To love between you and her, and her.
A choice that can only be made once.
The one who you’ll choose –
The one whose love you’ll be bound to –
Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi.
In a certain school, a legend lies: if a couple are to kiss and swear their love to each other on its rooftop, they’ll be tied to each other throughout eternity. On receiving a request from his friend Yuutarou, our protagonist Shinichi travels to this fabled rooftop where the shrill ringing of an abandoned phone fills his ears. Picking it up, the name he sees illuminating its screen is one he never could have possibly anticipated – ‘god’, which also happens to be the only name in the caller’s history. It cuts off. But… There’s no way it can be his personal property, right? Before Shinichi can think too much about what he witnessed (let alone its broader implications) a girl appears, seemingly, out of nowhere.
With a bizarre chant, the slight girl with unfocused eyes sways and falls on top of him. Just as she’s about to carry out an act befitting of an eroge heroine, Shinichi’s childhood friend Miyuki arrives on the scene and needless to say, isn’t too pleased about witnessing such a salacious sight. She tries to pry them apart under the guise of being his lover, while the mysterious girl goads her into kissing him. She can’t. Shinichi later learns that the girl’s name is Aoi. From this point, the wheels of fate turn along with every line of data inputted…
Not too long ago, Nitro+ announced that they were moving towards a direction the company aren’t typically known for, filled with fluffy pink hearts and uguus aplenty ending up at the pure love destination. Many were skeptical, to say the least. People reacted like how people did to Urobutcher’s infamous healing tweet. Nitro+ doing something cutesy, really? Well, it’s not that much of a stretch if you’re even a little familiar with them. Despite their dark exterior, the company are softies at heart, gooey as a caramel core. Just look at Dra Koi (2006) for further evidence of that, or even Sweet Pool which despite its grotesque premise contained a delicate story of people finding themselves. Dra Koi challenged romantic conventions in an unusually memorable fashion, and Sweet Pool (2008) did more or less the same having taken inspiration from Saya no Uta (2003). In what I’ve experienced of Nitro+’s catalogue, there’s always been that undercurrent of people being drawn together in the midst of unusual circumstances. When love gets to a point where it’s too pure, it will be tinged with insanity. Totono is a work which deals with the concept of what true love means to an eroge heroine ’til the bitter end. It’s impossible to assess this without touching on its concept or delving into spoilers (however minor), so if you want to experience this at some point with only your current knowledge of this being a pure love title, I’d advise you turn back.
Let’s return to the title’s conception. It was still early days and Shimokura Vio was announced as a scenario writer, which did little to ease anyone’s fears. While Sumaga (2008) may be regarded as one of Nitro+’s better titles, Axanael (2010) was more slated then praised. No one really liked it and the hardcore Nitro+ fanboy/girls prefer to turn a blind eye to it. Afterwards, the company started doing more bit projects and tie-ins as well as further pushing off Dogura Q, cementing its vapor ware status. Those along with rumours that Narahara’s Soukou Akki Muramasa (2009) was the company’s swan song made them anxious. Concept art for as of yet unnamed heroines A and B surfaced, with little else. Hardly anything was said about the project until late last year, where the tweaked heroines appeared (now named) with an airier art style. The pure love’s title was given a name – Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi (The Love Between You and Her, and Her), or Totono for short.
Things snowballed for Totono after that. Nitro+ decided to show their hand a little early leaking scans which had the potential to be truly game-changing spoilers. Shimokura tweeted on April Fools’ that Totono would be a pure love title. With that, the true nature of what everyone had assumed would be a pure love title was no longer up for debate. Nitro+ kept trying to ramp up publicity, by recreating the by then infamous scene of a character and her bat in Akihabara windows. Instead of the usual DVD packaging a USB was announced which drew the ire of many. But one of the more suspect stunts was releasing the trial a day before its release, along with a code which would enable the player to see every single CG along with some of the erotic content if they so wished. With all the hype, one couldn’t help but be curious. On the 28th of June this year, all eyes were on this – for better or worse.
