Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovebirds. To commemorate this wonderful day, I decided to replay a game I covered several years ago – the most romantic game I’ve ever played. As far as contemporary love stories go, you can throw Twilight in the trash, toss Fifty Shades in the woodchipper, dump all those grocery store romance novels in the landfill, and dissolve all those Hollywood romcoms in a vat of acid, because we have Saya no Uta.
Saya no Uta (translated as The Song of Saya by JAST, publisher of the official localization) is the creation of developer Nitroplus and writer Gen Urobuchi. If you’ve watched Madoka Magica, you might have a vague idea of what to expect from this visual novel. My original review of this game was spoiler-free, so if you want to check out Saya no Uta unspoiled, you can find it here. This new review of Saya is an analysis rather than a glossing-over like the first, and it contains major spoilers about the plot and the endings, so stop reading after the below image if you want to avoid those. Finally, the usual disclaimer that anyone has to tack on when talking about Saya: this game contains sexually explicit content and some extremely disturbing imagery and scenarios, so if your imagination is especially active or you’re just not interested in that sort of thing, you might want to stop reading and also avoid the game altogether.
My new playthrough of Saya no Uta several years after my first was very different. Not in terms of its content – Saya is a short VN, about five hours for a 100% run, and only features two branching option paths and three endings. It was rather different in terms of the response the game got out of me. If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already played Saya and know what it’s all about, but for those who haven’t and just don’t care about being spoiled on it, here’s a brief summary: our main character, medical student Fuminori Sakisaka, is nearly killed in an accident that claims the lives of both his parents and leaves him with a seemingly incurable condition that causes him to see all people, animals, and things in the world as mounds of horrible, stinking meat and flesh-beasts.
Fuminori is driven to the brink of suicide by his condition, but he unexpectedly finds hope when a girl appears at his hospital bedside. This girl, named Saya, claims to be secretly living in the hospital while looking for her missing father, a university professor. Fuminori clings to Saya, the only other being in the world who looks like a human to him, and promises to find her father if she agrees to live with him in his now-empty house in Tokyo upon his discharge from the hospital. Saya agrees, and they begin their life together while Fuminori does his best to return to his normal routine, struggling to hide his mental disorder from his friends and fellow med school students Kouji, Oumi, and Yoh, his doctor Ryouko Tanbo, and the rest of the world out of fear that he’ll be permanently institutionalized if they learn the truth. Meanwhile, Fuminori and Saya go beyond mere roommates and develop a romantic relationship (and a sexual one – this is most of the reason why Saya is an h-game.)
Since my last playthrough of Saya, I’ve tried out a little fiction writing, and despite being a total hack I do have some opinions about what makes for good and bad storytelling. One of the hallmarks of bad writing, in my opinion, is going for shock value with no purpose or goal beyond offending the sensibilities of the reader.
Saya contains a lot of shocking content. The most immediately obvious is Fuminori’s relationship with Saya, who is apparently not much more than a kid (of course, she’s really not a kid, or even a human, but we don’t know that until the game starts to drop hints about Saya’s true nature halfway through the story.) In the course of trying to protect his life with Saya, Fuminori also commits kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.
Even more horrific are some of the acts that Saya commits, however. Her true form, or her form as the rest of the world aside from Fuminori sees it, is a monstrous mass of flesh and guts, just the sort of creature that Fuminori sees all other humans as. When Saya first meets Fuminori in his hospital room, she shows up intending merely to scare him – just the sort of innocent prank a kid might try to play on someone, and she’s surprised when Fuminori sees her as a human being instead of the eldritch abomination she really is. Throughout the game, as Saya and Fuminori grow more emotionally attached to each other, Saya starts to commit far more atrocious acts.
While Fuminori tries to protect Saya from the outside world, Saya also does her best to protect Fuminori. Collectively, the pair end up killing one of Fuminori’s former friends and attempting to kill another when they try to investigate his new life. The third ends up suffering a fate even worse than death at Saya’s hands. Saya, after conducting a few experiments on the neighbors, discovers that she can rewire human brains to see the world as Fuminori does and even convert humans into creatures like her that Fuminori sees as human, molding and mutating them to compensate for his mental disorder. The results of these experiments are completely horrific and lead to what I and probably most other people would consider the most disturbing scenes in the game.
Even though all of this content is shocking, though, none of it is gratuitous. While playing Saya, I never had the sense that Urobuchi was writing a scene merely to turn my stomach. Every one of the terrible acts Fuminori and Saya commit make sense to them, and every one serves the purpose of plot or character development or both. However, while we can understand why Fuminori and Saya do what they do, we can’t forgive them. At key points in the story, Saya no Uta shifts the player’s perspective away from Fuminori to his friends and his doctor.
