When we’re first introduced to Sakaki Yumiko in the common route of The Fruit of Grisaia, it’s clear that she is both troubled and likely to be trouble for protagonist Yuuji.
When Yuuji first attempts to introduce himself to her, she initially tries her best to ignore him, and subsequently goes to slap him when he persists. This eventually escalates into her lashing out at him with a box cutter whenever she sees him, a fact which Yuuji’s fellow students just shrug off as being “something she does”, because they’ve all been through it too.
Yuuji, being a certified badass, shrugs off Yumiko’s attacks without injury easily, and eventually they stop altogether, though she still proves herself to be a prickly individual who is generally unwilling to interact with others.
Except, of course, it’s not that simple.
Throughout the common route, Yumiko can often be found lurking on the periphery of the rest of the group’s social activities; they’re all aware of her and take care not to exclude her, but they also don’t try to force her to participate in anything. It’s clear that even if she doesn’t show it on her face or through her behaviour, she finds comfort in being around people who care for her and are considerate of her feelings. Even the foul-mouthed Makina proves herself to be enormously perceptive of Yumiko’s personality traits, accurately “reading her thoughts” in one particularly memorable scene.
In the common route, we’re given a teaser of what has made Yumiko as withdrawn, sullen and prone to lashing out as she is — it’s clearly to do with her father. Upon returning from a shopping trip to the town, a number of the group report a suspicious-looking black car outside the station, though those who have been at the school longer know that this is a sign that Yumiko’s father is coming to inspect the school, which it seems he financed and had built. Yumiko, meanwhile, refuses to see her father, instead preferring to watch his cursory inspection of the school grounds from the dormitory rooftop; it’s clear that he’s not really inspecting anything, but is instead hoping that he might be able to get through to his daughter.
When Yumiko’s route proper starts, we’re given a bit more information about Yumiko’s father, who has already been suggested to be a not very nice person. Indeed, early in Yumiko’s route, we’re given a third-person scene in which we see Yuuji’s handler JB and Yumiko’s father discussing how they might get Yumiko to come back to her family and be prepared to take over the family railway business. Yumiko, until now, has been having none of this, of course, and so her father resorts to desperate measures, requesting that JB assign Yuuji to bodyguard duty for Yumiko and then arranging for her to be attacked and abducted. What he didn’t count on is that Yuuji is more than capable of taking care of a few hired thugs, particularly as they had been specifically instructed not to actually harm Yumiko — at least initially.
Yumiko is initially resistant to Yuuji guarding her, insisting that “it’s not as though [her] life’s anything worth protecting”, and that she “doesn’t particularly mind if someone does come for [her]”. The initial attack from her father’s men puts her somewhat on her guard, though, and from that point on she is less resistant to Yuuji’s efforts to protect her, and gradually softens towards him over time, eventually developing feelings for him because she’s come to rely on his protection — a feeling of safety and security that she’s never enjoyed before.
Yuuji, being a stubborn idiot prone to inadvertently annoying women with non-deliberate insensitive comments, of course, doesn’t notice that Yumiko has started to feel something for him — or refuses to admit that this might be a possibility, at least — but sticks beside her “because it’s [his] job”. When JB pulls him off the case at the request of Yumiko’s father, he is somewhat surprised to receive a direct request from Yumiko to continue working as her bodyguard in a private capacity.
On one excursion, the heavens open and Yuuji and Yumiko find themselves trapped under a bridge in a torrential downpour. Something doesn’t seem right about Yumiko’s behaviour to Yuuji, and it’s not long before things come to a head; a thunderclap and flash of lightning absolutely terrify Yumiko, who crumples into Yuuji’s arms in an uncharacteristic display of weakness, fragility and reliance on others. Having already come this far in showing her fragile side to Yuuji, she then relates the story of how she came to be the person she is today, and what she is doing at the mysterious school.
Yumiko’s mother was the daughter of a pair of struggling business owners. She married into the Sakaki family primarily for financial and political reasons, and bore Yumiko as the family’s only child. Being a girl, Yumiko was an immediate disappointment to the family, who had been hoping for a son and heir apparent, but Yumiko’s mother was much too weak to survive another pregnancy, and eventually succumbed to a debilitating psychological disorder that saw her and Yumiko retreat back to the countryside and her family home. She was hospitalised, and Yumiko was left to live with her grandparents, who resented her existence because she was a symbol of their failing business, and how they wouldn’t be able to rely on the support of the Sakaki family forever.
