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Meditations on the Mysticism of Yomawari: Night Alone

4,208 words

Yomawari: Night Alone is a survival horror videogame from Nippon Ichi Software, released in fall 2015 in Japan before being rapidly localized into English in 2016. It has enjoyed commercial success across multiple platforms (PC, Nintendo Switch, and PS Vita) and spawned a sequel, Midnight Shadows. The player character is a little girl with a red bow drawn in simple anime style; a sort of Minnie Mouse from a more mature world. It is genuinely scary (at times) and features infrequent cartoon gore. Despite this, Night Alone cuts across age demographics and is suitable from the PEGI 12 rating all the way through to adult gamers, otakus, and foreign culture buffs. As the romanized-but-not-translated title might suggest, Yomawari: Night Alone is steeped in Japanese folklore. It is the product of a culture that is modern in its embrace of technology, consumerism, and commerce, yet thoroughly self-conscious of its imaginative religious history and its metaphysical principles. This essay will review the core gameplay of Night Alone, explore the folkloric dimensions of the story, and suggest how Yomawari highlights Western cultural deficiencies through its successful storytelling and distinction from white cultural norms.

Yomawari is an isometric game without any 3D assets, and conveys its tone primarily through its sumptuous artwork, lighting, and sound design. The principle gameplay is the player, as the little girl protagonist (never named), searching a suburb for her lost dog and sister. Street lights flicker ominously and Richard Houck-style vending machines [1] hum and glow in alleyways. The town is full of malicious spirits that will often pursue the player, resulting in instant death (the screen turns to black with red blood splatter, and a fleshy tearing and chewing sound is heard). The protagonist is, like in other survival horror games Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, completely defenseless. The player must rely on quick wits and sprinting for the nearest hiding spot to evade enemies. Many foes can only be seen with the flashlight, and others immediately attack the player from a distance if one is careless enough to tread into their line of sight. Some spirits (like the child spirit) will move to attack the player in darkness, freezing when they are spotted, and some are impassive and can be cautiously tip-toed around. The most persistent and fierce tend to be aggrieved in some way, and the narrative involves bringing rest to their troubled souls.

Night Alone is split into a number of chapters as evening draws into the small hours. Dawn never comes. Deciding to turn back from a road tunnel too dark to venture into, the game suggests by way of tutorial to pick up and toss a rock. Your dog, Poro, leaps after it and is immediately swatted by an unseen oncoming truck, the first of many jump-scares and harrowing incidents to befall our heroine. At home, the protagonist is too traumatized and ashamed to tell her sister (“Sis”) what really happened, and Sis leaves in search of Poro, after instructing our protagonist to hide and close her eyes tight for her protection. You emerge from hiding after hearing some gruesome slurping sounds, only to find Sis’s flashlight abandoned. Thus begins the player’s journey into Night Alone, isolated from familial comfort.
Before the story, a few quick words on the gameplay flaws. Whilst the core mechanics of enemy evasion are rewarding, there is an over-emphasis on chases and split-second dodging maneuvers. Either my laptop is faulty in some way, or I’m not a very good player, as the protagonist for me seemed to sprint at about half the speed of that seen on gameplay videos. Stamina drains faster in proximity to spirits, tilting the game in favor of murdering the player repeatedly as the nearer a monster gets, the harder it is to escape.

Without practice, trial and error, and memorized evasion of enemy movements, Night Alone can become controller-smashingly repetitive and frustrating. This inclination of the game to force the player to replay challenging sections ad infinitum undercuts the sense of magic it conjures from the continued silence, player isolation and subtle textures of the art style (Night Alone has no background music, accentuating the sounds of the player’s footsteps and the rustles of invasive apparitions). Towards the end, I was desperate for the chase sequences to stop, as they had become a chore based more on luck than strategy (and, sadly, when the right tricks are applied, apparently stupidly easy). The best heart-in-mouth experiences of Night Alone come from hiding and waiting for malicious spirits to move on, recalling the experience of childhood hide-and-seek with a darker twist and genuine fear of the supernatural, or using quick wits, fearlessness and a rare few useful items to snatch a prized collectible from a lethal guardian.

