With visual novels having a lot more in common with conventional, non-interactive fiction than many other types of video games, it’s eminently possible for individual authors to give their work a clear sense of artistic identity and authorial voice.
Such is the case with Ne no Kami and Sacrament of the Zodiac, the work of Japanese circle Kuro Irodoru Yomiji and writer Fenrir Vier, who have made a great deal of effort to ensure that their work — and the world they’ve created — are internally consistent and true to their original visions.
In other words, unlike larger-scale projects developed by huge organisations, many members of whom have contrasting and conflicting priorities in development, the small team behind Ne no Kami was able to focus on giving their work a clear sense of artistic integrity rather than thinking of it as a “product” first, a creative work second.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pick Fenrir Vier’s brain about the creative process behind the development of such a piece of work.
The Kojiki is not only Japan’s oldest literary work, but also the fundamental scripture that informs the practice of Shinto today.
“The background for Ne no Kami starts with Cthulhu and Norse mythology in ancient times,” explains Vier in response to my asking about the specific influences behind his work. “The era of Japanese mythology comes in after that. Nihon no Koten wo Yomu Series Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Matters) by Shogakukan had an enormous influence.”
The Kojiki, as the work is often known, was originally written in the eighth century, and is not only Japan’s oldest literary work, but also the fundamental scripture that informs the practice of Shinto even today. In contrast to the Nihon Shoki, a contemporary of the Kojiki that concerns the factual history of Japan up until the eighth century, the Kojiki concerns the legends of the gods and the divine descent of the Japanese imperial family.
The Kojiki is quite unusual among literature in that it is one of the most comprehensive written records of history, mythology and tradition in the world; in contrast to legends from other territories that were passed down through oral tradition and developed or corrupted over time, the Kojiki is an actual textual record that, barring translation into modern (and non-Japanese) languages has remained relatively untouched since the earliest surviving manuscripts that date back to the fourteenth century.
The “hidden village” in which protagonist Len finds herself is an actual place outside Kyoto known as Nishikasatori Village.
Indeed, the influence of the Kojiki is immediately apparent when you consider the strong Shinto influences on the narrative and world of Ne no Kami. The novel’s concept of there being multiple planes of existence besides our own “visible world” is straight out of the Kojiki, as are concepts such as “evil gods” being sealed away. And these concepts are also common, recurring themes in other world mythologies, such as those which Vier describes as also having an influence on Ne no Kami: specifically, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and Norse mythology.
“I actually didn’t experience much difficulty in blending multiple spiritual mythologies and cultures,” he explains. “They naturally came to blend, made connections with each other in a logical way and fused in my head, as if they had actually existed in real life.”
It’s easy to understand how Vier could come to feel that way about his work, given that much of Ne no Kami’s physical, “visible world” setting actually does exist. The “hidden village” in which protagonist Len finds herself preparing to face off against the ayakashi, for example, is an actual place outside real-world Kyoto known as Nishikasatori Village, accessible either via a long walk from Daigo-ji or by car from the north via Uji, the Kasatori Interchange and the Keiji Bypass. Thankfully, the real-life Nishikasatori Village does not have mystical barriers in place to keep strangers out, unlike its fictional counterpart.
“The concept of God is both closer to and further from the Japanese than can be said of Western people.”
Many of the other, more easily accessible places featured in the game are real, too, beginning with “Dichro” (known as Paseo Daigoro in the real world) where we first meet Len, and continuing with numerous sites of cultural, spiritual and historical significance such as Fushimi Inari-taisha, Matsuo-taisha and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. Western publisher Denpasoft has a fascinating “pilgrimage” blog post on the real-world locations that inspired the game if you’d like to know more.
Given Ne no Kami’s strong focus on traditional mythology and spiritual themes, I asked Vier why he thought Japanese developers and visual novel authors seemed to be a lot less hesitant to explore traditional spiritual concepts or religious imagery than many Western creators.
“I think that might be because the concept of God is both closer to and further from the Japanese than can be said of Western people,” he replies, somewhat enigmatically. “First of all, Japanese people tend to consider the existence of a god closer than Western people do. Most Japanese people go to shrines at the beginning of every year, and our grandparents also tell us that there are many gods just like Greek mythology says. However, while the existence of the gods is close to us, we treat them as fictional characters, not a spiritual home. I think that’s why Japanese people don’t hesitate to include gods in fictional worlds.”
The Shinto pantheon as a collective creative resource for everyone to be able to draw upon, then?
“Japanese people tend to consider the gods’ existence as something physical rather than something more conscious like angels or devils.”
“I think Japanese people tend to consider the gods’ existence as something physical rather than as something more conscious like angels or devils,” Vier continues. “Or maybe that’s the other way around. Maybe it’s that way because Japanese people are used to the ideas and images of gods or devils from fantasy worlds, such as in anime or games.”
It’s not just Shinto that creators like Vier feel comfortable drawing upon in their work, however. Ne no Kami’s companion piece Sacrament of the Zodiac, which features a fictional religion loosely inspired by Catholicism, among other things, was produced a year prior to Ne no Kami itself while the main project was on hold. But the two eventually became part of one big overall project.
“They merged gradually and developed into one world,” explains Vier. “Len gets introduced as a friend of Hitsuji on a phone call.”
And what of Len? I asked. Was she actually inspired by anyone in particular?
“I wish,” laughs Vier. “That would be really cute! I created her as one of the double main characters after the first plot of Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto was complete. I had no difficulties regarding creating her; everything naturally came to me. She is one of the best in terms of personality as well, so her actions came to me without having to think about what to do with her. In terms of her character design, she is not only cute but also comparatively close to a real-life person.”
