Instead of a Western-style VN, how about a historical Japanese one?
Kagerou is a Meiji era doujin visual novel developed by kamomile. The trial version was released in Comiket 82 of 2012 and the complete edition was released in Comiket 86 of 2014. So why did I pick up this obscure looking doujin VN? Novectacle promoted Kagerou several years ago and it also won a doujin game award in 2014. I was hesitant on playing Kagerou, but one day I noticed the game on the shelf in Toranoana and I thought, hey, why not give it a try? This review will have some spoilers. To avoid it, you can skip to the last paragraph to see my impression of the game.
Here’s a lengthy summary of the common route in Kagerou:
The Edo period lasted more than 250 years and will soon come to an end. The days of possessing a sword are now over and Japan strives to keep up and overtake the Western powers. Some time ago, Japan triumphed a victory outside the borders of the ocean. Japan, the small country of the East, had finally allowed foreigners to enter the country after the seclusion of foreign influence. This is the Meiji era where common folks’ lifestyle changed significantly: no more swords and hair tied in a topknot. Light bulbs replaced paper lanterns, brightening the night. There is a huge movement in the creation of railroads for easy transportation. The radiance of civilization is ubiquitous all over Japan, or was supposed to be.
Meiji era, year 1899. Yoshino Seiji is a military veteran in his mid 20s and is also the protagonist of Kagerou. He strolls down the streets of Tokyo to meet his mentor, Nanajo Iwao, who disciplined him in medicine and took him in when he was a child after his father passed away from a contagious disease. Oribe Kuro is the district headman of Hino and is also a guest in the meeting. Oribe recently discovered a village in the mountain under confinement in his district. Many do not know who lives in the forgotten isolated village. To reverse that, Oribe request Seiji to proceed to the village as a member of the Meiji government and negotiate with them.
As Seiji departs toward the village from the Imperial Hotel, Yae, a maid who’s also his childhood friend, sees him off. He journeys west from Tokyo and gets lost on the way. He hears small bell-like sounds jingling in the distance. Like the spring wind, a shrine maiden with long black hair approaches him and offers to help, but he modestly refuses. He arrives at the location indicated on his map and meets up with Oribe at his conspicuous mansion in the outskirts of the village. To familiarize Seiji with the village, Oribe appointed a guide for him who happened to be that shrine maiden he stumbled upon earlier. Her name is Fuyu, a 15-year-old girl who does not give her last name, as she says it is similar to those among the villagers.
As Fuyu leads Seiji to a homelike shrine with a vast view of grassland and paddies, suddenly a primitive man named Yajuro runs toward them, threatening and demanding Seiji to leave the village. Yajuro says just like the past, if any outsiders were to enter the village, the snake god will curse them. Refusing to budge, Seiji is then strangled and captured by Yajuro with his fellow accomplices and heads to the village headman. Fuyu chases them and is calmed down by Tazu, the village headman’s daughter-in-law. The headman and other villagers want Seiji to leave, but Fuyu states that the present is different from the past and Seiji is the same as them, even if he’s an outsider. The headman says an outsider is like poison, but Fuyu refutes and says it’s a shrine maiden’s duty to rid outsiders. The headman asks her what does she knows about outsiders and mocks her, saying her mom’s duty was the same, but she was unable to fulfill it.
Fuyu is unable to win the argument and the headman orders Yajuro to imprison Seiji in a small den. Yajuro interrogates him for entering the village, and Seiji says he would like to connect the village to the outside world. Yajuro goes more into detail about the outsider who entered the village in the past. He’s not too sure what happened, but the mountain god was mad and if Seiji stays, the village will end up right where it started. Seiji then recalls the gloomy past in the year 1886. Contagious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever, and cholera spread all year round in Japan. Excessive amount of people died and crematoriums were always busy. He remembered his father’s death and working with Nanajou at a young age as his medical treatment assistant. As Nanajou and him walked along side the Tama River between Kanagawa and Tokyo prefecture overlooking the crematoriums in the past, he remembers he never want to see people die again.
