When it comes to video game villains, there’s a certain amount of puppy kicking that you have get past in order to figure out what’s going on with them. Nintendo villains tend to not kick a lot of puppies, especially compared to Final Fantasy villains, who routinely have puppies positioned directly in front of their waiting feet.
Seymour is especially bad in this regard. He doesn’t particularly come off as insane, but the game gives him so many puppies to kick that it’s hard to understand who he would be if he weren’t a video game villain. He behaves with utmost creepiness toward Yuna and then tries to kill her, he murders multiple highly ranked members of Yevon (including his father), he orchestrates the mass slaughter of Yevon radicals that is Operation Mi’ihen, and his ultimate goal is to become Sin himself so that he can end human suffering by destroying every person in Spira. I define all of this as “kicking puppies” because it’s over-the-top evil behavior that doesn’t really serve any narrative purpose aside from establishing the villain as the bad guy. Seymour is difficult to understand because, once you take away all this puppy kicking, there really isn’t that much there.
In the Japanese version of the game, a lot of the heavy lifting is done by Seymour’s voice actor, Jun’ichi Suwabe, who is quite prolific and especially known for playing characters who are brilliant but slightly unhinged (such as, most recently, Victor in Yuri!!! on Ice). Suwabe’s voice is smooth and lovely, which goes a long way toward establishing a seductive quality to Seymour’s character, thus offering a partial explanation as to why he would have risen so high in Yevon. In Japanese, there’s a strong social positivity attached to the sort of highly formal and “soft” speech that Seymour uses, which is supposed to give us an impression of him being cultured and intelligent and every bit the summoner and scholar everyone makes him out to be.
I think this is the key to understanding the real conflict that Seymour represents, which has more to do with the Yevon religion than it has to do with him. In Spira, Yevon controls everything. Although tradition and religious faith comfort the people, the institution of Yevon is thoroughly corrupt and does nothing to actually protect people from Sin. The high-ranking clergy know that Sin can never be defeated by summoners, but they still take advantage of the people’s faith for political and economic gain. Because Yevon’s power is so deeply entrenched in the culture and society of Spira, only an outsider would be able to resist it.
As a the child of an interracial couple who lived in exile for most of his life, Seymour had the potential to be that outsider, but he devoted all of his energy to becoming an insider. He rose high in Yevon, which is, after all, what his father and mother wanted him to do, both of them hoping that he could prove instrumental in easing the racial tensions that were exacerbated by Maester Mika’s integration policies. As one of the members of the esoteric inner circle of Yevon, and as someone who has witnessed the horror of what it means to be a Fayth, Seymour has access to information that most people in Spira do not, but he is not able to do anything productive with this knowledge and insight.
Seymour resists the myth that Spira can be saved from Sin, but he has also bought into it so deeply that he has begun to embrace the original purpose of Sin, which was to protect Spira from complete annihilation by blasting its level of technology back to a preindustrial level. Seymour could have become a radical, but he is way too invested in the system. Essentially, his “evil” is that he has assimilated.
Tidus is a true outsider, which is why he gets to be the hero of the game. Still, Seymour is correct in his understanding that everything in Spira is a “spiral” of death from which it is difficult to escape. If Sin is not defeated, people may suffer at some undetermined point in the future; but, if Sin is defeated, everything will change, and people will suffer right now. Change is hard, even if it’s beneficial in the long run. If the system changes, people will lose things that are important to them. Tidus is clueless about all of this, and so he questions and undermines the system without really thinking about the larger consequences.
In the end, however, neither Tidus the radical nor Seymour the reactionary is a sustainable position, and it’s actually Yuna, the compassionate young women who can understand both positions, who survives and addresses all of Spira after both Tidus and Seymour are gone.
I think Final Fantasy X is a very political game, and I get the sense that what is being critiqued by its story is Japan’s Imperial system. With strong references to Okinawa and hip hop fashion, Final Fantasy X draws on the culture of Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s, when people desperately wanted to see change in their society. Japan can’t escape the dark legacy of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War if it doesn’t change, but it can’t transform itself if it doesn’t let go of the Imperial system, which is difficult to reform or dispose of. The older Seymours are too invested in the system, while the radical inclinations of the younger Tiduses fade like a dream. Someone like Yuna, who is both an insider and outsider and possesses the empathy to see the problem from multiple viewpoints, needs to step forward and save Japan by uniting disparate groups of people with a message of hope and a vision of an alternate future.
There’s also a fair amount of nuclear imagery in the game, especially during the Operation Mi’ihen sequence, when human bodies are vaporized into particles within the blinding light of Sin’s attack. That being said, there are no easy parallels between nuclear energy and Sin, which takes the form of an enormous cetacean monster. As in any game in the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy X revolves around a conflict between technology and magic, with magic being associated with organic or genetically inherited human potential. While technology is artificial and often at odds with the environment, magic is natural and elemental. It is only when magic is misused, generally in tandem with technology, that it becomes a threat to humankind. Unlike a nuclear bomb, Sin is not so much a weapon as it is a symbol of the hatred and xenophobia that necessitates weapons – a monument capable of transferring the suffering of the past into the present.
It’s therefore interesting that Yuna does not, strictly speaking, “defeat” Sin, as such a thing cannot be defeated. Rather, she releases the victims of the conflict that Sin represents from their suffering. When Yu Yevon, the summoner who created Sin and the supposed deity unjustly worshipped by the Yevon religion, is struck down by Yuna, all of the Fayth who have been trapped in a living death are finally allowed to disappear, with the Aeons and Tidus’s Zanarkand disappearing along with them. When the ghosts of the past (including Tidus) are finally laid to rest as the ideology that sustained them is discredited, the spiral of destruction is finally broken, and Spira can finally move forward.
Within the value system of the game, Seymour existed as the purest expression of the ideology of warfare, whose compulsion was so powerful that not even an outsider could escape it – and this is why the story casts him as a villain.
( Header image by Magistera on Tumblr )