Short Cuts: Session 01
And now for something completely different.
Summer rolls around which means it’s finally time to get riled up over powerpoints again, pending inevitable laziness on your blogger’s behalf. When periods like this roll around I tend to opt for shorter titles first – some of which you’ll have heard of, some of which you’ll be hard pressed to see discussed at all. Throughout this series of posts I’ll briefly explore some of them. None of my usual tl;drs will be found here, they’ll be short cuts in every sense of the term. Much like how my trial impressions used to be. I may also discuss related media I’ve recently taken an interest in, but who knows?
For now, let us dust off ye olde bloge’s cobwebs and embark on an illustrious voyage armed with three titles I read recently: Otherwise’s Sense Off ~A Sacred Story in the Wind~ (2000), Leaf’s Shizuku (1996), and TopCat’s Hateshinaku Aoi, Kono Sora no Shita de… (2000).
Unless stated otherwise there will be no spoilers.
Sense Off ~A Sacred Story in the Wind~
Despite its reputation as a pioneer ‘sekai-kei’/セカイ系 work, Sense Off is not a title you will see someone casually mention in the western sphere any time soon (if ever). Considered to be a beloved work due to its historical roots coiling tightly around the susceptible reader’s heart, to this day its reputation is nothing short of rapturous, frequently gracing lofty EGS list heights alongside titles that would be considered the equivalent of household names where the medium is concerned. It is often mentioned alongside a cadre of writers who specialize in sad girls succumbing to sadder fates which is in itself suggestive about what type of work this is. But if you weren’t aware of that its premise certainly looks good on e-paper: a cast exhibiting irregular brainwaves find themselves taking up residence at a cognitive research facility, in turn establishing their own pseudo-society closed-off from the wider world. As they all draw closer together while getting to grips with their new lives, however, the reason behind their gathering remains shrouded in mystery…
You may wonder how something so apparently well-regarded could in turn be so obscure (don’t lie, I can practically see that question mark form above your head) just as I had. With my curiosity piqued I set about obtaining it, wondering had I perhaps stumbled upon a buried treasure; an SF epic waiting to be uncovered and proudly displayed to all.
Once boarded you’re fooled into thinking a reasonably affable ride lies ahead, the equivalent of mildly appreciating scenery that you whisk past on a long journey but forgotten about as soon as it’s processed. Despite Sense Off enticing the reader with promises of intrigue it isn’t long before it lapses into repetitious school life scenarios until the eleventh hour of your chosen heroine’s route. Only in this limited space does what you came for prove to be in any way relevant, exhibited through powers gone awry and key-lite vicissitudes as were fashionable around the time of release. To add insult to injury any remotely fascinating facets are glossed over, exasperatingly abstract references to this and that in a way that comes across as intentionally obtuse given the work’s simplicity and beyond the author’s ability. While this ambiguity is a frustrating thread weaved throughout it’s in the final route where you most want to go a-snippin’. The research facility is finally utilized but in true Sense Off fashion events come to a screeching halt as you’re left scratching your head and wondering what was the point of it all (closing with the catchy, albeit dated ‘birthday eve’ does little to quell your irritation). But that’s better than finding yourself muttering “what the fuck” upon seeing how abruptly the first route ends, cutting off as soon as it starts to get interesting.
Had the routes featured more than the bare minimum to ensure coherency, or if the heroines weren’t so anemic, I would not have minded as much. Yet I can’t help but wonder if these structural issues were part and parcel of an epoch that feels like another century where the medium is concerned. Today the average reader is no stranger to genre-shifts but if we were to perhaps flip the calendar all the way back to 2000 then changing course from middling s’life scenes to waifus in the midst of losing their lives may very well have been a considerably profound experience. An experience that would no doubt linger which is why its sisters Air and One enjoyed such widespread popularity in the midst of a post-Evangelion boom, posited through a dualistic backdrop eschewing the macrocosmic (impending tragedy and its intricacies) in favour of the microcosmic (protagonist’s relationship with the heroine). But putting it mildly, I would consider such a model to be my bête noire and unfortunately Sense Off is anything but the SF epic its synopsis may lead you to believe.
While it is to be commended for its deceptively sly presentation, I did enjoy Naruse and Shiiko’s routes to a degree. They were engaging, or at least as engaging as any route in a work such as this could be. Yet true to the post-Evangelion model they featured little to support tremulous attempts at bridging metaphysical and existentialist theories (e.g. what could the end of the world mean for an individual?), the narrative dulled where it ought to be amplified. It comes across as unfinished and the routes’ brevity do little to ease this impression, each taking an hour or so to read. Had these issues been rectified however, I could have grown to appreciate Sense Off despite finding this sub-genre unpleasant. In many ways it feels like a ‘you just had to be there’ phenomenon for its thematic elements pale in comparison to more ambitious works – but having said that, I can recognize that it must have been a comparably ambitious work through its broaching of scientific and mathematical concepts whereas others preferred to linger on the sad girls and sadder emotions above all.
