Kana Little Sister is one of those games that, depending on who you’re talking to, can be a bit risky to bring up — largely due to a variety of widespread misunderstandings and misinformation about what it is.
Hell, there are former acquaintances of mine who have said some very unpleasant things about me simply for mentioning this game — but regardless of all that, Kana Little Sister is a genuine, honest-to-goodness classic of the visual novel medium. And the people who are open-minded enough to be reading this column in the first place are doubtless mature enough to be able to handle talking about it. So good job, you.
There will be some spoilers ahead, but this title first came out in 2002, so you’ve had nearly 20 years to catch up.
Kana Little Sister’s original 2002 English language release by G-Collections, a localiser that was subsequently acquired by JAST USA, marketed the game as a “multi-scenario love sim”, much like most other visual novels at the time. This is not a particularly accurate assessment of what Kana Little Sister actually is, though; while you do indeed read, make choices that sometimes result in romantic and/or sexual encounters and eventually reach an ending based on the choices you made, the emphasis in this game is not on the romantic aspect.
Instead, Kana Little Sister is an example of a type of visual novel known as “utsuge”, which means “depression game”. In other words, it’s a deliberately depressing game; a tearjerker, or a tragedy. More the former than the latter, you might say, since tragedies tend to involve their main characters “deserving” what comes to them as the result of a fatal flaw, whereas tearjerkers focus on sad things happening to people who perhaps don’t deserve them.
And Kana Little Sister’s eponymous leading lady doesn’t really deserve what she gets. She’s dying, you see, having suffered from chronic renal insufficiency since an early age, and as we join the narrative, we see that her health is steadily getting worse, with recovery unlikely. She’s done nothing to deserve what she’s got, it’s just the hand that life has dealt her. And, over the course of the visual novel as a whole, we work our way towards one of six very different conclusions, each of which focus on how protagonist Taka handles the passing of his sister — or, in the case of one ending, what happens if, against all odds, she were to survive.
Kana Little Sister’s story as a whole jumps back and forth in time as Taka recalls events from his past that helped define him and his relationship with his sister, and in the process we explore a number of interesting themes. The most obvious of these is, of course, the concept of mortality — and alongside this, as you might expect from an erotic visual novel that focuses on the relationship between two siblings, Kana Little Sister also explores the concept of forbidden love.
It’s a much more complex and meaningful exploration than just “don’t fuck your sister”, though. In the early hours of the game, we see how a dangerous event early in Kana and Taka’s lives established a very close relationship between the pair of them; initially, said relationship was based on a love so strong that one would do literally anything to protect the other, even if it put their own life in jeopardy, but as the story as a whole progresses it becomes clear that this moment was the genesis of something much more than that.
An important consideration when looking at the incestuous aspect of Kana Little Sister is that it is as much an exploration of how someone deals with being completely cut off from society as anything else. At the outset of the narrative, we see a Kana who has seemingly been stuck in hospital for a very long time, unable to go to school, make friends or do any of the “normal” teenage things you’d expect to see in an anime-style visual novel. She has no concept of what “normal” is, so in many ways it’s entirely understandable that she’d grow extremely attached to that one constant in her life, the one thing she knows she can rely on.
This provides us with an interesting contrast between Taka and Kana. While Kana lacks the context and life experience to understand why her feelings towards Taka are “wrong” in the eyes of society, Taka is painfully aware of the guilt and confusion he feels on a daily basis, particularly when he catches Kana masturbating and moaning his name. This causes him to seek out ways for him to distract himself — be it through establishing a relationship with his childhood friend Yumi, or standing back as Kana’s classmate Yuta attempt to confess his feelings to her.
Kana Little Sister’s narrative eventually reveals that Kana and Taka are not actually blood-related, making a lot of the earlier angst a bit of a moot point, but it’s worth exploring why this reveal is left so late, and why the story explores these things in such depth. It’s particularly worth contemplating due to the fact that incestuous themes have typically been one of the greatest taboos for Western audiences — although a quick look at the video titles on Pornhub’s front page on any given day might convince you otherwise.
Meanwhile, incest tends to crop up quite frequently in Japanese popular media — and not just sexually explicit media, either.
