Dies irae: Amantes amentes

I recently finished reading the highly praised epic Dies irae, and what an epic it was. While a lot of it feels nothing more than action and redundant, generic speeches, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface of the plot which does not get revealed until the latter half. Moreover, many have bestowed upon it the title of the best chuunibyou story ever written. Contrary to what probably the vast majority of Western anime fans may believe, the chuuni genre is hardly limited to teenagers glorifying the idea of superpowers and magic words. Rather the genre itself is one which glorifies anything in the name of awesome for the sake of awesome. Rather than trying to be serious about the logic of the powers and plot, it instead has self-awareness about its own absurdity and plays that up even more. And so with stories like Dies irae, the superpowers are completely real, the stakes are as ridiculous as what they claim, and chanting psalms to unleash your true power is an absolute requirement – all because it’s cooler that way and nothing more. Even so, Dies irae rises above the rest of chuuni stories as being something that is incredibly well written. The prose is so elegant and grandiose, reflecting in its annals the embellished glorification of superpowers, and the English localization masterfully translates this immersive tone to the spectators of the Grand Guignol.

Before delving into the prophesized Day of Wrath, it is necessary to understand that Dies is heavily influenced by Also sprach Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, as many of the characters, themes, and ideas are directly based off it. To be completely frank, a fully accurate and fair analysis is something outside my range of knowledge and understanding. I could never hope to do a proper philosophical analysis of it as it pertains to Christianity. But simultaneously, we must remember that Dies is also the pinnacle of the chuuni genre – a genre that is not supposed to be taken seriously. Thus, it is this comical dichotomy that creates a story engrossed in philosophy yet meaningless in its delivery. Any outlandish interpretation we choose to make of it can therefore be argued as viable not because that is what the work is about but because making such a claim would in the spirit of the work. In other words, the genre is not about speaking in red but speaking in gold. It is not about stating the truth but about creating your own truth.

To give a quick and horribly simplified summary of Also sprach Zarathustra and Nietzsche’s philosophy, it includes a harsh critique about Christian theology. Zarathustra is a man who speaks of the ubermensch, an individual who journeys to master himself and has complete power over himself. Humans are but the transition between monkey and ubermensch. Furthermore, the universe is always in flux and changing; nothing is fixed. Therefore, the ideas of an unchanging God and an absolute truth and even a fixed morality are all false. To be misguided by something claiming to be unchanging is to fail as an ubermensch. Finally, the universe is always recurring in a phenomenon known as the eternal recurrence. An ubermensch accepts this for he has no regrets in life and would be delighted to repeat anything in life no matter how much suffering it entails, going as far as to even laugh in the face of hardship. Therefore, the idea of heaven or hell after your life ends is an idea for the weak, those who cannot accept the reality of the present. To desire an end is to run from the truth of eternal recurrence. Okay, that is far from an acceptable summary, but these ideas are critical to understanding Dies irae and the following explanation.

Now I must summarize a 50 hour long VN in a short paragraph. Ren, the protagonist of our story, is forced to gain supernatural powers and fight against superpowered Nazis or let the world be destroyed by their leader. He is given the name Zarathustra and as an ubermensch, is able to alter the world around him with his own desires, by his own powers, as are the antagonists. Skipping over a million plot points, he will find himself facing off against the two leaders of the remnant Nazis: Reinhard the Beast and Mercurius the Serpent, references that are far from a coincidence. In the world of Dies irae, Mercurius is an enigmatic figure whose true nature is the god of the world who achieved the highest level an ubermensch can and paints the laws of the universe with his dearest wish: eternal recurrence. In the end, Ren puts an end to both The Beast and The Serpent, ending the eternal recurrence. His partner Marie takes the Throne of the universe and paints over the Law with her desire to envelop every person with her love. Wow I butchered that summary too but these are the key points I need to comprehend things

In Nietzsche’s work, Zarathustra accepts the eternal recurrence, but Ren destroys it. In other words, Dies irae can be viewed as a criticism of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity. The eternal recurrence which he speaks of is but a farce and ended by one who carries the very name of Nietzsche’s prophet-like protagonist. Furthermore, the eternal recurrence is created by The Serpent, who symbolizes Temptation.  In other words, in the world of Dies, eternal recurrence represents the cycle of sin as we constantly repeat the folly of our own actions (No doubt Taichi’s Channel has a thing or two to say about this). Indeed, the characters constantly refer to this phenomenon of eternal recurrence, stating they already have foreknowledge of a situation even if it is the first time they have experienced it. For the cycle of sin is the repetition of our folly and though we have foreknowledge of it, we still sin even while knowing exactly how it will go.

