Playing with Pathos; Narcissean Tragedy

by eternal on September 25, 2010

Narcissu holds quite a reputation among English-speaking visual novel fans – it was the first encounter with non-branching VNs for many of us, and its particular brand of tragedy is significantly different from what we might remember from the Key anime adaptations. From the time of the translation’s release to now, it’s become an icon of heart-wrenching storytelling that every newbie stumbles into and invariably sheds tears at. I played the first game back when I was first introduced to the medium, but after reading through the second story a few years later, I found a few key points that differentiate the franchise from the other tales of terminal illness that are only superficially similar.

You might – should – already be aware that Narcissu is not a nakige. It’s actually tagged on VNDB as an utsuge, or “depressing game”. The most notable difference here is that nakige tend to manipulate the viewer’s emotions toward a certain end, perhaps to develop feelings for a heroine or to experience some catharsis at a dramatic conclusion, while utsuge are more “pure” in their presentation, relying more on inevitability and tragedy than a drama that exists for the sake of finding closure after the credits role. Of course these are only general descriptions, and one subgenre isn’t inherently superior to the other, but Narcissu makes the difference between them clear as day.

Contrary to the post’s title, Tomo Kataoka doesn’t exactly “play” with pathos. He affects the viewer emotionally in the opposite way: by telling a tragic story that stands on its own, no strings attached. The emotional response can vary wildly thanks to thematic open-endedness of the franchise, leading some readers to see a glimmer of hope and others to see nothing but darkness. I believe Kataoka stated in the two afterwords that he wanted people to see past the sadness and grasp a meaning, but that meaning is subjective in my opinion. It’s as vague and abstract as the meaning that Setsumi and Himeko seek in the last days of their lives.

My view on Narcissean tragedy, as I jokingly call it, is that Kataoka wants his readers to see death through different eyes, which can in turn lead us to see life through different eyes. His devices are effective, and they’re markedly different from the classic nakige tools; Narcissu presents us with inevitability, no self-insert, glimmers of optimism drowned out by reality, and a strangely mellow, laid-back portrayal of what could have been a melodrama. The writing is emotive, but the characters hide their feelings rather than appealing to the viewer’s sympathy. The sympathy is there – along with the fear of the incoming conclusion – but it grows naturally as the narrative shows us the meaning of life through the eyes of a dead woman walking.

It’s hard to sum up in a paragraph, but the feeling that Narcissu gives me is distinctly different from the feeling of most tragic stories in anime. Perhaps that’s because it’s only a tragedy in plot – the story desperately searches for a silver lining thematically, and in retrospect, I think it finds it. The second game makes this more clear as Himeko’s death isn’t shown on-screen; the climax of her tale is the memory of a suicide and the decision to live until the end. It’s an ironic thematic sequel to the first game since it’s technically a prequel, but in a sense, it provides the closure that Setsumi’s death only grasps for. As for which of the tales is more dramatic, that decision rests with you.

Narcissu is a difficult story to write about. Not because it’s complicated or even depressing – the second game moved my mind more than my heart – but because there are a lot of minor forces at work that make a major difference. It’s a tragedy, but not really; it’s about finding meaning in life even in the face of death, but it’s pessimistic enough to stop that emotional resolution from saving any of the victims. In the end, who can say which of the characters made the right decision? Is it right to accompany a dying soul to their death, or to die with them? Is it better to keep living until the last breath?

There is no answer. From the way the scenarios played out, the way each tragedy ends with a tearful goodbye as the soon-to-be deceased tries to look at the glass as half-full, I don’t believe that Kataoka wanted us to settle on one concrete answer. Instead, by forging a narrative that takes us on a solemn journey through the days before death, he lets us arrive at our own answer to the question of what defines a happy life and what defines a tragic death.

Perhaps this is why, when all is said and done, the story will always be classified as a bittersweet tragedy about the inevitability of death and the beauty we can find before that inevitability arrives.


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin September 25, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve not had chance to read the second one yet but the original Narcissu never struck me as *just* a tragic story either. The amount of detail, the social commentary, not to mention the storytelling itself, suggested that there was more going on than merely telling a tearjerker.

If I had to condense my own impression on the story I’d say it was as much about life as it is about death; I could expand on that to a full post in of itself though. I’d also say Narcissu is about finding and enjoying the chance for choices within the constraints of what life has dealt you.

I can certainly understand how difficult it is to put your personal feelings and thoughts into neat, easy-to-convey form…I know I have trouble with it in this case! I didn’t know the distinct definitions of ‘nakige’ and ‘utsuge’, although Narcissu is definitely not the former. There’s far more to it than that.

I really need to read the second one now!


ETERNAL October 22, 2010 at 1:29 am

Yes, you really do! I read your post on the first game long after you wrote it, but it helped get me thinking about the franchise again when I was preparing to write this. Sometimes I wonder if the story would be best experienced after playing several visual novels to make the uniqueness of it stand out; a lot of people play Narcissu as one of their first VNs, and it’s easy to get it muddled with the other tragic stories like the Key games when you don’t have much to compare it to.