Yumiko tried to stay positive amid this bleak situation, but the youthful joy she once had at the simple sight of a passing dog eventually gave way to bitterness and resentment. Her only outlet was her neighbour, who had formerly been employed by her grandparents as a servant, but now continued to help them out for free. Yumiko was the only one to show her gratitude, and she resented her grandparents for taking advantage of her right up until her death — a feeling shared by her daughter and son-in-law.
Her hospitalised mother gradually comes to show an improvement, eventually reaching a point where it looks like she’s going to be discharged from hospital, but suffers a catastrophic relapse upon hearing the news that her husband — Yumiko’s father — had taken a mistress in her absence, and said mistress had borne him a son.
A year passes, and Yumiko’s bitterness grows, since her mother had relapsed so severely that she couldn’t even remember anything about her family. She had no-one to rely on, no-one to talk to, no friends, which is why when her father’s aides come to collect her from her grandparents’ house — bearing the offer “if you let me have Yumiko back, I’ll continue supporting your family and your business” — she jumps at the opportunity.
Initially resenting her father for the anguish he caused her and her mother, Yumiko eventually softens towards him as he appears to be making a genuine effort to reconnect with his daughter. It eventually transpires that he is only doing this because his illegitimate son died and his mistress abandoned him shortly afterwards, leaving Yumiko once again as the only potential heir to his business. Feeling a familiar, growing sense of rage at this, Yumiko is in a fragile mental state and is pushed over the edge when she overhears one of her classmates speaking untruths about her.
Prior to this, she had taken to expressing her anger through destruction. “The clicking of the blade emerging from its sheath,” she relates. “The sound of something once whole being severed apart. Those had become calming sounds to me. How wonderful would it be if I could slice away my femininity with a single box cutter? How wonderful would it be if I could sever my fate with the touch of a blade? How wonderful would it be if one movement of my hand could cut me free of all the troubles that coiled around me and choked the air from my lungs?”
The first thing she destroys is her long, black hair; an attempt to “slice away her femininity” and look more like a boy — a largely successful effort, though one that causes people to shy away from her even more than normal. Later, she destroys her artwork and the diary in which she had written down all the growing positive thoughts she had been feeling as she had mistakenly thought her father truly loved her.
And ultimately, the event which sees her totally severing her ties to her old life: she stabs her classmate, whom she had previously thought was a friend, but who had turned out to be just as much of a turncoat as everyone else in her life.
Yumiko escaped a criminal conviction for her violent outburst, because money can make anything go away, and her father knew that very well indeed. Knowing that the situation couldn’t continue in the way it had been, however, he offloads her onto Mihama Academy, where she meets Yuuji, and her life undergoes some considerable changes once again.
When Yuuji ends up injured in the line of duty protecting her, Yumiko is wracked with guilt, not just at the trouble she’s embroiled Yuuji in, but at how much she’s hurt her other classmates too. This guilt eventually manifests itself in her deliberately allowing herself to be taken away by her father’s men and capitulating to whatever demands he might have — which turn out to be her attendance at a school in America, far away from anywhere she could possibly become a problem.
Yumiko’s father doesn’t count on Yuuji’s stubbornness, though; spurred into action by a text message from Yumiko apologising for a situation that is in no way her fault, he eventually rescues her following a dramatic chase, and the two of them begin a life on the run, during which period they both eventually manage to admit their feelings for one another — though it takes Yumiko essentially sexually assaulting Yuuji in the middle of the night to spur the latter into action and contemplate that she might actually possibly maybe be interested in him.
Yumiko and Yuuji making love for the first time — and, for that matter, the subsequent time, during which she admits that she “doesn’t dislike” playing a submissive, masochistic role — is a turning point for Yumiko in particular, and to a lesser extent for Yuuji. Yuuji reveals that he has some sexual experience thanks to sex workers that were laid on for him in a previous assignment, but comes to realise that sexual intimacy with someone you truly care about is on a whole other level of pleasure. Yumiko, meanwhile, allows this ultimate expression of intimacy as a means of demonstrating that she trusts Yuuji absolutely; the pair of them continually push the boundaries with each other to see how far they will each go, and it turns out that they both feel absolutely comfortable with one another after all the time they have spent together.
Yumiko’s growth is pretty touching to see, but tragic at the same time. On more than one occasion, she ponders whether it’s acceptable for her to be happy, or whether she “deserves” it. Yuuji has to admonish her several times for apologising when it’s not necessary, though she does the same for him too; eventually the two settle into a pattern of gratitude for one another, neither of them quite sure how to deal with having been alone for so long and now having another person to take into consideration.
