The definition of a “classic” varies from person to person in any medium, but if ever there were a visual novel that deserves to be branded with this label, it would be Kana Little Sister from D.O.
It’s a title that most enthusiasts of the medium have at least heard of if not played, and one which has gained some notoriety even outside of the core fanbase — though not necessarily for the right reasons, it has to be said.
Kana Little Sister, you see, makes people uncomfortable. Rather than this aspect making it something to shy away from, however, it’s one of the more interesting things about it. Considering why it makes people uncomfortable and whether or not those reasons are justified make up a big part of any discussion surrounding this remarkable work — and that alone makes it a fascinating title to study.
Kana Little Sister’s English language version from G-Collections is marketed, like most visual novels, as a “multi-scenario love sim” or “bishoujo game” and technically that’s not inaccurate, as it does fit the mould somewhat. You read; you make choices; those choices sometimes lead to romantic and/or sexual encounters; your choices eventually determine the ending. So far so “dating sim” — though this is a loaded term in and of itself that isn’t necessarily appropriate here.
A tearjerker is a relatively unusual concept in the world of gaming, where players are often cast in the role of world-saving heroes, but certainly nothing new in other media.
It’s actually more accurate to describe Kana Little Sister as a member of the utsuge genre. The Japanese word utsuge means “lift depression” if translated literally, but it’s more appropriate to regard this term as a portmanteau — utsu means “depression”, while -ge appended onto something refers to a game with those themes, hence the other terms often thrown around in reference to visual novels — galge (aka bishoujo/pretty girl/gal game) and eroge (erotic game). Consequently, Kana Little Sister can be understood as a “depression game” or, to put it another way, a game specifically designed to elicit emotions of sadness in its audience. A tearjerker, if you will — a relatively unusual concept in the world of gaming, where players are often cast in the role of world-saving heroes, but certainly nothing new in other media.
The premise for Kana Little Sister runs thus: Kana is the little sister of the protagonist Taka, and she is dying from chronic renal insufficiency. She’s been in and out of the hospital ever since she was a little girl, and as she’s grown older, her health problems have become worse. The story jumps back and forth in time as Taka remembers various events throughout his past that have helped make him the person he is today — and also which helped shape his relationship with his sister and his attitude towards her inevitable death. The narrative eventually comes to one of six different conclusions, five of which examine varying attitudes Taka takes to Kana’s death, and one of which sees her survive.
There are two main themes in Kana Little Sister: mortality and forbidden love. Both are personified in Kana herself, who is designed from the outset to be a sympathetic, relatable and innocent character whom the player is supposed to fall in love with and want to protect, just as Taka does. It’s no coincidence that shortly after being introduced to the older teenage Kana for the first time at the outset of the game, Taka immediately starts reminiscing about her as a little girl and the unpleasant manner in which he treated her. This entire sequence is constructed to allow the player to develop a bond both with Kana and with the protagonist — Kana is presented as weak and helpless, while Taka is shown to be a childish, aggressive bully who doesn’t understand why his sister seems to get so much more love than he does.
The two main themes of mortality and forbidden love are both personified in Kana herself, who is designed from the outset to be a sympathetic, relatable and innocent character.
In the opening sequence, Kana wanders off and gets lost. The young Taka initially has selfish thoughts, thinking to himself that if Kana were to disappear forever, he’d never have to worry about competing for his parents’ love again. After a brief period of thinking like this, however, he begins to feel guilty, and starts to understand the true nature of his sister’s helplessness, particularly when he remembers the physical effects her illness has on her — while he was bullying her, she vomited on the floor, presumably exacerbated by stress. He charges off without any regard for his own safety and eventually finds Kana deep in the woods collecting seeds. He realises he is happy to reunite with her, but the two become scared when it becomes very apparent that they are lost. Taka tries to be brave as the older brother, but is scared. But when Kana accidentally provokes a swarm of bees, he doesn’t hesitate to throw himself down on her and protect her with his body, even as he is assaulted by sting after sting. It’s a turning point for the character, and one which sows the seeds for the future relationship between Taka and Kana.
