Sunday, September 19, 2021

Shenmue Tree? Cherry Tree? | Shenmue 3 Translations

Something that has led to a lot of discussion among fans is the nature of the tree that stands gracefully in full bloom at Ternary Spring, outside the house of Grandmaster Feng in Shenmue III. When Ryo visits the area, the tree is mentioned in conversation with both Shenhua and Grandmaster Feng, but nothing is said that would remove doubt about its identity - is it supposed to be an actual Shenmue tree?

The tree at Ternary Spring

This question is not as easily answered as it may at first appear, since the tree is treated inconsistently between Shenmue II and III, as well as between the Japanese and English language versions.

In this post we'll attempt to bring together the known evidence to help judge the tree's true nature.

The Shenmue Dojo forums served as a useful reference for this post, with various theories and discussions made on this topic.

Shenmue Tree Hypothesis

An obvious place to start is by examining the tree's appearance, in particular the pattern of its bark and the shape of its flowers, and compare this to the tree at Shenhua's house which we know from Shenmue II to be a Shenmue tree.

Complicating matters, the Shenmue tree in the third game was considerably reimagined. This is how it looked in the second game:
Appearance of the Shenmue tree in Shenmue II (roots, whole form and blossom)

Here is the Shenmue tree in the third game, with the tree at Ternary Spring below. In the game, petals fall continually from both trees. From a distance, a difference can be observed in the overall form of each tree, with the branches and blossoms on the Shenmue tree hanging down to give it a rounder shape and the tree at Ternary springs having a spikier appearance with blossomed branches in all directions:

Overall form (top: the Shenmue tree at Shenhua's house; bottom: the tree at Ternary Spring).

Next let's see how the blossoms and bark compare. 

Comparison of blossoms, petals and trunk (top: Shenmue tree, bottom: Ternary Spring tree) 

Despite the difference in each tree's form when seen at a distance, examined up close, the shape of the blossoms, individual petals on the ground and the patterns on the trunk appear to be identical. This may be suggestive of the Ternary Spring tree also being of the same variety - a Shenmue tree. However other explanations are also possible for the outward similarities, such budget constraints forcing the developer's to reuse graphical elements.

It is also worth touching on the scene where Shenhua waits for Ryo at Ternary Spring, in which she speaks of the tree being one of her favorite places, saying that "The tree protects me". However this does not really serve as an indication of the tree being specifically a Shenmue tree, as we have seen from the Guilin journey in Shenmue II that Shenhua is at one with nature in general.

Shenhua, speaking about the tree at Ternary Spring: "The tree protects me".

Ryo's Notebook

There is one piece of evidence that is likely to have influenced many players using the English-language setting, which can be found in Ryo's notebook.

After visiting Grandmaster Feng, Ryo's English entry reads, "The Ternary Spring is breathtaking. There is a large Shenmue tree."

Ryo's notebook entry in English specifies a Shenmue tree.

This seems to make it a pretty cut-and-dried case - but, in fact, this mention is only made in the English language case. In the Japanese version of the notebook, Ryo notes merely that "There was a large tree" at the Spring:

The Japanese entry in the notebook has "There was a large tree."

It is hard to imagine that the English translators would have added such a significant additional piece of information on a whim. This makes me think that the reference to a "Shenmue" tree once existed originally in the Japanese but an edit was later made to remove it, and this edit did not reach the English translation.

Cherry Tree Hypothesis

Near the end of Shenmue II, when Ryo first sees the Shenmue tree outside her house, he mentions the cherry tree at the Hazuki residence:
Ryo: There was a tree at home that bloomed during the springtime.

Shenhua: At your house?

Ryo: They were called cherry blossoms. Their petals were pale pink.

Shenhua: Cherry blossoms...

From this conversation, it would appear that Shenhua is not very familiar with cherry blossoms (although cherry trees can also be found naturally in some areas of China).

However, this assumption may not hold true in Shenmue III, due to an optional conversation that can be triggered by asking Shenhua about Grandmaster Feng's location, after losing to the thugs at Hermit's Nest but before going to visit him. Shenhua reminds Ryo that his house is at Ternary Spring, and that he has been there before - it is "where the big cherry tree is". (This matches the Japanese line).

Shenhua refers to the Ternary Spring tree as a "cherry tree" in conversation.

View the video here, recorded by SalsaShark:

This is not a contradiction for the Japanese version, since it was only referred to as as "big" tree previously, but it is clearly a contradiction with the earlier notebook entry in English stating it was a Shenmue tree.


Overall, it is not clear cut, due to the various inconsistencies to be found, but my personal call would be that the Japanese version of the game is most likely to represent the correct state. This would make the tree at Ternary Spring a cherry tree.

Going with this theory, during development of the game the tree may have once been drafted to be a Shenmue tree - as pointed to by the reuse of graphical assets and the English notebook entry that specifies it. However, at a later stage this may have been altered to become a cherry tree: the notebook entry was updated (on the Japanese side only) and the tree's form was given a different appearance from the Shenmue tree at Shenhua's house (but the bark, blossoms and petal components were kept). The same adjustment for the English translation in the notebook slipped through the cracks and was left in the game.

What is your take on the mysterious tree at Ternary Spring?
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  1. In my oppion I believe that the tree in Ternary spring is also a Shenmue Tree but probably younger.
    The real reason I believe it to be so is because Shenhua says that the tree protects her; something that she also mentions in Shenmue 2 and that we also see in the cutscene where her "parents" give her the name of the Shenmue Flower "Shenhua" saying that the tree shall protect her.
    In Shenmue 2 Ryo also mentions that he feels that the Shenmue Tree has a spirit; and in Shenmue 3 we also see Ryo having a "spiritual" connection with the tree in Ternary Spring in the flashback of his father.
    For me these are the reasons that lead me to believe that it is also a Shenmue Tree.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Shenmue Unofficial! You raise some great points that support the case for the tree having special meaning, and for it being a Shenmue tree.