The Flighting Imagery of Birds in NEO: The World Ends With You

Birds are an allegory that encapsulate a number of ideas in fiction. From Alfred Hitchcock’s avian assault film to blue birds in David Bowie’s Lazarus, it seems the central focus is all the same, or at least similar; birds represent an outside, freedom and the unknown. To let go like the fleeting memory of Lenore in The Raven shows the fragile and momentary nature birds also tend to represent. Having just finished the follow up to 2007’s The World Ends with You, I noticed that the game points in this direction as well. Through gameplay, music, story and worldbuilding, the bird references become especially noticeable once you train your eyes on them. Just like the city of Shibuya lives and breathes, the complexity reveals itself once you take a deep inhale and open up your senses.

The first piece of evidence is one of the game’s earliest battle themes: Bird in the Hand. Taken from the in-game description itself “Conflicting vocals never quite find common ground in this deceptively simple number.” The description is direct and clear; the song has an aspect of dissonance that becomes incredibly relevant as the plot advances. Though there is a contrast between the latter part of the track and the former, there is a strong harmony unifying the two to stitch together a greater whole, much like Rindo’s own relationships in the story. A theme like this wouldn’t be out of place as a character’s personal theme, but in true TWEWY fashion, it lies on a random rotation that adds flavor to the bustle of the city.

This one plays at the hypest moments, for example

There’s also the phrase itself, where “a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush” (In my research I found that the title of the track is the same in the original, which means there’s no translation shenanigans involved). The saying refers to how its better to have a reliable advantage, no matter how small, rather than a more volatile one that has the potential to be greater. With “the bird” being the lead in this case, it refers to Rindo’s own decision making as he grows as a character, taking charge more often as the story goes on. Ironically, this could also refer to just the opposite as well, where he becomes riskier and more impulsive in his judgments in an effort to get a higher reward (i.e. saving everyone from erasure in the game’s ending, even if this means putting all of Shibuya on the line.)

Over the course of the game, Rindo keeps contact with a fellow FanGO (an in-universe version of Pokemon GO) enthusiast who refers to themselves as ‘Swallow’. The voice on the other end of the line is one of support and proves to be a helpful landline to keep Rindo grounded in his journey. Swallows in fiction and pop culture often represent love and loyalty, but on the flipside can mean loss and departure. Later in the game this account is revealed to be a reaper antagonist turned ally, Shoka Sakurane, who acts as a love interest to Rindo after the game concludes. This further sense of connection strengthens the aspects of a “swallow”, where the bird means both to be enamored (Shoka and Rindo coming to understand each other over the course of the game, though their relationship is rocky at the start) to lose (Shoka dying in multiple timelines before Rindo trusts his own judgment enough to save everyone) and in letting go of the past (possibly a meta nod to the time travel mechanic redoing past attempts.). As to why a Swallow is chosen as Shoka’s screen name rather than any other bird is clear; the bird’s symbolism works best as another cog in NEO: TWEWY’s narrative.

Speaking of reapers, the mid game fight against Tsugumi Matsunae’s noise form is Grus Cantus, a crane-like boss monster that proves formidable for Rindo’s party. Tsugumi is already critical to the game’s plot, and making her boss incarnation a bird fits the running theme the game hints at, symbolism-wise. Cranes, in some cultures, can be a negative sign that represent death, while simultaneously representing renewal and being steadfast. Like two signs of the same coin, the choice to have this specific bird represent Tsugumi stokes the imagery even further over the course of the game and its lore.

Finally, one of the most critical bird allegories in the game happens in the climax: the past transgressions, represented by a number of shadowy crow noise, erupt from Rindo’s player pin as a result of his time travel abuse and, in some timelines, completely wipe Shibuya from existence.  At this point the birds, which have come to mean choice, freedom and hope, become this antagonistic mass that overtake the city as a direct result of Rindo taking shortcuts over the last few in-game weeks. This means that even though so far the symbols have been a passive and benign way to guide the hero’s journey, at a point they become his own downfall as a literal form of the past coming back in full force.

Rindo is met with a choice here- to continue rewinding time to redo the erasure of everyone he’d come to care for (which means creating even more crows to eventually confront), or accept fate if it means the survival of Shibuya of a whole. He is then met with Hazuki Mikagi, a divine force monitoring the city who eventually grants Rindo another chance to save his friends and the city (believing that Rindo had finally grown resolute and trusts his newfound confidence). He then compiles all the crow noise into a manageable whole; a great firebird called Phoenix Cantus and the final confrontation begins (As a side note, Haz also has a pair of Phoenix on his jacket, which according to director interviews is due to his original status as the final boss. Not terribly tied to the theme of the article, but I thought it was a good insight).

What could it mean Nomura?!

Phoenix, being mythological birds who dive into lava to be reborn once they reach a critical state, have come to be the ultimate sign of reincarnation and spiritual awakening. Rindo and his party fighting the combined dissonance in Shibuya that takes the form of a legendary bird (with 13 tails representing the 13 times Rindo time traveled over the course of the story) is poetic. It encapsulates both sides of the coin the game has to offer, and the duality that birds have come to mean thus far. Ultimately, it’s the hope and sense of independence that wins out and impresses Joshua not to erase Shibuya, and even toss Rindo a bone with allowing him and Shoka to be together in the RG. NEO The World Ends with You holds the running theme of birds in a strong way; by showing the complex aspects of the allegory in order to help not only the main character, but the cast grow as a whole. Though not greatly highlighted over the game’s 35 some odd hour playtime, the subtlety lends to the strength of the narrative and proves to be another great piece of Shibuya, and its residences, collective whole.

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