Sunday, November 19, 2023

Motivations and Secrets: The Significance of Two Letters | Analysis

The start of Shenmue's tale revolves around two intriguing letters obtained by Ryo Hazuki, setting the stage for the enigmatic narrative to unravel.

The first letter holds poignant meaning as it was written by Ryo's late father, Iwao, who passed away in a violent encounter with a man in Chinese clothing called Lan Di. Ryo discovers it sitting out on his father's desk for him to find.

Adding to the intrigue, a second letter arrives from Hong Kong, sent by a mysterious individual whom Ryo later learns is named Zhu Yuan Da. Written in cryptic Chinese script, it arrives shortly after Iwao's passing.

Upon having it translated, Ryo uncovers that this letter served as a warning to his father, although it arrived too late to fulfill its intended purpose.

The two letters raise some interesting questions. How did Zhu Yuan Da know about the threat to Iwao? And did Iwao Hazuki know Lan Di was coming?

Today, we will attempt to answer these questions by examining the letters, comparing the Japanese and Chinese sources with the English translations provided by the game, and by delving into the events that take place over the course of the first two games.

This topic was suggested by blog patrons Patrick Fuller and James Brown.

Iwao Hazuki's Letter for Ryo

Let's start by translating the letter from Iwao Hazuki and see how it compares to the official English version.

Here is a direct translation, remaining as faithful as possible to the Japanese wording:
"Dear Ryo,

Those who walk the path of martial arts must be prepared to face death to uphold their beliefs. Live by one's convictions; die for one's convictions. That is the way I have lived my life. Ryo, I urge you to walk your own path with your beliefs held close to your heart, and strive to master them."
By comparison, the English wording in the release is:
"Dear Ryo... those who follow the path of a warrior, must be prepared to die in order to stand by their convictions. Live for one's convictions, die for one convictions. That is how I lived my life. Ryo, it is up to you to discover your path and follow it through."
Both versions convey the same overall message, although the official translation's use of "the path of a warrior" introduces a more aggressive connotation that is not present in the original Japanese, which has "the path of martial arts."

Zhu Yuan Da's Letter to Iwao

Moving on, let's look at the contents of Zhu Yuan Da's letter that he sent from Hong Kong. Unfortunately, it arrived only after Iwao's tragic demise at the hands of Lan Di.

In the game, the letter is shown to have been delivered shortly after Iwao's passing. However, the housekeeper, Ine-san, decides not to inform Ryo until a week later, expressing her apprehension about its potential contents.

The front of the envelope is directly addressed to Iwao:

The envelope: "Iwao Hazuki-sensei"

Notably, the back of the envelope bears the name of Zhu Yuan Da, though this detail remains untouched upon until later:
A glimpse of the back of the envelope, which has Zhu's name and seal

Ryo is unable to make sense of the letter and seeks assistance from Xiuyu Xia at the Russiya China shop to decipher its contents. They discover that the Chinese characters are written reversed, requiring the use of a mirror to read them. Not only that, but they have been written in a special, ancient style.

The letter from Zhu (front and reverse sides)

The image below shows how the front side of the letter looks when mirrored: 

Front side of the letter from Zhu as received (left) and when mirrored (right)

As an aside, it may be amusing for players knowledgeable in Japanese to see that the letter's encoded contents give Ryo and the other people he asks such trouble as to any possible meaning. That's because while the script is in Chinese and mirrored, certain key words and phrases should be at least somewhat discernable to a Japanese person - even if written reversed - as the kanji writing system is derived from Chinese and still shares many similarities. Some of the more apparent characters that can be noticed in the letter are 緊急時 ("in an emergency"), 鏡 ("mirror / mirrors") and 陳大人 ("Master Chen"). Nevertheless, for the sake of the story, we must accept that its code is impenetrable!

The game's English translation of Xiuyu's interpretation is:
"Beware of those who pursue the mirror.
If you ever need help, seek the aid of Master Chen.
Zhu Yuan Da".
This matches closely with the way it is expressed in the Japanese version in the game:
"There is someone who pursues the mirror(s). Be careful.
Furthermore, in case of emergency, seek help from Master Chen.
Zhu Yuan Da"
However, it's worth noting that the official English version uses "mirror" in the singular form, while it's more likely that Zhu intended to refer to "mirrors," considering his knowledge of Iwao's possession of multiple mirrors. Understandably, Xiuyu would not have been aware of this when providing her translation.

