Hashihime of Old Book Town is almost a novel, almost a visual novel, almost a kinetic novel. Yet despite all these “almost”, Hashihime takes full advantage of his medium to weave a bewitching thread superimposing the ugly with the beautiful, the dirty with the clean, the empty with the full. Its story of self-discovery and experimentation through fiction, the conflict between author and work, and the cycle of creative influence is fascinating the first time around and grows more enthralling with each repeated reading.
The story of Hashihime is told through words, pictures, sounds – judging by its cover, you’d think it’s a visual romance novel between boys. But while playing, players will not find a single decision to make. It’s actually a kinetic novel, but not quite, as there are clearly multiple love interests that the story could follow. After completing the story once, exactly one choice is added to the narrative which, when chosen, directs players to the next route. With each route completed, a new story split decision appears later in the “common” chapters until the entire story has been played out.
This unconventional approach between an involved, decision-making visual novel and an entirely passive kinetic novel makes the most of what both mediums have to offer. The minimal choices contribute to the “novel” feel of the game, befitting its subject matter. The paths that start from different points through the narrative trunk delivers the story in a controlled way that benefits its flow, gradually and systematically adding character revelations and building lore with each pass. Each route builds up into a seamless experience with the depth of a multi-route visual novel, but without the limitless element of players experiencing routes in any order, thus affecting their biases and understanding. The multi-route format also naturally adapts to the game’s BL undercurrents, giving each love interest their own route and goal.
The target of love interest affections is Tamamori, Hashihime‘s protagonist and an absolute disaster of an individual. This budding writer was unable to enter the Imperial University like his childhood friends Minakami and Kawase, and lives meagerly in a quirky old bookstore, Umebachidou, only thanks to the good graces of the mysterious shopkeeper, whom Tamamori does not even see. never. What he sees, however, are “hallucinations”: his imaginary characters and worlds literally coming to life around him. Tamamori can interact with both his hallucinations and his real surroundings, and by removing the usual choices found in a visual novel, he becomes less of a “self-insert” than typical romance game protagonists. Instead, he’s a fully realized complex character, more important to the narrative than even his love interests, and perfect for leading the story into its contemplative, disturbing, and often painfully raw territory.
Tamamori isn’t shy about admitting his imperfections, no matter how trivial and innocuous: “The main reason I never put anything away in my room was that I was going to use it again later. My pens, ink, and manuscript paper were all over the place because it was too much of a hassle to stuff them into a drawer just to pull them out. – or deeply disturbing – “I hated myself. That’s why I couldn’t trust people who loved me. Its tamer flaws are the hooks that pull the reader into the darkest depths of their being, without escaping their intense weaknesses. Even his fears are laid bare in a way that is as heartbreaking as it is poetic, like his answer to the question “Are you so afraid of being alone?” “I couldn’t help but be scared. The loneliness was like water. Streams. Rivers. Oceans. …They stripped the shore, dug caves, created lonely islands. Nothing but water could do all this. … That’s why I hated the rain.
Tamamori’s flaws and fears contribute to her humanity and relativity in ways that a mostly virgin self-inserted protagonist is unable to. To relate to another person is much more distinctive than to relate to oneself. More traditional visual novels allow readers to disregard their own flaws by picking and choosing only the perfect parts of themselves to inject into that blank slate. In Hashihime, Tamamori’s relativity forces readers to confront their own imperfections, especially those they can usually try to avoid. No matter how repelled one may be by the reflection in the mirror, it’s just enough of a shipwreck to make it impossible to look away. Any eyes that manage to wander are drawn to the whims of love interests or the haunting nature of Tamamori’s situation. This configuration lays the unshakable foundation on which Hashihime can construct a story that mixes the bizarre with the mundane, where the mundane has as drastic a range of intensity as the bizarre.
