A way too late analysis of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Nintendo /
4 of 5
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Nintendo /

The Themes

Much of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild serves as a love letter to both Hayao Miyazaki and Japanese traditionalist Shinto culture. The multi-faceted characters, the moments of “Ma”, the use of dramatic and emotionally loaded music, the respect and love for nature. The design of many locales are a reflection of Shinto shrines and much of Shinto folklore is given life throughout Hyrule.

Even some themes are reflections of both Miyazaki and Shinto culture: Zelda’s struggles with maturity, the many dark paradoxes of reality, the spirits of nature, forgoing one’s self to benefit the whole.

There stands one theme above all of the rest, however, and for its closest inspiration, we must look to the Ghibli’s other famous name, the late, amazing, visionary that is Isao Takahata. Specifically, we must look to Takahata’s directing magnum opus, “Grave of the Fireflies.”

Explaining this film in any major way without giving spoilers is impossible, so to put it simply, “Grave of the Fireflies” is a beautiful yet heartbreaking tale of the realities that was Japan in WW2. It shows the horrific reality of war and loss, showing the degradation of the quality of life as the war progressed and America resorted to bombing civilian cities.

Where the film never shows the impact of the bomb, the film does not exist in a vacuum, and audiences as well as the filmmakers are aware of the ultimate end to the conflict. The film thematically tackles the impact of that event, and Japan’s rapid decline even before those tragic moments.

The story of Breath of the Wild does not share many themes with Fireflies, choosing to have a cheerful and progressively more optimistic theme. Where Fireflies explores the sadness of loss, the weight of our choices and the pessimistic realities and hopelessness of a people fully aware of their imminent death, BOTW explores the growth and the process of rebuilding society. BOTW serves as the antithesis of “Fireflies” going in the exact opposite direction, and starting where the film ends.

That is because Calamity Ganon is a representation of the bomb.

The instantaneous loss of thousands of years worth of culture, infrastructure, and lives of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands was the reality for Japan at the end of WW2 and is reflected in Hyrule and the decimation that came from Calamity Ganon. Ganon’s unpredictable and sudden attack, despite the knowledge of their possible return, reflects the people of Japan’s anxiety and painful life during the final moments of the conflict in World War 2’s Pacific Theatre.

But unlike most eastern media tackling the topic of the bombs, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks past much of the despair and humiliation of the late 40s, 50s, and early ’60s and instead shifts their focus to modern Japan’s return to glory. Where Japan was once synonymous with the phrase “third world country” in the mid 20th century, Japan in 2020 is instead at the cutting edge of technology, viewed as significantly as America in the entertainment and cultural sphere.

Through the hard work and determination of many dedicated Japanese minds and a changing culture surrounding immigration and foreign workers, Japan has had one of the quickest bounce backs in modern history. Socially and economically, Japan is on par with the UAE in terms of success and stands as the envy of most of the world’s countries.

Breath of the Wild serves as a metaphor for that success, a world having experienced an apocalyptic ruin being saved and rebuilt. With time, the hardworking species from across Hyrule worked to rebuild functioning societies, with religions, culture, hierarchies, and most importantly, life and the quality thereof.

Even the extinction of the Sheikah and the abandonment of their shrines and sites is emblematic of Shintoism and the public perception of that culture during WW2 and its aftermath. Shinto was blamed by governmental officials and the general public (that was starting to become predominantly Buddhist) for the nationalist and imperialistic impulses of the nation in the first half of the 20th century. This led to the Shinto Directive of 1945, which served to completely separate the church and state, but also bring the more extreme ideas that Shinto had adopted in its 19th-century restructuring under control.

This led to a negative public perception of Shinto for quite some time, leading to a dark and difficult time for many of the culture’s shrine and institutions. That impact is still felt today, with many shrines and culturally relevant locations remaining abandoned and overrun by nature and hiding from the eyes of the general public.

This is the story of the Sheikah, a culture that was driven into near extinction during Hyrule’s first encounter with Calamity Ganon. Blamed for their exploration into the type of magic that Ganon prospered in, the Sheikah left behind shrines and temples, filled with their extremely high tech creations and sacred symbology. Their impact on society can not be completely undone, thus the reason for their symbology and architecture being present in throughout all of Hyrule.

The state’s hatred for the Sheikah is clear, especially in the king’s attitude towards his daughter once she starts experimenting with the technology that they left behind. The king and society’s obvious preference for a nameless religion that focuses on a continuous search for enlightenment, a cycle of birth and rebirth, and virtue pushes Zelda back towards Sheikah ideals and tech, which eventually serves as her mistake and downfall.

Recently Shinto has begun its slow climb back into relevancy, although mostly as a historic and cultural stronghold. This is paralleled in BOTW‘s secret ending, which sees Princess Zelda continue to embrace Sheikah technology to the advantage of Hyrule. Despite her initial embracing of Skeikah tech serving to the detriment of the Hyrule kingdom, she returns to that culture and technology even after an enlightenment type event.

Author’s note: due to history’s cyclical nature, there are also major parallels between this story and Japan’s move from being religious (the country was largely Buddhist, with just a small minority of Shinto followers) to being a primarily secular society, which is how Japan exist now. This would also give more context to the fact that the Sheikah traditions and ruins are filled with and represented by advanced technology, symbology often used for representing modern secularism and abandonment of religion in modern media. This transition was much more subtle and took place over a couple of decades (and is still going on in all honesty) which is why I chose to highlight the 1940s transition.

The story of BOTW is so deeply influenced and symbolic of Japan’s history and reality in the mid-1900s that even this deep dive could not touch on all of the references and metaphors throughout the title. All these references and symbology, however, serves to send a clear message to players invested enough or observant enough to the story of BOTW: there is always hope. Ganon killed countless people living in Hyrule, Sheikah had been eradicated, the divine beast kept people in fear, but despite all of this, society kept going. Despite having lost WW2 and lost countless Japanese lives, Japan managed to rebuild, keep going, and eventually thrive.