Writer Motonaga Masaki is best known for Whitesoft’s Nekonade Distortion series. I personally enjoyed what little I read and have always planned on picking it up again, but those who have completed it advised me to steer clear. After seeing where Sense Off ended only now am I wondering if they have a point… But who knows what the future holds? After all, there’s a good decade between both works.
With our second title we go from obscure to what has been christened ‘the first visual novel’ (a somewhat misleading title as the concept of text adventures existed long before Leaf was a twinkle in the industry’s eye – but I digress). Shizuku‘s reputation precedes itself with those invested in this medium possessing some level of familiarity with it whether they are avid denpa fans or not – quite the influential title then, as you can very well imagine. As I found myself increasingly taken with the sub-genre I had built up this near-impenetrable image of what it could be like, scarcely able to imagine how electrifying the first denpa VN could have been… only for the singe I expected to be barely noticeable.
Shizuku does prove to be a disorientating work, but not for the reasons you would quite naturally expect. Its scenario could easily provide the basis for a bawdy straight-to-DVD affair which would only ever air on the most suspect channels, albeit lacking the lovingly crafted camp elements which render such works watchable. As the reader quickly comes to learn what ought to be an inherent oddness comes across as meandering and hollow, immersion disintegrating as soon as the supposed horrors unfold. The protagonist isn’t that much better, showcasing little evidence to convince the reader that his psyche merits discussion. It’s clear whenever Yuusuke swerves between reality and his dreamscape, the border as obvious as the villain’s introduction (who by the way, is a laugh-out-loud travesty, hamming it up for all their role’s worth and spouting classic lines such as “aren’t I the very picture of a villain right now?”).
Flashback sequences aside, given that the story’s entirety is reserved to a single in-game day there is little breathing room for details which aren’t directly connected to the core mystery, and this extends to the poorly implemented bishoujo elements. As a result Mizuho (The Meek One) and Saori (The Genki One) struggle to become anything more than what a few scenes depict them as. Perhaps it’s the pitfalls of the era once again making themselves apparent but when you consider that YU-NO was released a few months later you really can’t help but wonder if characterization of this level is good enough. As was the case with Sense Off, in a sense I find it difficult to assess Shizuku on its own merits given that my denpa criteria has been shaped by all that it inspired. Upon completion I expected to excitedly draw comparisons between all those titles I’ve read, in turn mapping out a genealogy of sorts. When it comes to ancestral works it is imperative not to expect much in terms of ingenuity, instead keeping a close eye on any possible seeds sown. However given that the unholy denpa trilogy spawned not too long after its debut I expected Shizuku to be a greatly nuanced work delving into all matter of psychological complexities regarding destabilization, as if we go even further back even Dogura Magura (1935) excels in such a deranged depiction even from its opening pages.
While Shizuku does prove to be an unrepentantly shallow affair for the most part, it nevertheless possesses moments of brilliance which evidently provided a framework for those later titles; seeds which others lovingly tended to, allowing them to flourish. I’d see otherwise innocuous statements and practically hear the gears in a writer’s head turn. I could easily imagine writers fervently debating the work, exclaiming “but ooooh, what if it had done that instead, or what if it went in this direction…”. While there are numerous topics which Shizuku barely scratches the surface of, I can see when our denpa enthusiasts reached down to those Stygian depths, in turn dredging up the psychological masterpieces we know the genre is more then capable of offering. Struggling with one’s subjective reality. Elements of depersonalization. Doing anything to feel alive again. Getting through to someone; empathizing. Denpa-chan on the roof with her waves.
Those moments of brilliance possess a subtle sheen even where the story itself is concerned, through rare reflective moments such as Yuusuke coming to terms with the possibility that everyone has opened that door to madness in attempting to deal with reality through indulging in their own possibly taboo ministrations. Likewise a conversation shared with Saori where they muse about what her friends are doing to cope with such turbulent emotions might just be Shizuku’s most unexpectedly affecting scene. Her ending also proved to be grounded in a manner which could have been stirring had it been substantially elaborated on. And of course, no Shizuku review would be complete without mentioning the godmother of denpa herself: Ruriko. Bathed in orange twilight, her infinitely enigmatic yet undeniably iconic rooftop scenes as she posits all matter of nonsense regarding waves are truly something to behold and almost made suffering through all the drudgery worth it. Almost. Watching her scenes is like watching history itself unravel and spin into countless glittering fragments which eventually take the form of your favourite denpa darling.
As an aside, Leaf released an updated version featuring all matter of bells and whistles in 2004, but I personally felt voices weren’t worth the trade-off for Minazuki Tooru’s designs so opted for the original release. I am also more partial to vintage bleep bloops.