HashihimeThe intense disparities of are further conveyed through a wide array of spellbinding visuals. Dark and gloomy environments reflect the incessant rainy season and complement the attractive yet understated character designs. These day-to-day graphics contrast sharply with bright neon magentas and limes decorated with speckles, screen tones, and other ornamental patterns whenever Tamamori’s fantasies take shape. Other accent points, such as Tamamori’s blue eyes and depictions of blood, also use bright neon tones to act as a cohesive point, connecting real and fantasy settings. Fantasy and reality converge further as Tamamori’s stylized characters appear in and out of the scenes, including a heavily stylized author character named Haruhiko and a talking frog simply referred to as “the frogman”. All of these gorgeous juxtapositions – the glossy next to the dull, the well-proportioned next to the cartoonish, the realistic next to the surreal – remain firmly anchored by a subtle distressed paper texture that envelops everything in a vintage wrapping worthy of the frame of the movie. Taisho era.
Whereas Hashihime works to combine the novel with the visual-kinetic novel, it takes a rather unorthodox visual shortcut: the characters often don’t have portraits shown when they speak. In other visual novels, a limited number of character portraits can be a hindrance, such as when someone is portrayed as having tears streaming down their face, but their portrait doesn’t reflect that. This can be confusing as the reader’s eyes receive conflicting information with the writing. HashihimeThe dialogues and descriptions of are written in a very novelistic manner, allowing readers to clearly visualize the characters as they are meant to appear even without the use of portraits. This is also aided by countless backgrounds depicting every location the characters visit, and there are 177 immersive and beautiful CGs in the main story routes for key scenes, with another 47 in the bonus chapters. Still, the lack of portraits becomes apparent when skipping over previously read text to move on to the next route, or browsing through saved screenshots of favorite lines. It looks like the portraits, which exude a simple yet elegant charm, could have been used a bit more without getting in the way of the writing.
Whether or not supplemented by character portraits, the writing is still very eloquent, albeit marred by typos more often than desirable. These can be easily ignored, because Hashihime completely absorbs the reader into its world. The nuances of Tamamori’s love interests, from Kawase’s appalling attitude to the Professor’s peculiar obsessions, cement each as decidedly unforgettable, and witnessing their growth alongside Tamamori is immensely satisfying. The characters come to life through fantastic voice work. While fully voiced dialogue is normal in visual or kinetic novels, voiceovers in Hashihime are particularly expressive to the point where it’s shocking how few other members of this voice cast have appeared. Each character’s voice feels distinctly attuned to their unique way of speaking and behaving, with Seiichiro Konno’s multitude of outbursts as a teacher. to be a marked highlight among a particularly brilliant cast.
Another advantage of HashihimeMaking it a kinetic visual novel rather than just a book is its gripping soundtrack. The game’s impressive variety of songs adds to the haunting vintage atmosphere using era-appropriate instruments with undertones of psychedelic flair as required. The melancholy strings and the harpsichord of “frozen goldfish“have a hint of eccentricity that perfectly encapsulates the feel of the Professor character, while the clumsy horns of “The Imperial University Student’s Taleshifts from awkward to hopeful in a theme unmistakably appropriate for scenes relating to the three halves of a whole bunch of idiots from Tamamori, Minakami, and Kawase. When in Tamamori’s wildest hallucinations, “South Sea Fantasyrings out with bells and other percussive instruments to create a dizzying, otherworldly melody; back in reality, the jazzy slap bass, guitar and piano of “Dreamy old bookstorefirmly anchors his written and visual environment in a sense of complacency and comfort.
HashihimeThe ability to move smoothly from comforting to uncomfortable – from real to illusory, from silly to serious, from average flaws to critical – is as fluid as a river. He never shy away from the ugly, but that only makes his pristine moments even more beautiful. HashihimeThe subjects and characters defy readers by not being perfect, by being downright despicable at times, by acting as mirrors. At first glance, they seem like fun mirrors, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that these mirrors are the real deal. By closing your eyes, it becomes impossible to look away, and Hashihime invites you to live again. No matter how many times you dive back into these biting waters, Hashihime of the Old Town of the Annex Book leaves its frightening impact.