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Grisaia: Introduction

Frontwing’s Grisaia series, which kicked off in 2011 with the Japanese release of first installment The Fruit of Grisaia, has come to be regarded as a particular high point for the visual novel medium.

Indeed, back in 2015, the /r/visualnovels subreddit voted The Fruit of Grisaia as number one on its list of top 10 visual novels (later republished on GameFAQs), and the community still holds the game in high regard today, as evidenced by its prominent position on the subreddit’s comprehensive diagram of recommendations.

Grisaia’s high ranking on /r/visualnovels’ list was particularly exciting to enthusiasts of the medium, as growing localisation company Sekai Project had already run a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring the whole series West in the twilight hours of 2014 and the start of 2015, potentially opening it up to a whole new audience that was perhaps less familiar with acquiring Japanese visual novels and patching them with fan translations.

But what makes this series so remarkable? Let’s take a high-level look at it.

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We’ll delve more into the individual characters involved in the series’ stories — with particular focus on The Fruit of Grisaia and second installment The Labyrinth of Grisaia’s follow-up “After” stories — in future articles. For now, let’s consider what Grisaia actually is, starting with that strange title.

According to Frontwing producer, president and CEO Ryuuichirou Yamakawa, speaking to getnews.jp, the word “grisaia” is a corruption of the French artistic term “grisaille”. This refers to a method of painting in monochromatic colours (usually neutral or greyish; monochromatic brown paintings are referred to as “brunaille”, while monochromatic green paintings are called “verdaille”) in an attempt to resemble sculptures.

The title can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Yamakawa explains that the full title The Fruit of Grisaia is intended to represent the circumstances and feelings of the heroines, and in order to understand this it’s necessary to look at the overall concept of the series.

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The Fruit of Grisaia begins with protagonist Yuuji Kazami arriving in the small coastal town of Mishima Cape. We don’t know much about Yuuji when we first encounter him, but it’s clear immediately from the outset that there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye. For starters, he has walked 150km to start his new life rather than taking any form of public or private transportation, and when he arrives he immediately gets into trouble with the police even after taking down a purse-snatcher a little too skilfully for an ordinary high-schooler. The situation is swiftly resolved thanks to someone pulling strings behind the scenes — and indeed, the mystery of who Yuuji really is and what is going on “behind the scenes” forms a central part of the overall narrative.

When Yuuji finally arrives at Mihama Academy, his new school, he discovers that it’s far from a normal educational institution. For starters, there are only six students including himself, and there appears to be something a little unusual about each and every one of them — some more than others.

The Fruit of Grisaia’s lengthy common route introduces each of these characters over the course of a series of short stories that loosely depict the overall journey of Yuuji settling into his new life and developing new friendships. The stories themselves flip-flop between comedy and pathos, giving us a strong sense of these characters in a variety of different contexts — not to mention keeping the pace of the overall narrative interesting rather than getting bogged down in excessive melodrama. That said, while we don’t get to the bottom of each of the heroines’ particular issues until their own individual routes, we start to get some hints here and there — and this is where we can start relating things to the title.

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To return to our earlier point: Yamakawa said that “The Fruit of Grisaia” reflects the circumstances and feelings of the heroines, and knowing what we know now it should be clear that this can be read in a number of different ways, perhaps most literally through the “fruit” in question representing a burden that each of the main characters have been carrying with them for some time — since an early age, in some cases.

It transpires that Mihama Academy was set up in order to be a “special school” of sorts — not in the sense that it caters to people with physical or mental disabilities, but rather that it was intended to be a safe place for people who had, for one reason or another, fallen out of mainstream education. This is something of a double-edged sword, of course; by isolating yourself from the things that hurt you, you do of course (in theory, at least) protect yourself from further harm, but at the same time you come to live a sheltered existence that makes it challenging to deal with unavoidable hardships when they do crop up.

“This school is a box for the storage of people who’ve given up on their lives,” explains heroine Yumiko during Makina’s After story in The Labyrinth of Grisaia; her personal circumstances, as we’ll explore in a subsequent article, make her more aware of the school’s true purpose than the rest of the cast, even outside of her own specific narrative routes. “They dropped us into this refuge, this container, to give us the illusion of stability. But tranquility rots the human spirit. They surrounded us with walls, so that we couldn’t see the people all around us moving forward… and hate ourselves for standing still.”