There’s no one easy explanation for this, but it’s likely a societal thing; relationships between Japanese siblings are often quite a lot more intimate than those which we enjoy in the west, and thus naturally a number of authors have found the question of what happens if things go “too far” in this regard to be an interesting one.
It’s not a new thing, either, unlike the “stepsibling” fetish in western pornography that has cropped up in the last few years; exploration of incestuous themes in Japanese popular media can be traced back to the 1972 manga Ayako and the 1984 erotic anime Cream Lemon, and interest in the subject does not appear to have declined since. Plus, as you might expect, it has long been a popular fetish in the explicit hentai sector.
While much of Kana Little Sister’s narrative focuses on the relationship between Taka and Kana, it’s also important to look at how Taka and his childhood friend Yumi interact with one another at various points over the years. While Yumi is initially a loud, confident and popular girl, but a situation where she inadvertently hurts Taka through what was supposed to be a light-hearted (if somewhat mean-spirited) joke causes her to not only rethink the person she is, but also to become single-mindedly obsessed with Taka in an attempt to repent for her sin.
The pair eventually establish a romantic and sexual relationship, though neither seem to quite be in it for the right reasons; Yumi, despite gradually building her own confidence and assertiveness back up, still clearly feels guilt over how she treated Taka — and over the fact that she doesn’t know how to handle his increasingly obvious feelings for Kana — while Taka manages to delude himself that being Yumi is an “acceptable” way to satisfy his desires for his sister — even though Yumi herself doesn’t really resemble Kana in either personality or appearance.
In the specific “Yumi” ending, this delusion is taken to the extreme. Taka completely falls apart after Kana’s passing, and becomes obsessed with the fact that he was never able to truly confess his feelings outright to her. He becomes deluded that Kana is, in fact, still alive, and starts looking for her everywhere.
Yumi, heartbroken at the sight of this, eventually comes to the conclusion that the only way she can truly help is by posing as Kana — much as Taka has always made her do in his own mind — and allowing Taka to finally give his “answer”. From thereon, she hopes, the sense of release that Taka feels will allow him to rejoin reality rather than constantly rejecting it.
The other endings explore Taka’s reactions in various different ways. In the “normal” ending, we don’t even see the moment of Kana’s passing; we simply see Taka visiting her grave, listening to a recording of her final words — which are, of course, a confession of love — and, in his words, allowing his own “clock to start ticking again” after being in a state of denial and anger up until this point.
The “Intellectual” paths, meanwhile, see both Taka and Kana exploring a progression through the Kübler-Ross “five stages of grief” model — initially foreshadowed by the pair of them witnessing the gradual decline and death of their aunt Sumako earlier in the story. Kana in particular goes through a particularly rocky path towards acceptance, with her most seemingly uncharacteristic emotional outbursts coming in these routes.
But eventually, both Taka and Kana are able to reach that sense of acceptance. Taka encourages Kana to keep a diary, and helps her experience the things she has never seen or done but always wanted to — including both feeling like she is loved and making love. In doing so, Kana comes to feel like she can pass on with no regrets; she has always had minimal expectations for what her life would involve, given her condition, but being able to fulfil the few ambitions she did have allows her to find a certain amount of peace.
While an erotic visual novel, Kana Little Sister is an interesting, standout example in the world of eroge, in that none of its sexual scenes feel like they’re there just for the sake of providing sexual titillation. On the contrary, several of them — not just the ones involving Kana — feel distinctly uncomfortable as we witness what should be a moment of intense, private intimacy between two people being constantly invaded by thoughts that shouldn’t be there.
To put it another way, most of the sex scenes in Kana Little Sister will make you feel like the people involved probably shouldn’t be doing that for the sake of their own wellbeing and the relationships with others — but an important part of growing up and learning to deal with what life throws at you is, of course, understanding that sometimes you jump into bed with people you probably shouldn’t jump into bed with, and when that happens you need to learn how to deal with the inevitable consequences.
Kana Little Sister is a thought-provoking classic, a visual novel that will always be extremely special in the minds of many readers — and still one of the best examples of how explicit sexual content can be used to create feelings other than arousal in the mind and body of the reader.
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