The Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask and the Playable Memento Mori

Conrad Leibel is a graduate of UVic’s MA in English Literature program with a concentration in medieval and early modern studies. He also holds a BA in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta. Conrad has presented at several conferences, including FSAC (Film Studies Association of Canada), CGSA (Canadian Game Studies Association) and IMA (Illinois Medieval Association). This person also performs as a musician, poet, and performance artist on occasion.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask is a game preoccupied with grief, atonement and confronting death. The apocalyptic, cyclical framework of the narrative allows players to interact with characters who fear their own deaths. The medieval memento mori tradition is an aesthetic and (sometimes) narrative trope by which medieval writers, artists and songwriters came to terms with their own mortality often through a confrontation with a corpse. The memento mori provided medieval people with their own method of engaging with death through art as well as creating a schemata for avoiding horror in the final moments. Majora’s Mask is an absorbing case study for understanding the persistence of the medieval memento mori into the video game medium. Healing and playing become intertwined in Majora’s Mask as an interactive memento mori for players to come to terms with their own mortality through their interactions with the game’s narrative and characters. Fans have long noted that Majora’s Mask is decidedly darker than the other entries in the Zelda series, containing outright surreal plot elements. Majora’s Mask addresses childhood’s end, grief, loss and the often unsatisfying imperfections of everyday life. Majora’s Mask, as a 21st century artefact, hybridizes both the cultural work of the memento mori and the parallel tradition of Japanese Noh theatre through providing a safe environment to explore a confusing world of loss and melancholy.

Memento mori, generally, is the rich artistic tradition (including visual arts, literature, music, sculpture) that presents observers with a chance to meditate on their own mortality. These works of art often dramatize the allegorical personage of death, as in the imposing statue of death from the cemetery of Les Innocents of Paris, now in the Louvre. The primary concern of the memento mori is to bear witness to the fact “that death is part of the natural human life-cycle” and that “in the midst of life we are in death” (Ming-Yueh 50).  The message of the memento mori is equally about living well as it is about death.





Source: British Library Blogs

Source: British Library Blogs


In the centuries that have passed from the medieval traditions, the memento mori has branched into new media. Johan Huizinga argues that memento mori in the medieval period wavers between “two extremes”–“lamentation about the briefness of all earthly glory” and “jubilation over the salvation of the soul” (135). One of the most famous incarnations of memento mori takes the form of the danse macabre–a grim and comical ritual purging of the anxieties of life:

In the Dance of Death the guests paired off, and young and old began to dance merrily with joyous chattering and laughter, but suddenly the music stops with a shrill note and deep silence falls on the assembly; shortly after a low, melancholy tune is heard, which ultimately develops into a dead march, as played at funerals… When now the kissing part came the fun was great, for the dancers endeavored to inflict the kiss as tenderly and comically as possible (Nohl 250-2)

In both the image from the De Lisle Psalter and Nohl’s description of the danse macabre, one perceives not only the grim somberness of Huizinga’s formulation, but a cult of the dead which was “comical,” “fun,” and “tenderly” (250-2). Memento mori, in its incarnation as danse macabre, represents death not exclusively in its grim and savage mask, but as celebratory and as culmination of the wonders of life. Majora’s Mask is well-placed within this tradition–as the narrative re-creates a fun, often comical and yet tragic vision of humanity’s final hours.

Source: Music as Medicine, Page 115

Source: Music as Medicine, Page 115

Majora’s Mask inherits ancient medieval supernatural medicinal ideas about the restorative powers of music and allows the player to experience the memento mori through contemporary digital media. In this image from the bible of Duke Borso d’Este, the illuminator creates a scene from 1 Samuel 16:23.

Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him (quoted on Page 115).

The image, though medieval in construction, has ancient origins in the Dead Sea scriptures. One thinks next of Orpheus, who was able to enter the underworld and convince Hades to release Eurydice with the help of his beautiful music 9 [end note 1].  Musical healing tends to be prescribed in antiquity and the Middle Ages for illnesses of “supernatural origin” (West 51) as these could only be treated with “magical techniques” of one’s own (51). In his commentary of the Viaticum, Peter of Spain writes that lovesickness may be cured through “songs and the sight of beautiful forms” (Wack 221).

The premise of Majora’s Mask is that the player must prevent apocalypse in the world of Termina through healing both the environment and its inhabitants. This takes the form of offering and performing rituals for the dead: the player must retrieve several “masks” from dying characters who request the player to perform a song for them in or after their final hours. In Majora’s Mask, music helps heal wounded relationships, cures disease and allows the player to act as a psychopomp: guiding tortured souls out of the in-game world and into the digital aether.

The player must learn “the song of healing” to help restore health to Termina–a song used throughout the game to heal emotional traumas, as well as help the dead towards eternal peace. The song of healing both serves as a game mechanic and demonstrates the discursive hold that ideas about music therapy continue to have on how popular culture represents death and trauma. When the player arrives at Snowhead and the Goron village, they must help the spirit of Darmani, an exalted hero of the Gorons, to find peace in his death. When the song of healing is played, Darmani remembers the community for whom he sacrificed himself and imagines his Goron companions cheering him on. Darmani’s soul then transforms into a mask that the player must use for the coming quests.