The first monsters encountered are relatively benign, floating after the player at a slow speed and returning to patrol once you exit their area of influence. As the narrative progresses, the player is taken further from home and into the dominions of deity-like entities, gradually becoming drawn into a battle of sorts over ownership of the seemingly deserted town. Only the player is awake and aware of the desolation that has befallen the township, with adults missing or presumably killed or kidnapped altogether (the protagonist and her sister are the only living human characters). Dialogue is sparse and the whole game is effectively an interactive picture book gently encouraging an interest in traditionalist Japanese Shinto. It’s easy to walk past the unlit shrine around the corner from the player’s house, but interacting with the scene of a nearby accident will cause a small flame to accompany the player. . . when the spirit is taken back to the shrine, a collectible can be recovered. Of course, shrines are decorated with shimenawa (sacred rope) and shide, the zig-zag paper streamers demarcating a sacred area [2]. (In the anime Shinsekai Yori, the shinenawa is explicitly used as a “spiritual barrier” plot device, beyond which impure thoughts are banished.) When the player is killed, they are restored at the last Jizō shrine they made an offering at. A common site on roadsides, streets, and graves in Japan, Jizō statues are of a Japanese Zen Bodhisattva, the patron saint of children, known for smuggling aborted babies or young children into the afterlife who did not have the time on earth to attain good karma. [1] [3]

The player’s first major supernatural encounter is a “human-faced dog” which has to be contented with a bone retrieved from the school swimming pool (inhabited by monstrous, one-eyed goldfish). The human-faced dog is a 1989 schoolyard invention, yet chronicler of Japanese folklore Professor Michael Foster (at the University of California, Davis) claims “there have been occasional accounts of dogs with human faces in Japan since at least 1810, when it was reported that a human-faced puppy was put on display in a spectacle show (misemono), where it proved exceedingly popular.” [2] [4] He expands that human-faced non-humans “embody the betwixt and between of yōkai [spirits], a site of contact between different worlds and may possess distinct powers of communication.” It fits more generally with the Japanese craze for hybridization and monster-anything (Pokemon, Kemono Friends, and Monster Musume spring to mind). Human-faces appearing on other things is something of a trope, and there is a scattershot approach of human faces being slapped on trees, fish, bovines, whatever. Western animal iconography is far more restrained and less bizarre; the nearest human-faced creatures in the West are centaurs and mermaids, and our dog-faced human is Anubis of ancient Egypt, also handily known for being a middleman between this world and the next. The human-faced dog legend is something of a gag, as if disturbed it might look up and shout, “Leave me alone!” leaving the interloper embarrassed they have interrupted a midnight soliloquy.

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A journey downtown into the market district reveals the first explicit conflict between different spirits inhabiting the town. Ghosts in the form of black hands are seen taking away the piles of salt left on plates dotted around different areas of the market. Apparently, this practice of leaving piles of salt is still commonplace in some areas of Japan; salt is seen as a purifying agent, and is used to protect one’s business by warding off evil spirits. The marketplace area (lit in deep reds and purples, with a brick texture rather than tarmac) is seemingly deserted, but using a mysteriously-ringing payphone will transport the player into the same location in the spiritual realm. A giant centipede becomes visible — it has colonized the whole of the marketplace, settling itself over the rooftops and blocking off different avenues of escape.

One interpretation is that the centipede is an Omukade, which relates to a specific fable of heroic bravery against a giant centipede wrapped around a mountain. But a more cohesive and interesting reference is that Bishamon, the god of warriors [5] (but not war), one of the “Seven Lucky Gods,” has a centipede for a messenger. Bishamon, always personified in full armor, is associated with blessing victorious warriors with riches or even children. Specifically, Bishamon’s centipede “also protected the gold mines. Centipedes are said to possess an ability to spot gold [6], therefore people used to carry centipedes in bamboo tubes when they went to the mountains in search for gold.” An affiliation with entrepreneurial commerce (and, to a degree, modern conveniences like telephony) is natural, then, and “since the centipede has “many legs” it will help bring “many legs” to a shop and is thus an amulet for prosperous business.” The centipede coiled around the market district is its guardian. Mistaking her as responsible for the thefts, the centipede tries to murder our protagonist before she makes it to the shrine to beg for her life. Offering mercy in exchange for a favor, it gifts her with enough salt to restore what has been stolen.

