As this is not a formal review, I’ve written about Fraternité as is spoling the hell out of pretty much everything. So if you wish to experience the work at some point unspoiled, I’d strongly advise not to read on.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you!)
“I can’t be saved”.
– are the words a heroine coolly speaks at the end of the opening sequence for CLOCKUP’s latest venture, Fraternité. Such a stark assertion is made at the beginning, resting on our mind upon seeing the multilated body of another, disturbingly offset by her euphoric expression. Gazing at such a spectacle we can’t help but wonder about that initial statement’s veracity. The OP proceeds to show its cast with childish red scribbles decorating necks and abdomens, hinting at hangings and eviscerations. Is it possible for them to be saved, unlike the girl we were first shown? Surely the quote is something its speaker will retract later on, with our protagonist having healed her. It’s what we naturally expect given the medium, for him to gallantly storm in on a white horse to save the leading heroine from whatever issues which bind her, solved just in time for the happy ending where they ride off into the sunset. All scars are healed as quickly and conveniently as possible (usually through an erotic scene or two, a life-affirming quote here or there), a vague sense of catharsis is offered, and we move onto the next work. It’s lucky we have Taichi then, the protagonist here who’ll no doubt save each of the girls including the one who claims that she “can’t be saved”.
We go into Fraternité holding these thoughts, placing the reader at Taichi’s level. This gives us food for thought from a meta approach: we choose the more positive choices, only for CLOCKUP to throw it back in our faces by the heroines being lead to their worst possible endings. Having Taichi talk to bullied girl Shion instead of ignoring her leaves them both dead – but not before Shion’s bullies get to her first, subjecting her to an unapologetically brutal torture sequence. Taichi going home instead of attending the club leaves him caught in a spiral of sexual depravity with both sisters, no way out in sight. The ‘better’ choice for student council president Saeko leaves her getting her kicks from a botched abortion where no gruesome detail is left spared. As we quickly come to learn in Fraternité, there are no princes. The reader is offered the illusion of salvation the same way Taichi is. Any attempts at intervening leave everyone involved arguably worse off, betraying our expectations in the cruelest of ways.
“I’ll prove that I can save you.”
– are the words Taichi stubbornly speaks at the end of the promotional video. But he does not possess the qualification to save anyone, and neither does the reader. Fraternité openly sneers at anyone holding such self-centered desires, punishing Taichi at every turn resulting in both of the people he cares most about in the world dead. As a run-of-the-mill teenager, the only thing he can do is forcibly pry open the door to each of the girl’s issues. Doing so arguably exacerbates each and every single one of them for as it stands, people in such situations need a third party who is absolutely impartial to speak to; this is not open for negotiation. Victims feel more comfortable speaking to someone they don’t know on a personal level, speaking to those who actually do possess the qualifications for they have been rigorously trained for years on end. It’s a given. Two of the most important things to keep in mind (which those in the industry are told practically the moment they enter) are to be nonjudgmental, and have a respect for boundaries. Taichi doesn’t take either on board. How could he?
What’s perhaps most indicative of this is when Mio actively seeks ‘treatment’ at the club only for Taichi to cast judgment on her, his tachie shown with a disapproving expression from her POV. He badgers her constantly, eventually coming to the conclusion that he’ll have to manipulate Mio in order to take her away from there. For much of Fraternité he makes no attempt at understanding any of the characters or their positions: the club is bad, what they’re doing is bad, so as the only good person there he’ll do all he can to take each and every one of them out of there. It’s his duty.
Later, he thinks incredibly debasing thoughts such as “even she’s just a woman” being with Megumi despite passionate promises of saving her made earlier. Having suffered through a painful childhood rife with abuse, Megumi’s body and mind are covered with scars which will perhaps never heal. Once this harrowing scene ends, Megumi asks is he satisfied. He has become just another one of her abusers, taking the one thing he perhaps truly wanted – the knowledge that as the prince of the tale, he has taken her away from the tower. Her being in pain or on the verge of throwing up mean little else in the greater scheme of things, for the white knight has gotten what he ‘deserves’. What’s telling about this horrific scene is that it’s shown automatically, with the reader having no choice in the matter. However, when loading up the scene again the option for treating her tenderly appears, offering us the most ‘tame’ carnal scene in Fraternité’s entirety. But considering each of their mentalities it is without a doubt one of the unhealthiest despite all the loving caresses and care being taken.
