Book Review: Narcissu Side 2nd, by Tomo Kataoka (visual novel)

Three years after its release in Japan, the eagerly-anticipated English translation of  Tomo Kataoka’s Narcissu Side 2nd, the prequel to his acclaimed visual novel, Narcissu, is now available. I reviewed Narcissu in 2009, and recommend you read that review before continuing with this one, especially if you are unfamiliar with Narcissu or with visual novels in general.

The operative word for Narcissu Side 2nd is more. More characters, more beautiful artwork, more lovely music, and most of all, more story by Mr. Kataoka. Where the original Narcissu was very simple and direct, the tragic tale of a brief adventure by two young people nearing the end of their lives, Side 2nd delves more deeply into the protocols of terminal illness, the meaning of life and death, friendship, and, surprisingly, faith. All the questions about Setsumi’s past left dangling in Narcissu–her presence on the 7th floor, her obsession with cars, maps, and the narcissus flower, and her desire to take one last road trip before she dies–are explained, and more, in Side 2nd.

The Past is Prologue: There are several brief prologues before the story actually begins. Setsumi, in her early twenties, enters the 7th floor hospice ward for the first time and begins to reminisce about her past. We’re introduced to another girl, Himeko, a former volunteer at the hospital who focuses her energy on fixing up a battered red sports car.  Himeko falls ill, and as her hospitalization drags on, it becomes clear that she’s not going to recover.

Now the story really begins. The focus shifts to Setsumi, and back in time to before her condition is diagnosed as terminal. She’s 15 years old, enduring an endless regimen of weekly medical checkups, wishing she could return to the carefree, happy life she once had. One day at the hospital, she encounters Himeko, now a patient on the mysterious 7th floor. They become friends, and as the days of summer pass by, Setsumi is drawn into Himeko’s world, helping her accomplish the last few items on a list of ten things Himeko wants to do before she dies. Setsumi is molded by her friendship with Himeko, and Himeko is, in turn, driven by a secret from her past that she won’t share with anyone else. As time runs out, Himeko must face her inner turmoil and decide how it will define what remains of her life. She’ll need Setsumi’s help to achieve that last goal.

A Different Destination: There are similarities between Narcissu and its prequel. Both are about young people facing premature death, isolated from the world around them, struggling bravely against despair. Much time is spent in the hospital. A car and a road trip play central roles.

However, while both stories are brimful of courage and tenderness, Side 2nd is ultimately a more hopeful story than the original Narcissu. It wrestles with how a person can sustain faith, hope, and even joy in the face of certain death. Himeko is a lapsed Catholic. She struggles with the incongruity of praying to a God who appears to be distant and silent, and who allows people whose lives have barely begun to be stricken with fatal disease. She wonders how her small efforts at comforting those who are suffering could possibly be adequate. In the end, it is the people she is trying to help who reveal the value of her halting, clumsy prayers,  and she begins to pick up the pieces of her shattered faith. Thinking back to Narcissu, I found it puzzling, and sad, that Setsumi wouldn’t weave this part of Himeko’s journey into her own, despite being influenced by Himeko in so many other ways.

Though he respects Christianity, Mr. Kataoka is not a Christian, and anyone looking for guidance about reconciling human suffering with faith in God probably won’t find much illumination here. Remarkably, his characterization of the Christian faith centers not on morality or religiosity, but on compassion and prayer. Whatever might be lacking in their understanding of God, the Christians in this story care self-sacrificially for others, and they pray. What they believe inspires their actions. As a definition, that doesn’t stray far from the mark.

What’s missing is an acknowledgment of God’s love and mercy. Though Kataoka identifies Christians as compassionate people, that quality isn’t extended to include the God they serve, who is ultimately its source. It’s there in a sense–Himeko and Setsumi are desperately in need of love and comfort, but are unable to accept it from their closest friends and family. A Christian observer might say that God brings the two of them together, using them as the instruments of His love and concern. The characters never make that connection, though, and they worry that God is not listening, or worse, that their illness is punishment for their shortcomings.

Improvements Under the Hood: Narcissu Side 2nd looks great. Software refinements over the past few years are reflected in a product that is attractive and easy to navigate. The user interface is sleeker than the original, but retains its simplicity. Audio is smooth, and I experienced no hangups, hiccups, or other glitches moving through the story. As with Narcissu, Narcissu Side 2nd follows a linear path without the reader choices and story branches prevalent in most visual novels (which, technically, makes this a “kinetic novel,” if you want to split hairs).

Extras, Extras: The biggest extra is the inclusion of the complete original version of Narcissu alongside Narcissu Side 2nd, accessible from a single control panel. Both stories include two different English translations, one by a British translator, the other by an American. The interpretations are distinctive enough to merit reading the story in each translation to glean the differences in nuance. There are also voiced versions with actors for Setsumi in Narcissu and for several major characters in Side 2nd.  The voice tracks are in Japanese, but they convey emotional content and make it easier to identify who’s speaking within a conversation (it can be easy to lose orientation at times in the text-only versions). The story can be advanced a few lines at a time with a mouse-click or keystroke, or it can be run continuously on auto-play.

Notes from the translators and from Mr. Kataoka included in the release shed more light on the development and production of Side 2nd. Mr. Kataoka favors the auto-play, voiced option, as he intended Side 2nd to feel more like a movie. He also recommends reading the stories in chronological order, Side 2nd first, then Narcissu, but I disagree. I think Side 2nd has more emotional weight in the wake of Narcissu, and the original story would lose some of its impact from the reveals in Side 2nd.  I could be wrong, of course.

Also, as in the original, there’s a jukebox function that allows you to play all the musical selections from both stories, which is a good listen, all by itself.

The whole thing is free, official, and authorized by Mr. Kataoka. You can download the Narcissu Side 2nd package here (for Windows) or here (for Mac). These are links to the mirror site I used to obtain my copy. The developer’s site has download links for all versions, but those links weren’t working at the time I wrote this review, probably due to server overload.

Bottom Line: Pretty much the same as the one I gave for Narcissu last year. Narcissu Side 2nd 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. In my opinion, it’s more hopeful and uplifting than the original Narcissu, and grapples with some difficult questions about life, death, faith, prayer, and dealing with terminal illness. It’s another road trip worth taking.

Note to parents–Neither Narcissu nor Side 2 are stories for younger children, and I’d rate them at PG-13, mostly as a recommendation for parental guidance. There’s no sex, violence, or bad language, but this is heavy subject matter, and some characters make questionable and tragic choices. Attitudes toward certain end-of-life issues in Japan are different from those prevailing in Western society, and those differences are reflected in these stories. They can be a springboard for serious discussions between parents and teens.

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