Catching cicadas in the summertime
I used to love summer. In my elementary and middle school days I would eagerly look forward to summer vacation like any other kid would. Long days of sunshine that never seemed to last long enough, before school came along just to end it. I spent a lot of time in public libraries during this time since the house we lived in at the time had no air conditioning. I would play flash games on their computers, read books in the spots where I knew nobody ever went, and doodled in my sketchpad or folded origami. When I think of summertime, I close my eyes. I smell the warm air carrying a refreshing breeze that smells of barbeque, freshly cut grass and pollen. Dazzling sun rays filter through the foliage above, sparkles dancing within my eyes, and twinkling across the grass I lay on. I feel the sweat being dried on my face and back as the heat subsides with and night encroaches. The sweet taste of watermelon tickles my tongue as wind-chimes jangle lazily as the afternoon sun dips just beyond the horizon. I hold a sweating Ramune bottle and hear the jingle of a marble bouncing about, reminding me of the fun still to be had; tomorrow we would be catching cicadas in the overgrow.
Yosuga no Sora is a series I unequivocally love. It captures a memory from a time I have longed for since I was a teenager and perhaps dates back to a time before I even knew what anime was. It's an anime that feels very familiar and welcoming despite what the melodramatic story might suggest. I find myself lost within its setting even now. But it's a fairly easy show to dismiss since most people will only know it as "that one incest anime." Superficially that is the case, and I don't expect everyone to be openly accepting of such themes. However, Yosuga no Sora is not attempting to normalize it or make light of the more serious implications of incest. Rather, it has a uniquely poignant take on the matter that showcases the implications of such a relationship beyond social stigma. If you are staunchly against it, I'm not going to convince you otherwise and neither is this anime. However, if you are able to look past that or enjoy the theme, something special will be left to behold here. It's a shame if you skip this one, since it's a striking drama with solid character writing and might be one of the best anime adaptations of a bishoujo game.
It's worth explaining the distinction between a bishoujo game and a "standard" visual novel. Visual novels are often referred to as adventure games (ADV) in Japan, and there are more granular terms, official and unofficial, used to define different games within the style of game. For example, “sound novels” refer to games like Higurashi or Umineko that have little to no player interaction and are quite literally just a novel with music and some graphics. An unofficial term might be something like "chuunige" that are used to describe Dies Irae or Fate Stay/Night that are often enjoyed by those with a chuunibyou-affinity. However, there are terms like "eroge" which can refer to any erotic game, not specifically a visual novel, but tend to be visual novels more often than not. Though something like Koikatsu is still an eroge. Returning to the topic at hand, bishoujo games and visual novels are not mutually exclusive, but share many technical aspects that make them seem like they are one in the same. For instance, Fate Stay/Night might not be considered a bishoujo game depending on who you ask, but it still places an emphasis on a particular romantic interest each route. But to put it simply- bishoujo games are visual novels that place an emphasis on, or exist solely for the purpose of showcasing their pretty girl characters. These are most commonly romance visual novels with drama and standard slice or life moments to break up the time. They are not necessarily dating-sims since they generally don't "gamify" romance in the way you might see in Tokimeki Memorial's aptitude and flag systems. However, they do simulate romance in a certain sense, but do so in a traditional adventure game (ADV) presentation with visual novels. Not all visual novels are bishoujo games, but all bishoujo games are visual novels[a].
When you hear "bishoujo game anime adaptation" most people likely think of the very best; Clannad, Kanon (2006) or Fate Stay/Night. However, there was a stretch of time beginning in the late-90's and going through the late 2000's that saw a rise in popularity of anime adaptations of visual novels. After the rise of the PC market in the late 90's, there was a growing popularity of these types of games amongst the hardcore hobbyists. These were often lewd games that featured a cast of pretty young girls and reflected the best memories of youth, and the ones that never were. Visual novels became popular and many hit titles by developers like KEY or Frontwing were now being adapted into anime since the industry will naturally adapt whatever source material is popular. If you were an otaku, you were reading visual novels. This was summer vacation for otaku. Fridays at Akihabara under the sun and blistering heat. 4:3 monitors playing bishoujo games in a 1LDK apartment. Paychecks to burn and not enough merchandise to fill the gaps in your heart. Nights on message boards fueled by pure passion for 2D perfection. Moe, moe, moe. But like even the best summer vacations, they inevitably come to an end. During its time in the limelight, visual novels matured rapidly and gained a niche following amongst a subset of fans. While not as popular today, they still manage to thrive with new releases making these games a staple of otaku culture.
