Death Stranding, Queen Himiko, and the Yamatai kingdom.

Hideo Kojima is a name well-known in gaming circles for being a little bit bonkers. His Metal Gear Solid games (which I have never played) were endlessly popular, but also famous for having mind-bending mechanics like having to unplug your controller to defeat a boss, as well as a weird amount of detail on incidental items–he famously required that the ice cubes in an optional room early in the game in MGS2 melt realistically.

At the same time, his games have giant implausible mechs and women who breathe through their skin, so there’s that.

I knew of Hideo Kojima only by reputation, but I was very interested back in 2016 of the tidbits being dropped about the game he was working on after his departure from Konami: Death Stranding. The hints were characteristically bizarre and obscure, but a common thread was that Kojima was looking to make a totally new genre of game. In particular, he indicated, he wanted to make a game that was about bringing people together, not about driving them apart.

“In this short story, [Japanese writer Kobo] Abe states that the first tool mankind created is a stick… the stick is the first tool that mankind created to put distance between himself and bad things — to protect himself. He states that the second tool mankind created is a rope. A rope is a tool used to secure things that are important to you … Most of your tools in action games are sticks,” Kojima continues. “You punch or you shoot or you kick. The communication is always through these ‘sticks.’ In [Death Stranding], I want people to be connected not through sticks, but through what would be the equivalent of ropes… But of course you will be able to use the sticks too.”

Interview with IGN, 2016

A friend of mine had argued, even before Death Stranding trailers had come out, that all Kojima’s Metal Gear games from Metal Gear 3 onwards had been him trolling his fans–a creator infuriated by having to make the same sort of game over and over, and correspondingly making his games more and more ridiculous as he pined after wanting to make something entirely different. And now, it seemed, he was about to get his wish–Sony gave Hideo Kojima a full license to be as Hideo Kojima-ish as he wanted.

I wishlisted the game when it came out on PC in 2019, but as is my custom, didn’t buy it until it went on sale rather significantly, and didn’t play it until sometime after that. I heard good things and bad things, with people calling it a “walking simulator” and “a sales disaster” but also acknowledging that it was undeniably a completely new sort of game–a highly polished piece of media that tried something never been done before.

In essence, it’s “Amazon Delivery, the Game,” where you play a post-apocalyptic UPS man who carries around parcels between various underground cities and bunkers, full of people too scared to venture outside (it came out just before the pandemic, and people have had a LOT of fun pointing out the similarities.) You can use ladders, climbing anchors, ziplines, motorbikes, and even giant “cargo cannons” that will shoot your packages ahead of you, to help you journey across the beautiful landscape and complete deliveries. Key is the game’s “Bridge Link” mechanic, where you can see the ladders and structures of other players and use them–and get notified when they leave a ladder or structure YOU left behind.

It’s hard to explain how fun something so simple like this is.

For a failure, it seems to have done well enough. A sequel was announced at the most recent Game Awards, which was the final piece of motivation I needed to get off my butt (or rather, on it) and play the game. And keep playing. And keep playing. I spent a disgraceful amount of time playing this game–I should say, “have spent,” since I’m still playing it, although I’ve finished the story gameplay and will likely wrap up the few last missions it has at the end.

There’s a lot I want to say about the game’s virtues and its flaws (man are those exposition dumps a pompous slog to get through), as well as how it truly feels revolutionary in the communal sense you get from helping players in the game. But there’s countless thinkpieces tackling those already, so I thought I’d focus on something I haven’t seen anyone (surprisingly) talk about.

Because Death Stranding is literally a revised Japanese legend, and it blows my mind that no one seems to have noticed this.

(Spoilers incoming)

Death Stranding’s plot is simple. No wait, that’s a lie. It’s plot is hopelessly convoluted to the point where some of the actors involved with it have confessed they have no idea what’s going on. Let me break down the crucial points.

Civilization has collapsed in the wake of the Death Stranding, an event where dead people turn into bombs if they’re not cremated properly. Ghosts are everywhere and rain makes stuff decay really faster. But there’s a plan to re-unite America by connecting all the various fortified bunker-cities with a magic wi-fi network that your protagonist Sam can activate with a magic necklace. Sam’s just in it to help the president, his older step-sister Amelie, who oddly enough, people have only ever seen through holograms.

As the game progresses, it turns out that this is because Amelie is herself a soul from the afterlife. She’s actually in control of the giant ghosts wrecking everything, And she’s also been working with the “Demens” terrorist group that keeps trying to kill people and make more ghosts. She’s some supernatural “extinction entity” that’s destined to destroy the world with ghost monsters. But she doesn’t really want to. So you need to talk her out of it.

Got that?

Also there’s a ghost-detector baby that you need to carry around everywhere.

