Disclaimer: I only managed to get through this route so far, so I have no full view of the story yet. But I just wanted to get my impressions now on this first.
So, as noted on VNDB, Shinju no Yakata is the pretty less well-known Visual Novel written by superstar VN writers Romeo Tanaka and Mareni. Expectations will thus include dense prose, gothic hijinks, intense psychology, as well as anything else notable about these two writers.
I’ll go a bit deeper into the plot than the VNDB summary gives though:
Bookworm Kugetsu Akinari and his female best friend (and not romantic interest – yet) Yotsutani Asako come from the same university but diverge in their academic interests. Kugetsu himself is highly interested in architecture and Japanese history and is planning to find something to write a thesis on. He hears that Asako apparently has a relative who lives in this massive Western-Style manor called the Nagoshi Residence, also known as Shinju Residence.
In this case, the name “真珠邸” roughly translates to ‘Pearl Residence’ although the title of the game itself is “神樹の館”. The Shinju (神樹) in the game’s title means, more or less ‘God Tree’.
Anyway this mansion is particularly interesting because, as Kugetsu is happy to explain, it’s a Tudor style Western Manor, but it was built earlier than the oldest recorded Tudor style Western Manor in the whole of Japan. In other words – there’s a possibility that the existence of the manor could change the whole face of Japanese architectural history entirely. Yet, no one else has heard of it.
The only mention of the manor comes from a small reference that Kugetsu managed to dig up from an old 1939 newspaper/magazine. This fragment of text opens up the Visual Novel itself, and it’s written entirely in the style of a Meiji era curious supernatural tale.
The story itself (from what I’ve read so far) is littered with history asides here and there related to things like Occultry, Architectural History, Fairy Tales etc… primarily told by history buff Kugetsu of course.
Sooner or later, though, the Gothic atmosphere kicks in and both our protagonists, while driving to the Nagoshi Residence, are caught in heavy rain. They reach the manor in time and take shelter there. Kugetsu himself wasn’t planning to spend the night, but now he’s forced to due to the circumstances.
He’ll find out, though, that not only will the rain not stop, but he’ll also get more and more wrapped up in the twisted histories of the manor’s inhabitants.
Now I find the Twins Route very interesting because it’s a nice example of what happens when a writer like Romeo decides to take up a completely different tone of writing altogether, while still keeping to his standard writing traits and themes.
Firstly, if you’re expecting crazy Romeo here, then you’re out of luck. There aren’t really any of his lengthy snarky asides and descriptions, and his crazy banter is still there but it’s more moderated. The other result is that this means his psychological heft is magnified, and long lines of prose are spent going into the various psychological states of the characters.
Essentially, this leads to a kind of Gothic story which I would probably say is more ‘Nisio Isin’ than ‘Edgar Allen Poe’. In the old Gothic fiction, it was more about the aesthetics, and so the characters were subjugated to the will of the atmosphere. Lovecraft had characters that were more mouthpieces for his cosmic horror philosophy than actual characters in themselves. In this case though, it’s the other way round. The ‘monsters’ reflect internal psychology, and the whole conflict of the Twins Route boils down to its two introverted heroines.
If I were to describe the route in other terms, it would probably be like Danny Torrance meeting those two creepy twins in the corridor of The Shining, and then deciding to play with them and have cakes with them instead.
Spoilers start here.
Now introversion and the ‘outsider’ is a standard Romeo theme, but an extra focus here happens to be on Education.
Many of the core early interactions with the twins centers around Kugetsu helping them with their homework, and making plenty of observations about what’s the best way to teach a child. An important choice made during these scenes also serves to determine what type of ending you get in the end.
I like how he frames the choice itself, which boils down to a ‘heroine choice’, but is also placed within the context of educational guidance. You have to choose between whether you want to focus on helping the shy-but-good-at-maths Imi, or the more-vibrant-but-bad-at-maths Itsuki.
If Kugetsu picks the latter, you get the bad endings, because he spends so much time helping her that he neglects the other twin. If Kugetsu helps Imi, both of them have a good study session, while Itsuki manages to struggle through the answers herself and later joins the other two. Well-balanced education, in other words.
To have such slice-of-lifey scenes inside the route pretty much goes against any of the old tenets regarding how to write a Gothic story. It falls completely in the contemporary scope of things, and parallels to Tasogare Otome X Amnesia as an approach of twisting old genres into new forms.
The trick though, is to never be merely ironic. Although you can view the route as twisting around these concepts and genre staples, it does so with moments that hold greater meaning. Thus, even the event of Goth Loli Lesbian BDSM scenes manages to tie in completely with the psychological themes of loneliness, repression etc…
Even though, through characterization and all that, the Twins route breaks out of the Gothic ‘ghetto’ – I have to admit that something still feels a bit lackluster by the end of the route.
It would probably have something to do with the ‘writing space’ that Romeo is comfortable with. As I said, not only is he forced into abiding to the Gothic atmosphere, but he’s also forced to tone down on his overall humor in the end. While being psychologically dense in its descriptions of introverts and education and all that – there isn’t that exact touch that made scenes in Cross Channel so powerful.
There’s a moment in Cross Channel that’s very similar to the good Twins ending of Shinju no Yakata, in that it also tracks the fall and decline of a manor into decadence and depravity, seen through the eyes of a child. This would be Taichi’s flashback.
The core difference is this – in Cross Channel, that tonal shift came out of nowhere, and was situated within the structure of everything you knew about Kurosu Taichi’s character beforehand. By utilizing a Gothic tone in that scene, it tied in nicely with the darker implications of his character while being unexpected and poetic.
