“It goes without saying, but until the day this world ends, this place shall be…
A place that exists only for you and I, brother”.
“For our sake alone”.
Kusarihime ~ Euthanasia~
Within a storehouse filled with a stale odor, a man hears a song. It’s one that harks back to his childhood, sung through a most curious voice. Once the singing finishes, the storehouse goes back to being as silent as the grave. Understandably confused, the man – our protagonist, Itsuki – quite naturally assumes that it was his half-sister, Jun. However, upon questioning her she doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Understandably confused, Itsuki and Jun leave the place. A short while after, a girl emerges from the storehouse and proceeds to follow them…
Feeling an overwhelming sense of familiarity, in a nearby swamp Itsuki meets a lost girl who quickly becomes a part of his family. She can say odd things from time to time and instills Itsuki with unease, as well as those around him. Well, considering Kurame looks eerily like Itsuki’s dead sister, you can’t exactly blame them.
When it comes to horror VNs, many would find themselves hard-pressed to name a more influential work than Kusarihime ~ Euthanasia ~ (2002). Take a cursory glance at the list of behemoths this Liar-soft classic has spawned and find yourself impressed. Yet despite its enduring relevance, in the western sphere it is overshadowed by those more ubiquitous and beloved titles which partly drew inspiration from it. If it were not for Kusarihime, then heavyweights such as Higurashi no Naku Kori ni (2002), Saya no Uta (2003), Cross Channel (2003), certain parts of Fate/Stay Night (2004) and undoubtedly many more would not have come into existence without it. Yet what is it about this obscure work which makes it so inspirational? Going into Kusarihime, knowing how it influenced certain writers in what they wrote, I was bound to have a certain set of expectations. But it would be remiss to mention that while it was by no means the first work to focus on a rural village and its inhabitants harbouring dark secrets, it contained something more fundamental at its core… Touted as an ‘immoral horror’ featuring a romance between the protagonist, his dead sister, and an adopted sister, even the sub-title ‘euthanasia’ will draw up many kinds of hazy images.
Do note that before proceeding I do spoil one minor plot element which is revealed early on in the tale. But if you don’t want to be spoiled whatsoever, I advise you to turn back.
Following his becoming an amnesiac, in order to recuperate and attempt to gather his thoughts as best as he can, our protagonist Itsuki returns to the peaceful port town where he spent his childhood. Trying to recall the incident which served as the trigger quickly proves to be a fruitless endeavour, exacerbated by the fact that all he can remember is who the people surrounding him are. With his immediate family having perished (including his beloved sister Juri in what appeared to be a suspect double suicide with their father), he’s very much alone. This is understandably, a fact which he stoutly refuses to accept – especially where Juri is concerned. After all, the pair used to be in each other’s pockets to the point where people found their supposedly familial relationship abnormal. She would speak of them being tied together throughout eternity, yet her death refutes that; actions louder than words. Throughout Kusarihime Itsuki goes through a complicated struggle in that although he’s anxious to regain the missing pieces in his memory – he also fears them.
A girl who Itsuki meets amidst an intensely overpowering smell of rotten fruit, Kurame is the heroine who easily steals the show with her old fashioned lingo and blood red kimono. Compared to everyone else in their sleepy village she’s something of an anomaly, decidedly out of place compared to everyone else and it’s not just due to her archaic dress sense. Once she becomes a temporary fixture in Itsuki’s new family we learn that she doesn’t even know what a phone is. Although she looks rather young with people often mistaking her for a lost child, sometimes, a more mature expression will cross her face. Things that a child should never say emerge from her lips. From the outset, she leaves an eerie sort of impression – especially in those who know of Itsuki due to her startling resemblance to Juri…
Once Itsuki awakens, his self-professed girlfriend Kiriko is right there by his side to reassure him that things are going to be okay. With Kiriko reluctantly in tow as Itsuki returns to his hometown, all she can hope for is for him to make up his mind and return to Tokyo with her – sooner rather than later. They first met during a university lecture where they sat near each other, Itsuki’s presence causing nothing to enter our bespectacled heroine’s mind. To become even closer to her, he enters the same club she’s involved in. An endearing couple, wouldn’t you say? Kiriko is quite the curious person. Despite having a minor handicap in the form of having to permanently use a crutch, she likes to travel and frequently takes walks around the town no matter what the weather is like.
