A review of Our World Is Ended. (PC)

Our World Is Ended is an all-ages Japanese visual novel localized and released early this year on PS4 and Switch and more recently on PC through Steam.  Yes, the period you see in the title above is officially part of the title, though I won’t be including it because it makes writing about the game grammatically awkward.  If that title looks awkward to you even without the weird punctuation, there is a plot reason why the title has an “is” instead of a “has” as you’d normally expect, so I’ll let that go.

This is also a traditional visual novel, which means there’s no real gameplay outside of reading text and dialogue and making choices based on branching dialogue options.  Since most of what I have to say about Our World Is Ended has to do with the plot and characters, then, this review is going to feature some plot and character spoilers. The very short spoiler-free version of my review is that this is a good game that’s aimed at a very particular audience (as far as the western market goes, that means hardcore weebs and basically no one else) so if you’re not among those ranks, you might not care for it at all. You might even hate it, in fact. Most of the mainstream reviewers who bothered to write about Our World Is Ended seem to either dislike or despise it, but more on that later. For now, let’s start the review proper.

Just another day on the job.

Our protagonist Reiji (the guy wearing the helmet above) is a bright-eyed college freshman working as a part-time “Assisting Director” at Judgement 7, a small game development studio.  Reiji is a pretty normal guy.  Extremely normal, in fact.  So normal that the other members of Judgment 7 find it remarkable just how plain his tastes, hobbies, and general demeanor are.  Then again, Judgment 7 is otherwise staffed by people who are as far from normal as possible.  They include:

  • Founder and president Sekai Owari, a genius programmer who is also a massive pervert, albeit a “clean and harmless” one (according to him, anyway)
  • Scenario-writer Iruka No. 2, a man who always wears sunglasses and a fedora and lives in a fantasy world of his own creation, speaking mainly in arcane game lore, bizarre screams, and shouted spell names he makes up on the spot
  • Artist and character designer Natsumi Yuki, a moody goth girl who calls herself the Dark Angel of Chaos and claims she doesn’t need friends
  • BGM composer and sound director Asano Hayase, a tomboyish woman who punches people, drinks a lot of beer, and usually ends up the butt of everyone else’s jokes because of her relatively flat chest, poor cooking skills, and tone-deaf singing voice
  • Asano’s younger sister and Reiji’s fellow part-timer Yuno Hayase, a cheerful, airheaded high school-aged girl whose employment at this company is probably breaking some labor laws
  • And assistant programmer Tatiana Alexandrovna Sharapova, a Russian child prodigy with a doctorate who throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way and whose employment at this company is definitely breaking some labor laws.

Somehow this lot, which has so far only succeeded at publishing games that people mostly either hate or ignore, has succeeded at creating a virtual reality headset that can convert the wearer’s view of the real world into a virtual world where he can do all kinds of things he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.  Things like laying new graphics over existing surfaces and putting different sets of clothes on people without their knowledge.  Because president and chief programmer Owari is a pervert, so of course it can do that.

The future is now, and it looks like this.

When the assembled Judgment 7 crew tries out the headsets all together early on in the game at their company headquarters, however, the helmets seemingly malfunction and the whole cast ends up getting trapped in a closed-off looping bizarro world version of the Asakusa district of Tokyo that they can’t escape.  Even more strangely, it’s inhabited not by other humans, but rather by NPCs and monsters from previous games they’ve made.  They finally manage to make it back into the real world, but Owari is determined to learn more about this strange new world, and the team puts the development of their new game on hold to investigate the phenomenon.  Meanwhile, Reiji is mystified by the appearance in both the virtual and real worlds of “Girl A”, a mysterious girl who seems to know something about the new world that Judgment 7 has discovered and who has special powers within that world.

As the team continues to dive into the virtual Asakusa, agents in dark suits and sunglasses begin to show up in both the real and virtual worlds to track and chase after them.  Judgment 7 soon realizes that their new world has somehow merged with Akashic, another VR project run by Riken North, a private facility where Tatiana’s father Yuri is a lead researcher.  It eventually emerges that Riken North and Lab 13, an associated rogue research group, are building Akashic as the first step in a larger plan to create a virtual world that the rich and powerful can use both to live forever in virtual form and to control the real world.  And when the Akashic project gets out of control and unexpectedly ends up threatening Tokyo and its residents with total destruction, the misfit members of Judgment 7 are the only ones who can stop it.

Get all that?  Also: script errors.

The first aspect of Our World Is Ended that really attracted me was the art.  The character portraits and event CGs are really nice, and the characters are very expressive a real plus for a VN, in which you’ll be spending most of your time staring at the same characters for dozens of hours while they talk to each other.  I have to praise the background music as well; every piece is at least serviceable and some of them are pretty memorable.  A couple of tracks remind me of Shinji Hosoe’s work on the Zero Escape series, and a few of the usual VN everyday slice-of-life tracks would make for excellent waiting room music (and that is a compliment just because waiting room music usually blows doesn’t mean it has to.  There’s nothing wrong with some nice easy listening sometimes.  Or am I just getting old?) The voice acting is also fantastic.  Every VA does a great job, especially Eri Kitamura, who has to play Asano both sober and drunk on top of singing purposely off-key karaoke several times (Asano’s bad singing comes up a lot and is even weaponized to fight enemies a few times.)  I also have great respect for Iruka’s VA, whose throat probably went dry after having to generate weird screams from it so many times.  There’s no English dub, though, so if reading subtitles is a dealbreaker, this game isn’t for you.

