Content warning: Discussion of transphobic commentary
In the following interview plot events from one night, hot springs, last day of spring, and lilac & her light are openly discussed so if you would like to go into those fresh you should go do that. Seriously go do that they take like a half hour each!!
one night, hot springs was a game that had a profound impact on me. It not just helped me feel more hopeful for my future living as an out trans woman, it helped me find the confidence and trust in my friends to actually be myself outside the confines of a home for the first time. It even helped me get a proper start writing about media here on this very website! I’ve since become a huge fan of npckc, the Tokyo-based indie developer behind one night, hot springs and a bunch of other small but wonderfully thoughtful games. Needless to say, hearing a followup to one night was coming out excited the hell out of me, and I’m happy to say last day of spring is another freight train of difficult feelings and beautifully written moments that completely annihilated my heart. Please for the love of god play it.
This time though, I was very interested in chatting with the developer herself about what goes into these games, and she happily obliged me with a long, thoughtful discussion of her work, LGBT+ issues in Japanese culture and politics, media representation, and the way differences in minority issues in different cultures can be flattened when one side (say, America, for example) dominates the discourse. And somehow no one here wanted to cut any of it! Wow!!!!
Nadia: Tell me a little bit about yourself!
kc: Hi, I’m kc. I work in Tokyo and make little games whenever I have the time.
Something I’ve really appreciated with your games is the way you fit in a lot of character into a small package. Do you have anything in particular you like to convey with these games?
I like making games which are little windows into the lives of the characters. When I watch a film or read a book, I’m always most interested in the stuff that is happening “off-screen” or “in between chapters”, so with my games I try to share the mundane bits of life that aren’t maybe as exciting. I think overall I just want to make games about people that could really exist and probably do exist somewhere. (I guess that comes out as “I want to make boring, regular games” though, haha.)
Your games are far from boring I’d say, but most games aren’t as interested in the boring parts of our lives and that’s where some of our most important experiences come from, so it makes your games pretty refreshing.
Yeah I don’t think of ‘boring’ or ‘regular’ as inherently a bad thing.
one night, hot springs and last day of spring are relatively quiet games, but also have some very natural, powerful emotional moments that emerge from mundane situations. Even your more high-concept games like lilac & her light (which I adore) and cleaning house spend time in the quietest moments of more fantastical worlds.
I’m glad you enjoyed lilac & her light – I spent a lot of time thinking about it!
It hit me as close to the heart as the springs games, honestly.
Even when I do games in fantasy settings, I always try to write characters who could be real, if that makes sense (rather than the archetypal hero, villain, &c.) I think it becomes fairly clear when playing lilac & her light that the protagonist, Lilac, has depression. I wanted to make a game about this, using a fantasy setting, because I find sometimes depression can be hard to ‘explain’ to other people, so lilac & her light uses fantasy to have a physical representation of it – Lilac’s world literally goes grey and lifeless, and she becomes too afraid to go out into the world because of this.
It was such a good literalization of depression!
I find that media can be really on and off about their depiction of depression (especially with how people can ‘get better’ from depression), and it also isn’t something that really shows up often in games (at least to my knowledge – I’d love to hear about more games that discuss it!), so I wanted to make a game that kind of explores how depression can be like, and also how one can continue living with it. (Spoiler alert, I guess, but) Lilac never ends up ‘curing’ her depression, but she gets a potion that helps with some of the symptoms.
For me, choosing a fantasy setting for lilac & her light made it a bit easier to talk about the topic in a more digestible way.
Yeah! And you handled it in a way that avoided the typical fantasy way of handling real world issues, where there’s an invented fantastical analogue for whatever the topic may be.
I could probably talk about this game all day but you just put out a follow-up to one night, hot springs! This is your first sequel, right?
Technically yes! I have some other games set vaguely in the same universe, but last day of spring is the first game I’ve made that is a direct sequel.
I thought it was an interesting choice to make Erika the protagonist this time. Did you have a particular reason for focusing on her?
In one night hot springs, you get to play as Haru and help her make choices on a hot springs trip. I wanted to make a game which always rewarded the player for being brave and making the choices that are sometimes a bit scary to make – and for good reason, because as a trans woman you never know if the people around you will react well to you. But I wanted to make a game where it was safe to trust those closest to you.