The player must navigate the map using different payphones to transport themselves in and out of the spiritual dimension. They are pursued by “hungry ghosts [7]” which “take the form of a naked humanoid with a hole for a face and a large belly. Their skin takes a darkened pale color, and you can visibly see the outlining of their rib cage.” The presence of chomping, belly-led mutants stripped of individuality suggests that commerce and consumption carry their own moral hazards; the hungry ghosts embody simultaneously starvation and gluttony. They disappear in each location the player restores the salt.
Venturing out again, the player is kidnapped by the games’ mascot Mr. Yomawari (literally: Mr. Night Patrol), a flying slug-like creature who swoops down and carries children off in a sack, and imprisons them in the factory area. His motives are ambiguous, as it is said that the metal can ward off predatory spirits, so a factory might be a refuge from the town’s troubles. He could well be a reincarnation of one of the protagonist’s possibly deceased parents, or a manifestation external to the town that is preying upon it now that it no longer enjoys divine protection. The ambiguity of what or who Mr. Yomawari is adds a layer of satisfying mystery, suggesting that one can be swallowed up by greater (supernatural, possibly immortal, historically recurring) forces and forever be unable to know why. The protagonist discovers a protective charm dropped by her sister in the factory, and a note describing her location: on the other side of the tunnel presented at the start of the game.

This final chapter offers a conclusive explanation to the conflict between deities. Venturing through the tunnel, Mr. Yomawari once again attempts to kidnap the protagonist, but a large and foreboding hand spirit wrestles him back. The player is able to escape unscathed. The hauntingly beautiful sequence that follows has been thoughtfully composed. The player must sprint from shrine to shrine up the mountainside path to offer blessings with her sister’s charm, illuminating the shrines and banishing the black hand ghosts pursuing her. The final “boss” reveals these hands to belong to that of the Mountain God, the game’s main antagonist, guilty of both kidnapping your sister and subverting the dominion of the centipede. We can infer that the promise of riches through technology and commerce has lured the people of the township away from ancestral reverence for the mountain, which would previously be a landmark and signifier of rootedness and stability. The foundation of deference to the mountain is a respect for being geographically and historically situated within a particular community and traditional lineage. A centipede, by contrast, offers constant mobility; it is not affixed to any one region but relies on ever-twisting motions to scavenge and hunt. The bloodthirsty Mountain God has a face composed of many eye-less victims, with one complete right eye and many stored left eyes (possibly an oblique reference to more powerful deities that defies easy explanation). The player is able to defeat it by lighting shrines. [3] [8] Either a demon that has taken hold of or conquered the spirit of the mountain has been banished; or perhaps, the mountain itself has had its anguish at being abandoned by the township assuaged.

The early game, where the human-faced dog could be distracted with a bone and the ghost of a girl who fell from a cliff soothed by returning her necklace, is in retrospect tone-setting and explanatory: the player spends the night alone restoring peace to spiritual inhabitants of the town and its surrounding wilderness. As the narrative escalates into the conflict between the “Mountain God” and “Centipede God,” the player’s actions take on a deeper meaning. The player establishes a boundary of purity protecting the prosperity of the town, and undertakes a pilgrimage to the mountain shrine, renewing a long-forgotten tradition. By doing both, the player resolves the tension between the two competing deities and propositions. This offers the player something likely denied to them in all other aspects of life — a profound sense of metaphysical agency.

The player is able to escape from the mountain with their sister. But because Yomawari is an unhappy game and the Mountain God remains shrewd, if not vengeful, he extracts a price in exchange for your sister’s safe return — the protagonists left eye. The trope sits comfortably with the speculation [9] that “there are hints there existed people who lost a leg and an eye as a sacrifice in old rituals, according to hunters and lumberjacks, in a legend related to nature gods deified in the mountains,” and the applied eyepatch fits with the “Bandage(d) Babe [10]” anime trope, which is “particularly well-entrenched as a moe [exaggerated neoteny and cuteness] trait in anime/manga circles [which] implies the need to be protected.” In one closing scene before the post-game, the protagonist is able to bid farewell to Poro’s spirit, who journeys north through the tunnel to the mountain. In the closing dialogue, we learn that even the domain of the centipede is under threat — downtown is due to be bulldozed and the shrine destroyed to make way for a shopping mall, replacing the spiritual with sterility.

