Rotten Girls’ Last Tour — Mamiya (2021), Genre, and Navigating Intimacy
(hi all, this is a soft possible dry run of a proposed series of essays on yaoi. if you like this, let me know, and i can try to write more going forward. for what it is worth: this essay is nonspecific enough that any spoilers should not dissuade you from reading and shouldn’t give too much away, but there is a heads up for full spoiler discussion here. if you want to give mamiya a chance without any forewarning, maybe save this until after you’ve played a little. additionally, discussion is pretty mild here, but there’s brief notes on suicide, violence, etc, so take care!)
As a fujoshi first and lesbian second, I have been trying to play more yaoi VNs, both to better nail down what I find so compelling about them, and to just better familiarize myself with the trappings of the genre. This means I’m always at least a little willing to take the plunge on something even if I don’t know anything about it going in. Mamiya, the Kenkou Land developed indie visual novel released just this past April, interested me as at least in its pitch it situates itself in between two distinct generic traditions–that of boys’ love dating sims and denpa visual novels. These are not necessarily exclusive categories (Sweet Pool is a good example) but they are fully distinct categories: boys’ love is defined by female-audience-oriented bishounen romance routes that depict homosexual romance between a male player character and other male romance options (often though not exclusively yaoi); denpa games, meanwhile, exist in a tradition of psychological horror storytelling, often with what is called an “existentialist” edge, and the horror primarily stemming from delusions and mismatched perceptions of self and other, be they delusions of persecution, negation, or more specific kinds (Ekbom’s, Capgras). Examples of boys’ love games are plentiful (of particular note is the NitroChiral suite of games, and Hashihime of the Old Book Town), though often untranslated, and at least somewhat self explanatory. At the end of the day, the majority of these games are libidinal. Denpa, however, may be a little less obvious as a term, despite its prevalence in some of the most well known visual novels in the West; Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, Subarashiki Hibi, Chaos;Head, and Saya no Uta are all considered recognizably in this mode (though Higurashi maybe most loosely, do put a pin in that thought). I want to provide this structure in thinking about Mamiya for the ways in which it both evokes cleanly, and clearly finds itself resistant towards, a lot of what could be considered a lot of its antecedents in games writing. A sort of structuralist read of Mamiya, itself currently constructed in two halves (FallDown and DownFall, though DoomsdayDreams is the proposed third act in development), is generative to me at least as an entry point, because in spite of not being an overly long game (about 12 hours or so, with the hitting of the first ending likely to be a 7–9 hour experience) it is a pretty densely organized game, and its varied moving dramaturgical and thematic parts require at least a little contextualization.
Mamiya’s first section, FallDown, constitutes the whole of what was its demo; it is approximately a five hour experience consisting of four routes that, at this stage, are disparate. The pitch of the game, “in which a group of young men struggle against existential dread before the end of the world,” somewhat obfuscates the specifics of what is happening here, but the setting of the apocalypse and the idea of young people contending with that dread are of note. The first four routes of FallDown consist of the Suou Keitou, Kikuchi Ryou, Morichika Haruki, and Toujou Minato, four disconnected youths (of varying degrees) contending with the loss of their mutual friend Natsume. Natsume’s death is presumably natural, and the four left in his wake have just about nothing to do with one another; Ryou and Minato are friends at school, but aside from that, Keitou was just a neighbor to Natsume, and Haruki, the oldest and most out of place, knew him from church. What connects them beyond that shared but individualized and separated grief, though, is revealed through the course of each of their own individual routes; they all share a particular delusion, that of a being named Mamiya. Mamiya is different between all four of them; a diminutive nurse, a gasmasked composer, a bunny-masked child, an invisible but omnipresent friend. But they all profess a desire to fill the gaps in each of these listless youths. Sometimes that is a calming voice after bouts of violence, sometimes that’s through the revival of memories once thought dead. In all cases, Mamiya seems to be everyone and everything for these people, to complete them. Mamiya isn’t medicine but they are opiate to this mass; they are more sedative than salvation.
One of the most recognizable visual novel features of Mamiya is presence of routes, but the deployment is a little interesting here. Especially in bishounen/bishoujo games, routes do the dual work of progressing the overall primary arc of the narrative as well as choosing one specific character, the love interest, and choosing them as a focal point for that arc. Some games will use these as an excuse to forward just one particular story without narrative explanation, but often times the routes themselves have narrative justifications, and they are meant to all be played for the complete experience (as opposed to a traditional dating sim like Tokimeki Memorial which sees a romance as a complete end state to itself). Mamiya distinguishes itself here though by using routes more like an 07th Expansion game. Like Higurashi or Umineko, across FallDown and DownFall each of the characters possesses a route, the first presenting what could be seen as a “bad end” (Mamiya’s “will” is done and generally the characters either die or commit suicide of a kind), and the second offering a resolution of a sort, tentative though it may be, by the intervention of Natsume, the once-deceased starting point brought back to life a la Dead Like Me. In the When They Cry series these are presented as questions and answer arcs rather than as routes, and in function, that is how they are paired here. Like those 07th games, these are intimately connected to but distinct from the larger ur plot, which takes place on more supernatural terms. Natsume’s reappearance introduces us to the setting of the afterlife in game, which is where Natsume’s desire to force a better life for those that survived him, to find a “true ending,” clashes againsts Mamiya’s nihilism and escapism. It’s very Umineko in this regard, actually, though on much smaller terms and frankly a little less politically astute. But in place of that is a greater play on genre and medium, albeit a subtle one.