If Mercurius the Serpent represents Temptation then Reinhard the Beast naturally represents Satan. It is important to note that Reinhard, The Beguiling Light, was a normal man until he encountered the Serpent, whose silver-tongued words tempted Reinhard down the path of becoming Mephistopheles. As you may recall, Lucifer was originally an angel of heaven, and it was only when he listened to the temptations of his pride that he became the Satan of today. Furthermore, Reinhard is constantly referred to as being incredibly handsome; he is said to be the most beautiful man the characters have ever laid eyes on. Yet again, this description is fully intentional to make a parallel to his Biblical identity. Although, above everything else, the story outright calls him the Devil, making it less symbolic and more literal. Alongside this blatant parallel to the Devil, Reinhard is depicted as the ideal ubermensch: he is someone who accepts and loves everything equally. He does not regret and he does not fear whatever befalls him. Even when faced with death, he merely laughs in amusement, exactly as Nietzsche describes an ubermensch should. As such, it is clear that Dies irae is depicting Nietzsche’s ideal as the Devil incarnate, the one who rules over Legion.

Finally, with the destruction of both Mercurius the Serpent and Reinhard the Beast, the Throne of the World of Emanation is usurped by Marie the goddess who envelops all with her love. Most notably is that she chooses to envelop all the antagonists including Reinhard with her love as well. Her love does not discriminate against anyone. Sound familiar? By putting an end to the cycle of sin, the laws of the universe are replaced with infinite love – God’s love for us. Nietzsche’s entire philosophy is undermined by a power even greater than eternal recurrence: Christianity. Viewing the world of Dies irae a little differently, one could even call it a microcosm of our spiritual lives wherein we are initially ruled by the emanation of temptation, and it is only after a long struggle that we are able to put God on the Korsia of our lives and escape the Ghetto. Indeed, the story which unfolds is revealed to be but a theatrical act directed by The Serpent who grew wary of the eternal recurrence created by his own desires. We too will grow weary of the cycle of sin which tempts as daily, for no gratification in life can fill the gaping hole in our lives but Christ. We seek an end to eternal recurrence yet simultaneously do not choose to break free of it ourselves, even if the power of formation is buried in our souls. It is when the one who sits on the Throne emanates love throughout our lives that we can finally put an end to the deceitful cycle of eternal recurrence. Ren’s rejection of the supernatural and his return to the ordinary is depicted as the equivalent of the return of Odysseus to his wife Penelope. It is only through similar struggles that we too can return home to be the bride of Christ.

It may be easy to argue that my interpretation of Dies irae is wrong, but in the context of a chuuni story, does it even matter? Making pseudo-intellectual claims is the entire basis of the genre; with Dies being what it is, my entire argument could only be wrong by not being ridiculous enough. By making the original story of Zarathustra the basis of Dies irae, Masada is discussing Christianity in the way only a chuuni would. For the Light of the world is what birthed the story which he penned. Therefore, let this be my Beri’ah, the manifestation of my desires in the real world, so I’ll say it in gold:

Dies irae is a criticism of Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity

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The Importance of Your Most Mundane Choices

This post will heavily spoil the content of the visual novel Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi. You have been warned.

She seems innocent enough…

Regardless of how much you know about what makes the visual novel Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi as interesting as it is, one of the main heroines Aoi immediately begins the story by talking about how they are in a game. Thus, the lurking suspicion of whether she is just being a denpa girl or actually breaking the 4th wall is there from the onset. However, no matter what she says about being a fictional character, or about how the game CGs or the “god” of the outer world, it is never clear which of the two it is. At least for the first third/route of the game, which features the cute childhood friend Miyuki. However, after you complete her route and begin Aoi’s, things slowly get weirder as you interact with the denpa girl. The natural conclusion is that she’s just crazy with her talk about god and needing sex to maintain her existence. Then the game reaches a climactic scene just after you’ve fulfilled her obsession for sex. Miyuki crawls out from under the bed (and now the Nitroplus horror begins) where you just did the deed, straight up murders Aoi and breaks the protagonist’s limbs with her baseball bat, accusing him of betraying her. But this is a VN, and on the Aoi route, you never got together with Miyuki. Yes, but she’s not talking about THIS route, and she’s not talking to the protagonist. She’s talking about the previous route, and she’s talking to the YOU behind the monitor screen, playing this game.

And thus the 4th wall is shattered as you enter the final leg of the story that challenges everything you thought you knew about this game. The game is actually forcefully closed and rebooted. The new loading game screen looks like some 8-bit game out of the 80s. You can try to load your old saves but they no longer exist. Yes, the game literally deletes all your save files. You start a new game that appears to be the same as before. However, if you click the wrong choice, you end up in an inescapable loop. You close the game because there is no way to exit the loop. The game will not close. There is literally no way to close the game other than doing a forced shutdown (at least, I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe there’s some gimmick). You reboot the game. Instead of what you expect, Miyuki appears and asks “do you understand how this world works now?” You are no longer playing a game. You are playing against Miyuki, and she knows exactly what you are doing and can control the game as she pleases.

