It's well known that The Legend of Zelda, Majora's Mask has a much darker tone than the games that preceded it. While other games often had a hopeful tone, Majora's Mask seems almost to be fatalistic in its message. You aren't fighting to stop the villain before their plans can be completed, but rather the villain has already won. The end is coming, and it will take a miracle to stop it. In fact, this is literally the case, as there is no way to stop the moon on your own. Only by bending time and enlisting the aid of four near-deific beings can you hope to win.
What if it goes deeper than that?
The Four FactorEdit
Everything in Majora's Mask centres on the number four. Termina is divided into four regions, each with its own dungeon, boss, and giant. Link must master the use of four forms (that is, unique forms that have an instrument and are used for more than a single section) on his journey. Majora goes through four forms; The mask-wearing Skull Kid, the floating mask, the spindly Majora's Incarnation, and the savage figure of Majora's Wrath. Even the time-scale of the game revolves around four, with a three day cycle for the game, ending on the Dawn of New (fourth) Day.
To a western audience, this might not seem like a very meaningful pattern, though even Westerners can recognize it. However, to a player in Japan, this would be very significant, as four is an unlucky number in Japan, much like western superstition about the number thirteen. This comes from the word for four in Japanese, which is pronounced shi. Although spelled differently, the Japanese word for death is also shi. This means that when a Japanese player experiences Majora's Mask, they are being subtly reminded of death, keeping a subliminal focus on it throughout the entire game. One which they can never truly get away from.
A Theme of DeathEdit
Western audiences aren't entirely immune to death-theming either. There are many signs of death throughout the game, and plenty of them aren't culturally specific. For instance, there's Link's transformations. Each transformation mask is gained by playing the Song of Healing, which "heals people's sorrows". Two of these come directly from the dead. The third is strongly implied to have come from the deceased son of the Deku Butler, as there is a withered tree with a face near where you are first become Deku Link, a tree that the Deku Butler - whose son you are told you look like as Deku Link - is seen crying over at the end of the game. There's even an area in the game that is inhabited only by the dead. In fact, the theme can even be seen in the name of the land. A "terminus" is the end of something, and another word for a fatal illness or injury is to say that it is "terminal". The land that Link travels to is "Termina" taken from the same roots. Plus, Termina means "end" in Spanish.
The Hero's JourneyEdit
This is something I found posted on a few different sites, but it bears mentioning...
The course of the story of Majora's Mask sees Link go through each of the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Not himself, but through various locations that embody those concepts.
Let's begin with Clock Town. This is where Link begins his adventure and winds up when he resets time. With the people of Clock Town is the sense of Denial. People are making plans and celebrating the coming festival. Nobody notices that the moon is looming over them or that they are at the epicentre of the crash site. The mayor assures Link and the people in his office that nothing bad will happen, convinced that the Festival of Time will be a success.
Next is the Southern Swamp, in Woodfall, and the Deku Palace. The Deku Scrubs are rushing to kill a monkey they blame all their problems on. In fact, they don't just want to kill him, but rather to make him "suffer and suffer 'til he can suffer no more". In short, the will torture him to death out of Anger, when in truth, they have no proof he did anything wrong.
Link’s journey next takes him into the mountains of Snowhead. There he encounters the Gorons, another tribe in mourning due to the recent loss of their patriarch, Darmani. After some careful investigation, Link meets Darmani’s ghost, who beckons for him to give pursuit. Above Darmani’s grave, the deceased Goron hero delivers his last request, for Link to restore him to life with magic. Attempting through Bargaining to get a higher power, in this case Link, to correct his failure and undo his death.
Following this, Link travels to the Great Bay, and meets the dying Mikau. Faced with multiple tragedies, Mikau's band-mates hide away, question their futures. No one speaks to one another, or even seems able to face the outside world. Wrapped up in their own worries, even the intrusion of a positive change as Link takes Mikau's place, cannot bring them out of their Depression. Lulu, most of all shows fear, believing that she will never see her children again.
Ikana Valley, the land of the dead, is the final stage of the journey. All who once inhabited this land are already dead, and long have been. Due to their Acceptance of this state, they have no crisis for Link to solve in his quest. He is left with only himself. Here, he reflects on his journey, and perhaps it is no accident that he must invert the Stone Tower to proceed, making his journey through this region one of literal, as well as figurative reflection.
