I talk about the latest work from Makura, Sakura no Uta (referred to as the former, or SakuUta), as a work to consider under the genre of slice-of-life. For the purposes of discussion, I expand the definition of slice-of-life as a form of mimesis in literature, and base my points on that definition. I then connect Sakura no Uta to the most recent major work of its head writer SCA自, Subarashiki Hibi (referred to as the former, or SubaHibi). To synthesize my discussion, I formulate a concept auxiliary to slice-of-life, which I term as ‘slice-of-living’.
The entire game is a sort of love letter. This piece is a reply to that love letter. I assume that anyone reading this has read the game (and SubaHibi), so if you haven’t, do not proceed. Please read the game first. If you really want to read this, you should have a very good excuse to yourself (i.e. dying, never gonna learn Japanese, game probably never getting translated anyway). This is your only warning.
Slice-of-life is a narrative style, a classification of stories that focus on the ordinary and mundane aspects of life. Often these stories have a basic premise, a cast of characters, but little to no driving plot or conflict. The presence of fantastical elements, if any, is minimized to that of background noise and comedic device. The genre has been a staple in anime and manga over the years, ranging from iyashi-kei works such as Aria to comedies like Kill Me Baby.
While I retain and respect this definition of slice-of-life, for my intents and purposes I shall generalize its scope. Slice-of-life is, in the context of Sakura no Uta, a form of mimesis: an imitation of life. Mimesis and anti-mimesis are central themes to Sakura no Uta, but maybe someone more qualified (like Kastel) can expound on those. My primary goal is to present Sakura no Uta as a slice-of-life work, with emphasis on the aspects of life and living. I extend this afterward to a more specific, and perhaps a more meaningful concept to attach to Sakura no Uta, which I will call ‘slice-of-living’.
Some might argue that trying to place SakuUta in such a ‘mundane’ genre as slice-of-life will lead to confusion and misclassification of the work. There is no denying the important presence of fantastical elements such as the Hakuki mythology and the Thousand-Year Sakura as presented in Zypressen, or the extension of the mythology to Natsume Shizuku and Misakura Rin’s seemingly omnipotent manipulation of art in A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. The scale of the story’s ambition and ideas, along with its execution, may make selling the idea that SakuUta is an expression of everyday life hard to justify. But as I will explain later on, the conclusions it comes to at the end clearly show its place as a slice-of-life. While certain parts, such as the aforementioned chapters, employ a serious detachment from our reality in their narrative, they exist as devices that provide further backing to the development of the story.
Before I point out arguments to the slice-of-life nature of SakuUta, first consider this question: why slice-of-life and not coming of age? This distinction is crucial, not only because of the themes involved but also because of the narrative structure of the work. Coming of age necessitates a show of maturity on part of the protagonist. While this may be true for Kawachino Yuumi in Zypressen (this chapter is such an important turning point for the entire work that it requires its own analysis separate from all the others), it is not so important for Kusanagi Naoya. The story is less interested in his capacity to accept and adapt to certain circumstances and more on his continuous attempts of live a happy and functioning life.
I lay out two conditions with which we perform my analysis of SakuUta under the lens of slice-of-life. The first is the definition of slice-of-life as a form of mimesis. This condition will free most of our constraints regarding how the genre usually works, and will focus on how SakuUta becomes a representative of life and living. The second is an emphasis of lens; it is important to note that Kusanagi Naoya is the major protagonist and is the dominant narrator in the work, with the exception of Zypressen and What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind. His worldview, and his perspective carry the basic grounding of the story.
Let us start by looking at the first three chapters: the prologue, Fruhlingsbeginn, and Abend. (I will mention the prologue again, as the first part carries a particularly important weight to it.) These three mostly carry the flow of a typical visual novel introduction, with bits of plot interspersed throughout the prologue and Fruhlingsbeginn so as to clue in the reader with some of the potential events of the story. Come Abend, and we enter the first conflict-climax cycle with the events around the making of the “Footprints of the Sakura”. We then enter the individual heroine routes, starting off with the mundane but quite complex events of PicaPica, to the magical undertones in Olympia and Zypressen, to the outright phantasmal magic battle between Shizuku and Rin in a flashback in A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs. After a brief interlude with the origins of the current Kusanagi family relations, we are finally grounded to reality again once and for all with The Happy Prince and Other Tales. For the first-time reader, this progression all seems wonderfully surreal. It can’t be helped to be quickly caught up in the grandiosity of the scheme of things, in the flow of the arcs. But in the midst of this flow, we somehow forget that it is not just us, the reader, who are in this experience, but also the protagonist who serves as our eyes to this experience.
