I most recently finished 紅殻町博物誌 (Bengarachou Hakubutsushi), the second title released by Liar-soft‘s often misrepresented and even more unknown sister brand raiL-soft. This marked my first experience with both this maker and its flagship author, the enigmatic Mareni. He’s probably most widely known in the west for being the guy who wrote Albatross Koukairoku, and as the writer whose work has ended up at the top of many eroge difficulty charts of questionable veracity throughout the years thanks to his high vocabulary level and distinct style.
I started reading this by accident, truth be told. I needed a change of pace for the night while in the middle of the final entry in the Akatsuki no Goei trilogy, so I opened Bengarachou Hakubutsushi and there was simply no turning back. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before in eroge, with lines exponentially longer than what I was used to and absolutely spellbinding text that made me feel like I was reading something beamed in from over a century ago. A shame for AkaGoei (forgive me Kaito), but seeing this one through turned out to be the right choice as it quickly became one of the best experiences I’ve had in the medium.
The premise goes something like this: protagonist Miyasato Tomohisa has vague memories of a strange town he often played in as a child near his relatives’ home, but his parents have no recollection of such a place and he can’t seem to find it on a map anywhere. In the course of his studies as a college student, he discovers a bizarre record by complete chance detailing the history, happenings, and documentation of so called 珍奇物品 (Curious Articles) in a town that seems an awful lot like the one locked away in his memories. Upon further investigation he finds that the record was written by none other than his eccentric uncle who has also been missing for some time, which seals the deal. He decides then and there to spend his upcoming summer vacation on a trip to the town to confirm his memory and examine the various oddities outlined in the record.
After a brief train ride, Miyasato uses the same shortcut he did as a child to enter the town and takes the reader along with him on a wildly enchanting journey down the rabbit hole into the sanctuary of forgotten mysteries and phantasms of the past that is Bengarachou, a shimmering mirage of a town flickering in the boundary between fiction and reality while encompassing quite a bit of both. It gives the impression that you could theoretically find a place like it somewhere on Earth if you just looked hard enough, but the door to the fantastic is left cracked open just wide enough to let something extraordinary in. This perfect balance of fantasy and reality plays a major role in cementing the town as a masterpiece of setting and atmosphere, making it an exceptionally versatile foundation for a story furnished with everything necessary to make the trite feel magical. I felt an intense attraction beginning the moment the hauntingly beautiful opening sequence played upon launch and from that point onward the game never stops encouraging the reader to stay a little longer. In actuality, the town’s charm only grows in appeal with each passing scene as the story covers new ground and expands its scope.
Despite the only part of the game taking place outside of the town in any real capacity being the short prologue, it manages to avoid triggering claustrophobia by constantly keeping the reader busy. There are simply too many new areas to explore, interesting people to spend time with, and Curious Articles to chase for the reader to burn out. And while we’re on the subject of Curious Articles, I should probably take this opportunity to digress for a moment and explain a bit about what they are.
As defined by Miyasato’s uncle’s record, these are strange objects that resemble items from our own world, but possess paranormal qualities upon closer inspection. How exactly they function or where they came from originally is unclear, but they exist nonetheless and Bengarachou is full of them. The scenario generally focuses on Miyasato seeking out Curious Articles to fill in the blanks left in his uncle’s notes and dealing with the supernatural events they cause once he finds them, while involving the heroines in various ways. Of course, unraveling the town’s tangled web of mysteries and the whereabouts of Miyasato’s uncle also prove to be major catalysts for the story, but I will leave the finer details of these aspects up to the imagination.