The reason last day of spring has Erika as the protagonist is because to be honest, things won’t always go that well. Erika’s goal in last day of spring is to plan a spa day for Haru’s birthday, and at first she thinks it’s not going to be a problem – after all, the hot spring trip worked out. But as the game continues, Erika runs into a problem – none of the spas she calls is friendly to trans people who haven’t legally changed their gender.
Of course Haru already knew this was the likely outcome, but Erika didn’t. I focused on Erika this time because 1) I didn’t want to make Haru, a trans woman, have her gender being rejected multiple times and 2) I don’t think a lot of allies realise how many hurdles trans people can face just trying to do regular things that regular people do.
Erika has never called a place before and had the staff clinically and politely tell her that she isn’t welcome. She’s never had to worry about whether she’d be able to go see movies on ladies’ night and get a discount. She’s never had to think about whether a hair removal clinic would refuse to serve her because she wasn’t a ‘woman’ to them.
I wanted to show Erika trying to be a good friend to Haru but also just completely missing the point sometimes because she doesn’t completely understand the problems Haru has to face.
It was a great expansion of her role in one night hot springs as kind of a brash ignorant doofus who does mean well. Haru’s really relatable to me, but Erika was a real standout in the previous game, so having her be even more developed here wound up being very satisfying.
Yeah, I think in one night hot springs Erika was very love/hate because she was actually pretty awful in the way she just did not really think at all before she spoke.
She’s a very familiar kind of person to me, and probably anyone who belongs to a minority group.
The thing is, that’s just very common! A lot of people are well-meaning but they can say the most awful things. And while it shouldn’t be the job of trans people to educate them, unfortunately, if nobody does, they won’t change.
Her genuine care and curiosity certainly helps!
Yeah definitely, actually being willing to listen is a huge difference. I think a lot of the people I know are in general well meaning but unknowledgeable.
There isn’t good media with LGBT+ representation. People often only see bad caricatures of LGBT+ people on TV or in comics and it’s very hard to get them to change how they view LGBT+ people. I mean, you get games like Persona 5, which perpetuate the gay effeminate guys hitting on straight guys trope. People see this in a mainstream game, they’re going to think that’s what gay guys are like.
It certainly doesn’t help that games like Persona 5 wind up overshadowing better representation in games coverage.
Something I noticed and appreciated in the shift from one night hot springs to last day of spring was that one night tended to focus on Haru’s weariness and resignation with the world around her and sadness with herself. last day feels like it has a bigger scope. There’s a bitterness I felt throughout, and the game’s climax felt angry in a very cathartic way.
I think as a minority there are always so many different things you can be angry at and it just wears you down because so little of it is something you, personally, can change immediately. It’s really frustrating that a lot of the things people take for granted aren’t things that you can take for granted, and since most of the people around you don’t have the same issues, it can be hard to find an outlet for those emotions. People tell you that the world is getting better, and of course that’s great – but it feels like it’s taking too long (and people are telling you that you should be happy that you have this much already).
There isn’t often a space for people to just be angry (even though there is a genuine reason to be), so I wanted to give Haru the chance to just let out all the thoughts she’s had but has held back.
I liked that Erika wound up being that space for her. It’s something she can learn from and her struggle with a filter makes her a good person to just let it out with.
I think it’s also sometimes really hard to be that honest with the people closest to you. It feels like sometimes you’re already a burden on your family/close friends for not being ‘normal’ enough (obviously that’s not the case – but it’s hard not to feel that way).
I actually only made one night hot springs because of a news article last January.
There was an incident where somebody entered the women’s baths and had the cops called on them. When the police came, this person kept insisting that they were a woman.This person had kept the bottom half of their body covered when in the bath, which made somebody suspicious (and prompted the police contact). This is pretty much the only information that was shared in the news article, but the response to it online was incredible. Everyone was saying how it was so terrifying.
Oh my god.
Oh, the article also described the person’s height, and they were fairly tall, so there were comments like how it was weird people didn’t notice earlier because there couldn’t possibly be a woman that tall. Then you get the people laughing about how ridiculous it was that this person could even think they would pass as a woman.