In that penultimate scene he tells Megumi over and over again how much he’ll save her, but once again, as Taichi lacks that experience he fails to grasp that treatment can’t be given unless the victim wants it. They need to actively engage, and Megumi is anything but willing. I’m currently trudging through Phillip K. Dick’s vexing pseudo-autobiography Valis, and its deranged protagonist Horselover Fat is cut from the same cloth Fraternité‘s is. He has a fetish for ‘saving’ those who are broken, such as a suicidal friend, Gloria. Gloria is introduced through phoning around friends asking for sleeping pills, as she plans to commit suicide. Horselover pretends he has them in order to get her to visit him, and a scene ensues where they sit on the beach. He then makes frenzied promises of saving her – later realizing that he has offered her “all the wrong reasons for living”, such as living with him. Of course, he dreams of having sex with her. She commits suicide not too long after. Later, he finds himself involved with a woman who has terminal cancer and you can imagine how that ends. But I digress.
As Taichi continues to attend the club and actively involves himself in the sex games taking place (ranging from anything to starring in an adult video of Saeko’s to partaking in NTR play with Akira and a client), we see him succumb to pleasure like everyone else has. A sense of ennui overtakes him, leaving him to only halfassedly think about saving people (Mio who, now?). Madoka’s relationship with Megumi serves as a foil for Taichi’s intentions towards his older sister. While busybody Madoka storms into the club with the seemingly noble notion of saving her friend, she leaves having tasted the forbidden fruit. It consumes her, and as her interest in masochism grows deeper the desire to save Megumi lessens. Taking frequent trips to the club, the otherwise honest Madoka lies to her best friend saying that she only just entered, whereas the reader will know she just finished being with a client. Madoka tricks herself into believing that what’s she doing is all for Megumi, that the more pain she receives the faster she’ll become an adult and be able to save her. Now, where have we heard that before?
Taichi doesn’t realize until the very end that all his procrastination has lead to nothing but destruction and sadness, that he never possessed the qualification for saving anyone in the first place. He futilely wishes to have tried harder with Mio before they moved, when she was still shut up in her room and unable to face the outside world. He even wishes to travel back to when Megumi was younger and save her from all the atrocities which would be committed against her. Unlike what I theorized in the trial, Fraternité contains no supernatural elements. There is no time travelling, and time can’t be stopped. The grains fall down the hourglass as the characters bury themselves further in the club in order to escape their hardships.
A member of note is Akira, the attractive second-in-command to steely student council president Saeko. The recipient of many a girl’s dreamy sighs, supposedly his friendship with Taichi is only permitted because he’s another man. As it turns out, Akira’s story is one of the more tragic presented in Fraternité, and will no doubt be the one that stays with the reader for what his masculine physique may otherwise belie, Akira’s heart is that of a woman’s. Once his secondary sexual characteristics grew during puberty, he couldn’t stop crying. However, he couldn’t tell a single soul about the turbulent emotions within: his parents would be devastated. His teachers would be taken aback, and his friends would take the piss out of him. The social stigma against transgender people is represented through his father, a politician with many enemies. Such enemies that would trample all over Akira’s heart without breaking a sweat, transforming his own life into a public circus. This leaves Akira unable to speak in his ‘real voice’ (using ‘私’ instead of ‘僕’), unable to smile with his ‘real face’.
However, Megumi exploits his kindhearted nature time and time again, culminating in his death in typical Fraternité fashion. In order for him to be reborn as a ‘real woman’, she tells him to chop off his genitals. This is not the first time such an order has been given, although for Megumi it is indeed the last (with her ordering Mio to kill Taichi gruesomely backfiring on her). Making money is what really matters here, as a chilling scene with Megumi and Saeko discussing the incident shows. Someone was willing to pay money for Akira’s penis. And Saeko? Akira may be her childhood friend, but what he went through amounted to little more than an “amusing spectacle” for her. They refer to Akira as ‘him’ throughout the whole scene, whereas Taichi at least refers to Akira as ‘her’ on several occasions, as do most club members. In that sense, perhaps we can’t blame Akira (or indeed, anyone else) for being drawn to the club.
