is also believed to have consisted of just the stripes from the national flag, and so this may have also inspired the patch design.
The red-and-white stripes of the United States' flag (left) are thought to have been the design of the first U.S. naval jack (right).
The striped sleeve patches can be seen as representing Japan's increasing globalization and exposure to outside cultures, and the willingness of the younger generation to embrace these changes perhaps more readily that the older generations.

The Diamond Patch

Position: on the chest at the front left.
Description: a diamond-shaped patch (several variations of design).

Being on the front of Ryo's jacket, this patch was not frequently visible in the first two games, although it can be examined easily in high resolution with the camera control in Shenmue 3.

Changes to the design of this patch can be seen throughout the history of development of the games. In the following concept illustration, the patch has a red frame around a white background, with red lines dividing it into four squares. On top of this is a dark snake-like form that somewhat resembles a dragon.

Concept art showing the jacket's front patch.
The What's Shenmue demo, which was released several months before the release of the first game, has a slightly different patch design. The patch has a brown border around a 3x3 red-and-white checkered background. Overlaid on this is a tall black shape which looks to be a horse's head, or possibly even a black knight chess piece.
The design of the jacket's front patch in What's Shenmue (top) resembles a black knight chess piece. The same design can be seen slightly more clearly in the blue Shenmue pamphlet that was distributed at the Premiere in 1998/1999 (bottom).
The design changes again for Shenmue I. The brown border and checkerboard pattern are retained, but now overlaid in place of the chess piece seen in the What's Shenmue demo are nautical-themed symbols:
The front patch in Shenmue I (left) and the design detail (right)
The symbols at the top and bottom evoke images of a compass rose, the figure that it often found on nautical charts to indicate the four cardinal directions. Some similar compass rose designs can be seen below for comparison.
The symbols at the top and bottom of the patch (left) and similar compass rose designs (right)
These are fitting symbols for the tale of Shenmue. Most obviously, Ryo's hometown of Yokosuka is a port town with strong ties to the naval base nearby. A compass is also symbolic of the journey Ryo will take on his quest to avenge his father's death at the hands of Lan Di. And the four cardinal directions also have a deep connection to the story, with the four Heavenly Beasts of Chinese mythology and their use by the Chi You Men to name their leaders.

In the center of the design are a pair of crossed triangular-shaped pennants, with blue and white vertical stripes. These are reminiscent of naval signal flags, although this particular sequence doesn't appear to have a specific real-world meaning.
The patch pennants (left) and examples of international signal flags (right).
Shenmue II introduces another change to the design. The checkerboard still has the compass symbol at the top, but below this is what appears to be a horse's head, but using the cover art for the Xbox version of Shenmue II as reference, a horn can be seen revealing it to be a black unicorn. In addition, at either side of it are the letters "H" and "S".
Ryo's front patch in Shenmue II (left) and detail from the Xbox cover art (center and right).
However research online for hints about why a black knight, or black unicorn, was chosen did not turn up any convincing leads.

The letters "H" and "S" are also a mystery; in the past it has been postulated by some fans that they might stand for High School, and that the design may be a school emblem, but evidence for this is lacking - and the design it is certainly nothing like the real school emblem of Yokosuka High School...
The real-life school emblem of Yokosuka High School.
Also, the use of this new version is not completely consistent, with the cover of Shenmue II using the "chess piece" design:

It is also notable that in Shenmue III, the design of the front patch has reverted back to the Shenmue I version.

The Tiger Patch

Position: on the back.
Description: image of a tiger with an out-stretched paw.

The tiger design has remained consistent since the early concept artwork. There are a number of possible theories as to its meaning, and while it appears that there has been no definitive comment from Yu Suzuki and team on this, several possible theories can be presented.
The tiger patch in early concept art (left, from the Shenmue II disc bonus files) and in more detail (right).
The Tiger, one of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac, represents strength, power, and courage. In Japan, historically, samurai warriors had tigers on their crests. Hence it is a natural choice of imagery for a young martial artist such as Ryo.

