Visual Novel Theatre: Narcissu

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Narcissu has been on my list forever, and I just haven’t wanted to experience it.  Which is an oddity for me.  I love fiction, I enjoy visual novels, and I enjoy thought-provoking works, all of which, by reputation at least, Narcissu fits.  But I didn’t want to read it.  I didn’t want to deal with this.  I know the subject matter it covers, and it’s not something I’ve historically done well with.  Sure, you might look down on me for it, for letting myself get so cowed by such a simple, universal subject.  You might call me names, like wuss, and coward, and gorgeous.  And I might deserve them.  Especially that last one.  But the topic at the core of Narcissu is one that I’ve not handled well over the course of my life, one that regularly cuts through the cold, chiseled, manly outer shell into the tender emotional heart underneath.

Narcissu is about dying.  Slowly, inevitably, dying.

Narcissu’s reputation ensured I was interested, but its subject ensured I needed to be in the right mindset for it.  And so it remained in limbo for a long, long while, until now.  I’m coming off of one of the worst months I’ve had the displeasure of living through, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s all it took to finally tip the scales and get me to do this thing.

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Narcissu is a Japanese-based visual novel written by Tomo Kataoka, an experienced visual novel creator whose works have almost never left Japan so you’d really have almost no reason to know who he is outside of this entry.  It comes in two parts, both of which we’ll be covering here: Narcissu and Narcissu Side 2nd, of which each tells a self-contained but related story and both of which have been given officially endorsed fan translations.  It’s available for free on Steam here or for regular download here for those who would rather not have DRM in their freeware, fan-translated, absolutely-no-strings-attached visual novel.

Both entries in Narcissu largely start from the same place.  You’re behind the eyes of a young Japanese person who’s been struggling their entire life with an unnamed terminal circulatory disease, probably Dramatitus or something like that.  The opening lines of the novel tie your protagonist pretty firmly with the local hospital, where they become particularly well-acquainted with the 7th floor, the hospice, the end-of-life care center.  Your protagonist makes friends, of a sort, with one of the residents there, and become acquainted to the rules of that place.  Namely, once you’re admitted there, there’s no getting better, and though you may recover enough to go home for a while, you will eventually be readmitted to the hospice, and you will not live long enough to make it to a fourth stay.  Together, you journey, with your friend dealing with the issues they’re facing near the end of their life.

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Narcissu, that is, the first part of this duology, puts you in the shoes of a nameless, featureless, faceless young man who is admitted to the 7th floor hospice after losing your lifetime battle with your illness.  There, you meet Setsumi, a quiet, reserved girl just a bit older than you.  Over the course of weeks, you get to know each other.  Eventually, your condition stabilizes enough that you’re released to your home, but rather than heading back to spend time with your family, on a whim you steal your dad’s car and escape with Setsumi.  You’ve got no real plan, and while Setsumi has ideas, she’s so closed-off that she’s really not forthcoming with them.  You travel simply for the sake of travelling for a while, stealing what you need as you go, before you work out enough hints from Setsumi to get together a goal.  After you figure out what she really wants, you and Setsumi begin searching Japan for a flower, the narcissus, or daffodil, that gives this visual novel its name.

Side 2nd is a prequel, taking place around seven years before the first part.  You spend most of the time in Setsumi’s head, before she found herself consigned to the seventh floor hospice and was just a long-term outpatient.  Her family is just now shifting and changing their life to accommodate her illness and unique needs, and are absolutely ecstatic when she makes a friend.  The catch?  That friend is Himeko, a resident of the seventh floor hospice.  Himeko, who has by all outward appearances cast of everything, faith, family, friends, from her old life, pretty much takes the shy, quiet Setsumi under her wing.  Setsumi begins visiting daily, at Himeko’s request, and Himeko starts taking the younger girl on small outings as she checks off a list of the ten things she wants to do before she dies.

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Both sides of Narcissu are very much an experiment in using minimalism as part of the visual novel craft.  This is most obviously apparent through the presentation.  Visuals are limited to pretty basic backgrounds, and you barely see your characters at all, while the music is simple and understated, and the game limits itself to using 1-3 lines of text at a time.  This extends to the plot itself, as you get barely any characterization, and events follow a pretty simple structure and progression.  Each game only has two main characters, maintains few moving parts, and has little in the way of big splash screens or special effects.  The second game opens up a bit, incorporating a few side characters, having two intertwined plotlines, and featuring a notable animation and songs, but even so, compared to other visual novels, it’s a pretty bare bones tale.  By word of the author, this is all very deliberate, both to evoke imagination in the reader to fill in the gaps and to play with the medium a bit.

It is very easy to do minimalism poorly.  When you’re creating an experience without a lot in it, well, sometimes it can be hard to fit all the pieces together.  Minimalism lays your story bare, and to be successful, you need to have something to shine through.  Hard to put together when you’re trying to use as little content as possible.  And Narcissu does have some missteps I implementing its minimalism, mostly in the first part, as the author seems a lot more comfortable with the form in the second.  But the minimalism does allow the work’s themes to shine through, in such a beautiful way.  I was never engaged by the story, nor was I really entertained, but the theming was so powerful, because of that minimalism, and that’s what truly stuck with me.  These tales work on a high, concept-level more than anything else, are more as a whole story than as the sum of its events.  More than anything else, the first part of Narcissu is a tale of finally taking control after a lifetime without it, of facing inevitability, of death and suicide, of disregarding the structures of society when it has nothing for you.  And the beauty of Narcissu Side 2nd is almost entirely in its treatment of themes.  The story is self-contained, but in no way separate from the first game, and the connections are largely through its themes.  The themes in Side 2nd serve as a counterpart to those in the first part.  Where the first part is about looking ahead and finding nothing, the second part is about finding solace in re-living the past.  Where the first deals with coming to an end, the second deals with cycles.  Where the first covers the progression into hopeless situations, the second is about faith in adversity.  The theming in Side 2nd is such that, though the plot itself may be fully experienced enjoyed on its own, you will never get a complete picture without also going through the first part.  In fact, it’s one of the few works that retroactively makes its predecessor better, and it does so entirely through its treatment of themes.  The themes in both parts of Narcissu are so powerful, and come through so clearly, that I fear I’m not a skilled enough writer to properly discuss them in this review.

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And so, moving on.  I was worried this was going to be a depressing work.  It wasn’t.  Not for me, at least.  Others on the internet have reported different experiences.  I never connected with the characters to quite emphasize with the crappy situations they were going through.  Going by the author’s notes, this was by design.  I did, however, find it very thought-provoking.  I had finished it up shortly before heading to sleep, and it had kept me up in my hotel bed for hours, thinking through the content it provided.  Which is a truly strong showing for a work as minimal as this.

You have to be willing to read into it to get anything out of it, though.  This isn’t a story you can really enjoy casually.  In his notes, Kataoka had mentioned he was trying to create a work that was really subject to the whole Death of the Author deal, where it’s all about the reader filling in the gaps and interpreting the story as makes sense to them, individually.  I think he may have gone a little too far that direction, particularly in the first part, where it can start to feel less open to interpretation and more clueless and deliberately obtuse.  Some odd writing on the part of either the authors or the translators doesn’t help either.  However, there is enough there that if you’re willing to work at it, you’ll probably be able to draw something meaningful out of this work.  I certainly did.

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5 responses to “Visual Novel Theatre: Narcissu

    • That’s the exact position I was in. It wasn’t nearly as dour as I feared, but it’s still a bit of a bummer. You definitely have to be in the right mood for this.

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