I reviewed this visual novel over at Nintendo Life — please go support my work over there, then join me back here to delve into the narrative in more detail!
SeaBed from Paleontology Soft is a kinetic novel that first released in 2015. It was localised for PC two years later, much to the delight of Western yuri fans, and in early 2020, it got released on Nintendo Switch, too.
It is, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolutely masterful work of fiction. It’s peaceful and calming yet melancholy, and the evocative, descriptive writing gives the whole experience a pleasantly mature feeling that is a far cry from noisy, chaotic anime hijinks. Not that there’s anything wrong with noisy, chaotic anime hijinks, mind, but sometimes you just want a bit of quiet contemplation to mull over.
So let’s mull it over together, because there’s a lot to talk about. There are likely to be some spoilers ahead, but I’ll try and keep major ones to a minimum, because you should experience this for yourself!
There are a lot of layers to SeaBed, and the narrative does an excellent job of keeping you guessing and questioning the exact nature of all of them right the way through. The main way it achieves this is through its main narrator Sachiko being somewhat unreliable; a result of her rather fragile mental health.
Pleasingly, SeaBed is, in part, a sensitive exploration of the matter of mental health rather than a narrative that treats it as something to be feared. Throughout the story as a whole, we learn that even when the way you think and feel about situations deviates somewhat from what society defines as the “norm”, that doesn’t necessarily make it “wrong”. Rather, everyone copes with difficult situations in different ways — and so long as the way you choose to cope with a particular situation doesn’t cause harm or danger to others or yourself, it can often be worth exploring those coping mechanisms and questioning why they sprang up in your mind in the first place.
The nature of Sachiko’s specific mental health conditions aren’t immediately clear, but in the early scenes we witness her suffering what she describes as a “fit”; her ears start ringing, noises around her feel like they’re amplified and her only option is to ride things out until it passes. It seems she used to suffer these episodes when she was a child, but more recently they have begun again — with a key difference. Sometimes the ringing is replaced by the voice of Takako, Sachiko’s former lover.
Takako is no longer part of Sachiko’s life. At the outset of the story, we don’t really know why this is because Sachiko doesn’t appear to know conclusively either. She seems to have convinced herself that Takako just “left” during a particularly busy time at the design company they both work at, and she’s frustrated about that — but she also doesn’t appear to be particularly upset about her absence. Not in a visible sense, anyway.
This is surprising, because through a number of vignettes throughout the main narrative where Sachiko recalls some of her fondest memories with Takako, it’s clear that she was absolutely head over heels for this vibrant young woman — even though she sometimes had difficulty showing it.
“Your emotions are very faint,” observes Nanae, a woman with whom Sachiko develops a close friendship over the course of the story. “Have you noticed that? When you’re happy, sad, or angry… Not like I’ve ever seen you angry, but even when you talk about Takako, I can’t see any sorrow in you. It’s like you impersonally report the fact with little to no subjectivity.”
Sachiko’s rather stoic-seeming nature remains something of a constant throughout SeaBed, though as the narrative progresses, it starts to feel more and more like she’s keeping up this front through metaphorically gritted teeth. It’s abundantly clear that she’s holding something back both from herself and the people around her, and that her relationship with Takako is, more than likely, the key to all of it. The loss of Takako, regardless of its circumstances, has had a profound effect on Sachiko.
The pair had known one another since the age of five, and at the outset of the story Sachiko is twenty-eight years old. As such, while exploring her emotions and feelings about the situation, she finds herself revisiting memories from all over the place: early childhood, high school, the early stages of their romantic relationship and well into their adulthood. This chronological hopping around gives SeaBed’s narrative a rather dream-like feel; from one scene to the next, you can never quite predict where Sachiko’s thoughts are going to take us next. It’s a perfect depiction of a troubled mind, boiling over with repressed emotions and attempts to make sense of a situation that doesn’t necessarily have a real “answer”.
So where is Takako? One might be able to draw some conclusions based on all of the above — and the lengthy prologue sequence, which focuses exclusively on Sachiko’s point of view — but all that gets thrown for a loop when Takako herself seemingly starts putting in appearances that are inconsistent with what we’ve established so far. And, thanks to the nature of how the narrative has been structured up to this point, it’s sometimes hard to tell if these are Sachiko’s memories of Takako, or if they’re happening right now.
Sachiko recognises early on that these appearances of Takako in her everyday life are hallucinations. She’s not someone who allows her emotions to get the better of her, remember, so even when strange things are happening, she finds herself able to look at things from a somewhat rational, detached perspective.