Let us now look at all the events of the story in summary, in the eyes of our main protagonist, Kusanagi Naoya. From the prologue to the events prior to the climax of Abend, Naoya has had a consistently disinterested, if not only slightly empathetic outlook on the life he is living. Of all the events from the first three chapters, only two actually took him to a moment of genuine engagement: the return of Misakura Rin, and their work and completion of the “Footprints of the Sakura”. The first carries the guilt of his past, and the second carries his sole pride and passion. But these can be considered special events, occasions if you will. A minor haunting in his past, resolved in Olympia. A minor victory in his part, exaggerated by the mass media. In his eyes, these are but memories that weigh no more than the moments they were lived in. Nonetheless, they serve to build him, just as everyday experience builds anyone else. These do not change the ebb and flow of his life, and we see that clearly as the days pass by him. Only in the heroine routes do we see a change in outlook for Naoya; changes that veer off from his usual distance towards people and leads him to his heroine. Even then these changes only serve to redefine what his ‘everyday’ means for him, although it does result in a happy ending. The presence of these endings can therefore be thought of as a departure from our definitions of slice-of-life, most especially as a mimesis. As I will explain in a bit, it is vital to continue our analysis to the last three chapters. The last two, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, and Walking Under the Sakura Forest, complete the story as a slice-of-life, and will enable me later on to extend this concept as a slice-of-living.
In examining SakuUta under my terms of slice-of-life, it would seem that I have carelessly thrown away an integral component of the plotting: the fantasy. In asserting the ordinary nature of the entirety of Sakura no Uta, is it necessary to assume that I have cast off the importance of the fantasy that indeed did happen in the story? I certainly hope not, for that would invalidate the wonder, the atmosphere, and most importantly, a message that the story is trying to convey.
When we mention and discuss the stories of slice-of-life, it is rare to speak of death. Why should we? Death is not a regular occasion, nor does it bring the happiness and joy commonly associated with the genre. If ever touched on, it might be briefly mentioned in a comedic skit, or perhaps a self-aware introspection readily tossed into the wind of mindless banter (see Yuyushiki). Thus begs the question: what place does death have in a slice-of-life?
Throughout the story, two physical deaths are explicitly shown in Sakura no Uta. These physical deaths are final: the only instances the characters are depicted as alive are in the scenes prior to their deaths. The first death is that of Kusanagi Ken’ichiro, Naoya’s father. His illness was sudden, but his death is scripted; planned even. It is a death Ken’ichiro and Naoya have come to terms with ever since it came to be a possibility. His father’s death did not change him, nor did it faze him from his concept of everyday. The fact that his father’s funeral is the very first scene of the story should be enough proof to the lack of impact of Ken’ichiro’s death. Ever since the death of his mother, Naoya had accepted death as an inevitability. It was a part of his life (and consequently, does not change him in the story prior and after the death of his father).
But then comes the second death, that of Natsume Kei. Kei’s death is final in many ways. He plays the swallow to Naoya’s Happy Prince, thus fulfilling the chapter’s title, The Happy Prince and Other Tales. His death occurs in the main trunk of the story, and dies prior to the branch between the Natsume Ai route and the path to the true end, permanently marking him dead from the advancement of the story. The contrast between Ken’ichiro’s and Kei’s deaths is staggeringly obvious: the former died of illness, the latter died of an accident. The first was slow and calculated, the second was swift and impulsive. But there are two much more important comparisons drawn from their deaths. Ken’ichiro did not choose to die; he did not have much of a choice to begin with. Kei was given the choice of killing versus dying, and he chose to die at the last split second.
