This essay was originally published on my personal games writing blog, Memory Link, in May of 2019. It has been modified slightly from its original version to provide more context for those who aren’t familiar with the game or characters discussed in the article.
As a Jewish fan of Japanese animation and games, I only rarely get to see my own culture and traditions reflected in the media I enjoy; nor do I ever expect it. While Jewish mythological names and concepts come up frequently in Japanese media—particularly ones that involve magic or the occult—they are usually just name drops rather than actual, researched references. Explicitly Jewish or even Jewish-coded characters are, understandably, an even greater rarity. (I’ve written on this subject for BJN before.)
When a game not only introduces a character steeped with references to Jewish terminology, but actually crafts an entire story for them loaded with Jewish values, that’s when they really get my attention. Against all odds, Granblue Fantasy managed to pull it off.
What is Granblue Fantasy? Unless you already spend a lot of time in the anime and gaming spheres, you’ve probably never heard of it before, so let me give you a quick rundown. Granblue Fantasy is a sprawling browser-based role-playing game that boasts a huge selection of attractive characters, complex gameplay mechanics, oceans of lore, and the ability to be played on both computers and smartphones seamlessly. (Think if a huge MMO like World of Warcraft was shrunk down into a game that could easily be played on a phone). It’s one of Japan’s most popular mobile games, and there’s also an official English translation to accommodate a growing number of overseas fans. In the game, the player takes control of a young “captain” who leads a crew of skyfarers on a flying ship. Granblue has a main story which players can read through at their leisure, but it also runs “event” stories, which are shorter episodes that can only be played for a limited time.
Granblue has a few arguably Jewish characters in its burgeoning cast, and plenty of mythological name drops to boot, but one character in particular stood out to me: Sandalphon, the villain-turned-ally who stars in the What Makes the Sky Blue trilogy of event stories. Aside from the obvious Jewish influences in his design and abilities (his name is from Jewish mythology, his charge attack Ain Soph Aur is a term from Kabbalah, etc etc) Sandalphon’s character arc across the three events perfectly illustrates one of the core values in Judaism: teshuvah.
For those who need a little refresher: teshuvah is often mistranslated as repentance, but the word itself means return. It is the process of atoning for sins, of which repentance is just one step. In Jewish tradition, there are four steps to atonement (via ThoughtCo): regret, stopping the bad thing, confession, and resolution. While regret and stopping the bad thing are important in themselves, Judaism places much more value on the latter steps—the verbal admission of wrongdoing, the asking for forgiveness, and the resolution to do better going forward. In fact, despite the stereotypes about Jewish guilt, scholarly Jewish thought actually places less emphasis on the remorse and more on what you’re going to do about it. The action component is implicit in the word teshuvah itself. Rabbi Suzanne Singer elaborates on this in her article on MyJewishLearning:
The word [teshuvah], too often mistranslated as “repentance,” actually means “return” – to the right path. Whereas “repentance” connotes remorse and self-flagellation, “return” suggests a kind of joyous homecoming. Our mistakes, rather than serving solely as a source of guilt, become also a springboard of opportunity.
Jewish tradition has one holiday a year—Yom Kippur—reserved for the self-flagellation and guilt implied by repentance. But implicitly, all of that remorse means nothing without direct action; if you apologize for messing up and then do it again, you haven’t actually changed. According to Maimonides, teshuvah is only complete when, faced with the opportunity to make the same mistake, one refrains from making it. In this way, teshuvah is a process not only of repentance, but of becoming the best version of yourself.
In Granblue Fantasy, Sandalphon’s mistake (Jewishly speaking) was his selfishness at the expense of all else: he sought to destroy a world that he perceived as having no place for him. The What Makes the Sky Blue trilogy is the journey of Sandalphon’s return to the right path: recognizing that he not only has a place in the world, but that he has a responsibility to protect the people in it. Learning the empathy to go from centering yourself to centering others is core to Judaism and part of teshuvah.
* * *
In the first What Makes the Sky Blue event story, we are introduced to Sandalphon at his absolute lowest. He is one of the original Primal Beasts (a race of living weapons created by the once-powerful Astrals), but he doesn’t have the same kind of power as the other Primals the player has come across thus far—a fact he resents. He wants to take by force the power that his creators denied him, so he sets out to steal the wings and powers of the four archangels that govern the elements. With the elements no longer in balance, calamity quickly befalls the skies—but Sandalphon doesn’t care how many people are caught in the crossfire. His goals are the only thing that matter to him.