The problem with trends in the gaming industry is that there will inevitably be a rise in copycats trying to capitalize off the success from the big games that came before them. The bishoujo game market was no different, which is why a lot of these games will utilize similar events, archetypes and story beats. I'd argue that what might make one of these games or anime "generic" is part of the appeal. But I will admit, if you've seen as many as I have, you can get tired of them. Though the perspective I've gained is invaluable, since if it was worth anything, I can appreciate the anime that do it best more now. I appreciate Yosuga no Sora for how it manages to masterfully avoid many trappings of the bishoujo game adaptation within a single one-cour anime season. My three biggest problems with bishoujo game adaptations are as follows: late game magical realism, obviously rushed content, and heroines having their routes ignored. Let's see how Yosuga no Sora mitigates these issues.
Magical realism tends to be a recurring theme in bishoujo games that exists as a means to distinguish it from other very similar series. Take the tried-and-true high school setting, add in a tsundere, onananajimi, loli or imouto character and you have yourself a bishoujo game. Adding in a unique spin on the setting by sprinkling in some magical realism and incorporating it within the otherwise standard-fare narrative attempts to distance itself from everyone else without trying to think outside the box. Magical realism in a high setting is easily one of the most "within the box thinking" I think I've seen within otaku media. The fantastical elements can also add a certain whimsy and childlike wonder that can enhance the emotional connection the audience has. But to do this is just running the same marathon as everyone else, and gambling everything on winning out in the last stretch. If you don't have a solid start or enough energy in the middle, you won't even make it to the end. High school settings are proven to work but it plays it too safe sometimes, especially if that's the beginning and end to your game's appeal. And more often than not, the magical realism elements tend to fall flat by being introduced too late. This results in many of the ideas not being fleshed out, or not finding a foothold by losing the audience along the way. I think the latter is the biggest problem since this "twist" has the potential to disorganize your current understanding of the world and needlessly complicate things in the final act. Done correctly it has the potential to be the final revelation and make things fall into place. But done incorrectly and it can ruin an otherwise decently put together story by muddying the waters. Luckily, Yosuga no Sora doesn't mess with magical realism and instead relies on its setting to invoke the same nostalgic whimsy.
Yosuga no Sora takes place in an idyllic Japanese countryside town where everyone knows everyone and students walk to school alongside the rice paddies. The skies are blue and vast, the sun is bright and the summer nights are cool. Cicadas cry and put you in a trance as you watch the heatwaves dance along the road ahead of you. It's a setting I've become familiar with vicariously through my time spent watching anime, and one I'm sure Japanese natives are acutely aware of as well. I am reminded of my own childhood summer memories of being on vacation from school and being excited for what each new day might bring. The evanescent reverie was all too short-lived, as I grew up and the sunlight no longer sparkled in my eyes. But nevertheless, the summertime memories stuck with me as a reminder of the better days in my youth. Yosuga no Sora uses the shared whimsy we share for summer vacations and incorporates that within its setting. Summer is the manifestation of adolescent romanticism. Flashbacks the characters have of their youth take me back to my own. The show utilizes nostalgia as an emotional crutch as much as it does a theme within the story. The Kasugano twins are literally and figuratively returning to their childhood as much as we are. Going back to the house they grew up in, walking around the familiar streets then seeing the friends they had already said goodbye to all those years ago. The whole "going back to my childhood home" is actually a bit of a cliche within bishoujo games since it's one of the most direct ways to confront nostalgia. Yet, something about the rural summertime setting of this anime defines how I think about summer when I think about summer in Japan. Maybe it's the beautiful backgrounds, the excellent sound design in the quiet moments, or maybe it's just because I watched this before Non Non Biyori and Higurashi. Regardless, the feelings invoked through the setting allow for the stage to be set for the drama to unfold in the subsequent episodes.