Mareni’s text is incredibly enthralling from start to finish; I found it more akin to taking a vision quest or falling through to another dimension than simply reading a story. This level of immersion is accomplished primarily through vivid description of nearly every situation that occurs on screen, making sure that the reader himself is always involved with the experience. This obsession with imagery would surely come off as pointlessly purple or rambling were it attempted by a lesser author, but Mareni leverages it effectively in order to establish the atmosphere and characters. This quirk of talking about everything also affords the script the opportunity to dive deep and include some peculiar passages I never imagined I would see written, well, anywhere. For instance, several lines comparing sliding glasses onto one’s face to a sexual act (new fetish 発見), or even the previous screenshot which takes the feeling of having rainwater wiped off of one’s skin to a whole new level and helps showcase the quietly mounting sexual tension between Matsumi and Miyasato. These fascinating trips into perceptional eccentricity stand out in my mind immensely when I think back on the game, giving it a truly unique flavor and making many segments much greater than the sum of their parts.
As you might have guessed, this wonderfully captivating writing style tends to induce sensory overload, or even a sheer sense of astonishment, at an alarmingly high rate. Even simple descriptions of the environment border on hallucinatory when Mareni is behind the wheel. It feels as though he holds the key to the very essence of the things he’s describing and brings them to life at a moment’s notice; utilizing everything at his disposal to paint one of the most convincing and inviting fictional worlds I’ve come across to date.
The town is an anomaly in a number of ways but most overtly in the sense that it seems to be completely removed from the flow of time rushing around it, not quite fitting squarely into the past, present, or future. It may even contain elements of all three, depending on how you look at it. One of the “Keywords” listed on the story section of the game’s website is Future Retro, which I think is an apt description. However, if I had to point to what presence I felt the most of, it is definitely the past, and in many regards the past provides the ideal stage for Mareni’s style and the things he wants to talk about.
There’s an incredibly thick sense of nostalgia lingering about, the same kind of feeling you’d get while buried deep within the shelves of an old library bathed more in gentle darkness than light, embraced by the aura of ancient paper and countless untold stories. While this might be something that needs to be seen in practice to truly make sense, I must say the state of mind I ended up in while reading Bengarachou Hakubutsushi and what I think it embodies is something I have unconsciously been in search of for a long, long time, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in that conviction. Others may have attempted something similar, but in my opinion not one has come close to what Mareni accomplished here. I feel a very strong affinity with him as an author; he understands both how to accomplish this approach and has the fortitude to take it even further by pursuing concepts like 懐古趣味 to their natural conclusion… no matter how profoundly depressing those conclusions may be.
I suppose it is worth mentioning that some may find his prose to be way too long winded and I think that’s somewhat of a valid complaint. Really, that also constitutes my biggest issue with Bengarachou. I found a few of the action sequences somewhat awkward – I’m just not sure pages upon pages of dense text work well in the middle of a hotblooded chase scene. But in the grand scheme of things, that was a very small issue for me and it should be exceedingly obvious early on whether or not this style is going to click for you. If it does: congratulations you are in for an excellent time. If not, there are plenty of other great authors out there. Mareni is not for everyone.
That being said, I thought the pacing of the story itself was great if you’re not allergic to the writing style. There’s almost always something going on and the game being somewhat episodic in nature lets it take several different approaches to keep things fresh. Everything feels reasonably cohesive despite having so many disparate elements at play as well, with each chapter resolving the self-contained questions they raise while still contributing to the overarching plot. As far as the actual structure goes the game is nothing like the typical eroge progression of common route -> heroine route, and looks more like introduction -> individual heroine routes -> common climax -> short, but effective heroine ends. This setup has brought about several reviews with questions of why the ends couldn’t have been longer or hopes for an epilogue, but I didn’t find this to be particularly distressing when looking at the level of completion they offer and what they thematically represent.
Then again, I guess complaints like this were inevitable considering not much of this work can be called “typical.” It does not hesitate to deviate from eroge conventions and even includes some elements that would be considered verboten in more mainstream titles. It’s also quite apparent that Mareni had a great deal of input in the creative process; things like the use of the (outstanding, by the way) soundtrack and the way certain scenes are presented synchronize so perfectly with the text that there’s just no other explanation. I find this notable because joint effort between all parties involved in production generally results in a much higher quality product and are unfortunately far less common than one may think. There are plenty of horror stories out there of scenario writers being handed the CGs and told to work them into the script or having to write all of the dialogue before the narration to accommodate poor scheduling, or other various examples of production environments which are at best inconvenient and at worst serve to completely undermine artistic integrity.
