Today on the blog, we have a tester’s corner from Puffketeer!
On November 13th, Osamu Yoshimura was asked to remove himself from his place of employment. …That request came from his boss.
Deep down, he knew it was wrong, but he also knew that someday she would return to him.
With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the Terrace House Hinosaka, a boarding house run by the woman’s daughter, Mitoko Hinosaka. Some time earlier, her mother had mysteriously left, seemingly never to return.
Can an unemployed man and a precocious girl share an apartment without driving each other crazy…?!
Alright, so leaving liberties with the narration structure and parodies of title sequences to old television sitcoms aside, this is more or less how The Most Forbidden Love in the World (hereafter referred to by its JP contracted name, Damekoi) opens. Considering its original release came a good, solid decade ago, you’d think that having such a lengthy gap between original release and English localization would render it somewhat quaint, but in actuality, it is less of a portrait of 2007-era Japan and more of post-Lost Decade Japan in general, with a very much unconventional protagonist and eccentric cast of characters to boot.
For those of you not up on your Japanese history, the “Lost Decade” refers to 1990s Japan, where the economic bubble that had made it such a formidable world power throughout much of the 1980s finally burst, causing a period of economic malaise from which the country has struggled to recover from ever since. Indeed, the global economic crisis which was starting to reveal itself around the time of the original release has not helped matters much either. This provides the context for our protagonist, Osamu Yoshimura, a 28-going-on-29 white-collar worker whose monumental insignificance in the workplace hierarchy is driven home by the story opening with him having just been sacked for reasons which will become very clear as the story progresses.
Osamu is every bit as hetare as you’d expect from an eroge protagonist, but his is a particularly unique brand of hetare, since he is perpetually subservient to being “more dead than alive at a nine-to-five”, as Wham! once put it. Having gotten divorced as well, and bearing the brunt of judgment by others for it (in spite of that judgment arguably being unfair to him and to his ex-partner), he is a man jaded and broken by the cruelties of modern society. Indeed, it is only through his relationships, platonic or otherwise, with other down-on-their-luck people, that Osamu eventually finds redemption.
Damekoi was, and is, unique among Japanese erotic game productions in its pragmatic portrayal of Japanese society. Given the content of many modern day productions, you’d be forgiven for believing that visual novels tend to depict Japan through rose-colored glasses (never mind how they depict Japanese high schools through rose-colored glasses), but Damekoi is clearly a title written by and for people who know what the real world is like. The bureaucracies which Osamu’s livelihood hang on are all full of corrupt cronies who salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at hearing the word “merger.”
In addition, his being nearly 30 and once-divorced places him exceptionally low on the social ladder in a world where the idyllic household of a working man, house-tending woman and child (or children) is much less of a realistic option, and yet a belief still clung to by the privileged out of concern for Japan’s still steadily declining birth rate & aging population. He is a man who has repeatedly taken the fall so that others can save face. But as you’ll gradually come to see, he is far from the only character in this story scorned by a conformist society for not being able to fit in completely.
Mitoko, the master of the boarding house Osamu ends up moving into, is a young girl whose precocious shrewdness and ability to keep up with the duties demanded of her, both at home and school, disguises the crushing emotional void left by the sudden departure of her mother. Kaya is a twenty-something fellow office worker who drinks like Bridget Jones (with an acid tongue to match) and constantly sexually courts Osamu, though her justification for doing so is more than it seems to be on the surface. Asami, the teacher at Mitoko’s school and Osamu’s ex-wife, has also suffered through a lack of emotional completeness in her life, and her reunion with Osamu is every bit as painfully awkward as you’d expect.
The real reason for her divorce, made clear during her route, is simultaneously shocking and a surprising turn of events for a Japanese eroge, though in the interest of not spoiling the twist, I will say that it has something strongly to do with family. Indeed, that is one of the main themes of this game’s story—family. Or rather, the idea that family isn’t necessarily about blood ties, but rather, the deep-forged bonds made with other people. In other words, family’s what you make it.
And then there is Himeo, who is every bit the archetypal “Rich Girl” Hall & Oates once sang about—she is an extremely arrogant & sheltered girl who can rely on the old man’s money, she is completely lacking in self-reliance, and she possesses an emotional hole in the heart which no amount of currency in the world can buy. She uses her extreme wealth and privilege to get her way, and pressures her bodyguard Sasaki (a gay man who occasionally enjoys getting a rise out of teasing the “so straight he probably thinks watching Will & Grace gives you AIDS” Osamu) into doing the talking when she can’t.
She constantly talks down to and insults Osamu once she becomes acquainted with him, and yet still puts up with him as a company worker for reasons even she can’t quite understand. Of course, it isn’t entirely difficult to figure out where that leads. Despite her status as the “ice queen” of the story, eventually that outer layer begins to peel away; her route is probably one of the more fascinating ones.
And then we have the “Greek chorus” characters—that is, side characters whose main purpose is to provide humorous commentary on the events around them. While Mitoko’s classmates do fill this role to a certain extent, it is definitely the trio of fellow boarding house inhabitants Buntarou, Kihee & Yoshinori who serve this purpose in the story most thoroughly.
They, too, are people who’ve been chewed up and spat out by society, in the form of a college dropout, an elderly retired college professor with an odd talent for rakugo, and a complete freeloader respectively, and yet, they are casually resigned to their current way of life, sitting around playing mahjong video games, neglecting their rent and constantly pushing Osamu’s buttons for kicks. All the same, their status as the comedy relief stooges helps to alleviate some of the more extreme dramatic moments, and even while they tease Osamu, it gradually becomes clear that even they wish better for him.
When Andy Partridge wrote Earn Enough for Us for his band XTC, it was these kinds of people he was writing about—let down by society, living paycheck to paycheck, and generally just surviving the harsh world around them, but still finding happiness in spite of their lots in life. Damekoi is a pragmatic story about pragmatic people, and this alone makes it unique among Japanese erotic games, particularly in a modern landscape of seemingly endless moe titles.
While the scenario arguably takes a few notes from the classic Kazoku Keikaku (whose original release predates Damekoi by six years), it still does a lot of things which few other eroge, contemporary or current, have dared to do. For those of you desiring something different from the standard moe high school romance fare which most eroge makers seem to have fallen into a rut of doing over and over again in recent years like aging rock musicians putting out uninspired new albums in desperate attempts to remain relevant, Damekoi will fill that gap and then some. I recommend it.
As for the titular Most Forbidden Love in the World well… I’ll leave you to figure out what it may be.