One of the things that sets us apart as humans is our ability to connect with others — to empathise with them, to understand what they are feeling and to support them if they need it.
That’s the concept at the core of Blue Reflection’s narrative, and it’s explored in a number of different ways over the story’s entirety — both literally and metaphorically.
While the story primarily concerns protagonist Hinako and her struggles to come to terms with a life-changing injury, everyone involved in the story has something to say that is very much worth listening to. So let’s take a closer look at Hinako’s journey through human emotions, and maybe we can learn something along the way, too…
At the outset of the story, it’s obvious Hinako is deeply depressed. We join her not long after a knee injury has cut her promising ballet career short, and she’s understandably very upset about it. She’s taciturn, morose and unwilling to allow people to get close to her; she speaks quietly and with little energy in her voice, and she actively pushes people away, rather aggressively at times.
Hinako may not have completely lost her mobility as a result of her injury, but her response throughout the game mirrors that of someone who has suffered a permanent, debilitating disability. She’s initially sad and angry about it, but over time, she comes to learn things about herself and how she feels she should handle it; she pushes the boundaries at times — sometimes hurting herself in the process — but ultimately comes to realise that ballet, the thing she thought defined her completely, isn’t all there is to life, and nor is it the only thing she has to offer the world.
It’s a long process for her to get to that point, however, and she doesn’t do it alone. Were it not for her connecting with the people who become so important to her over the course of the narrative, it’s entirely possible she would never have broken out of the depression we see her in at the outset of the story, perhaps with ultimately dire consequences. Her story is a powerful reminder that even the most introverted among us sometimes need other people to give us a little “push” now and again — whether or not we realise that they’re doing so.
Hinako is introduced to the strange other world known as “The Common” when she encounters a girl named Sanae shortly after arriving at school on her first day. Sanae, it transpires, was a great admirer of Hinako in their previous school, though it seems that the feeling was not quite mutual. Regardless, Sanae is ecstatic to see Hinako and have the opportunity to connect with her — so much so that she ends up going “rampant” with her overwhelmingly positive emotions.
Rampancy is a peculiar state that overcomes people in Hinako’s school when they are so consumed by an emotion that they lose touch with reality. The exact cause of this is the fact that the school happens to be constructed on one of several singularities around the world — each of which is protected by the magical girls known as Reflectors, and each of which forms a frequent target for the giant otherworldly creatures known as Sephirot. The complete truth behind the Sephirot’s conflict isn’t revealed until quite late in the game; up until that point, they are simply an ever-present threat that has a habit of showing up at the most inconvenient of times.
Hinako learns that a Reflector’s “job”, such as it is, is to jump into The Common, which is a world that reflects the collective unconscious of the human population, seek out the emotional Fragments of those who have gone rampant, protect them from demons and ultimately stabilise them. This, in turn, allows the Reflector to become stronger, since Reflectors draw their power from Ether, which is created from emotional energy. And that power is then used to fight the Sephirot.
Blue Reflection being set in an all-girls’ high school is by no means a lazy anime trope; it’s an entirely deliberate choice that is very much in keeping with the narrative as a whole. Your teenage years are some of the most turbulent of your life, as it is during this period that you start to really figure out some things about who you are, what you’re interested in, who you’re attracted to and how you feel about the world in general. It is during your teenage years that you start to truly define (and solidify) certain aspects of your personality, sexuality and emotional makeup; it’s during your teenage years that you’ll feel some of the strongest emotions you’ll feel in your life, even if when you look back on the situations that caused those feelings in the future, they might seem utterly trivial.
To put it another way, an all-girls’ high school is a hotbed for Ether generation due to the sheer amount of emotional energy flying around, so it’s unsurprising that people there go rampant so quickly — and that the Reflectors there are able to draw so much power from the people around them.
Stablising a Fragment isn’t just a case of defeating demons and grabbing it, though; as Hinako discovers, encountering a Fragment involves confronting how its owner truly feels about something — and stabilising it is only possible if the Reflector is able to accept those feelings, empathise with them and develop a true connection with the person in question.
