Quietly tucked away in popular moege company Lump of Sugar’s library of otherwise mundane tales of high school romance lies the sleeping giant that is Itsuka, Todoku, Ano Sora ni, henceforth referred to as Itsusora for convenience’s sake. Originally penned by veteran Shumon Yuu (more recently known from Asairo and Tenshi no Hane o Fumanaide fame) in the year 2006, it boasts an extraordinarily detailed setting populated with a cast of unique characters and a level of plot complexity few other titles can even begin to compete with.
Fair warning, this review will contain minor spoilers simply because the game is impossible to talk about in any significant way otherwise, but as always I will do my utmost to avoid anything that would seriously adversely effect a new reader’s enjoyment of the title.
Now that that’s out of the way and those of us who prefer to go into eroge completely blind have safely closed this tab, let’s get started.
After Tatsumi Saku has failed to showcase any real talent in a family composed entirely of highly successful artists, he jumps at the opportunity to fulfill the Tatsumi family tradition of sending one young male to reside in the eerie, borderline anachronistic town of Komeishi once every 100 years. We join our protagonist en route with a wonderfully atmospheric introduction while he gazes at the night sky, musing on the circumstances that have led him to this point and what he will do from here. Holding only the haziest of memories of the town from his short childhood visit, he arrives at the lavish Japanese style manor where he’ll experience his first taste of living alone… or so he thought.
Unfortunately for Saku, he didn’t think to inquire very deeply about what he would actually be required to do before volunteering for the role, so when Ii Futami greets him upon arrival and immediately announces herself as his new wife, he’s understandably a bit flustered.
Of course, he can’t just kick her out and Futami is nice enough (if a little deadpan), so he lets her stay and plays along with the situation without too many more questions. From here we pass the next few days with Futami and her various clumsy interactions with Saku, exploring the quaint town, and attending Komeishi’s palatial school. We also encounter a few more members of the game’s cast along the way, including heroine Ousuki Konome, an elegant girl described as a princess straight out of a fairytale who looks and acts every bit of the role, and final heroine Asuku San, a kind yet mysterious older girl who always seems to be holding an umbrella regardless of the weather and has a habit of appearing in unexpected places. We also meet Mitora Mememe, Futami’s sworn ally and personal “little knight”, and finally Toorimai Non and Konome’s younger sister Ousuki Midono who appear to worship Konome.
The early parts of the common route are great at building up the unique atmosphere of the town and introducing the cast while keeping the reader entertained by employing some of the best characteristics of Shumon’s writing. Rife with crisp emotional narration, imagery so vivid the art is rendered unnecessary, a catalog of eccentric humor, and interesting trivia/mythology tidbits, it serves to quietly draw the reader in and sets the stage for later developments.
One very important, very peculiar fact is revealed amidst all this: for as long as anyone can remember, every night around dusk the sky is covered in a thick blanket of clouds completely blocking the stars from view. In truth, nobody in the entire town has ever seen the unobstructed night sky. Furthermore, all of the girls we’ve become acquainted with are members of the school’s prestigious Astronomy Committee who are given a chance every 100 years to find a way to get rid of the clouds in various ways through ceremonies called Terebina. Itsusora begins at the end of Non’s ceremony, and moves quickly into Futami’s which provides the basis for the latter half of the common route.
While this part of the story mostly feels like a hypnotic tour through a sleepy rural town during the experience, it actually gets across a lot of information under the radar, as evidenced by the great amount of detail put into things like the Astronomy Committee. Moreover, despite spending several hundred words here on a primer for the basic premise of the game, I haven’t progressed past the first few days of the common route nor have I covered even half of the things it introduces up to this point. There’s so much information coming at the reader at all times from so many different directions that there isn’t much of a chance to stop and look around at some of the things that are more overtly off about the entire situation.
Perhaps the tipping point should have been early on when Saku realizes he’s been set up for an arranged marriage without his consent, or maybe a bit later when he casually notices the only modern utility in the town is the cellphone he brought in. Looking back, it’s quite impressive just how many fundamental inconsistencies it manages to get both the reader and Saku to just simply accept as a natural occurrence. This is no small feat, and the alarm bells are only silenced through the use of some exceptionally well executed comedy and clever writing techniques.
In fact, the setup is so well done that it fooled nearly everyone playing and I doubt anyone expected it to blow up the way it did. This title has gained quite a bit of notoriety in the years since it was released, with reviews still coming in on EGS as recently as mid-2015 with complaints of 超展開. Were this any other game, much of the strangeness in the common route could be dismissed as simple humor, setting quirks, or figurative language, but that’s just not the case with Itsusora and Shumon isn’t the kind of author to include these things for no reason. The infamous genre shift materializes during the climax of the common route. It takes a very sharp left turn into a whirlwind of betrayal, conspiracy, revenge, atonement, life and death battles, warring families, sinister rituals, black magic, and some insane kanji tricks, all set against a backdrop of a re-imagining of the Norse Ragnarok.
And it is glorious.
From this point onward, the focus shifts from the lackadaisical everyday of the common route to unraveling the tremendous mystery of what’s happening in the town and discovering how exactly the girls are involved in it. The actual plot is presented in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to take it all in while reading; the bigger picture is intentionally obscured, and the reader is provided just enough information to understand what’s happening for the current plot line. With key details scattered across the three heroine routes and the events that started this whole thing left unexposed until the absolutely crucial extra scenario is unlocked post-game, the structure consistently challenges the reader to look back and rework their understanding of the story.