Doubling up as an older sister figure and the token childhood friend, we’ve the playful Natsuki. Her, Itsuki, and another resident of their village, Seiji, used to hang out often when they were younger despite Itsuki being a few years younger than them. His two older friends always had his welfare first and foremost on their mind and Natsuki always used to say that if he ever happened to get a girlfriend, she’d have to suss her out first. She’s someone who surges with utmost passion for whatever she’s doing, whether it’s working hard at her waitressing gig, bickering with Kiriko, or helping Itsuki recover his memories. She feels so strongly about his memories, that she’ll even get into fierce arguments with others. But she’s not the type to feel regret about things she does, so she keeps making the same mistakes time and time again.
Tellingly, although Itsuki’s stepmother and Jun’s mother is blind, she adored Itsuki’s father who regrettably only had eyes for his previous wife. Yet painfully shouldering this knowledge, she supported him no matter what and continues to through her looking after of Itsuki through his difficult period. Serving as one of the more tragic figures in Kusarihime, with Itsuki growing more and more like the man she so dearly loved each day it is steadily reaching the point where as Yoshino herself realizes, may no longer be possible to ignore. A viciously strong maternal sense of protection lies within her, yet pressures stemming from these responsibilities eventually rise up within her.
Itsuki’s stepsister, Jun, is a cheeky sort of girl from the moment we meet her where she’s hotly complaining about vending machines breaking and having to travel an extra few minutes to get one lousy can of cola. First impressions aren’t too good, painting a picture of a typical teenager moodily listening to music all the time. Even if she may be lost in the world filled with beats and melodies, she’s sharper than she looks. More perceptive than the rest of the cast, she picks up on things other characters ought to. And more than anyone else, she holds utter contempt towards Juri. Unsurprisingly, with Kurame looking so much like Juri that uncomfortable feeling extends to her.
When it comes to the medium, no doubt countless examples involving a milquetoast donning their finest protagonist disguise in preparation for a miraculous homecoming spring to mind. Upon returning to the rural village he tragically left years ago, our prodigal son comes into contact with a bevy of beauties he used to be close with who, naturally, hold a great deal of affection for him even now (never mind that ten or so years may have passed). Settling into his old/new life, once again he comes to love this idealized countryside while becoming reacquainted with these girls along with family members who may harbour similar feelings for him. If one of them happens to be given a prominent enough role she may even be a heroine. However, Kusarihime turns its nose up at such a stale model, inviting the reader to reconsider how potentially damaging it all is by subverting the usual tropes in ways which quite often, verge on cruelty. Such derivative tales often feature a heroine whom the protagonist feels intensely attracted to yet is unsure if he actually has met her before, emotions which usually stem from some silly childhood promise. However Kusarihime‘s take on this involves that heroine’s fateful meeting in a densely foggy swamp; rotting fruit as opposed to a sweet smell permeating the air.
Such an ominous scene sets a precedent for the rest of its tightly written cast and indeed, Kusarihime as a whole. The characters that Itsuki become reacquainted with all have their crosses to bear, the darkest of secrets tucked away… While they all certainly may appear to want nothing more than for Itsuki to regain his memories, something feels off. We can’t help but question their sincerity, recalling the rotting fruit with its proverbial juices seeping into the narrative’s every pore. Throughout Itsuki’s sojourn a light is cast on these characters’ inner darkness where we eventually learn that none of them are who they appear to be, bringing an element of uncertainty to an otherwise predictable and safe model. This is emphasized by the looping aspect where Itsuki along with his nearest and dearest are doomed to repeat the same several days in August time and time again. For better or worse, memories shall be regained before the town once grows silent and buried deep under the crimson snow.