Interestingly, on the game disc can be found an unused model of Zhu's letter which contains the same message as the one above, but does not use a special font and is not mirrored. This may have been used as a placeholder during development of the game:

Unused asset (mals502g.obj): this version of Zhu's letter contains the same text but uses a standard font and is not mirrored.

Chao Yu has pointed out that one differentiating feature of this version of the letter is that it shows a date, which is 22nd September 1986, well before the date it actually arrived! If only Zhu had chosen a faster method of delivery...

Iwao Hazuki's Past & Ryo's Journey: Timeline

Both Zhu Yuan Da and Iwao Hazuki appear to have possessed some foresight regarding an impending attempt to seize the mirrors.

To gain insight into how they obtained this knowledge, here is a broad outline of events pieced together from information in the games by Ryo from the people he encounters.
  • About 20 years prior, when he was around 26 years old, Iwao Hazuki embarks on a journey to Hong Kong and China to study martial arts. During his time in China, he trains at Bailu Village alongside a man named Zhao Sun Ming. (At that point, they share a friendly relationship, as evidenced by the photograph Ryo later discovers in the basement of Hazuki Dojo).
  • Under circumstances that remain unclear, Zhao Sun Ming meets a tragic end.
  • Following these events, the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors, previously in Sun Ming's possession, are brought back from China by both Iwao and (according to Master Chen's claim) Zhu Yuan Da.
  • Approximately 20 years after the events in China, in present-day 1986, Zhao's son Long Sun, also known as Lan Di and who is one of the leaders of the Chi You Men organization, attempts to locate Zhu Yuan Da but he has gone into hiding.
  • Zhu Yuan Da sends a warning letter from Hong Kong to Iwao Hazuki, providing the contact details of Master Chen.
  • Lan Di travels from Hong Kong to Yokosuka, Japan, where he strikes down Iwao at his home, coincidentally on Ryo's birthday. Lan Di seizes the Dragon mirror but seems unaware of the existence of another mirror in Iwao's possession.
  • A few days later, Ryo discovers a letter addressed to him in his father's room.
  • Ine-san discloses the arrival of Zhu Yuan Da's letter, pointing Ryo to Master Chen.
  • Ryo departs to Hong Kong on the trail of Lan Di. His objectives: to avenge his father's death and uncover the reason behind Lan Di's act of violence.
Photo of a young Iwao Hazuki with Zhao Sun Ming at Bailu Village

Characters & Events relating to Iwao's China travels (from our previous post, Iwao Hazuki's China Visit)

Ryo learns crucial information on visiting Master Chen at the harbor, who is a friend or long-time acquaintance Zhu Yuan Da. This connection between them is not entirely surprising, considering their shared background in importing and exporting activities, whether lawful or otherwise.

Master Chen's familiarity with Zhu Yuan Da becomes evident when he instantly recognizes Zhu's handwriting in the letter addressed to Iwao. Moreover, Master Chen feels obligated to honor a promise he made to Zhu, which involves providing assistance to Iwao and, in turn, to Ryo.

According to Master Chen, both Iwao and Zhu Yuan Da were responsible for bringing back the mirrors from China. However, it is not just the mirrors that he reveals; he also shares a fascinating piece of knowledge passed down from Zhu. Apparently, Zhu mentioned a long time ago the existence of a legendary Chinese monster known as the Chi You, prophesized to resurrect "when the Dragon and the Phoenix meet." The significance of this prophecy remains a mystery, leaving Ryo and players to ponder its implications in the unfolding events.

Although the English translation has "a certain mirror", this is probably supposed to be "certain mirrors", given that Chen is aware of both mirrors.

How Did Zhu Yuan Da Know to Warn Iwao Hazuki?

To help answer the question of how Zhu Yuan Da knew about the threat to Iwao's life and was prompted to warn him, we need to delve into his character's background and the events portrayed in the game.

Zhu Yuan Da is a wealthy individual who founded the Five Stars Corporation, an antiques trading company in Hong Kong. He possesses extensive knowledge of martial arts.