As Yumiko’s story in The Fruit of Grisaia resolves itself and we move into her After story in The Labyrinth of Grisaia, we see this troubled young woman become a study in contrasts, torn between her desire to continue her image as a rather proper, sensible and mature person and her feelings of genuine love towards Yuuji. Likewise, Yuuji is doing his best to change, too, in order to better support Yumiko.
“‘People can always change,'” he muses during the opening of Yumiko’s After story. “From what I hear, those are always the first words a warden says to inmates newly admitted to a maximum security prison. Even warped people who grew up in the worst possible conditions, raised since birth to believe that human lives are all but worthless, can reform themselves through sheer willpower. I assume that’s what it means, at least. I don’t think I can say whether or not that’s true.
“People tell me I’ve changed,” he continues, “but it doesn’t really feel that way to me. Use all the fancy words you want; in the end, people are what they are. You might be able to carve a cube into a sphere, but a sharp, crooked nail isn’t quite so easy to reshape. That was my opinion until now, at least. But it seems I may have to reconsider that idea.”
The reason for Yuuji’s questioning of this common wisdom is the fact that, in the opening scene of Yumiko’s After story, “the woman once derided as ‘box-cutter girl’ is currently straddling [his] lower body, fully clad in a cosplay outfit, with a pair of fuzzy bunny ears perched on her head. For anyone who knows Sakaki Yumiko, such a sight would be more than enough to make you reconsider a few of your fundamental beliefs about the world.”
This behaviour is seemingly wildly out of character for the normally rather proud and haughty Yumiko, but we already saw through the progression of her arc in The Fruit of Grisaia that she was learning to let go a bit more — learning that she didn’t need to apologise all the time, for one thing, and how to express herself better for another.
Yuuji’s comment about “carving a cube into a sphere” is a callback to The Fruit of Grisaia, in which he ponders this subject in more depth — a subject of particular relevance to Yumiko’s growth as a character.
“Personality starts off like a cube,” he says. “When we’re young, we clumsily bump our corners against other people in the form of childish conflicts. Eventually, our sharp edges are worn away to leave something more like a sphere. That’s more or less what people are describing when they say someone’s ‘softened’. Moderate collisions with others help us mature. But when those first impacts are too strong, they can have a different effect: instead of losing our corners little by little, we splinter in strange, harsh ways, warping into crooked shapes. Once crooked, it’s hard to become a sphere. Even as the people around them mellow, their sharpness only grows harsher, and everyone who approaches ends up getting hurt.”
Yumiko, of course, has suffered some rather harsh knocks in her lifetime, which has led to her personality becoming somewhat “crooked”, as Yuuji describes it. She’s not beyond help, of course — even the most crooked shape can be worn down to a perfect sphere with enough work — but it’s going to take time and effort to get to that stage.
Yumiko is more than willing to put that effort in, however, and it’s this that forms the basis of the majority of her After story. Soliciting help from each of her classmates at Mihama Academy in what she perceives to be their particular areas of expertise, she resolves to become the partner that she believes Yuuji deserves — or, more accurately, as Yuuji describes it, “correcting her weaknesses in traditionally ‘feminine’ skills like housework and cooking.”
It’s worth noting that Yumiko does this independently of Yuuji; Yuuji finds Yumiko’s incompetence at basic household tasks rather endearing for the most part — aside from an unfortunate incident where her attempt at cooking poisoned the entire dormitory — but doesn’t try to push her in one direction or the other, because he wants her to find her own path. He also knows that the path she is most likely to end up being forced down is perhaps not the one that she would choose, so he also wants to humour her and let her explore this side of herself while it’s safe and practical to do so.
“Unless I’m very much mistaken,” he muses, pondering the likelihood of Yumiko ending up taking over her disgraced father’s business ventures, “sooner or later, Yumiko’s going to earn herself a great deal of power, and assume responsibility for the wellbeing of many people. She really is just that capable a woman. I’m not yet sure exactly where she’ll put her talents to use, but when she completes her ‘studies’ and discovers her path, I want to at least be capable of supporting her.”
Through Yumiko’s studies with her classmates, she learns a variety of skills — not always the exact skills she intended, either. In particular, when training in basic kitchen skills with Amane, who is a skilled chef thanks to her growing up as the daughter of a couple who owned a traditional Japanese restaurant, the greatest lesson Yumiko learns is tenacity.