It’s also worth mentioning that much of Our World Is Ended takes place in a setting modeled after the real-life Asakusa.  The famous Senso-ji Buddhist temple is prominently featured in the game, and the various locales that the crew frequents throughout are also real if the ending credits thanking those businesses are any indication.  Seems like Our World Is Ended is doubling as an Asakusa tourist guide, something like Akiba’s Trip was for Akihabara.  Pretty convenient if you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, isn’t it?  Well, not that playing this would help with your trip that much, but it’s still interesting to know some of the places in this game are based on real locales.

That’s Kaminarimon in the background, one of Tokyo’s landmarks. It shows up in quite a few other games as well.

However, all that’s just the icing on the cake.  The real substance of a visual novel is in the story.  When it comes to other kinds of games, you might be able to forgive an average or even a poorly-written plot and boring stock characters if the gameplay is fun.  But with a VN, if your story is garbage, your game is garbage.  So is Our World Is Ended garbage?

The short answer is no. It’s not the best VN I’ve ever read, and it wouldn’t even make my top ten list, but it is good.  However, I have a few qualifications to attach to my recommendation that I’ll get into below, along with an explanation of why I think the western critical reception of this game has been so poor and why I mostly disagree with their assessments of it.

Did I drink beer while the Sun was out last weekend while finishing this game? The answer is yes.

If you look this game up on Google, you’ll find it has lousy Metacritic ratings, ranging from the 40s to the 50s as of this writing depending upon which version you’re looking at. As I see it, there are a few reasons for these low scores. First, this is a visual novel, and a straight up no-apologies visual novel at that. Almost no frills, bells or whistles, no puzzles or point-and-click exploration sections or drink-mixing minigames to be found here. The closest thing Our World Is Ended has to a gameplay mechanic, “Selection of Soul”, is really just a jazzed-up version of the usual branching dialogue choice in which the choices scroll across the screen, forcing you to make a snap decision.  It’s a novel addition, but it’s not enough for the game to disguise itself as anything other than a VN.  And unfortunately, visual novels still seem to be a hard sell in the West even to the typical “hardcore gamer” set, leaving that good old core weeb audience I mentioned above, which tends to have tastes that run a bit counter to the mainstream. That’s especially true of this game about a small-time Japanese game developer that’s been translated into English.

One of many Selection of Soul sequences in the game. Making a lunch order has never been so stressful

Second, these reviewers seem to have expected something different out of Our World Is Ended from what they got. From reading their reviews, it looks like they expected a capital-S Serious story about the dangers of virtual reality and of advanced technology in general and how their use and abuse might affect everyday life. While Our World Is Ended does touch on those issues, the plot when taken on its own is pretty thin compared to what you can find in stuff like Steins;Gate and the Zero Escape series.  No, the real meat of the game is rather in its diversely strange cast of characters and their relationships with each other and with Reiji in particular. It also doesn’t take itself very seriously, because it’s essentially a dating sim wrapped in a sci-fi drama casing (yes, complete with romantic endings with the ladies* and joke endings with the guys based on Reiji’s dialogue choices.)

Finally, most of these reviewers take issue with the game’s script, specifically with all its sex jokes. This ties in with the above complaint, the idea being that all the lewd stuff drags the game down into the realm of mere fanservice. You might have guessed at this point that I have no problem with the fanservicey aspects of the game, but not just because I’m a fucking weirdo (well, I am, but that’s beside the point here.) Part of it has to do with the game’s unusual structure. Instead of having the typical rising action/climax/denouement setup you might expect, Our World Is Ended is layered like a lasagna.  Only instead of strips of pasta and meat/cheese, the ingredients are “sci-fi apocalypse hacker drama” and “wacky summer sex comedy”.  So as you play, you have some of one, then some of the other Reiji and co. have their lives imperiled in the virtual world of Akashic, and right after getting out of that jam they have a rooftop barbecue/visit a nearby bathhouse/take a vacation at a seaside inn with all the hijinks you’d expect, then they return to Akashic and almost die again in a different manner than they almost died last time, and this pattern continues almost to the very end of the game.  The result is that if you don’t like one of these two ingredients, you won’t like the game, because the two can’t be separated.  You know, just like a lasagna.

Owari hits on an NPC he programmed in virtual Asakusa. Bonus Japanese lesson: the 変態 on Owari’s shirt are the kanji for “hentai”. Dude is such a pervert he wears a shirt that says “PERVERT” on it. Also, please don’t ask why I know this word but barely any of the others.

This might make it sound like the game has a problem with wild tonal shifts, but it really doesn’t, because none of the more lighthearted scenes feel shoehorned in. Although the members of Judgment 7 all have exaggerated quirks, they’re written well enough that they always act consistent with those quirks and in ways that make sense to them, and considering the shit the crew goes through, it makes sense for all of them to go on a vacation or have a party to let loose.  And while some players will certainly be put off by the boob jokes and the ogling at the girls in their swimsuits at the beach and all the typical anime-flavored fanservice, the fact that this game is at least half sex comedy isn’t a bad thing in itself. Not every game has to be completely stone-faced and serious, and not every game has to be PG-rated (though it bears repeating that it’s not R-rated either being an all-ages game on Steam, it doesn’t have anything even approaching a sex scene.)

