Frog 37.4: The Old Man and the Sea-Monkey

(This is Part 4 of Frog #37–click here to read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3)

When Mother 3 was being marketed in Japan, its tagline was “Strange, Funny, and Heartrending.” Now that we’re three chapters in, we’ve definitely seen an array of strange, funny, and heartrending things, with the most recent strange item being Fassad’s Happy Boxes.

We’ve also seen four Tazmilians interact with Happy Boxes. One man, Isaac, developed an allegiance to Fassad almost immediately, asking if he could be his follower. A couple, Abbot and Abbey, have taken to their box strongly, and while they haven’t developed any cultish allegiances, they are definitely transfixed. A fourth Tazmilian, Biff, seems passively interested in his Happy Box, but overall not too impressed.

When asked about Happy Boxes, Itoi said, “Everyone seems to have just assumed they are televisions… Well don’t!” When prodded further, Itoi offers that, “During development, I wondered if they looked too much like TVs and had them fixed countless times. But the boxes aren’t even displaying anything.” When asked if the Happy Boxes could be computers, he said, “Computers? I don’t know. I really have no idea. They’re just ‘Happy Boxes.’ So, really, they could even be fish tanks.”

So, what are we supposed to make of the Happy Boxes? Well, like I’ve discussed for the past few frogs, I think they’re just supposed to be a thing. Not to get too Hippie-ish on this blog, but when you start thinking about the things you want, versus the things you need… well, I think a Happy Box shows the arbitrary elements of consumerism. And I’m not saying consumerism is all bad–it’s okay to buy things with your hard-earned money. It’s okay to want stuff. I think Itoi, even in the early 2000s, was probably looking around at all the devices, all the packages, all the screens, all the boxes, and asking himself, “Is this it? All these boxes are supposed to make us happy?”

And it’s also possible that, in typical Itoi fashion, there is no metaphor at all, no meaning, and these are Happy Boxes, just like he says. Maybe they are little fish tanks, with sea monkeys inside. In the same way that the many characters of Mother 3 project their own meaning onto the Happy Boxes, so do we as the player. Personally, I’ve always liked thinking of the Happy Boxes as not-quite deliberately hypnotizing devices, but something in the realm of a hypnotic experience. Everything about the box calls your attention to it: the pink shell, the flashing screen. I’ve always interpreted them as very odd decorations that people get tricked into thinking are valuable.

Yes.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed this part of the Nintendo Dream Interview, when Itoi talks about Happy Boxes. He seems both adamant about what the Happy Boxes are not, and somewhat confident in what they are, or at least what they signify. He never provides a more solid answer in any interview that I can find, however. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone asked Itoi about the Happy Boxes again and he just doubled down on the fish tank allusion. Why not? Old men and their sea monkeys!!

That said, I’ve definitely noticed this habit of Itoi’s throughout reading various interviews about all three of the Mother games. More often than not, he aims to stimulate the imagination of the player, leaving things open to interpretation and actively encouraging people to think for themselves when it comes to understanding the games. However, Itoi will also sometimes plainly say what things are or what they are not. At times, he has even rejected “theme” outright, though I wondered if this was a translation thing. All in all, Itoi’s an interesting guy, and I both identify with and am perplexed by his creative process.

And anyway, I’m not talking about this because I think we need a definitive answer to what the Happy Boxes are–that’s not it at all. I’m usually the type of person who wants to know less about things to upkeep the mystique, and I don’t think I’d have any interest in the Happy Boxes if Itoi didn’t answer questions about them so strangely. So if I had to tell you with 100% certainty what a Happy Box is, I think I would have to pull an Itoi and tell you that it’s just a Happy Box. In the same that Mother 2 had an Octopus Eraser, an eraser that erases Ocotopods, Mother 3 has Happy Boxes–boxes that make you happy.

Whether or not you dig the idea of Happy Boxes, all that really matters is how the Tazmilians feel about them, and I’m sad to report that in the short time since Fassad’s speech, more people are already feeling the itch for happiness. The three gossiping women, for example, one of which openly mocked Fassad during his speech, now greet him politely and express half-hearted interest in Happy Boxes, with Brenda saying she would have already one (actually, she says she’d have 5 or 6) if her house wasn’t so cramped. But we know this must be a lie, because Brenda is married to Jonel, who lives with his daughter Dona, and Dona is married to Bob, who’s always at Jackie’s bar, which means that, with Bob gone all the time, there’s definitely room for a Happy Box in that house.

More disappointing, though, was Lisa changing her mind. Lisa, like Bateau and some others, has been a fun NPC to keep my eye on. Personally, I loved the detail of her laughing at Fassad during his speech; I liked the confidence that she had, and it made sense that she was one of the Gossiping Women. However, when Fassad comes up to her later, she apologizes for leaving his talk, saying there was something she remembered that she’d forgotten to do. Dammit! You don’t have to apologize to this guy! You stuck it to him earlier, and that was the right move!

You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!