After the short flashback, Seiji sees a ghastly snake figure, but only for a moment. Fuyu enters the den with a paper lantern and an umbrella. Apparently Yajuro left to tend his sick son facing stomach pain. Seiji questions Fuyu about the son’s symptoms and asks if his diarrhea is that of water after cleaning rice. All the symptoms are positive and lead to what he believes is cholera. Seiji realizes there is no doctor in the village as none can enter. He takes out his cylinder gun and shoots the lattice door binding him down and heads toward Yajuro’s house.
Seiji rushes into Yajuro’s house and his wife is appalled to see an outsider, but he immediately seeks for the son. Yajuro comes in and rambles, questioning if he even has any medical practice, and that they shouldn’t trust an outsider. Little does he know, his son, Ichita, is in the incubation period three days ago with only two days left to live. After Yajuro and his family calms down, Seiji asks for salt, since Ichita needs to drink water mixed with salt to heal. Suddenly, the village headman appears and says there is no salt in the village. Seiji realizes once again, since outsiders are not allowed to enter, no salt can come in and the villagers are left to die. His blood is now boiling and he tries to find an alternative way to save Ichita.
Desperately, Seiji runs into a river at night to gather salt. Yajuro tries to stop him, and says it’s Seiji’s fault for his son getting sick. The previous outsider came and had a good relationship with the previous shrine maiden, which angered the mountain god, and that’s the reason for the deaths. Everyone was sick, even Yajuro’s father died from illness because of that outsider. Even so, Seiji convinces Yajuro to help him if he wants to save his own son, outsider or not. Once they gathered enough salt, Seiji heals Ichita and the village recognizes Seiji for his good deed. Acknowledging Seiji for saving his son, Yajuro opens up and becomes good friends with him.
To celebrate, Fuyu dances a captivating ritual dance to pray the snake god. In the shrine, looking out toward the garden, Seiji spots a young girl with red eyes, ceramic white skin, and short black hair adorning a tortoiseshell hairpin. Perplexed, he thought she was a foreigner like those with blue and green eyes similar to his British friend named Angelica. He invites her to watch the moon with him and maybe have tea some day. He also says her eyes are beautiful and to treasure it, but she doesn’t respond. Fuyu comes in and rashly tells the young girl to go back inside. The young girl is mute and is apparently Fuyu’s little sister, Yuina, who’s around 10 years old. The villagers try not to get close to Yuina, because they believe she’s the manifestation of the snake god with her white skin and red eyes. Because of that, Yuina is often isolated and has no friends.
Now that the villagers has approved of Seiji, he roams around town and spots Oribe Kuro’s son, Toichi. Toichi says there’s a rumor around town that a corpse was found near the Habaki River. Toichi then questions him, since the snake god up in the mountain haunts the land, why did he come out safely when he also went to the river that one night. Abruptly, someone calls for Seiji, and it’s Angelica Cantiriba, a 13-year-old British girl with blonde hair and grey eyes, also Seiji’s good friend. She went to Japan because she wants to visit him, also her father, Jair Cantiriba, is a prominent architect working in Japan. Angelica visits the villagers along with Fuyu and Yuina and becomes good friends with all of them, even if they thought she was an alien or monster at first.
Seiji meets Toichi again, who gives him more information about the corpse. The man entered the mountain and it looks like something bit his leg off and left a bloody trail. As Seiji strides around town, he spots a man in his forties wearing a hunting hat, and he can automatically tell he’s a detective. The detective is also investigating the Habaki River incident, says the corpse’s leg is gone, skin rotten. The detective says a good friend of his who was in the military went up to that mountain, but suddenly disappeared. He believes his friend may be that corpse in the Habaki River incident and tells Seiji to not get involved.