However, Reiji does get into about five dozen of these kinds of misunderstandings that only exist in anime/manga/visual novel series.

That’s not to say Our World Is Ended is perfect. When this game gets hold of a running joke, it keeps it running until the joke is exhausted and dry heaving on the side of the track. Asano gets a raw deal in this respect, receiving constant jabs about her “saddening” nature and her small bust, one of which she can’t help, and as for the other, I don’t see anything wrong with pounding a few beers and singing karaoke alone. These and a few other jokes get pretty damn worn out before the game ends. The writers also pull the “you think you and/or your friends are being killed by the bad guys, but it was really just a simulation within a simulation and you’re fine” trick a few times, which is annoying because that’s a trick that only works once.  The first time it happens in the game, it’s impactful as hell.  The rest of the times not so much, because you know it’s a trick at that point. And though I maintain that this game doesn’t have a tone problem, some of the plot’s finer points can get lost among all the comedy bits.  That’s less a problem with tone and more a problem with focus, I guess.  It’s not even really much of a problem, honestly, unless you’re looking for something profound and deadly serious, in which case Our World Is Ended is not your game anyway.

Finally, while the game’s translation looks mostly okay, the script has way too many typos. There isn’t a constant stream of them, but there are enough to be noticeable. I don’t know what kind of budget PQube was working with, but surely they could have hired a proofreader or two? There aren’t any Ever17 “Naturally, I knows the hacker”-level screwups, but a few lines come close.

None of that really bothers me too much, though (well, aside from the typos; those still bother me.) Because the real drama in Our World Is Ended doesn’t lie in Lab 13’s plot against Tokyo, but rather in the relationships between the members of Judgment 7 as the constantly changing virtual world forces them to face their insecurities.  Yuno and Asano both face up to their repressed fears stemming from their rough childhood together after their parents died.  Natsumi confronts her fear of losing her remaining friends in Judgment 7 after the death of their former director Reina and accepts that her Dark Angel of Chaos act is just that – an act.  On the way to the true ending, Reiji acknowledges and stands up to his fear that he’ll never measure up to Reina as a game director and that he’ll never be a true member of the team.  Even Reina, despite being a virtual copy of a deceased person, goes through a bit of a character arc, and one that’s not just played as a cheap tearjerker as you might expect.  The world of Akashic provides the challenges necessary for these characters to change and grow.  It also gives them plenty of opportunities to interact with their own game characters in fun ways, even when said game characters are trying to murder them.

I can’t even really explain the context of this scene, I don’t even remember

So sure, Our World Is Ended has a few rough edges, and it doesn’t really do or say anything new, but by the end I didn’t care. The characters were a lot of fun to watch as they dragged the hapless Reiji along into their insane schemes and fought against and then alongside their own game characters to save Tokyo from destruction.  And it does actually have some genuinely moving parts to it, despite initially coming off as a mere fanservice game.  It’s more than that.  I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not into visual novels or anime comedy stylings, and it doesn’t rise to the level of some of the really great VNs I’ve played, but it’s an enjoyable game with a lot of character, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand.

I had to really think about what score to give Our World Is Ended, and I settled on a 5 out of 7.  That’s a pretty high 5, though.  Maybe more like a 5½.  Shit, I’m breaking my own stupid rating system now.  Well, whatever.  I liked this game.  That $60 price tag for the console versions is a little steep, though, especially considering the fact that the game is only about 25 to 30 hours long, which is not overly long for a VN of this kind.  It’s more reasonably priced on Steam, and if you see it featured in a sale, I’d say it’s worth springing for.

***

*Here I should address the fact that Tatiana does get a route as well, and she’s also involved in some of the more lightweight comedy of lewd errors parts of Our World Is Ended. Even though she’s a genius programmer, she’s also just a kid, both in terms of her age and maturity level, so this might come off as weird to some players. A few reviewers have even dragged this game over the coals for it, and one in particular stopped playing it for that reason alone (I’m talking about Mike Fahey of Kotaku; his non-review of Our World Is Ended comes up on the first page of the game’s Google results.) I could explain how the game doesn’t actually sexualize Tatiana, or how it even discourages perving on her and figuratively kicks you (i.e. Reiji) in the dick for doing so during the Selection of Soul decision branches, but Pete Davison of MoeGamer has already thoroughly addressed the issue here, so I defer to him.

Online book translation review: Seventeen Parts 1 and 2 by Kenzaburo Oe

[Edit: thanks to a commenter below for pointing out that the link to this translation of Oe’s works is dead. In fact, it looks like Tokyo Damage Report, the blog it was originally hosted on, is dead, which is a damn shame. 

Edit pt. 2: I posted links through web.archive.org to the original posts down in the comments below. This seems to be the best I can do. If someone can find a more organized (or better? No idea about that) translation please post a comment, because these really are interesting works.]