Shout out to Jill, who expresses no interest in the Happy Boxes and tells Fassad that, if there is one for her, he can give it to someone else. That’s the kind of resistance we’re looking for, Jill!

But why have the Tazmilians so quickly changed their tune when Fassad comes back around? When it was only Salsa running around town, people were dismissive of Fassad, the Happy Boxes, and the entire situation. Now that he’s back, more and more people are slowly changing their minds. It’s only been 25 minutes, people! It hasn’t even been an hour and suddenly we’re all singing the praises of Fassad and his stupid boxes! What the hell happened?

Well, I’m sure one thing that happened is, as usual, these developments were probably originally intended to take place over a longer course of time in EarthBound 64, but even with that aside… Something tells me the perpetual politeness of the Tazmilians is part of the issue. When Fassad wasn’t around, all of these villagers were confident enough to tell off Salsa, to talk smack on the Happy Boxes, to say whatever they wanted. But when Fassad comes back around, the Tazmilians are too kind to tell him what they really feel. They may have been comfortable walking away from his speech, but they certainly aren’t comfortable saying anything to his face. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone raised their hand for a Happy Box out of sheer politeness.

That’s what I figured, Ollie.

See, Tazmily, while simple-minded, hasn’t seemed like a complete herd mentality yet. Or at least, I wouldn’t expect one person to do something, like getting a Happy Box, just because someone else did. However, things get dicey when curiosity, politeness, and envy start to get all muddled up. Fassad probably only needed just one person to want a Happy Box in order to make changes around Tazmily, and, unfortunately, he managed to snag four.

Though some Tazmilians don’t need changing. If you go visit Pusher, he tells Fassad that he’d like to talk to him soon about this whole money situation, which is both predictable and interesting. It makes sense why Pusher would want money (with its growing relationship to the status), and it makes even more sense why Fassad didn’t start with Pusher; giving money to someone like Butch allows the money to have more mobility throughout the town, with Fassad even able to steal it back to create drama. Giving money to Pusher wouldn’t have done much–Pusher already thinks he’s better than everybody, and he would have hoarded his wealth instead of bragging all around town. Pusher is already greedy, but, in a way, he was harmlessly greedy; he typically stuck to staying inside at his estate, and I don’t think anyone in town took him too seriously. However, once the Tazmilians get hungry for money, it would make more sense to put Pusher on top, where money will equal power.

One thing I still wonder about, though: why is Pusher like this, anyway? He’s not the official mayor yet, and he’s still basically the most powerful man in town. Earlier in the chapter, he mentions that he and Fassad have already talked about building an old folks home, so what else does Pusher want from this situation? Maybe I’m just underestimating the limits of greed: Pusher’s wants everything.

At least there’s still some humor to be found! The best part of going to Pusher’s house is how both he and his wife, Elmore, tell Salsa to “Shake!” as if he is a dog. I don’t know why, I just thought this was funny. But seeing as how Pusher also briefly mistakes Salsa for a little boy, maybe it’s possible that the mayor of Tazmily can’t see too well out of those glasses. Maybe he doesn’t need money for his own greed, but for Lasik surgery! We are always so quick to judge, aren’t we?

Talking about Pusher and his wife is fun and all, but let’s get to the real shit.

Something I didn’t have a chance to talk about in any of the previous frogs was an interaction you can have with Alec, during the Monkey Delivery Service portion of the chapter, but before you rejoin Fassad. Alec can be found up on the hill in the cemetery by Hinawa’s grave. At first, Alec will offer you a piece of Nut Bread, and you have to make sure to take it, because if you don’t, this next part of the dialogue won’t even occur, and even that’s a small detail I love. At first, I missed some of the extra dialogue you can “unlock” with certain NPCs, because my inventory was full. It seems like Mother 3 is saying, “Hey, make room for some more bread! When people share food together, they share their hearts together!”

You might remember back in Frog #13 when I talked about Alec’s approach to grief. Within hours of learning about his daughter’s death, Alec is cracking jokes, ripping farts, and poking fun at Flint. He keeps telling Flint to smile, to have some fun, to not get too down on himself. You can’t walk more than a few feet without Alec trying to say something funny.

At the time, I chalked it up to Alec’s insight: he knew that Flint was doing something dangerous. He knew that their lives, and Claus’s life, were at stake. He also knew that there would be time to grieve Hinawa, so for now he needed to focus on making sure Flint didn’t completely snap. Alec, then, was so “relentlessly” humorous because it’s all he knew how to do: keep himself laughing, keep Flint calm, and they just might make it out of this. Alec seems like much more of a hero when you think of him this way: putting off his chance to grieve to ensure the safety of his grandson and son-in-law.

And I’m sure Shigesto Itoi also felt like writing some goofy old man jokes. Why not? But man–I miss writing about Chapter 1! I think there is so much fun stuff going on with Alec and Flint as characters, the fathers of Mother.