It would be easy to misinterpret this aspect of the narrative as encouraging the “killing” of one’s emotions, particularly as the demons in The Common are also associated with emotional energy. However, it’s not at all that simple; rampancy represents an individual’s strong feelings on a subject and often their desire simply to be heard — in many cases, what those who have gone rampant want more than anything else is for someone to just listen to what they are feeling and help them process it in one way or another.
In the case of positive emotions such as those Sanae feels when she encounters Hinako for the first time, this might involve acknowledging those feelings of joy and happiness, perhaps even sharing in them; in more negative examples such as the individuals seen throughout the game who are struggling with feelings of fear, anger and sorrow, it may involve recognising that the person is responding a particular way to an emotional stimulus — but perhaps acting as something of a voice of reason and rationality, or simply allowing the person to express themselves fully and feel a bit better after they’ve gotten things off their chest.
At no point is anyone encouraged to bottle things up, even if they’re seemingly being irrational; stabilising a Fragment involves the Reflector accepting the core emotions and thoughts that created it, not rejecting them, trying to hide them or making the person think that those feelings are somehow unimportant. While becoming overwhelmed with your emotions can cause you to behave in a seemingly irrational manner, the actual root cause of that behaviour is, more often than not, something which can be confronted and dealt with — even if it is just by talking about it.
One of the interesting ways in which Blue Reflection demonstrates how Hinako is gradually learning to process the complex world of human emotions over the course of the narrative is how The Common evolves as the game progresses, representing how she comes to recognise that an individual’s feelings are, more often than not, a blend of emotions rather than something completely straightforward.
Initially we follow Hinako as she explores zones that are based around simple, clearly understandable types of emotion — happiness, fear, sorrow and anger, each of which has its own corresponding environment. But the deeper we go, the more we start to see these zones blending into one another, sometimes with combinations of emotions one might not expect. Anger and happiness brings us a zone dotted with flowers but also dripping with lava; fear and sorrow sees a forest flooded with water; anger and sorrow sees a stark contrast between the former’s hot, dark colours of red and black, and the latter’s cold, bright colours of blue and white.
The secondary cast of characters are the main means through which Hinako learns to open up and understand people a bit better. Each of these characters has something to teach her — and some issues of their own that don’t necessarily need “solving” as such, but which they certainly benefit from talking about with a trusted friend. And who better than someone who can jump into your subconscious and really get to the root of the problem?
It’s clear from the outset that the aforementioned Sanae is someone who lacks self-confidence. This is partly simply down to her rather meek personality, but some of it also stems from her being unable to get close to Hinako in their previous school. They existed in different “worlds”; Hinako’s talent and passion for ballet set her apart from many of her peers, and indeed it is the fact that she has suddenly been dragged out of and locked out of that world that causes her such despair and anguish at the outset of the narrative.
Through Sanae, Hinako learns a number of important lessons — most notably that there are people who will stand by you regardless of whether or not you are still in possession of the thing that you believed made you “special”. Hinako may have lost her ability to perform ballet — perhaps forever — but Sanae still looks up to her and respects her greatly. It takes Hinako some time to understand that this is because she appreciates her as a person rather than just a ballet dancer, but it’s a key lesson for her to learn in her recovery process.
Sanae’s lack of self-confidence is also something that Hinako comes to relate to and empathise with. It’s obvious that, at the start of the story, she believes ballet was all she had to offer to the world and consequently feels like a bit of a “nobody” when that is taken away from her. But Sanae encourages her to try new things — even if she discovers that she’s not all that good at them — and as a result she comes to understand that a person isn’t only defined by one thing; it’s the sum of all their experiences, talents and even flaws.
Tennis player Rin is another character Hinako comes into contact with quite early in the narrative, and their initial meeting doesn’t go all that well. After helping Sanae overcome her rampancy, Hinako’s fellow Reflectors Yuzu and Lime set up a means of “consulting” with other students, ostensibly to help them out with their problems, but really as a means of gathering Fragments so they can power themselves up. Rin is one of the first to show up, and her problem is that she is in love with a male senpai of hers from another school, but doesn’t know how to deal with it.
