One of the most iconic images of Final Fantasy VII is Cloud standing tall as he faces the dark tower of the Shinra corporate headquarters. Over the meandering course of its expansive story, Final Fantasy VII changes direction and shifts focus, but its story holds fast to the end goal of saving the world from a crisis created by Shinra. Even if there were no interstellar demons or mad scientists, the planet would never have survived were it not for a small group of activists who dared to challenge the most powerful corporation in the world.
Many players may have initially questioned the morals of Barret Wallace, the leader of the ragtag group of guerilla activists calling themselves Avalanche, but Barret’s anger and frustration prove to be justified when Shinra brings an entire section of the suspended concrete city of Midgar down on the slums, just as it had once ruined the towns of Corel and Nibelheim. The Shinra Electric Power Company authors its own demise with its destruction of the environment and the people whose lives depend on the land. It seems therefore natural, and perhaps even validating, when Shinra’s massive office tower becomes the target of an avenging meteor.
But why was the fantasy of saving the world from an evil corporation so powerful and pervasive in Japan, a wealthy country famous for its powerful economy?
This essay situates Final Fantasy VII within the political and cultural context of the 1990s, a decade of economic depression characterized by social malaise in Japan. I will begin by explaining the collusion between Japan’s public and private sectors before sketching an outline of how local groups protested and disrupted corporate destruction of the natural environment. I will then discuss how Avalanche reflects real-world grassroots environmental activism in Japan. I hope to demonstrate that, while Cloud and Aerith become heroes by saving the planet from a magical meteor, Barret and Tifa’s stand against the Shinra Corporation is just as brave and inspiring.
Japan’s postwar economic recovery was admired throughout the world, and the country boasted the second-largest global economy by the 1980s, when it was considered to be a serious threat to American economic hegemony. Japan’s swift economic recovery was facilitated by the coordination of the country’s “iron triangle” of elected officials, career bureaucrats, and large corporations known as keiretsu.
The expression keiretsu designates a “grouping of enterprises,” and it primarily refers to holding companies that oversee a diverse range of business interests. To give an example, the Mitsubishi keiretsu controls holdings ranging from Japan’s largest private bank to automobile manufacturing plants, as well as an electronics company that produces everything from industrial robots to home appliances. The economic activities of keiretsu like Mitsubishi were enabled by bureaucratic subsidies and adjustments to corporate law, which were in turn engineered by politicians, many of whom also served on the board of directors of various keiretsu. Through the coordination of activity between the public and private sectors, Japan’s economy was able to expand at a rate that amazed even the United States.
When Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, however, Japan was deep into what has become known as “the Lost Decade,” a period of severe economic depression. Like the global financial crisis of 2008, Japan’s Lost Decade was partially the result of the implosion of a real-estate speculation bubble. Essentially, financial companies made investments without the necessary capital to back their speculation. When they defaulted on their loans and went bankrupt, the entire economy spiraled into a tailspin.
Salaried workers lost their jobs, and middle-class families lost their houses and apartments. People working for hourly wages at the bottom of the economic ladder, a demographic that included foreign nationals and the vast majority of the female workforce, fell into even greater financial precarity. Average middle-class company employees who had sacrificed their personal lives while working long hours could do nothing but watch as their savings evaporate and their investments become worthless.
The fall of the mighty keiretsu resulted in deep cultural tremors. Along with the widespread social unrest that unseated Japan’s long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party, there was an intellectual pushback against the economic philosophy now known as neoliberalism, which refers to a return to nineteenth-century “liberal” policies that hold that the market functions best when unregulated. Not only had the unregulated activities of the keiretsu ultimately resulted in economic collapse and social instability, but the incestuous relationship between the national government, local bureaucracies, and corporate interests was also responsible for unnecessary and absurd incidents of environmental destruction.
The radical activist group Avalanche is representative of growing public support for ecological movements in Japan during the 1990s as coverage of horrific cases of industrial pollution began to appear in the media. Japan ultimately took a leadership position in various protocols of the United Nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change, but these top-down initiatives would never have been possible without the ongoing grassroots activism of local groups like Avalanche.
The 1960s saw the rise of Japanese environmental activism. Environmentalism was tied to other prominent activist movements of the decade, such as protests against American military conflicts in East Asia and demands to end institutional discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. In 1970, the Japanese Diet passed a number of laws regulating industrial pollution, thus ending the discharge of dangerous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic into rivers and ocean harbors.
Because of the Iron Triangle collusion driving Japan’s rapid economic growth, the bureaucratic systems in charge of enforcing environmental regulations worked with elected officials, many of whom had close ties to keiretsu with holdings in construction and real estate. The former environmental threat of pollution from mines and factories was therefore replaced by the threat of land development as municipally owned forests, riverbanks, and other uninhabited areas were sold to private business interests and cleared in order to build apartment complexes and shopping centers.
Essentially, the government facilitated the sale of public land to corporations, which destroyed natural environments for short-term economic gain. In Japan, the “economic bubble” years of the 1980s are notorious for absurd development projects in remote areas that included malls, museums, and amusement parks that have since closed and been abandoned. Contracting companies with ties to politicians and bureaucrats also received government funding to build unused bridges and tunnels in the countryside while needlessly coating mountainsides and shorelines with concrete reinforcement.