Five Stars Corp's Aberdeen location, now closed up

Zhu authored a book describing the various schools of martial arts, called the Wulinshu, which Ryo finds in the library at Man Mo Temple. Zhu's interest in martial arts is likely to have been what led him to cross paths with Iwao Hazuki and Zhao Sun Ming, Lan Di's father, who is noted in the book as a master of the Tiger Swallow Style:

Zhao Sun Ming's name appears in the Wulinshu

Upon making the acquaintance of Zhang, Zhu's associate, Ryo learns that Zhu has gone into hiding from the Chi You Men. However Ryo does not attempt to question their motive but is more concerned with how to locate Zhu:
Zhang: My name is Zhang. I work closely with Zhu.

Ryo: Where is Zhu?

Zhang: At the moment, I don't know where he is. He has hidden himself from the Chi You Men.

Ryo: The Chi You Men is after him... What should I do? 

However, in an earlier pre-release version of the dialogue, the Chi You Men's interest was in the Wulinshu. Here is the relevant part of an earlier version of this dialogue from the "Miao Village" section that was cut completely before release:
Ryo: Why is the Chi You Men after him?

Zhang: For the Wulinshu...

Ryo: The Wulinshu?

Zhang: Zhu realized that the Chi You Men is strongly interested in a particular martial art. The Wulinshu contains the Chi You Men's secret hidden inside.

Ryo: A secret?

Zhang: Yes, a secret surrounding certain old mirrors...
Here, Zhang reveals that the Chi You Men's interest in the Wulinshu and its connection to "a secret surrounding certain old mirrors" led to Zhu's decision to hide from them.

As mentioned, this part of the dialogue was also dropped from the release version of the game, and when Ryo reads the Wulinshu at Man Mo Temple he makes no comment about mirrors or their secrets. We can assume that this story element was eliminated.

Evidence as to the Chi You Men's motivations come later in the release version. In the rooftop scene at the Yellow Head building, Ryo arrives just in time to rescue Zhu from being taken away by helicopter by Lan Di.

Although the Chi You Men's target was changed during the game's development from the Wulinshu, their primary goal remains the same: to obtain the secret of the mirrors. Zhu is believed to possess this knowledge, and this proves to be the case as evidenced by his demonstration of the Phoenix Mirror's light pattern at Ren's hideout.

It is unclear whether Zhu revealed the light pattern to Lan Di using the Dragon Mirror during his imprisonment, but he advises Ryo at Ren's hideout that Lan Di is headed to Bailu Village. A possible unstated conclusion that may be drawn here is that Lan Di coerced this information from Zhu.

In Shenmue The Animation, this scenario plays out more clearly when Zhu discloses to Lan Di that "It's in Bailu Village" in order to save Wong from Dou Niu. Upon hearing this, Lan Di returns to his helicopter, having apparently obtained the information of value he had been seeking.

Considering these events, the most plausible explanation for Zhu knowing to send his warning letter to Iwao Hazuki lies in his awareness that the Chi You Men were after him due to his knowledge of the mirrors. He took preemptive action, closing up his Five Stars Corp office and hiding in Kowloon. Unfortunately, Lan Di reached Iwao before Zhu's letter could arrive.

Is Zhu Yuan Da Trustworthy?

When Ryo meets Zhu Yuan Da at Ren's hideout later in Shenmue II, it becomes evident that there are various discrepancies in his description of events compared to those shared by Master Chen:
  • Zhu claims that "Iwao brought Zhao's mirrors to Japan," which contradicts Master Chen's version stating that Zhu and Iwao together took the mirrors (but Ryo does not question him about this inconsistency). This raises the question of whether Zhu is deliberately concealing the truth or if it is Master Chen who is not being entirely honest.
  • Zhu also says that Zhao Sun Ming was his best friend, but distances himself from any knowledge of how Zhao was killed.
While Zhu does not delve into his past history with Iwao, the presence of Iwao's karate gi in Zhu's office in the Ghost Hall building in Kowloon sparks the possibility that Zhu, Zhao, and Iwao were all friends at some point.

Another point of interest is that Zhu makes no mention to Ryo of the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors releasing the Chi You monster, the story that was related by Master Chen. Instead, he talks about the mirrors being a key to "treasures hidden away in order to revive the Qing Dynasty." Perhaps this is a deliberate move by Zhu to exploit Ren's greedy nature and encourage him to retrieve the mirrors, furthering his own personal goals.