Seventeen Part 1, the first part of a short two-part novel by Kenzaburo Oe, stirred up so much trouble in his home country of Japan that the publisher was threatened with death by far-right political groups (uyoku dantai) if the second part were brought out.  Thankfully, both Seventeen and Death of a Political Youth, the second part of the tale (renamed and published almost in secret to avoid a violent backlash) have been translated into English and posted on the blog Tokyo Damage Report.  Oe’s work taken as a whole is funny, sad, and horribly depressing all at once and is well worth a read, assuming the reader has a strong stomach.

Before we look at Seventeen, though, we need to travel back to the year 1960. Japan was still in the process of rebuilding after the destruction of World War II and hosted (as it still does) a large US military presence. The constitutional monarchy re-established by the Allies after the war ended allowed various parties, both on the right and the left, to get back into the game of politics and to openly debate the role of Japan in the world. Many of these debates reflected the capitalist/nationalist vs. socialist/communist divide of the Cold War, and naturally, this stirred up a lot of student political activity, both on the left and right.

On October 12, 1960, in the midst of this tension, a 17 year-old nationalist student activist named Otoya Yamaguchi rushed the stage of a televised speech in a lecture hall in Tokyo and ran a traditional samurai sword through the speaker, Socialist Party chairman and Diet representative Inejiro Asanuma, killing him almost instantly.

A photographer captured the assassination as it happened. (Source: Yasushi Nagao - © 1960 United Press International)

This photograph looks staged, but it’s not.  The assassination as it happened.  (Source: Yasushi Nagao – © 1960 United Press International)

Shortly after the assassination and Yamaguchi’s jail cell suicide a few weeks later, the novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote a novel about the whole incident – told from the perspective of the young assassin.  The first half of Seventeen, released in 1961, tells the story of the protagonist, a high school student who has just turned 17 years old.  The main character and narrator of this tale calls himself “Seventeen”, and his age does contribute a lot to the story.  Seventeen is an awkward, perpetually pissed off kid.  His family is generally is cold and distant and his elder sister loathes him (for good reason – he flips out in Chapter 1 and gives her a severe eye injury during an argument.)  After poking his sister’s eye out, Seventeen exiles himself to a shed in his family’s backyard where he sleeps, broods, and mopes about his problems.)  Seventeen’s school life is miserable, and his only friend is a stray cat that stop by his shed sometimes.

So far, with the possible exception of the eye-poking, this sounds like a pretty typical coming of age story about an awkward teenager.  In most of these kinds of stories, the teenage protagonist comes to some kind of revelation about himself and grows as a person (see Catcher In The Rye for the classic example.)  Our protagonist here also comes to a revelation about himself, but it leads him to a bloody end.  Seventeen is a coming of age tragedy.

The first half of Seventeen plays out almost like a teenage comedy, complete with dick jokes.  However, halfway through the first part, Seventeen discovers meaning in an uyoku, or far-right nationalist, group, where he finds like-minded friends.  At this point, the story takes a serious turn for the political.  Seventeen also finds that his new status as a right-wing activist has earned him a degree of fear, if not of respect, from classmates and teachers who previously just despised him.  As a fervent young nationalist, Seventeen soon finds himself at the front line of a street fight with left-wing students during a series of protests in Tokyo against the renewal of a controversial US-Japan security treaty.  The second part of Seventeen, Death of a Political Youth, is far more serious than the first part and pretty much depicts Seventeen’s descent into insanity, his assassination of an unnamed left-wing politician as he makes a televised speech, and his short stay in prison before he kills himself.  (Note that this isn’t really a spoiler – it’s exactly what happened to the real-life politician Asanuma and his assassin Yamaguchi.)

Of course, there’s no way to know exactly what was in Yamaguchi’s mind when he decided to kill Asanuma.  But we do know that he was motivated by nationalist sentiment, and Oe’s work parodies that movement – much of the second part of the novel involves Seventeen obsessing over and seeing visions of “the Emperor” – not the actual living Emperor (then Hirohito) but some kind of idealized figure, more like God than a mere human.  In fact, reading Seventeen in 2016, especially in the West, reminds me of the kind of religious fanaticism that seems to inspire violent acts – both of the jihadi and of the extremist Christian anti-government variety.*  Seventeen’s fanaticism doesn’t seem very different.

An uyoku van. The writing on the van are political slogans.

An uyoku van.  These vans are driven around by uyoku guys who dress in paramilitary uniforms and shout at people. The writing on the van is right-wing political stuff.

It should be noted that the right wing in Japan also had a literary side to it, and writers like Yukio Mishima did a lot to push the nationalist agenda (he’s a good writer as well and is well worth a read, despite his weird retro views on worshipping the Emperor and all that stuff.  He also tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1970 with a group of five other guys and committed actual medieval hardcore ritual suicide with a sword when he failed.  Mishima was somewhat nuts.)

Anyway, if all the above stuff sounds interesting to you, here are the links to the translations.  The translator does an interesting job with the writing.  He’s definitely going for the “feeling” of the text more than literal accuracy. I very much doubt that Oe included the phrase “Shake that ass!” in his original work. But I don’t mind. Also, this seems to be the only English translation of Death of a Political Youth around, so if you want to read it and can’t read Japanese, you don’t actually have a choice in the matter.