One thing is clear to her: she needs to seek help. But she also admits that on some level, she wants to keep seeing these hallucinations, because it means that she can continue to delude herself that Takako is still around. The fact that she understands this and doesn’t agonise over her decision to seek help is firmly in keeping with what we know of her personality up until this point. She recognises that her hallucinations of Takako are based on her memories and emotions, and understands that in order for her to be able to move on with her life, she needs to do something about them.
“Memories are tagged or indexed in a particular way,” explains deuteragonist Narasaki, a childhood friend of both Sachiko and Takako, and the person the former goes to in search of some answers. “I’m pretty sure you’ve experienced a certain kind of elation and a rush of memories when you were looking at a nostalgic sight. And your room is packed with memories of Takako. Your environment is full of things that will remind you of her.”
And so it is that, on Narasaki’s advice, Sachiko decides to take some time away from her day job and some time away from the crystallised memories of her lost love. She heads for an inn run by the aforementioned Nanae, whom she first met when she became separated from Takako on a trip to Italy — one of several memories we witness in the opening hours of the narrative.
We’re properly introduced to Takako in the first main chapter of the novel, when it’s revealed that she appears to be staying at a sanatorium for people with chronic mental conditions. Specifically, Takako appears to be having trouble with her memories; she suffers fits remarkably similar to those that Sachiko describes in the opening hours, and usually finds that she comes out of them missing a memory or two — sometimes small, irrelevant details, but on other occasions, more significant happenings just seem to evaporate from her mind.
As we start to get to know Takako, we find that she’s much as Sachiko has described her up until this point. She’s full of life and energy, she’s a positive person and she cares deeply for the people who are important to her. In many ways she’s a complete counterpoint to Sachiko’s quiet, reserved nature, but the pair of them recognise that this is probably what has always made their relationship work.
Herein lies something that just feels a bit… “off” though. The sanatorium Takako is staying at is enormous, being based in a traditional Western-style mansion up in the Japanese mountains, and yet there only appear to be three patients at most, cared for by a single nurse named Mayuko. There are no doctors anywhere to be seen, and Takako seems to spend more time helping out Mayuko with the maintenance of the property than actually doing anything… you know, medical. Her treatment, such as it is, appears to primarily consist of writing a daily journal so that should she suffer the loss of recent memories, she can refer back to it and, presumably, in this way train herself to hold on to or reclaim wayward thoughts.
The mystery deepens further upon Sachiko’s arrival at Nanae’s inn: it’s a traditional Western-style mansion up in the Japanese mountains that doesn’t have any other guests due to it being closed for refurbishment at the time of our heroine’s visit. It is — or at least it appears to be — the same place as Takako’s sanatorium, and yet it isn’t; there’s no sign of it being any sort of medical facility from Sachiko’s perspective — and, moreover, no sign whatsoever of Takako or any of her other fellow patients.
This disparity remains one of the core mysteries at the heart of SeaBed. Sachiko and Takako are seemingly in the same place, and yet they’re not; and it runs deeper than that, too. Something seems oddly familiar about the characters that Takako encounters, a young girl named Kozue appears to exist in both Takako and Sachiko’s “worlds”, and Sachiko finds herself somewhat reminded of Takako by Nanae — though it’s also obvious that they’re not the same person at all.
Some interesting tension is created throughout the story through both Takako and Sachiko developing close relationships with the people around them. In Takako’s case, she becomes very intimate with her nurse Mayuko, while an important scene late in the narrative sees a highly intoxicated Nanae making her feelings for Sachiko abundantly clear, seemingly in the belief that she can act as a suitable replacement for Takako. Sachiko rebuffs these advances firmly, though even in her drunken state, Nanae provides some interesting food for thought with regard to coping mechanisms.
“The thoughts you never voice are no different from thoughts that don’t exist,” she says. “They make you anxious. If you continue being like that, you’ll end up vanishing yourself. You can think all you want, but feelings without a target are hardly different from feelings that don’t exist at all.”
Witnessing the action from all angles, as we do, it’s hard not to feel conflicted; one feels oddly jealous towards Takako for cultivating a relationship with Mayuko, but the chemistry the pair have is undeniable. They complement one another well, they care for one another and they are comfortable enough to confide in each other… and yet it doesn’t quite feel right. At the other end of the spectrum, Sachiko and Nanae get along like a house on fire and would clearly make a good couple — though Sachiko’s decision not to pursue the matter suggests that she recognises any relationship they built may well be established for the wrong reasons.
