Visual Novel

My Thoughts on Saya no Uta

So I recently finished a particularly disturbing visual novel. Before venturing into this, I knew nothing about what it contained: only who wrote it (Gen Urobuchi), and that it is a relatively well-received piece of work (Given an average score of 8.20 on its VNDB page). Sites like The Escapist and Kotaku have praised the game for being “fucked up” but beautiful. And I can’t say that I disagree.

Cover art for Saya no Uta

Starting Off

The only thing I knew about going into this was that it was written by Gen Urobuchi, known for horror-inducing works such as Psycho-Pass, Fate/Zero, and Madoka Magica. I love Urobuchi’s stories, and I heard that Saya no Uta was a particularly, for a lack of better words, interesting story. I didn’t know about what themes it explored, what the characters were like, or even how long it was. If you’re reading this thing trying to find an answer to the question “Do I recommend it?”, then I say hell yeah. Better to go into this visual novel completely blind. It makes for a more memorable experience. So, I implore you, read no further if you are currently blind to this piece of work.

…Okay, let’s continue.

Poor soul didn’t see it coming


WARNING: The rest of the article will contain massive spoilers for Saya no Uta. If you have not played the game, you WILL be spoiled.

Plot Summary

Saya no Uta begins with our main character, Fuminori, in a world that can only be described as a Lovecraftian nightmare gone haywire. Gore, pus, and blood make up this world. The buildings, floors, smell, even the people, are made of the stuff of nightmares. Yet this world is oddly familiar. Fuminori converses with several of the monsters like he’s in his normal Japanese life, talking about the upcoming skiing trip. From quickly established context, it’s clear what this nightmare world is. It is Fuminori’s imagination. A brain surgery from after a car accident has turned Fuminori from a cool-headed Japanese college student into a man living at the gates of Hell. He chooses to stay in isolation, fearing his potential career as a guinea pig if the doctors learn of his neurological condition.

His only release in this world is Saya, a (very) young-looking girl that appears human to Fuminori. She cares for him, loves him, and provides him with ample amounts of sex. From further interpretation, it is clear that Saya is not human, but one of the monsters that Fuminori views humans as. Saya boasts a wealth of knowledge, rivaling top-level professors and researchers. She claims to have a completely thorough understanding of the biology of humans, and even has the power to manipulate them at a molecular level. From the get-go, we the readers are just as confused as Fuminori is when questioning what the hell Saya is.

We are given a choice after Saya claims to have the power to turn Fuminori back to normal. We continue our miserable existence as a human living in this nightmare world, or as a normal human that has to answer for his strange behavior. The latter ends up at a bad ending, as Fuminori was unknowingly living with the corpses of humans and is sent to prison. So we’re forced to pick the former, choosing to abandon our humanity and live on for Saya’s sake (or so we’re told).

Fuminori learns of the harsh transition between these two polar-opposite lifestyles. His friend, Omi, is hunted by Saya and turned into dinner for two. His girlfriend, Yoh, transforms into a mindless sex slave of Saya’s nature, and Fuminori accepts this change with open arms. His best friend, Koji, is pushed into a well in the middle of nowhere by Fuminori. He originally was interested in finding out what Saya was via her old “guardian”, Dr. Ogai, a true definition of a mad scientist. However, as the story progresses through Fuminori’s loss of humanity, he no longer cares about Saya’s origins. Everything he does is for a future with him and Saya. The human world may as well not exist.

Cue Act 2. The story transitions from primarily Fuminori’s perspective to Koji’s. Fuminori’s therapist, Ryoko, rescues Koji from a frozen death, and reveals herself to be a detective and secret agent of sorts. She is obsessed with Dr. Ogai, and wants to know what the hell he uncovered and how she can stop it. Through a hidden laboratory, we learn more about Saya’s origins and what Fuminori has abandoned his humanity for. Saya is not from this world, that much is clear, but before Ryoko has time to formulate a plan, Koji, on his quest for revenge, sets out to find Fuminori. When the house is found empty, we’re given 2 options: give into our revenge-ridden mind and chew out Fuminori, or approach the situation with a calm mind and call Ryoko to formulate a plan. We’ll choose the latter.