While I have thus far gestured towards Mamiya’s function as BL, it is, in fact, not actually BL. The aforementioned Lemures Blue’s 2AM is, but Mamiya is a bit different. The Good End/Bad End structure and metaphysical framing device that contextualizes and progresses the stories within deal heavily in boys’ love troubles. The per capita trauma of the cast is kind of like reading a 70s shounen-ai, less overtly libidinal but perpetually in a kind of crisis, centered very much in how boys relate to each other. But romance is largely in short supply, as is homosexuality in any graphic or explicit terms. In spite of how much it plays with the trappings of BL, how much the writing and structure recall Otome or Bishounen games, the game itself is centered much more in the fraternal and the codependent. In divorcing the material from explicit sexual dynamics, the formation of the relationships takes center stage. This isn’t a pro or a con — explicitly homosexual relationships in this context are just as ripe for these themes, but Mamiya, as I see it, finds its wings primarily in its very tender and sophisticated exploration of same-gender friendships. Not all relationships here are same-gendered (two characters are women but primarily exist as related to the boys, and Mamiya themselves is presented in many different forms and identities). Relationships in both FallDown and DownFall function primarily as expressions of different kinds of, for lack of better phrasing, “found families.” Ryou and Keito are paired in both of their FallDown routes to some degree, depicting contradictory and yet complimentary vignettes of their friendship and the proximity of the boys to one another. Any intimacy formed between Natsume and Minato, Ryou, or Haruki is deeply defined by their physical proximity, by touch and hurt. It’s not so much about desexing as it is about explicating what the absence of that sex in the genre means and makes, and what the genre itself can do along these terms.
I want to get into one pairing of routes specifically–Ryou’s — as a means of explaining how this all plays out. Given the recency of the release, any more specific explorations might spoil too much, so take just his for now. In his FallDown arc, he and Keito bond, but he possesses an unavoidable violence to him. Is it one inherited? Is it one forced upon him? One he craves? His rage, building from his life circumstances, from the unavoidable violence inflicted upon him at home and in life, is expressed in fits and fights. The narrative draws our attention to his elegant physique, but it is one so informed by the wounds inflicted by self and others. Keito offers an out, to some degree, but not a complete one, never one enough. Mamiya offers easy love, a paternal figure to fill a hole in his life. He is easy to take in like this. In the end, Ryou does what he must, and he finds himself alone with Mamiya as sole companion.
Natsume’s intersection with Ryou’s route in DownFall differs. While he is in someways a similarly supernatural presence to Mamiya, he seeks to fix the broken pieces of Ryou along far different terms. Natsume first forces Ryou to reject his violent ways, but they’re inescapable, and the necessity of self-defense, of outlet, of release, is severed in the process. So he course corrects. Natsume offers his body up as salvation, and they begin to “sponge,” as Ryou calls it, sparing, beating the shit out of each other, bruising, bleeding, bashing, wrapping, healing, caring. Ryou needs release. Ryou can’t escape, per say, but Natsume cares. Natsume cares and recognizes the need and takes his new form and does something with it. It’s tragic and cathartic in equal measure. It’s some of the most subtly tender violence in games.
Most routes progress in the dualed way. Mamiya and Natsume, likewise, are twinned as characters and plot devices; Natsume, as ostensible protagonist of DownFall, function as one might expect as the focal point/player insert protagonist might in another novel, as he guides each person to a “better end” from those presented. Mamiya more interestingly possesses a similar function. In FallDown, their presence really isn’t any different from a protagonists presence in a particularly grim “bad end,” albeit more knowingly and willingly participating in the destruction of the LI-proxy. When Mamiya and Natsume confront each other, it REALLY isn’t all that disingenuous for them to pull the “We’re not so different you and I” monologuing because the parallels are thematic and structural.
And just like with BL genricity, Mamiya is somewhat smart about its invocation of denpa. Apocalyptic feelings inhabit the world of Mamiya, and its setting, years right before what feels like the prophesied death of humanity, is appropriately tense. That sense of doom informs and excuses a lot of what might brush against you otherwise. Characters are suitably warping and schisming and introspective, the existential dread of their own fallibility, and the fallibility of the world, weighing upon them. But really, this is not an entry-level Nieztche philosophy textbook with eroge sandwiched in, nor is it ever exoticizing in the psychologies of its characters. It uses the end of the world to push people together, to inform, to smooth over. It also makes, without spoilers, for a kind of insane punchline.
Mamiya’s shortcomings as a story come in the finer details, because largely, these broad strokes moves work for me. The greater psychodrama and supernatural framing really meaningfully elevate and defamiliarize the individual character stories while reinforcing and pushing further the context that makes them so special. But there’s some frayed threads. Minato’s story, in spite of the deep, overriding empathy that went into it, was clumsy in finer details and language especially in its second act. Prose in Mamiya, while shockingly delicate thematically, runs a little awkward, voice-y, more traditionally yaoi in beats, and that can sometimes obfuscate what is really vital with the text. In spite of its short length, the framing narrative in DownFall takes a while to really pay off meaningfully, and the subunit of characters is slow to get anywhere near the quality of the routes. Also TyranoBuilder sucks as an engine. Mamiya is unabashedly a kind of tragedy pornography, a miserable little picture, with the high melodramatic emotionality of all great visual novels, and that will scare away people. And more than that, Mamiya is a sophomore work, more precocious and evocative than polished and highbrow, and it absolutely isn’t going to hit for a lot of people just based on a lack of mastery and the amateurish puckishness it carries. But it’s precisely the kind of thing that excites me most; way messy, 80% of the way there, but in just the way that makes me want to write something that takes it that last 20%.