My next two points are more or less intertwined, so I will attempt to address them in the same breath. Oftentimes in visual novel adaptations in general, fans of the original source material will complain about cut content. The sun rises, and visual novel fans will inevitably complain about anime adaptations- such is the natural state of things. There will always be cut content because we can easily quantify that the average length of a bishoujo game is longer than a one-cour anime. Even a two-cour anime won't be enough time to cover the common route in some games. However, a lot of content in these games is fluff that can be removed. But by doing so, we are also sacrificing the integrity of the original script. Many bishoujo games will include standard “events” like the bunka-sai, beach episode, summer festival or graduation. While seemingly superfluous, these events are often the most important parts about a game. It reminds me of field trips when I was in grade school. During my middle school trip we went to Washington DC and it was special not really because of the location, but because of how much I deepened my connections to my classmates. Outside of the traditional classroom setting, we were around these people doing things we never did before and spent a lot of time together. I returned from that trip feeling like I had a better understanding of who my friends were and was the better for it. Events in bishoujo games exist to achieve a similar goal and will progress stories during the flashiest "set pieces." These games don't really have cutscenes or boss battles, but these events attempt to fill that gap. Even if it's overdone, I can't help but cheer when I see a blue sky and skinny gals in bikinis when I watch the next episode preview. If you think about it, the type of bikini a character wears is quite telling of their personality and is not just fanservice. Not only that, but how the girls interact with each other and the protagonist wearing skimpy swimsuits can add an extra dimension to interpersonal relationship building by forcing them to confront one another and their feelings in a brazen manner. That is to say, I love beach episodes, bring on the suika smashing! Though I guess that is a conversation for another day.
Visual novels are notorious for having lengthy scripts, but that is what makes them special. It's a similar story with slice of life anime that seemingly has "only filler." This is when I like to bring up the somewhat infamous scene in the first episode of Lucky Star where Konata and her friends are talking about how they eat a choco-cornet. A lot of people will joke about this being a terrible first episode or how boring the conversation is, but I find it enthralling! Each character will explain how they eat and it gives insight to their personality. Konata eats her choco-cornet in an unusual manner and that tells us how she is a quirky off-beat type of girl. Think about your friends or family and the type of conversations you have, I assure you; you are not discussing serious topics all the time. Your relationships and understanding of other people are defined by the stupid little chit-chat you share on a daily basis. In the same way, visual novels and bishoujo games tend to characterize their cast through quantity over quality in the dialogue writing. This can be a double-edged sword since too many details with a crappy foundation won't make the character any better and make the script bloated. In anime adaptations there tends to be more so an emphasis on quality over quantity due to the limited runtime of each show. Bishoujo game adaptations attempt to bridge the gap by making otherwise superfluous dialogue a feature of their games that add depth to their characters. Yosuga no Sora allows the characters to interact organically through similar events that will vary between routes making the viewing experience more enjoyable. The fault of many adaptations is that they miss the forest for the trees- they will oftentimes add in event after event without necessitating them, simply including them because they were in the original game, but not knowing why they were important. The anime script writer needs to ask themselves: why is this scene here and how does it add to the narrative or character development. If inconsequential, it can be cut or abridged.