怖怖怖怖怖怖

The rest of the game basically consists of trying to outwit Miyuki, in a loop of satisfying Miyuki’s yandere lust for you all while the game remembers every action and choice you’ve taken. Even when you think you’ve outwitted Miyuki, she still knows because she is the game. The final climax involves YOU the player, not the protagonist, choosing which girl you truly love. After the credits roll, you will find you cannot go back to replay anything. The only way is to completely uninstall the game and reinstall anew. In this way, the game’s story and message has a direct effect on the real world. In the end, what the game asks of you is that even though you are playing a game, to truly consider the meaning of the choices you make and care for the characters you interact with. While it comes off as an amusing and hilarious trick that makes for a memorable game, it is nevertheless something that is very interesting to consider on a deeper level.

How much do you really think about the choices you make in life? I’m not talking about the big ones like where to go for college, whether to buy a house, or whether to take that job on the other side of the world. But how much do you think about the small choices; do you even think at all? How much do you think about the daily conversation you have with your coworker, or about the momentary interaction with a stranger on the street? There is a natural inclination to care less about the decisions you make when it comes to people you are not too invested in or are not a big part of your life. After all, there’s nothing wrong with going through the motions that society expects of you for a person you may never interact with again. Who cares if it’s thoughtless when your paths will never cross again? Yet, this VN challenges that very inclination through fictional characters – people who are not people; characters who are purely programmed by a script.

Christians always speak of “planting seeds,” but seem to easily glance over the fact that everyone is always planting seeds. The question is what kind of seeds are you planting? What sort of effects are you going to have on others with your words and actions, for everything you say and do can be seen as the act of planting seeds. If Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi can teach you to treat fictional girls with even the smallest extra degree of respect, love, and thoughtfulness, then how much better should you treat the real people around you? When you start a new game in a VN, the characters do not remember what you did in previous game. It’s your chance to start fresh and try a new route to see a different part of the story. But the girls in this game remember what you’ve done and said. Your actions have left a permanent mark in their lives. In the same way, your actions can leave lasting impressions on people no matter how little you may think they do. While people may not remember all of their experiences in life, those experiences are still a part of what makes up who they are and who they become.

We don’t know the situations of those around us; even our close friends have personal thoughts and feelings that they do not share on a regular basis. Thus, our actions and words can play far larger roles in people’s lives than we realize, even if they are strangers. This is not about helping others, reaching out to them, or trying to save anyone, per se. What Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi wishes to convey is only that you be fully considerate of the decisions you make and the effects of those decisions on those around you.  Is this not right in line with living our lives out as followers of Christ? Being loving and thoughtful towards others is not something to be done when it suits us but rather incessantly throughout our lives. You don’t know what effects your decisions will have on the strangers around you, but at the very least, you should act with the awareness that you are an ambassador to Christ, and every action you make is representative of your beliefs. Strangers aren’t NPCs in a game, and in the real world, there are no re-dos.

 

On Christian Otaku Outreach

Subahibi has finally been announced for an August release (which isn’t July 20th, very disappointed). Considering its fame across the entire otaku community, I’ll be interested in seeing people’s reactions, even if I think it’s gotten a bit overrated over the years (also because Sakura no Uta ended up being even better). Even so, as a philosophical masterpiece that people have waited years for and with a translation project(s) that spawned numerous memes, this is one of those titles where I put on my elitist cap and wonder how you can call yourself an otaku if you’ve never even heard of this title before. I guess I should apologize in advance, but this post is going to be closer to a rant that a usual coherent post. This frustration I have with the otaku community – and mainly the Christian otaku community – also played a role in why I left Beneath the Tangles.

The more I interact with or listen to Christian otaku, the more I question how otaku they really are. This is a frustration that is admittedly in part elitism on my end, and I try to curb that as much as possible while phrasing my opinions in a more joking manner (i.e. bad anime is bad). But any elitism I may feel toward others’ interests and knowledge is often less about feeling superior and more about feeling disconnected. Because there is a big difference between “you don’t like what I like,” and “you have absolutely no idea what I like even is.” I’m sure this is a feeling that every anime fan can empathize with, so there is no reason to think that the same phenomenon cannot occur even within a fandom as large as this one is.

I should clarify I don’t intend to criticize Christian otaku who don’t have any interest in visual novels (the part of the fandom that personally relates to me, but there are numerous other fringe niches that exist and are ignored). You like what you like, and I like what I like. However, when it comes to the topic of ministry and outreach in this area which is very close to my heart, this disconnect brings about two related issues that I can’t ignore. The first is the general ignorance of what is out there and what it looks like. I remember reading about a Christian anime fan who was excited to attend Comiket because it’s a “Japanese anime convention.” Little did she know how much of the event was literally pornographic, and she was scarred, to say the least. Even people who are more aware about the culture than this will paint the industry with broad strokes without actually knowing any details about it.