The same goes for Great Bay–where the player discovers Mikau, a Zora guitarist, who has washed up on the shore as a result of climate changes in the region. Mikau asks the player to “heal [his] soul” and grants his mask upon meeting the good death-by-song. Music in Majora’s Mask is both a mechanic of gameplay that allows the player a unique gaming experience tied to learning and memorizing short melodies, as well as a narrative device directly tied to medieval understandings of musical therapy and memento mori.

A screenshot from Majora's Mask in which an NPC asks Link to heal their soul.

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

Later in the game, the player comes across a father who has transformed into one of the undead Gibdo creatures. The player must find a way to sneak in the house, as Pamela, daughter of the manic father, attempts to protect her father by locking him inside the house and refusing outside help. When the player sneaks in and plays the song of healing, Pamela’s father awakens and embraces his daughter, the mask of the un-dead Gibdo falling to the floor.

An animated gif of Majora's Mask where an NPC is comforted by an adult

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

A screenshot of a conversation between Link and an NPC in Majora's Mask. The NPC talks about how they think about the past to keep their mind off the bad.

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The narrative in Majora’s Mask implicitly argues that music is a remedy for melancholy. The atmosphere of apocalypse, with the cyclical repetition of three final days in the game’s story time, paint an atmosphere in which cheerful and comical characters, such as the swordsman, transform into empty husks of despair as they realize the end approaches. It is strikingly medieval that the narrative combines Clock-Town’s festival with the end of the world – a Bakhtinian revelry as all will soon be contained in the approach of death. To save Termina from apocalypse, the player must search for four giants who may stop the moon from crashing into and destroying the world. In order to summon their help, the player must learn and play a song called the “Oath to Order”, which calls the giants from afar. The song is depicted as the giants’ mourning [end note 2] for an elegiac and peaceful past, in which the Skull Kid (the game’s main antagonist) is a friendly trickster.

A screenshot of Majora's Mask where an NPC says they are scared and that they do not want to die.

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

A screenshot of Majora's Mask that reads: Could that crying be its way of teaching us some sort of melody?

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

If the connection between the medieval memento mori and Majora’s Mask were not already explicit enough, the game design team includes a danse macabre in Ikana castle. If the player enters the castle wearing the Gibdo mask, a group of “re-dead” will be dancing in front of the player. The dancing undead will not attack the player in this case. Instead, the player is invited to put on a dancing mask obtained earlier in the game and dance alongside them. This danse macabre and the healing of Pamela’s father both demonstrate that Majora’s Mask is a game that encourages the player not to conquer death, but rather, like the memento mori, to understand it and to love life.

A screenshot of Majora's Mask showing some NPCs dancing

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

A screenshot from Majora's Mask that depicts the titular mask.

Source: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask

The central trauma allegorized in Majora’s Mask is childhood’s end. The Skull Kid, who had been a lonely child, becomes bored with the departure of his friends and other realities of growing up, and reacts with rage and violence, bringing death and destruction to serve his traumatizing loss of ego, as represented in the final moments on the moon. The player encounters the Skull Kid’s drawings, memorializing his friendships with not only the giants, but the two fairies who accompany him. The Skull Kid does not have a characteristically evil personality, nor horrible designs beyond the general chaos he causes out of a great sense of emptiness [end note 3]. After the player successfully destroys Majora and returns the mask to the mask-salesman, the player witnesses the giants and fairies share again in their friendship with the Skull Kid, who remembers little, if nothing about who he was and what he did while wearing the evil mask. The player, not only through combat, but through playing and memorizing melodies, has healed a wound of apocalyptic proportions.

Muromachi Memento Mori in Japanese Art and Fantasy Medievalism in Majora’s Mask

It goes without saying that this project would be by-and-large incomplete without a discussion of Muromachi period memento mori in Japan. Majora’s Mask draws upon a long tradition in Japanese literary and material arts of memorializing the dead through art. These range from the Buddhist Maransati (mindfulness of death), the Bushidō (武士) (way of the warrior) in the Hakugare (葉隠聞書) and extensive catalogues of death poetry. The genre of the Mugen-Noh, a Noh play situated in phantasmal time in which supernatural demons and ghosts figure prominently, should also be discussed. Some of the most famous plays of this genre were written during the Muromachi period (1336-1573) by Kan’ami Kiyotsugu (観世 清次) and Zeami Motokyio (世阿弥 元清). The Mugen-Noh can be considered a type of memento moriMatsukaze (Pining Wind), for example, is a play about a priest who comes across a pine tree, which a villager explains is “linked with the memory of two fisher girls.” The villager asks the priest to say a prayer for them: “Though their bodies are buried in the ground, their names linger on” (Kiyotsugu Web). Murasame, who is revealed to be the phantom of one of the dead girls, enters the stage with a waka-onna mask. Matsukaze reveals that the Noh theatrical tradition can perform a similar cultural function to culturally disparate memento mori traditions.