The overall impression is that Zhu carefully selects what information to disclose, implying a deeper knowledge than he openly shares. While he appears not to be working with the Chi You Men, it does seem that he is selectively controlling the narrative for reasons yet to be discovered.

Zhu does not mention his own involvement in bringing back the mirrors.

Did Iwao Hazuki Know Lan Di Was Coming?

Returning to the topic of the letters, explaining Iwao Hazuki's letter is indeed a challenge, and there are various possibilities to consider.

Starting with the simplest possibility, the day that Iwao was killed by Lan Di happened to be Ryo's 18th birthday. At first glance, his letter could be interpreted as a message of guidance and encouragement from a father to his son on his son's birthday.

This might be a plausible reason if the contents of the letter had conveyed a more general message about yin and yang principles, such as this alternative unused letter from Iwao that can be found among the files on the What's Shenmue disc:
"Dear Ryo... 'The Eight Principles of Yin and Yang' is a term that describes how yin and yang change. Everything in the world has yin and yang, or light and shadow. Translating it into the martial arts that you and I study, it represents offense and defense. Is that clear, Ryo? Master attack, which is yang, and defense, which is yin. You can do it. No matter what happens."
Unused asset on the What's Shenmue disc: alternative letter from Iwao to Ryo

However, the letter's specific mention of facing death indicates that Iwao was not just offering philosophical advice but was preparing to face something more dire. He wanted Ryo to find it in the case of his untimely death.

Ryo himself muses that Iwao "must have known that Lan Di was coming." While this assumption holds some truth in a general sense, it is uncertain whether Iwao had concrete evidence or precise foreknowledge of Lan Di's arrival. If he had possessed such information, he likely would have taken stronger measures to prevent his own death.

Iwao went to great lengths to hide the mirrors: while he kept many items and mementos from his time in China in a secret basement room at the Dojo, he went so far as to brick up one of the mirrors behind a wall, while burying another in the garden under the cherry tree. This suggests that he was prepared, if not expecting, that one day these might be sought out, perhaps based on his knowledge of the secret of the mirrors and what happened on the fateful day that Zhao Sun Ming was killed.

The lingering question is whether Iwao had any specific prior knowledge regarding Lan Di's sudden appearance, and there does not appear to be any. After all, if he had concrete evidence of the visit, he would have surely taken action to prevent the events from unfolding as they did.

His reaction to Lan Di at the dojo on the day of his death is also telling: he gasps "It can't be... you...?" in the officially translated subtitle (or alternatively "You... can't be...?!" - see our discussion on the translation in our previous post). Either way, at the very least, he had not realized that the man in front of him was related in any way to Zhao Sun Ming.

My personal theory is that Iwao had a foreboding derived from the mirrors themselves, in the same way that, Ryo has vivid dreams throughout the game with mirror-related imagery, even featuring Shenhua whom he has yet to meet. These dreams seem to be triggered from the moment Ryo first discovers the Phoenix mirror, hinting at the mirrors' special powers. It's plausible that Iwao may have had a premonition or nightmare about someone attempting to seize the mirrors, though he might not have known the exact details or timing of the event. This intuitive threat perceived through his dreams could explain the reason for leaving the letter for Ryo to find.

Final Comments

Two letters serve to draw players into Shenmue's web of mysteries at the start of the saga, but even after the story has progressed further the player is left to ponder: how did Zhu Yuan Da know about the threat to Iwao Hazuki, and did Iwao have prior knowledge of Lan Di's arrival?

Examining the evidence presented in today's post, we find plausible explanations for these intriguing questions. Zhu Yuan Da's knowledge of the mirrors and his awareness of the activities of the Chi You Men provide insight into his foreknowledge of the danger to Iwao's life. His warning letter to Iwao serves as a crucial plot point, leading to the compelling events that unfold in the game, although perhaps for his own reasons he tells Ryo little about his own past with Iwao and Sun Ming.

As for Iwao Hazuki's letter to Ryo, the timing on Ryo's 18th birthday and Iwao's precautions with the mirrors suggest a sense of premonition. In the end, the exact extent of Iwao's knowledge remains uncertain although it would not be inconsistent for the mirrors themselves to have contributed to his unease.

The letter from Iwao, introduced at such an early point in the tale, adds depth to the emotional journey of vengeance and self-discovery undertaken by Ryo throughout the game.

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