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This is perhaps where the “grisaille” aspect comes into it. The residents of Mihama Academy are almost frozen in time like a sculpture; although they’re not being held in the school against their will and are free to go into the outside world to shop and socialise, there’s very much a sense that they keep themselves to themselves, each for their own reasons. They voluntarily isolate themselves from the rest of the world, each for their own particular variant on the burden of guilt that they carry with themselves.

As Yuuji discovers throughout each of the main heroines’ routes in The Fruit of Grisaia and continues to explore in the After stories in The Labyrinth of Grisaia, these girls’ feelings of guilt aren’t at all simple, which is why they’ve all ended up having their life affected to such a significant degree. It’s not a simple case of it being a bad thing they did that they need to repent for; to put it another way, it’s not a case of black and white, it’s a case of, you guessed it, shades of grey — just like a painting in grisaille.

Coming to terms with their respective burdens isn’t an easy ride for the heroines and, were it not for Yuuji’s presence, they might have been content to simply continue as they were, frozen outside of time, living their life parallel to the world at large. This isn’t to say Yuuji acts in a way that immediately fixes their problems, nor that he forces his way into their personal lives through some ill-advised white knight desire to prove his worth as a man; rather, in a similar way to how Nocturnal Illusion’s protagonist acts as a “wind of change” to that game’s heroines, so too does Yuuji act as a catalyst for each of the girls’ long process of acceptance and healing to begin.

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“Relationships are difficult things,” notes Yuuji early in the common route. “Too often, we hide ourselves out of consideration for others, and dress up ugly reality with happy lies. Keep it up long enough, and the truth is left irreparably tangled with fiction.” He knows this better than most; a significant part of the conflict in The Fruit of Grisaia in particular comes from Yuuji’s growing desire to have a “normal” life and his responsibilities to the mysterious, shadowy organisation that he refers to simply as his “job”.

Yuuji is a fascinating protagonist, particularly as he’s clearly not intended to be a self-insert for the player, even as he follows the visual novel tradition of remaining unvoiced. Rather, he’s a complex character that, although attempting to maintain an air of calm aloofness at all times, often finds himself dealing with conflicting feelings about his own responsibilities and the young women who come to mean so much to him. In order to understand Yuuji, it’s necessary to explore all the different narrative paths in the series, not just the ones featuring a favourite heroine; as Yuuji himself notes, “dismissing a perspective you can’t understand as ‘ridiculous’ is just an egotistical refusal to admit other ways of looking at the world exist.”

What’s interesting about The Fruit of Grisaia’s narrative arcs — and how they’re continued in The Labyrinth of Grisaia — is that the writers aren’t afraid to leave a few things hanging. While Yuuji often helps with each of the heroines’ problems over the course of their respective routes, he never “fixes” them — nor is he under any illusion that he might be able to do so.

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Rather, each of the heroines’ personal arcs involves them growing beyond what is often a crippling sense of denial about their respective burden, demonstrating a willingness to let someone else in behind the grisaille and eventually arriving at something at least approaching acceptance. In cases where there isn’t a concrete problem for the character in question to solve — as there isn’t in most of the routes — the conclusion of their story tends to be more about learning to cope with what has been troubling them, rather than removing it from their life altogether.

“In childhood, everyone’s convinced that snow-white wings are budding on their back,” says Yuuji. “We tell ourselves, ‘someday, I’ll fly away from here to some strange and wonderful place.’ We think that by going where we want to go, we’ll magically become the person we want to be. But in reality, there’s nowhere else to go, and no feathers to lift us out of the dust. When we finally realise this, it’s hard to overstate how bitter a disappointment it is.”

Sobering words, indeed, but truthful: a lifelong effect on your mental state as a result of trauma isn’t something you just get over or “fly away from”, even with the help of an understanding partner. Sometimes in that case the best thing to do is to learn how to handle it — and perhaps even to take ownership of it: to acknowledge it as part of what made you the person you are today and even to learn to draw strength from it, but not to allow it control over you.

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That’s a key message at the core of Grisaia as a whole, and just one of the ways that this remarkable series of visual novels stimulates the imagination and gives its readers more than a little pause for thought on a regular basis. If you’re yet to experience it for yourself, you can pick up the all-ages versions via Steam, and the 18+ versions (which, incidentally, are the versions I particularly recommend) via localiser Sekai Project’s 18+ imprint Denpasoft.


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