January 2015 has now officially advanced from being “amazing” to being “intimidating.” I am already sure that there is no way to surpass this month in any future month of effort and feel very much like I ought to give it up while I’m on top. But no, I am nothing, if not stubborn about the sisyphean labor of blogging. Good thing I have an ace up my sleeve. But, I digress. ^_^
Today, we welcome back Jye N, who has already given us a very enlightening view of Winter Comiket this year. Today Jye returns with a review of a Yuri Visual novel, one that I have heard so much about and am terribly glad someone else has gone ahead and experienced it so I can enjoy it without effort on my part. And so, please welcome back Guest Reviewer Jye N! /applause/
Flowers: Le volume sur printemps is an aesthetically splendid introduction to a cycle of four planned works and a good Yuri story in its own right. But it should be thought of as very strictly a visual novel and not as a game.
This is not tribalism – of course it’s a game, I bought it in a Sofmap from a rack of games and played it on a VITA! – but a matter of calibrating expectations. Enjoying Flowers beyond its gorgeous art and soothing music is easier when you’re not at cross-purposes with the software or the intentions of its authors.
I approached Flowers as a standalone game in which it was my job to guide the heroine, Suou, into the arms of whichever of her classmates I judged best; naturally a strategic approach would be necessary, as interaction with other girls could swiftly result in being locked to the wrong path and the wrong girlfriend. While the game very clearly positioned Suou’s roommates Mayuri and Rika as the core love triangle, from my casual understanding of the visual novel market and games with related mechanics (such as Persona or even Bioware titles) it seemed obvious the other half-dozen beauties would have paths of their own. Thus any time Suou spent with anyone other than the delightful Mayuri was marred by my impatience to get back to her, and Rika became the enemy.
This ended poorly!
Flowers: printemps tells one very particular Yuri story in the context of immersing the reader in the impossible beauty of its Catholic girls’ school setting, where it plans to keep you for three further games. Suou’s classmates are not all absurdly pretty because they are potential girlfriends designed to cater for a variety of tastes, but because the setting is yet another iteration of the mythical maidens’ garden school where ugliness does not exist and the character designer is apt only to produce beauty. They are no more intended to intrude on the core love triangle than the endless parade of exquisitely rendered people in Collectors are intended as rivals for Takako or Shinobu. Likewise when Suou spends time with the mischievous twins, the dashing senpai or the pretty young teacher it is in service to the narrative of the timid main character emerging from her shell in her school life. If we are to see these side characters in love, it will be in their own games – and indeed I’ve since learned that one of Suou’s classmates is a main character in Le volume sur ete.
The impossible private girls’ school is a setting very familiar to Yuri fans, and while this iteration does not fall far from the Maria-sama ga Miteru tree it is skillfully executed. The opening is representative and worth watching:
This aesthetic extends to the text, which surfaces a major caveat to this review; my Japanese is far from strong and Flowers is a demanding work for the beginner. In service to its refined air it prefers kanji to hiragana in all circumstances (I did not know there were kanji for arigatou, anata and the like), and given the choice of two kanji it prefers the more obscure. While easier than a novel thanks to its illustrations and voiced dialogue, as a visual novel it draws from a limited palette of images and thus offers less visual context than a manga. Suou is prone to extended internal monologues, which are unvoiced and thus more difficult again. As a Yuri fan and manga reader I never lost the flow of events or the context, but I would often lose details. I would not suggest a Japanese beginner should be intimidated by Flowers, but you will likely find it an exercise in reading up. Following along with context and inference would be preferable to attempting a strict translation, as the weight of material would swiftly render the exercise a chore, but keep a dictionary handy.
The novel is a single route moderated by two mechanics; while there is alternate content for going against the tide of that route, the alternate ending is comparatively vestigial and not Yuri. The first mechanic governs most decisions in the game, and tracks compliance to the main route. If a decision is correct, a green glow surrounds a lily attached to the dialogue box, which grows closer to blooming. Otherwise, the glow is yellow and the lily contracts; this is necessary for the alternate ending but unless a very particular choice is made even the most stunted lily will simply deliver you to a bad end of the main path. A blooming lily is not difficult to maintain and will almost certainly deliver you to the main ending of the novel, unless you’re being a real jerk to Rika because you’re convinced this is the only way to secure happiness with Mayuri. In retrospect I do not recommend that.