Seventeen

Death of a Political Youth

=

*If you don’t live in the United States, you might not know about this strain of fanaticism – I’m not sure how much it really exists outside of the US.  Eric Rudolph (the 1996 Olympics bomber) was one of these bastards.

Online book translation review: Ura Hello Work by Shinya Kusaka

In the course of my internet searches, a few years ago I found the blog Tokyo Damage Report. Written by a guy who I’m pretty sure is an American, who is (was?) living in Japan. Tokyo Damage Report is a fascinating read for anyone interested in some of the more extreme and more serious sides of Japanese life – for example, the author writes about the clashes between the left and right wings in Japan, the infamous right-wing uyoku groups and their flag and patriotic motto-covered black vans that spew out propaganda through loudspeakers, stuff about the more underground Japanese music scene, and a lot about language.

Another service the author provides (free of charge!) is the translation of controversial books from Japanese to English. Some of the more “dangerous”, more or less banned material, is political in nature. Today we’ll be looking at something a little less risky, though – just a series of interviews with various Japanese grey/black market guys talking about the rackets they run. This is Ura Hello Work by Shinya Kusaka, an author I couldn’t find much info on. In fact, I’m betting “Shinya Kusaka” is a pen name, the reason for which will probably be clear as we take a look at his book.

Kusaka’s book contains interviews with 20 people, all of whom work in some kind of shady profession. Some are entirely legal, but have a hint of mob connections (the tuna boat fisher, who admits that a few guys on each long fishing voyage are there to pay off huge debts to the yakuza.) Some are legal but inherently dangerous (the medical test subject, who left behind testing for a “real” job after a friend who received an experimental shot went permanently numb in his right arm.) Some are just depressing (the cult member, who recounts working fifteen-hour days on the street selling fakey “natural” medicine for absolutely no commission.) Many are borderline or outright illegal. Kusaka speaks with a nuclear waste dumper, a drug smuggler, a forger, a loan shark, and even a black market organ dealer.

A few of the interviews take place in Kabukicho, Tokyo's famous red light district.  (Source: Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

A few of the interviews take place in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s famous red light district. (Source: Japanexperterna.se, CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Each interview goes pretty in-depth into the details of the interviewee’s operation. The interview subjects vary in how willing they are to really get explicit about their professions, often depending upon just how illegal said professions are, but Kusaka manages to ask pertinent questions and gets mostly straight answers out of them. He sometimes gets the subject to tell a deeply personal story. See, for example, the “midnight mover” (a guy who moves clients to new cities and gets them new identities to escape crazy spouses, debt collectors, etc.) talks about a yakuza guy in trouble with his particular group for stealing from the coffers, and who wants to “disappear” with the mover’s help – and how he’s physically wrenched out of the mover’s van by his pissed off colleagues. One can maybe imagine what happened to that guy. Kusaka’s book has several harrowing stories like this.

As the translator points out, a lot of these rackets probably exist in your country too, but in Japan some of them are done totally differently because of the different laws and loopholes involved in the process. One such job is that of the sokaiya, a sort of sophisticated gangster who attends shareholders’ meetings and either conduct protection work for the corporation, shouting down opposition and dangerous questions from the shareholders (if the corporation has paid the protection money); or attack the board of directors and corporate officers themselves with allegations of scandal and poor future performance (if the corporation hasn’t paid.) This isn’t a racket I’ve heard of anywhere else.

Another racket the book covers is loan sharking, as depicted here in Kaiji.

Another racket the book covers is loan sharking, as depicted here in Kaiji.

These kinds of true crime works are apparently pretty popular in Japan. The translator, in his preface, suggests that this is because these books are the only places Japanese get the real dirt on how things work – because the national institutions in place are designed to protect the rich and powerful! Doesn’t that sound familiar? I’m willing to bet this is something that isn’t unique to Japan.

Anyway, if you like books and series about the criminal underworld (like, for example, Fukumoto’s comics) or if you have an interest in the seedier sides of society, you should check out Ura Hello Work at the link above.

Retrospective: Saya no Uta

It’s Election Day here in the United States. I went to the polls today, in fact, though I didn’t really much like either of the choices I was given. It’s hard to get excited about electoral races in a two-party system.

Why do I bring this up? Because today I’m also taking a look at a game that I’m surprised wasn’t banned by law in the US, because it definitely walks some sort of line – definitely the sort of game that any good “family values” interest group would try to have dumped into the gutters if it had enough notoriety.

1763821-snucover

Some games are damn near impossible to review, and Saya no Uta (eng: Saya’s Song) is one of them. This 2003 visual novel was released by Nitroplus, a prolific developer also responsible for big names like Steins;gate and Phantom of Inferno. Nitroplus’ work tends to be pretty dark, and Saya is no exception.

Saya no Uta tells the story of Fuminori, a medical student who is involved in a car accident and is badly injured. To save him, his doctors undertake an experimental procedure. Fuminori survives, but at great cost: the entire world and everyone in it now appear completely grotesque and horrific in his eyes. All of his friends and associates look like monsters made of rotten meat (and stink as well.) Of course, the world hasn’t changed at all – only Fuminori’s perception of it. This fact doesn’t really help, though, even as Fuminori tries to continue living his normal life.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn't convinced that he didn't fail all of them.  I know that look because I've had it.