Our protagonist Shinichi is your everyday guy, with no defining traits. No, really. Shinichi is such a bland guy that up until 3/4ths of the way through Totono he hadn’t shown anything worth writing about. Up until that moment he was so amazingly dull that it really did feel like he was plucked from of a sea of faceless high school boys. It’s kind of awe-worthy that he feels more like a background character than anyone else in this game, so on some meta level him lacking a face and seiyuu make complete sense. He does, however, have a complex because of this, one which isn’t helped by an old childhood friend of his being seemingly perfect in every way. He takes dense protagonitis to a whole new level, conveniently forgetting he’s made promises with characters who are slipping into evident instability. He’s unable to tell convincing lies in situations where his life is on the line, even without our prompting.
His name is apt considering Totono is a love triangle, with the characters making up Shinichi meaning ‘one heart’.
Taking center stage in the heroine department and their school’s drama club, Miyuki’s role within our tale is that of Shinichi’s childhood friend – although no one else thankfully knows that. Having played together a lot when they were younger, they grew apart as they got older. Our hero has to watch someone he once shared a strong bond become a school idol, having many (including girls and teachers) confess to her. In the barren wasteland that is their school, she’s a lone flower which managed to bloom.
Among Miyuki’s vast array of talents, batting is one of them. She’s rarely seen without her bat, and can often be found at the town’s local batting center practicing her swings. Unsurprisingly, wherever Miyuki goes her bat isn’t too far from her. Although, there are suspect rumours involving it… She’s not the idol everyone and their mother makes her out to be. As Miyuki is someone who’s accustomed to acting and hiding their true face, Shinichi is the only one who can see right through it. She can get miffed all too easily behind closed doors, and is something of a tsundere.
Given that she’s a character who focuses on getting in contact with god through her chants of ‘touarururururu~’s, it’s no wonder that Aoi is someone whose presence isn’t noticed by others – or rather, ignored. A classmate of Shinichi and Miyuki’s, her brain is full of nothing but games. Going beyond casual jokes and spouting dated memes like other VN savvy characters, there’s something inherently destructive about the way our mysterious little denpa darling has to liken everything in their lives to a VN. Shinichi and Miyuki have a stunted conversation? That’s a flag. A friendship defining moment happens? You better save to relive the memory later, because the OP is probably going to play any minute now.
Poor at socializing, both Shinichi and Miyuki feel like she’s unable to draw a line between reality and VNs, having them seamlessly merge. While she may seem like a poorly written denpa character coming off as deliberately unhinged from the outset, the reader can’t help but wonder if there’s more to her than meets her clouded eyes…
Given that Totono is meta to the core, it sheds light on what has proven to be a contentious issue which, to my knowledge, has never been deeply scrutinized within a medium like this before. It couldn’t, lest its unstable foundations crumble entirely. But before I elaborate, imagine that you’re about to experience a title which you’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. With your pre-order set months in advance and the banner of the most appealing hero/ine adorning your blog, you’re more than ready to sink your teeth into it once it arrives. While giddily eyeing the title screen for the first time you don’t spend too long mulling over whose route you’ll traverse down first. Look to the left and you’ll find a character design you can’t help but admire, yet look on right there will be another who piques your curiosity. But really, it doesn’t matter too much for whoever you end up choosing, you can easily load up a save and attempt those other routes later. No need to feel bad about this. Why should you? In order to clear the work in its entirety you must collect all those CGs, ensure you don’t miss out on any bad ends. It’s a process deeply ingrained in all of us which we don’t care to question. But what if you suddenly had to? That you no longer were presented with the opportunity to return to those carefully maintained saves…?
Let’s go a step further with this hypothetical scenario: what if the character you had first chosen wouldn’t let you choose another? Having finally had enough of your nonchalantly adulterous e-ways, you’re faced with the consequences of your actions and the gravity of the situation. How dare you cast the hero/ine aside after swearing to be with them forevermore? It adds an element of doubt to your choice, weighted with meaning. In Totono such a drastic process is utilized to full effect. Do you choose Aoi, or Miyuki? I knew who I was gunning for from the beginning, but once the moment arrived I grew hesitant. Was I sure of the choice I was making?
