A Study in Legends #3 (Majora's Mask by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to the first collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

Previous "Legendary Edition" volumes have followed one overall story, even though some contain two separate adventures. This third entry into the series contains two distinct stories from two antithetical video game eras. The resulting volume creates some fascinating comparisons between the two, highlighting both the weaknesses and strengths of adaptations as a whole. However, as they each require their own analysis, it will be split into two parts; the second half of this review will be out in two weeks.

The first half of the volume retells the story of the cult-classic game Majora’s Mask. While it serves as a direct sequel to the iconic Ocarina of Time, it is definitively less widespread even though its fanbase is no less dedicated. Beginning a short while after the events of Ocarina of Time, Link has been regressed to a child, but has retained the knowledge and experience of his adult self. While searching for his companion from that adventure, the fairy Navi, Link is dragged into a strange mirror world, Termina, by a crazed villain wearing the titular Majora’s Mask.

For those who are unaware, the original game’s core mechanic is time. The entire story takes place over the course of three days, a period which ticks by relentlessly in (relatively) real time as you travel around the world. Events unfold in the world, regardless of whether or not you are there to see them happen, and much of the richness of the world comes from being in the right place at the right time; for example, you can prevent a thief from robbing a merchant of his goods if you're in the right location. While each play of the ocarina brings you back to the beginning of the three days, the player is bombarded by the very nature of time conspiring against you.

Unfortunately, none of this critical detail has made it into the adaptation and it quickly becomes clear that Akira Himekawa have put this story together without getting their hands on the game itself. While that sounds like an harsh and baseless judgement, there is confirmation of this fact in the supplementary material that can be found in the back of the book itself.

Sure, the major story beats are identical, but there is none of the connective tissue that makes the world of Termina feel like a living and breathing community. The faces of characters that fans of the game know appear, but without any of the personality that gives the thriving town its bustle. There is no sense that these are people who exist outside of the narrative that has been plotted out for them; concept art and brief character biographies are all we've provided with.

Saying that, the iconic relationship from the original game that makes it into this adaptation will please long-time fans: Kafei and Anju. For readers who are coming into this manga without any prior knowledge of the relationship, the quest to get this couple together in the game is one that takes immense dedication and the entirety of the three-day duration to pull off; it is also an extraordinarily climactic story, arguably overshadowing the main plot itself.

Again, while Himekawa get the overarching story correct, it lacks the luster that makes the source material as memorable as it is. With the limited page space that requires more focus on the main plot, it gets relegated to an afterthought. This single plot emphasises the nuance that can be lost in incomplete adaptations and, without going into the excruciating detail required to explain why it falls completely flat, it represents the failings of the Majora’s Mask manga as a whole. We are presented with a tremendous set of dominoes spread out in a gorgeous sequence, only to then be told that they are for decorative purposes only.

While the adaptation has its issues, there are a handful of moments that are so exquisite, there is a moment where you almost forget about everything else. The first revolves around the ironically named “Happy Mask Salesman”. While he is a character that first appeared in Ocarina of Time in a very ancillary role, Majora’s Mask is the game that brought him to the forefront in a very memorable way. However, the direction that the game takes him in feels remarkably tame in comparison to Himekawa and suddenly feels all the lesser for it.

The main events of Majora’s Mask begin when the aforementioned antagonist, and arguably victimised, skull kid (read: demon scarecrow boy) steals the titular mask from the Happy Mask Salesman and wreaks havoc. However, the beginning of the manga is framed by this impenetrable darkness and unsettling narration from the salesman, casting a sudden shadow over the intentions of an otherwise wacky character.

Elements of this are present in the original game, with a few asides showing the salesman grinning that little bit too wide, but the way that Himekawa utilise shadows in this moment, plus all of the subsequent moments that he appears in, create this ominous, looming figure with motivations that never get fully realised. Fortunately, his mysterious and undeveloped backstory are part of the charm, compounding the unease that you receive whenever you see him.

Finally, to wrap up their work on Majora’s Mask, Himekawa provide an original bonus story that didn't quite slot into the core story. This short, original story has all of the heart, mystery and majesty that is absent from the main adaptation and makes you wonder what might have been in Himekawa were fully prepared. It delves into the never-before-seen history of the world of Termina, many eons before Link makes his first appearance, and contains some of the most phenomenally intricate character design that I’ve seen in quite some time. To sum it up here would be to detract from its modest brilliance; this is material that deserves to be experienced first-hand.

My criticisms of this material are by no means a criticism of the creators themselves. There is no doubt in my mind that they did the best with what they were given. There are elements that work that only demonstrate how flat the rest of the story feels. Fortunately for the overall quality of this volume, the second half backflips over the first and shoves its face down in the dirt and makes it all worthwhile.

Come back in two weeks for the second part of this volume: A Link to the Past.