Book Review: Narcissu, by Tomo Kataoka (Visual Novel)


Two young people with terminal cancer meet on Floor 7 of a large hospital in Japan.  Floor 7 is the hospice ward, where patients are monitored and given palliative care while they wait to die. Setsumi, a 22-year-old girl, has been discharged and readmitted twice previously, and is about to be discharged again.

From Setsumi’s experience on the ward, people who return the third time don’t leave the hospital again, and she doesn’t want to die there. Nor does she want to die at home, surrounded by people who she barely knows, who have rarely visited her.

The nameless male protagonist, a newcomer to the ward, is intrigued by this enigmatic girl, about his age, who rarely speaks, but he feels similarly helpless to change his situation. They spend several days in near-silence, watching television in the ward’s lounge. Then one day, the young man’s father visits, leaving a set of car keys on the table next to his son’s weekly care package while he confers with the hospital staff.

The boy and girl seize their opportunity to escape the oppressive dolor of the hospital. Grabbing what few belongings they have, they steal the car and embark on a trip to…somewhere. They don’t have any direction in mind at first and wander aimlessly along the back roads, finally deciding to head for Awaji Island, known for its lush carpeting of narcissus flowers. They have a few adventures along the way, and learn more about each other, but they know the relative tranquility of their travels can’t last forever, and it won’t prevent the relentless advance of their illness. When they reach the island, Setsumi decides where she wants to die.

You don’t need me to tell you this is a sad story. Kataoka presents it in a very minimalist style, with a very linear plot. The story is introspective, mostly concerned with the thoughts and feelings of the two main characters, their struggle in the face of despair, and their desire to seize some happiness and control over their fate in the last days of their lives. It makes no judgments, takes no positions, refuses to preach or cajole. It simply observes these two people trying to maintain their dignity in a world that has seemingly turned its back on them and has rendered them invisible.  The narcissus flower and its underlying myth provides an extended metaphor for their lives–they are Echo to the world’s Narcissus, reaching out in futility toward a joy and fulfillment that will never acknowledge or embrace them.

Narcissu is a visual novel, a wedding of prose, pictures, and music, designed to be interactive with the reader. This format is popular in Japan, but is gaining an audience in other countries, including the United States. Visual novels, like any fiction, are a very mixed bag, ranging from more literary stories, like this one, to more game-oriented applications, often with heavy erotic content that unfortuately tends to create a negative broad-brush perception of the entire genre. I think visual novels have a lot of unrealized potential to bring quality stories to a wider, younger audience that is tuned into technology and multimedia entertainment. They’re usually produced by a team of commerical artists, but Narcissu is primarily the work of  Mr. Kataoka, plus a few talented friends who created the pictures and music. This story is also unique in that it provides both a voiced (for Setsumi’s character, in Japanese) and unvoiced version, with the written text rendered by two different translators, working independently, one with a background in British English, the other in American English. The two translations are subtly different, and change the impact of certain scenes, so it’s worth reading both.

Aesthetic issues: Narcissu unfolds in a very spare, unadorned style. This was an intentional choice. Kataoka wanted the reader’s imagination to do most of the heavy lifting and didn’t want to distract from that with a lot of visuals, but he also wanted to strike a balance between sensory overload and total abstraction. The pictures that are used are lovely, rendered in soft pastels, but there aren’t very many. There are about a dozen musical tracks that accompany the story, and they’re worth having all by themselves. They compliment the story’s melancholy mood very well. The prose, and especially the dialogue, is a little choppy, partly because of the limitations of the software engine (NScripter/onscripter), which doles out text in one or two-line nuggets, and partly because Kataoka, by his own admission, is more of a poet than a novelist, and he was more concerned with creating a feeling in the reader (and I think he succeeds) rather than offering a polished narrative. There are also some cultural elements in the Japanese style, such as long pauses used in dialogue, that may frustrate unfamiliar Western readers. There are some beautiful snippets of writing, though, especially toward the end of the story. Narcissu is also not very interactive, as visual novels go. There’s only one path, so readers looking for a choose-your-own-adventure sort of experience will be disappointed.

Philosophy: There’s courage and tenderness in Narcissu, but very little hope, and that was for me the saddest aspect of the story. Kataoka opens and closes the story with a grim statistic about life in Japan circa 2005 (and it’s probably little different, in per-capita terms, elsewhere in the world). My mother died of cancer when I was 14, and it was sad, and tragic, and in many ways, Kataoka gets the experience spot-on. What’s missing is the faith my mother had, and the rest of our family shared, that death wasn’t the end, and that there is a meaning and purpose intended for our lives that extends beyond our time on Earth. No moment of our lives is pointless, every minute counts, and we’re not alone in an empty, uncaring universe. There is a God, and He cares about us, loves us, and wants to be right there with us, even in the most harrowing and sorrowful times in our lives, if we’ll just let Him.

Technical issues: Narcissu is available as a free download for both Linux and Windows. I downloaded the Linux version of the story, which played pretty well on my 16GB Dell Mini webbook without taking up a lot of system resources. The only technical problem that bothered me was some roughness and dropouts in some of the audio tracks, possibly a result of  the lower-resolution version of the music files  used in the downloadable web version to save space. There’s a CD version of Narcissu on the market that has the higher-quality audio, but I believe it’s Japanese-only.

Goodies: There are some very nice features provided in the package, including interesting and fairly extensive production notes from the author and translators, a jukebox interface for direct access to the audio tracks, and the ability to bookmark your place within the story. This being freeware, it’s also possible to separate out a commented script of the story to allow comparison between the two different translations.  Narcissu’s support website has a slew of background info, but there are a lot of spoilers contained within, so it’s probably best to save that for after you’ve read the story.

A prequel to Narcissu, Narcissu Side 2, focusing on Setsumi’s earlier life, was released in Japan in 2007, and is the process of being translated to English. There’s a brief, downloadable demo on the Side 2 webpage with a couple of scenes from the prequel, and I think it looks even stronger than the original story.

UPDATE, 10 Apr 10: The English translation of Narcissu Side 2 is now complete and available for free download.  Developers’ release page here. Downloads were not working from the developers’ site when I posted this, but a there’s a download mirror here (Windows version) or here (Mac version).  The download includes both parts 1 and 2, in multiple translations, voiced and unvoiced. I’ll post a review of Narcissu Side 2 once I’ve read through it.

Bottom Line: Narcissu is a sad, haunting tale accompanied by beautiful artwork and music, and it’s a good example of a literary form of the visual novel. It requires a little patience from the reader, but it’ll make you think, and unless you’re carved out of stone, it’ll make you feel, too. You may feel sad, you may feel confused, you may even feel outraged, but your emotions will be stirred, and that was the author’s sole intention. It’s a road trip worth taking.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Narcissu, by Tomo Kataoka (Visual Novel)

  1. Rarely has any work of fiction forced me so deeply to think about the meaning (or lack thereof) of life, and about the role that we, as humans play on the mysterious universal stage. It was comforting to read your review; the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in appreciating this novel brought me great comfort.

    1. This wasn’t a format where I expected to see such heavy issues met head-on, and thoughtfully. Death is a topic we don’t like to dwell on, for obvious reasons, and I liked the way the main characters were fighting to sustain a sense of hope and meaning in a situation that offered little of either, though Setsumi’s choice at the end was disappointing.

      I think the Side 2 prequel digs a little deeper into the struggle to find meaning in that terminal scenario, and illustrates how we’re often blind to the benefit our lives provide to others, even to the very end.

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