IT’S NOT LOVE BUT SO WHERE NEAR
When Norifumi reunited with his childhood friend Yuumi, the first thing he felt was a rush of frustration and anger. Their first visible conversation, with the simple topic of having him teach her the how-to of using a film camera, consists of them immediately breaking into a heated argument where both sides infuriatingly pick at each other that amounts to absolutely nothing productive. She’s an attractive model and he’s mad that she gets to live life on “easy mode” because she’s an attractive woman and probably isn’t even serious about learning to use the camera.
Their childhood friend, Tasuku, is directing a movie with Yuumi as the lead actress and roped Norifumi in to do camerawork. One day he tells Norifumi that he likes Yuumi, and plans to confess to her. Norifumi hates her and shouldn’t care at all about how Tasuku feels towards Yuumi — yet he walks off thinking about how he must take a photo of this scenery right here right now because he’s afraid to listen to the rest of Tasuku’s words. Norifumi is established as quite the unlikeable protagonist at this point, yet this scene pretty much sold me the game, because I’ve never seen myself in a protagonist as much as Norifumi in this particular scene. There’s plenty to say about him but it’s reasonable to assume that most people will be frustrated in his actions and thoughts — about as much as he is.
Yuumi isn’t a good eroge “heroine” either. In fact, I doubt any regular eroge player (heck, regular guy) would even like her as a love interest. She’s not even technically a heroine but a protagonist, since Hayakari likes to switch perspectives a lot and you get to see as much from her perspective as Norifumi’s. Her characterization is nothing like that of any “heroine” and the closest comparison I can think of is, well, a real woman. From complaining about the usage of unintelligent female characters to further plots in movies to being irked by typical male behavior to sensitivity over being treated differently because she’s a woman, it’s very easy to see Yuumi as a real person through her narration alone. Reading from her perspective is a mental strain as she ends up getting angry towards things she can’t even explain herself (usually at Norifumi or so) and is constantly lashing out due to insecurity. Despite being aggresive in her words, she’s also extremely passive in terms of actually solving problems or getting anything done, to the point where she’s as cringeworthy to watch as Norifumi.
There are no “heroines” in this game — there are three routes worth of Norifumi and Yuumi being unreasonably mad at each other, and them frustratingly getting together in the end while hurting people around them and negatively influencing their futures. The main duo is dense, insecure, tormented by huge inferiority complexes, and are unbelievably aggressive and toxic towards each other to the point where you can’t just brush it off as just a bickering couple. Most of the time a bickering couple works because their dialogue bounce off each other in a nice rhythm, making for a conversation that invites good chemistry. The conversations in Koinaku are long and don’t seem to have a clear purpose — people can go off on tangents about cameras and film, and lash out and get angry in the oddest moments (especially when Norifumi and Yuumi are involved). The arguments no longer feel like banter but two people picking at each other’s real flaws and scars. Also the group discussions with the movie making team feel like real life group project meetings where you argue about things and never sort things out cleanly. I legit got reminded of my engineering final year design project meetings where we argued over features back and forth, lashed out at each other over the social implications of some minor feature, and in the end decided to scrap the whole idea and debated over what else to make (this is still happening).
Norifumi and Yuumi each have something that happened in the past involving the other that they cannot forgive — and when you learn about the events, you might go “what the fuck, that’s IT?”. In a normal eroge by a normal writer, these events would sound typical at best. Koinaku works because it describes characters being illogical with such detail that how and why these characters are so contradictory makes perfect sense. The main pair just sound like unreasonable manchildren throwing tantrums at each other out of stubbornness with an unwillingness to forgive despite being aware of how petty their grudge is, and that’s pretty much what they are and they know it. It makes sense that the characters don’t make sense. Sometimes the portrayals are so “realistic,” they might stop being compelling as “fictional” characters for readers as they just feel like 3D people you have to deal with in your life and you don’t want to. But since this is a fictional work it ends up being neat…at least for me. The absolutely poisonous interchanges between the two leads ended by being really entertaining.
The eroscenes are long and also impossible to fap to. Their conversations go on forever before fucking, they stop shortly after starting because they suck and end up talking while naked in bed, Yuumi references the least eroge-like things her modelling senpai talk aboout regarding sex, etc. etc. She also jokingly compares Norifumi’s dick to a pocky at one point, and just like people having sex in real life for the first time, they’re へたくそ. I remember one summer at university, I was living in an unairconditioned house but my roommates (who were dating and lived in the same room) had an AC in their room so I decided to do my math assignment there. They started fucking, but stopped many times to have lame conversations where the girl complains about the shape of the guy’s dick and makes fun of him and then complains about him taking too long to cum and not making her cum and they eventually stop without going anywhere after an hour. The eroscenes in Koinaku are not quite that bad but they’re as untitillating as watching that.