Everyone agrees it’s a messy plot. But actually, it’s just an adaptation of the story of Queen Himiko, a quasi-historical figure from ancient Japan, who supposedly indeed ruled over a confederation of states through the agency of magical powers . And because Queen Himiko is such a famous story in Japan, I don’t understand why there’s no discussion of this.

I mean, it’s not like I’m some expert on Japanese history or myth or whatever. I was just thinking, while I played, that the endgame revelations about the character Amelie being an “extinction entity” who was bringing on the fated destruction of the world a little early, seemed similar to a special issue of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo about an ancient Japanese legend about the end of the world, where every 100 years, the traditional hyakki yako procession of spirits morphs into an attempt to use a human soul to resurrect the witch queen and bring about the end of the world.

I have mentioned this series before, and it’s still awesome.

“Ah-ha!” thought I. “This isn’t some pseudo-scientific blither-blather about evolutionary extinction; it’s just a modernization of the legend! ‘Death Stranding’ is just another way of referring to the Hyakki Yako, and ‘Extinction Entity’ is just a weird way of signifying ‘apocalyptic witch-queen monster!'”

Turns out that’s not even a thing. Or rather, Hyakki yako is indeed a thing, but it’s roughly analogous to Halloween, where once a year the spirits come out and play tricks on people. There’s no corresponding legend, at least as far as I can tell, that every 100 years it becomes an apocalyptic scenario. Sakai is more well-versed in Japanese myth than I (or at least than Wikipedia), and the internet does conclude that the stories around hyakki yako are varied and contradictory, so maybe he and Hideo Kojima know something I don’t. But so far as the internet is concerned, it doesn’t fit.

So I was completely wrong. But searching “Witch Queen” brought up the name of Queen Himiko, the real inspiration, as became really unavoidably obvious the more I looked into it.

Queen of Yamataikoku  Classical portrait painting by Yasuda Yukihiko Source: Wikipedia

(Incidentally, for a lot of the history here, I’m taking a lot of my facts on the Queen Himiko story from this excellent blog post from “Heritage of Japan”, but I did also check Wikipedia, World History, and Britannica, along with some highly rigorous Youtube videos.)

I’d never heard of the Yamatai kingdom before, but it’s pretty famous in Japan. It’s one of the first recorded governments in Japan (scholars dispute–furiously–exactly where it was), with the Chinese history Wei Chih mentioning it around 230 CE or so, along with its first ruler, Queen Himiko. According to the story, after a period of intense unrest and national conflict, twenty-nine different “chiefdoms” united around a female queen named Himiko.

Do you know, in the game of Death Stranding, how many “locations” you deliver to?

Exactly 36. And of those, seven are utilitarian facilities (Windfarms, Distribution Centers, etc) that are already part of your organization. The amount of individual communities that form the UCA are exactly 29. And you may say that’s a coincidence, and those do happen, but Kojima is a man known, again, for obsessive attention to detail.

In theory, the game is set in America. You work off a map of America, you’re working for (supposedly), the American president. The Director Die-Hardman loves America more than most Americans. But it’s never America in the sense of democracy or the freedom of the individual will, rather it’s a sense of America as a union of disparate communities. Which fits, sure, with the game’s themes of “connection,” but also fits a lot better with the Yamatai confederation than with America as such. America has always had an uneasy relationship with its own union. Die-Hardman’s last speech, especially, about how “I was saved to serve America” seems more rooted in America as a state, not an ideal of democracy.

It gets better. Himiko, like most Japanese rulers, was rarely seen outside her own compound, just as no one ever sees Amelie beyond the “holograms” she’s supposedly using. Himiko was supposedly surrounded entirely by female attendants, except for one single male attendant, who relayed her instructions to the rest of the court. Again, in-game, Die-Hardman serves as Amelie’s mouthpiece, to hide the fact that she is supposedly imprisoned elsewhere. (It’s worth noting that he also fulfilled this role for Amelie’s mother Bridget Strand, who had to hide her cancer. More on that later).

But here’s the kicker. Queen Himiko, historically, was helped by one other person in this regard. Her younger brother.

Yamatai kingdom’s Queen Himiko (Illustration copyright: Newton Graphic Science Magazine “Nihon no ruutsu”)

This younger brother handled most of the affairs of state. He would likely have been responsible for listening to all the actual concerns of the different 29 communities, answering their requests, and building up any institutions necessary for helping them.

In the game of Death Stranding, the protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, who does all the deliveries, convinces all the people, builds all the structures to help other porters deliver their packages to the 29 different shelters of the UCA, is President Amelie’s…

…younger brother.

Historians differ, incidently, as to whether this younger brother held the real power, and if Queen Himiko was in reality a prisoner in her own castle (again, Amelie in the game is supposedly also a prisoner, though not by Sam or Die-Hardman). Others, though, speculate that Queen Himiko would have held enormous influence, because she also had something of a religious role. She was, according to Chinese records, a shamaness queen.

