JP title: 刃鳴散らす
To be perfectly honest, as someone whose favorite VN is Narahara Ittetsu’s Soukou Akki Muramasa, I really should’ve read this game sooner, considering it’s by the same author. Maybe a part of me dismissed it as potentially inferior, expecting it to even be disappointing on a certain level. Luckily, disappointing it was not — painfully short though it may be, Hanachirasu is Narahara’s work through and through; the same heart beating beneath a slightly different shell.
Hanachirasu takes place in a world where the development of nuclear weaponry failed, so no atomic bombs were ever dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This led history and the war to take an entirely different course, and ultimately led to the birth of a Tokyo that’s no longer Japan’s capital, is surrounded by a colossal wall, and is basically a dystopian den where firearms are banned and people fight to the death with swords as a result of a certain leader’s attempt to restore the Japanese spirit and eradicate western influence. The game goes into more detail with its infodumps though, so I won’t say too much here.
Enter Takeda Akane, a ruthless swordsman in a crimson kimono who serves as the main protagonist of the story, although admittedly he is more of an anti-hero. He is cocky, selfish, and uses the lives of others as mere pawns to propel him further towards his own goal; a man driven solely by a desire that goes beyond obsession and borders on sheer insanity. Some may dislike him if they’re used to generic, goody-two-shoes MCs but I personally found him fascinating, even more so after learning of why he did what he did. Akane, in turn, is hunted by his former friend Igarasu Yoshia, another skilled swordsman who swore to exact his revenge upon Akane for a reason that is revealed early on in the game, but I don’t want to spoil every aspect of that storyline and the characters’ backstories, so once again, I’ll cut myself short here because I want you to experience the VN as it’s meant to be.
Narahara weaves his plot like an expert puppet master who knows exactly what he wants, and all is sacrificed to create a tragic samurai drama of obsession and vengeance as these two men hurry towards the only conclusion there could ever be for them. Let’s ignore the fact that there are some alternate endings (more on them later) for a moment, because it’s fairly obvious that there was only one way this story could end, and that’s exactly the way it ends. “It was meant to be”, one could say, and although the expression is a cliché one, with the whole “they were born to do battle against one another” thing sounding potentially cheesy to some, it feels completely natural and inevitable in the world of Hanachirasu. Because this, too, is not a story of heroes; the plot of Hanachirasu is indeed quite dark and bloody, its rampant flames mercilessly consuming all those who would dare stand in the way of Akane and Igarasu’s fated reunion.
There’s a certain poignant theatricality to the whole affair — and that’s likely the expression I’ve been searching for as I wrote that previous paragraph. The way the story twists and turns, the way everything is set up and concluded, as well as the very event that set this entire tale in motion all reaffirmed in my mind that Hanachirasu was indeed written by the same man who would go on to create Muramasa four years later. I saw tiny glimpses of Muramasa here and there in the prose, and felt ever so faintly the same tragic inevitability, the same bittersweet, heart-wrenching beauty that permeates both Kanae’s and Ichijou’s endings in that VN. The ending theme, in particular, captures this feeling perfectly. Speaking of the soundtrack, it’s what you’d expect. Same old ZIZZ quality that includes both heated tracks like this, or restrained, melancholic pieces like this (the image/thumbnail might be a potential spoiler though I don’t feel it’s anything you wouldn’t see coming. still, I gave a warning just in case) that just made me have flashbacks to Muramasa.
The VN is also a celebration of Japanese swordsmanship, so you can very much expect lengthy and detailed explanations of various schools and techniques, as well as all the strategy and mind games involved in melee combat. I’m not sure if it’s because I read English faster than I do Japanese, but honestly, this didn’t bother me all that much in terms of length, and in the end, I even gained enjoyment out of learning new things. I remember not being a huge fan of the fight scenes back when I read Muramasa, but maybe I’ve changed. Who knows. There’s also the fact that the detailed descriptions of tactics and swordsmanship never once feel like filler, and why would they? The whole thing is so central to the characters and the plot that it never feels out of place. In essence, the way of the sword is the very life blood of Hanachirasu.
The game is very much on the short side: it took me a little over 7 hours to finish everything, and I felt like certain things could’ve been fleshed out a touch more. To give an example, Itsurin was a very interesting character (and I’m not just saying that because I like her VA…) who shared a past with the two main leads and had a feeling what sort of conclusion fate had in store for them the moment they met, but this is only mentioned briefly. And maybe if this was a longer VN, it might’ve devoted a whole chapter to the characters’ backstories (the same way Muramasa did with Chapter 5), which could’ve been nice. On the other hand, and I suppose this just goes to demonstrate Narahara’s skill at storytelling, I also feel like Hanachirasu said everything that needed to be said in its own brief flashback when the truth behind Akane’s actions is revealed, and it still had a fairly big impact.
Speaking of things that are short, what was up with the side endings? They had the promise of some interesting what-if scenarios, but they’re pretty much the shortest endings I’ve ever read in a VN. As in, they take like 30 seconds to read. I’m not even exaggerating here. You click on the dialogue choice at a branching path, and then the VN suddenly jumps ahead in time, shows you a very brief ending sequence, and that’s it. At first I thought my game was bugged. It genuinely felt like he kinda just… forgot to write these parts, lol. The other alternate endings are more of a joke than actual endings to the point they kinda take you out of the game, and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously. As such, I can very much understand why these are locked until you complete your first playthrough. Basically, consider them no different from a blooper reel you’d find on a movie DVD, or the UFO endings of Silent Hill games.
Anyway, I really enjoyed Hanachirasu, but that’s because I’m pretty much its target audience. It had me hooked from start to finish, and it’s been a while since I’ve stayed up until 5AM in the morning just to finish a VN or a video game, lol. I expected that it might not be for everyone, and the mixed opinions I’ve seen for the game online here and there appear to reinforce this suspicion; so if you really didn’t like Hanachirasu, I get the feeling you might not enjoy Muramasa all that much, either. But for the rest of you, this is a story both tragic and powerfully told that will, in a way, emotionally prepare you for the main dish that is Muramasa.