The main duo are probably the most infuriating pair I’ve come across in a fictional romance. I know people who dropped the game because they couldn’t stand one or both of the protagonists. If the game stopped at 3 routes then it would really just have been a romance about “real” people described in great detail. That has its merits and would have been fine as a work in itself (one that probably not many people would like, but it would have served its purpose), but the grand route really opens up interpretations and directs the title back into the game — It’s not Love, but so Where Near.
What is love? What is happiness? When romance and happiness come together, they form a certain image of warmth and familiarity. Perhaps family. A small happiness that anyone is capable of reaching, consisting of moments where they’re satisfied next to each other, even if they’re not accomplishing anything amazing. But is there any meaning in the “happiness” of someone who didn’t accomplish anything noteworthy? Is a peaceful 日常 fully of love really more fulfilling than days spent reaching for heights that you may never achieve? Is a stable, small happiness what you want, when you can keep fighting for something far beyond? Similarily, what about love? Is it a description of what one feels on the inside, or the outcome of a relationship? If two people feel a maelstorm of contradictory emotions towards each other, in such a perfect balance that it appears as a simulacrum of romantic love, do you call it love?
–(Spoiler Warning, I guess.)
Norifumi and Yuumi are a guy and a girl who feel an inexplicable obsession towards each other. The world around them recognizes the phenomenon as romantic love, and in the first three routes of the game, the main duo accepts this conclusion and end up pursuing something like a romantic relationship. The grand route starts off by introducing two new characters to help with the movie and an opportunity that can change Norifumi’s life, setting off a turn of events that shakes up the developments headed in by the other routes. You get treated to scenes with side characters and resolutions to their arcs, and it seems like the grand route is there to cleanly wrap things up. Well it is — you finally get to see events building up to the “confession” between Norifumi and Yuumi like a real adolescent romance.
A confession that ends up with the couple agreeing that all this shit would have been so much easier if Yuumi was a dude. If Yuumi wasn’t a girl, the world would not have tried to force their odd relationship into the category of romantic love. Koinaku is a romance eroge where the climatic confession is the guy telling the girl she should’ve been a guy and the girl wishing she was born a guy. What they want is not to be with each other or “love,” but to compete against each other without being conscious of gender. Yuumi will never reciprocate Tasuku’s feelings because he “likes her as a girl.” To normal people this may be absolutely insane, but I find the pair’s feelings strangely agreeable — moreso than any pairing in any other contemporary romance work.
The final moments are portrayed not in a romantic frame, but with imagery of two warriors exchanging vows on the battlefield.
Where the pair ends up is up to interpretation. They are bound together by something that is not love, but so where near. It’s like a simulation of love through a mixture of a bunch of other things, possibly resulting in something similar to love, but most definitely not love. Some may argue that this is love because it results in a feeling similar to love, but in how I’ve observed my surroundings, “love” between two people of different genders always comes with certain implications and expectations that Norifumi and Yuumi see as chains to be broken out of. In various fiction, love is portrayed as a monster that will eat into all kinds of other emotions; it is the ultimate obstacle in goals, and unable to coexist with other things. That’s why you always sacrifice something for love, or love for something else. But Norifumi and Yuumi are different. They are not bound by this monstrous “love” that creates desire for peaceful happiness and ruins ambition. They are off to another battlefield, to cut through to what lies beyond trivial matters such as love, romance, and happiness — so what they feel towards each other at this moment is not “love.”
Koinaku started as a realistic romance drama between two very realistic and unlikable people, perhaps. Where it ends up is arguable, but I still see it as a romance, and a very idealistic and satisfying one. The conclusion reached by the two protagonists marks this as one of the few romance works I can see eye-to-eye with on a personal level. In a medium that likes to push pure love and everyday happiness, Koinaku becomes something special by rejecting both of those things in a very cathartic way. You can still see the side characters evolve and reach for “normal” relationships in a positive portrayal, and the character who initially wrote off happiness as worthless finding peace in something small and moe.
I ended up liking both protagonists at the end, so that’s something. I also liked the side characters very much, even if they were all infuriating at some point. Maybe rather than the characters themselves, I just like Hayakari’s approach to characterization.
I wouldn’t recommend Koinaku to anyone. It’s basically the exact opposite of what people look for in eroge, and may make you retreat back into your moebuta shell. Hayakari is an eroge writer that’s probably not very compatible with the majority of otaku, but Koinaku really goes out there. Yet at the end of the day I appreciate it — I don’t love it like how I love other works of fiction, but it might as well be love.