Hinako’s initial reaction to Rin’s apparent anguish over being unable to communicate her feelings clearly is rather harsh; she rejects her entirely, clearly believing that her own issues with her injury are more serious and important than a lovestruck teenager lusting after a boy. This, as you might expect, causes Rin to go rampant; she had been set up to believe that someone would listen to her and offer her advice, but instead found herself on the receiving end of some rather nasty comments. It’s not even a case of “tough love”; Hinako’s initial rejection of Rin is symptomatic of how she, herself, has been pushing people away since her injury.
Through her attempts to stabilise Rin’s Fragment, however, Hinako eventually comes to recognise that everyone has their own problems to deal with, and while they may not seem important to you, they could be causing that individual a considerable amount of distress. It wasn’t her place to suggest that Rin’s troubles were somehow of lesser importance than her own, and understanding this allows her to calm down, re-evaluate the situation and actually end up striking up a rather close friendship with the young tennis fan.
As an aside, I also just want to take a moment to show some appreciation for the fact that Rin is a little bit chubby rather than a stick-thin “ideal woman” figure — thanks primarily to her loving cake almost as much as tennis and senpai. It’s one of many ways that Blue Reflection subtly highlights the ways in which we are all unique — and that those ways in which we are unique are nothing to be ashamed of.
Kei’s introduction represents an exploration of early-game Hinako’s unwillingness to let anyone in from another angle. Bursting into Hinako’s classroom and positioning herself as “everyone’s friend,” Kei is seemingly rather overbearing to begin with — and not someone that the still rather depressed Hinako wants to deal with at this point. Again, she lashes out — though this time around the recipient of her ire seems to take things in her stride. Instead, the pair end up in a sporting competition — swimming, since it’s the one discipline Hinako found she could handle without putting too much stress on her leg — and discover themselves to be equally matched. After a lengthy stalemate, the pair agree to declare the match a draw — and after having seen how much joy Kei had drawn from the experience, Hinako decides to cautiously strike up a friendship with the enthusiastic young athlete.
Kei’s subsequent narrative arc concerns a worry that I’m sure many of us have had at some point — the fear that, however “nice” you might try and be, there will always be some people out there who just don’t get along with you and seemingly don’t want to get along with you. In Kei’s case, she finds herself on the receiving end of bullying, with the older girls in the basketball club she attends specifically encouraging her peers to avoid her and not talk to her.
From Kei, Hinako learns how to put a positive spin on seemingly negative events. Kei’s relentless optimism sees her interpreting the bullying not as maliciousness, but simply as her not having “proved herself” enough to her older clubmates. And indeed, when she finally challenges them to a basketball match, she demonstrates her sheer talent on the court, forcing her bullies to accept her and acknowledge her skill without jealousy.
Sarasa is a young woman who, like Hinako, has had a passion for ballet since an early age. It doesn’t take long for her to admit that she always saw Hinako as a rival — or, more accurately, an inspiration. Hinako is initially jealous of Sarasa for still being fully able-bodied enough to be able to dance ballet, but Sarasa also initially holds a grudge towards Hinako for, from her perspective, suddenly disappearing — she didn’t learn of her rival’s injury until later.
Sarasa’s role in Hinako’s journey is to teach Hinako that there are people out there looking out there and rooting for you, even when all seems hopeless. Sarasa has unwavering faith throughout pretty much the entire narrative that Hinako will one day “get better” and be able to dance alongside her once again — but her own issues also stem from this belief. Without Hinako to inspire her and keep pushing her onwards, how will she continue to improve? What if Hinako doesn’t get better? What then?
Sarasa is one of two characters in particular that can be interpreted as possibly having a romantic interest in Hinako. This is never made outright explicit in the narrative, but it’s pretty clear to see from the way Sarasa behaves towards Hinako, speaks to her and, towards the conclusion of the story, how she responds to the increasingly likely possibility that Hinako will never dance again. By the final chapter, Sarasa is referring to Hinako as “my étoile” and clearly harbouring a desire to be close to her; it’s rather touching to see, and not overplayed at all.
The other character that seemingly has an interest in Hinako in this regard is Shihori, who is somewhat more sexually aggressive than the demure Sarasa, even going so far as to steal Hinako’s underwear so she could wear it after a swimming session.