It just felt terribly frustrating that this would be the immediate reaction people had. The article never went into more depth about what this person’s motive might be, but a lot of people immediately said “oh they must have wanted to peep on the women.” But when people around you are all saying this, it also makes it very hard to say anything back.
You will get people like Erika who really do mean well, but they’ll see news like this and casually say ‘what a creepy man’ because that’s the only framework they have. Especially since you’ll have crossdressing as a plot device in a lot of media without ever really touching on gender identity. So I wanted to make a game that showed some of the other possibilities.
last day of spring similarly tackles the recent issue in which the Japanese supreme court upheld the requirement for sterilization and surgery in order for trans people to change their legal gender, and also centers around the unveiling of the new imperial era.
It’s obviously too much to hope that we can just flip a switch and then suddenly trans rights are great, but it’s – a lot to be told oh, actually, we’ve thought about it and surgery and sterilisation is ‘currently constitutional.’ The phrasing is enough to give hope, but it’s still a rejection.
After Reiwa was revealed, the news has been all about “your best times of Heisei” and “your favourite memories of Heisei” and things like that. But while Heisei has brought a lot of great changes for LGBT+ people, there’s still a lot that can be done. For example, gay couples sued for marriage equality in February this year and that’s still an ongoing battle – twitter account about it here https://twitter.com/marriage4all_
It’s just very hard to be hopeful about a new era bringing change when it seems the world at large doesn’t want to change in a way to make it easier for minorities to live in.
From my very limited perspective, it feels similar to the current governments that have taken hold in America and the UK, where changes that were already very incremental and hard fought are being fought against tooth and nail by regressive people with great deals of power.
Yes, and you also have a lot of people who are ambivalent but when they see people who are making a lot of ‘fuss’ about something, they think that the people making the fuss are the problem instead of the problem itself.
There’s a tendency here to attribute problems like that in Japan to a “culture of conformity”, but it’s barely different from the problems minorities in western countries face with the general public.
Just earlier this year, a man lost a lawsuit to use his premarital name (and have a different surname than his wife). The law is that couples must have the same surname after marrying (and of course this normally results in women taking men’s last names). It feels like something that should be so easy to change and that would make life better for so many people, and is already possible for marriages between Japanese people and non-Japanese people.
But there is a fairly vocal minority of people who have commented about how this man was being selfish for wanting to change the law just because he wanted to have separate surnames. Or saying that he could just go to a different country if he wanted to have different surnames (these are also arguments often used for LGBT+ issues such as gay marriage).
“If you don’t like it, then leave.”
But the thing is, for the LGBT+ people living in Japan, this is home. People can’t just upend their lives and go elsewhere. I also don’t like the ‘just leave’ argument because it makes it sound like things can’t ever get better.
Yeah the sentiment is pretty common here in the States, whether moving out of the country or just from one state to another.
That isn’t really a solution anyway, since the people still living there will still have the same problems.
There’s a frightening tendency in the US to write off more conservative southern states as though they’re entirely populated by old white men. If you’re able to leave, great, but not everyone can and all that’s gonna happen is things will get worse by those left behind if that’s your only solution.
Yes, I really dislike that kind of attitude because it completely writes off a huge population of people who need just as much (if not more) support. There’s a tendency, also, to think of Japan as very ‘backwards’ in regards to treatment of minorities and LGBT+ people. While there are things that are bad there are also things that are good, and that doesn’t change the fact that there are minorities/LGBT+ people living here right now.
I think with last day of spring, I kind of wanted to address some of those issues (in hopes that by the time Reiwa is over, I will be able to look back and say, ha! those are all ok now).
With last year’s game, The Missing, there was a lot of western commentary that was along the lines of “it’s great to see something so thoughtful and sensitive about LGBT+ issues from a dev in Japan, which struggles with those issues,” as though we don’t have the same issues.
Oh that’s…. not a great way of framing it.
It’s a very very common framing here. There’s multiple variations on the same thing from different outlets, on top of the way it gets casually deployed in conversation.
I mean, I can list very many media in English that aren’t great about LGBT+ rep and very many issues my LGBT+ friends living in North America and Europe have. (Japan also has much less homophobic/transphobic violence.)