Now, it’s basically a catch 22 to expect people who aren’t well informed about the industry to understand it. But I suppose what I want of people is awareness to some degree and to be more open about learning rather than trying to generalize something you know very little about. Especially when it comes to the former, it’s absurd to me how misinformed or ignorant self-proclaimed Christian otaku can be. Probably over 99% of them don’t even know what Subahibi is, even though it was one of the most praised titles in the community in the last several years (and this not limited to only VNs). I understand that this is caused by a mix of different interests, that the majority of anime fans talked about stuff like Madoka, SAO, and Shingeki instead, and most of all, that most fans are new fans who haven’t been engulfed in the fandom for decades, but again, that’s exactly why I’m trying to bring about awareness on the subject – and again, specifically when it comes to Christians. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to know about everything; the sub-communities are so large and expansive that it’s basically impossible. However, I wish there was some better awareness surrounding some of the biggest, most talked about things, and that these things exist and are loved by the fandom. If you are going to call yourself an otaku, then at least have the awareness to know there is some spectrum from 1-100 (to keep things simple) and you fall at the 20 or the 50 or maybe the 70, and that there are things beyond that into the 80s and 90s and 100. Honestly, I wouldn’t even put myself into the 80s on such a hypothetical scale.  I have my limits, but I’m well aware of what exists beyond that, and that’s what I’m asking of people who are attempting to do Christian outreach in this weird but attractive fandom.

Dies Irae is pretty good too

This leads into the second issue when Christian otaku actually start talking about and doing outreach work. If you are an anime fan reaching out to anime fans, then fine go do that; that’s great. But this means you are completely unequipped to deal with other people, who are further along the yes-overly-simplified-2D-spectrum I just mentioned. This in itself is again okay because that’s how things will always be in any field. However, while the first issue is fine in a vacuum, when you combine outreach with the previous issue of lack of awareness, it has the potential to go wrong in all kinds of ways. Especially in a part of the fandom that is almost inherently anti-Christian (i.e. porn games), for Christian otaku outreach to 1) not be able to relate to them, 2) not even be aware of some of the biggest titles, and 3) still imply you can understand them, that is going to exacerbate any disconnects that already exist. I mean, I feel that disconnect pretty strongly even as a Christian; how much worse will it be for people who are wary of Christian fans?  I don’t expect you to change your interests nor am I intending to set a bar of elitism that you must pass. However, I do wish that when someone mentions something as widely recognized as Subahibi, that you don’t give a blank stare of ignorance, or when someone starts talking about porn, that you at least know how to deal with the situation rather than being surprised that there are fans who glorify these things.

I think especially because there has been a recent growth in people trying to do Christian otaku outreach (no doubt related to the recent growth in anime fans), this is an important time when Christian otaku have kind of a blank slate to define themselves. Yes, there is a huge anti-anime voice in the Christian community, but there has never really been a large, strong voice of Christians not only supporting otaku but trying to claim we all share the same interests too. Moreover, VNs in particular are in a similar situation in the West, with localizations starting to flood the market on steam. Titles fans have only dreamed of getting localizations like Subahibi, Dies Irae, Clannad, etc. actually happened. There is not going to be a better time to start learning about VNs as a Christian and become a part of a community that is very different yet much related to anime, just as I wondered only a few years ago.

the crux of what I want to say is that this is about forming a collective social implication about what the term “Christian otaku” means and therefore how Christian outreach on both sides will be affected by this perception

Right now is the time when Christian fans are beginning to define what a “Christian otaku” even is, and whether or not that includes or excludes certain groups and fandoms. It could just be the biased VN fan in me, but I feel that the boundary of a Christian otaku will be defined within a few short years. I realize it may sound alarmist in some ways, but frankly, people vastly underestimate the speed of influence that internet culture has on our daily lives. If people don’t make efforts now (which is in part what I’m trying to do, but I’m just a lone fan), people on both sides will start to form more defined ideas of what a “Christian otaku” means, who that includes, and most importantly, who they are willing to reach out to. In other words, the crux of what I want to say is that this is about forming a collective social implication about what the term “Christian otaku” means and therefore how Christian outreach on both sides will be affected by this perception. As of now, people view it as a joke, but are simultaneously willing to listen and learn about it because “lol what in the world is this supposed to be?” That luxury of being a foreign existence will not exist for long. As such, I would really like to fully implore Christian otaku working in the field of outreach, be it Japan or the States, to really consider the scope of the otaku fandom and how to broaden outreach as far as possible before such boundaries are defined.

