Nekopara: Staying True to Yourself

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As the Nekopara series has progressed, it’s clear that Sayori and the rest of the team at Nekoworks have become more comfortable and confident with these characters.

With each new installment, the series steps further away from the admittedly appealing initial novelty value of the main cast being catgirls, and further into stronger characterisation, including deeper exploration of the girls’ personalities, backgrounds and attitudes towards one another.

Nekopara vol. 3, the latest installment to be released at the time of writing (though a vol. 4 has already been confirmed), is the strongest episode to date, featuring some truly touching scenes, wonderful characterisation and, if you’re playing the 18+ version, it has to be said, some of the absolute hottest H-scenes in the series.

Following the trend of the previous volumes (vol. 0 excluded, which explored the family unit as a whole), Nekopara vol. 3 focuses mainly on a pair of catgirls from the Minaduki household — though this doesn’t mean the others are neglected.

In fact, the game makes a point of ensuring that the stars of the previous installments Chocola and Vanilla (vol. 1) as well as Azuki and Coconut (vol. 2) get a bit of time in the spotlight even as the main narrative makes it clear that the perverted Cinnamon and the haughty Maple will be taking centre stage this time around.

Those playing the 18+ version will be particularly aware of this, since both of the previous pairs of stars get their own H-scenes in the game well before Maple and Cinnamon get to do anything even vaguely naughty.

In this way, Nekopara acknowledges what has come before, but doesn’t allow itself to get bogged down in retreading old ground. Partway through vol. 2, both protagonist Kashou and the player are reassured that the catgirls of Nekopara’s setting are naturally polygamous creatures, and as such have no problem with someone they have chosen to bond with taking other partners. In this way, the extravagance and fantastic aspects of Kashou’s growing harem are both acknowledged and given context without breaking “character” or resorting to each episode being a different “route”, mutually exclusive of the others.

Nekopara vol. 3 also takes some time for a little meta commentary on the surprising success of the series since it first launched. An early scene sees an anonymous little girl visiting Kashou’s cafe, recognising all the catgirls from their fame online (since Kashou’s sister Shigure has been diligently updating a daily blog about their activities, partly as her own business and partly to support her brother) and asking them to demonstrate all of their most recognisable traits.

This aspect of fame and following your dreams forms the springboard for the majority of the rest of vol. 3’s central narrative, which concerns the proud but rather distant Maple, and her closest friend Cinnamon’s efforts to support her.

We learn that one of the most popular entries on Shigure’s blog is a video of Maple and Cinnamon as kittens performing the theme song from a popular anime, though it transpires that Maple hasn’t really sung since. Cinnamon, utterly devoted to her best friend due to an incident in their pasts that bonded them together a lot more closely than even siblings Chocola and Vanilla, sees an opportunity to reawaken this nearly forgotten dream during a bit of audience participation in an event at an amusement park; Maple is reluctant to go along with her plan initially, but ultimately sees little choice between potentially embarassing herself on stage and definitely embarrassing herself by running away.

Shigure, naturally, is on hand to capture the moment on camera, and the online response to Maple’s performance is overwhelmingly positive. Something bothers her deeply, but she doesn’t admit it; Kashou, having learned to read his feline friends rather well by this point, however, correctly surmises that the root of her discomfort is down to the fact that every single comment about her performance makes reference to the fact that she is a catgirl rather than simply praising her outright.

Cinnamon is aware of this too, and feels some regret at having forced Maple into the situation in the first place, but simultaneously proud that her friend put on such a stirring performance. Kashou, having already developed something of a reputation among the catgirls as being a bit nosy by this point, decides to step in and talk to Maple about it.

“I gave up that stupid kittenhood dream a long time ago,” explains Maple. “I was pampered so much back then. Do you really think I understood how the world works? In the first place, a catgirl having a dream is just dumb, isn’t it?”