“The Sakaki Yumiko I know always had a tendency to give up easily in the face of a challenge,” ponders Yuuji to himself as he observes her “lesson” in secret. “Painfully aware of her helplessness in the face of power and authority, she’d come to regard ‘struggling’ any harder than necessary as a meaningless waste of effort. However, there’s not ever the slightest sign of frustration in the woman I’m looking at right now.”
This scene, as simple as it is, with Yumiko attempting to peel vegetables and not really improving a great deal over the course of several hours, shows how far she’s come. Back in The Fruit of Grisaia, we see first-hand evidence of her not struggling any harder than necessary as she is almost taken away to America, where she will no longer be a “problem” for her father. But now, even as she battles with radish after radish, there’s no trace of that girl who lay down and let the world have its way with her.
Yumiko recognises her own growth, too; after finally achieving her original goal in her lesson with Amane, she not only calls her “instructor” by her first name rather than “Suou-san” — a big deal in Japanese social interactions — but also jumps into her arms. Amane, being an overwhelmingly friendly, motherly type at the best of times, is, of course, delighted by this development.
“To tell you the truth, I was on the verge of giving you a big hug myself,” she says. “You tried so hard to peel that daikon, Sakaki-san, it made me really happy to see you finally succeed. But you know what? I was even happier that you jumped into my arms before I got the chance. I mean, it’s not like you could really have called us the closest of friends before, you know? But when you hugged me like that, it made me realise how much more comfortable you are around me now.”
Yumiko’s gratitude towards her classmates is genuine, and Yuuji is particularly pleased by the progress she has made in this regard. Throughout The Fruit of Grisaia, he urged her to think of something she was grateful for every time she felt like apologising, and express her gratitude instead of her shame. It’s advice that she took to heart — and her peers notice, too: as Amane puts it, “when Yumiko says ‘thank you’ like that, it packs a serious punch.”
“Normally, when you’re serious about learning something, it’s best to find a truly experienced master in that field,” says Yumiko to Yuuji as they discuss her progress. “I’m sure everyone in this school knows how efficient that method is. But instead of doing that, I decided to learn from my classmates. Of course, that did feel like the proper choice to me. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why I felt that way.”
This question forms the heart of the latter portion of Yumiko’s After story: why did she seek help from her former classmates rather than, as she would have done in the past, information from a book or the Internet?
“I think I’ve always wanted to spend some time like this,” she continues. “I’m talking about chatting idly with a friend as we do something together. I’d get angry when they tease me about my boyfriend, we’d throw ourselves at something like children, and laugh when it’s over. The sort of ordinary moments any normal girl would experience.”
Yumiko comes to feel a certain amount of conflict within this desire when, having resolved to be more honest about her own feelings, she finds her attempts to be alone with Yuuji continually stymied — usually accidentally — by the presence of their classmates. Her initial reaction to a “date” she had been looking forward to that ends up becoming little more than a sequence of slightly awkward social interactions is one of bitter resentment, but Yuuji suspects there is something more at play, too. With that in mind, he hatches a plan to take her away on another date far away from Mihama Academy, just the two of them.
It, of course, transpires that even once the two of them are alone, Yumiko continually mentions her classmates — whom she now considers to be her friends, rather than just people she shares a dorm with.
“She might want to be alone with me,” muses Yuuji, “but in the end, she can’t quite stop thinking about her friends back in Mihama. Normally, that kind of dependence might be seen as a negative thing. But in Yumiko’s case, I think it’s a sign of some real progress. Just wish she was aware of it herself. She’d probably be able to interact with them more naturally if she was.”
Yuuji doesn’t press the issue, however; he sees this as something that it is important for Yumiko to discover for herself. And gradually, slowly but surely, she comes to a realisation.
“I like spending time with you,” she admits as the afternoon passes by. “And it makes me happy, but when we’re alone like this, sometimes it feels a little unnatural.”
That “unnatural” feeling is, of course, the absence of her other friends; Yuuji is important to her, of course, but he’s just one piece of the puzzle. And, as the pair of them end their evening by watching a spectacular fireworks display, it finally comes to her.
“I want to learn more about cooking from Amane,” she says. “I want to clean the courtyard in a silly maid outfit. I want to run around making a fuss… to laugh and shout a little. It’s true that I wanted more time alone with you, but to tell the truth, I think the time we all spend together is what matters most.”
It’s at this point that Yumiko’s transformation from “box-cutter girl” into a young woman who is able to both love and be loved is complete. She finally understands the importance of friendship and companionship; of love and intimacy; of having people with whom you can just be yourself. She’s finally happy, in other words — and instead of feeling guilty about this, she’s genuinely grateful.
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