Or to put this another way, she could communicate with the spirit realm.

Himiko (1974) by Masahiro Shinoda

Wei Chih says that the Queen Himiko “occupied herself with magic and sorcery, bewitching the people.” The Yamatai people themselves, though, were noted to be gentle and peace-loving, with low crime rates and high prosperity–whether this had anything to do with them being all controlled by magic is not said.

Technically historians think there was nothing particularly special about Himiko being a shaman queen, she was likely a ceremonial priestess akin to how most rulers claimed to be chosen by the gods. But legends have had a lot of fun with it, even up to Queen Himiko featuring in the recent Tomb Raider reboot videogame series. Queen Himiko has been depicted as everything from an old hag-witch to a young sexy sorceress.

In game, of course, it comes out that Amelie (and her “mother,” Bridget) have always been in control of the BT’s ravaging the land, or at least able to summon them, and that half the purpose of the “chiral network” that Sam’s been building is to connect the souls, the “beaches” of each person–partly to bring people together, but partly also to facilitate a mass summoning of BT’s to destroy the world. She’s been, in fact, betwitching the people (note how everyone who’s met Amelie loves her), and can’t decide if that’s enough or if she should just destroy the world while she’s at it.

That may seem weird, until you realize what “Extinction Entity” actually means.

See, Queen Himiko’s name means “Sun-Daughter.” People have made a lot of this, pointing out that successive Japanese emperors claimed to be descended from the Sun goddess, Amaterasu. (Again, historically, this isn’t surprising, lots of ancient kingdoms had rulers who claimed to be directly related to gods). This is fairly normal stuff, but I bring it up because in the game, when you finally confront Amelie in the spirit realm, this is what you see.

Heartman says Amelie’s “Beach” is on a higher plane than anyone else’s. Amelie talks about how she couldn’t act, that only Sam could save humanity. She talks about how she is, in some ways, literally the Beach. She explains that both Bridget and Amelie are just names, labels for what she is, that “the universe” is punishing her for breaking the rules with Sam. And it all seems totally nonsensical and contradictory until you realize that “Extinction Entity” is just pseudo-science babble, or at best a way of how science would categorize a literal sun-goddess.

It fits. It fits perfectly. It seems blindingly obvious to me, now that I see it.

But I’ve looked and looked on the internet with all my google-fu. I searched reddit and tentatively asked if anyone had noticed “the links with Japanese folklore.” All I got was a handful of references to some forest shrines that appear. No one’s written anything about it. And okay, I didn’t know any of this before looking it up, but Queen Himiko is a pretty well-known legend in Japan. There’s movies, there’s comics, there’s animes, there’s village mascots. It’s like if a modern sci-fi story had a character pulling a sword out of a stone and no one commented on how this was referencing King Arthur.

And it’s a huge pity, because Death Stranding’s oft-mocked, absolutely ludicrous plot starts to make total sense once you see it this way (well… some sense. I still don’t know what’s up with the babies). Bizarre stuff–like Die-Hardman’s mask, needing to cremate the corpses properly, using bodily fluids to fight the “BT’s”, the strange “Princess Beach” line actually sort of make sense if you view the story as a Japanese legend instead of dystopian sci-fi.

This weird, slightly-cringy scene would work so much better if it were a shot of a Japanese queen and a humble porter running along the beach.

It’s low-key genius, in fact, in how Kojima has married the contradictory views and presentations of Queen Himiko as both sinister and inspiring, presenting her both as a villain and a heroine. She’s cold when she needs to be, seductive and manipulative, but only because she genuinely cares, she brainwashes the populace in a way that might cause the apocalypse, because she’s trapped by fate, and in the end, she serves as a sacrifice to safeguard her people.

In short, this story would have been a lot clearer and a lot more unified if Kojima had set it in ancient Japan instead of a post-apocalyptic “America.”

(I suspect I’m about to lose some people in the dry-ness of the next section, so if you’re just here for Death Stranding, maybe skip to the last couple paragraphs).

I’m reminded of a line from Tolkien’s abandoned story The Notion Club Papers, (a fascinating story I really should talk about on here sometime), where one of the characters, Guildford, in criticizing Lewis’ Perelandra, says:

“‘I found the coffin much less credible than the Eldils, and granted the Eldils, unnecessary… It was necessary to the tale, of course, to have safe delivery of Ransom’s living terrestrial body in Venus… But I should prefer an old-fashioned wave of a wizard’s wand. Or a word in Old Solar from an Elidl. Nothing less would suffice: a miracle” (168)

Tolkien, JRR. “The Notion Club Papers,” Sauron Defeated.