The pervasiveness of the loops allow our protagonist to draw closer to these people than he ever thought possible – too close for comfort, in fact. It should come as no surprise that it eventually begins to have a detrimental effect on him while the character who ought to be our main heroine, Kurame, silently gazes on; doing nothing to assuage his evident suffering despite knowing, always knowing, more than she lets on. I opened this review by drawing attention to the works which Kusarihime inspired, but I would like to briefly touch on Ryukishi07’s Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni (2002). While they appear to share a number of superficial aspects, in many ways the former stands heads and shoulders above the latter when it comes to instilling fear. Given that both works are frightful classics this is an element which is arguably nonnegotiable, essential. I would certainly consider myself a Higurashi fan but at times it verged on ludicrous with its nasty jump scenes and cackling waifus. Thankfully, this possesses a more refined touch, conveying its most formidable elements through unspoken implications and the overpowering feeling of something drawing ever-closer to the surface of Itsuki’s memories. Kurame would of course be an ideal example of this model. You know something is up with her from her introduction, so you can’t help but grow increasingly uneasy the more she simpers around Itsuki’s family, the more adorable she acts. Through other aspects you do often end up feeling on edge, disturbed by the troublesome memories which flash through Itsuki’s mind, wondering about their implications. Unlike Higurashi gore is also not an element which is used gratuitously, with only one scene being in any way gruesome.
This is not a relentlessly moody work however. A decent chunk of the story involves the cast pleasantly ambling around their sleepy port village, drinking in all the rich sights it has to offer. While many of these seemingly pointless occurrences would no doubt annoy if they were to take place in other titles, its relaxed atmosphere is palpable. Kusarihime truly does excel when it comes to tone and mood, and I look fondly upon scenes such as Itsuki and Kiriko wandering around the rain-soaked town together. These all help break up the overarching mystery, presenting the reader with a time out so that they can focus on the supporting cast and what ails them. Nevertheless, there is always that rotten undercurrent…
As rather suggestively indicated by its title (kusaru/腐る meaning ‘to rot’), there is an inherently destructive element to Kusarihime‘s narrative. From sombre beginnings the poison spreads, seeping into its cast and memories once held dear. There is a sense of inevitability, fate ushering its players along to a grisly end. But little did us spectators anticipate that the work began in media res; the foundations beginning to decay long before Itsuki returned home. Those once considered pillars of strength crumble with the slightest provocation, revealing their putrescent core. And Itsuki must face this immorality. With Kiriko being the one exception, Kusarihime‘s heroines are all bound to him; the chains of shared relationships weighing their hearts down. If this were any other title those relationships would no doubt be taken advantage of, but of course, here something feels off. During a later route a character muses about what an awful person she is for feeling these untoward emotions, and she’s right. In other more flippant titles such words wouldn’t hold any weight, but here they posses a profundity.
During a relatively famous discussion about Kusarihime between well-regarded members of the industry (you want it? get ready to pay 14,000 yen for a hard copy – although I’ve seen copies floating about on Mandarake for 8,000), Urobuchi Gen stated that once fictional sisters admit to not actually being related to the protagonist at the eleventh hour, it misses the point. Suddenly things are safe: no battle was won and all familial warmth they may have shared for perhaps their entire lives immediately evaporates. If they weren’t going to be related at all then what was even the point of implying that they were? Naturally, the point is to titillate with the taboo but if that is indeed the case then why do readers passively accept such hackneyed revelations? Do they almost expect it?
The point those titles miss is that such unions are going to be innately devastating no matter what convenient resolution take place at the very end, even with that eleventh hour revelation. Sphere’s Yosuga no Sora (2008) comes to mind, which I will briefly spoil here. After much struggling from the twins trying to conceal their relationship from the people around them, all good things must come to an end and through their frenzied passion incestuous skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. Reactions from their peers are obviously mixed, but they quickly pack up and travel to a different country while those who do know about their relationship seem to be accepting of it. The final scene is romanticized as they retreat into their own private world; escaping from reality and thus the social consequences of being romantically involved with someone whose blood runs through them. Despite everything it was a traditionally happy ending. Likewise, the popular light novel series OreImo‘s final volume is on the horizon, but even with all the teasing any fan who’s even remotely slightly genre savvy will know that Kirino won’t end up being related to Kyosuke – or if she is, anything brief they share will ultimately be neutralized. It is to be expected, and has been since the series began.
Yet Kusarihime deplores such convenient models which is why it ends up being all the more striking. All the more pervasive. Juri aside, the reader knows from the outset that Itsuki is not legitimately related to the rest of the work’s heroines despite their evident closeness and shared history. Yet although they might not by bound by blood, when all is said and done they are family. People who have grown alongside Itsuki and care deeply for him. But once these relationships delve into a more sinister realm it seems there’s little they can do… Where can they possibly go from the point of consummation? What can possibly happen when their core has rotted until they’ve reached the stage where their affection for a family member becomes unnatural? The only way to go is even further down, despite what Yosuga no Sora‘s relatively cheery end shows.