This section wraps up pretty quickly. Koji acts as the distraction while Ryoko hides in the shadows and delivers the killing blow via liquid nitrogen. The plan goes slightly awry when Ryoko ends up fatally injured and Fuminori kills himself due to the grief of Saya’s death.

Oh, I forgot to mention, this is another bad end. Koji is now traumatized by the events. He begins having conversations with a hallucination of Ryoko and keeps a bullet in his bathroom just in case he teeters too far from the side of humanity.

In the “good” end, Koji decides to not consult Ryoko, goes straight for Fuminori, and dies at Saya’s hands. This is one of the parts that baffled me the most. Instead of sprinkling information about Saya throughout the story like it did in Act 1, Ryoko decides to give up and monologue her findings about Saya via Dr. Ogai’s writings. Saya is revealed to be a being from another dimension whose sole purpose is spreading her kind. The story ends with the Earth as we know it turning into the nightmare world that Fuminori only knew.

The entire experience lasted 4 hours with all endings completed.

Presentation and Aesthetics

One of the aspects of this game that really stand out is the music. Everything has this haunting and eerie vibe to it that appropriately correlates with the current events. I would almost recommend the game based solely on its OST. I’m not a music buff, but goddamn this music gave me the chills. The CGs also very much shine through the bleak setting. Almost too bright.

The backgrounds are hit-and-miss. Some are just photographs with tons of Photoshop filters layered on top. Others are beautifully crafted wallpaper-worthy pieces that perfectly capture the grizzly Lovecraft-inspired setting. Nothing is held back, you see every bit of detail in these scenes, making the whole experience that much more haunting to sit through.

And then there’s the sprites. I can only assume that they were made by an intern at the office. Body proportions are out of whack, and their thick, rough borders look out of place compared to the well-done backgrounds. Luckily, you don’t see them too often and there aren’t many of them.

Saya standing in the midst of Fuminori’s home


As one could gather from the previous section, I loved Act 1. The descent into madness part of a story like this always catches my fancy, and it was done particularly well here. Fuminori isn’t like a lot of other protagonists that are faced with adversity. He doesn’t falter for too long, gather misunderstandings, nor face his situation with denial. He fully accepts the world he’s in; so much so, that he’s willing to throw away what made him human in his old world to Saya’s and our surprise. We empathize with who is essentially the villain of the story. Fuminori’s isolation and lack of empathy isn’t a rare occurrence in modern-day humans. Saya represents the vessel that gives Fuminori life and purpose, and it’s quite beautiful the lengths he’s willing to go towards to sustain his private paradise.

Acting upon the choice of keeping his humanity in Act 1, Fuminori becomes a broken, hollow shell of a man. Seeing Saya visit and cry for him does something special to us as the readers. We sympathize with Fuminori, the monster. Not Fuminori, the man. It gives off a twisted sense of right and wrong, perfect for a Lovecraftian-like story. So upon reaching this point, we are implored to pick not the right, lifeless choice, but the wrong, joyful one.

Act 2 has none of this. It merely acts as a tool to progress the story towards the ending. Nothing of importance happens except the “good” ending, which I’ll talk about in a bit. Around here is where the game’s pacing is drastically different than the rest of the game, and where the sex and violence of the first act is nonexistent. The first act focuses mostly on Fuminori, occasionally cutting to his friends. The second act, however, focuses primarily on Koji’s and Ryoko’s perspectives. This would not be much of a problem given that Ryoko and Koji are interesting characters. However, they’re quite boring. Koji is a generic revenge-hungry and snoopy guy that you see in a lot of shounen material. Ryoko has practically no personality traits other than unwelcoming and straight-to-the-point. As a result, the second act feels drastically weaker than the rest of the story. Fuminori’s and his peers’ descent into madness made the first act worthwhile and what makes the story so memorable for so many people.

