Sunday, January 24, 2021

Xmas and New Year in Shenmue's Yokosuka | Culture

The Shenmue series has been carefully crafted to be played at the player's own pace, without being pressured to rush through to the end. Players are encouraged to take their time and explore and examine the world around them, and are usually rewarded for doing so by the revelation of extra detail, conversations or even cut scenes that might otherwise go missed or unnoticed.

The transformation of the world at New Year in the first game illustrates this perfectly. With the game starting on 29th November, players who progress through the game at reasonable pace may finish the game without seeing the changes in appearance that can be seen around Yokosuka in the game at the start of the year.

Since we are talking about seasonal changes, let's start by noting the changes seen around Dobuita at Christmas as well. These are likely to be encountered by most players of Shenmue.

How Yokosuka Transforms at Christmas

From December 15th to Christmas Day the shopping street in Dobuita enters into the Christmas spirit!
  • Shopping street "piped" music: as Ryo walks along Dobuita Street during this period, a number of Christmassy jingles play. These include renditions of Jingle Bells in the vicinity of the Tomato Convenience store, and Shenhua's Theme outside Uokichi Seafood, played with chimes and pipe organ! Side-note: the game treats this music as part of the sound effects, so it plays in parallel with the FREE exploration music. Also, even today in real-life Dobuita also, Christmas music is piped through speakers during this period, as can be heard in a video taken on location a few years ago.
  • Christmas decorations: red "Merry Christmas" flags with an image of Santa Claus are dotted along the lamp posts, and several shops put up tinsel decorations on their facades. The Komine Bakery hangs up a wreath, while small Christmas trees appear outside the Global Travel Agency and Funny Bear Burgers.
The You Arcade gets into the seasonal spirit: decorations beneath the yellow sign and a "Merry Xmas" flag on the nearby lamp post.

The Komine Bakery sports a single wreath

Tucked behind the pillar: a modest Christmas tree outside the highly-reputable Global Travel Agency. (It goes without saying that the Asia Travel Co. doesn't bother with decorations).
  • In modern times Christmas has turned into shopping season in many cities, and Yokosuka is no exception with a large banner advertising the "Yokosuka X'mas Sale".
"Yokosuka X'mas Sale" banner
  • The most memorable character in the area at Christmas time is friendly Santa Maeno who roams the street all day long, and is always happy to let Ryo know about the good deals available.
Santa Maeno doesn't miss his chance for a festive sales pitch.

How Yokosuka Transforms at New Year

Not so frequently encountered are the changes that Dobuita and the surrounding suburbs undergo during the New Year period, which in the game lasts from January 1st to the 5th.

1987: Year of the Rabbit

Japan has the concept of the Zodiac calendar, introduced from China, whereby each year is associated with one of the 12 Zodiac animals. Shenmue's story begins in 1986, Year of the Tiger, and changes to 1987, which was Year of the Rabbit.
Animals of the Chinese Zodiac: 1987 was Year of the Rabbit

Accordingly, Year of the Rabbit posters and illustrations can be seen displayed in shop windows along the Dobuita shopping street and even on some of the power poles in the hillside suburb of Sakuragaoka.

The text on the poster reads 迎春 (New Year's Greetings), and at the side in smaller lettering is written "New Year 1987. Shops Association".

One of the many Year of the Rabbit posters to be found.

Dobuita Street Sale

The large banners that stretch across Dobuita Street have a new announcement during this period; right on the heels of the Christmas sale is a "New Year's Big Sale." In Japan the New Year is a popular time for stores to hold New Year clearance sales.

The eye-catching New Year's "Big Sale" banner.

Dobuita Street Flowers

New Year signals the coming of spring in Japan, bringing with it plum, peach and cherry blossoms. Hence branches of artificial pink and white decorative flowers can be seen along Dobuita Street and sidestreets.

Flower decorations representing the coming of spring.

If you look carefully at the decoration, it also holds a small red-and-white placard with two kanji characters (大入) written on it in a stylized form. This represents a wish for a large number of visitors to the stores.
The characters 大入 on the back of a festive cotton jacket.

Flowers even appear outside the Abe Store in Sakuragaoka.

Abe Store gets decorative for the New Year.

Entrance Decorations

In Japan in the New Year, a traditional decoration called a shimekazari is placed above an entranceway to prevent bad spirits from entering and to invite a Shinto deity to descend and visit. It is made of a sacred Shinto straw rope, and other materials such as bitter oranges, ferns, and white ritual paper strips called shide.
A shimekazari decoration.

In Shenmue's New Year, such decorations can be seen not only above the entrance to many of the shops, but also at the entrance to houses in Sakuragaoka and Yamanose.

Even the shady Nagai Industries puts up a shimekazari.

Ryo studies a shimekazari at the entrance to a home in Sakuragaoka.

Shopping Street Music

Once again the Dobuita Business Association has selected a number of tunes especially for this period, which can be heard as Ryo walks along Dobuita Street. The instrument used is the koto, a traditional stringed instrument that is often played to welcome in the new year in Japan.

Wearing of Traditional Costume

Perhaps the highlight of the changes that occur during the New Year period is a change to traditional costume for a small number of characters.

There are four female characters who can be seen dressed in kimono. They are Ryo's childhood friends Noriko Nakamura, Eri Tajima and Miki Maeda as well as schoolgirl Yumi Morino. They can be found around Dobuita Street, Sakuragaoka and Yamanose.

The attention to detail includes not only the colorful designs of the cloth and obi belt, but also hair-piece decorations and traditional slippers (zōri) with white socks (tabi).

From left: Ryo's childhood friends Noriko Nakamura, Eri Tajima, Miki Maeda and schoolgirl Yumi Morino (who doesn't talk to strange men). The top row shows their usual outfits for comparison.

Even their walking style and posture changes completely to fit with the smaller-step gait that a kimono requires:
Yumi Morino walks along Dobuita Street during the New Year

While the other female characters continue to wear their usual outfits during New Year, Nozomi Harasaki can be seen in kimono outside the game: Sega released a promotional image of her in a kimono on the website for the New Year in 2000:

Nozomi Harasaki CG image

This image was also used on a promotional telephone card released by Dreamcast Magazine around the same time:
Dreamcast Magazine telephone card

Without doubt the finest example to be found is a magnificent framed print owned by Shenmue mega collector David De ville! It was originally the main prize of a Network Ranking competition (QTE Title) run by Sega during the early days of the game's original release:

New Year Weather

During the New Year, it would appear that the weather in the game is restricted to either snowy or overcast weather, avoiding rain during this period (presumably for aesthetic reasons).

However, if we use a small hack to force the weather to turn rainy, we can see that the kimono-wearing characters will happily put up umbrellas.

Noriko holds an umbrella in kimono

Final Comment

As ever, Shenmue amazes with the care and depth taken over details that have no effect on the gameplay or story, and may not even be seen by many players. However without a doubt they enrichen the experience and reward players who spend time to explore what Shenmue has to offer.

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  1. The attention to detail never ceases to amaze me in this game.

    1. Absolutely agree. There's no game that encompasses that feeling more!

  2. wow 20 years and i'm still learning about this game...