Coming back to Subahibi, I would really like to see every Christian otaku at least have an opinion on it. I mean, right now, most don’t even know what it is. But this is a title that’s been almost universally praised as a philosophical masterpiece. It has so much to say about happiness in a broken world, a topic that I believe is very relevant to Christians. It has some of the most infamous use of adult content in the industry. I don’t think the scenes can really be called pornographic, because they are most certainly not intended to instill sexual gratification but rather disgust. For example, the beastiality scene got removed from the R-18 release; it’s that bad. I’m not going to tell you to read the scenes (I pretty much just literally could not physically read them.  Not even the images, just the pure text was already too much for me), but I can still acknowledge how much meaning there is to them in the greater scope of the story. There’s also this one spoiler that I will probably write on later which was incredibly remindful of our relationship with God. When I consider just how knowledgeable Sca-ji is about Christianity (daily reminder that this guy understands Christian theology better than any other Japanese author in the industry and uses references in proper context), a part of me wonders if that was actually intentional. I guess I would call those the three major reasons Subahibi is a work that would make for very interesting discussion among the Christian otaku fandom, but sadly, almost no one even knows what it is. I’m not even asking people to read it, just be a bit more informed about it to form some kind of opinion for discussion with others. Because I guarantee you that while being ignorant about these things will generate disconnections, having some kind of informed opinion on a porn game can lead to quite some interesting discussions.

Utawarerumono and God

The following is a guest post by my good friend and fellow VN enthusiast Japesland of Beneath the Tangles. When it comes to seeing Christianity in eroge, he is as weird as I am, so I hope you find his thoughts on the topic interesting. Utawarerumono is currently being localized, with the first 2 games already released and the final game scheduled for release this September. Naturally, the post will contain spoilers for the games, so you have been warned.

One of the craziest things about being a Christian is seeing Christianity in everything. I’m no psychologist. In fact, having only taken the most basic of psychology courses in college, I’m sure I know less about psychology than many with at least a basic college education. I’ve also been surrounded by Christianity and Christians for more or less my entire life. Those with more than my aforementioned level of psychology education could probably point out a physiological reason for why I constantly see the story of God and Israel all around me, and I could hardly refute that line of reasoning. However, that does not change the fact that I continue to see God no matter where I look, no matter how much I do or do not want to acknowledge it.

The most recent instance of this comes from finishing one of my favorite, in a guilty pleasure sort of way, video game series of all time: Utawarerumono.

Looking at the history of the series and its most basic premise would seem to indicate anything but a relation to Christianity. The series began almost twenty years ago exclusively on PC as an eroge with light strategic role playing game elements (notably, like some of its peers, the series has picked up some degree of popularity, so it no longer has to rely on porn as a selling point). The story essentially takes place in a fantasy Yayoi period, perfect for chuunibyo and nearly all characters feature animal tails and ears, making it appear marketed particularly toward a fetish-driven audience.

Yet in spite of all this, now that the series has come to its three-game conclusion spread over nearly two decades, I couldn’t help but be moved to my very core at not only an emotional, but a spiritual level.

The first game of the series has you playing an amnesiac human who has awoken in an unfamiliar world filled with unfamiliar creatures. Throughout the course of the game, you ultimately discover that this world is a post apocalyptic earth, and your character has only survived and awoken at this point because of his existence as a sort of god (the explanation is far too complex to explain here). By the end of the game, the climax has you sacrificing yourself, sealing yourself away with your more or less evil half in order to save the whole of society as it has managed to exist to this point.At this point the story is hardly Christian in nature. In fact, the concept of yin and yang is far more prevalent, necessitating that the good and evil halves of this deity be sealed away indefinitely.

Then enter the final two entries in the series.

In these two games you play as a human in the true sense of the word. Unlike the first game, you not only think you’re a human, you know you’re a human. There is nothing to indicate otherwise in the whole of the narrative. However, like the first game, you end up concluding the series by sacrificing yourself and ultimately sealing yourself away in a climatic conclusion that results in being killed by a great evil, returning temporarily from the afterlife, then returning to the afterlife as an exchange of sorts with the sealed main character from the first game (it’s worth noting that these games follow the first game by nearly 20 years, both in real life and in the context of the story. That’s a long time to wait for players and characters alike, and makes a more significant impact than my simple explanation does it justice).

Much more happens in the plot than this, but the Gospel connection that I just can’t forget, despite its analogous inconsistencies, comes down to matching each character with a Bible element. The main character from the original game is God as he interacts directly with his people, perhaps referred to best as the Holy Spirit. The main character of the second and third entries is the human element of God: Jesus. Both characters have similar, yet fundamentally different existences, in some ways analogous to the relationship of these two facets of the Christian God.

In Utawarerumono, the first game’s protagonist, Hakuoro, leads his people much like the people of Israel, through hardship and strife, enduring great loss, but ultimately into prosperity, then necessarily departing from their presence for a limited period of time (still there in spirit, but no longer leading in the direct fashion that he once had). Many years later, the protagonist of the final entries, Haku, leads a different group in a much different and more personal way, resulting finally in his own necessitated death. However, in spite of this death, he returns to life shortly after to “finish the job,” after which he returns to his afterlife state, exchanging places with Hakuoro, finally returning Hakuoro to direct contact with the people he led, now increased many fold.

