As was the case with my first Short Cuts session, future reviews will be shorter in nature unless I feel that a title warrants substantial elaboration.
Spoilers beyond the cut lie for CLOCKUP’s latest venture, Natsu no Kusari.
While valiant attempts have been made at rendering visual novels more accessible in the western sphere, it feels as if they will be eternally branded as sexually depraved novelties, scarcely worth more than a few dollars on Steam. No matter how immersive the scenario is, no matter how long has been spent ensuring a memorable experience that will no doubt linger for years to come, what appears to matter most for the general audience is whether or not it contains sexual content. Merely glance at any VN-related Steam forum and see people crying out for 18+ patches, even for titles that were all-ages to begin with. Such is the general consensus of what VNs are. True to this frustrating label I’ve been having difficulty recommending lavish gothic horror Fata Morgana no Yakata (2012) to those not already invested in the medium, mostly due to the pervasive belief that VNs are poorly written vehicles for salacious content to somehow get past the radar. On the other side of the spectrum, even if a work contains thematic elements I know someone would be interested in, the extreme content therein makes them gingerly take a step back.
Well, that I can understand.
Ostensibly perceived by the wider community as decadent fetish-fuelled spectacles, CLOCKUP’s oeuvre intrinsically blend psychosexual elements with personal growth in a manner rarely accomplished within this medium. I had been contemplating picking up one of their more recent ventures Natsu no Kusari (2016) due to the rave reviews it had been receiving, but COOL-B nominating it for September’s choice bishoujoge spurred me on to finally giving it a try. This is by no means an unusual inclusion despite the magazine having earned its crust delving into the latest BL releases, having previously highlighted Sakurai Hikaru’s beloved Steampunk Series, Fata Morgana, Kara no Shoujo (2008) and many more magnificent titles with cross-gender appeal. The feature casts light on works which the community as a whole deserves to read. You may nevertheless wonder how a brief nukige would be subjected to such a glowing recommendation, but despite the salacious label that is often affixed on the company CLOCKUP are not to be underestimated with Natsu ultimately proving to be an affecting exploration of adolescence in all its turbulence, a stunning inversion of the material Aku no Hana (2009) dealt with. Natsu tellingly opens with the arrival of summer, yet what ought to be a season filled with warmth and sunshine is instead dull and overcast, a typhoon looming. Pathetic fallacy may be one of the oldest tricks in the book but here it rather suggestively sets a precedent for all that ensues. What ought to be an ephemeral period is irreversibly tainted, summer’s shining tones dulled by a harsh reality.
The narrative spares no details in portraying Shinichi’s desolation with him ruminating on how difficult it has become to enjoy life’s daily pleasantries; an existence as tellingly overcast as the sky Natsu opens with. Our anti-hero once believed that he would surely grow out of these feelings once particular turning points rolled around but of course, he never did. He didn’t change this year, he most likely won’t next year, and so this vicious self-deprecatory cycle persists. A bleak future lies in store yet he nevertheless desires nothing more than to paint over what he considers to be a profound greyness with the most vivid tones. Young as he is and unsure of how to deal with all this he takes matters into his own hands through devising a highly unsettling scheme – he’ll take a girl captive. Anyone will apparently do, but as we tragically come to realize this could not be further from the truth. As you can certainly imagine through merely taking a cursory glance at the synopsis Natsu‘s material is intense, written in a restless manner; atmospheric score and semi-realistic backgrounds doing little to ease the perpetual unease which pervades every line, every commentary. Its silence is stifling, with the first time a character speaks roughly fifteen minutes in. It nails those unsettling moments throughout, the closed space of the shelter serving as a physical representation of Shinichi’s psyche boxing him in alongside the narrow expectations he’s placed on the work’s only other character… Shirai Mitsuki.