(caution: contains spoilers)
Hateshinaku Aoi, Kono Sora no Shita de…
Unlike the previous titles my experience with atmospheric cult hit Aozora proved to thankfully be a more palatable affair. Where the western sphere is concerned it’s about as prolific as Sense Off, however Aozora differs greatly in that it is not to be underestimated (it even topped 2ch’s annual VN poll). I opened Kusarihime’s review by drawing attention to the body of work it unmistakably influenced, but as with any medium the rabbit hole is eternally deeper than one can ever anticipate and it is lamentable that a work of Aozora’s calibre is doomed to forever linger in the summer shade of all the small town mysteries it may have possibly inspired. Its premise lulls any prospective reader into a sense of false security with galge trappings and talks of making memories with a school on the verge of closure, but it may surprise you to learn that little time is spent within this environment. Instead the tale unfolds through a series of sequential snapshots by delving into the characters’ most vivid moments and experiences as the seasons change alongside their turbulent emotions. The trajectory of adolescence is by no means a systematic run-through, in turn imbuing the work with an element of sincerity which we can all certainly empathize with. When reflecting on the past we do tend to focus on key moments.
Aozora is a surprisingly multi-layered work which gradually shifts focus over the course of its narrative, impending developments escalating by the route. Beginning stages focus on an insular rural community struggling against the onslaught of modernization, unable to take a stand against an increasingly ruthless politician who has taken to ruling with an iron fist. His arrival marks a change, very much serving as a figurehead for the times-a-changin’ so is caricatured as such. Such a contrast conjures up an ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy to an almost cartoonish degree, all Saturday morning cartoon swagger as The Bad Guy practically coos about developing golf courses and similar amenities, turning their once peaceful village into a gaudy tourist resort. However there is an ominous undercurrent with local legends suggesting that chaos will ensue if the village’s balance is disrupted, and it isn’t long before a tale of cultural piety unravels as archaic ruinous powers come to light….
Given that we’re in the midst of お盆 it all makes for a seasonally-appropriate read; a frightful delight for sweltering summer eves as we see Masahashi learning about the dark secrets his village harbours, some of which of course, involve those closest to him. Naturally no rural mystery is worth its salt without atmosphere and this is an area where Aozora excels, unsettling through the implicit as opposed to cheap jump scares. Everything is handled with the grace and subtlety required, which does come as a relief especially when compared to more recent attempts at the genre. Moments such as Masahashi drawing-ever closer to something he can’t even begin to imagine, gazing down a well and seeing something gradually stir, hearing something he shouldn’t, going places which shouldn’t exist… As Aozora deals with the supernatural it shines through suffusing the narrative with dread; oppression tangible as it draws ever-closer to the realm which humans dare not tread. Horror roams free in a beautiful Ghibli-esque world gone slightly off-kilter.
It proves to be a richly cinematic experience, evoking a nostalgia for the pastoral landscape with its lush greenery and babbling brooks. Summer is depicted in all its rich verdure, autumn a kaleidoscope of ephemeral foliage, winter eerily still with snow-covered fields. To enhance its ambience the lush soundtrack spanning 37 pieces is used sparsely, instead opting for the countryside’s own soundtrack orchestrated by rain patters and distant bird tweets. These are all elements which add an element of credibility to the village’s bucolic quality, further serving as evidence towards building that ‘us vs. them’ schema. It could easily be a vehicle for arousing potential tourist interest, a notion which the OP appears to enthusiastically support through showcasing photographs of the locations Aozora is based on (presumed to be Nara’s Mitsue village). That much may lead you to thinking that maybe, just maybe things should stay as they are but despite its awe-inspiring scenery what we have here is a village set in its ways, on the verge of decline. Less and less people attend the summer festival every year and children are all but absent. If the villain wasn’t such a cartoonish figure, and if the residents had come to some kind of agreement, then perhaps we might have had a different story altogether…
Given the nature of the work, in a sense I found its obscurity a relief as I had little to no idea about what it would actually entail, diving in refreshingly free of spoilers. Despite crafting theories throughout, Aozora continuously took me by surprise through veering in unexpected directions, events escalating by the route. This extends to the skewed romantic elements, each of the heroines exhibiting traits which are in line with the sense of cognitive dissonance pervading the work. A heroine’s jealousy borders on obsessive and controlling as opposed to being a superficial character trait designed to appeal. Another character is shy and retiring but this has the potential to consume her entirely. As you can imagine Aozora is anything but your typical galge as unlike Sense Off this is a buried treasure well worth your time, especially if you’ve been craving more of Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni and Kusarihime‘s ilk.
(even the OP has that Ghibli vibe)
And there we have it. Until next time: same bad powerpoint time, same bad powerpoint channel.
*’Short Cuts’ shamelessly pilfered from Furuya Usamaru’s work of the same name.
(pls stop making my images blurry WordPress)