Sekai de Ichiban Dame na Koi
A word like ‘fate’ is an all too convenient one: it guides people to meet, coaxing them to open up their hearts to one another only to toy around with them. Such are the morose thoughts a man holds as he’s on the verge of freezing to death one wintery night. The subject of corruption within the firm he once worked for, it’s no surprise that he’s also left without a sense of purpose or self – until, a goddess who may as well have descended from the heavens themselves offers him a warm drink and a lifeline. Her name is Hinosaka Honoka, a landlady at Hinosaka Terrace House. Feelings the warmth of the drink in his hand and the warmth of her words spreading through his body, the man knows that the word ‘fate’ is convenient. Honestly, he does. After all, humans live on a larger scale than to be governed by some unscientific higher power. He knows that, but… For such a meeting to occur when it did, he can’t help but feel that it may indeed be what one could call ‘fate’.
The man’s name is Yoshimura Osamu. Unemployed, divorced, and pushing thirty
Winter passes, and his feelings thaw. Our poor excuse for a hero shows up at Hinosaka Terrace House in his best suit with a bouquet of roses, holding every intention of wooing his saviour. But it’s not Honoka who answers the door – a scowling girl forty centimetres below him does. Instead of getting the warm welcome he expected, the girl slaps him and demands that he return her mother. On a spring day where the cherry blossom petals fall, the rose petals which were once part of his bouquet are carried along with them. As it turns out, Honoka has mysteriously disappeared leaving the daughter to take care of the battered boarding house and its rent-evading residents all by herself.
The girl’s name is Hinosaka Mitoko. An overworked high school student about to enter her final year.
And so begins the world’s most unacceptable love…
Out of everything I’ve so far managed to review on this humble blog of mine, Maruto Fumiaki’s 2007 work Sekai de Ichiban Dame na Koi could perhaps be considered the most ‘normal’ yet. In spite of its frantic forty day production period, it became one of 2007’s most beloved titles boasting an impressive number of awards on its résumé. It came second place on 2ch’s 2007 top eroge list with 184 votes, right behind Kira☆Kira. Notable titles it managed to beat include one of the more praised entries in Sakurai Hikaru’s Steampunk series, Sekien no Inganock -What a Beautiful People-, and Shumon Yuu behemoth Itsuka, Todoku, Ano Sora Ni. It came second in Getchu’s scenario ranking, beaten only by Little Busters!. In the same year’s overall ranking it came third, this time beating Kira☆Kira. In the 2008 Moe Game Awards it nabbed the silver medal for scenario just behind G-Senjou no Maou, and came out the overall winner in the renai category.
From a summary it would be difficult to assume that it ostensibly deserves any of those awards, every bit the run-of-the-mill renai title you actively avoid for they rarely offer anything new. After all, the other titles I’ve mentioned are relatively well known, yet in the western sphere something like this isn’t. Although Itsuka is the only other title listed without a translation, the curious eroge fan will be familiar with its reputation for being a remarkably well-written entry. DameKoi, though? Ask your average fan and the most likely outcome will be that they have not heard of it, even if they adore its spiritual sequel White Album 2. Even I hadn’t heard of it until eagerly started tucking into Maruto’s catalogue. To that end for such a beloved and accessible work, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t been translated yet. If rumours are to be believed though, once upon a time it slipped through JAST’s fingers. But what is it that makes DameKoi such a cherished piece?
DameKoi opens with our protagonist Osamu
“still halfway through (his) twenties!” about to turn 29 with zero prospects ahead of him. As bad enough as that may seem given his age, what certainly doesn’t aid his case is that he’s a divorcee, rendering him an anomaly where VN protagonists are concerned. Unsurprisingly, in everyone’s eyes what’s reflected is a failure who’s out of shape and lacking in self-esteem: the very picture of everything an adult shouldn’t be. An exemplary ダメ人間. I’m quite fond of good-for-nothing protagonists on the condition that they are well written (people loathe WA2’s Haruki but I’d consider him to be one of my favourite protagonists so YMMV), and Osamu invokes the same kind of feelings – for better or worse. But what he may lack in everything else, makes up for in spades with his earnest nature. He has a lot of heart which he is all too willing to share with others.