The anime then further refines its structure by incorporating an Amagami SS-esque “soft-reset” after a certain branching-off point in the story. Yosuga no Sora uses its first few episodes to establish the setting, characters and conflict before creating a branch point where Kasugano Haruko can choose which route to take. After about three or so episodes with the route, the story returns to that point and continues to the next route. This creates a very clean structure where each route is clearly defined and each girl gets to see their route through to the end. Not only that, but the point where the story returns to after each route is not static. That means each route will start off at a different point and feel fresh without reusing content. There is the downside of having a brief moment where the audience thinks “wait, how did we get here” but is answered relatively quickly. Some adaptations like to blend various routes together or build off one another, but I tend to prefer the Amagami SS structure, so I was happy to see it used here. As a result, none of the heroine's routes feel ignored and, despite the short amount of time they have to cover all the material, nothing really feels left out. The seeds to each relationship are established in the “common route” section before each is given a chance to flourish naturally in their respective routes. The routes conclude with an intimate and surprisingly tasteful sex scene that marks the emotional high of the character arc, and is a nice payoff for fans of each girl. So returning to my gripes with bishoujo game adaptations- rushed content and ignored routes. We can see how Yosuga no Sora makes the best use of its time to mitigate these problems from cropping up. The use of the soft-reset and smart use of key plot events allow for the series to run "lean." There is an argument to be had about sacrificing a bit of integrity with a segmented story. However, I think the trade-offs are for the best and manage to uphold constitution over precision when it comes to an adaptation. We still get to see each character on screen for the same amount of time we would have otherwise. This allows us to be acquainted with the cast just as much as the characters should within the context of the story.
I often have to ask myself why I keep watching so much high school anime. It's easy to say it's because I'm chasing nostalgia at a time in my life where childhood seems a million miles away. But perhaps the reason why I find myself watching these anime is the answer to why so much anime coming out of Japan seems to focus on that setting. High school was static- I just went to class and could get by sleepwalking through the building. High school life is a shared experience across teenagers in both Japan and the United States. It's also the last time you are a kid. At the time I knew I wouldn't agree with that statement since I was already too far gone within my own nostalgic attachment to the years prior, but now, I remember those years through the very rose-tinted glasses I love to indulge in. I was living a considerably simpler life but just never stopped to smell the roses and notice it. I want to remind myself of something familiar. Now that I no longer have to worry about homework, teen angst, or college entrance exams, I can enjoy the high school anime with a different perspective. It no longer is difficult to wake up in the morning to walk to school, or feel my anxiety and self-destructive tendencies take over as I find myself surrounded by all the unfamiliar faces. Now the setting is inviting like a warm blanket. I reunite with my 2D friends and laugh as I see the same familiar tropes repeated time after time. A gentle "haha" is carried off in the afternoon breeze.
Perhaps that's why high school anime exists- to allow us to vicariously live through the characters and experience things we missed out on; teen love, powerful friendships, club activities, graduation under the raining sakura, and thinking those things were all that mattered in the world. In Japan, high school and university mark the end of youth. It's the last time in your life you can really be yourself before succumbing to conformity in the workplace. Before you know it, you'll be dying your hair back, removing piercings, and wearing a black suit to go job hunting. Numerous other similar looking young adults line up next to you all there for the same reason. That is what the final days of youth looks like. In that moment, you remember the colorful days of your teenage years as blissfully sweet. All the cramming and difficulty in school wash away as nothing but a memory to smirk at for a moment. You instead remember fondly the days you spent wasting away in a club room, walking home with friends, or thinking what your crush thought of you was the most important thing in the world. She stands there, back turned to you, in a field of sunflowers. A warm summer breeze tickles your nose and her sundress' hem flutters in the wind. Your toothy smile, beads of sweat and strands of hair stuck upon that pale neck; closed eyes shadowed under a sunhat fluttering gently in a momentary breeze. We used to watch the fading contrails in those evanescent summer afternoons as the blazing orange sun slowly dipped beyond our understanding of the world. Sunlight danced in your eyes, coloring the fading twinkles of light a shade of unnatural crimson; you were so dazzling, but I always ran away. I now danced in a field of overgrowth, as the dying light reflected the same in my own eyes, but I could not see the same crimson as I saw that day. Because now you are so far away, that our fingers can no longer touch. Yet, I still closed my eyes and reached out my hand...
[a]who even knows if this is correct ww