One day in town, Seiji suddenly meets Tonami, an old acquaintance of his back when he was in the military. Tonami has a comely face, is quite effeminate, and talks rather gracefully. Not only is his name that of a girl’s, he also dresses like a girl as he is wearing a female kimono. Seiji compares Tonami to a doll in Kabukis, and says he looks like he is of no gender. If he had one word to describe him, he’d call him a beautiful person. Seiji did suspect him back in the past since Tonami was not a soldier for he was only around 10 years old or so, too young to be in the military. He still doesn’t know the reason why Tonami was in the military and he remains dubious. They chat and Seiji tells him he’s investigating the incident up in the mountains. Tonami laughs and says his gambling job may be related and asks him for more information about the mountain. Somehow they were able to get the detective in on this and they all head up to the mountain to research the corpse. Seiji notices the fallen and burnt trees in the surrounding and believes the cause of death was lightning. The detective then wonders where his friend disappeared.
Seiji’s daily activities include teaching the mute Yuina how to write the Iroha, healing the sick, and investigating the Habaki River incident. Amidst everything, we find out 10 years ago, Fuyu’s mother gave birth to Yuina and left with an outsider when she was supposed to perform a ritual to the snake god, called something like sending the Kagerou. Since her mother was unable to fulfill it, Fuyu, her descendant, now has to. If she were to perform the Kagerou ritual, she would have to sacrifice herself to keep the village safe and appease the snake god. There are only two choices in the entire game―sacrifice her or stop her from performing the ritual.
End of Summary
Ok, now you’re wondering, what’s the point of the long summary. The common route is pretty lengthy and it takes a while to get to the main part of the story. Once you pick either sending the Kagerou or not, it leads to two different routes: one revolves around Yuina and the other, Angelica. The common route is around 6 hours long, and the branched routes are 3 hours each, making the game a total of 12-15 hours long. Kamomile could have shortened the common route or at least lengthened the other two routes since I was wondering where this game was heading. Kamomile presents a huge setting with numerous sub-characters that go to waste after the Kagerou choice. The game presented a few mysteries like Fuyu and Yuina’s last name, the detective’s friend, the corpse, and the previous outsider, but once the mystery is revealed, I wasn’t impressed; I just didn’t feel the suspense.Let’s talk about the protagonist, Yoshino Seiji. I feel like both of the branched routes ruined his image. He’s noble, confident, and humble in the common route. He just wants to save lives and live a happy life in the village, but that changes after the Kagerou choice. The two routes depict his character differently from what he normally was. He was the type of person who hated death, but after the Kagerou choice in both routes, he was the opposite. In one route, he became somewhat of a desperado, he didn’t care about saving anyone and was plain angry about life and people taking advantage of him. In the other route, he keeps running away from everyone, trying to fulfill his duty to Japan. I sympathized with him in the common route and maybe some late scenes with him and Tonami, but other than that, he’s a strange protagonist with inconsistent characteristics. He loved the village and the villagers, but after a sudden turn of events, he just changed. His change is somewhat understandable, but it was all too sudden. After the choice, it mainly focused on the girls rather than him. When we do see Seiji, I’m just wondering what the hell is he doing; I just couldn’t believe he is the same character. His character greatly develops in the common route, but the branched routes rushed his development too fast and I just don’t know what to think of him. Ok, the two routes had tragic scenes, but I expected Seiji to handle the situation well, but he broke down and turned into a somewhat dense protagonist. He had an objective that didn’t seem to match the main story, unless that was the creator’s intention.
I’m not going to call the story or protagonist bad, because when I think about it, what is the goal of this game? It is seeing the Meiji era change after Tokugawa’s rule that was suppose to be great for society, but it didn’t turn out to be as expected. Kagerou stayed true to that storyline; everything was fine in the village, until things took a sudden turn, bringing the protagonist along with it. Kagerou probably wanted to correlate the change in era with the protagonist’s sudden change. Although I’m not fond of his character in the beginning of the two routes, at least he became his usual self at the end of the game.
Fuyu probably got the worst treatment since she does have only two choices: sacrifice herself or live. That is probably the driving point in this game. She doesn’t have much character development at all besides being a supportive main heroine. When she did lose faith in living, she had Yuina and Angelica to comfort her, so she didn’t change that much and looked on the bright side often. This game is advertised as a Meiji era romance VN. There are subtle scenes that showed slight implications of romantic feelings between Seiji and Fuyu. I think their “love” is platonic and was at a premature stage, as it didn’t fully bloom. I never thought of their interactions as romantic, I just thought Seiji was trying to show her a wider world in contrast to the villagers who detest change. Fuyu is an all right sister, but she could have done more for Yuina. Overall, she doesn’t do much in the game beside hang out with Seiji and perform the Kagerou.