Images of a tiger are a popular motif on the Yokosuka jackets (known as "Sukajan") sold along Dobuita Street, and Ryo's jacket design is likely also derived from these.
A "Sukajan" featuring a tiger motif.
There is a deeper connection to the Chinese philosophy of Taoism. In Taoism, Chinese philosophers saw the universe in terms of a symbiotic yin and yang: yang, active and masculine, takes the form of a mythological dragon; yin, passive and feminine, the tiger common to some Chinese forests.

The Tiger and Dragon symbolize this balance of power, and in the same way in Shenmue's story we see Ryo with the tiger image on his jacket, and his foe Lan Di who has dragon imagery on his robes.
The Tiger and Dragon are a Taoist symbol of power balance.
The Tiger is also one of the Four Heavenly Beasts of Chinese mythology, and this has led to fan theories involving potential relevance, However in this case the Heavenly Beast is specifically a White Tiger and hence a connection with the image on Ryo's jacket may be unlikely.

However the Tiger vs Dragon comparison also has ties to the five traditional animal styles of Shaolin Kung Fu, these five styles being the Dragon, the Snake, the Tiger, the Leopard and the Crane.

The following description of the Tiger perfectly describes the young and inexperienced Ryo, set on revenge:
"In the Martial Arts, students begin as Tigers. They are at the beginning of their Martial Arts journey and have taken the first step with their dedication to practice. The Tiger's strength is physical strength. Eager to fight and to demonstrate skills they have learned. The Tiger represents aggression and action and fights with a straight forward attack".
Compared to this is the cool and composed Lan Di, represented by the Dragon:
"The Dragon is physically strong, however relies mostly on intellectual combat. The strength of the Dragon comes from within. The Dragon also represents reaction and fights with circular attacks. The Dragon is not eager to fight and demonstrate skills. Instead, he contains the knowledge within and only unleashes it when forced to as a last resort. When it is unleashed, it takes his opponents by surprise and is without forewarning".
These traits can be clearly seen in the games' characters, with Ryo somewhat reckless and headstrong at the start of the game, while Lan Di stays in the background and does not fight unnecessarily.

Finally, Yu Suzuki's love of movies is well known, and he is known to have drawn from many influences when creating Shenmue's story.

For example. in the 1979 movie Rocky 2, the protagonist must practice catching chickens as training to improve his dexterity - something that is incorporated into Shenmue III.
Catching chickens in Rocky 2 (left) and Shenmue 3 (right)
Hence the appearance of a tiger jacket in the same movie may possibly have provided inspiration for Ryo's jacket.
Rocky's jacket in Rocky 2

Final Comment

While there may not be any one definitive answer about the choices and changes made for the jacket patches, some of the factors discussed above may well have contributed to the decisions made.

At the broadest level, Ryo's jacket and patches can be thought of as symbolic of Yokosuka and its juxtaposition of Japanese and Western cultures. A journalist for Japan's Famitsu magazine alluded to that with this comment:
"During play, the game's protagonist Ryo Hazuki wears a leather jacket, although strictly speaking patched leather jackets aren't sold anywhere in town. The reason for that is that it combines two separate cultures: a military-style leather jacket and embroidered patches. By bringing together the embroidered designs normally seen on Yokosuka jackets, with a naval leather jacket, the development team at the time wrapped up the distinctive characteristics of the town of Yokosuka."
Going beyond this and considering some of the imagery also reveals deeper connections to Ryo's journey and the Shenmue story. In particular, the tiger motif invites a parallel to be drawn with Ryo and Lan Di as Tiger and Dragon respectively.

The real answer lies with Yu Suzuki and team, and perhaps one day we will gain some more insight directly from the source.

Do you have a theory on the meaning of Ryo's jacket patches? Share in the comments.


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  1. Ryo's Leather Jacket is so beautiful, i have this jacket. Interesting analysis. Switch, you know where i can find VFRPG Chapters Concept Arts in good quality? I love these arts, i only found them in low quality. Your blog is awesome, thanks.

    1. I've also looked for higher-resolution versions of the chapter illustrations in the past. The only one I've found is of Chapter One in Sega Saturno's article:

      Link to image:

  2. Ryo Hazuki's jacket looks like the one Maverick wears in Top Gun. Additionally, the white t-shirt and denin, they both wear very similar clothes.

    1. Clear similarities! Top Gun came out in the year in which Shenmue was set (1986), so perhaps Ryo was influenced.