This aspect of Shihori doesn’t come to light until a little later, however. Our first contact with her is as a seemingly rather vain young girl obsessed with her own appearance, taking a heavy interest in fashion, make-up and brand names. Indeed, we see that the misconception of Shihori as a self-obsessed narcissist — perhaps even someone who is promiscuous — is a widespread one, with her suffering frequent bullying at the hands of her peers.
Shihori is a character who, oddly enough given her passion for “beauty”, teaches Hinako that it’s okay to be herself. It transpires that her interest in fashion and make-up is nothing more than something that she genuinely enjoys doing; she’s not deliberately attempting to ensnare horny young boys, and in many cases has seemingly gone out with them just to get them to leave her alone for a bit.
Indeed, given that as Hinako’s relationship with her progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Shihori enjoys life on the gayer side of the tracks, one could posit that the only person she’s really trying to ensnare is Hinako herself. Interestingly, while Hinako initially rebuffs her advances and is understandably upset following the underwear-switching incident, she doesn’t reject her entirely, suggesting that she might be open to such a relationship in the future — just not right now while she has more pressing matters on her mind, like her Reflector duties!
At the other end of the spectrum, we have Ako, who is rather tomboyish and, as we discover later, very interested in the idea of becoming a journalist in later life. Ako’s life is rather complex, since her father is a celebrity, and thus she has understandable misgivings about what he might think of her career goals — and yet it’s very clear just from Ako’s general personality and mannerisms as well as the professional way in which she handles the school Broadcasting Club’s radio shows that she will excel in that field.
Partway through the story, Ako discovers the new opportunities that the modern Internet offers, particularly the potential for those using video to reach an audience of young people. She also comes to learn that fame often comes with a price — it disconnects you from “reality”, can often turn you into someone you’re not and can lead you to do all manner of things for the wrong reasons.
This is a lesson that is important for Hinako to learn. By this point in the story, we already know that her former life in ballet was effectively a different “world” to the one she now inhabits and perhaps even offered her the potential to become famous. But having the opportunity to witness what happens to Ako — especially as her particular story reflects the extremely accelerated way the social media age can cause people to rise to prominence and collapse back into obscurity in a matter of weeks or even days — helps her to understand that it might not actually be all that bad to live life in the “normal” world.
But the idea of being “normal” is frightening to some people. Among Blue Reflection’s cast, one girl who feels that more than anyone is Rika, a member of the track team. We’re introduced to her alongside her friend Kaori, who we’ll talk more about in a moment, but it’s not long before we discover that Rika’s greatest fear is… just being “normal”. She actually seems to hate it when people say that her behaviour is normal, or that her lap times are normal, or anything like that, because she believes that being “normal” means that you’re not pushing yourself or improving.
It’s not hard to see why Hinako might be able to empathise with this feeling. After numerous years of being something much greater than normal thanks to her ballet talents, yet subsequently being thrown back into normality by her injury, Hinako can definitely understand why Rika might dislike being just another girl.
But between them, they learn that no-one is really “normal” because the idea of “normal” doesn’t really exist. Everyone is unique; everyone has their own talents, flaws and quirks; everyone brings something to the table, even if they don’t feel there is anything “special” about them. Hinako, of course, is special due to her status as a Reflector, but Rika, too, is special; the people on her team notice how much effort she puts in and how much she wants to get better, and are concerned for her wellbeing when she seemingly distances herself from them.
Interestingly, the fact that Rika is special in her own right is also highlighted by a visual aspect; while we see numerous girls in both the main and extended cast in their PE gear throughout the game, Rika is the only one we ever see wearing brightly coloured, purpose-designed running gear, so she immediately stands out in that way. Everyone stands out and is special to someone, even if you can’t see it yourself. But very few people are a good judge of themselves!
Rika’s aforementioned friend Kaori is another character who highlights the importance of being true to yourself and the things you’re passionate about. She’s a fascinating character; from a visual perspective, she’s presented as a sort of “delinquent sexy girl”, with her scruffy cardigan, effortlessly styled blonde hair and skirt shorter than anyone else in the school. We learn that she and Rika used to run together on the track team, but that today she seems more interested in smartphone games than anything else — and before long, we also discover that there are plenty of unsavoury rumours floating around about her, mostly concerning her being “seen with a boy”.
