I don’t read many visual novels because they’re almost all uh… pretty bad. I’ll occasionally pick up a free or cheap one on Steam because Steam’s awful recommendation algorithm won’t stop suggesting them. But then, they almost always disappoint. They often run the same anime girl archetypes (and it’s almost always girls. Not much otome seems to make it onto Steam), most have weak art (4 original character designs and 5 backgrounds is not a selling point!), and, most of all, so many of them have terrible, terrible writing.
I’m not here to complain or put down the visual novel medium because, again, I only ever really read the free ones put out by hobbyists that take advantage of Steam’s lax store policy. I know that I don’t have a fair sample for careful commentary.
Instead, I just want to observe a personal point of interest: so many English-language visual novels, even those originally written in English, read like translated Japanese. Or in other words, instead of simply borrowing the visual novel medium to produce fresh English-language works, some visual novel writers seem intent on imitating both the tropes and the language of their Japanese inspirations, resulting in a hodgepodge of stodgy prose that doesn’t quite sound Japanese… and doesn’t quite sound fluent English either.
Today I’ll be picking on Kill or Love, a free visual novel on Steam by Andy Church about “obsession, loneliness, and, based on your choices, varying amounts of murder,” not because it’s good or bad but because it has so many examples of such odd pseudo-translated writing (and because it has Yandere, yum yum). I’m not going to pretend to be rigorous or even generous – I’ll just note some of the lines that interested me and give a probable Japanese inspiration. So, let’s start off with a fan-favorite onomatopoeia:
[Ugh, it’s been a while. Through late February and early March, I was just too busy with work and applications to write. But then the virus hit and I gave up on having any sort of routine, even a leisurely one for this blog. It’s hard to find anything interesting to observe when you’re stuck in a box.]
Sooo, bored inside during quarantine, let’s introduce Hentai Nazi, a typical Unity Engine shovelware game that for some reason floated to the top of my Steam recommendations feed. It’s terrible!
But with nothing else to do during this dull coronavirus lockdown, and leeching off my computer for any inch of entertainment, I impulse bought it. And god damn am I going to get my 89 cents of value out of it, even at 55% off. I finished the game itself in less than an hour though so I’ll need to drag out the entertainment for a little while longer…
[Uh, I haven’t written for a while. I’m exhausted somewhere between grad school applications and a full-time teaching job that often feels more like playing taskmaster than educator (how does this country function with such poor school discipline?). I’m probably going to need to slow down this site even more. Lately, I come home, eat dinner, and just sleep]
Oh, what to do when procrastinating a graduate school application essay… why, quote a dead French intellectual of course! After all, what better way to demonstrate your academic pretentions? Make it snappy though, I can’t slack off for too long. Nicolas Chamfort wrote in his Maxims:
“All passions are exaggerated, otherwise they would not be passions” (trans. Hutchison)
[A friend recommended that I watch Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City on Netflix to keep my Japanese listening in good practice with “real” conversation. Except despite that genre label “reality TV,” I doubt that anything I’m seeing is actually like… real. Nooo no no, it’s creepy instead!]
Terrace House: a plain record of six strangers – three men and three women — living together in a nice home with a nice car and no script! Hailed by critics as a gentler form of reality television without the exploitative excesses of American drama farms like The Real Housewives or The Bachelor, Netlfix’s Japanese docu-soap has won praise as unpretentious “real” reality television. Or, to paraphrase a friend, “Yeah, it’s reality TV, but it’s not stupid reality TV.”
Alright, sure, it’s not that stupid. It doesn’t have (much) contrived drama or forced romance or (thank god) any humiliating mini-games. Terrace House matches the blurb — six people just live together and get on with their lives. But oh man, how could anyone call it real either? And “wholesome?” No friend, it terrifies me! Big Brother is watching, the panopticon, living in a glass house… choose your strained metaphor. It’s my surveillance nightmare.
I wanted to write about the Japanese documentary / reality television show Terrace House (on Netflix) but the post has taken too long to complete. So instead, for now, how about a brief comment on an excerpt from this conversational review of the series via the New York Times of all places. In it, the reviewers discuss their least favorite subjects in the documentary:
I’ve been reading A Diary of Darkness, kept by the Japanese journalist Kiyosawa Kiyoshi from 1942 until his death in 1945 (trans. Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie). Oh, it’s so good.
The diary covers international affairs, political happenings, and daily life in Japan over the course of the Pacific / Greater East Asia War. Despite strict censorship enforced by the military government and the arrest of several of his intellectual friends for “thought crimes,” Kiyosawa bravely risked his own arrest to produce an honest account of the madness that descended on Japan during the war.