Widespread popular protest movements had become rare by the early 1980s. Nevertheless, local citizen’s groups once again banded together to take action against environmental destruction during the early 1990s. Along with raising public awareness, these groups pooled their resources to file lawsuits against corporations and buy land under consideration for development. A few high-profile cases, such as acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki’s ongoing efforts to conserve a forest in Saitama, have been celebrated by the international news media, but most of these activist groups were treated as nuisances, as their activities intentionally disrupted corporate development.
Barret Wallace is very much a representative of the “disruptive” guerilla activism that characterized Japan’s local environmental movements during the 1980s and 1990s. Barret saw his hometown of Corel exploited and abandoned, and he has firsthand experience of the emptiness of Shinra’s promises to create a better future. Barret initially supported Shinra’s plans to build a reactor on Mt. Corel, as the town’s mining economy had fallen into a gradual decline as a result of the spread of mako energy. At the slightest hint of trouble, however, Shinra burned Corel and converted it into a prison. Barret therefore understands from firsthand experience that it’s not possible to peacefully disagree with Shinra, as the corporation is essentially the government, legal system, and military.
Tifa, whose hometown of Nibelheim was destroyed by Shinra in order to protect its assets, also understands that Shinra cannot be resisted using conventional means. Unlike Barret, who is interested in combating a corrupt system, Tifa seems to be more concerned with nurturing personal relationships and protecting her community. Barret and Tifa’s goals are not in opposition, however. “Protecting the planet” is a lofty ambition, but environmental activism in Japan is grounded in the efforts of local communities attempting to deal with the effects of industrial pollution and overdevelopment in specific areas. Activist groups have often formed around small community meeting spaces like Tifa’s Seventh Heaven bar, especially as public spaces have become increasingly corporate owned.
In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Avalanche is a large paramilitary organization with multiple branches; but, in the original release, Avalanche is exactly what Japanese environmental activist groups are like in real life – small, local, underfunded, and dependent on community support and grassroots communication networks. Midgar may have been partially based on New York City, but the spray-painted slogans and paper billets that appear both above and below the city’s plate reflect the real-life edginess of Japanese activism, where graffiti in public places is rare and extremely eye-catching. This style of grassroots outreach occurred online as well. It’s easy to imagine Jessie, the tech guru of Avalanche, making the sort of clunky but charmingly hand-assembled website associated with Japanese activist groups.
This DIY style of environmental activism isn’t about the countercultural aesthetic of “punk” or “street,” nor is it mystical or intellectual, like the scientists in Cosmo Canyon who sit around the fire and gaze at the stars while pondering the nature of the universe. Rather, the people involved in activist groups are often older, with jobs and families and strong ties to the community. Disenfranchised but politically active people like Barret and local business owners like Tifa understand from personal experience that you can’t fight Shinra with academic monographs or polite editorials. Direct action is necessary, even if it’s uncomfortable and disruptive.
When Cloud returns to himself after falling into the Lifestream, Barret and Tifa encourage him to continue their quest to protect the planet. Whether it’s standing up to the destructive excesses of a large corporation or preventing the fall of a magical meteor, the actions taken to ensure the survival of humanity are important and necessary, even if the cause may seem hopeless. As Barret says, “You gotta understand that there ain’t no gettin’ of this train we’re on, till we get to the end of the line.” Midgar, Corel, and Nibelheim may be fictional, but human suffering caused by environmental destruction is real. Final Fantasy VII therefore functions as a form of modern storytelling that enables the children of the 1990s to understand why conglomerates like the Shinra Corporation failed while serving as a model demonstrating just how heroic it is to protect the planet.
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Journalist and translator Matt Alt possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese popular culture, and his book Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World (2020, Crown) discusses the Lost Decade and its influence on various aspects of media from the 1990s.
Simon Avenell’s Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement (2018, University of Hawai’i Press) features an overview of postwar environmental activism and discusses its reemergence in the 1990s as local groups protested environmental degradation due to corporate development.
Alexander Brown’s Anti-Nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo (2018, Routledge) provides a solid background on contemporary environmental activism in Japan and demonstrates how the ethos of local citizen’s movements has carried over to the present day.
Rachael Hutchinson’s Japanese Culture Through Videogames (2019, Routledge) serves as an excellent model for how to discuss the “Japaneseness” of JRPGs and includes an insightful and meticulously researched chapter on Final Fantasy VII.
Matt Leone’s 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII (2018, Read-Only Memory), which is based on a lengthy Polygon article of the same name, contains a fascinating account of Squaresoft before the studio became a giant, Shinra-esque corporate media conglomerate.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015, Princeton University Press) details a few case studies of local citizen’s groups around Kyoto banding together to purchase forests threatened with development.
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This essay is my contribution to Return to the Planet, a fanzine celebrating the original 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII. The zine is free to download and filled with stunning artwork, moving fiction, and insightful meta essays. You can check out the zine on its website (here) and preview the contributors’ work on Twitter (here).