Fuminori, wearing the expression of a man who has just finished his exams after two weeks of binge studying and isn’t convinced that he didn’t fail all of them. I know that look because I’ve had it.

Only one thing sustains him: the existence of a girl, Saya, the only person around who looks to Fuminori like a normal human being. Saya is a mysterious girl who approaches him shortly after his accident, seemingly without anyplace to call home, and Fuminori subsequently clings to Saya as the last thing in his life that seems at all pure or good. However, Saya isn’t merely a girl without a home – she’s something much more, and her relationship with Fuminori ends up driving him to extremes that he could never have imagined.

Saying anything else about the plot would spoil the game. All I’ll say is that it is one of the best VNs I’ve played as far as writing and emotional impact go. (For you anime fans, Saya no Uta was written by Gen Urobuchi, also responsible for writing the popular series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.) It’s short, too; just around five hours or so, and there are only a few endings, so Saya isn’t a massive time investment like other VNs tend to be.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn't what she seems.

She looks like a typical cutesy anime girl, but Saya isn’t what she seems.

Warning: Saya no Uta is a hentai game. That’s to say that there are sex scenes in it. More alarmingly, Saya’s appearance and mannerisms (she comes off something like a young teenager, although the anime style adds some ambiguity to that) may seriously turn some people off. However, none of this bothered me too much, firstly because Saya doesn’t exactly have an age, at least as we understand it, and secondly because Saya no Uta is the only h-game I’ve played in which the sex scenes actually added to the game’s story instead of simply being some beat-off material shoved between normal scenes to sell more copies (I’m looking at you, Fate Stay/Night, but you’re not the only suspect.) In any case, the sex scenes in this game aren’t really made for that sort of thing, and I didn’t feel especially dirty for reading them. I did feel creeped out, but that’s exactly the feeling the makers were aiming for, after all. Together with the rough (in a good way) art style and the haunting soundtrack, Nitroplus succeeds at creating a strong atmosphere with Saya that you might feel drawn into.

So I feel like a creep now, writing about what’s technically a porn game (though I would argue it absolutely isn’t one in spirit, even if it does sit in the h-game category.) But hey, that’s why my blog is anonymous. God bless anonymity, right?

Anyway, Saya no Uta is up for sale through JAST here (of course, you can also buy the original in Japanese if you understand it.) JAST localizes a lot of Japanese VNs, and they apparently haven’t censored Saya at all, which is nice – censoring the game would pretty much kill the whole point of it. It’s supposed to be a little shocking, after all. But please don’t play it if you’re under 18 or you have a weak stomach. There, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Amazon thinks I’m a pervert

Why else would it have sent me an email suggesting I pre-order Xseed’s Akiba’s Trip, a game about going to Tokyo’s Akihabara nerdtopia district and fighting vampires by stripping their clothes off and exposing them to sunlight?

Note the way the title is printed.  Clever.

Note the way the title is printed. Clever.

Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed is being released in the first week of August for the PS3 and the Vita. According to the preorder site, it features:

– A “faithful recreation of Japan’s Electronics Mecca”, with over 130 actual shops depicted
– “Unique and customizable brawler-style combat” that lets you use signposts and other pieces of the environment as weapons
– Irreverent takes on “common anime and video game tropes for social satire” (is it still really “social satire” when it’s aimed at a subculture of fans?)
– The ability to strip opponents and wear their clothes

Pictured: The protagonist (probably.)  Is the girl to his right going to be attacked and stripped to her skivvies for the sake of protecting the human race from vampires?  It seems likely.

Pictured: The protagonist (probably.) Is the girl to his right going to be attacked and stripped to her skivvies for the sake of protecting the human race from vampires? It seems likely.

Aside from the fact that the gameplay does sound fun (assuming Xseed pulls off good “brawler-style” gameplay) there are a few strange points here. Well, just one: the stripping. The game remains unrated, but I’d bet cash money on its being stamped with an M rating.

The strangest part of this whole deal is the quote from an Xseed executive talking about the dub: ‘This is the biggest voiceover project ever at Xseed. Part of the reason we’re doing it is we feel this game can appeal to more of a mainstream audience and just not otakus,” said Executive Vice President Ken Berry.’

What better game to win over the fence-sitters than one where you assault and strip women on a public street?

What better game to win over the fence-sitters than one where you assault and strip women on a public street?

To be fair, Akiba isn’t out yet. But for some reason, I don’t feel like this particular game is going to attract a lot of “non-otakus”. Maybe Ken Berry knows something I don’t. I might buy it if I hear the gameplay is good, but I am one of those nerds Berry is referring to (also kind of perverted, but that’s true for almost everyone, right?) If I do, though, I’ll definitely have to buy it online – there’s no way I can approach another human intending to purchase a game like this.

Anime for people who hate anime: Akagi

a.k.a. Mahjong Legend Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into the Darkness

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I’m going to approach this series a little differently. Instead of writing a normal review of the show, I’m going to take you through the first episode. Why? Why not? I do have a reason for doing this, but it might not be apparent until the end of this post.

