JP title: ひまわり
More than just a romcom! That should be the (other) tagline for Blank Note’s doujin VN, titled Himawari, that came out ages ago (read: 2007) on PC and even got a PSP port later on with full voice acting. And a fandisc. But that’s for another review, I guess, if I ever get around to it.
Update (5/7/2016): Although this review is based on the original doujin version, I added screenshots from FrontWing’s remake, just so you can see how the new artwork looks.
So, uh, what is this VN about, exactly? I mean, looking at the screenshots and the characters, you might be thinking it’s just gonna be about comic relief hijinks with moe girls, and while there’s quite a bit of that too, it’s really not what makes the overall story memorable. Himawari starts off by introducing our amnesiac protagonist (yes, really, but it’s gonna make sense in the end!), Hinata Youichi, who lost his memories two years prior (in 2048, seeing how the VN takes place in the distant future of 2050) due to an airplane crash that killed both his parents. As it turns out, he’s the only survivor out of over five hundred other passengers. He now lives alone, staring at the stars every evening — as this, and space in general, are his primary interests –, when one day, he spots a shooting star. Except it’s not a shooting star, but Aries, a mysterious albino loli who crashlands in Youichi’s city. Turns out, she’s *also* amnesiac. So Youichi, of course, takes the poor girl in and the two start living together.
Other characters show up, including the fearless president of the space/astronomy club (that Youichi also belongs to), Amamiya Ginga, the son of the celebrated astronaut Amamiya Daigo, who not only managed to land on the far side of the Moon, but lived to tell the tale. Daigo’s already dead by the time the main scenario starts (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, it’s established at the beginning), so you only hear stories about him for a while, and how much of a hero he was. Ginga himself is a bit of an eccentric but very much entertaining character who pretty much steals the spotlight of most of the scenes he’s in, and definitely deserves a special mention as one of the coolest characters in the VN — his obsession with space is one of the key elements of his club. Now, the premise I described above, on its own, doesn’t lend itself to much storytelling, this much is true. Truth be told, the “first” route (or rather, the common route with Aries as the focus) is fairly mediocre in terms of the story it’s telling, with its finale being… well, nothing special, really. You do briefly meet some of the other heroines, though, including the mysterious Aqua, as well as the kinda-sorta childhood friend Saionji Asuka of the rich and influential Saionji family. The Saionji Group, by the way, is the very same company that developed the space-faring plane that crashed and robbed Youichi of his parents. So that’s a bit awkward. There are some revelations about Aries and the “route” ends with an okay-ish, heartwarming finale…
…and then you get a heated preview of the continuation (well, it’s a prequel, actually), advertised as “Himawari: Second Episode” and suddenly the whole game does a 180. Well, okay, it’s not *quite* the MuvLuv kind of 180, but it’s still a definite change in tone towards the more serious, with a few darker moments here and there. I won’t go into details too much, but the main meat of the VN lies in the two segments following the common route: one is the prequel scenario mentioned above, called Restart, that takes place in 2048, two years before the main scenario’s events and deals with the pasts of Aqua (one of the heroines) and others. The other is the proper route of Aqua herself, once again in 2050, unlocking after Restart. And then there’s the final route (Asuka), unlocking after you finished everything else, but more on that later. This is when Himawari shows its true colors as a sci-fi story of love, inevitable tragedy, happiness and the meaning of life itself, taking the plot into some rather unexpected directions as it deals with some pretty interesting concepts and ideas/themes to ponder. Hell, I had to genuinely struggle to fight back the tears during the final scene of Restart, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen to me too often.
I think some of my favorite moments in the VN include the, uh… let’s call them “flashbacks”, during Restart. Once again, I won’t go into details, but it’s pretty fascinating seeing all the characters from the past who end up being the catalysts for everything that happens later on, and seeing the pieces of the puzzle slowly coming together. You know, understanding what certain characters (that you’ve only briefly met or heard tales about in the common route) really went through, what motivated them to do what they did, and what dreams they were chasing that shaped them into the people they eventually became. And yes, as you might’ve expected, Amamiya Daigo himself is a major character in the 2048 story arc — the backstories of him and two of his old friends from university (the flashbacks referred to above) unfold gradually, adding an extra layer of complexity to the plot while providing some key characterization and a peek into the — pretty tragic — pasts of some prominent characters. It definitely puts things into a new perspective when you finish Restart and jump back into the present, because *now* you know where some of these characters are coming from and how the events/characters of 2048 (and even before 2048) are connected to 2050. For instance, by the end of the VN, the one character I never really thought I’d care about ended up becoming, that’s right, one of my favorite characters in the entire thing, (for those of you that read the VN, I’m talking about Akira), which felt pretty strange. I suppose the VN did a pretty decent job of showing a more human and vulnerable side of certain characters, even if the rest of the world may see them as either a “villain” or a celebrated, near-mythical hero.
The change in tone applies to the later parts of the VN as well, with all the heroines revealing something about themselves, and it’s not always that pleasant. Aries for example has some interesting revelations in Aqua’s route, which was refreshing seeing how for the longest time she seemed to be just the token moe loli character. The other characters get some development as well, including Ginga, Aqua, Asuka and even Youichi, all contributing in some way to the issues/themes explored in the plot. Of course, there’s still gonna be comic relief all throughout the VN, though, but it’s not that distracting, and hey, it’s sometimes pretty funny (シミ子 best tsundere). I do have to note, though, that the final route, while enjoyable, didn’t quite have the same impact on me as Restart, so it kinda felt weird that the VN had already “used up” its best moments in the middle. There were also parts where I felt the narrative was kinda dragging a bit, but in retrospect it didn’t sour the overall experience all that much. Still, it’s something to keep in mind.
The script, by the way, uses fairly simple Japanese and yet still manages to be both poignant and surprisingly poetic on several occasions. If you’re looking for something that can help ease you into reading VNs in Japanese, this could be a very good choice indeed; the only not-that-beginner-friendly parts I can think of are the bits when the story starts explaining science-y stuff. But it’s still not that bad so don’t worry about it too much.
So overall, Himawari is a fairly “adult” visual novel (it does actually deal with themes of growing up), and I don’t just mean the fact that it started out as an 18+ release before the all-ages version happened. It’s a story about life — about finding one’s place in the universe, of fulfilling one’s dreams; of being able to confront the tragedies of the past while looking forward to the future with a smile on your face. Sure, it has its boring bits, but manages to convey messages that are worth lending an ear to — it may not be the best VN I’ve ever read in my life, but it’s a pretty enjoyable and touching story for the most part.