I would suggest there is a comparative Japanese lack of sexual dimorphism in comparison to Europeans. They are more neotenous, with child-like features carrying on well into adulthood. This likely informs every aspect of Japanese culture, feeding into the fantastical unreality of their religious imagination, sexual mores, and dispensation (and fascination) with extreme brutality. Nearly all of these elements bleed into Yomawari. The pathologization of authoritarian Japanese masculinity, a direct consequence of the horrific closure of World War II, may have caused masculine strength and violence to be pushed outside of how Japanese men can acceptably conceive of themselves. This masculine metaphysical principle finds its ultimate expression in the concept of the Samurai — an invulnerable, cultivated and ornately-armored warrior animated by a Bushido spirit of loyalty, rendered completely immune to fear by a rigid belief in direct reincarnation (discussed more fitfully by Jonathan Bowden’s examination of Mishima [11]). The “extreme tension” between “a belief in perfection and stylization [. . .] and the possibility of extreme violence” is subsumed and re-emerges as part of seemingly innocent and inoffensive pop culture media, the best examples of which nearly always pose some sort of existential question (I’m looking at you, Neon Genesis Evangelion), and Yomawari is but a contemporary example of how these two extremes are pulled together and interact at the heart of Japanese identity.

In the West, media showing the death (especially frequent and recurring death) of innocent children, especially in an intentionally disturbing or graphic way, remains taboo as it is only one degree removed from depicting the sexual brutalization of children. The production and consumption of manga featuring this, by contrast, is considered in Japan relatively inoffensive and normal. A flipside of intense (and endless) ideological and moral policing with which whites currently maintain their in-group and out-group distinction might be this inability and unwillingness to countenance making hard and fast distinctions between what is merely fictional representation and what is real. The fervently ethnocentric Japanese have no such compunction and are able to more readily celebrate and assimilate extreme depictions of children, sexual or otherwise, into the everyday and consider it to be mere content, devoid of complications that would raise suspicions about the reader’s moral character. Made in Abyss, for example, is an adventure story punctuated by both child-torture and intermittent fan-service that is realistically suitable for older teens, and probably more wholesome than the common-or-garden real-life soft porn that saturates the contemporary West. It integrates its extreme aspects as narrative necessities, and if it were sanitized, it would lose much of its meaning. Content featuring moe, loli and shota characters are a staple of Japanese national entertainment, and form a dialogue alternately idealizing childhood and innocence or the loss of it. Such material can allow adults to reflect on their own childhood experiences more readily and offers escapism from the banality of adult life.

But amongst whites, an interest in media below one’s reading age is considered an indicator of a failure to mature. Along with “free speech” being a fair-weather boast on the subject of race, the legality of lolicon et al is questionable, as black letter law is bent and broken in other areas to criminalize white interests. The taboo surrounding not merely the act of crimes towards children, but its abstract representation, indicates that mass majority consider it unacceptable to simply think about certain acts, even in their remotest cartoon and fantastical forms. There is an unspoken moral judgment against the private contemplation of what it means to experience extreme things in childhood. Although legislators have stopped short of outlawing cartoons, when it comes to race, they have no problem taking an “it’s not what you do, it’s what’s in your head” approach to curtailing human thought. Whites, collectively, are so obsessed with morality and public rectitude that they forget that all adults are grown children, and therefore a moderate interest in how children think, behave in, and experience unusual and imaginative situations is to be expected. Moreover, Yomawari shows that the trend of these characters, even in extreme situations of little girls being murdered by ghosts, is towards playful and introspective freedom of thought and fantasy. Cartoon media featuring children allows for childhood to be relived and re-examined, rather than remaining off-limits and never satisfactorily re-explored as an adult.