Maple is referring here to the fact that, despite the fact they often look and behave very human — particularly in the case of the Minaduki girls, who have all been “raised” very well by Shigure and Kashou — catgirls are still considered to be inferior beings. As we saw back in vol. 1, they’re not allowed out on their own without their “Bells”, showing that they’ve taken a test proving that they can function in society without a guardian, and we learn in vol. 3 when Cinnamon goes bra shopping that there are even some establishments that won’t allow unattended catgirls in, even if they’re carrying Bells.

In other words, despite Maple’s rather proud nature and attempt to put across an air of being mature and aloof — something she pulls off a lot better than the actual oldest “sister” of the family Azuki, who, as we saw throughout vol. 2, is a little too hot-tempered and sarcastic for her own good — she’s still painfully aware of her “place” in society.

Kashou’s having none of this, however, and he explains why with a bit of background information about what led him to his current situation.

“Ever since I was little, my dad told me that I would be studying to make Japanese sweets,” he explains, referring to his parents’ traditional Japanese confectionery store. “I never considered that I had any other choice. So I did as he said and studied how to make Japanese sweets. Since my family has some ancient traditions, my upbringing was pretty strict. Playing with friends, club activities, hobbies… I had to forgo all of them for the sake of studying the family trade.”

The traditionalist nature of the Minaduki family that Kashou describes here goes quite a way to explaining a few things about the cast, most notably why Kashou’s younger sister Shigure is perpetually dressed in traditional Japanese garb rather than the more modern clothing the catgirls wear. It also goes some distance to explaining why Kashou felt the need to sneak out of the house to start his patisserie back in vol. 1, rather than doing so with the full support of his parents.

“One day I went to a patisserie by myself,” he continues. “Everyone there looked so happy eating their cake. Everyone. Even those who might be austere or sad otherwise. Every single customer had a smile on their face. Before, I was completely focused on my family’s trade and saw nothing else. Then someone asked me ‘why is it that you’re making these sweets?’ Back then, I really didn’t know what I had been doing up until that point. I struggled with it, but I decided that I wanted to be like that person. I wanted to make something that could put a smile on anyone’s face when they ate it. Enough that I was willing to give up all that I had worked so hard and so long for.”

Kashou’s words have a strong impact on Maple, and she comes to understand why Cinnamon forced her up on stage at the amusement park — so much so that she resolves to start taking her singing seriously, picking up that “stupid kittenhood dream” right where she left off, and this time taking it a lot more seriously.

From here begins the first main conflict of vol. 3, which comes when Cinnamon feels like the best way to support Maple would be to give her space and allow her time to practice rather than being constantly attached to her as she usually is. Kashou and the other catgirls quickly notice that both Cinnamon and Maple seem to be suffering as a result of this, however; neither really wanted to be apart from one another, so clearly another solution is necessary.

“Don’t use me as an excuse for not choosing your own path,” says Maple, admonishing Cinnamon, who has become thoroughly miserable with the situation by this point. “We promised we’d always be together, didn’t we? I was just as lonely without you around, you know? I’m just a lot more selfish than you are.”

Cinnamon takes Maple’s words to heart, and her honest, selfish desire is to remain by Maple’s side and make music with her. As such, Kashou buys her a keyboard and the pair begin practicing together, rekindling a close bond with one another that had, for a while, been at severe risk of withering and dying.

Their shared love of music ignites a flame of passion within both of them, however, and they remember how important they are to one another; unlike Chocola and Vanilla, who simply share a close bond as siblings, a rather touching (and erotic) scene between Maple and Cinnamon demonstrates that the pair have been in love with one another for quite some time, but had refused to allow things to go any further than kissing out of fear of impropriety — at least on Maple’s part. Cinnamon, meanwhile, attributes her current state of perpetual arousal and perversion to the day when Maple told her that they shouldn’t be doing things together any more, but is delighted when her now grown up friend appears to still reciprocate her feelings, albeit after some initial protestations.