Some comfort is brought to the reader through the fact that Takako clearly still harbours feelings for Sachiko despite whatever happened to tear them apart. This is particularly emphasised through an episode in the narrative where Takako acquires a diary from Mayuko that appears to be Sachiko’s record of various events from their life together; each entry she reads triggers powerful emotions, if not full-on memories once thought lost.
“The more I remembered my time with Sachiko,” she muses, “the more I felt the void where her presence used to be. I truly felt like a hole had opened in me. If I listened in, I could hear the sound of the wind blowing through it. That hole had been there all along. I remembered someone telling me that.”
On top of this, Takako realises that her attraction to Mayuko more than likely stems from the fact that the latter reminds her of Sachiko.
“Their eyes were about the only thing differentiating them,” she observes. “Sachiko always looked like she was sleepy, which made the shape of her eyes appear somewhat narrower than Mayuko’s. Still, I wondered how they’d compare when they both fully opened their eyes. I felt they might look the same.”
Indeed, following this observation, Takako falls asleep and finds herself dreaming of having sex with Mayuko — but her face keeps changing to Sachiko’s every so often. Understandably, Takako isn’t quite sure what to make of this when she awakens. And her own feelings towards Sachiko remain confused.
“I loved her more than life itself before we separated,” she says. “But we’re not together any more. I can’t tell when she’s not around.”
It doesn’t help, of course, that, much like Sachiko, Takako appears to have either forgotten or repressed the exact circumstances of what tore the couple apart.
“I couldn’t recall a single detail about it,” she says, trying to remember how they separated. “It was like all my thoughts led me to a blindingly white room. But she still was someone I spent most of my life with. That alone was definitely true. And the diary I had now proved it. In all the entries, I was always by her side. The more I thought about it, the less I could understand why we ended up parting ways.”
There isn’t always an answer to these things. The nature of life is such that while we might want to believe that everything happens for a reason, the truth is that sometimes you’re thrown a curveball. One of the things that can truly define us as an individual is how we cope with those unexpected deviations from the path we wanted to follow.
Elsewhere in the narrative, Narasaki throws up her own set of mysteries to ponder. How and why is she able to operate such a specialist mental health practice, seemingly in the dead of night and able to accommodate Sachiko at a moment’s notice? Why does she follow Sachiko to her mountain getaway, if the whole point of said getaway was for Sachiko to go somewhere that wouldn’t remind her of her issues? Why, despite her supposedly being a childhood friend of both Sachiko and Takako, does she never seem to appear in any of their respective flashbacks to the early years of their life?
The interesting thing about this side of things in particular is that SeaBed actually drops some pretty substantial hints in the relatively early hours of the narrative, but it’s easy to gloss over them, dismiss them as coincidence or even miss them altogether. But it’s testament to the novel’s incredibly strong, descriptive writing that if you go back and revisit various scenes, those little clues are there to be found. Pay particular attention to things that might seem like irrelevant, pointless details observed by a particularly verbose narrator; in many cases, those details can guide you towards some interesting conclusions a lot earlier than the narrative reveals them more obviously.
“Reveals” probably isn’t quite the right word, either; even as things start to fall into place towards the conclusion of the narrative as a whole, there are still things that the reader is left to ponder. Explanations are provided, but you’re also keenly aware that you’ve spent the previous hours observing the action from the perspectives of three narrators who are all somewhat unreliable to varying degrees. What should you believe? Should you believe anything?
SeaBed is ultimately a story about overcoming grief from the loss of something or someone important to you. Any of us can be struck down with grief for any number of reasons at a moment’s notice, and it can be a challenging pit to pull yourself out of when it happens. Some people are never able to truly pull themselves out, while others learn things about themselves that they never knew while attempting to rebuild their life. A lot of it comes down to the things left behind after that initial loss, though, and what you make of them.
“Ash rises into the air and melds with clouds, only to return to the earth with rain,” Narasaki muses to Sachiko. “It fertilises the ground and gives birth to plants. And eventually, those plants get digested by animals and turn into meat. There are lots of things you can do, even after you become ash.”
Takako is aware of this concept, too, even if she’s not sure how she feels about it.
“One time, when we were gazing at the stars together, Sachiko said that their light was hundreds and hundreds of years old,” she muses to her fellow patient Sanae. “In other words, hundreds of years will pass before we’re seen from over there. Nothing that ever existed can disappear completely.”
Indeed, the seabed itself is evidence of that; lying deep beneath the waves is the history of our very world, and new life is constantly born among those fragments of the past. The same is true of our thoughts, feelings and memories; however keenly we might feel grief at the loss of something important, part of it will always remain with us in one way or another, as sediment on our own seabed. It’s up to us what we choose to build with those remnants.
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