In a Visual Novel like Shinju no Yakata, you completely expect that a Gothic story about a creepy manor will include a lengthy description about the slow decline into decadence of the manor’s inhabitants. There is no new ‘blend’ created in that sense, even though the writing itself is technically well-done.
More interesting, in fact, is one of Itsuki’s bad ends, which involves Kugetsu taking her (a secluded goth-loli chick) back to the city to live with him. Her decline within the atmosphere of the city is even more emotionally poignant than any of the other ends – and it also doubles as a commentary on how the staples of Gothic horror are just that – mere abnormal dreams that wilt away in the normalcy of life itself. I would say, though, that even this route itself is kind of a lesser variant on Akane’s ending in Rewrite.
Even in terms of the poetic descriptions itself, there are plenty of moments which feel quite repetitive although the words they use are different. There’s a limited space which you can use in Gothic fiction after all, and especially in a novel that is stuck in a secluded setting like a manor. The mood of Gothic fiction is a mood of ambiguity and shadows – and plenty of writing on Kugetsu’s mental state is draped in this aesthetics of fuzziness.
The two sections I translated are examples of that. Words like ‘illusion’, ‘phenomenon’, ‘lonely’, ‘parallel universes’. I’m not saying that he keeps using these words again and again, but that even when he varies them, the contents are still more or less the same. In other works, Romeo would be jumping all around the place and describing the various inhabitants and social phenomena in tons and tons of hilarious descriptions. It does not happen over here.
There’s a very interesting word that keeps popping up, though, and seems to hold extreme importance within the narrative itself. That word is曖昧 – which defines as vague, fuzzy, or unclear. It keeps coming to attention because it has furigana attached to it, and because it appears beyond just descriptions of atmosphere. It also seems to be linked up to the nature of history itself.
For example, in the ending, when Kugetsu is thinking about the history of the manor revealed to him, he makes this statement:
(roughly: “In earlier times, with the ambiguity (曖昧) between the sacred and the real, in order to demarcate clearly what the object was – the standard act/custom was the act of naming.”)
This draws back to an idea within sociology or cultural studies – that humans in earlier times didn’t just take Gods as a concept denoting something higher – but experienced it in tangible ways. Mysticism and Divine Visions, which in our time is explained as an anomaly of the brain, was a constant occurrence back in the day. Only higher consciousness would bring humans into the light of reality. Of course, this is only one theory, and, if utilized wrongly, can lead to stupid stuff like justifying Cultural Imperialism and all that.
(In a sense, this also ties in with Nietzsche’s Death of God concept)
Some of the most interesting parts of the route, in fact, are the historical and semantic asides that seek to bring a new light into the Gothic atmosphere – and these parts are most probably information provided to Romeo by Mareni – which will tie in with the routes written by Mareni himself.
So, the answer to the question “Would it necessarily be a good thing when two writers of caliber seek to work on the same project together” would sadly, in this case, be No. The social/psychological/SF focused Romeo didn’t seem to be able to navigate as well in the space of Gothic mystery fiction, ornate poesy, occultism, and cultural oddity that Mareni is better at. As the interesting Slice of Life portions gave way to the primarily Gothic scenes, even while being technically competent, the tone was still more or less fully expected. Only for true Gothic fans who can seep in and fully sink into that atmosphere, in other words, but those people would probably be going for the other longer and denser rail-Soft stuff by Mareni instead. Or only for Romeo fans who want to be completionist about his writing.
Perhaps, when all of the routes comes together, the culminative effect will be a lot more powerful. In any case, at the very least, this was still extremely interesting.
The title of this post is “A Picnic In A Library”.
This is one of the endings of the Visual Novel. It occurs when you take a choice to play with Itsuki rather than help search for Imi – after everyone has disappeared.
The ending is that Kugetsu and Itsuki have a picnic in the library of the manor.
And then, Kugetsu forgets everything, and becomes slave to the atmosphere of the manor. Reading books, idly enjoying time with his Goth-Loli heroine, and wasting away.
It is, to say the least, very surreal.
The Gothic Fictions of Poe. The cosmic horrors of Lovecraft. Matthew Lewis. Bram Stoker. Ann Radcliffe. The poetic dreams of Coleridge. The tremor of Byron. The hallucinogenic deserts of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
A picnic in a library – minus Goth-Lolis of course.
A wish that suffering and horror has a face of beauty.
Suffering is a mute and brutal aspect. Madness, in its true form, is a crude simplicity – merely an inmate beating his head on the same wall again and again and again.
In other words, all those Gothic moods and draughts are mere absinthes. As some pessimist philosophers once reasoned – the best way to deal with the monster of reality is to indulge in its monstrosities.
Someone once described this as ‘Grand Hotel Abyss’ – “‘a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity”.
After all, it is very easy to live in that state of mind where there was that sublime “ambiguity between the sacred and the real”. Adding more and more names, and keener and finer demarcations, merely serves for relentless confusion. It would be better for a madman to be a haunted thing rather than a mere oddity of biology.
But, while it is okay to, sometimes, indulge in dreams – eventually, there must be a way out of that sublime ambiguity.
Which is why, I guess, I am enamored with writers like Nisio Isin or Romeo – who would try to use these dreams to create a path out of that, and into something more raw and human – while still honoring these dreams in the best possible way.
That, at the very least, is what I think it should be about:
If you’re going to write a Gothic Horror story. You might as well include Goth-Lolis.