There’s very little acknowledgement of the difference in problems and positive aspects.
I think it’s just a very different set of problems. There are also a lot of very good Japanese media with LGBT+ rep. It’s just that sometimes these aren’t translated.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time and especially the past couple of years is the amount of LGBT+ media I’ve found to be very well done and personally impactful, just from what makes it to English audiences via official and unofficial channels.
Yuri, an entire genre strongly about romantic love between women, and with a heavy presence of women creators, has a pretty long history, and I see it having influence on other media as well, and that’s just a single thing that I’ve liked.
So it can be frustrating to see coverage of things like The Missing (which I love, to be clear), and Yuri On Ice as if they’re exceptions to Japanese media and don’t fit into a very rich and diverse history of it, on top of all the stuff that isn’t accessible here.
I think also stuff like The Missing tends to get raved about because it shows a lot of the more tragic parts about being LGBT+, whereas a lot of yuri works can be more lighthearted (and sometimes this is not ‘good’ enough for overseas fans who will say it is just pandering).
I sure have seen that!
I hate the word pandering because it makes it sound like LGBT+ people being happy or just being is not good enough as rep when it should be the norm. We aren’t our troubles or the issues we face. We’re real people who are happy sometimes too. (I also think the missing is great, but I think fluffy yuri stuff is also great!)
What I’d like to ask is for your perspective on how LGBT+ people feel about representation in Japanese media, in its various forms, whether positive or negative?
To be honest, I am a very bad person to ask as I don’t own a television and that immediately removes me from a lot of representation – mostly I get to see secondhand when people post about stuff online. That immediately only shows me the stuff that people are either really loving, or really angry about.
On one hand, you do have stuff like yuriten, which is amazing – just an exhibit of fantastic yuri manga with many female authors. On the other hand, you get politicians like Sugita Mio saying in magazines that LGBT+ people shouldn’t be accepted because they don’t produce children. She also complained about the MeToo movement, saying that now women could just yell sexual harassment and men would be blamed even if it’s a lie.
She talks a lot on twitter. It’s not great.
Jeez that’s frustrating.
But I mean, that’s just it – we get great LGBT+ rep in some media and we get awful in some others, and we get people fighting for equal rights (like gay marriage) while we also get politicians saying women are causing witch hunts with MeToo.
But that’s just how things are in, say, America, aren’t they?
You wouldn’t have to change a word.
I think it’s… unfair isn’t the right word, but online, the rhetoric is often very dominated by American citizens. People from the U.S. dictate whether something is ‘good rep’ or something is ‘bad rep,’ if something is ‘problematic’ or not.
There’s a tendency here to buy into the idea that we lead the way on everything, even by progressive leaning people.
Exactly, and that ignores a lot of cultural background of the media being made in other places.
I’ll be honest – when I first played Catherine (1) i was actually just so happy that Erica (the trans woman) was in the game. I had never played a game with a trans woman in it before. That was amazing for me.
Yeah, Catherine is completely awful with how they treat Erica. It’s definitely problematic. But having her in that game was a huge influence on me.
Yeah, I would say it’s not a remotely outlandish experience to have, people have, and deserve to have, personal relationships with media that isn’t necessarily “good”. It’s just a reality of the world we live in.
I think it’s really important to understand the context in which media and LGBT+rep is created, and sometimes it’s very hard to do so when the internet almost always frames things in an American/western point of view.
I’ve had the opportunity to live in both ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ countries with very different cultural backgrounds. The thing about Japan is, since a lot of the people here only speak Japanese, a lot of the media people consume is Japanese (and it’s hard to get different viewpoints).
Manga and anime are exported out of Japan but a lot of the same level of ‘creations’ (I guess that would be comics and cartoons) aren’t actually being imported back in. So while the English internet can feel very Americanised, likewise the Japanese internet is also very insular.