Anyone with passing knowledge of the Biblical narrative, whether or not you call it “history” will see the connections here. Israel’s God once led the nation tangibly and directly before an extended period of several hundred years of basically “radio silence” following the last of the prophets. Then entered Jesus Christ, who sacrificed himself for all, returning to life physically and as a human for a short time before returning to Heaven. At this point, in his place, He sends the Holy Spirit to lead the people, much like God had allegedly led Israel in ages past.

So am I crazy?

If you haven’t played the games yourself, it’s obviously hard to say, as my account is colored by my Christian faith in every way fathomable. But rather than claiming that these flawed connections between a dumb game and the Bible are evidence of God, I think it’s significant to note that this interpretation can exist at all. Did God influence the writer to include these distant allusions, or am I merely seeing what I want to see because it is what I believe?

Ultimately, I don’t think the answer to that question matters, because either way it is evidence to me not that there is a God or that Christianity is true, but that if God exists and Christianity are true, He and it can truly use anything to strengthen faith and understanding. Even Utawarerumono.

Why Every Japan Missionary Should Read Sakura no Uta

Is that title too sensational? Probably, but lately I have felt it to be true, so if you want to disagree, you’ll have to actually read the thing and tell me why I’m wrong. “Oh but it’s in Japanese.” Well, yeah, and I don’t really see an English translation doing justice to Sca-Ji’s genius prose, so you better read it in Japanese. If you can’t commit to learning the language, I’m not sure what you’re doing as a missionary in Japan. “Oh, but it has porn scenes.” Fine, then skip them. It’s not that hard, and it’s not like I’m telling you to read Subarashiki Hibi instead where the porn is actually important.  If a little porn is going to scare you away, then again, why are you in Japan of all countries? Walk into a conbini and you will see shelves of gravure every time. “Oh, but it’s so long.” Welcome to the world of visual novels. If you can’t invest a simple 50 hours into reading what is the most philosophically heavy story that has hit the otaku market in years, then I will take that to mean that you have zero interest or intention of ministering to the otaku subculture. And while that’s possibly true of a lot of missionaries on a surface level, you probably don’t realize how much that sub-population is growing in Japan. If you’re a missionary in Japan, chances are you’ve met some closet otaku. It’s too bad your impression of them is so wrong. Maybe if you actually read Sakura no Uta, you would have a better understanding of the people around you.

Okay, that’s enough patronizing for now. While I admit I intentionally used that tone to get a rise out of a certain audience, I will also say that the otaku side of me often gets very frustrated when Japan missionaries demonstrate an astonishingly low or even non-existent understanding of otaku. I mean, I guess it’s fine if you were a normal person living out a normal life, but if you’re intending to reach out to people and understand their culture and you still have the mindset that visual novel = eroge = porn game, then you’re going to have a hard time when you talk to otaku. Of course, even Japanese natives have this misconception, so as a fan, I can’t help but throw my hands up in the air and reiterate that you people have no idea what you’re talking about. But that’s okay, because Sakura no Uta exists.

There are two major reasons why I believe every Japan missionary should read this work. The first is because it’s, well, simply a masterpiece. In terms of story and writing, yes, but even more so in terms of themes and life lessons.  Sure, Rewrite, exists, and if you know me, you know I’m a huge fan of it because it was the most spiritually enriching piece of fiction I have ever read. I could praise it all day, but I will simultaneously admit it has its flaws. It’s no masterpiece. Sakura no Uta, well, okay, it has flaws, but they are so vastly overshadowed by everything else, I am still caling it a masterpiece. Every time I think about it, I am amazed that it can touch on so many ideas and yet have those all be encompassed together so perfectly as it poses the question “what does it mean to live out your life?” The story is heavy and painfully realistic at times; it pulls no punches in reminding you of how easily life can bring you down. Yet because of this, it brilliantly asks some very hard questions about how you as an individual choose to live out your life and what your decisions mean to others and to yourself.  I could get into more specifics, but I want to avoid spoilers as much as possible. Suffice to say; reading this novel ruined me for months as I was forced to completely re-evaluate everything about my perceptions of and choices in life. Personally, it was doubly powerful because I then had to reconcile those answers with my own Christian faith. Sakura no Uta demands introspection like nothing else, and so I cannot help but place it above every other story I’ve ever experienced. Therefore, it is my firm belief that giving an honest and unbiased reading of this story (that is, not going in with any intention to hate it) will be the best possible example of what visual novels and the otaku culture has to offer people. The medium of visual novels is not just “entertainment” or “sexual gratification,” (though both exist as real reasons) but there are also things on a far deeper and philosophical level than you would initially imagine. And if the story hits too close to home, you might find yourself re-evaluating things about your life that you never thought a “porn game” could make you do.