The first episode opens with a minute of background. The setting is late 1950s Tokyo. Japan is finally over its post-war slump and is starting to grow again.

This is all explained by the narrator.  He talks constantly throughout the series, but he's not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you'll get used to him.

This is all explained by the narrator. He talks constantly throughout the series, but he’s not obtrusive at all and in fact is often extremely necessary, so you’ll get used to him.

The story begins in a smoky hole-in-the-wall mahjong parlor. Four players sit around a table. Big deal, so they’re playing some mahjong. Nothing strange about that.

But this game is different. One of the players, Nangou, is deep in debt to the mob. Three of the other players are Yakuza guys. One of them, a local mob boss, has had his mistress take out a life insurance policy on Nangou. You can see where this is going.

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Since the Yakuza are nice guys, they let Nangou try to cut a path out of his debts by beating them in a mahjong match. Sadly for Nangou, it’s not going too well for him. He’s nearly out of points and is about to lose the game and his life. Nangou reaches into the wall of tiles to pull one, praying to anyone, even the Devil, to help him out of his predicament. At that very moment, the door to the parlor opens.

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A kid (yeah, he is a kid, even if he doesn’t look like it) is at the door, seemingly looking for shelter from the driving rain outside. The Yakuza thugs try to throw him out, but Nangou tells them he called the kid to the parlor just in case he, you know, “went missing.” Of course, Nangou and this kid have never seen each other – Nangou just wants a break from the game to collect his nerves. Luckily for him, the kid plays along with his story.

After a few minutes, the game is back on. Nangou prepares to make a deal that he needs to complete to build his hand. However, he gets nervous, because that same tile is one that his main opponent (Ryuuzaki, the boss) might need to complete his hand. Nangou decides instead to deal a “safe” tile – a defensive rather than offensive move. After all, if he loses this hand, it’s quite literally all over for him.

He’s all set to make this defensive play when the boy sitting behind him speaks.

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Nangou turns around and asks the kid what he’s talking about.

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This kid admits to Nangou that he’s never played mahjong before, but that he could sense Nangou’s feeling of hopelessness. He tells Nangou that to survive, he’ll have to be aggressive – to take a risk. Nangou turns back to his hand and realizes that the kid is right. He returns to his original deal – and it passes! Nangou ends up completing his hand and winning on the next deal. His life – at least for now – is safe. (Incidentally, as the narrator explains, that “safe” tile deal would have completed a different player’s hand, meaning Nangou would have lost had he dealt it.)

The Yakuza guys, disappointed that they couldn’t finish Nangou off then and there, break again for a few minutes. In the meantime, Nangou questions this mysterious kid about his identity and what he’s doing hanging around a Yakuza mahjong parlor at midnight. The boy is 13 year-old Shigeru Akagi, but beyond that he says nothing. For the first time, Nangou notices something strange about Akagi: his clothes are covered in sand. He guesses (rightly, as we’ll soon learn) that Akagi came close to death that night.

How can Nangou tell? Because, as he explains to Akagi, he’s near death as well. Nangou then makes a request of Akagi.

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Nangou can sense something great in Akagi, something that Nangou himself doesn’t possess. Despite never having played mahjong before, Akagi agrees to sit in for Nangou and gets a five-minute primer on the basics of mahjong.

And we get to learn along with him!

And we get to learn along with him!

When the game starts again, the Yakuza players have no idea what the hell is going on but they roll with it anyway, figuring that some kid will probably be even easier to beat in mahjong than Nangou. And they might be right.

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Perhaps in a case of extreme beginner’s luck, Akagi’s very first hand is a monster: he has pairs of each dragon tile. A hand with three of each of these tiles (white, green and red, all on the left) is one of the biggest hands in the game – a dai san gen. It’s also one of the most difficult to get, because completing a dai san gen usually involves having to call someone else’s dragon tile when they deal it, and any hint of a dai san gen will cause the other players to act defensively and not deal dragons.

Still, Akagi will have to call those tiles to complete the hand. The first dragon is thrown out.

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One by one, each of the other dragons are thrown out, and Akagi lets each one pass, completely wrecking his hand. Nangou starts cursing himself for letting this stupid kid take over his life-or-death mahjong game.

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What the hell was Akagi thinking?

At that moment, there’s a knock on the door of the mahjong parlor. It’s a police officer. Turns out the police are looking for the survivor from a game of chicken that involved severe casualties.

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Everyone in the room turns to Akagi, who says nothing. The Yakuza boss is duly impressed by Akagi’s guts and tells his henchman to shoo the policeman away. Akagi, however, knows that that’s not going down, because the cops followed him here on a lead and won’t let him go. So he decides to make a deal with Nangou.

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Nangou is pretty miffed at this suggestion. This kid just let a monster hand get ruined and he wants me to help him? Nangou points out that Akagi needs something to offer him to make such a bold request. Akagi says he does have something to offer.

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Suddenly Akagi’s hand has three of each dragon tile, where before it only had pairs. Akagi has a dai san gen one tile away from completion. At first, Nangou has no idea what the hell is going on, but then he realizes what Akagi has done: he used the Yakuza guys’ distraction in dealing with the policeman to covertly steal each of the dragon tiles he needed from the pond (the center of the table where players put their discarded tiles.) Now Akagi doesn’t have to call anyone’s tiles: he can win right away.