The H-scenes (literally “ecchi-scenes”, a.k.a. porn) felt right at home here. Some of the scenes felt like they were purposefully written just to have an H-scene included, such as Yoh’s first encounter and Saya’s oral service. However, they’re not outright distasteful, like Fate/stay night‘s H-scenes. They fit in with the “fucked up”-ness of the story and positively contribute as one of the iconic factors that make up this game.

I do like how Ryoko acts as the gatekeeper between humanity and madness. She’s accustomed to both sides and how to stay there. Sadly, we don’t learn much about her other than her relationship to the situation. Koji is frightened and a newcomer to the whole thing, teetering towards the side of madness. However, the rest of Act 2’s story is something we’ve all seen before executed in a fairly straightforward fashion. Koji, the hot-headed one, goes to the house where Fuminori and company are at and screws up. Ryoko, the cool-headed one, kills Saya and dies in the process. Fuminori, the villain, dies at his own hand. This is the climax of the story and it lasts merely 10 minutes and is the most straightforward the predictable thing imaginable. We learn absolutely nothing and it’s half the length of the first act, making it feel even less satisfying.

The “good” end that occurs after letting Koji give into his irrationality reverberates the same twisted sense of right and wrong. Of course, given the choice, none of us would ever choose a world of Lovecraftian nature. For Fuminori, however, who has passed the point of no return, has given up his humanity and chooses a world of monsters. He feels it is more appropriate for his current self. Of course, the human world is destroyed in the process. Ironically enough, Koji giving into his irrationality lit the spark to fuel his bad end. It felt almost identical to The End of Evangelion‘s ending, which is one of my favorite pieces of animation ever.

It’s a very colorful ending, and whether you agree with it or not, it teaches us to not ride the conveyor belt of life, but to get off, and explore what else the world has to offer. To act upon our irrational desires. To inspire us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. To make life interesting and live for ourselves.

Final Score

I don’t give numerical scores. I strongly recommend it though.

Danganronpa: Watching vs. Playing

I am currently expanding my horizons into other mediums of Japanese entertainment, mostly consisting of visual novels and light novels, since a lot of anime is adapted from these mediums. You’ve most likely heard of the phrase, “the book was better”. It is a phrase that implies that one shouldn’t experience a rehash of something that was already great. The Danganronpa series is ripe for this kind of discussion. It is a series where I played the games first, then watched the anime adaptations. I am someone that tries to experience everything in the way it should be. I don’t want to read about anything beforehand, I don’t want to wander into comments sections that might contain spoilers, and I certainly don’t want to watch rushed and lazy anime adaptations. Because of that, I now tell anyone that wants to get into the Danganronpa franchise to start with the games and avoid the anime at all costs.

Cover art for Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

The first entry in the Danganronpa series is Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (ダンガンロンパ 希望の学園と絶望の高校生). In my opinion, it is a fantastic game with a unique and immersive atmosphere, interesting characters, a bumping kickass soundtrack, and ludicrous mysteries that defy common sense, and you’re tasked with solving them. After playing the game, I promptly watched the anime adaptation, Danganronpa: The Animation (ダンガンロンパ 希望の学園と絶望の高校生 THE ANIMATION). Anyone that has a lick of common sense will tell you to never watch the anime adaptation, as it is a textbook definition of a bastardization. The interesting and lovable characters are now two-dimensional (ha, get it?) cutouts that vaguely resemble what they’re supposed to be. The impact of the confounding mysteries and their resolutions are diluted with rushed pacing, logic-defying plot holes, and sub-par animation quality. However, the anime is what introduced a lot of people into the Danganronpa series. It makes me happy that Danganronpa is getting more attention, I just wish it was through the better put-together medium.