What I found most impressive about Kusarihime‘s soundtrack is that there wasn’t a single bad track to be found. The heavy keys of ‘たそがれ月’ resounding as a stone-faced Kiriko narrates a fateful meeting seized my attention and refused to let it go, orchestrating the very moment I started realizing how special this was. A black background placed behind her is reminiscent of a character’s monologues in Sakurai Hikaru’s celebrated Steampunk series (which should come as no surprise given that Meteor’s other infamous title, Forest (2004), is a favourite of hers). ‘翠の森’ takes us through childhood scenes with gentle tenderness, while ‘夢のきざはし’ gives us a sense of finality as the crimson snow falls and another loop comes to an end. While there are many standout tracks, ‘樹里のテェマ’ would probably be my favourite, possibly the most iconic track. Seiyuu all performed decently but when it come to their own personal frenzied moments they really gave it their all – and boy did it show. Kaneda Mahiru (Soukou Akki Muramasa‘s Chachamaru; Tsuyo Kiss’ Kanisawa) as Jun made a very effective transition from sour to scream queen. Kawashima Rino’s (Subarashiki Hibi‘s Yuki; G-senjou no Maou‘s Haru) did a fabulous job as Yoshino. One chilling scene made her sound so menacing that it set Meteor and Nakamura on edge upon hearing her record it in the studio. After they made a comment on how scary she was, the director allegedly told them to shut it. And really, I can’t blame them.
Compared to most modern works, Nakamura’s character designs may not be the most aesthetically pleasing but they are undeniably unique. Facial expressions prove to be intense, imbuing characters with a humanity which even more accomplished artists fail to depict. In light of the subject matter, cutesy bug-eyes and rounded cheeks do little to dispel the uneasiness which permeates, magnificently fueling the cognitive dissonance. If the characters had been drawn by a different artist, them frolicking about in cafes and watching dramas with sharper eyes and darker palettes wouldn’t have had the same effect. As you can see with the CGs, a scrapbook-esque style is used to great effect with paper dolls moving; reminiscent of someone leafing through a photo album filled with memories which is curiously apt consider Itsuki’s ailment. Opening credits likewise prove to be memorable, akin to an old-fashioned movie taking place during summer. It features the mysterious girl the protagonist encounters leaving the storehouse gliding through watercolour ruins as a gentle BGM plays. It’s nostalgic and leaves a great first impression.
While Kusarihime ~ Euthanasia ~ is a title of average length, it is something that you would want to reread in order to carefully account for all that truly went on behind closed doors. But even then, you may still be left in the dark. Scenes will end abruptly before swiftly moving on to another, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. This is by no means a structural issue due to internal production collapse (unlike the infamously doomed Seven-Bridge), instead proving to be very much intentional due to Meteor choosing to omit decisive explanations for many of the more curious events which take place. As a result, over the last decade countless fans have taken to crafting their own theories with each one holding a different interpretation of what may have transpired. Due to Kusarihime‘s relatively disjointed narrative such an approach could not be more apt. However, the ending does shift in an incredibly polarizing manner which will certainly catch the reader off-guard no matter what they have been expecting. Everything you may have thought you knew about the characters and the world they inhabit gets turned on its head with nothing being the same. This may be seen as a magnificent twist by many, but personally I felt that it transformed an otherwise poignant work delving into destructive familial ties into something absurd, merely implemented for the sake of being ‘out there’.
While I may be dissatisfied with the ending, it is undeniable that as a staple to the horror genre, Kusarihime is absolutely worth your time – not only as an influential work, but as something which stands is ground and holds up well more than ten years later. It is more tender than you’d perhaps expect, with closely-tied bonds being the framework upon which this frightful classic is built. Its cast is exquisitely depicted, each character possessing solid, immensely pitiful reasons for their actions, which is more than I can say for certain titles of its ilk which have ended up being more revered.
If you do take a trip through its disturbing watercolour world, however, try not to be lead astray by the aroma of decaying fruit…