The goddess of fate is forever toying around with him as a result, laughing whenever he once again fails. Osamu is kind to a fault, which unfortunately leaves people hanging him out to dry whenever it suits them. Something goes wrong in a company he’s been a loyal employee of for years, and eyes immediately shift over to him to take the fall for they know he will. A scapegoat is required for someone else’s fuck-ups and he’ll do nicely. Osamu accepts comments like being told never to take up regular employment again by a spineless employer with a nervous smile, a shrug of his shoulders, and a can’t-be-helped. After all, if he weren’t chosen as a scapegoat, the company would have continued its downward spiral. Or someone else would have suffered the same misfortune he had been subjected to. His own (hastily forged by others) misgivings have come to light, so he was dismissed… It’s that simple. With the door to his trade permanently shut, perhaps he’s not suitable to remaining as what society what call a fully functioning member. On mustering up his courage and entering the work force once again, tragedy strikes with lay-offs everywhere he turns, and bosses cutting off conversations due to meetings with lawyers. Osamu is the diligent guy who will take everything on board: even if there are no other employees, even if the president never returns, and even if the phone lines are full of complaints.
What lies beyond this gate is a fierce slap. Now, a heroine carrying out such an act should set a precedent for how she’ll continue to act – no doubt she’ll be a 2-bit tsundere, all slap-slap-kiss with the foolish protagonist who you too will want to slap by the end. Yet Mitoko’s differences are marked immediately with her apologizing for such an irrational outburst whereas others would go on the offensive and pout for days. DameKoi opens with her about to enter her final year of high school. With exams looming, Osamu quickly learns with horror that she wasn’t exaggerating when she said that she took over from her mother. Not only does she maintain the boarding house as best as she can, but she also gets up before school to go to her part-time job and still (barely) finds time to cram in a bit of study. She takes on everyone’s burdens, waiting patiently for the rent to be paid despite their putting it off for weeks, months despite needing it badly. While Mitoko tries her best to come off as tough, her façade quickly crumbles once Osamu comes across her napping in the local park.
I wouldn’t quite call Mitoko precocious, but time and time again she proves to be more mature than perhaps the rest of the cast put together. Once she hears of Osamu’s divorce, she muses that he must have his own difficulties to deal with instead of childishly demanding a reason or making snide comments. Although she has every right to resent her mother for leaving without a word, Mitoko gets on with it and swiftly takes on her duties herself because someone has to. However, while Mitoko may be a strong child, she isn’t a strong adult… No matter how much she may play at being one. She’s a girl who’s been abandoned by her mother after all, who mightn’t even be able to go to university due to the workload looming everyday after school. The relationship between herself and Osamu, while awkward at first, may be what she needs to break free from that and finally seize control of her own life…
With Asami possessing a genuine love for children, becoming a teacher was perhaps inevitable. Loved by students and staff alike, she has proved to be the reliable sort that anyone could turn to in a time of need. Asami will always be there for them, willing to give a helping hand whenever possible. She really does go the extra mile for her, getting directly involved with them whereas others would keep them at a rather cold distance. However, this hands on approach can be annoying for some – especially the problem students. Mitoko may be a smart gal, but Asami would call her the classes’ top problem student given that she knows about her mother pulling a disappearing act. Is it any wonder that she can’t help but worry about her? Asami may have the best interests of her students at heart… Yet ,when the school day ends and the students are well out of sight she’ll scowl. She too has her own issues to deal with.
A sassy university student dealing in real estate, Sawashima’s entrance is an entertaining one. At first she plays the Saturday morning cartoon villain card with henchman in tow, doing all she can to tear her beloved Mitoko away from that man. The antagonistic heir appears in front of Osamu on a regular basis, spewing all these casual threats about what will happen if he continues to live at Hinosaka Terrace House followed by her scampering away once she’s made her point. While she seems menacing to many, she does show a softer side to Mitoko and Mitoko alone. She can’t have Osamu get near her, no matter what and she’ll do anything within her ojou means possible. Even if it means obtaining 45 pages of information detailing his personal history, education, hobbies, special skills – and that’s just the start of it. However, she’s actually a kind and conscientious girl. She even offers Osamu a job when things are going especially bad by Osamu standards (whether it’s out of the goodness of her heart however, is another issue…).