Cover art for Super Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair Island

The fact that the anime is more popular than the game makes me so happy that the 2nd game didn’t get an anime adaptation. Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (スーパーダンガンロンパ2 さよなら絶望学園) takes the insanity of the first game and brings it to another level. The trials are even more confounding, the character designs are even more of a sight to behold, and the music is still pretty kickass. I wish Danganronpa: The Animation was the last in the line of Danganronpa anime adaptations, but, recently, another one finished airing. Danganronpa 3: Future SideDanganronpa 3: Despair Side, and Danganronpa 3: Hope Side (all of these will be referred to as Danganronpa 3 [DR3]) only add to the confusion surrounding the story of DanganronpaFuture Side takes place after the games, Despair Side takes place before the games, and Hope Side is the conclusion to it all. I’ll admit, it was awesome to watch everything unfold. I had a lot of fun watching these series, and I got a bit teary-eyed at the end of everything. I gave them high scores on MAL, and moved along.

As more time passed, I began to realize that DR3 was completely worthless. The animation quality was a little better than Danganronpa: The Animation, but nothing impressive. There were even more logical holes in the writing, the new characters were boring, and the old characters felt like they were just along for the ride. The whole thing felt like it was piggybacking off of the success of the original games and just served its purpose as a spin-off, non-canon anime. The fact that the newest game (not released at the time of writing) is called Danganronpa V3 (DRV3) proves that DR3 should not be considered to be a canonical entry in the Danganronpa series. It’s a spin-off that’s not supposed to be taken very seriously. There’s no way the newest game would have V3 after it if it acknowledged DR3‘s existence.

UPDATE (Jan 23, 2018): Danganronpa V3 was released a while ago, and it does in fact acknowledge Danganronpa 3‘s existence, contradicting what I predicted a year ago. An explanation as to why would contain major spoilers for V3.

Cover art for New Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony

Why am I even talking about this? Well, DR3 was very successful, and it was many peoples’ entry point into the Danganronpa series. Now the franchise is stuck with a confusing naming scheme that will lead people into watching another bastardization of a loved series, and now many people can no longer get the full gripping experience that is the Danganronpa games, as DR3 and Danganronpa: The Animation have served their purpose of being the leeches of a wonderful game series. This is now leading me away from anime adaptations of visual novels in general, as, like I said in my reasoning for dropping the Rewrite anime, they practically never live up to the expectations of fans and me. I’m only expecting another bastardization of something truly magical and special to lots of people.

There is one good thing about these anime adaptations: they introduce more people to the world of visual novels. Anime is more popular than pretty much all other forms of Japanese entertainment. Therefore, it has a bigger audience. Most people watch seasonal stuff that they wouldn’t watch otherwise. If something like the Danganronpa anime has that slight advantage of having an audience before it even exists, it’ll only grow into a bigger audience once given the status of a seasonal anime. Now you have people that want to watch the Danganronpa anime not because they played the games, but because the premise sounds like a wild ride. It’s an indirect method of introducing more people to the games and to the world of visual novels if they weren’t already in it. I just wish you could wipe your memories of the plot before enjoying the true experience.

The Danganronpa games have received loads of praise from myself and many people of the otaku world, while the Danganronpa anime have received hate from those that have played the original games and truly love the series. Not all anime adaptations of games are the worst things in the world. Some very famous and highly appraised anime, like Clannad, Steins;Gate, and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works are all adaptations of highly appraised and famous visual novels (Clannad, Steins;Gate, Fate/stay night). Danganronpa is a truly unique experience that’s being tainted with these rushed and weak adaptations. If you know what happens before going into something, it feels boring. The surprises are now diluted to over-exaggerated events. I’m the kind of person that tries to avoid all spoilers for anything. I can’t even watch a movie trailer because they’re now known to spoil most of the basic story. The anime do serve a purpose other than making money of a successful franchise, and that is to introduce more people to the world of Danganronpa, people that normally wouldn’t play visual novels.

Danganronpa is just an example. As stated on several other occasions, practically all other visual novels, light novels, manga, source material in general that gets an adaptation of any kind will experience some form of degradation. They won’t have something that the source material had. Whether that something actually hindered the popularity of the source material is a different matter entirely, and probably something for a future article.

TL;DR: Play the Danganronpa games, stay away from the anime.