When the game puts us in the minds of Tanbo, Kouji, Yoh, Oumi, and humans other than Fuminori, we see the world as it truly is, and we see Fuminori as the rest of the world sees him – a man who avoids his former friends and snaps at them when they try to approach him, who lives in a house with overgrown grass and weeds in the front yard, whose house stinks to high heaven with the smell of rotten meat, and who happily lives and mates with a flesh-monster that hunts and kills other humans. Fuminori is the protagonist of Saya no Uta, but there’s no doubt that both he and Saya are the villains of this story. They pose an extreme threat to everyone living around them, especially Saya, whose abilities to mutate human minds and bodies are constantly growing. Which is why, when Kouji decides to try to kill Fuminori (either with or without Tanbo’s help – one of the two branching paths in the game) I can completely get behind his decision, even if I feel some sympathy for Fuminori.
Which is why it’s so strange that the objectively best ending of the game is so god damn depressing. In one of the three available routes, Dr. Tanbo and Kouji, Fuminori’s former best friend and lover of Oumi, one of Saya’s victims, confront Fuminori and Saya. Tanbo manages to inflict a fatal wound upon Saya by splashing her with liquid nitrogen, and Fuminori, in a rage, kills Tanbo with an axe and then turns the axe on himself in despair after seeing that Saya is dying. Kouji survives the ordeal but goes insane, and it’s implied that he later commits suicide. I know this doesn’t sound like a traditional good ending, but aside from these four, Oumi, Yoh, and a few other of Saya’s human victims, the world is saved from disaster. (The ending that most people consider the “true ending” involves Saya dying after sprouting a set of wing-like protrusions that multiply into countless seeds that spread throughout the world, turning humans into Saya-like creatures, which was what drove her instinct to consume Fuminori’s, uh, essence – something Saya herself doesn’t seem to realize until this moment.) Still, it doesn’t feel good watching these events play out, because we’re watching characters we’ve been with the whole game meet their ends.
None of them are completely unsympathetic, either – not even the villains. Fuminori has completely discarded his humanity by the game’s third act, effectively becoming a predatory creature like Saya who lives on raw animal (and human) flesh, but it’s clear that his mental condition drove him to that point, even if he did eventually make the conscious decision to arrive there. Even Saya remains pure in some sense, because everything she does is meant to please and help Fuminori. As we learn near the end of the game, Saya seems not to have even made a conscious decision to come to our planet (or our universe – it’s not clear whether she’s a standard alien or an extra-dimensional being, though I’m leaning towards the latter.)
And that’s why Saya no Uta is a great romance. The acts that Fuminori and Saya commit in the course of the story are unforgivable and unjustifiable, but none of them are gratuitous in the context of the story, because they’re motivated by the pair’s unnatural love for each other, and Urobuchi writes their love in a way that we can believe and understand.
Damn, I did not intend to write that much about Saya no Uta. But I couldn’t really help it. This game made me feel things, and that’s not very common considering how cynical and emotionally locked up I am. Since I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the writing in Saya, it would be unfair not to mention the game’s beautiful art (even though a lot of it’s meant to be ugly) and its atmospheric soundtrack. Saya is still one of my favorite visual novels, though I absolutely would not recommend it to some, or even most, considering its mix of Lovecraftian horror and sexual content. Even though it contains a lot of explicit content, however, I don’t consider Saya to really be an h-game. Yes, it has sex scenes, but even those scenes move the game’s plot and character development – and they’re clearly not meant for that purpose. At least, it’s hard to imagine the sort of person who would be aroused by anything in Saya. I’m sure such a person exists in the world, and I hope I never meet them.
One more note about Saya: in 2010, IDW released a three-volume comic book adaptation of the game titled Song of Saya. It apparently put the story through the bowdlerization machine. Saya now looks like a woman in her 20s, which is understandable considering the trouble IDW might have gotten into if they’d tried to depict Saya as she is in the original work. But I’ve heard that the writers made a lot of other changes that were not even remotely necessary and that it just sucks in general. I have a weird fascination with shitty media and bad adaptations, though, so if I ever come across these Song of Saya comics in a bin somewhere for a few dollars I’ll probably check them out just for the hell of it and let you know what I think. I haven’t read this thing, so maybe I’m being unfair.
Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day once again, if you’re still in the mood for romance after reading all that. I’ll be sitting at home working. Love is nice, but money is better. I guess I really am a cynic at heart.