Circumstances beyond my control — mostly poor time management and my present obsession with Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 on PS3, if I’m being perfectly honest — mean that I haven’t yet finished a full playthrough of the visual novel I’d like to talk about today, but it’s already raised a bunch of interesting things to talk about, even before I’ve seen the whole story. So with that in mind, I’m going to talk about these interesting things, then return to this discussion when I’ve had an opportunity to see how the story actually ends.
The visual novel in question is one Kira Kira, a work by Overdrive that was brought to Western audiences by Mangagamer. It’s available in both “all-ages” and “adults-only” incarnations, with the former version also being available for iOS thanks to M-trix. The game stands by itself, but is also succeeded by a semi-sequel known as Kira Kira Curtain Call, which you can buy in a bundle with the adults-only version, and a spiritual successor known as DearDrops, in which some of the characters from Kira Kira put in an appearance.
Kira Kira is a “slice of life” visual novel that centers around the efforts of a Japanese Christian school’s “second literature club” to put together a band in time for their last cultural festival of their high school career. If this all sounds a little like the setup to the popular anime series K-On! you’d be partly right, though the focus in Kira Kira is much more on the characters and their backgrounds rather than on hilarious moe hijinks. It also has several male characters, too, which is considerably more than K-On! offers.
There are several things that have struck me very strongly about Kira Kira since I’ve started playing it. The first of these is how well presented it is. Rich artwork with lovely smooth lines and attractive, distinctive characters combines with high-quality music (performed on real instruments rather than synthesized), decent (Japanese-language) voice acting and some excellent stereo ambient sound to produce a very “full”-feeling experience. It’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in, and helps distract from the fact that there are vast tracts of the experience where you’re just reading page after page of rather wordy prose.
The main character Shikanosuke likes to talk, you see, and spends a lot of time directly addressing the player and reminiscing about things which happened in the past. It’s generally pretty clear when he’s lapsing into nostalgia — the visuals tend to take on a sepia-tinted aesthetic — but he often does it when you’re waiting to see what happens next. In some ways, this is a nice way of building anticipation for the events which you are hoping to see happen next — not to mention a good means of exploring the characters’ interesting backgrounds — but in others you sometimes just wish he’d get on with it rather than stroking his chin and mumbling about this time he remembers such-and-such happening. Such is the way of the visual novel protagonist, though.
The second — and perhaps more interesting — thing that’s struck me about Kira Kira is that it’s something of an inversion of a concept we talked about a few weeks ago: the way in which visual novels can be used to help people explore cultures other than their own. When we last discussed the way in which this often works from a Western perspective, it was largely to do with how the medium is an excellent means of immersing yourself in Japanese culture most commonly, but also, in games with fantastic settings such as Aselia the Eternal, completely fictional and well-realized environments. Kira Kira, meanwhile, allows us to understand something a little different: the way in which Japanese people see stereotypically “Western” concepts such as punk and rock music, and even to a lesser extent attitudes towards the Christian religion.
One particularly striking (and hilarious) sequence relatively early in the game revolves around the characters learning about what their mentor refers to as the “punk attitude.” He encourages them to take on an “I don’t care what people think” attitude and start peppering their utterances with as many obscenities as possible. What follows is a brilliant series of events where they all start using the word “fuck” as much as possible, even in contexts where it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. What makes it even more hilarious is the fact that the Japanese voice actors do all their swearing in English, which somehow makes it all the more amusing when they just end a sentence by bellowing “Fuck!” or “Son of a bitch!” for no apparent reason.
In the West, we have very little issue with people swearing this much — though it’s rare to see characters as “cute” as the cast of Kira Kira coming out with such obscenities — but the fact that these sort of scenes are coming from a culture in which respect and deference to others is such an important part of interpersonal relationships is very interesting. It’s also a stark reminder that despite the fact a lot of visual novels feature explicit sexual scenes or violence, the way the characters relate to one another is, for the most part, anyway, reflective of the rather polite norms of Japanese society.
Besides the swearing, though — which thankfully isn’t overplayed and stops after the aforementioned scene — you get the impression that the writers behind Kira Kira have a strong interest in and love for their subject matter. The presence of two (male) secondary characters who regularly flaunt their knowledge of rock and punk music allows for the game to both include recognizable references for fans of these types of music, and also to act as a means of educating those who are less familiar. In the latter case, the player will find themselves sympathasizing with the protagonist, who initially has very little interest in learning about music, but subsequently finds himself having fun along with the rest of the cast.
So far Kira Kira has done a good job of making me interested in its relatively small cast of characters and making me want to see them succeed. The obvious affection that the writers have for punk and rock music shines through in the writing and the interactions between the characters, but more than anything it’s simply an enjoyable slice-of-life tale with a bunch of characters that are fun to hang around with. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes — and rest assured there’ll be a more detailed report coming in this column when I’ve actually made it through the entire experience.
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.