“I listened to Mochi Yomogi’s voice many times, and I couldn’t not hear that voice as Len’s, so I made an offer to her without any hesitation.”
A big part of Len’s appeal in Ne no Kami in particular is her enthusiastic, energetic depiction by the late Mochi Yomogi. Since her performance made her seem like such a natural fit for the role, I had to ask whether or not Len had been designed with her in mind.
“As I mentioned earlier, we came to make Sacrament of the Zodiac before Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto, so we were recuiting casts for Hitsuji and Arissa,” explains Vier. “I had the image of Len as well then. However, there was an applicant who didn’t fit either of the character images, and that was Mochi Yomogi. I listened to her voice many times, and I couldn’t not hear that voice as Len’s, so I made an offer to her without any hesitation.”
Mochi Yomogi’s untimely death from heart failure at the age of just 30 years old last year hit Vier hard, both personally and professionally — in the latter case, because the team now needed to find a suitable replacement voice artist to play Len in the upcoming second part of Ne no Kami.
“Losing Mochi Yomogi was despairing and devastating to me,” he admits. “While still suffering from the sorrow greatly, we had to find a successor for her due to the production schedule. That’s when we decided to make an offer to Anzu [Hana], since we knew her voice and capability.”
“Anzu put in so much more time and effort than I expected. She played the whole former half to study Mochi Yomogi’s Len, and grew Len in her, and became the amazing second Len.”
Anzu Hana is an experienced voice actress with a number of roles in yuri visual novels such as various installments in the Sono Hanabira ni Kuchizuke o (A Kiss for the Petals) series. She was a natural choice for the role given her background, but, of course, recasting an already established character halfway through their overall narrative arc is something that has to be handled carefully.
“We started a challenge to create Len’s voice that players want,” explains Vier. “Anzu put in so much more time and effort than I expected. She played the whole former half [of Ne no Kami] to study Mochi Yomogi’s Len, and grew Len in her, and became the amazing second Len.”
Anzu Hana’s experience in yuri visual novels and Ne no Kami’s position as a yuri visual novel raises an interesting question: what made Vier decide to tell a story involving homosexual relationships between young women?
“I started from the desire to export the world that existed in my head into the real world,” explains Vier, capturing the core struggle of any author who has been sitting on a story for years and needing to get it out in the open. “Ne no Kami has that world, and it spotlights ‘the women who come to love women who live in that world.'”
“I think diversity should be created by way of creators putting their individuality into their work.”
And what does Vier think of the growing drive among Western developers and members of the games press to emphasise “diversity” and “inclusion” in video games — in most cases these days, of course, meaning “incorporating lead characters and cast members other than straight, white men” with a mind to attracting a broader audience from more varied backgrounds?
“I think that it’s important to have the sense to produce something that meets consumers’ demands,” he admits. “However, that comes from the business side of things, rather than the creative side. I personally create things that I want to write as a creator, and if doing so happens to satisfy the demands, that’s ideal. Essentially, I think diversity should be created by way of creators putting their individuality into their work.”
Diversity, representation and inclusion are important considerations in this modern age, with more and more people coming to video games and related interactive media as a primary form of entertainment. But, as Vier says, the best way to go about this is to allow creators the freedom to naturally create diversity through expressing their individuality, rather than attempting to force the issue. At worst, attempts to include “diverse” characters simply for the sake of appearing progressive comes off as patronising and tokenistic; when characters who break from the stereotypical norms are naturally written into the narrative as they are in Ne no Kami and Sacrament of the Zodiac, however, it feels genuine and heartwarming.
With this in mind, as well as Ne no Kami’s core theme of people from different “worlds” (be they literal or metaphorical) coming to understand one another, I was curious about a few things, most notably whether Vier had designed anything about the very Japanese Ne no Kami with a potential Western audience in mind, and whether he felt video games and visual novels themselves had the potential to promote cross-cultural understanding.
“Users who played the game saying that they enjoyed and recommended it is the most important thing and means more than anything.”
“I think this is a very beautiful story-driven game that has the quality and factors of Japanese culture that attracts Western audiences as well,” he says. “Len and Haku have a chance to talk about their positions and thoughts to make a deeper understanding of one another. They also aren’t afraid of each other, and try to get closer from both sides in order to be friends. I think that it’s important to consciously create opportunities for mutual understanding.”
A sound attitude. And so, finally, I had to ask: what can enthusiasts of visual novels do to best help promote the value of the medium for mature storytelling and creating those opportunities for mutual understanding?
“It could happen if observations or discussions happen more frequently on popular sources such as 4chan and Steam,” says Vier. “Users who played the game saying that they enjoyed and recommend it is the most important thing and means more than anything. I think even interviews like this one, conducted by someone with an interest in the subject, are effective in promoting the medium. Thank you for everything.”
Thank you, Fenrir Vier, for sharing your thoughts with us. The quality of Ne no Kami as a visual novel speaks for itself, but a bit of good old-fashioned word of mouth certainly doesn’t hurt — both as a means of helping creators like Vier and the rest of the team at Kuro Irodoru Yomiji make a living from what they do, and as a way of more broadly sharing fascinating, enriching and even educational experiences with prospective audience members from all over the world.
More about Ne no Kami
Thanks to Eve at Denpasoft for supplying the review copies and helping with the logistics of this interview.
You can purchase the 18+ version of Ne no Kami or the 18+ patch direct from Denpasoft. An all-ages version is available on Steam. Sacrament of the Zodiac is only available in an 18+ version direct from Denpasoft or via adult gaming portal Nutaku (NSFW).
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