On reentering the work force, Kaya is a rather playful co-worker who Osamu gets to know. Initially, she comes across as a condescending little shit (especially where Mitoko is concerned), but eventually does grow into a more likable and bro-like character. I think there’s something to be said about how I liked her more in other character’s routes than her own. But for those earlier stages, the femme fatale role is all too suited for her, aggressive come-ons and playful digs her weapons in winning Osamu’s heart. However, even Kaya has issues bubbling under that sunny disposition. Given how much Osamu is doing to ensure Mitoko’s stability, she knows that she’ll never be number one in his life – despite Osamu meeting both of them around the same time. When he finds employment again, Mitoko is the first he reports to – and that hurts. So perhaps as a matter of self-defense she boasts about her assets and her adult-like mannerisms rather pettily, because she knows it’s the one thing she’ll have over our heroine…
Comedy consistently proves to be one of those highly subjective and personal elements which renders it difficult to evaluate it in an objective manner, but comedic scenes within this medium rarely (if ever) make me laugh. I’m left with a face as flat as the punch line a character is building up towards (if it involves an equally flat chest my face practically turns concave). It’s all a bit samey and crass, material recycled to the point of redundancy leaving me with a finger lingering over the ctrl key. In DameKoi however, a sitcom-esque approach is applied and despite my gripes I was left feeling mostly bemused. If a cast is filled withダメ人間 types sparks are going to fly, especially if they’re flickering under the same roof. It’s stuff like the girls drinking together, bitchily slurring about lewd matters while a mortified Sawashima whimpers for someone to get her out of there, stat. Everyone listening in on an obviously private conversation and making no attempt at hiding it. Hare-brained schemes for getting back at Big Bad Corporations. Osamu dreaming about going to a feckless eroge company that really couldn’t give a toss that he can’t draw or that the main heroine’s scenario is the only one that’s in any way consistent when there’s the next project to move onto. It’s all very playful, and that’s why DameKoi works.
As a romcom, what’s perhaps most impressive about DameKoi is that through all those non sequiturs and absurdist one-liners its sincerity shines through. Their banter works so well that even the more sceptical reader eventually comes to harbour a pleasantly warm opinion of every eccentric resident at Hinosaka Terrace House. It would have been easy to write them off as soon as Osamu falls into another heroine’s route (along with any other heroine), but everyone stays put no matter whose route he enters. It’s all for one and one for all here, each lending the other a hand. DameKoi is set up in seasonal stages where you get the chance to pursue a heroine’s route and if not, you proceed with the rest of the story. No one is put on a bus, slouched over in the renai ring with a smile. If Osamu enters Asami’s route Kaya is still there scoffing in the background, Sawashima groaning as she attempts to play them off. Mitoko, though… She still hurts.
If I had to sum DameKoi up I’d say that it’s an unusually earnest work, overflowing with th’ milk of human kindness. It features a handsome balance between the drama and comedy which may be a relief to those who found the continuous drama of WA2 draining. But that isn’t to say that the drama isn’t as substantial or well written for this is a Maruto work through and through, still pulling the emotional punches. Mitoko’s stinging starts with the floozy adult, hanging over ole Ristora-san (Mr. Laid Off) in her underwear and a shirt, positively oozing womanly charm (which she’ll take any opportunity to rub in the younger girl’s face). The second has her dear older sister figure fraternizing with him behind her back, someone who should have had hers. And the third, the most damaging, has her very own teacher moving in on her Osamu-kun. With each stage her love grows as does the stinging. She continuously suffers blows. For Osamu, his misfortune is so great that it’s certain to befall anyone who comes into contact with him and not even his feisty little landlady is spared. Through increasing debts and getting laid off (again), it’s all he can do to focus on her to make sure she emerges from a turbulent period in her life intact. He feels it’s his duty, that it may bring his barren life the moisture it needs.
…Nothing else will happen, right?
Sekai de Ichiban Dame/NG na Koi loosely translates to the most unacceptable/no go love in the world. As was the case with WA2, it’s (kind of) left up to the reader whether their love truly is NG. Is it a manipulative, infamously squicky situation with a precocious young girl hanging all over an older man? Or does it feature an unreliable narrator of a protagonist deceiving the smitten girl ‘til the bitter end? Should their love be something to be applauded, leaving even the reader shrugging their shoulders and chiming in that age is just a number? As DameKoi wore on the line blurred and even I found myself being pulled from side to side by the scene despite first supporting them. I believed that the love Mitoko held for Osamu was misguided, and enthusiastically agreed with her about needing to have worries fit for her age, falling in a love fit for her age – and most of all, spending a youth fit for her age.
As you can certainly imagine it’s all a bit ominous; the dichotomy between their lives materializing time and time again, never fading, as a Grecian chorus shadows them. Ostensibly Mitoko and Osamu are portrayed as the competent child and incompetent adult which is quite the role reversal in light of how similar situations tend to go. Osamu presents hesitant offers of friendship while Mitoko instructs him on what to say in a job interview despite him being the experienced one. When Osamu visits her school the chorus sings of their differences, pointing at the suited outsider in their closed world towering forty centimetres above the uniformed Mitoko. Kaya wonders if there’s more to Osamu’s devotion to the little landlady than what either of them lets on, bewildered by the intimate warmth of their conversations. Classmates stare at them on the other side of the glass. Straying over into each other’s realms leads to inevitable repercussions which the chorus won’t hesitate to point out even if they’re in a more neutral setting. The pair resting on a bench leaves passers-by gawping, their thoughts clear. A classmate devises a loaded scheme to tear them apart emotionally, another character physically. Friendships are destroyed and societal roles break down as the whole world condemns them.