Tolkien, through Guildford here, is questioning the need for pseudo-science, or indeed any sort of scientific “device.” Why bother with a spaceship or time-machine to get you where you want? Why not just say “Hocus pocus, you’re on Mars now,” and move on with the story? Does anyone actually care about the mechanics? Specifically, he argues, if it induces some sort of dissonance.

“[If you] use [space ships] for space journeys in the flesh, they’ll land you in space-ship sort of adventures… You can land on another world in a space-ship and then drop that nonsense, if you’ve got something better to do there than most of the earlier writers had. But personally I dislike that acutely. It makes the scientifictitious bunkum all the worse by contrast” (163-164)

Ibid
If you’re going to have space wizards, why not just call them space wizards? Or at least, why bother with stuff like “hyper-space drives” and “laser swords” so on.

But then I’m reminded of another quote, from CS Lewis’s “On Stories”

…though I had never read Fenimore Cooper I had enjoyed other books about ‘Red Indians’. And I knew that what I wanted from them was not simply ‘excitement’. Dangers, of course, there must be: how else can you keep a story going? But they must (in the mood which led one to such a book) be Redskin dangers. The ‘Redskinnery’ was what really mattered. In such a scene as my friend had described, take away the feathers, the high cheek-bones, the whiskered trousers, substitute a pistol for a tomahawk, and what would be left? For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged–the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.

Lewis, CS, “On Stories” 2

Lewis’ overall point is that stories and plots are simply a means to capture a world–to recreate the sense of progression one has in living life within a particular world. And here’s the simple fact: If this had been a game about a porter in ancient Japan, fighting bandits and dodging ghosts while working for a queen in league with demons, I’m not certain I would have played it. It might very well still be a very good game, but I would have been less interested. I would be interested, certainly, in a Middle-Ages simulator along similar lines, but not a game about the historical unification of the Yamatai people.

In my defense, we probably wouldn’t get to ride a reverse trike in a game like that.

At least part of the appeal in Death Stranding does come from its supernatural sci-fi world–in fact, people probably play it more for that than they do for the plot. Though as Lewis suggests, once the story is ended and the day-to-day sense of “looking ahead” is gone, the world becomes much less interesting. I think that story could have been better presented, but hey, I’m not the one getting billions of dollars to make games in the first place. So what do I know?

One last thing. Because the story of Queen Himiko plays–very directly–into the new trailer for DS2.

There’s no historical details regarding the death of Queen Himiko. The earliest Japanese histories don’t mention her, likely because she was an embarrassment to the male-only line of succession that later dynasties were trying to push. We do, though, have some information regarding the immediate aftermath.

First of all, Queen Himiko’s followers built a burial mound of about 100 meters in diameter for her, quite possibly one of the first so-called key-shaped kofun erected in Japan. Accounts say, rather politely, that 1000 male and female slaves, “followed her to the grave.”

So this scene could get… gory.

Himiko was succeeded by a male ruler, who unfortunately couldn’t hold onto power. The kingdom descended into bloodshed and chaos until a female relative of Himiko’s was selected, a 13 year-old girl named Iyo. Again, legends have fun with this, with some stories suggesting that Iyo was in fact a reincarnated Himiko, back to save the kingdom.

Maybe, in-game, Amelie is actually meant to be Iyo and the aging Bridget, who has to hide in her fortress to disguise her rapidly advancing cancer is actually meant to be Himiko. Both could control the BT’s, both were trying to re-unite the kingdom, both were rarely seen and had to rely on Die-Hardman as their public face. There’s definitely a “ruthless ruler” vibe to how Bridget ran the BB experiments, as well as how slavishly everyone followed her orders.

Trying to distinguish between the two is perhaps a fools game, though crucial in determining how doomed Die-Hardman’s new presidency is. If he’s meant to be the male ruler who succeeded Himiko, then DS2 is probably going to open in a time of bloodshed and violence (explaining the attackers seen in the trailer). That’d be a pity–I kind of liked the guy’s absolute love of “America.”

But at the same time, it’d be really interesting. Because if so, that means that there’s a future ruler out there, a young girl related (sort of) to Amelie, destined to rise to the presidency and become the new face of “America.”

We never did learn what was so important about Baby Lou.


3 thoughts on “Death Stranding, Queen Himiko, and the Yamatai kingdom.

  1. Maybe the point of Baby Lou is that babies are important.
    I am hopelessly ignorant of what you speak, but it does seem hopelessly convoluted- a woman leader who is going to save her people by destroying the world?

    Like

    1. It is definitely very convoluted. This clears it up some, but its still a mess.

      Part of the point with Lou is, definitely, that babies are important–she’s supposed to be just a piece of equipment, but your character gets attached to her and ends up saving her–but there are things in the game that hint she’s different than the other ghost-detecting babies they have.

      Like

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