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It’s possible than relative to Europeans, Japanese puberty is less intense, with the transition from childhood to adulthood being closer to a continuum than a definitive event that separates adult life from a childhood pre-existence. This would lead them to be more comfortable with all forms of content centered on what it entails to experience things as a child. Japan’s leading light of Studio Ghibli can’t stay away from the topic and has no Western equivalent. The closest Western TV or film gets to a serious discussion about childhood are Pixar or Dreamworks movies, none of which can credibly claim to incorporate elements of mysticism or meaningful social responsibility. Whites, informed by a hostile media, have the attitude that children are a problematic burden that can simultaneously be exploited for social status; there is such low regard for children and their experiences that not only are whites failing to reproduce, but abortion is also regarded as a leisure activity and the displacement of white children by “somebody else’s babies” is just another social cost to be filed alongside taxes and fuel bills. Put succinctly, the taboo surrounding the sexualization of children is so extreme that all artistic expression, contemplation, and media relating to childhood experience for consumption by adults is seen as “weird” or “kooky,” and the result is an objectifying culture that considers children to be transexual tokens, future activists, or non-persons.

Religious participation amongst Whites is considered normatively to be an adult function requiring extensive education and maturation, with religious profundity accessible only through the hard graft of life experience. So in this alone, Yomawari breaks the Western mold by ascribing to a child the ability to not merely receive instruction from the gods, but to cut deals with them and defeat them. Nebulous “spirituality” is generally seen as the preserve of the muddle-headed and woo-merchants. Recalling the troubled yōkai that are the “site of contact” between ancestral spirits and the material world, our Greco-Roman history and its artifacts are the strongest and most reliable indicator that to a European, the “site of contact” between the divine and mundane is the pursuit of excellence; the refinement of the race into its ideal through personal self-conquest, reflected in singular Gods and Goddesses. Those Arno Breker avatars never get old, as a straight line can be drawn from them to the early forms of white civilization, featuring competitive games, participatory democracy, and aristocratic rituals in warfare. In contrast, the multitude of yōkai and kami are plural and geographically pervasive, and do not inform or expect individual excellence but reflect the collective lived experience (remember, Yomawari is a story about a doomed town and its last inhabitants). European Greco-Roman folk religion, if it were to ever see a revival, would be a “total” religion which through its values would inform everything from immigration policy and city planning to architecture and national sporting pursuits. For a Japanese, his or her interaction with the supernatural seems less of a challenge thrown down from the heavens than a collection of venerable spirits, ancestral or otherwise, who animistically inhabit the world and must be carefully negotiated.

Sadly, the Western popular imagination has been almost completely emptied of any kind of supernatural, spiritual, or otherwise non-material realm that persuades us or exerts an influence upon our lives in a serious way. Druidic heathenry is more a topic of scholarship than serious adult ritual. Science-fiction and science “fact” have displaced and dispossessed any Gods that may exist in mainstream consciousness. Ghost stories and guided tours around catacombs and graveyards remain popular, but ancestral knowledge is forbidden to ever leave the matrix of individualist curiosity, which is a roundabout way of saying we can never have a folk religion whilst we are forbidden to speak as a folk.

However, the dispensation we live under is an anomaly, as Bowden correctly observes that Greco-Roman antiquity (and, I would add, the at least partly-white Mediterranean civilization of the ancient Egyptian dynasties) had a pantheon of deities for all social classes, that could be interpreted and utilized at all levels of society, both in a literal and affirmative sense of communitarian wellbeing, and metaphorically at an academic, state and diplomatic level. They believed, as the Japanese believe (as showcased by Yomawari), that Gods and Spirits can be known and bargained with. The expansive world of kami seen in cult classics like Spirited Away and here in Night Alone are fascinating and have a lot to say about the Japanese experience of modernity, but more importantly, the white consumption of such material suggests that consoomerism is failing as a substitute for genuine religiosity. It indicates that whites yearn for a society and consumer culture that reflects the heightened awareness created by native and innate religious belief, one where we can exert collective agency, both literal and metaphysical, with ancestral and racial idealizations becoming the site of contact with the divine once again.

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[1] [8] This topic put the extreme-left paper The Independent [15] in the tough predicament of supporting women who had miscarried whilst saying nothing about women who choose to have abortions.

[2] [8] Michael Dylan Foster, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore, University of California Press, 2015, p. 226.

[3] [8] The shrines are arranged in a hexagon, which is not an uncommon motif and indirectly relates to Kikko armor made of interlocking hexagon plates. Most likely, they are arranged in a hexagon around the arena simply for gameplay’s sake.