The second reason every Japan missionary should read this is because Sakura no Uta does something really, really ingenious. It starts off with incredibly clichéd romcom scenes with stereotypical characters that seemingly have very little depth to them. Sure, there’s the occasional suggestion of something on a deeper level. I mean, the opening itself has references to Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickinson, Kenji Miyazawa, and more. Sca-Ji loves his classical literature, and he is truly a scholar to the point that I am sure he knows the Bible better than many Christians. But I digress. The story takes this incredibly anime-esque setting and turns it completely on its head. It uses those very things as the foundation with which to spur the aforementioned questions about life. Those questions can then be turned back around and asked about those very clichés and stereotypes within the anime culture. And when you understand the context of those questions, you will understand the entire otaku culture on a completely different level. Granted, most people are kind of already aware of these things. High school is considered a prime time of one’s life; it is that springtime of youth where things like first love can lead to happiness. The cliches of anime seek only to reflect the most glorified time of people’s lives. I hear things like this about Japan a lot. I’m sure you have too.

But Sakura no Uta has some very powerful things to say about these ideas. In the same way it forces individuals to re-evaluate their lives, it forces a re-evaluation of the industry itself and the stereotypes of the anime culture. Because in the end, the entertainment used as escapism and the individuals who are drawn to it are intrinsically tied together.  As a result, this all triples back onto the main audience of visual novels and eroge, i.e. the otaku population. It forces introspection on the reader due to the struggles of the protagonist, then on the state of the otaku market that got turned on its head within the story itself, and finally back on the reader as one who consumes those very things. It seems ridiculous that a single story can have so many layers to the introspection it demands of its readers, but like I said, this is a masterpiece.

A Christian missionary with superficial understanding of the anime culture may only be forced into a third of that introspection. However, that is perhaps enough of a start to begin a re-evaluation of your own understanding of otaku and the subculture and how these interact with the greater Japanese culture at large. Again, I don’t want to spoil unnecessarily, but this introspection of life that I keep referring to includes the struggles, regrets, valuations, and dreams of individuals. Thus, Sakura no Uta is a story that can completely change your understanding of everything about the Japanese population and even more when it comes to the otaku population. Even if you somehow legitimately have a strong, empathetic understanding already, at the very least, a “porn game” will have reaffirmed some heavy truths about Japan that you know to be true. How’s that for some food for thought?

Still, I doubt many Christians will read this. The majority of you will give up due to various reasons like length, boredom, porn, or a lack of time; well, the majority won’t even bother to try. I don’t really mind that though because then I’ll be able to constantly respond to everything regarding Christian outreach in Japan with “well, if actually read Sakura no Uta…”  I mean, seriously, please try to prove me wrong or something because I probably won’t stop saying that. This is my challenge to anyone who is serious about Christian ministry in Japan. It is truly the greatest piece of fiction I’ve ever read and will be something I constantly refer back to in life not because it has answers but because it poses hard, necessary questions about what it means to live out life.

Visual Novels and Eroge as a Christian Fan

While I have written on this topic before from other perspectives, I wanted to open this blog by being completely open and honest about my experiences with eroge as a Christian, especially in regards to the sex scenes that are often danced around. I used to be one of those people who thought they were all “Japanese porn games,” but then I saw the light and am now a believer in the wonderful art of visual novels and eroge. It’s true that eroge have pornographic content, and I can’t say my experiences have been perfectly free of mistakes or questionable decisions, but overall, they have made a clear positive impact on both my emotional and spiritual lives.

First of all, visual novels are just an awesome storytelling medium. They have all the descriptions and length of a novel, the beauty of visuals, and the immersion of sound. Finally, the “choose your own adventure” mechanism that permeates the medium has led to some really interesting ways a story can branch into different routes, which are often coupled with true routes that deliver really intriguing stories, themes, and very unique twists that cannot be found anywhere else. A couple of examples that anime fans would be familiar with are Clannad and Steins;Gate, and if you’ve only seen the anime, remember that the general consensus is almost always that the visual novel is better than the anime. Therefore, working from here as a base, it is hard to deny that the medium itself is really fascinating, whether from a creator’s or a consumer’s viewpoint. However, the issue is that this medium has been used as a primary export of cheap pornography, kind of.

I’m not going to bother touching on nukige because in my view, works which are so largely pornographic are basically the pornography of films. We normally don’t talk or think about porn when we talk about movies, so I don’t see the point in talking about nukige with the topic of visual novels.  But yes, I am reminding people that visual novels are but a medium, much like film, and judging the medium as a whole is not a simple task. That said, eroge are in a kind of grey zone between all-ages and nukige. While they do have erotic content, said content is usually a pretty small part of it. This makes it very easy to skip, and it’s really unfair to judge an entire work for these few scenes. But while I could (and have in the past) talk about the pros and cons of these scenes and their effects on the works they inhabit, I think it would be more relatable if I instead spoke of my own personal journey and experiences with the medium.