An opportunity for Maple and Cinnamon to work towards their dream of performing together soon arises as Kashou hears from an old friend who saw Maple’s video on the Internet and wanted to invite her to perform at a high-class party. Maple, unconvinced that she is good enough to attend such an event — “if it’s such an important party, she should hire a professional singer,” she says — is initially reluctant, but subsequently convinced into it with another pep-talk from Kashou and Cinnamon.

“You can’t follow your dreams without being willing to suffer a bit of shame along the way,” says Kashou. “And you need to be dumb to do that.”

“Believe in yourself,” adds Cinnamon with uncharacteristic earnestness. “I know that you’re working hard when no-one else is watching. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a human or a catgirl. You can do it, May-chan. I know you can. Even if you don’t believe in you, I believe in you more than anyone else could.”

After much agonising over what song to perform, and subsequent rehearsal in secret, the day of the party arrives, and Maple’s confidence is nearly destroyed right as she is about to realise her dream thanks to an insensitive, rude guest of the party demonstrating the fact that he is rather intolerant of catgirls and believes that they should “know their place”. The catgirls immediately shrink back and apologise for the inconvenience they have caused, but Kashou is angry. Maple holds him back from doing something he might regret to the guest, however.

“Seeing you mad is enough for me,” says Maple. “Cinnamon and I, we’ve decided to go through with this. It doesn’t matter if they laugh or make fun of us. We’re going to do our best for us.”

Sure enough, Maple and Cinnamon put on a spectacular performance with a beautifully heartfelt rendition of “Grandfather’s Clock”, dripping with emotion and meaning, their love and affection for one another and for Kashou infusing every phrase. The performance brings much of the audience to tears and elicits a round of rapturous applause, and even puts the rude guest from earlier firmly in his place by demonstrating that catgirls are far more than “just pets”, as he previously asserted.

At some point during these events, Maple realises another way in which she hadn’t been completely honest with herself: the matter of affairs of the heart. Despite describing being in love as “acting like a moron” in the opening scenes of the game, Maple comes to realise that it’s not quite as simple as that, and Cinnamon agrees — “you have everything to lose when you’re not honest with yourself,” she notes to Maple, a callback to vol. 2’s central theme of honesty.

And so it is that following their performance at the party — and the pair of them getting completely plastered on champagne afterwards — that Kashou finds himself with two more catgirls confessing to him. Cinnamon, naturally, is pretty straightforward about her admission of love, but notes that she had been waiting to deliver it until after Maple was willing to be honest about it. Maple, meanwhile, is hesitant and uneasy about showing such a delicate and vulnerable side of herself, but ultimately comes to understand how, in her words, “gratifying” being in love is.

Her struggles aren’t completely over until she learns how to deal with her personality’s tendency towards jealousy, however. Despite Kashou’s other “catpanions” being absolutely fine with them all loving the same person, Maple finds herself unable to express her feelings and ask for affection from Kashou, even following their initial night of passion following the party. She is still, it seems, putting up a few walls around her heart and finding it difficult to truly let people in.

But it’s Maple who finally overcomes this challenge by herself without any input from Kashou or Cinnamon; during a date in town, ostensibly to buy her some new guitar strings, Maple tests the waters with a simple, “selfish” request to take some photo stickers in a nearby arcade, and after this proves to be successful — albeit not without a few farcical incidents — sees that it’s all right for her to ask for things, even if they’re seemingly a big deal.

And so it is, during an encounter in the love hotel that Maple subsequently rather assertively asks to take Kashou and Cinnamon to, that she truly comes to understand herself and her place in the world. She’s not, in any way, inferior to anyone — whether it’s her “sisters” or humans — but she will always have a certain competitive streak that is never truly going to go away.

“I’ll be a lot more honest,” she admits, “But I’ll stop being resentful of the people around me, too. In exchange, I’ll do the best I can to make you throw yourself at me.”

Now those are the words of a young woman who has truly come to understand who she is… and what the people around her truly mean to her.

More about Nekopara

Thanks to Eve at Denpasoft for the review copies.

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