Yuina opens herself up to Seiji and the others, and the village starts to accept her as a person, not as a deity. In the route that revolves around her, she becomes more expressive and adult-like. Even so, we don’t see much beyond that. She sees Seiji as a brotherly and heroic figure, and knowing his sudden change, she is rather depressed, but continues living on.
Angelica, on the other hand, keeps pestering Seiji to stay true to himself. After some years, she would go out of her way from England to Tokyo and drag him back to the village even when his decision to go back was wavering. Yajuro accompanied her to get Seiji back to the village when he keeps running away to Tokyo. This part of the game annoyed me. Seiji had a goal and wanted to do something greater for Japan, but Angelica didn’t know that and tried to be a good friend and drag him back. Little does she know, a little teenage girl like herself can’t just drag an unyielding grown man to a village and expect him to stay. I know Angelica is kind and a good friend of his, but she thinks too highly of herself and expect everyone to do what she says.
Yajuro is comic relief and a friendly guy, but he’s quite stupid. In the branched route that focuses on Angelica, Yajuro leaves his family just to accompany her on finding Seiji to bring him back to the village. Once Seiji runs away again, Angelica tells Yajuro to go back to Tokyo with her. If I were him, I’d straight up tell her no, because the village is a long way to Tokyo and he has a family to feed. Yajuro and Seiji became good friends, but they were just friends, nothing else. Sure Seiji did save Yajuro’s son and he’s very grateful for that, but he doesn’t even know why he’s bringing Seiji back beside the need to see him again. Yajuro also doesn’t know Seiji has a goal, and he would sometimes do stupid and rash things to make Seiji realize he isn’t himself. There are things Yajuro could have done to reason with Seiji and get him to stay in the village, but he’s not the type who would think before he acts. He is courageous when he risked his life to save others, but the way he executed it was stupid and futile. Different from his father, Ichita is more adult-like for a kid, and I certainly liked his development instead.
Although Tonami is a suspicious and deceiving character, Seiji and him are like comrades. His goal is to make Japan into a greater, more powerful place and he does what it takes to achieve it. Even if Tonami and Seiji’s ideals contrast each other and the way they handle problems are different, their end goals are similar. We don’t see Tonami that often, but the interaction between the two is more powerful compared to the rest of the characters. I feel like Tonami and Seiji are the only characters that continuously develop and build up the story. I’m surprised he had more impact than the others who swayed back and forth in the game while his character is linear and straightforward.
As for the rest of the characters, they got the short end of the stick. They’re just there with not much development. Some of them had their moments, but I feel like most of them aren’t needed in the game. The characters do help expand the setting of the Meiji era a bit. I wanted to see more of Yae and her interaction with Seiji since she is his childhood friend, but we barely see her beside a few scenes in the Imperial Hotel. Sometimes I wonder if Seiji is a lolicon since he pays Yae, who’s very beautiful and ladylike, no attention. I kind of wish she has at least a CG or two, but I guess she’s not an integral part of the game to deserve one. Hiraoka Takumi, the illustrator for Kagerou, said he personally likes the beautiful Yae too. Since Yae doesn’t have much of a stance in the game, he thought of maybe drawing her a bit more, but won’t, for this is an all-ages game. My hope increased for a moment until those last few words. Now I’m disappointed again.
In the common route, the game keeps talking about the snake god cursing the village, but after the Kagerou choice, we barely see anything about the god anymore. We did get a good amount of information about the god early on, but afterwards it doesn’t even matter; we don’t even know what happens to the snake god in one of the routes. When the snake god did appear in one route, it was uncalled for, and after all the events, I forgot there even existed a snake god. Kagerou is just like a snake—the plot slowly slithers throughout the game, camouflaging itself, and during the climax, it quickly snatches its prey, causing a surprise ending.