The most relevance their deaths have is their effect on Kusanagi Naoya. As mentioned above, Ken’ichiro’s death was planned and calculated, and so were Naoya’s feelings towards that death. His forgery of the six sakura paintings made under Ken’ichiro’s name served as his final message to his father and his father’s legacy. He had written his own father’s epitaphs; he was more than prepared for that death. But Kei’s death came fast, abruptly. And in the context of The Happy Prince and Other Tales, there could have been none a greater tragedy for both Naoya and the reader than to have your best friend, your only rival die at the supposed moment of his glory. A time of celebration becomes a time for grief. A time that Naoya felt like his ‘everyday’ could have forever changed for the better was suddenly shattered. The dream he and Kei had worked for, the dream to reach the heights of the art world, completely destroyed. By the time we, the reader knew it, everything Naoya had worked for up until that moment in that chapter had reset to zero.
With Kei’s death comes the death of Naoya’s dream with Kei, but it also brings about another death. The death of the dream delivers a soft, but essential death to the fantasy present in the previous parts of the story. The Thousand-Year Sakura, as presented in Zypressen and A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, becomes irrelevant in the mind of Kusanagi Naoya. The circumstances regarding Shizuku and the conceptualization of Sui do not matter anymore. Kei’s death had blown away any illusion of a fantasy and dream, firmly grounding us back into a reality, as dreadful as it might be. Kei’s death also reunited Misakura Rin and Sui, undoing the events of the past, and bringing back the genius Rin once had. Perhaps, in her own grief, she painted the work that eventually won her the highest honor of the Moore Exhibition. Her talent still brings awe to the audience, but her desire to use its greater capacities have long gone. Where she goes after is no longer of Naoya’s concern. He had gone back to being the Naoya before Fruhlingsbeginn, caring about the value of art but never engaging it. And as the last chapter would indicate, he had been frozen like this ever since. As his own friends graduated and they all parted their ways, Kusanagi Naoya had grown less and less. His environment has changed, but his internal ‘everyday’ never had. It is a slice-of-life at its dullest, and perhaps it is why it was never shown to us. But that is besides the point. The story is will not be content with leaving us at this triple point of conflict-climax-denouement.
It is understandable, although not unavoidable, the draw comparisons between Subarashiki Hibi and Sakura no Uta. Considered as sister works by both fans and SCA自 alike, their pool of references intersect, and their themes are interrelated. The most important of all of them is Subarashiki Hibi’s 「幸福に生きよ」, or “Live happily”. As Minakami Yuki succinctly explains it, “… O Man, be happy! Do not drown yourself in happiness, nor bring despair to your world. Just live happily.” This pervading message is brought back to Sakura no Uta in a newer, extended form. This revitalization, perhaps the most fulfilled essence of 「幸福に生きよ」, necessitates a jump outside the realm of 「幸福」. This jump, which makes Sakura no Uta describe itself as 「幸福の先への物語」(a story of going beyond happiness), is what requires the existence the final chapter: Walking Under the Sakura Forest. It is in this chapter where the slice-of-life, the mimesis, completes itself ーand constructsー the definition of ‘slice-of-living’.
The final chapter can be easily described as a sort of repeat of the events of Fruhlingsbeginn and Abend, but with a slightly different premise, and a very different lesson. Kusanagi Naoya now lives his life as an art teacher at the same high school he graduated from. A lot of his former friends have moved on, reduced to being acquaintances. He hides his past from his students. He feels older than his actual age, yet is perceived as younger than he is by those around him. He continues to teach art, but he never goes beyond teaching. The only person he actually goes out to drink with is one of the former mob characters in the previous chapters. And he continues to be popular with the girls. This Kusanagi Naoya is the same Naoya as in Fruhlingsbeginn, just with more experience in life, and more subordinate to society. His ‘everyday’ is in a frozen state, a routine. Kei’s death had that heavy burden on him, and he will not be capable of lifting it up on his own. Even that death is already a distant past he had come to terms with, but having been trapped for so long he just could not bother anymore.
But then came Sakizaki Sakurako. Her capacity to transform music into words (the theme of 「言葉と旋律」is also vital for both SubaHibi and SakuUta, but I will not explain it here) brought back a life to Kusanagi Naoya. Another ‘everyday’ that he had lost, the Kusanagi Naoya of Abend, is slowly coming back to him. The final straw was during the heated argument over the vandalism of “Footprints of the Sakura” by Nagayama Kana’s group. Naoya, driven by Sakurako’s passionate if not somewhat naïve determination, finally sets into motion a renewal plan for the “Footprints of the Sakura”. This mirrors Akashi Wataru’s preparation for the making of the original “Footprints of the Sakura” in Abend, but differs in an important aspect. Akashi constructed his plan based on Kusanagi Ken’ichiro’s own blueprints. Naoya, true to the his legacy to his father, made a his own set of blueprints over the course of the years and penned them under his father’s name. The course of the events play out similar to Abend, with emphasis on the renewed engagement of Kusanagi Naoya towards art. The outcome is parallel that of Abend as well, but with Naoya taking Akashi’s role and Kana taking Naoya’s position.
