A couple months ago, I was invited to go to a small party with my friends. I thought it would be a great opportunity to try out a cute new outfit around people I trusted. It would be safe and comfortable, or as much as it gets for me. In the week leading up to the party I kept telling my wife how excited I was, and how much I was looking forward to validation from my friends. Then, only a couple of days before the party, someone sent a text to our group chat. “Is it okay if my boyfriend comes?” And just like that, the party wasn’t a place a comfort for me anymore. Being visibly trans around a stranger was too much for me. I didn’t want to burden this person with my presence. I didn’t want to make everything awkward for my friends. Dejected, I told my wife that I wouldn’t bother presenting as a woman. I enjoyed the party, but couldn’t stop feeling that it wasn’t nearly what it could’ve been.
If you’re the kind of person tuned into discussions of Japanese media, you’ve probably heard about how trans people are portrayed in Japan. Whether it’s about Atlus’s consistently poor treatment of trans women, nasty “man in a dress” jokes in the latest Legend of Zelda, or the way trans people are only accepted in television when they portray themselves as jokes, there’s endless talk of how trans people and queer people in general are stereotyped and mistreated within Japanese entertainment. Lost in all this, however, are the voices of the actual people we find ourselves concerned for. Knowledge and understanding of the lived experiences of Japanese trans people is painfully slim in western communities, but I’m happy to say that one visual novel actually manages to shed a little light on the topic.
one night, hot springs is a visual novel from Japanese writer and translator npckc, made for the recent Trans Gal Jam on itch.io. The lead character is Haru, a 19 year old trans woman who is invited to the hot springs to celebrate her best friend Manami’s 20th birthday. Through this setting, the visual novel explores and discusses problems a Japanese trans woman might face in public, but without wallowing in the discomfort. I worry a lot about stories like this hitting too close to home, but it deftly mixes awkward situations with likable characters and an ever present charm. npckc’s art is simple, cute, and expressive, and the music, made in collaboration with Toronto musician max.ine, creates a calm and comfortable atmosphere. My entire time with one night felt cozy, even as the plot went to some less than cozy places.
Throughout one night, hot springs, Haru finds herself faced with a variety of uncomfortable situations that she must navigate. In each one, I was faced with a choice, usually between being forward and confident, or nervous and cautious. These decisions affect how Haru experiences her night at the hot springs and how she spends time with her friends. As the night progresses, players will get small glimpses of the difficulties faced by trans women, both Japanese and otherwise. Haru is consistently concerned with burdening her friends and staff, making other guests in the springs uncomfortable with her body, and generally being viewed as a problem. She finds herself unwilling to enjoy herself out of fear of bothering others. As a woman very early in her transition, I found these scenes intensely relatable; I have never gone into public presenting as a woman, and even spending time with friends can feel difficult. More specifically though, the problems for Japanese trans people come through as well, beyond just the setting of a Japanese hot springs. Thanks to the nightmare of official transition requirements, Haru is forced to use her legal name and gender on paperwork, even for a leisure activity, and throughout the story, she relates her struggles of transitioning in high school, where pressures to conform made her life miserable.
However, these complexities are presented in a way that is easy to understand due to the deft, simple writing that never loses a sense of warmth or sympathy. Haru is a very likable protagonist, and her friends are deeply empathetic and caring. While individual playthroughs are short, lasting 30 minutes at most, Haru, her best friend Manami, and her new friend Erika, are splendidly realized characters, and almost every playthrough will shed more light on at least one of them. Manami has been Haru’s friend since they were children, and will do anything to make Haru feel comfortable, but can be somewhat oblivious to Haru’s more subtle feelings. Erika is brash and a little inconsiderate, but is genuinely accepting and willing to learn about Haru. No matter how things go at the hot springs, Haru is given explicit support by both of them. Haru’s the character I relate most easily to, but I wound up almost as invested in her friends. I really adore the small touches that went into making them feel so strong in such a short time.
On a surface level, one night, hot springs is a sweet and informative visual novel about a trans woman trying her best to enjoy a night with her friends; but through multiple playthroughs, a bigger picture begins to come together. There are no world changing revelations, shocking twists, or hidden darkness, but instead there is something much quieter and infinitely more powerful: encouragement. After playing through several times, a few things about the game’s (and author’s) views become clear. If the player has Haru push through her nervousness, she’s rewarded every time. This isn’t due to mere naivete in the writing – Haru has real experience in dealing with the cruelty of others – but rather a message to trans players that having confidence and trusting the people who are there for them can make even the most awkward situations rewarding and enjoyable. What makes this truly work is that while the risks are incentivized, I never felt shamed for picking the more cautious options. Even if Haru completely avoids doing anything at the hot springs, she is still left with a message of support.
There’s also an emphasis on trusting your friends to look out for you and not put you into a situation that you can’t handle, and knowing that one person cannot bear the entire burden of their own feelings alone. Haru’s biggest flaw is not her social anxiety, but her struggles to be honest with those who care about her. The game’s most satisfying endings come from Haru opening up to Manami or Erika, leading to powerful scenes of emotional bonding. Likewise, the most painful ending comes not from Haru failing to enjoy the hot springs, but from not being honest with the person she trusts the most. Both Manami and Erika are written in a way that feels warm and real, but Erika’s portrayal is a real standout. As someone generally ignorant of trans people, she initially comes off as a kind of a well meaning jerk, casually saying things she doesn’t realize can hurt, but if Haru is willing to be patient enough to answer her questions and spend time with her, Erika shows herself to be incredibly caring and manages to strongly relate to Haru in her own way (though choosing not to do these things are, again, never made out to be a bad decision). one night is filled with optimistic writing, showing the good in imperfect people and places alike.
Going out as a trans person, being around others, both friends and strangers, and just existing in a space, is hard. It can feel like a never ending series of balancing acts. one night, hot springs knows and understands all of this and still it says that I should still try, that I should trust the people who love me to be there for me. If I live my life worried about bothering others, I’ll never be able to live happily for myself. Throughout my time with it, one night created an experience that will stick with me for a very long time. It’s something that I believe everyone can enjoy and find value in, and I hope dearly that it, and npckc along with it, find great success. I may not be ready to present myself to the world quite yet, but when I am, I’ll be thinking of this game.