(spoilers, of course and maybe for Kikokugai too)
When I was reading Hanachirasu, the Nitro+ Visual Novel, some kind of resemblance came to mind.
This, I thought, is exactly what an action novel written by the Chinese poet Du Fu would be like:
Having A Sigh:
My aspirations have long decayed, my white head lodges in humankind
Soldiers always fight under the sky, guests of Jiangdong yet to return.
This poor ape calls snow & rains, the old horse is shy of the passes.
The virtue of soldiers open the first boundaries, the commoners can only climb.
Du Fu is generally a poet of great melancholy towards the transience of things, the flow of history, the travails of age, the rigors of war etc… always aiming to write about a small moment of peace in between times of uncertainty. In Du Fu’s domain, all forces large and small will crumble under Heaven’s way, and those that are maintained are merely there by the chance of Heaven too.
Likewise, the plot of Hanachirasu reflects this uncertainty towards everything large and small in the grand flow of history. Two of the strongest swordsmen in Tokyo slowly edge towards each other in order to fulfill their fated duel to the death. In the meantime, their actions result in the downfall of two large forces within Tokyo itself.
By the end of the novel, these two swordsmen achieve the peak of their capabilities and create their own moves that would place them in the realm of ‘genius’, yet they use it to destroy one another, and the surviving one finds no reason to live after the duel. And behind them countless bodies lie in their wake.
This style of focusing on History, the uncertainty of its contents and the inevitability of its flow, is what contributes to the primary tensions of the story. Unlike something like Kikokugai, where everything drives towards a grand despairing conclusion, even though the contents of how that unfolds may be slightly different from what you expect – Hanachirasu always creates this realm of possibility that a number of things could happen.
One of the most obvious moments is, of course, the fact that Akane walks into the same noodle-shop that Igarasu is a regular at. That scene itself plays the old Hitchcock ploy of revealing the bomb in the room to the audience in order to maintain the tension. Furthermore, a lesser writer would have milked that scene for all its worth. He would probably have written it such that they almost bump into each other, or one of them escapes.
Yet, in Hanachirasu, it’s played off as just an occurrence. Akane meets Itsurin, and doesn’t meet Igarasu. Furthermore the player knows that Itsurin herself is also friends with Igarasu and has met him there before. But this is merely an occurrence, and disappears into the tide of history.
This is done two other times to create a mirror. Akane could have met with Igarasu in the Hokodome-no-Kai headquarters. Likewise Igarasu could have met up with Akane in the Takigawa Corporation raid. None of these moments lead to any settlement until they decide to call each other out directly – but they have merely played their role in history for the destruction of these two forces.
The deft use of alternate endings is also quite notable. It’s a tactic that when you choose the ‘wrong ending’, Narahara shows you the conclusion immediately. And one of them is a rather humorous ending. These function less as endings, but more like extra verses in a poem. They serve to outline how laughable the primary conflict of the two protagonists are.
The constancy of this tension is why, even though, similar to Kikokugai, the ending was established from the very start – there’s still a significant tension that Narahara isn’t going to let that conclusion come to pass. He could also have completed the story with Yasaka finishing off Akane. All of these moments creates the atmosphere of ‘uncertain inevitability’ that is the primary thrust of Hanachirasu.
Similarly, the actual victor of the conflict remains in the shadows until the final moment. Even though, when you see the scene where Akane finishes Yasaka off and you know that he’s already developed a new hidden ability, the previous tensions still leaves the ‘Akane wins’ conclusion on uncertain ground.
To further bolster this mood, is the comment that Itsurin makes:
“Perhaps it was the difference between a man who wielded the sword for vengeance, desperate to win at any cost, and a man who wielded the sword for love of the sword, believing victory or defeat merely incidental, the trivial result of a battle fought for its own sake”
Narahara writes this as though Itsurin knew the victor already, but we don’t, and this very comment synthesizes the entire crux of the novel.
This is where the long descriptions of sword history and battles comes into play. Throughout it, we’re given a picture of the uncertain development of tactics. Sometimes new schools of sword styles synthesize old methods into new ones. Sometimes a stroke of genius comes into play and a move that is inherently unreplicable except by a single swordsman appears out of nowhere. Igarasu is the genius. Akane has been painted as solely winning by his own perceptual abilities, although his own perceptual abilities too consists of a bit of genius.
The comment posed by Itsurin makes it seem as if a certain disposition is what causes victory to be grasped. Yet, we aren’t keyed in on exactly what kind of disposition it is. From the history of swordsmanship already established, we’re given a picture of wayward luck and sudden insight granting this stroke of genius. Even the man who has honed his skills in the heat of battle may still fall prey to a person who may not be as honed, but contains that genius in him.
Furthermore, Akane has always commented that its vengeance which drove Igarasu to surpass all of his past capabilities.
Thus, from this comment, we are led to the question: Is a sword that cuts with purpose better than a sword that is merely satisfied with being a sword?
Despite seeming like an ‘answer’, it actually creates a question within us. It’s a statement that harpoons the idea of nihilistic luck determining battles, but establishes that it’s the core disposition which makes the ending inevitable. Now the question is, which disposition is it?
Then we are driven to the end to discover the answer.
From the ending we achieve synthesis.
The man who wins the duel is the man who most represents the ‘uncertain inevitability’ of history. To Akane, as with history, the ‘events’ are incidental to the flow. He is a sword, and will act as the sharpest blade no matter what the circumstances.
Similarly, it was inevitable that Ishima Kaigen’s regime was to fall – yet it had the unintended consequences of creating the domain of Tokyo which honors her will – the event is incidental but the spirit remains. Even as her actual doctrines are distorted by the citizens within the city. Ishima’s ‘flow’, in all of its myriad permutations, even if it deviates from what was originally established, carries over to everything single event within Tokyo.
Hanachirasu is a poem masquerading as a Samurai action thriller. The events, action, plotline, and characters are all incidental. The spirit is such:
Ballad of the Ancient Cypress
Before Kongming’s shrine stands an ancient cypress,
Its branches are like green bronze, its roots just like stone.
The frosted bark, slippery with rain, is forty spans around,
Its blackness blends into the sky two thousand feet above.
Master and servant have each already reached their time’s end,
The tree, however, still remains, receiving men’s devotion.
Clouds come and bring the air of Wuxia gorge’s vastness,
The moon comes out, along with the cold of snowy mountain whiteness.
I think back to the winding road, east of Brocade Pavilion,
Where the military master and his lord of old share a hidden temple.
Towering that trunk, those branches, on the ancient plain,
Hidden paintings, red and black, doors and windows empty.
Spreading wide, coiling down, though it holds the earth,
In the dim and distant heights are many violent winds.
That which gives it its support must be heaven’s strength,
The reason for its uprightness, the creator’s skill.
If a great hall should teeter, wanting rafters and beams,
Ten thousand oxen would turn their heads towards its mountain’s weight.
Its potential unrevealed, the world’s already amazed,
Nothing would stop it being felled, but what man could handle it?
Its bitter heart cannot avoid the entry of the ants,
Its fragrant leaves have always given shelter to the phoenix.
Ambitious scholars, reclusive hermits- neither needs to sigh;
Always it’s the greatest timber that’s hardest to use.