Director Akutsu Ryou mused that despite Natsu appearing to be an otherwise conventional nukige, the narrative possesses a wistful element as to how it depicts youthful regrets and indiscretions. Indeed, there is a near-ineffable poignancy pervading Shinji’s growth (or lack thereof), tangible longing which manifests in all that he doesn’t mention let alone acknowledge. Flashbacks interspersed throughout delve into a one-sided connection, suggesting that an Aku no Hana-esque travesty may have unfolded through Mitsuki encountering Shinichi in a compromising position, but this is anything but your typical coming-of-age story. The reality is that they were merely classmates and no convenient twist would ever alter that. Shinichi doesn’t exist in Mitsuki’s world despite her eternally lurking on the fringes of his. She doesn’t know his name. He asserts that this serves as a convenient reason for her to be swept up in his scheme but he is an unreliable narrator, evidently bothered by the distance. He is starved for connection, enamoured by this girl that once passed him in the hallway every so often. Yet due to his unassertive nature and depressive mindset he subconsciously places her at arm’s length, upon a pedestal to be feared and revered. It is certainly telling that the character ‘白’ appears in Mitsuki’s surname for the girl who ought to be the main heroine instead serves as a tabula rasa for Shinichi to project his desires onto. He believes that she is who will be able to transform his grey existence. Everything hinges on her.
This is an incredibly destructive approach to interpersonal relationships, and it’s one that the story refuses to indulge. The cold reality for Shinichi is that he has never gotten through to Mitsuki and never will due to lack of effort on his behalf. There is a somewhat desolate element to the tale as this is a fact which persists through Natsu despite what even the seemingly mutual endings portray. They are doomed to be strangers passing each other in life. A conversation about photographs wistfully suggests a plausible connection, a shared ground, which never materializes due to his nature. Shinichi quietly wondering was Mitsuki always that kind of person is perhaps the most bleak reflection in the work’s entirety, incredibly cathartic considering everything that they went (or could have went) through. There is no simplistic resolution to be found, no girlish romantic ending which allows them to rekindle a possible relationship based on a chance meeting one summer. And so Shinichi resigns himself to that, forever living in the grey realm. With him finally achieving closure however, depending on your interpretation he may finally strive towards taking control of his life and developing a healthy approach to interpersonal relationships.
While the erotic content may be intrinsically tied to the story’s core, it is never once romanticized and even the more reciprocal moments are portrayed as nothing but unsettling. Unlike other titles that veer in similar frustrating directions not once does Mitsuki fall for Shinichi, not once does he adoringly confess all that he feels. Once he is in a position of guilt-induced weakness she is finally able to assert her agency and shatter his self-serving illusion, irreversibly snipping the ties which he desperately wanted to sustain for all eternity. Through a magnificent scene which channels spiritual predecessor Fraternité (2014), Mitsuki comments that despite all the time they spent together he never once understood her. Never would, never will. Although the situations may differ what ensues is comparable to how Taichi felt compelled to save Megumi despite knowing nothing about who she truly was, projecting his saviour complex onto the fragile disposition she meticulously crafted. As Fraternité provided a commentary of sorts on society’s failing of victims within abusive situations and those struggling, Natsu skirts around the mass media and its propensity for victim blaming; Shinichi positing how Mitsuki’s nearest and dearest would react if they were to learn what transpired during that dark, dark summer – her career as a violinist would be over before it even began. She may be dead to the world, but her return to the land of the living would be sustained for society would ensure that she nevertheless stays dead in a sense. It is an incredibly damning and abusive moment, one of the starkest conversations throughout Natsu’s entirety.
One ending features a surreal yet haunting image of a grand yard filled with shriveled sunflowers, paralleling the loss of innocence and morality which is certainly suggestive of the type of work Natsu no Kusari proved to be. Despite its brevity what you will encounter is a highly unnerving tale which packs a wealth of reflective material into what many are of the impression is a mere nukige. More than anything, its scenario reminded me of an arthouse film that you would only ever hear spoken of in hushed tones, very much the sort of thing you would happily recommend to anyone interested in similar thematic elements if not for the extreme content therein. If you are able to stomach that however, you will find a deeply immersive and distressing tale of wasted youth, interpersonal struggles, and everything in between.
CLOCKUP once again splendidly prove that they are not a company to be underestimated.