“Freedom. Boundless, terrifying freedom. Like a great, never-ending sky,“ is how Aerith Gainsborough describes the other side of a portal leading her to a fight with destiny itself at the end of Final Fantasy 7 Remake.
“We’ll be changing ourselves,” she hesitates.
“What is this? A world of nothing? A world with nobody in it?” asks Shinji Ikari, floating in a white void during the finale of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
“This is the world of perfect freedom.”
“A world of perfect freedom; a world in which you have no restrictions.”
“Is this really freedom?”
“The future is always a blank page.”
After years of anticipation, the first piece of the episodic Final Fantasy 7 Remake has been released. The original game’s director and now Remake producer, Yoshinori Kitase, passed the torch of “overall direction and concept, story and worldbuilding” to Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuya Nomura, first credited as character designer on the original in 1997. Nomura’s new vision of the classic has left players with a head-scratcher of an ending: Cloud Strife and his friends are confronted before escaping Midgar by Sephiroth, who slices open a portal through which they confront and defeat destiny itself. This shift is significant, but not unprecedented in the 2020 release. Early on, it implements smart additions to flesh itself out against the original. Initially, it’s simply adding or tweaking tiny moments that catch the attention of players who are coming in knowing the original, such as Sephiroth appearing to Cloud in visions very early on or significantly larger consequences from AVALANCHE destroying their first Mako Reactor. Chapter 4, however, presents an all new story focusing on Jessie, introduces a new character, and gives players their first real look at a recurring group of ghouls called Whispers as they swarm the Sector 7 slums. These Whispers are the core of Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s changes and greater metanarrative. When their name is revealed in the last third of the game, it is also revealed that they have been working towards enacting “destiny” this whole time. This sometimes benefits the party, like saving Barrett or Aerith at various moments, but they also have worked against them, like making it unable for AVALANCHE members to escape the plate falling onto Sector 7. This physical manifestation of forcing things to “go how they’re supposed to go” shows what it means to remake such a highly regarded text. The Whispers affect the plot, but without any obvious allegiances - they simply enforce destiny as we remember it from the 1997 original. As such these whispers serve as a metaphor for fan demands or expectations of “getting it right” after so much time, a task Nomura knows all too well with the production cycle of Kingdom Hearts 3, but what matters to me is how those themes culminate in Remake’s closing moments with the defeat of destiny itself and that preordained sequence of events.
Many compare this story’s combativeness to destiny and rewriting a story within itself to Yoko Taro’s work in both Nier titles, but I think what Nomura is doing with Remake is more comparable to Hideaki Anno’s Rebuild of Evangelion films; Both reimagine and drastically change completed texts, each with followings dedicated to the original. Nier’s internal retellings are self contained and lead to their own fascinating conversations on storytelling and canon, but returning to a dearly beloved piece years or decades after its initial success and making large scale story changes is a much larger artistic statement.
In 2007, Anno announced a theatrical recreation of the 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion as four movies, expressing his vision of a “new feeling world,” saying that he was, with protege and co-director Kazuya Tsurumaki, adapting “without looking back, without admiration for the circumstances, [walking] towards the future.” Evangelion is a franchise defined by its multiple returns to its own storytelling: an alternate ending in theaters, multiple feature length recuts of the show, as well as these rebuilt films now. “‘Eva’ is a story that repeats.” Tsurumaki was an assistant director on the original series and directed the first half of End of Evangelion (1997) alongside Anno, making the team intimately aware of Evangelion’s relationship with its fanbase, including the poorly received finale (pictured above). The scene quoted acts as a window into that creative process - when fans don’t appreciate what you’re already doing, is having nothing on the page “freedom?” Shinji questions if tearing away everything he knows is truly liberating until restrictions and familiarity with the space make it more perceptible to him. With different plot machinations, Anno again tears Shinji from everything he knows in the aptly titled Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.
Anno and Tsurumaki’s shared retelling of Evangelion in the Rebuild films reflects Kitase and Nomura’s task in helming Remake. The Rebuild of Evangelion films’ Japanese subtitles reference a concept called “jo-ha-kyū” to reflect this shift from the original story. Jo-ha-kyū roughly translates to begin, break (or change), and quicken. This is implemented in the films as the first is almost identical to the first 6 episodes, the second film makes changes and adds new details and characters, and the third is nearly unrecognizable beyond the characters on screen. Jo-ha-kyū functions within the Rebuild films as a metanarrative structure that pushes the familiar into the unknown - taking the audience with it. 3.0 wrestles with the original canon cynically, vastly changing the environment but showing both that Gendo’s drive to use Shinji is still present and that Shinji’s relationship with Kaworu Nagisa is still manipulated. In Rebuild, the details might change, but the tragedies repeat.