When experiencing titles with a love triangle at its core you’re always going to feel some degree of sympathy for the ‘loser’ even if you’re not particularly fond of them. You should, on seeing their bitter tears or pained scowls. With Totono you have to deal with this as a result of your own actions. You choose Miyuki? You’re leaving Aoi in her own little world when she was just beginning to open up. Pick Aoi instead? Abandoning Shinichi’s childhood friend who dearly treasures him. What proves to be of particular importance here is that there’s no clear choice, because really, none of the heroines are worthier than the other (even though given the context of what had transpired up until then, I felt like the girl I didn’t choose did admittedly deserve it more). Given the world the characters inhabit and everything presented up until that moment, it really is a challenging choice. It makes you stop and think for a moment or two. But there’s no need to feel trapped because it’s the choice you made.
You mightn’t be aware of it yourself, but upon seeing a title screen for the first time you enter a pact of sorts, finding yourself adhering to particular conventions time and time again in order to progress. We see events unfurl through the eyes of the protagonist, often an unremarkable milquetoast designed for the reader to identify with on some level; sometimes they are nameless, often they are faceless. By controlling them, this character is ushered through innumerable motions in order to reach the ultimate goal. The same set-up is used and abused time after time yet we still find ourselves curiously drawn to it. An amnesiac automaton, a bassist that plays in an all girls’ band, a prodigal witch whose duty is to protect the world. Upon entering the routes of such fantastical figures it is a certainty that the protagonist will eventually swear their undying love no matter what form she may take; to love her forever and ever ’til death (or lack of interest on the reader’s behalf) do they part. In such situations the heroine is systematically reduced as a goal to be conquered, her erotic scenes the obvious prize. Once taken, the route usually draws to a close. For the duration of her route she’s ‘yours’, but midnight strikes and the spell is lifted. The route ends, the show’s over. There’s nothing left to do but exit or load another save and go through the same process again with another leading lady. The previous heroine softly exits the stage to no applause. It never ends.
How many heroines/heroes have you witnessed exchange syrupy sweet, passionately idealistic vows of love to each other…?
Totono serves as a challenge to this innately disturbing model. Whereas many meta-fictional works like to play around with the tropes of its medium in an almost coquettish way with winks and nudges towards the player, Totono brutally subverts the meaning of what an eroge is. To come out of it with any somewhat positive opinion, you must have an appreciation for what it’s trying to do. You’ll at least gain some level of enjoyment of it if you’re familiar with tropes that pepper pure love games. Having said that, this is not a love letter to the reader, coming off more like a stern notice. A warning. Highly esteemed writer Tanaka Romeo of Cross†Channel (2003) and Saihate no Ima (2005) fame said that this would prove to be a controversial work, and after finishing it I can see where he’s coming from. It forces the reader to think about the mechanics of the medium a little more than usual, and reassess what exactly they’re doing when they enter that pact. What starts off as an almost lazy breaking of the fourth wall by throwing us right into jokes starts to become disconcerting, wrought with tension. The jokes Aoi initially make take on a dangerous meaning, unnerving us every time she strangles Miyuki and Shinichi with the red string, every time she talks about obtaining flags, and every time she talks about initiating an erotic scene that’s expected of her.
What constitutes a true eroge heroine, anyway? No matter what answer we offer or who we think of the set-up rarely changes. We and the protagonist meet the heroine as she’s presented to us, and we pick a series of choices until her affection is earned. If we pick the wrong choice, it’s cool. That’s what saves are for. The seiyuu act according to how they’re scripted, meticulously following what’s been laid out for them. At the end of the day they go home as do the rest of the observing team. The lights in the studio shut off, and no one’s left as the last person to leave pockets the keys. If a heroine were to awaken or gain some sort of recognition about her world and how it’s designed, how would she react? Totono makes us think of games like Love Plus (2009) which have a real time element in how they interact with the player, and what would happen if their already eerie system took a shift towards something more obviously disturbing.