LostGamer September 27, 2010 at 4:51 am

Is there a legitimate place to purchase VNs such as this one?


Aelms October 1, 2010 at 3:28 am

Narcissu Side 2nd (packaged with the original) is a special case amongst all other translated VNs. The translator(s) managed to get the permission of the original maker to distribute it as a stand-alone, completely free of charge. So basically, downloading Narcissu from the internet is completely legitimate.

Here’s the link to the download page:


Aorii September 27, 2010 at 11:27 am

Mmmh, the borderline between Nakige and Utsuge is just too blurry for a distinct contrast. Tbh, given that tragedy (even since its pre-Shakespearean days) roots itself in being impactful & memorable by twisting emotions, I’d say even their goals are of the same origin; besides many Nakige melodrama tries to prove pure themes all the same. The only diff imo is that in a Nakige you don’t necessarily know how they’re going to manipulate you, whereas in Utsuge you know it’s going to end badly from the very start (thinks Saikano) — and the entire story is just a slow descent.

and I really ought to play Narcissu2… <.<


ETERNAL October 22, 2010 at 1:31 am

The styles can be quite different between the two, but it’s blurry indeed, especially since we have a very limited sample pool. You’re right about utsuge being a forewarning though; it’s a genre but also a spoiler tag…


$tranger September 27, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Even though most of these utsuge make me feel depressed and often depressed only (even Planetarian which doesn’t even fit into the category made me watch its Title menu for 20 minutes straight after the ending), I still find myself drawn to them after all ;)
I haven’t played Narcissu yet (although it’s on my endlessly long ToDo-List), but I’m almost sure that it’ll leave me depressed aswell, at least for a short while. Still, I like well-written and emotional stories, so I’ll be sure to pick these games up.

(Btw: Late congratulations to your anniversary :D)


ETERNAL October 22, 2010 at 1:33 am

Ah, and this is a late “you’re welcome” to your words of thanks! You’ll certainly like Narcissu; this game and Planetarian are two of the most common visual novels for English speakers to play as they’re entering the medium, and it’s not only because of their popularity. It might be nice to play Narci1 and 2 side by side to compare them.


Krozam October 14, 2010 at 4:23 am

Completely unrelated to the blog post, but I thought this the most convenient way of getting in touch with you.

I highly recommend checking out Yosuga no Sora, one of this season’s new anime. It’s based on an adult visual novel, just like Fortune Arterial, but unlike FA, which seems like an average adaptation based on the opening episode, YnS is quite possibly going to be the best VN adaptation ever. With just two episodes, the director has me convinced that he’s a genius (although, I’ve already seen Spice and Wolf II from his previous works and it’s really good). The production quality is the best I’ve ever seen in a VN adaptation (possibly excluding Umineko), the original work is obviously something worth reading (hope it gets translated soon), many of the characters have already shown to be deep, multidimensional and engaging, and the direction is abso-fucking-lutely fantastic!

The story’s got two sides to it. On the other hand it’s a slice of life/school life with some pretty classy fanservice, but there’s a whole another story going on with the main character sister and brother: a story of painful solitude and forbidden love. This story is unafraid of taking on some difficult themes, and yet it’s not all angst: the light-hearted and serious side are exceptionally well balanced and blended together.

I’m sure you, being someone who reads visual novels and likes to analyze them, will get much out of Yosuga no Sora.


ETERNAL October 22, 2010 at 1:39 am

Hmm, I’m a little surprised that you’re this excited about the show. I’m watching it and it’s entertaining so far, but it hasn’t yet struck me as anything more than, well, promotion for the game. I did have a post idea in mind that I might toss together… well, either way, I’d like to see it develop into something deeper but I don’t think I’d be too disappointed if it doesn’t. That said, I don’t doubt the quality of the source material at all, and I’d like to see if the anime presents me with something that can actually be analyzed.


Krozam October 22, 2010 at 2:02 am

I’ve got plenty of material for analyzation from just 3 episodes. The themes, one opening and two endings, 4 characters who’ve been concentrated on so far, and of course the excellent direction: every choice of perspective and every scene cut screams “a conscious choice” to me. So far the most impressive “choices” have been the scene cuts between Haru’s school life and Sora’s brooding in the first two episodes: they sent me a subtle yet immediately clear message about the nature of Sora’s solitude. After the second episode, I suddenly had no problem imagining what it’d be like to have a frail body and spend your childhood being left out of so much fun, with the only person who really cares about you having his own life to live, a life that couldn’t completely revolve around you.

I’ve read and seen some really good, deep stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with so much material to analyze on in just three episodes. Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, but there’s something about YnS that just invites me to analyze it unlike anything else before.


LostGamer October 14, 2010 at 9:10 am

I’m a Spice and Wolf fan! Any legitimate sites carrying this show, Yosuga no Sora?


Krozam October 14, 2010 at 3:41 pm

You mean like CruchyRoll and Hulu? I’m afraid not. Not yet at least.


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