On the surface, many may disregard Ni No Kuni as a whimsical and quirky fairytale that lacks any real resonance, yet, as I progressed through its story, becoming fully immersed in what the collaborative efforts of both Level 5 and Studio Ghibli had to offer, I couldn’t help arriving at a saddening realisation. Beneath its charming exterior lies a harrowing tale of grief and sorrow that becomes the catalyst for this imaginatively, enchanting world.
+ Heavy spoilers ahead for Ni No Kuni’s central plot. +
The story revolves around a young boy named Oliver, who resides with his mother in the quaint and sleepy town of Motorville. This bond is shattered when Oliver’s mother tragically loses her life in the event of saving her son from drowning. Engulfed with sadness and depression, Oliver chooses to remain in isolation, cast away from the real world with only a childhood comfort in the form of a handcrafted doll—given to him by his mother.
Clutching onto the only psychical remnant he has left of her, Oliver breaks down while reminiscing about what once was. As his tears blanket the sentimental doll it begins to transform into an unworldly, life-like figure known as ‘Drippy’. Drippy speaks of a parallel world, known as Ni No Kuni, that coincides with Olivers. A haunting presence, known as ‘Shadar, the Dark Djinn’, shrouds this realm with war and ruin. Although reluctant at first, Oliver is persuaded to venture into this world with the promise of saving his mother.
This can be perceived as the beginning of a great adventure, though in reality, Ni No Kuni is possibly just a figment of Oliver’s imagination. A place that ceases to exist through magic and instead is a world of make-believe, conjured up in Oliver’s mind in a desperate attempt to form some sort of escapism.
He struggles to maintain control over what is happening in the real world, whereas in Ni No Kuni, he is able to form a timeline where there is still a chance of saving his Mother—though, in reality, this isn’t possible. This coping mechanism will eventually allow him to overcome his grief and begin to accept it. When one conjures up a world of imagination, they become their own creator of that world, everything can be exactly how imagined—perfect in every way—free from the turmoil of their own.
However, Oliver is still haunted by the thoughts of his mother’s recent death; a plague that invades his mind. As he attempts to construct a place in which his mother still lives, the realisation of this looming nightmare is still persistent in the form of Shadar.
The emotional resonance of the situation greatly helped me to develop a deeper connection with the lead protagonist. I was able to relate to the mechanisms used in order to enclose those feelings; vacating to a fictional world to escape, whether it be in the form of a book, a film or a video game—particularly the latter, where obtaining a level of control is often a common way to disengage from certain emotions, allowing for effective self-regulation.
In the real world, Oliver struggled to find any purpose after his Mother’s Death. He lacked the belief and confidence to carry on with his life. In Ni No Kuni, he has purpose and responsibility and is often referred to as the sole saviour of that world—supporting the theory that Oliver is the only one that has the power to save himself from the despair of his mother’s death.
As the story progresses, Oliver begins to believe in himself, he develops the courage and confidence to carry on and the kindness and generosity to help others—as opposed to remaining consumed by his own feelings. These traits help Oliver to overcome his own demons, developing an understanding that there is hope, hope to carry on and move forward, even though the present may look bleak.
Ni No Kuni touches on mental health throughout the entirety of its story, however, it seems to be most prominent in the concluding chapter of the game—which sees Oliver eventually grow strong enough to face off against Shadar. I feel as though this is a metaphor for the improvement in his mental state, now stable enough to face the demons that have polluted his own mind surrounding his mother’s death.
Prior to the penultimate battle, Shadar is quoted as saying:
“When despair consumes the heart, it gives birth to a power still more terrible. It is despair that will defeat you—you and all else. I am the Executor, charged with bringing destruction to this world. Behold the power of the Dark Djinn!”
Shadar speaks about despair consuming the heart, giving birth to a power still more terrible and it is this that will defeat you. This could be taken as a metaphor for depression, with the heart being a representation of the mind and how destructive depression can be to one’s well being. Shadar also refers to himself as the ‘Executor, charged with bringing destruction to this world’ another metaphorical reference to the demon that torments Oliver’s mind, as he struggles to accept the death of his mother.
Not long after defeating Shadar, Oliver finds himself in a tranquil oasis that is flourishing with life, with no one else but his mother. The way I interpreted this scene was that Oliver had finally freed himself from the demons that had overwhelmed him for so long. In saving Ni No Kuni from evil, he had essentially saved himself from being consumed completely by his sadness. The escapism to another world allowed him to eventually arrive at the acceptance of his mother’s passing—invoking a dreamlike state in which the pair embraced lovingly.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with Ni No Kuni. It’s a game that will stay with me for many years to come—it’s epic music, charming art style, but mostly, its ability to tell a story about finding hope in times of great sadness and despair, that is unmatched in its execution.