Not wanting to lose his shot at a huge win, Nangou agrees to provide Akagi with a cover story. A few seconds later, a detective barges into the room.

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The detective pinpoints Akagi as the chicken survivor he’s looking for. Nangou, however, springs to action and covers for Akagi.

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He claims Akagi has been in the parlor all night. Ryuuzaki and the other gangsters go along with Nangou’s story because they want the police to leave.

The detective isn’t buying this story, so he decides to hang around for a while. The Yakuza dudes at this point are distracted and pissed off that they couldn’t get rid of the cops, so Akagi reminds them that they’re in the middle of a round of mahjong and that they should get back to playing.

Still caught in a daze, they turn back to their game, and one of them immediately deals into Akagi’s dai san gen. Only too late do they notice that the pond is missing a few tiles.

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Ryuuzaki and his buddies would love to beat the shit out of Akagi right now, but they can’t – because the cops are in the room with them. As it happened, Akagi planned on this as well. So Ryuuzaki gives Akagi the dai san gen and lets him off with a warning.

Could be worse.

Could be worse.

The gangsters, now thoroughly pissed off, take yet another break and go into a back room. One suggests they call in their “rep player” – a guy whose sole job is to win mahjong matches for the mob. Ryuuzaki is offended by this suggestion.

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The boss says he can’t call in their rep player just to take care of some amateur punk kid. All Akagi did was pull off a massive cheat – he won’t be able to do it a second time. They’ll defeat Akagi and kill Nangou without the rep player’s help. They all return to the game, with the detective watching. Sadly for the Yakuza guys, they don’t realize just how much Akagi can do.

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Will Akagi continue to win? Will Nangou survive the night? How will Akagi deal with the detective on his trail? If you want to find out, watch the second episode! It’s all on Youtube, and I’m sure you can also torrent it if you wish, as Akagi has never been licensed in the US.

If the art style and the subject matter of Mahjong Legend Akagi seem familiar, that’s no coincidence: it’s another Nobuyuki Fukumoto work. Akagi isn’t much like Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji, though, and that’s because of the differences in their respective title characters. Kaiji Itou, the protagonist of Kaiji, experiences fear. He often panics when in a dire situation before realizing exactly how to escape it. Perhaps most importantly, Kaiji makes mistakes. He’s a genius, but a very human one.

All of these things make Kaiji much more relatable than Akagi, who is less a human than a force of nature that destroys everything in its way. Unlike Kaiji, Akagi has no doubts about his abilities and no compunction about using those abilities to completely destroy his opponents. Really, the only thing that makes Akagi not a villain is the fact that his opponents are all gangsters and thugs or other gamblers working for criminal organizations. Except for his final opponent – but I can’t tell you who that is. Just watch the show! I’m not one to claim I have “favorite _____s” usually (I can’t say I have a favorite album, for example, because I love a lot of music) but I can make an exception here: Akagi is my favorite anime series. Not a second of the show is wasted. There’s absolutely no filler, no scenes simply for their own sake – everything moves along the plot or establishes character. And Akagi has plenty of great surprises in store for you if you decide to watch.

Note on the mahjong terminology: If you’re scared off by all the crazy jargon, don’t worry: that’s completely normal. The story does a pretty good job of explaining the whats and whys of everything that’s going on, so don’t worry if you don’t know what a “tan yao pin fu dora dora” is. For this purpose, I recommend getting the Triad subs if you decide to go for a torrent: the notes at the top of the screen explain a lot of the terms that often crop up throughout the series.

Why I love Shiina Ringo

A few years ago I ran across a music recommendation – Tokyo Jihen’s Adult. I don’t even remember where I saw it or why I followed it. But I did follow it, and I didn’t regret it. Adult is a great album, largely because of one person – the band’s frontwoman, Shiina Ringo.

Miss Ringo is a popular Japanese singer-songwriter who’s gotten some attention in the West. She seems to go for a mix of jazz and pop-inspired elements in her music. This could potentially turn into a mess, but Shiina is very good at her job. She’s a fine pianist (and she can play a bunch of other instruments as well) and a great songwriter – almost every song of hers I’ve heard so far is catchy as hell. For an example, check out this song from her solo album Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana:

She also has a great voice. Here’s a live rendition of Poltergeist, a song from the same album:

Shiina Ringo is one of the few singer-songwriter types I care for at all. A lot of the really popular ones seem kind of overrated to me, and some of them are full of themselves or attention-grabbers etc. which can come through in their lyrics sometimes. I have no idea what she’s like – from the little I’ve read, she doesn’t say much about herself and puts on a mysterious persona. And since I can’t understand most of her lyrics, their contents don’t present any problem to me. It might sound weird, but I prefer not to know what she’s singing about. Though it’s possible her lyrics are really profound. I have no idea.

If this post seems short, it’s because I have a hard time writing about music. A few writers are really good at it and I’m not among their number. For me, trying to describe music to someone through words is a poor substitute for just playing the music for them, so check out the links above instead if you’re interested.