I started reading VNs with Planetarian and Little Busters! after which I was completely hooked on what these stories could convey. But neither of those had any R-18 scenes. One of the next things I read was the MuvLuv trilogy which did have a few of these scenes. As I said before, skipping the stuff was really easy, and I didn’t really feel anything morally wrong with it so much as accepting that this exists and I didn’t want any part of it. With that mindset, the biggest problem might be whether or not these scenes might tempt you into sin. But honestly, MuvLuv Extra was really boring and lacrosse made me really angry (did anyone actually like lacrosse?) and I really just wanted to move onto Alternative, the 3rd story which receives the real praise. If the porn made me feel anything, it was annoyance at being so pointless. Then the scene in Alternative happened. It’s a very infamous scene among the fandom, and I admit I ended up reading the first few parts because of how the text was kind of saying something important despite the images. But honestly, I hated that, and I later found that many other fans did too. For many people including myself, it just ruined a lot of the emotional impact that scene was supposed to have. I kind of understand why that scene was there from a storytelling perspective, but the execution was just awful and all I could feel was disgust at whoever made it.

And then I read Saya no Uta. Well, this had way more sex than I was used to by far. I ended up reading the majority of those scenes, and what I found by the end was that as much as I hated them, they really aided the thematic progression of the story. The way the scenes changed over time as certain events occurred did a fantastic job of being thematically relevant to the story, and the mindset of the protagonist is depicted so well through these raw, carnal actions. Was there some disgust? Yeah, especially the more violent ones. Was there sexual gratification? Honestly, yeah to some degree. But that was also kind of the point in how the scenes change over time. If there is one eroge that does a good job of including sex scenes as a meaningful way to help tell a story, it is probably Saya no Uta.

I read a lot more VNs after that, with varying opinions. Some had sex scenes, and some were completely clean. Naturally, one of them was Rewrite, which was literally the most spiritually enriching story I’ve read in my life. I spent weeks thinking about my faith and God after that, and it was then that I was truly convinced that this medium is something special in the hands of a talented writer. I read a lot of excerpts of sex scenes between that half uncertainty of whether the scene will go that far and not wanting to miss anything after the scene and at times, honestly, a bit of curiosity. I started studying Japanese and read Mahoutsukai no Yoru, both an incredibly terrible and fun choice for a first untranslated read. The joy and pride in having read a complete story in Japanese is really amazing, and that is one reason why Mahoyo will forever have a special place in my heart. With only 15 years left until the sequel, I hope to be fully fluent by then!

And then I was told to read Tsuki ni Yorisou Otome no Sahou aka Tsurioto. Ou Jackson is such a god-tier writer. The dialogues he writes are so entertaining, so flavorful, and so full of life and unique personalities. So yes, this is even reflected in the sex scenes. Granted, I only read Luna-sama route because based Luna-sama is an amazing heroine who made all the other girls bore me to death in comparison. I mean, sure, it was a sex scene, but like, wow it was entertaining from a writing perspective. From an objective writing perspective, the biggest issue with sex scenes is they are so incredibly bland. They check different boxes for different fetishes, but the writing is basically all the same and the dialogue could not be blander. Consequently, you could probably just copy paste sex scenes around and no one would really be able to tell; objectively, that’s just bad writing. So when I read something like Tsurioto with very dynamic characters, it would be a travesty for some third rate sex scene to strip them of their personalities and deliver some silly sexual gratification writing. Luckily, it doesn’t do that. Instead, it maintains those dynamic characters and personalities and writes a sex scene that is very clearly happening between these two characters at a specific point in time of their relationship.  I know that sounds weird coming from a Christian, but like, there were some very distinct interactions between the two of them that really made me feel happy for them. I even laughed at some parts because the interactions between the two characters were always comedic, and that writing was maintained consistently and naturally even in a sex scene. That shows not just great writing but also a certain amount of respect for sex rather than treating it as some sexual gratification scene made for sales; instead, it was a scene written as an important part of the relationship between two characters. I can respect that a lot.

Honestly, I have read a number of sex scenes in VNs, but for the most part, I’ve found them and my reactions to them to be very different than I expected. The Christian instinct says these should be really sinful and evil temptations of lust but if I were to describe them in a word, it would probably be annoying. If you are going to try to tempt me into sinful lust, then one of the worst times to do so would be while I’m engrossed in a really interesting story. Sometimes it feels like the writers throw darts on a board to decide where in a finished script they should place them; the timing makes no sense half the time. I guess if you personally have issues with lust, then by all means avoid them, but I’m not sure I can agree with the stance of avoiding them because it’s sex. There are some really interesting, well written stories in this medium, and I think you can see this not just from my opinions but the opinions of all the other non-Christian fans. If people were reading eroge for only the porn, then it is strange to see eroge inspiring fans to talk about serious topics like philosophy, love, and self-sacrifice, themes that resonate with all kinds of people for arguably, all the right reasons.  Sure, the visual novel medium has its share of pointless porn and there is most certainly an audience that loves it, but I will always defend it against uninformed critics and as a Christian, it is my favorite medium to engage in.