Tetsuya Nomura’s Final Fantasy 7 Remake appears to be aiming towards a more optimistic approach, giving fans a vivid imagining of Midgar while pushing them to believe something different is attainable and preferable on the other side of its walls. The Whispers work against this movement, attempting to prevent that second stage and preserve what was so valuable in the original text. Nomura, however, wants to maintain that original value and take it to new and greater places despite what the Whispers, or fans, vie for. It’s possible to view this entire game as a jo-ha-kyū movement as it changes and breaks in the last hour, but it’s also possible the kyū portion is still waiting ahead. It’s impossible to predict what is to come, but Nomura’s actions appear much more optimistic in the group’s victory over destiny compared to Anno’s depiction of cruel repetition.
In the final hours of Remake, the party briefly ruminates on the fear of combating destiny itself before crossing over and defeating unsubtle monoliths of the path they're destined for, mirroring the cast’s own weaponry. Throughout this battle they are instilled with visions of, as Red XIII describes, “tomorrow, if we fail here today.” These glimpses are plot beats that fans of the original will recognize; Red in Cosmo Canyon, black materia’s meteor, and Aerith’s death. It is fascinating on its own that this sequence posits the original plotline as the side effect of “failure” - if they simply tell the same story again, a story that is still available to players on every platform, is this a failure to the creators? In this fight, Aerith herself reinforces that the future “is always a blank page,” which in this context is framed as terrifying. Blank pages are terrifying though; doing something new in a space people already have expectations for, be it Final Fantasy as a franchise or specifically 7, is terrifying. Critical and fan response to Final Fantasy titles have been mixed at every attempt of new and different they make, but demands always circle back to remaking this one; the good one. Final Fantasy 7 Remake, however, deftly resists the current culture of simply remaking and returning to beloved media while also truly reimagining parts of the classic title.
This final fight sequence is followed by a fight against Sephiroth at the literal edge of creation as he questions what is to come for Cloud, and everything else. The game demonstrates the party’s success in defeating destiny by ending with an intentionally vague flashback of Zack Fair surviving his no-longer-final fight and taking Cloud to Midgar, instead of Cloud going alone and taking on Zack’s identity as a SOLDIER. It’s unclear from this final scene if our current heroes have changed their own past or another timeline and frankly I don’t care. That’s for the next game to (maybe) tell me.
This is one of Tetsuya Nomura’s classic tricks and I’m well-worn. Nomura is no stranger to telling new stories with pre-existing texts - it’s kind of his whole thing. His largest directorial work is the Kingdom Hearts series which repurposes Disney stories and Square Enix characters to weave a grand narrative about the malleability of good and evil. This isn’t even his first time reimagining a part of this story. In 2005, he directed the film Advent Children and it shows in the final moments of Remake. He also directed an animated short produced by Madhouse at the same time, titled Last Order, depicting Zack and Cloud’s fight against Sephiroth in Nibelheim. It’s based on flashbacks within the classic Final Fantasy 7 game but changes some plot events. It’s considered “not-canon” due to fans outrage at the changes and Crisis Core, the 2007 prequel, avoids Nomura’s depictions due to the negative fan response. Despite that, or possibly driven by that, he still structured Remake with these core themes and presented fans with this ending.
Remake will likely continue to mirror the relationship with previous work and creativity that is instilled by Rebuild of Evangelion and its jo-ha-kyū framework. By retelling these seminal texts as new variants on a stage much larger than before, these directors deconstruct limitations of canon and avoid the traps of retelling the same stories over again. The new works are better suited for the environments they're being released in as a result.
These stories aren’t saying you can’t go home again - they don’t invalidate the originals they pull from or attempt to replace them. They instead implore you, “please go somewhere new, and we’ll send you with your old friends if you need it.” Final Fantasy 7 Remake acknowledges the shadow that it is underneath and, like AVALANCHE, actively strikes down the forces trying to keep it in place in order to dream of something new on the other side of Midgar. Whether it’s intentionally enacting on the concept of jo-ha-kyū or it just looks similar, it confronts and defeats the fear of doing something new in this familiar space and chooses to cross that threshold into “boundless, terrifying freedom.”