We put aside Kana’s thoughts on the result. It is obvious at this point that Naoya has finally understood what Akashi meant by “what it means to create art”. It is here that we have regained the Naoya of that moment in Abend; the Naoya that took part in the creation of the original “Footprints of the Sakura”. But that doesn’t make the Naoya of the present disappear. His choice of technique, “to be able to modify the work from afar”, is symbolic of his stance on the current state of the art world. He may never choose to work directly on a piece of art ever again. But that is fine. He has always done so, even in the previous chapters, and will continue to do so. That aspect of his life has never changed. His weight of his past is now light, but the scar is still there, and yet, so is his passion. This slice of his life continues just as it had before, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The final punctuation mark that defines Sakura no Uta as a slice-of-life, and ultimately a ‘slice-of-living’ comes from the final two scenes with Ai. The first scene has Naoya spilling out the night’s hangover, and to be comforted by Ai afterward. Here he comes to a realization; almost a confession really. An admittance that he feels the most painful in the midst of all the best of times. An epiphany that a person’s glorious moment is also their most wicked, for they do not realize their place. To illude themselves that a bright and happy life is normal is not right, but they do not come to. They do not understand why is it so dazzling to begin with, thus they can never wake up. Ai questions his own status, if he considers himself as part of those who lead bright lives. But Naoya answers the contrary. He sees himself as having fallen very low, drenched in his own vomit and reeking of alcohol. But it is in this state that he can feel awake, alive. His pain comes not from having fallen low, but because he hasn’t fallen completely.
This dualist philosophy is essential to the completion of the idea of “living happily”. It breaks down the phrase into two distinct parts: what is living, and what is happiness. Subarashiki Hibi discusses on happiness, but Sakura no Uta defines what it means to live. And to live is to feel pain. To live is to feel bitterness. To live is to feel suffering. Without the feeling of the senses, to be blinded in the ecstatic light of happiness alone, is to be incapable of feeling life from death. Kusanagi Ken’ichiro actually says the same thing in his deathbed in What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind. but the confession in the final chapter provides a much richer discussion. The analogy to alcohol is an excellent summary of Naoya’s thesis, and provides a tieback to Yuki’s words of “to not drown oneself in happiness”. Alcohol (happiness) becomes unpleasant (pain) if consumed too much. Yet we keep filling ourselves with it, thus our pursuit for more happiness will always result in more pain. And that is fine. For if we do not feel the pain, then we do not feel alive.
The second scene carries both narrative and thematic weight. In the past, Ken’ichiro was fired under the pretense of his modifications on the school church. But in the present, Naoya is promoted to being a proper member of the school faculty, thanks in part to a promise Ai made to the school headmistress Toritani Saki. This seals Naoya’s financial future, enabling him to start his out his own life again without the uncertainty of living. Naoya and Ai properly reunite on the hill overlooking the city, and walk on to their home.
Naoya comments that at even though it isn’t spring yet, the city lights at night would look like scattered sakura petals. And each petal, each light would have its own people, living their own lives. A single petal is beautiful, but to be surrounded by them, more so. Each of the many lights, the everyday lives of people. And their house too, is one of those lights. A slice of the many lives in the city. And just like every house, every light, the Natsume family has its share of memories and people. And just like many of the lights on the city, they ーNaoya and Aiー will continue walking, continue living.
What Sakura no Uta has presented is a slice-of-life story. Quite an ordinary story of an everyday life. A life built on the little happiness, and the little pain experienced by the people in that moment. And a slice-of-living, as how Kusanagi Naoya lived it. But all we saw was a slice of it. A part of his life, and a part of his city. We know very well that this is not Naoya’s final happy end. And I can tell that, at that very moment, he would not have had it any other way.
“Do not drown yourself in happiness, nor bring despair to your world. Just live, and be happy.“