Through the Killing Fields of Life: Adversity and Survival in LEAVEs
“Je laisse Sisyphe au bas de la montagne! On retrouve toujours son fardeau. Mais Sisyphe enseigne la fidélité supérieure qui nie les dieux et soulève les rochers.”1
The late teens in any culture comprise a difficult period, fraught with the difficulties and the heartbreak of transition from childhood into adulthood2. There is surprisingly little variance worldwide — the stereotype of the teenage years is one of isolation and rebellion. This is, indeed, the basis of our continued collective fascination with characters like Holden Caulfield3 and Toru Watanabe4. In the visual novel LEAVEs5, we see the four main characters of the piece — like Holden Caulfield and Toru Watanabe before them — struggle to find their footing and their reason for being in a world where everything seems against them.
As asserted elsewhere, Japanese society is a group-oriented affair, wherein the concerns of the individual are generally trumped by the importance of group harmony — in the small scale and in the large scale6. During the opening phases of an individual's young adulthood in this culture, it becomes crucial for the individual to build a strict segregation between his "private face" — his true character — and his new, emerging "public face" — his responsibilities as an adult7. This struggle becomes a strong thematic element in the opening chapters of LEAVEs, with Matsuri Hikiyama asking Tomohiro Higuchi — and through him, the reader — "... do you think that [we] can hide the fact that inside, we are all of us dying?"5 Later on in the story, Tomohiro himself muses that "everybody in the world thinks he's something special. Everybody in the world is a selfish egotist at the core. This is the law and the whole of the law."5
If Matsuri and Tomohiro are bitterly aware of the rigid and absurd demands that their culture places on them as young adults, their mutual friend Touka Ichimura is equally aware — but deals with it completely differently. Instead of sinking into sullen rages the way that Matsuri and Tomohiro do, Touka chooses to speak and act in a childish fashion, seeking to escape the responsibilities and the duplicities of adulthood by regressing — in a fashion — back to childhood. And this is not such an unusual reaction; many Japanese youths will, when faced with the realities of adult life in their culture, choose to do much the same8. Later in the story, it is revealed to us that she has also gotten herself addicted to heroin as another escape mechanism from reality; this becomes a central conflict near this piece's climax.
If Touka presents herself to us as a longing for a return to the purity and simplicity of childhood, Matsuri represents restraint and control taken one step too far. Unlike Touka — who immerses herself in childish things as a coping mechanism — Matsuri places and has always placed the "greater good" first, sacrificing her own desires for Tomohiro and her ambitions to be his one-and-only to the altar of group harmony. "Certainly," she tells us, "we take pains to look all elegant and refined on the outside ... but ... girls tend to be more like each other than not: the same eyes and ears and mouths and breasts and menstrual periods and addictions and rapists and drug dealers"5. Though she is keenly aware of how different her "private face" and her "public face" are, she remains too scared to bridge that growing dichotomy — and remains, for all intents and purposes, as childish in her own way as Touka.
Both Tomohiro and his twin sister, Hikari, lie somewhere in between the extremes that Touka and Matsuri represent. Both are smug and sardonic, believing themselves to be above others, regularly accusing others of being liars and hypocrites. Neither one is happy with his or her current situation: Tomohiro knows that his strange relationship with Matsuri and Touka cannot go on without something breaking. Late in the piece, he muses "we were none of us so evil. So why had it come to this? Why did such sad things have to happen, why did we all have to stand around crying?"5 Hikari is no better off: she is desperately lonely and isolated, yet cannot find a way to connect to her younger brother without causing him (and herself) great pain in the process. As she keeps telling herself, she doesn't want to "HOPE for something IMPOSSIBLE and be CRUSHED"5 — and so she settles for hurting those weaker than her instead.
All four characters therefore find themselves locked in a bizarre hedgehog's dilemma9, with each other and with the world at large. To move forward in life, toward adulthood, is to sever at least one of these relationships. In order to attain the inner harmony that will allow them to achieve proper separation of their "private" and "public" faces, they need to face several things that will hurt not only them, but the very people they care for most. The treacherous journey taken by these characters is perhaps best symbolized by the progression of the three sex scenes in the piece — all of which involve Tomohiro. In the first scene, after a fight, Touka asks Tomohiro to "make me believe" in his love for her, even if it is a lie5. Tomohiro refuses — and proceeds to have rough sex with her, not particularly caring whether she is enjoying the experience or not. He himself does not know why he is doing this — and at the end of the sequence decides that some protracted time apart from Touka would be a good idea. This, then, is the act of a confused child with the strength of a man — an apt description for the narrator's mentality at the time.
The second sex scene is one of great tenderness, after Tomohiro and Touka have their first confrontation with Hikari. Many revelations later, Tomohiro and Touka finally end up at Touka's apartment — and this time, Tomohiro makes his decision. When he makes love to his girlfriend, he is stating that though he knows the realities of their situation, he still wishes to pursue the ideal — and does so with great tenderness. It is interesting to note, however, that immediately following this lovemaking, Tomohiro abandons Touka again — albeit for a very short time — and goes back to his apartment in order to settle things once and for all there. During the time that he is there, Touka succumbs to her drug addiction, and pages Hikari, her drug dealer, setting off a brutal course of events. In this sex sequence and its follout, then, we can see Tomohiro maturing as a man — yet still trying to ignore some of the realities that are looking him in the eye. The results are catastrophic for all four main characters.
The final sex scene is the most unusual one in the piece, as it does not involve Touka at all. In it, Matsuri comes across a grieving Tomohiro, and proceeds to use Tomohiro's weakness to her advantage, forcing herself on him. Yet, as Tomohiro himself notes, he's just allowing her to play the "bad guy"5 while he sits there and basks in the pleasure of it. Throughout the course of this scene, Tomohiro comes to the realization that by withdrawing himself like this, by clinging to the last vestiges of a comfortable "childhood friend" relationship that died a long time ago, he brings pain and destruction to the very thing he wants to protect. When he realizes this, he throws away his ideals — and perhaps for his first time as a man, does something that is "wrong" by his ideals, but is "right" for the greater group: he makes love to Matsuri wholeheartedly. And by doing so, he knows that this is goodbye forever. He acknowledges that the time to move on has come — and so he tells Matsuri that "I'm not going to keep this from Touka, you know, so it's okay. It's my fault"5 (emphasis added). In doing that, in acknowledging that he has a part to play (no matter how painful that part may be), he finally is able to bridge the painful divide in between childhood ideals and adult realities.
At the end of the day, where does that leave the characters? They have scattered to the winds. Touka is paralyzed from the waist down, and Tomohiro helps take care of her. Matsuri has not been heard from ever again. Hikari is on the verge of being released from her year-long term at a state-assigned reform school — and she herself has started to bridge the gap inside of her as well. When Tomohiro and Touka show up to meet her, she reacts violently at first — but finally, as the piece ends, comes to accept that she "home" at last5. Home at last. That is a strange way for a piece so filled with pain and alienation to end. It is a cry of survival, and a cry of triumph against seemingly impossible odds. It is a call of apology from the perpetrator of heinous acts, and an equal call of forgiveness from the victims of said acts. It is the end, and it is a new beginning.
And I — both as the translator of this work and as a reader — cannot help but to smile. Our characters have survived. So, too, have we.
4 December 2008
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