Anyway, back to Chapter 3. If Salsa accepts a piece of bread from Alec, the old man will reveal a bit abut himself to the monkey. I had never seen this interaction with Alec before, and I’m so happy it’s in the game. It feels absurd in some ways–an old man sharing his heart with a monkey at his daughter’s grave–but it’s also perfect and sad. Alec doesn’t say a lot. After giving you the bread, he’ll simply say, “This grave? It’s my daughter’s.” Followed by ………………

It ends up feeling unexpected and weirdly profound to find Alec grieving alone like this. And I like that Lucas and Flint, or even Boney, aren’t here. As some readers know, I dealt with some significant grief last year, which I’m still processing in some ways, and the quiet moments of grief, when you’re really with your own thoughts for a moment, can feel the strangest. Maybe that’s my own personal projection onto this scene, but that’s how it feels. I think I identify with Alec’s mood and where he’s at mentally and emotionally.

Outside of my own personal experience, I think this works so well for me as a scene because we’ve always known Alec to be talkative jokester, who has now been moved to silence. Looking more closely at the reason behind his humor in Frog #13 gives this scene a lot of emotional pay-off, because we’ve been asking ourselves, “Is Alec grieving? How will he grieve? Is he only comic relief?” But instead, Alec is quiet, nearly silent, and that’s not the Alec we know. This might be the first time he’s truly had a chance to grieve in the past few days. He might even grieve in front of a monkey because he doesn’t want to grieve in front of Lucas or Flint, who have been through so much already. Alec is, perhaps, trying to be strong in the way a grandparent must be strong: protecting the youth one final time from the true harshness of life. Alec may be open about his role as a grandparent (he scolds Lucas in Chapter 1, don’t forget), but he keeps his greatest pain to himself: a father’s grief.

Is it just me, or is this short moment amazing? Maybe it’s just because I’ve never seen it before, and maybe it’s because of the personal connection I feel with it in life right now… but the image of Alec and Salsa standing at Hinawa’s grave, I think, should really be remembered as a standout moment of Mother 3. Why? Well, because so much of what Mother 3 is about is captured in a single moment, here. Mother 3 is all about found family, and unexpected connections, and the mixture of sometimes-conflicting tones, emotions, and characters. In a way, we have three characters gathered in this one scene: Hinawa, Salsa, and Alec. Salsa and Hinawa never meet, and Salsa and Alec, I don’t think, rever meet again, but Mother 3 is all about bringing separated people, bringing misfits, together, especially in their times of need.

The image also works because of what’s going on in Tazmily right now: people are going to start separating from one another as the town undergoes a cultural shift. The defamiliarization between Tazmilian civilians is only just beginning. In the same way that the heavy Happy Boxes on Salsa’s back represent where the story is headed in terms of labor (many Tazmilians will be working in a factory, soon), Salsa and Alec’s quiet meeting up on the hill reminds me, at least, of how the Tazmilians are becoming estranged from each other. I’m not saying Alec wanted anyone else to be up here right now–in fact, it’s perfect that it’s Salsa. But just the idea of someone talking to someone who can’t actually understand them, who is not the same as them at all–it, sadly, makes me think of where Tazmily is headed, and the ostricization that people like Lucas will face.

And on the other other other hand, I just think it’s a super creative use of Salsa as a character. I don’t think Alec would’ve had a moment like this if we were controlling Duster, or Flint, or even Lucas. Because Salsa is just a little wayward monkey, who can’t talk, Alec gives him the piece of bread. Then, because Alec is an old man with a grief on his shoulders, he shares a few words with the monkey. This scene feels like it’s ripped out of a Studio Ghibli movie or something. It really feels inspired! It’s great! Haven’t you ever talked to something that can’t talk back to you, just to get something off your chest?

Or maybe I’m crazy! Like Caroline says, “Was I spacing out and thinking to myself again?”

Anyway, I know this has been a pretty spacey frog. I don’t think there’s much more to talk about. In the same way as Alec, Mike will open up a bit more if you have room in your inventory for his piece of bread. “Happiness….” says Mike, “I prefer things just as things are now.” Which again makes me wonder: Tazmily’s pretty nice, but are people unhappy? Or is Fassad just getting into everyone’s heads and making them think about it too much? We already saw the headstrong Gossiping Women act all nice to him.

I ended up saving at the Frog outside Isaac’s cabin, because it felt like a good time to stop. I technically should have saved at that frog the first time I went out to Isaac’s, but I wanted to get all of the boxes delivered. And I guess we skipped over the fact that, no matter how long it takes you to deliver the boxes, Fassad will always say you’re late, but I think we’ve talked about Fassad enough for a while. There’s not much else to say about him for now. And Salsa, well. We know Salsa’s life really sucks right now.

So that’s where we’re leaving off for now, folks. For the next frog, I’ll poke around town again one more time to see if I’ve talked with everyone, then I’ll head to north to Osohe to see what’s going on there. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see a familiar face or three.

*hop*

One thought on “Frog 37.4: The Old Man and the Sea-Monkey

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