As we’ve seen a number of times in this column already to date, erotic games — be they nukige or eroge — absolutely do not have to present a positive viewpoint on sexual encounters in order to be effective at what they do.
In Three Sisters’ Story, getting too shag-happy will net you a bad ending; in Ring-Out!! many of the sex scenes are more horrific than titillating; in Kana Little Sister many of the erotic encounters are tinged with melancholy and regret rather than sweaty excitement.
But one game has them all beat in terms of feeling a sense of sexual confusion among many other conflicting emotions: the legendary Saya no Uta, a visual novel which originally released to Japanese audiences in 2003, and which took a full ten years to come west in an official capacity.
Saya no Uta is the work of Gen “The Butcher” Urobuchi, a writer who, over the years has given us, among other things, the anime Madoka Magica, the Type-Moon spinoff series Fate/Zero and the Psycho-Pass anime. Urobuchi’s nickname stends from his work’s tendency towards dark and nihilistic themes as well as heavy use of gore, so you can probably predict where Saya no Uta is going if you’re not already familiar.
Except it’s not quite what you might expect. It’s messed up, it’s violent and it’s completely bereft of what one might call a “happy” ending, but it nonetheless knows that good horror is about understanding what you should show, and what you shouldn’t show. And much of Saya no Uta’s most shocking material happens off-screen, so you never actually “see” it; this, of course, makes things much worse for the reader, because it leaves your imagination to do the work. And your imagination can inevitably conjure up something far worse than simple words on a page.
Let’s rewind a moment for those unfamiliar with Saya no Uta, though. In this visual novel, we follow the protagonist Fuminori, who has been suffering with a neurological disorder since he was the sole survivor of a car accident. An experimental neurosurgery procedure saved his life, but also doomed him to perceiving the “real” world as a horrifying place: walls of flesh, terrible smells, horrible monsters and nothing appearing as it “should” be.
Except for Saya. Saya is a young girl who appears in Fuminori’s world, and helps to keep him sane — or so he believes, anyway. Saya is absolutely devoted to Fuminori, and always has kind words of support for him. As the story progresses, the relationship between the pair becomes closer and eventually sexual — and this is one of the key areas where Saya no Uta does not hold back from showing everything.
Saya is deliberately designed to look very young, particularly when placed next to the deliberately mature and grizzled look of Fuminori, which makes any sexual encounter between the pair of them feel immediately “wrong”. Here we have a grown man having full sexual intercourse with what, to all intents and purposes, looks like a child.
However, as you’ve probably surmised from the nature of Fuminori’s neurological condition, the very fact that Saya appears to be a normal human being makes her immediately suspicious — because no other actual humans in Fuminori’s world appear the way they “should”. Thus we find ourselves questioning what Saya actually is — which in turn adds a whole other layer of horror onto the sex scenes when they crop up.
Between these two aspects, almost all eroticism and titillation is stripped out of Saya no Uta’s explicit scenes — though it’s worth noting that the game does keep just enough lewdness in there to make you feel bad about finding even the slightest bit of these scenes even a little bit sexy. These are sex scenes used effectively as part of the game’s sense of creeping horror; they are designed to create discomfort in the audience, and they are very good at what they do.
What’s particularly good about Saya no Uta is that at no point do we ever really find out what Saya actually “is” or what she looks like. This just makes things much, much worse; Urobuchi gives us enough information about how Fuminori sees things that we should be familiar with to allow us to make some suitable deductions, but never actually confirms what we suspect. And the story even puts Saya in some perilous situations of her own in order to make us empathise with Fuminori’s passionate love for this strange little girl — and to emphasise the “fragile” front she puts up in order to ensnare him.
What’s also wonderful about Saya no Uta is how it eschews the visual novel convention of depicting everything unfolding from a first-person participant narrator’s perspective; at various key moments in the narrative, we switch to a third-person perspective that allows us to see what is happening in the “real” world, and from this we get a feel for both sides of the story.
It would have been easy to show things exclusively from Fuminori’s perspective and make him a tragic hero battling against insurmountable odds, or to show things exclusively from a third-person perspective and completely “other” Fuminori’s increasingly monstrous behaviour. But Saya no Uta doesn’t do that; we see both sides.
We see that Fuminori’s behaviour is completely unacceptable, even reprehensible — but we also get some insights as to why he is behaving in that way. And all the way through this, we’re left with endless questions; can Fuminori be saved — from both a moral and a physiological perspective? Is there a “cure” for his condition? Can he be truly held responsible for the things he’s done while not of sound mind? And what, really, are the long-term consequences of doing the nasty with some sort of unfathomable, unknown horror that may or may not be the creation of your own subconscious?
These are all things you’ll find yourself contemplating after experiencing Saya no Uta for the first time — and even after the third, fourth, fifth time you revisit it. It’s a fine example of an eroge that is about as far as you can possibly get from being “porn”, but which nonetheless wouldn’t quite be the same without its explicit content.
Whew. I think I need something wholesome after all that.
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