Nevertheless Maruto refrains from indulging in what you would assume would end up with theatrics and dramatics, all dry jabs at lovers torn apart by fate and double suicides, rebuking kneejerk elopements. Although Mitoko is certainly of age (she turns eighteen before her route), the repercussions of their possible relationship aren’t glossed over. As she notes, Osamu will commit a sin, tumble down to hell, and strip away his morality as a result of becoming romantically involved with her. Their NG love can only bring each other happiness: no one will cheer them on. If it were to be discovered outside of their inner circle, Osamu’s life at work and Mitoko’s at school would fall to ruin. Neighbours would no longer associate with them. The future of their relationship is spoken of by others in terms of uneasy ifs and buts, yet unfortunately DameKoi only hints at the inevitable storm. WA2 differs greatly in this regard by throwing its characters into its eye without a single life jacket between them. Only a single person supports them (and even so it’s sort of begrudgingly), yet everyone in DameKoi supports Osamu and Mitoko in a way that may seem like a futile attempt at resentment (“I’m not cheering you on or anything, but do your best!”s aplenty). The fallout is arguably nowhere near as devastating despite it being all the more morally questionable, and indeed, some may prefer that. The only real sense of retribution comes in towards the end but it does feel somewhat half-assed, characters not voicing their own opinions as such but providing mouthpieces for society as a whole.
This is only a minor snag, however. What’s truly NG about Osamu and Mitoko’s love lurks in more tacit waters. Mitoko muses about holding an electra complex, and Osamu has issues with his ex-wife that taking the growing relationship between the two into account is to an extent, unsettling. Up until the last Osamu struggles between making Mitoko his daughter and his lover, which indeed, does hark back to the Usagi Drop situation. He’s kind to a fault, self-sacrificing by nature to the detriment of his personal life. But his frantic insistence at ensuring a life for his ‘daughter’ is admirable, for she gives him motivation to live and not lie down in some lonely alley and freeze to death. He piles affection onto her, placing her above everyone like he would with a real daughter – someone to be treasured and cared for. He feverishly declares his love for her, but she guardedly tells him not to say such misleading things. Parents speaking of where their children will go after graduation puts these scenes with the pair playing happy families into sharp-focus. Their situation had been distorted from the beginning and despite only knowing each other for a few months, Maruto manages to portray the convincing collapse of a familial relationship.
Every character’s view of the situation is handled with respect, none being the obviously wrong choice. Mitoko may idealistically believe that there’s nothing at all wrong with holding onto a first love for the rest of her life – and in contrast, a character the same age as Osamu jadedly quips that believing in such a love only to have it eventually fall through couldn’t be any more tragic. A character apologizes for trampling all over another’s feelings, crying all the while that they’re quite the indecent girl… Yet the adult replies that someone like her isn’t all that rare. Mitoko is not the only one who’s been placed in such a situation and the irreconcilable differences between a child’s view of love and an adult’s is refreshing. The adult warily watching a younger version of her. The child being unable to understand where she’s coming from as she lacks that experience.
Osamu isn’t a suave businessman having girls swoon over his charm and debonair, but rather someone lacking in individuality to the point society is all too willing to turn away from him. He’s a hopeless man painted in contrast to a love interest Mitoko’s own age. Her classmate Tsuyoshi is your typical shounen hero, all hot-blooded saying absurd things which quickly get on her nerves (e.g. calling himself Goal Hunter Wolf). He’s forever paying her cloying comments in the vein of wow she’d sure make a great wife someday and gosh her tea is amazing. Once Osamu remarks that he remembers our little Casanova, the first words out of his mouth are like ‘Heh, bet that’s because she can’t stop talking about me right? Crying over me? She really can’t be honest~’. He is by all accounts a character who in any other renai title would be the protagonist, yet contrary to expectations, the meek adult ten years older is. Tsuyoshi should be the one who Mitoko ultimately ends up with like Osamu should end up with one of the heroines his own age. It’s what the reader expects. Drawing closer to their respective love interests, however, may have the opposite effect…
And so, societal roles break down once their realms intersect. As the line between acceptable and unacceptable blurs, Maruto tackles a sobering issue which other writers wouldn’t dare to acknowledge. Renai titles often end with a marriage, giving the reader a sense of fulfillment as it implies all loose ends have been gathered and neatly tied up. While Maruto undermines this often cheap literary function in his next work, here it’s painted in all wistful tones. His handling of a past marriage adds a profound sense of loss to the work as it disrupts such a traditional ending, injecting a dose of reality that perhaps those who read such titles actively avoid. A divorced heroine is certainly unusual where the medium is concerned, let alone one that isn’t presented as a lecherous, scantily clad Christmas cake. You know, the kind who can be found in any trashy anime preying on someone half her age, can of beer threatening to spill a permanent fixture. In DameKoi however, her character is treated with the humanity and dignity they deserve perhaps rendering them the work’s unsung heroine.