Throughout the event, Sandalphon is cruel and merciless, underhanded, sadistic: ripping the wings off the archangel Michael’s back and laughing at her humiliation. He kidnaps the captain’s friends and threatens to dismember them if he doesn’t get what he wants. Even after he’s defeated, he offers the captain a sportsmanly handshake—and then shoves them off a cliff. In short, he’s a villain you’re meant to have no qualms about hating.
Crucially, the game also gives a glimpse of how he came to be this way. It’s revealed in a flashback that Sandalphon wasn’t always murderous and spiteful: he was once the close friend and confidant of Lucifer, the Supreme Primarch and leader of the Primal Beasts. After a long time spent wondering why he was not given powers like the other Primals, Sandalphon learned that he was created only as a spare in case something befell Lucifer—but Lucifer turned out to be so powerful that such a backup wasn’t needed. Faced with the prospect of having no inherent purpose, he questioned the worth of his existence and rebelled against the Astrals. We’re not shown whether Lucifer did or said anything to allay his fears; we can only assume that those feelings of insecurity festered over the 2,000 years Sandalphon spent locked away. Even after the captain defeats Sandalphon and saves the world, What Makes the Sky Blue leaves the player wondering: if things had gone differently, would Sandalphon have ended up like this?
* * *
What Makes the Sky Blue 2: Paradise Lost gives us an opportunity to explore a side of Sandalphon only glimpsed before. Faced with another calamity in the sky realm, the crew makes their way to a place called Canaan to find out what happened to the Supreme Primarch. Once there, they find Sandalphon—a shadow of what he once was, living a peaceful life in the enchanted, cradle-like prison where Lucifer has been keeping him since the end of the first event. Upon his escape from the Seraphim Cradle, Sandalphon learns of Lucifer’s untimely demise at the hands of the fallen angels, and inherits the Supreme Primarch’s wings and powers just as his creators had originally intended. Faced with enemies too strong to take on alone, Sandalphon joins forces with the skydwellers to save the world. Afterward, with his new power depleted and fearing that he may be vulnerable to attack on his own, Sandalphon ends up becoming part of the crew.
The Sandalphon we see in Paradise Lost appears to have changed at first, but when prodded, reveals that he actually has not changed in the slightest. Despite all his time in the Seraphim Cradle, he still hasn’t repented for what he’s done—only accepted Lucifer’s punishment. He hasn’t had the opportunity to face the people he’s wronged or come to terms with what he’s done, so he cannot move forward. At the end of the first What Makes the Sky Blue, Lucifer simply removed him from the scene—which kept him from truly confronting his past or the problems that drove him to make bad choices. His punishment did nothing to address the core problem.
In Judaism, there’s no such thing as “eternal damnation”. Judaism understands that people aren’t perfect and that they can and will mess up, but Judaism also expects you to take responsibility and own up when you’ve missed the mark. Someone ostracized from the community is unable to complete teshuvah and make amends with the people they’ve wronged—just as Sandalphon couldn’t make amends from within the Seraphim Cradle.
Of course, there are some sins that can’t be atoned for (murder and slander), but only because in those scenarios it is impossible to do right by the people you’ve wronged. It’s impossible to ask the dead for forgiveness, and it’s impossible to completely repair someone’s reputation after spreading nasty rumors about them. Everything else, though? In Judaism, so long as you complete the process of teshuvah, you are able to return to the right path. Someone who has completed teshuvah is traditionally known as a ba’al teshuvah: a master of the return.
In fact, Judaism highly values ba’alei teshuvah. In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbahu states “In the place where the penitents stand, even the full-fledged righteous do not stand.” (Berakhot 34b:22) A ba’al teshuvah is someone who knows how it feels to sin, but has come back from their mistakes and now actively chooses to be better. Through teshuvah, one’s mistakes are transformed from permanent stains to opportunities for growth. Judaism prefers that sinners turn from their ways and return to the right path, rather than shunning or damning them—to damn them is to deny them any opportunity to grow.
In Paradise Lost, Sandalphon is finally, truly called to task for his past actions, but he’s also asked to use his power for good. By extending their hands to him and offering to join forces, the Grandcypher crew gives him an invitation back to the right path.