Said “boy”, it turns out, is actually a young kid with whom she struck up a genuine friendship, highlighting Kaori’s willingness to eschew established — and sometimes unreasonable — conventions of society in favour of just enjoying the company of someone with whom she gets along. Over time, the pair of them become interested in cosplaying as favourite anime and game characters, and even get some attention from the media — though naturally, this also attracts attention from her peers who want to see her taken down a peg or two for one reason or another.
Kaori stands firm, however, and continues to do what she wants to do rather than what society and her peers seem to suggest she should be doing. She’s not doing anything wrong — her relationship with her young friend is presented as purely platonic — and so she doesn’t believe she should be shamed for the things she enjoys. A powerful message that I’m sure a lot of you reading this can relate to!
From Hinako’s perspective — and our perspective, for that matter — Kaori highlights the importance of not judging someone or something by their first impressions. More often than not, those impressions might be wrong — or even if there’s some truth to them, they might form just part of a much more complex and interesting big picture. Kaori is far from the cold, uncaring, lazy delinquent one might assume from initially seeing her; rather, she’s shown to not only be a kind and caring person, but also she’s later revealed to be Rika’s original inspiration for getting into running — leading her to contemplate whether she should look into a tentative return to her former life.
Fumio is another character who takes complete ownership of her own identity, though in a rather eccentric manner. The daughter of a successful programmer, Fumio is enormously talented at playing the piano, but has become obsessed to a fault with the idea of how she should create “the perfect sound”. Inspired by her father and his tales of crunch time, triage and “death marches”, she devotes excessive amounts of time and energy to her pursuit of “perfection”, somewhat misunderstanding the concept in the process.
Fumio teaches Hinako a number of things, the first of which is, as you might expect from the above, the fact that nobody is perfect, and it’s impossible for someone to be everything to everyone. Fumio learns this as she discovers that combining all the fruits of her “research” results in an ultimately rather dry, characterless performance — Hinako is the one to point this out to her — and comes to accept that sometimes art is just art, so you should express yourself as you see fit.
And on that note, Fumio also inadvertently highlights the importance of clear communication to Hinako through a rather odd personality quirk; she has a habit of thinking out loud, apparently without ever realising or acknowledging it. As a result of this, despite the things Fumio is “thinking” often coming out rather acidic — particularly when combined with a rather two-faced follow-up comment — Hinako learns that it’s important to consider context, meaning and subtext when communicating with other people. As much as it would be nice to think everyone can communicate clearly with total honesty, more often than not there’s more to what is being said than just the words you hear come out of someone’s mouth.
In some regards, a different twist on Fumio’s communication issues can be seen in the form of Yuri, a mysterious girl we’re introduced to partway through the narrative, who quickly reveals herself to be at the very least on the autistic spectrum, if not, as she claims, an example of savant syndrome.
Yuri is enormously intelligent, particularly when it comes to mathematics and science — she has even started to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the Reflectors and the Sephirot by the time we start getting to know her — but believes herself to be completely emotionless. This, of course, is an inaccurate self-assessment, but a familiar one for anyone with experience dealing with people on the spectrum. Those emotions are present; Yuri just doesn’t understand how to recognise, process and express them.
Hinako helps Yuri to accept the fact that she does have emotions within herself by explaining about Fragments and The Common — all things that Yuri accepts the explanations of, having been investigating the peculiar happenings around the school as her one-woman Science Club — and from there, Yuri and Hinako become good friends. They both derive great value from their time together — Yuri from interacting with someone her own age who is a bit more experienced in how the world works, and Hinako from being obliged to communicate carefully and clearly to ensure Yuri understands.
Another individual with whom Hinako finds herself having to choose her words carefully is Chihiro, a chronically shy young girl whose flamboyant, colourful and “girly” attire is rather at odds with her extremely meek, introverted manner.