I guess the branched routes helped widen the setting for it gave more details about the Meiji era, especially the Russo-Japanese War. The common route barely talked about it, but it became the main focus in one of the routes. It was interesting to see Seiji plot ways to defeat enemies, but I didn’t see him do much of it since the route was mainly in Angelica’s point of view. The beginning of the game was good which led me to expect something bigger, but after the Kagerou choice, the split routes wasn’t on par to what I was expecting and the suspense died down. Although the branched routes weren’t as impressive as I’d like it to be, the actual endings were satisfying.
I love and hate when a character suddenly appears. As an example, when Angelica and Yajuro goes to find Seiji in Tokyo, after a few minutes, they easily spot him. Also in the route that had more focus on Yuina, Yuina was able to find Seiji randomly in the rain. Another scene, after Seiji had a confrontation with Tonami, Fuyu suddenly appears out of nowhere. This game is full of coincidences and it gets the story moving, but they could have added scenes in between instead. I’m still quite thankful, because I did want the game to speed up, even if it’s too much of a coincidence.
And now, about the product itself. The CD packaging is nice and simple. Once I removed the disc, I immediately see an image of a snake, which made me believe the game has horror when it does not. My problem with the CD was that it didn’t run on my computer, and I was about to purchase the game digitally, but found out it was able to run on my 12 year old toaster of a computer. Maybe kamomile designed the game for old computers, who knows, but I would be careful if I bought their media.
The game setting is easily navigable. When beginning Kagerou, I unconsciously moved my cursor to the bottom right of the screen, but then I remembered this isn’t Fata Morgana; the settings are similar though. The text in Kagerou is a bit more difficult than an average VN with more historical and traditional words. The transition between character text and sprites fades all too slowly, but it doesn’t bother me that often. The backgrounds are photographs with a bit of texture and filters. The background looks like it’s taken from a village, traditional Japanese houses, and old mansions. The art is probably the main factor influencing people to either play Kagerou or not. Sometimes the perspective is wrong and the character sizes are different, usually with the girls being taller or bigger than the men in the game. Some of their body proportions and hands are askew. There are over 40 CGs in the game, some better than others. I wouldn’t call the CGs beautiful, but they are consistent and have an equal amount of bright and dark undertones. Even if the art and CGs are a bit shoddy, I still enjoyed them and it has their own little charm.
I liked the story, but what created the atmosphere in most scenes is the music. There are 62 tracks in total that fits in with the Meiji era. There is a great assortment of tracks and the music is very broad. Most of the tracks are traditional and some include instruments like the shamisen, shakuhachi, and taiko. Most of the tracks are very calming and soothing, and are enjoyable outside of the game. I especially liked the option to change the volume, playback position, and choose random songs to listen to in the music screen. The track called Milk Tea is also used in Mujou no Erasmus, so I’m not sure how much songs in Kagerou are used elsewhere. Even so, the music is great and the tracks are pleasing to listen to.
Back in July of 2012, Masaki, one of the scenario writers for Kagerou said:
The plot is like this, the characters’ feelings speak to each other. The game focuses more on the characters’ interactions and emotions. I’ll admit it, the writing is shoddy. Kagerou is not a showy product and the characters in the game are stupid. However, I tried to bring a story of the Meiji era to life. That’s the story of Kagerou.
Well thanks for clarifying, Masaki. I almost took this game too seriously, but knowing this, I don’t have to anymore.
After everything, the game ended on a good note, so I’m satisfied. If you’re interested in a VN on the Meiji era, Kagerou is the game for you. The interactions with the characters are fun and that’s the winning point in this game. The story could’ve been better and it was doing well in the common route until the Kagerou choice and split route. I have mixed opinions on the protagonist. He is a likable and competent hero who can be foolish at times and make bad decisions. I wouldn’t call the trio of girls in the game his harem, but they do chase after him, literally. The trio definitely supported and helped develop the protagonist, though they didn’t gain that much development on their part. I liked the CGs, as some are heartwarming with huge significance, and I greatly enjoyed the music. Kagerou is a decent Meiji era doujin VN with some sweet and thought-provoking scenes, so I’ll probably check out the short sequel in the future.