Akira is just one of the many victims destroyed in the name of salvation. You do see more extreme examples, such as Shion completely going off the deep end after a single visit to the club. For her it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back however, having been subjected to bullying by a particularly nasty trio of girls who she may as well be an insect to. The school can’t really get involved considering the ringleader’s parents possess a relatively high social position, and most of the bullying takes place in the bathroom: a place where security cameras can’t be installed. Possessing a negative opinion of herself, Shion says to Saeko there’s no point blaming the bullies for what they do. Shion believes those are the cards she’s been dealt with, with it just being the star she was born under… That is, until Saeko ropes her into the club. It’s a downward spiral from there, resulting in the pair becoming the most unpredictable members for a spell (it’s also the most boring part). But in madness, as they say, comes wisdom which is proven spectacularly when she destroys the bullies by roping them into the club at the very end. When Taichi expresses his grievances, Saeko muses “wouldn’t it be better for her to be like this instead of being bullied?”. The hearts and souls of these people are exploited for monetary value, with the only real sense of retribution coming at the very end with Mio killing Megumi.
However, Fraternité does end with Megumi thanking him for treating her like a normal girl, so perhaps she may have finally been saved at the end. Likewise, Taichi hadn’t known the real her until then. He fell for the illusion she cast, the defenseless victim, a princess locked away in the high tower yearning to be saved. But Megumi has her own agency, proving to be one of the most resilient characters in Fraternité. When Taichi says he loves her over the phone, Megumi responds with ‘…and?’, and he continues babbling that he’ll save her. She cuts him off not too long after that. As much of a thoroughly reprehensible character as Megumi is, I have to admire her at the very least for what she represents. At the beginning I spoke of a meta approach to the work, and her berating Taichi about stroking his own ego weaves into this. There are no happy endings to be found, but this may indeed be the point. I personally don’t believe their fates were inevitable from a narrative viewpoint, but Saeko does say it’s just the cards they’ve been dealt. Joining the club doesn’t put anyone on a one way track to ‘salvation’ as Chiharu got out early. But a little more care could have been taken to channel the self-destructive behaviour down more positive streams. Perhaps, taking cases such as Shion, Mio, Yuka, and Akira’s into account, it indicates a failing in our society through its handling of victims.
As this is not a formal review, I’ll keep my grumbles to a minimum. Outside of Megumi, Saeko, and Akira none of the cast feels well developed. With the work being so short (ten ~ fifteen hours) and the cast being so large, exceptions have been made with regards to character development. As soon as you warm up to one character, another one is foisted upon you before you even have time to adjust. As a result, most of the cast is very one-dimensional including Taichi but given what he represents, allowances can be made. The POVs constantly shifts, and all the good karma he builds up during the trial (being relatively proactive and pragmatic, quickly figuring out things) vanishes, rendering him the dullest characters once the 20% or so of POV shifting finally ends. By that stage I completely lost interest in him. The pacing is atrocious, and the writing certainly doesn’t help. It’s very clinical and to the point, making Fraternité an incredibly dull read text-wise. The story holds no real surprises, the mastermind obvious from the very moment they’re introduced. The ‘reveal’ where we see her give a play-by-play account of events was a mostly irrelevant sequence, for what she was thinking is what the reader has already assumed she’d been thinking earlier. All Bambi eyes telling Madoka to leave the club when she was the one who tempted her; manipulating Taichi into not alerting the authorities and so much more.
Despite what I’ve otherwise mentioned in this post, Fraternité will be remembered for its controversial elements and little else: euphoria this ain’t. If you were to ask me in several months time what I remember about Fraternité , I’ll probably think of Akira, Madoka’s exceptionally painful drill scene (my toes still curl at the thought), and how uneven it felt. Several writers (and artists) were brought in at the eleventh hour, bringing the grand total of people in the writing department alone up to six. Which begs the question, why didn’t CLOCKUP just delay this for another month or two to deliver the best possible product they could? I would liked to have seen more work done from the meta approach as well, as there certainly was a lot of potential to be had. More development with the characters to not make them feel as only being there to add to the body count. Less of an emphasis on shock value, please. But, I don’t completely hate the work (gave it 58%, which is close to ‘decent’). Considering what it is, it handled its themes reasonably well. Just don’t anyone to feverishly praise this any time soon.