Herein lies the genesis of that “forbidden love” aspect, which is one of the main reasons that Kana Little Sister makes people uncomfortable. On several of the routes through the game, a much later sequence where Taka catches Kana masturbating and moaning his name reveals that this event early in both their lives is what caused both of them to fall in love with each other, but neither to be willing to admit these taboo feelings to one another. It does, however, become clear through both their behaviours in the lead-up to this revelation that Kana is much more comfortable with her own feelings than Taka is, perhaps because Kana has had so little contact with society at large and thus less of an understanding of why it is “wrong”. Taka, conversely, is frequently wracked with guilt and confusion about his own feelings for fear of how other people will see him; Kana, meanwhile, is very clear, if not vocal, about the way she feels — she doesn’t respond well to either Taka’s troubled relationship with his childhood friend Yumi or the prospect of dating her doting classmate Yuta, and always focuses her attention on Taka whenever he’s in the room, even if someone else is talking to her.
It eventually transpires late in the story that Kana and Taka are not blood-related, making the incest question something of a moot point at the game’s conclusion, but it’s worth considering why this is even a theme in the first place. Incest is a very strong taboo to Western audiences, and yet it’s used a lot in popular Japanese media, with numerous recent examples in popular anime and light novels such as Sword Art Online and Oreimo. What is the apparent fascination Japanese authors have with sibling relationships and it “crossing the line” into something more than brotherly/sisterly love? Is it a fetish? Breaking a taboo for the sake of it? Or is there something more to it?
What is the apparent fascination Japanese authors have with sibling relationships and it “crossing the line” into something more than brotherly/sisterly love? Is it a fetish? Breaking a taboo for the sake of it? Or is there something more to it?
There are a number of possible explanations, though it’s difficult to pin down a single one and declare it as a universal reason for this fascination that seems so strange and wrong to Westerners. One popular explanation is the Japanese legend of creation, in which the union of heaven and earth begat the two gods Izanagi and Izanami, who in turn wed and mated incestuously to create the country of Japan and human life there — according to that legend, the country was literally born out of incest. (That said, a similar argument could, of course, be made for the Christian creation myth!)
Another, simpler explanation is the fact that relationships between Japanese siblings are already quite intimate, with younger siblings frequently turning to older ones for advice and support much more than their more independent Western counterparts, and this relationship of respect and superiority being further solidified by the use of honorifics when speaking to each other. (Kana’s continual use of “Bro” in the English translation would instead be the honorific onii-chan — “big brother” — in the original Japanese, while Kana herself is Taka’s imouto — “little sister”, hence the game’s name.) The question of what happens when this intimacy goes too far and crosses a line is apparently an interesting one to authors — not to mention the fact that it’s also a good source of ready-made drama. As previously mentioned, Kana Little Sister is by no means the only (or first) piece of Japanese fiction to explore these themes — recent interest in the subject matter in popular manga and anime can be traced back to the 1972 manga Ayako and the 1984 erotic anime series Cream Lemon, and does not appear to have declined since, with it remaining a particularly popular fetish in hentai — erotic manga and anime.
It’s easy to get hung up on the incest issue in Kana Little Sister, though, and ignore the other “forbidden loves” that are part of the story. They’re not “forbidden” in the sense of “taboo” quite like Taka and Kana’s love, but they’re still loves that have obstacles placed in their path and don’t always end happily.
Yuta becomes a symbol of both Kana and Taka’s refusal to accept a “normal” existence, instead living only for each other.
Yuta’s love for Kana is one such example. We first see Yuta when Kana is being harassed and bullied by girls at her school, but she isn’t confident enough to stand up for herself. Regardless of whether or not the player chooses to have Taka step in and save her, Yuta shows up and scares them away with his air gun. He reveals that he has been trying to get to know Kana and be her friend, but that she is hesitant to allow him to get close to her. It’s obvious by this point that Kana is firmly attached to Taka and doesn’t trust anyone else, but Yuta doesn’t give up over the years, even as Kana and Taka’s love for one another becomes more and more obvious and even as Kana repeatedly shows no interest in him whatsoever. Yuta becomes a symbol of both Kana and Taka’s refusal to accept a “normal” existence, instead living only for each other — he is constantly spurned by them both.
Yumi is arguably the more interesting character to look at, however, and the cast member who goes through some of the biggest changes over the course of the narrative. When we first meet her in elementary school, she’s a loud, confident, popular girl who nonetheless is kind and considerate. She genuinely likes Taka and wants them to get together, but the incident where their classmates find Taka’s love letter has far-reaching implications. Taka’s trust in Yumi is destroyed, causing him to further retreat into the “bubble” which he occupies with Kana, refusing to let anyone else in. Yumi, meanwhile, sees the effect that her inability to stand up to the crowds has on Taka, and begins a long period of guilt. Her carefree nature fades, and she becomes single-mindedly obsessed with Taka.