When he is done, all that is left is the final confrontation on the Moon, where he faces the four children that invite him to relive what he learned, and relieve him of the baggage he acquired along the way, in the form of the many masks he collected. Only by ridding himself of these things does he attain the Fierce Diety Mask, which enables him to face the obstacles in his past as himself, but a more powerful version, seemingly embodying all that Link could become.
Messages and MeaningsEdit
It's no secret that Termina is another world from Hyrule. Link passes through a sort of portal to get there, and things within are clearly not the same. Yet, some similarities do occur. Perhaps even more interesting, though, is that many of the characters Link meets, perhaps even all, offer some reflection on his own story. Some examples...
- The Skull Kid has no friends, save the Giants, who leave him. In much the same way, Link was once shunned for having no fairy, and even Saria, his closest friend, often went away.
- Kafei is a grown man, but trapped in a child's body, and can't express his love because of his altered nature. So too is Link. Once a man, he met those that loved him, and some part of him developed feelings in return, but in being returned to the past, he became a child again, unable to express his adult feelings.
- Tingle styles himself after the "forest fairies", but in truth is just a middle aged man, who is a disappointment to his father. Link might find this a poignant contrast, as he himself lived like a Kokiri, but was not truly one, and it will someday show when he grows old. Having never met his father, Link would rightfully worry what that man might think of his life, and the unknown parent is surely an imposing presence in his thoughts, even as Tingle's father is a looming, giant of a man.
So, why are the inhabitants of Termina so relevant to Link's life? Well, to answer that, let's look at the Zelda timeline. The game that immediately follows Majora's Mask is Twilight Princess, in which a new incarnation of Link, different from the Link of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask appears. However, the Hero of Time still makes an appearance, as Nintendo has revealed. The Hero's Spirit, the ghost that passes on its skills to the new Link, is the spirit of the Hero of Time, who was the main character of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask.
So, you see, Majora's Mask is a game about closure. Link is already dead. He never had the chance to pass on his skills and knowledge. Ganondorf's followers found him, and exacted vengeance for the execution of their lord while he was still too young to fight at his full strength. The friend he was looking for was himself, the innocent boy he had to stop being when he donned the mantle of the hero. Skull Kid represents that child, resentful of being left alone, looking to lash out and act up, but in childish ways. However, he is possessed by the Mask...and it is no accident that Majora's Mask the object has a shape like a twisted heart, as it contains all of Link's darkest emotions; His resentment, bitterness, and anger at the fate that was forced upon him, his feeling that the world contains nothing but suffering and pain. The darkness in Link's heart threatens to "consume everything", to destroy Link if he cannot tame it.
As Link journeys, his subconscious populates a fantasy land with features from his memories. The journey is presented as a quest, for that is what he knew in life. Little by little, he is made to face the truth, making his way through the progression of denying what has happened to him until finally accepting the empty vessel his mortal body has become within the Stone Tower, becoming a bigger person for it, and preparing to face himself one last time. He makes peace with who and what he is, and gains the strength to accept all of his nature.
In so doing, he gains the form of his adult self, as his mind's eye saw him. For Link, a child who went to sleep one day, only to awake in a different body, faced with a dark and desolate world where evil had already won, and he could only bring destruction wherever he went, facing beings of unimaginable power and slaying them, this is what his adult self was - A terrifying, savage god of destruction. Yet by learning to accept that this too is a part of who he is, the darkness within him is all but powerless, and easily vanquished.
So, on the fourth day, the day of death, Link returns with the mask. He brings proof that he has completed his journey to the one who set the task for him, and who never set foot in his fantasy world until its purpose was completed.
The Happy Mask Salesman stands out, different from the other shades of himself that Link faced. He never directly becomes a part of the journey, only directs Link to begin, and presides over his success. The mask salesman knows the secret to putting souls to rest, turning their grief into masks. He seems to know a great deal about what's happened to Link as well, and admits that he's been following him for some time...and who has followed Link in his journey more than Death?
...but perhaps the better question is, what other character appears as a mask?