But you could say that for everyone in that cast, really. They’re all ridiculously likable, including Goal Hunter Wolf who manages to grow up a bit. Others may seize any chance they can to sound off about the relationship, but their positions are understandable, opinions as warranted as anyone else’s. There’s only one character that I can say I absolutely can’t stand, but it may not be surprising to hear that they felt like a 0.5 version of my least favourite WA2 character. I imagine that DameKoi remains such a beloved title in general not only due to its character, but its enduring relevance. It was released in 2007, a notable year as quite a lot happened with regards to Japan’s changing landscape. 2007 was a year where declining birth rates became an especially prickly issue (to go in depth would spoil certain narrative elements, but I very briefly touched on its relation to the work here – spoilers, yo).
While I said at the start of this review that I wouldn’t be commenting on general production values (e.g. while there are seventeen musical pieces I couldn’t recall a single melody if you asked me to as they’re all fairly nondescript pieces), but I’ve listened to the sugary sweet OP ‘陽だまりコイゴコロ’ more than I’d be willing to admit. All summer guitar riffs courtesy of the usually gravel-toned Rekka Katakiri from doujin group closed/underground. One of my favourite moments from DameKoi is right at the beginning as Mitoko takes steps to open up to Osamu a little bit more, tentatively extending a hand saying “これからもよろしく” at the same time Katakiri’s voice wistfully sings ‘これからも~ いつまでも~ ’. In true sitcom fashion, such an addictive OP plays at the beginning of every new chapter followed by a title which sometimes made me feel like I was binge-watching a shiny new series.
While White Album 2 is the work which features the wider scope and in a way, what Maruto perhaps hoped to achieve with regards to societal conflicts about love and obligation – Sekai de Ichiban Dame na Koi is still a title worthy of your time. Considering the writer and thematic strands weaving both works together, parallels were perhaps unavoidable (to the point where DameKoi sometimes felt like a 0.5 version of WA2). But the work still very much stands up on its own and throughout the review’s main body I only brought it up its successor in passing. They can easily be enjoyed on their own, but if you’re a fan of one I’d strongly recommend that you read the other. If you’re curious to see how WA2 grew to be what it is or even want to check out a more grounded take on its events, I guarantee you won’t leave disappointed.
DameKoi can be jokingly referred to as a work featuring ‘a den of terrible people (and I mean that in a good way)’. Amusingly enough, every character presented has an NG element to their personality. Who is initially shown as immaculate comes tumbling down from their pedestal with the slightest poke. Mitoko seethes with jealously at every woman Osamu meets, and Asami can’t help but bicker with someone she should be leading. Kaya should have enough sense not to taunt and play the evil stepmother card with cutting remarks about packing Mitoko off to boarding school. Osamu should learn to love himself a little more, for he is a pretty cool guy. It’s a work celebrating our failures, for aren’t we all a bit NG at heart?
if you’ve stayed with me this far, I hope that you’ll enjoy it as much as I certainly have if you ever do decide to read it for the warmth oozing from every pore of this ‘home comedy featuring an age-gap couple’ is to be commended. I have a great appreciation for the dignity and humanity Maruto projects onto his characters, making those ordinary situations into something extraordinary and worth treasuring. Osamu crying over Mitoko cooking him a delicious meal. His smiling through all the shitty things that happen to him. Mitoko trembling as she strains to reach Osamu on her tiptoes. Himeo fumbling and bumbling along as she acknowledges her feelings. Kaya’s genre-savvy comments and knowing looks. The reactionary comments of Mitoko’s classmates. Going from Ristora-san to Yoshimura-san, finally ending at Osamu-kun. Likewise going from landlady to Mitoko-chan, and finally plain ole Toko.