We next see Yumi as she and Taka graduate from high school. Yumi begs forgiveness from Taka, and for him to give her a button from his school blazer as a memento. The player has the option of refusing her this request, but regardless of the decision, the two end up some time later getting drunk and having sex after a college party. Their relationship begins there, but it’s not an easy ride for either of them. Yumi’s former happiness and carefree nature slowly returns as she attempts to draw Taka out of the shell he’s built up around himself, though initially she doesn’t know that Kana also occupies this space. Taka, meanwhile, is torn. He isn’t sure if he really wants to be with Yumi, but he gets occasional flashes of Kana when they are together, and begins to see Yumi as an “acceptable” way in which he can satisfy his desires for his sister without doing anything “wrong”.
Rejection of reality is just one of the ways in which Taka can potentially respond to the death of his beloved sister, and it’s this exploration of mortality that is arguably a bigger part of Kana Little Sister’s narrative than the romantic or sexual aspects.
In actual fact, Yumi is not very much like the very shy and reserved Kana at all; for the most part she’s confident, she says what she thinks and she’s not afraid to be assertive and go after what she wants. She doesn’t even particularly look like Kana — the resemblance, both physically and in personality, is all in Taka’s increasingly deluded mind. She is absolutely devoted to Taka, even on the paths when she walks in on him kissing Kana towards the story’s conclusion — indeed, in the “Yumi” ending, she sticks by him and tries to help him recover even as he gradually loses his grip on reality after Kana’s death. He refuses to accept that he wasn’t there for his sister’s final moments and was unable to give her what he calls “the answer” — a confirmation of their love for one another — and becomes obsessed with looking for her everywhere. Yumi eventually helps him accept his loss by posing as Kana and allowing him to give his “answer” before revealing herself, noting that she is a completely different person and that he should recognise that rather than constantly rejecting her along with reality.
Rejection of reality is just one of the ways in which Taka can potentially respond to the death of his beloved sister at the story’s various conclusions, and it’s this exploration of mortality that is arguably a bigger part of Kana Little Sister’s narrative than the romantic or sexual aspects. Throughout the various narrative paths it’s possible to take through the story, we see both Taka and Kana going through all five of Kübler-Ross’ “five stages of grief” model — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — though not necessarily all of them in a single path, and not necessarily in that order.
As we’ve already discussed, the “Yumi” ending sees Taka concluding his journey with denial, eventually slowly moving to acceptance with the help of Yumi. The “normal” ending, meanwhile, ends with acceptance; we don’t even see Kana’s moment of death in this particular path, we simply see the aftermath. Taka deals with his grief by visiting her grave and eventually brings himself closure by listening to a recording of her final words — a confession of love for his ears alone — allowing, as he says, his “clock to start ticking again”. Prior to the end, both of these routes see Taka being angry and depressed about his helplessness to save his sister — though Kana herself remains relatively calm and philosophical throughout — and bargaining with everyone from the doctor to his parents and Yumi to allow him to give up a kidney and try to save her.
The “Intellectual” paths provide a more obvious route through these stages of grief and acceptance, however, initially foreshadowed by the pair seeing the gradual decline and death of their aunt Sumako and her passage through the various stages, later mirrored by Kana’s own decline. In these routes, Kana goes through changing attitudes almost as much as Taka: she initially denies that there is a problem, always saying that she “feels good” and is “OK”, but as her illness progresses and the pain gets worse, we see her getting upset, scared and angry at the prospect of dying. She’s usually such a calm, quiet sort of person, so to see her emotional outbursts in these paths is particularly heartbreaking both for Taka and the player.
Eventually, both Taka and Kana manage to help each other to come to terms with her death. Taka encourages her to write a diary about her experiences, and helps her to experience some things she has always wanted to experience — seeing the ocean, being loved, making love — in order that she can depart the world satisfied that she has done everything she could. She takes the wise-beyond-her-years attitude that it is better to live a short life in one’s own generation and that no-one should live forever, because by the time a hundred or more years had passed, an immortal would have had to evolve to keep up with the world. She is generous and caring to the end, donating her organs to Cana, Sumako’s daughter who herself suffers from a liver disorder that gradually worsens over the course of the story.
Ultimately, in all the paths through the game, both Kana and Taka — and, by extension, the player — come to terms with the question of mortality and how to deal with those left behind. Most of the conclusions to the story are sad in one way or another, but they’re also filled with hope; a beloved person’s life coming to an end feels like the end of the world to the one who survives them, but time, as they say, heals all wounds.