The second mechanic is the most gamelike part of the work, where Suou must deduce the answer to various mysteries that crop up in the story from some reasonably esoteric clues. While the game veering into Yuri detective territory is entertaining (I would dearly love to see Shirohane Suou: Private Eye as a post-graduation sequel), it’s extremely difficult at my level of Japanese. I brute-forced most of these segments with trial and error based on the few clues I could figure out, and I would begrudge no-one for turning to a walkthrough. On the plus side, it is these segments where the shy Suou becomes a main character worthy of the admiration lavished upon her for reasons beyond her physical beauty: they successfully sell her as extremely intelligent and insightful, even if she’s prevented from being so bold and clever in the rest of the story (the game would have been a good deal shorter if there was a “go talk to Mayuri” button).
The story is quite long, and lavishes a great deal of time on concerns of clubs and classmates beyond the drama of the Suou/Mayuri/Rika triangle, and is further extended by the mystery segments. The content itself will be of no particular surprise to Yuri fans – tea parties and dance class, libraries and dormitories, a bustling school in which we somehow only ever see eight students and one teacher. Like most of its ilk we spend very little time on academics, preferring the extracurricular activities where the girls can talk freely in various combinations and vary their outfits somewhat. School superstitions, a culture festival and cooking for birthday parties feature. The reader should not expect to be surprised, but instead concern herself over whether those tropes work for her with this imagery to this music.
The imagery is strictly at a PG level, and the aesthetic does not match the stereotypical male-gaze moe or ecchi, but the novel is at pains to frequently visit the girls at ballet class, bed or the bath. It misses no opportunity to get a blush out of Suou by bringing her into some kind of intimate contact with another girl. This has the advantage that her hyper-awareness of her classmates’ bodies severely undercuts the “ambiguity” often associated with this brand of Yuri; there is no credible reading that Suou, Mayuri or Rika are straight. And for what little I know this might reasonably represent the broad scope of opportunities to become completely flustered a young lesbian at a school for impossibly beautiful girls would enjoy. But I certainly felt uncomfortable playing in an economy seat on a long flight when a still of young women in their underwear stayed on my screen for what seemed like a thousand lines of dialogue.
The characters are appealingly designed, though as you might expect not particularly diverse. Their personalities had mixed success with me, no doubt influenced by a few strong performances by the voice actors (there were not many characters, but given the length of the work each had a great deal to say). Suou is not a strong main character, but as mentioned was improved by the detective segments and the arc of the story, and in the end I could buy her as a full partner in a relationship. Mayuri was excellent, coming across as an entirely reasonable person still at the mercy of her heart; not the designated tomboy but still a bolder character. Yuzuhira is the designated tomboy but is very entertaining, while the wheelchair-bound girl who stars in the second game appears as an acerbic off-sider and gives me great hopes for her in a main character role (amusingly, her name is a spoiler). The Sasaki twins are less endearing, filling a more childlike role and taking up more scenes than I’d like, and the strength of the love triangle story is undercut by Rika, who comes across as possessive and emotionally unstable. Towards the end this harmonises with the main route, in particular the way the love triangle is shown to be potentially closed (more Yuri should address their larger number of valid pairings than a strictly heteronormative story), but the damage was done: I didn’t like her.
Ultimately the main route is an iteration ‘Story A’ with elaborate decoration, but it is a good one, if not great. It is legitimately a Yuri story, the opening alone makes it clear that these girls share a more intense attachment than the “romantic friendship” you might otherwise associate with Marimite descendants. I found the ending to be almost entirely satisfying, with the caveat that it needs to be taken in the context of three more novels, not the last word on this world or its characters. And indeed that is the core question for the reader – given you could get a similar or better story in manga and be done in a fraction of the time, do you find the aesthetic of this impossible school and its students pleasurable enough to luxuriate in for up to three times as long as this already lengthy novel?
For myself: I will be buying and playing Le volume sur ete.
Art & Music: 8.5
Story: 6 – it’s not bad, but it’s not tight.
Service: 5 – I bought it as demonstrating the girls’ attraction to each other. Bump it up if you really like skinny sixteen year-olds?
Yuri: 8 on main route. 5 otherwise.
Erica here: Your comment about the kanji reminds me of a shirt a friend once made me with “monku” (complain) written all over the front and “urusai!” (shut up!) on the back, but as they had used the kanji for “urusai” no one understood the joke when I wore it. Some words one just doesn’t see presented formally, especially informal shouting to “shaddup!”. ^_^
Thank you for the delightful review, Jye. We look forward to your review of the sequels!