But it’s not just a typical diary either. Kiyosawa kept the journal on the hope that he could use its material to produce a history of Japanese international relations after the war. Thus, along with recording illuminating vignettes of everyday life, Kiyosawa managed to produce a real-time account of the collapse of the Japanese homefront with scholarly rigor as good or better than any secondary source for understanding Japan’s progress during the war.
In politics, Kiyosawa was a committed liberal – more than anything, he complains about the stultifying effect attacks on the freedom of speech had on Japanese society. It’s remarkable then that the journal survived, a powerful testament to the singular importance of that freedom in maintaining a peaceful and democratic society. I regret that he did not live long enough to see Japan become such a society. But hey, it’s nice that he tried.
So anyway, in lieu of something more substantial, here are three quick impressions:
Have you ever come across such a perfect line while reading translated literature that you just have to go check it out in the source language, comprehension be damned?
I found one such line in the Konjaku Monogatari Shu, a collection of hundreds of late Heian-period Japanese short stories, 90 of which appear in English inJapanese Tales from Times Past (trans. Naoshi Koriyama and Bruce Allen). It was a Christmas present, but I’ve already hit volume 19, tale 21 in the Buddhist moral tales section, titled “Snakes are seen in a vat of sake made from rice cake offerings.” In the context of its most delightful line though, I think I might want to rechristen the story “Buddha and the Boozer.”
But first, a quick synopsis of the barely two-page tale for context:
Now that I am teaching again, I find that I have the most trouble answering questions related to motivation, usually some variation of “Why do we need to study this?” And as awful as this might sound, I truly don’t know how to satisfy that question. I do try — depending on the student, so far I’ve replied:
“Maybe if you study it more, you will learn that you do like it. I used to hate algebra but look!, I’m teaching it to you now.
“Oh, you want to make video games? Well, you’ll need this math when you start programming classes…”
“Yeah, I don’t know why the Ottoman Empire is a state standard either, but you need to study a wide breadth of subjects because you never know where those connections will come in handy.”
Of course, every discipline will have their own specific answers. A US Government teacher will discuss the importance of civic education for a functioning democracy. Or a geologist might just say “‘cause rocks are cool” and that’s a fine and dandy reason. At the very least, I hope I’ve done better than a coworker who told a student that if he hated social studies, “Just wait ‘till you’ll have to take economics. Economics is the worst.” Yeah, sure, that’s a great way to prime students with a good attitude for their required courses in an already maligned field…
I think though, I struggle to answer because I never considered the question important. When I went to school, I studied because I felt that I had no other choice. Then, by the time I reached college, I had developed strong enough interests that I no longer needed to put effort into the choice anyway — I would have pursued the topics that I enjoyed regardless of the opportunity to do so at a university (and as I continue to do now in a hobbyist capacity here).
So, with the students, I’m dodging the question. I give two vague hypotheticals (“Maybe…” “You never know…”) and a cutesy if cynical appeal to self-interest (“You want to make video games?”) but ignore the more fundamental problem of education:
When does Girls’ Last Tour (Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou)take place? I googled the question and found no answer on the first few result pages. So, while re-reading the manga through a surprise digital detox sprung on me by a broken computer, I thought I could provide an answer:
Porco Rosso, the 1992 anime film about a flying pig-pilot who does battle with sky pirates in interwar Adriatic floatplanes, might be Studio Ghibli / director Hayao Miyazaki’s most memed movie. In addition to that thumbs-up image above, plenty of lines make common appearances on anime meme boards like “You make me think humanity’s not a complete waste,” “Laws don’t apply to pigs,” and the classic “Better a pig than a fascist:”
But for all the memes, Porco Rosso is a surprisingly apolitical film, with those lines representing more throw-away jokes than a vigorous thematic ideal. Yes, the titular character Porco is a typical anti-authority anti-hero who chafes under the rule of Depression-era Italian fascists. But he’s also such a severe misanthrope that if he happens to take anti-fascist action, he only does so because the facists happen to be in charge. Combine that apathetic position with what might be Miyazaki’s weakest feminist message among his otherwise excellent cast of believable female characters and I don’t know what to do with Porco Rosso. Yes, it’s beautiful, as all Ghibli movies are. But despite the anti-fascist hype, it lacks much of Miyazaki’s characteristic thematic focus. In a word (or two), it disappoints.