It’s hard to deny that this approach feels somewhat overly complex while experiencing it, and I’m sure this will be an issue for those with a low tolerance for this style of storytelling. I personally found that I needed to sit down and spend some time putting together the puzzle pieces after finishing to gain a decent understanding of what the fuck I just read, but the information is there and connecting the dots has proven to be a rewarding experience.
Thankfully, Shumon’s signature characterization acts as a guiding light while in the middle of that hurricane of madness and confusion, maintaining a strong emotional core to the story and preventing things from spiraling too far out into left field. He does an exceptional job of keeping things grounded through the relationships that were built in the common route and capitalizes upon the foundation for each of them in some interesting ways. Many blanks are filled in during the heroine routes that reveal what seemed like everyday conversations or simply awkward interactions from earlier to actually be top-tier characterization. It’s subtle things like this that give the people in the spotlight of his stories a real spirit, as opposed to just being mouthpieces for ideas.
More so than any other eroge writer I can think of, Shumon has the ability to create characters that genuinely make me feel things for them… for better or worse. Similar to his work in Asairo, this title has some content that I can only accurately describe as cathartic. I don’t think these games can be classified as “sad” in the typical sense of people dying or whatever, rather they use his distinct skill of bringing truly sympathetic, engaging characters to life to deliver some uniquely powerful moments that few other authors could pull off so gracefully.
On that same note, the attention to detail doesn’t just stop at characterization. I’ve found that there’s actually very little “filler” in his work in general, nothing feels wasted and plenty of seemingly unrelated details are called back to play important roles in the story later. If I could give one word of advice to someone going into Itsusora it would be to pay attention, even to what may feel like random diatribes because whether it be working towards character development, worldbuilding, plot progression, or foreshadowing, just about every scene is actively doing something.
The extensive use of wordplay showcases this aspect in a more tangible form, creating multiple meanings from places one wouldn’t normally think to look – the power of words can actually be considered a motif and makes up essential parts of the setting/story itself. Giving direct examples of this in English, let alone in a format like this is near impossible, but suffice it to say that from the names of each character to the town itself, Shumon makes full use of the Japanese language and the world he created to craft a story with seemingly as many intricacies and complications as a Patek Philippe timepiece.
While this game may sound impossibly obtuse, underneath all the language tricks and age-old mysteries is something much simpler and far more relatable. There’s an overbearing sense of responsibility thrust upon the characters that seems to permeate every aspect of their lives. Saku is tormented by his failure to meet familial expectations. Futami constantly subverts her own desires to fulfill the role of the perfect wife. Konome is bound by a promise she made long ago and has all but lost herself in the name of protecting it. Meme has to figure out who’s side she’s actually on and whether or not she will betray her heart to carry out her duty.
Whether it be personal, societal, or familial in nature, this struggle between the self and responsibility is present for nearly every single character. They’re simply expected to carry out roles requiring extreme personal sacrifice as though it were a matter of course with no regard for their feelings, situations, or thoughts; reducing their value as human beings to little more than cogs in some grand, undefined master plan. It raises the question, “Is that really all a life is worth? Just a means to an end”?
Itsusora begins as a story about people shackled by duty, but it ends as a story about people who have been freed of those bonds in their respective ways and are taking the first steps on the journey to truly become individuals outside of the cage they were placed in. Komeishi itself plays into this theme rather nicely, as it’s just one big metaphorical box chained shut by a barrier and fitted with an eternal canopy of clouds hiding the night sky (aka freedom) those trapped inside so desperately want to see.
Ultimately I think this is a story about what it takes to break those chains, and as the title would imply, this is a story about reaching that sky.
Although my interpretation may sound quite happy, the game is actually somewhat dark in tone and I don’t want to give anyone reading the wrong impression. Stopping to think about some of the implications the story makes while writing this post left me with some serious heartache. It’s worth saying that if you require a story with happy endings for everyone involved, this is probably not what you’re looking for – it certainly doesn’t compromise on that front.
Overall, I think Itsusora is relatively ‘thematically complete’, with Futami and Konome’s routes both being what the author envisioned, but San’s route is definitely missing a significant amount of content. It seemed to be heading towards a direct confrontation of the things addressed earlier, but unfortunately not much of it is fully realized. The route appears to have been cut down to the bare-bones developments due to time/budget/whatever constraints, so the things it does present simply lack impact, or worse, introduce plot threads that don’t go anywhere. It’s far from the worst case of unfinished I’ve ever seen and I still enjoyed reading it, but I would very much so like to see the completed form. Though in all honesty we probably never will, and that’s a shame.
In closing, Itsusora does many things very well and it’s definitely the best thing I’ve read in the last few months. There are complaints to be made and I don’t think I could recommend this to everyone, but if it sounds like something you’d find interesting, go for it. Especially if you’re into Norse mythology – I’m still kicking myself for not doing more research into it before I started. Also, everything I’ve said here is no more than my own interpretation of a story that I think has a vast potential for different viewpoints given what kind of experience it is, I’m very interested to see what others get out of it.
P.S. Konome is the best.