A photo of a waka-onna mask

Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sterling Anderson Osborne, a former MA student at Florida Atlantic University, wrote their MA thesis on how Majora’s Mask “defies Western interpretations” and is “steeped in a Japanese theatrical tradition that dates to the early Middle Ages” (Osborne V). Noh relies on extensive use of the transformative power of masks to figure character changes and to convey supernatural plot elements. Noh finds its way into popular Japanese horror film–notably Onibaba (鬼婆) (1964)–where the mother of the main protagonist is cursed by a hannya mask that she can never take off. The Okina mask, borrowed from an earlier Japanese theatrical tradition, functions through “spiritual contemplation” and audience “concentration” on the actor’s “physical appearance” (15). This mask has a moveable jaw and thus potential for expressivity (Keene 1004) . The masked Noh actor is “possessed by the character” he plays “through the medium of the mask he wears” (15). Players of Majora’s Mask will be familiar with how the primary in-game masks shape and change Link’s face and physical being and literally transform him into another character–the function of the mask in all variety of Noh plays.

A shot from Onibaba in which a character struggles with a mask that won't come off

Source: Onibaba, 1964 Film

Zelda as a series is marketed to an international audience. Hiroki Azuma writes at length about Otaku culture in Japan, namely, the broad and obsessive fan-base that consume anime, manga and gaming cultures that surround a specific series. The Zelda series attracts cosplayers and established a market for digital Zelda otaku mods, and countless collectable figurines. Azuma argues that otaku culture has a history of “adaptation”–one of “how to ‘domesticate’ American culture” (Azuma 11). He argues that “between the otaku and Japan lies the United States” (11). This argument directly ties to the broader focus of this project–Majora’s Mask is marketed to both Japanese and Euro-American markets. Mia Consalvo similarly argues that Japanese and American console games are “hybrid[s]” that encompass a “mixture of Japanese and American businesses and…cultures” in a way that is “unseen” in other media (Consalvo 117). Majora’s Mask can be understood within this framework of international collaboration and competition between Japanese and American video game markets. Majora’s Mask draws upon the rich Japanese memento mori tradition and presents it in a fashion that is familiar to international audiences.

It is my hope that this project sparks a conversation about “medievalisms” in fantasy games and, rather than homogenizing two autonomous and yet aesthetically related cultural theories of performance, demonstrates some of the workings of these two distinct traditions and why narrative and play, especially as they relate to music therapy and grief, in Majora’s Mask are emotionally understood by both Japanese and American audiences. Majora’s Mask continues the cultural work of the memento mori medium in perhaps its most playful iteration.

End Notes

  1. Pausanias, a second century Greek historian, describes a collection of music known as the “Orphic Hymns” (Corinth 2.30.1)
  2. In the player’s first encounter with the giants, their fairy remarks: “could that crying be its way of teaching us some sort of melody?”
  3. The most popular fan theory about Majora’s Mask is that Link is dead in the playthrough and the game takes the player through the five stages of grief: Themes in Motion: Majora’s Mask and the Five Stages of Grief

Works Cited

Alvarez, Sandra. “10 Creepy Things to See at the Louvre That Are Better Than the Mona Lisa.”, 13 Feb. 2016. Web.

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Biggs, Sarah  J. “The Three Living and the Three Dead.” Medieval Manuscripts Blog, British Library, 16 Jan. 2014. Web.

Consalvo, Mia. “Console Video Games and Global Corporations.” New Media & Society, vol. 8, no. 1, 2006, pp. 117–137. Print.

Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century. Columbia University Press, 2006.

Horden, Peregrine. Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity.

Routledge, 2017. Print.

Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. Translated by F. Hopman, Pelican Books, 1955. Print.

Kaneto, Shindō, director. Onibaba. Toho, 1964. DVD.

Kiyotsugu, Kan’ami, and Zeami Motokiyo. “Matsukaze.” Translated by Donald Keene, Matsukaze, University of Virginia, Aug. 1997, Accessed March 12 2018. Web.

Majora’s Mask. Nintendo 6. Nintendo. Videogame.

Ming-Yueh, Denise. “Ingmar Bergman’s Appropriations of the Images of Death in The Seventh Seal”. Medieval and Early Modern English Studies. Volume 17:1 (2009). Print.

Nohl, Johannes. The Black Death: a Chronicle of the Plague. Westholme, 2006. Print.

Osborne, Sterling Anderson. “Linking Masks with Majora: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Noh Theater.” Florida Atlantic University, Florida Atlantic University, 2014. MA Thesis.

Page, Christopher. Ed. Peregrine Horden.“Music and Medicine in the Thirteenth Century.”Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity, Ashgate, 2000, pp. 109- 119. Print.

Wack, Mary Frances. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: the Viaticum and Its Commentaries. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Print.

West, Martin. Ed. Peregrine Horden. “Music Therapy in Antiquity.” Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity, Ashgate, 2000, pp. 51–68. Print.