We’re introduced to Chihiro as she is accused of being the perpetrator of a number of thefts around the school. She’s innocent, of course, but we see her take responsibility for the incidents as a result of a combination of factors: the difficulty she has speaking up for herself, and her earnest desire for stability around her, even if that stability for everyone else comes at her own expense.
Chihiro’s nature means that she is always trying to do nice things for everyone, but never speaking up about it. As a result, her hard work often goes unappreciated — or when it is appreciated, people don’t recognise her for it. And unfortunately, when she does finally get some recognition for the things she’s been doing — most notably tending the school flowerbeds — some believe her to be doing it just to try and be popular. This is, as you might expect, the furthest thing possible from what Chihiro is actually thinking, because on more than one occasion we see her actually run away from a situation involving more people than she is comfortable with, but by this point we’ve already seen how mean and unreasonable teenage girls can be.
From Chihiro, Hinako learns the importance of recognising when others need help even if they won’t admit it themselves. Chihiro is in desperate need of someone to be her friend, to appreciate her and to recognise the earnestly good things she does for others, without assuming there is an ulterior motive behind them. Likewise, this helps Hinako to understand that she doesn’t necessarily have to tackle everything herself, either; by this point, she has a solid circle of friends, each of whom complement her in different ways, and each of whom have their own means of helping her grow as a person.
Hinako’s final challenge in terms of connecting with others comes in the form of Mao, a stern, mature-looking girl who is an experienced professional actress. She and Mao do not hit it off, to put it lightly, and through an ongoing side plot concerning the school’s preparations for their upcoming cultural festival, it becomes clear that Mao has been actively trying to sabotage the happiness of a lot of people — including Chihiro, and, later, Hinako herself.
Hinako had not made knowledge of her injury public, but Mao maliciously reveals it to the rest of the festival committee during preparations for the show the group is planning to put on — an adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Through a script seemingly designed to make Hinako feel as bad as possible — the latter portion of the traditional story was changed to suggest that the Little Mermaid needed to spill her beloved prince’s blood on her legs in order to get her voice back — Mao is seemingly utterly remorseless when it comes to making people feel bad while elevating herself.
It takes Hinako several efforts to be able to stabilise Mao’s powerful emotional Fragments, which it seems had been warped and distorted over the course of years of bitterness, resentment and jealousy. Such is Mao’s anger at the world that she is able to distort reality with the power of her emotions, and is even able to recognise when Hinako is “poking around inside her heart”. Amid the darkness, Hinako still manages to find a glimmer of light, however, and accepts it into her heart. It’s a clearer sign than any that Hinako has grown far beyond the depressed young girl we saw at the start of the game — and an indication that she is ready to take on the full might of the Sephirot, fighting using all the emotional power and inner strength she has gathered up until this point.
The challenges ahead of her are by no means simple, however; besides fighting off the terrifying might of the Sephirot, the truth behind the existence of her perpetual companions Yuzu and Lime — both of whom remain something of an enigma up until the final couple of chapters of the story — present Hinako with possibly the greatest emotional ordeal she has had to confront since her ballet career was cruelly snatched away from her and her life as she knew it was over.
Everything she has learned over the course of the story by this point comes back to her and helps her to understand what she has to do — even if it involves making a difficult decision. The final chapter of the game involves a sequence that is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking as she walks around the school, speaking with everyone with whom she developed a close personal bond and receiving messages of support from them. Not only that, but in a rather nice (and easily missed) touch, all of the little incidental stories that have involved the non-important NPCs standing around in the school come to their own respective little “heads”, too. It’s clear that from this point, there is no turning back; once the final battle is over, things will never be the same again.
Is that what Hinako wants? Can she bring herself to do what needs to be done, even recognising the high price she will have to pay for doing so? Can she untangle the complex web of emotions that surround any sort of difficult decision such as that which she is tasked with making?
I’ll leave that for you to discover; suffice to say for now that Gust really, really knows how to do an amazing finale, and Blue Reflection is one of the company’s best.
Let’s, um, let’s just say that if you’re not in tears by the time the final boss fight kicks off in earnest, you are a stronger person than I am. (Or possibly dead inside. But probably the first thing.)
I think I need a Reflector… or at least a big box of man-size tissues…
More about Blue Reflection
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