Something I’m personally curious about is how bigger media come across with LGBT relationships. One of my favorite things lately is Bang Dream, because it has some wildly good character writing and seems to openly be influenced by yuri media. From my understanding it has multiple women who are/have been involved in yuri working on it, and Bushiroad (the company that created Bang Dream and Revue Starlight, and also the owners of New Japan Pro Wrestling) seems to be doing a lot of that recently with franchises like Bang Dream and Revue Starlight. But it’s also easy to see these as part of a line of media that can be perceived as using relationships between women as cynically pandering to men via titillation. “Yuribait” is a phrase with some history here, but recently the stuff I’ve been enjoying feels more and more sincere and less like a guilty pleasure or scrounging for scraps.
Ahhh Bang Dream and Revue Starlight are pretty incredible I think.
I think they could be seen as pandering in some ways, but – I think on top of that, they are really genuine at the heart of it. I think there is a part of it where creators think they need to ‘pander’ in order to sell because that is what all the media around them do. Like when you will have a shonen anime randomly have a panty shot, or a scene at a hot spring with women bathing for no real reason.
But I also think that having this one bad thing does not automatically make all the representation bad. Obviously I would prefer these things without them. But I think as we get more of these ‘genuine’ media, people will include less and less of the ‘pandering’ because they realise people will still enjoy their media without.
They also have a tendency to like, wring goodness out of situations like a hot springs scene through the writing.
“Ahhh the suits want a beach episode”, but also you can do some great bonding at a beach.
I don’t want to make it sound like nudity always equals pandering. (Also I think, for bigger productions, they are pressured to include these things.)
That’s kind of a sense I’ve gotten from the Bushiroad stuff, is that there’s a lot of very genuine people there who are allowed to shine. Even though Bang Dream is structured like a lot of older idol games because it’s easy to see those make money, the writing is incredibly well done. I started it with low expectations but felt that sincerity very immediately.
Even on the art side, there feels like much less of a focus on titillation and just wanting to draw some good art for these characters.
And even when there is more of that kind of art, a lot of times the artists might not want to draw it that way but have to (because of higher ups).
But because games like idol games do have a reputation for being pandering, it makes people not want to pick them up and they also then can’t see that not all idol games are the same. And in their heads all these games will seem equally ‘bad’ even when some can have much better rep.
It’s important to be open to all sorts of media, I’ve been surprised from places I never would’ve expected countless times.
How do you feel about like, where the wind’s blowing on LGBT+ issues in Japan outside of the government itself. From what I understand a lot of hopes are placed on younger generations, but as we’ve seen in the west, younger generations can still have plenty of regressive jackasses.
I think things are getting better overall, since there is a lot more knowledge overall too about LGBT+ people. One thing that I always find strange is, people will sometimes tell me that they don’t know any gay people or any trans people. Even though it’s incredibly likely that they do (but just don’t know it). I think that as more people learn more about LGBT+ people, hopefully they will be able to talk about it more too.
I do want to give a disclaimer though, since I think my views are very skewed – I’m not really an ‘expert’ or anything about LGBT+ experiences in Japan and I can only talk about what I’ve personally experienced. I’ve been incredibly lucky in that everyone around me is understanding.
I do also want to say that there are so many great organisations here supporting minorities and LGBT+ people too (so it’s not like Japan is doomed to be a hell for LGBT+ people or anything either).
It’s also a problem because there’s just not a lot of exposure or reaching out to get multiple perspectives from countries and groups that aren’t our own, so we wanna make sure you don’t feel that pressure on you.
I think that especially with content set in Japan, it’s inevitable that English speakers get more reach, since it’s easier to understand English content.
It’s something important for people to understand.
To wrap up, are there any future plans you wanna talk about with regards to games or anything you wanna shout out?
I think sometimes the negative news about LGBT+ issues in Japan can be really amplified online, but people are doing their best to make things better.
It’s always wonderful to see things like this!
So, last question: any plans to continue the stories of Haru, Erika, and Manami, and perhaps to let me see Haru confess to Manami so I can live in peace?
I’d like to round off the games with a last one where Manami is the protagonist, but we’ll have to see! It took me a lot of spoons to make both one night hot springs and last day of spring, so if I do end up making another game, it’ll probably be at least a year in the future.
I’m looking forward to whatever you wind up doing! I still have a good bit of your games to check out so I’ll be able to tide myself over.
I hope you’ll enjoy!