What Shimokura tries to do with what love means to these characters is ambitious as it’s a point which no one has dared question. Not like this. Indeed, we can look at any manga/VN/anime that lightly pokes fun at the concept but we rarely think of the intricacies lying behind it. We’re in it for the stories and character interactions first and foremost, yet Totono proves to be an intensely personal journey, tailor-made based on the player which the programming aspect deviously facilitates. Cause and effect is at play with everything that occurs a result of your actions. So we have two heroines. Why should you see the other as a nuisance when you made the pact being fully aware of her and her character? Isn’t it unfair not to take her seriously? – it’s these curiously sincere emotions towards data and numbers that Totono instills in you.
There’s something unusually threatening which seeps into every pixel, something which digs a little deeper than how horror tends to be depicted. The more you think about the possibilities and the strange sense of familiarity which still manages to come across as unfamiliar, the more it makes your skin crawl. The possibilities start off as real minor affairs. Slight bugs in the world, you might say. Aoi’s jabs about the world increase in scale to the point they’re unsettling. Totono as a whole feels like that. When shit gets scary, it’s among the creepiest the medium has to offer. When VNs try, they can nail horror perfectly and Totono features one of the most frightening scenes I’ve yet to come across (one scene which you may be familiar with due to a Youtube upload, although it admittedly doesn’t have the desired effect when taken out of context). There’s a constant sense of unease that even lurks behind more jovial and lighthearted scenes such as birthdays and lunch meetings. You can’t help but wonder what a character is plotting, about the artificiality of those scenes. And, about the artificiality of the medium as a whole.
I can’t help but wonder whether a work as ambitious as this would have been released by a company infamous for the particular brand of renai titles which Totono is providing a commentary on. Nitro+ have never been ones to adhere to conventions, so it seems sort of left-field that they chose to release a VN going against the wave they always swam against. Considering that they do things a little different from the norm anyway, maybe they’re one of the only companies that could have done this. If a company known for typical pure love titles decided to make something like Totono, their fans would have been disgusted and felt like they were being mocked for the very thing they supported that company for. They’d grow disillusioned. But with Nitro+, stepping out of boundaries are to be expected.
It’s interesting, that although the first Totono scans which appeared in magazines felt like they spoiled major twists and the game in general, they actually didn’t. No one expected anything meta, even if the post 11 pm shift hinted at something more sinister brewing. It may surprise you to learn that this took two and a half years to write. In that time, Shimokura noted how many major events happened. The completion of the Sky Tree, the breakthrough success of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica (2011), the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the same year, and the innovation taken with smart phones amongst many more. Another noticeable thing is that the VN market hasn’t changed. Not even slightly. Various archetypes are still popular, and the focus has shifted from parodies of one otaku-centric anime with appealing heroines to another. It’ll be worth seeing if this provides the framework for something even more ambitious later on.
Setting Totono‘s tone is a lavishly dreamy soundtrack, opening with one of humanity’s finest achievements: Franz List’s ‘Liebesträume No. 3’ based on a poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath. Its other piano pieces suit the work’s otherworldly, almost illusory atmosphere. While its instrumental pieces are marvelously assembled, I would be reluctant to place its theme songs on similarly elevated pedestals. Opener ‘モノクロ’ is uptempo and folksy, the obligatory pre-switch tune evoking tawdry made-for-TV dramas. Endings ‘星のメリーゴーランド‘ and ‘輝かしき日常’ aren’t that much better: the former mellow to a fault; the latter a cute if forgettable summery number. Itou Kanako’s insert song ‘永遠の終わりに‘ is the obvious victor where the vocal songs are concerned, its disconnected tones and airy vocals orchestrating the nightmarish shift to another realm. Voice acting is of a very high standard across the board, with Nabatame Hitomi (White Album 2′s Kazusa; Dies Irae‘s Rea) stealing the show as a truly maddening Miyuki, adding life to Shimokura’s otherwise clumsy prose; manic ‘君に’s chilling, ‘キス… して?’s dripping with convincing desperation. Agumi Oto (Baldr Sky‘s Nanoha, ef‘s Mizuki) as Aoi wasn’t overshadowed. While she spends a fair amount of time speaking in a monotonous voice early on, once she starts to open up her emotions come rushing forward. Playing Yuutarou is the magnificently hot blooded Hiyama Nobuyuki (Gundam: The 08th MS Team‘s Amada Shiro, Demonbane‘s Sandalphon), his feverish screeching in line with the characters he’s known for playing all too well.