While Sandalphon is able to defeat his foes with the player’s help and save the world in Paradise Lost, the full payoff on this invitation doesn’t come until What Makes the Sky Blue 3: 000. Moreso than just a standard villain redemption arc, this event also wrapped up Sandalphon’s story in a profoundly Jewish way.
After a year of traveling with the crew, Sandalphon seems to be doing better—he’s friendly with the captain and their sidekicks and has made a little niche for himself on the ship, but he’s still mostly focused on his plans for revenge more than the fate of the skies. Even as the fallen angels start to make their move, Sandalphon is still preoccupied with living up to Lucifer’s legacy and insists on taking everything on himself. The archangel Michael calls him out on it, reminding him that he is not the only one with stakes in this fight.
After Michael reprimands him, Sandalphon slowly begins to take his role as a leader more seriously. He begins to understand himself as part of a group and accept the help of others rather than going off alone, though he still thinks of himself as filling Lucifer’s role. Near the end of Chapter 6, when he is nearly overpowered by their fallen angel foe, Michael again reminds him that he needs to be acting on his own vision, not just Lucifer’s. She then lends him the colorful wings of the four archangels—a physical representation of Sandalphon’s past mistakes repurposed for good. The wings he once stole have now been given to him of their owners’ free will; he has made peace with those he wronged. And, answering Eugen’s invitation from Paradise Lost, Sandalphon uses those borrowed wings not to destroy the world, but to save it.
Sandalphon seems to have completed his teshuvah by Chapter 6 of 000, but he still has a bit more to go, and there are still a few more chapters left after that. In the latter third of 000, Sandalphon confronts the resurrected Astral researcher, Lucilius, who created the archangels and the Primal Beasts. It quickly becomes clear that the crew is outmatched—Lucilius has been revived with power beyond measure, and he easily sweeps away the crew’s attacks. While Lucilius berates Sandalphon, calling him a useless spare, the other crew members quickly jump to his defense: Vyrn in particular delivers an emotional rebuttal, insisting that Sandalphon isn’t the same purposeless angel he once was.
Seeing that his friends refuse to abandon him, even in dire straits, Sandalphon realizes that he’d been so wrapped up in himself that he never noticed how much everyone else had come to care for him. He resolves to fight to save them—and this is the final push that allows him to truly harness Lucifer’s power, and overpower Lucilius with both the primarchs’ colorful wings and Lucifer’s six.
Having finally learned empathy for others, it would seem Sandalphon’s teshuvah journey is over—but not quite! There is still one more person he’s wronged, and as of yet he was unable to confront that person directly. 000 gives Sandalphon an avenue to reconcile even with Lucifer, the person he hurt most deeply.
In the chaos left in the final battle’s wake, Sandalphon is drawn into the space between life and death: another world where Lucifer leads a quiet life. As Lucifer serves him coffee, the former Supreme Primarch apologizes for placing such a heavy burden on Sandalphon. Sandalphon, though, insists that he should be the one to apologize—for all the hurt that he’s caused, naming each item in turn. When Lucifer tries to reassure him that an apology isn’t necessary, Sandalphon stops him.
In words that could have come from Maimonides himself, Sandalphon finally completes his journey of teshuvah. He has admitted to his wrongdoing, committed to being a better person, and grown into his responsibility both as Supreme Primarch and as a friend. He has seen the depths of desperation, and has managed to come back from it a stronger and kinder person than before—that is the core of teshuvah, and that is what makes Sandalphon such a fundamentally Jewish character.
In an event already full of reversals, there’s one final bonus: a throwback to the ending of What Makes the Sky Blue, where Sandalphon tries to kill the protagonist with a handshake and a cheap trick. In 000, Sandalphon takes the captain’s hand in a new context:
Once again, imagery from Sandalphon’s past mistakes is repurposed to show how far he’s come. He’s able to take the captain’s hand as an ally, and the captain welcomes him back to the crew with open arms.
* * *
Judaism celebrates sinners who turn from their ways because they are living proof that humanity is capable of positive change. Sandalphon himself embodies this ideal. Watching him go from pitiable one-off villain to beloved friend and ally has been one of my favorite things about playing Granblue Fantasy, not just because his story is so narratively satisfying, but because it’s so fundamentally Jewish. Seeing my own culture and values reflected in a character from a Japanese title isn’t something that happens often, and when it does, it leaves a lasting impression on me. I’ll likely be thinking about Sandalphon, and how to craft stories like his, for a long time.