Regardless of whether or not the aforementioned deviation from market conventions was the cause, this title’s status in the year 2016 is undeniably an obscurity even among obscurities and it requires a significant amount of digging to even learn of its presence in the first place. At the very least, I had personally never heard a word about it or seen it discussed anywhere until after I started reading it, despite having actively sought out under the radar eroge that are still worth playing for the last 18 months or so. It’s certainly not hailed as being among the best of the medium like the others in the range where I ultimately scored it, which I suppose makes this my first true “hidden masterpiece.”
There’s even a short comment on the EGS entry for this game listed under the 埋もれている名作 tag which simply states 「埋もれるは必然」 that I saw shortly after finishing, and those few words brought this train of thought to its conclusion. I can’t help but feel that my journey through the twisted annals of eroge to discover this work, and in a much broader sense the eternal search for fiction that speaks to us as readers is directly mirrored by the game’s story. In fact, most of it can be described as a symbolic quest for the essence of the unknown and true fulfillment, along with the ways we reconcile the craving that draws us there with the oftentimes disappointing real world. This is brought to the forefront most strikingly during the grand climax depicting Miyasato’s journey to uncover the truth at the very heart of Bengarachou, an archaic secret enshrined in the innermost depths of a cryptic underground labyrinth.
A friend recently introduced me to the curious idea that the books we read choose us, instead of the other way around. That we’re drawn to certain works over others before we ever read the first line, and that our whole lives have been leading up to the point when we pick up that particular work as if we were guided by fate or destiny or strong subconscious cues or whichever unseen force you subscribe to. That discussion finally feels relevant to me now that I’ve experienced Bengarachou: indeed, the town of Bengarachou itself, the reasons it exists, and Miyasato’s character can be seen as metaphorical representations of just such a concept. Now, I’m not saying I agree with my friend’s proposal, per se – there’s a very high possibility that it’s all nothing more than the human brain creating patterns out of the static of causality. And indeed, there are certainly a number of alternate readings to be made on Bengarachou itself – I think there’s plenty of evidence for a lengthy dialogue on mimesis vs. anti-mimesis, for one – but if nothing else it definitely set my imagination on fire, earning a spot on the list of things I am truly glad to have had the opportunity to experience.
But at its core, Bengarachou Hakubutsushi is a story about things that have been engulfed by the sands of time and banished somewhere betwixt the seams of existence. It’s a story about arcane places hidden beyond shortcuts known only by children and the wildest of dreamers, and it acts as a guidepost for the people who are in search of them. It is a story that captures the spirit of exploration in its rawest form and reminds us of the joy of discovery. It’s a love letter to the past, but simultaneously a glance toward the future. And finally, it breathes new life into the worlds portrayed by fiction and reaffirms meaning in the one in which we live. To put it lightly, it deals with some deeply important ideas by the time the final credits roll. Mareni managed to exceed all of the expectations I had when I began the game and harmonized some very different concepts in the process. I was nothing short of inspired by what this story became and the sheer amount of ground it covered; its ideas are still spinning in my head weeks after finishing with no sign of stopping.
This is the mark of a great work for me.
I’ll close this out here by saying this is one of my personal favorite pieces of fiction period, and that I hope my passion for it came through. I sort of feel like I’m betraying the essence of the game in a way by writing a huge post on it, but perhaps this will become a beacon of sorts for the kind of people who would be interested in what it has to offer. With that being said, if it sounds interesting or any part of this review struck a chord with you then I encourage you to put it on your list. If you enjoy it half as much as I did then you won’t have wasted your time!