I would be reluctant to call myself a fan of Tsuji Santa’s output. There’s something about his illustrations with the characters’ shiny faces, all mouth agape, that rubs me up the wrong way. All blunt lines and harsh colours usually, but he caught me off guard with Totono‘s gentle aesthetics; light strokes, most of the art looking as if it were hand-painted. Shimokura wanted the art to hint at something unusual which Santa most certainly took to heart. In a manner that’s uncharacteristic for Nitro+ hair falls in wispy tendrils and tears sparkle, evocative of shoujo manga. Santa told the background staff that he wanted the scenery to give off the same impression that Hourou Musuko‘s (2011) anime did, and knowing this made me appreciate the backgrounds all the more. Looking at empty classrooms, it seems as if a light gust of wind could send the curtains fluttering at any moment, that an airy piano track could be heard floating down the hall from a distant classroom. With every background shown, there’s always something new to look at with its soft pastels and water colours.
Living up to its reputation as an ‘alternative’ AVG, Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi will be remembered for introducing an ambitious concept to a medium that many would consider to be depressingly derivative to the point of stagnancy. As a result, Shimokura Vio may be lauded for having posed a thoughtful question, but whether he answered it, let alone whether that answer was convincing enough, is up for debate. There is little doubt about the ingenuity of what he has broached, yet despite what my generally positive review may indicate I can’t help but feel that he didn’t even scratch the surface of a profound topic such as this one. Ultimately, Totono lives and dies by its gimmick, and this regrettably makes itself apparent not long after the climax in which the narrative comes to a shuddering halt. Keeping pace is no longer a concern and you start to wonder if Shimokura even once thought about developing it beyond that point. In light of what Totono was driving towards choosing between Aoi and Miyuki, along with the surrounding circumstances, ought to have been meaningful. Should have imbued the reader with a sense of purpose. But regrettably, it didn’t. My investment which once took the form of scorching flames of pathos had been thoroughly reduced to cinders.
If Shimokura had passed his pen along to a more skilled authorial voice then I have no doubt that Totono could have eventually become the masterpiece it so rightfully deserved to be. It could have served as a grave reminder to the industry; to those that lose themselves in the two-dimensional realm. As it stands, what is depicted therein may be sufficient enough for it to be memorable, but not enough for it to be a must-read let alone deserving of the reputation it has curiously earned in the western sphere, having gained traction for being a meta title and little else. Considering that Totono appears to be the only work of its kind that deals with such invasive and provocative elements this is certainly a damning accusation. It didn’t need much: it just needed to be convincing and sadly, it is not. What it amounts to is an almost embarrassing spectacle, merely posturing at possessing more depth than it in fact does. To give an example, towards the end there was one pivotal scene which ought to have weaved everything together, one last stand, but it was a right slog, deliberately engineered to elicit shock. Throughout I couldn’t help but eye the clock, seeing how long had passed.
Nevertheless, those whose curiosity has not been doused by my warnings will perhaps mind themselves satisfied, if only on a minor level. Shimokura’s desire to break renai conventions and warn its consumers simply did not feel strong enough, rendering this a patchwork of insincere theories. One ending in particular feels like an absolute cop-out, turning back on everything which lead up to it. Despite the overwhelming ambivalence I feel towards Totono, I can’t help but regard it with the faintest hint of warmth.
Perhaps, its bug has infected me too.