Analysis Featured

Narcissu and Death

Written by Zalor

Today we’ve got something a bit different from the usual fare. One of our forum members, Zalor, has written an analysis of Narcissu for us. By necessity it contains major spoilers; if you haven’t read it already, you can download it from Steam (includes a prequel, which is purposely not discussed here) or insani. The main difference between the two is that the Steam version doesn’t have a literal / liberal translation option, instead having two somewhat more literal ones. This piece looks at one of the more literal translations. And with that said… I shall exit stage left. -Zaka


Please note, this analysis only looks at Narcissu 1. I focus on the themes it presents as a sole work. In addition, my quotes are of Agilis’s translation of the voiced version.

Narcissu is one of those few stories in the visual novel medium that taps into an unprecedented realism. While a tragedy, the story more or less declares itself one from the start. The very first bit of information the story presents us with are suicide statistics of 2004, subtly declaring how this story will end. Supporting the atmosphere of tragedy, Setsumi’s narration in the prologue concludes, “It was there… that my time seems to have stopped.” Given the morose music, depressing words, and image of suicide statistics; the story instills the reader with a sense of hopelessness from the beginning. Ultimately, this story is about the awkward purgatory of when we are not yet dead, but no longer really alive.

Waiting for death is the best way to describe it, and the story provides us with a lovely allegory to convey that message; the 7th floor.

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Upon arrival at the 7th floor, a tradition exists to initiate new residents by explaining the rules of the 7th floor. The rules basically serve as a way to extinguish any last flicker of hope in residents. They coldly lay out the reality that while patients get temporarily discharged back home, they always return back, and that there is never a 4th discharge. The person responsible for passing down this knowledge to our main protagonist is a 22 year old girl named Setsumi. Setsumi has been discharged twice prior, and is the primary focus of the story.

Much like us as readers, the nameless protagonist is an observer of Setsumi’s story. The story of how Setsumi deals with her almost diminished existence. Again, much like the nameless protagonist, we as readers are also condemned the same fate of death; and we like him are in earlier stages of our decaying existence then she is. While the end of our lives are still comparatively far for us, observing Setsumi allows us to better understand the personal struggles we will inevitably go through when our lives are within death’s grasp. This is what makes Narcissu such a fascinating read.

Unlike most other stories about terminally ill patients, Narcissu is not about dealing with the emotional drama of longing for life and coming to accept one’s mortality. Quite the opposite, Narcissu is about our longing for death (what Freud calls the death-drive). Further illustrating this is the complete lack of romance and sexuality in this story.

Setsumi expresses a detached and disinterested personality to everyone, even with the main protagonist who can relate in being a 7th floor patient. After Setsumi informs the protagonist about the 7th floor, his next attempt at conversation with her is a failure. Or in his words, “an exchange that wasn’t even a conversation, we indifferently passed back and forth”(Chapter 01). The majority of the other conversations with Setsumi throughout the visual novel are equally uncommunicative. And the few instances where they do share discussion, the conversations generally revolve around the ephemerality of life.

There are two scenes after Setsumi and the protagonist escape on the road trip, where some sexual tension on the protagonist’s side can be read. One is when he soaks some towels to allow himself and Setsumi to wash their bodies. Setsumi has to remind the protagonist, “Don’t look”(Chapter 04), as he was observing her prior. When he accidentally peeks, he notices a huge scar. In this case, the protagonist seemed to be mildly conscious of Setsumi as a sexual being, but when he peeks, he is distracted by the large scar on her body. The scar seems to serve as a metaphor for how Setsumi’s body is already the property of death. The idea of a young, dainty, attractive female allows some sexual vibes to form in the protagonists mind, but when he sees the reality of her scar all sexual tension ceases. Immediately after seeing it, the protagonist is reminded of his scar, and thinks about surgery. He is reminded of the frailness of his own body. The scars represent death, as they are reminders of the hospital and of their terminal illnesses.

The next instance is less sexual, and deals more with romantic feelings that the protagonist has developed as he’s gotten more attached to Setsumi over the trip. During a cold night when the two are trying to sleep in the car, the protagonist asks, “Aren’t you cold?”(Chapter 07), to which Setsumi casually agrees. He then proposes the suggestion, “Well, you can come a little closer, you know? […] I’m sure that it’d be warmer here”(Chapter 07). She disinterestedly responds, “Not particularly… I’m fine […] Or is it that you’re cold, so you want me to come?”(Chapter 07). It is not until the protagonist admits this that she finally agrees. Notably though, this physical contact does not result in any sexual tension. Rather the two of them get distracted by the beauty of the Narcissus flowers in the sunrise.

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The coldness that bothers the protagonist but not Setsumi seems to be once again another representative of death, whereas the Narcissus flowers symbolize life; the life that neither of them can have. Just as Setsumi displays indifference about her mortality, as she has accepted its inevitability, she does not mind the cold either. She doesn’t like the cold, but has accepted it and is thus fine with it. It is the protagonist who still longs for warmth (life), because his situation is not as despairing as hers. Whereas Setsumi can perish any day, he still has months to stall his concerns of his fatality. Yet they both enjoy the sight of the flowers, because they can both appreciate the tantalizing beauty of life. As the story makes quite clear, they are Echo, and the flowers are Narcissus.

It is very appropriate of this story to take scenes that could potentially have been sexual and to instead focus them on death. To put this in further perspective, sex is the opposite of death. Whereas sex is the act of creating life, of intimacy; death is losing life, and lonely. Setsumi’s cold and disinterested demeanor shows a girl who has abandoned all hope.

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Her having sex, or engaging in emotional intimacy, would contradict her desire for death. Her sole focus is on dying. Setsumi’s journey is a journey of a girl who starts out subconsciously desiring death, to a girl who consciously embraces it.

It was Joseph Campbell who established that in mythical stories large bodies of water generally represents the unconscious. This reading works quite well in Narcissu. Early on in the road trip there is scene where Setsumi tries drowning herself in a sea, but ultimately declines. Then in the final scene she succeeds in her suicide by drowning herself in a lake.

In her first attempt, when she walks towards the sea she asks the protagonist, “Then, if… right now, I were to go into the sea… Would you… stop me?”(Chapter 03). He responds by saying that he “doesn’t know”, then she walks further into the sea and he calls out to her asking “Is it that, you want me to stop you?”(Chapter 03). She then halts, and proceeds no further.

In the last chapter this scene is mirrored, but ends quite differently. Setsumi walks in the lake, and as she prepares herself to walk further in it, the protagonist once again calls out, “Do you, right now… want me to pull you back? […] Or instead… you want me to give your back a push?”(Chapter 08). Setsumi answers, “Hmm… which one, I wonder… Ahaha, I don’t really know”(Chapter 08). The protagonist then notes “Before, those feet had stopped at the water’s edge… But this time, they didn’t stop. … That was why, I thought that was her answer”(Chapter 08).

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The similarities of the verbal exchanges both times, and the subtle difference in Setsumi’s physical responses both times are what indicate her state of mind. The first time, Setsumi seemed to be flirting with her subconscious desire to die. She is drawn towards death, but once she is consciously aware of the protagonist, and thus aware of what she is doing, she stops. In this instance, subconsciously Setsumi seeks death, but consciously she is not yet prepared, which is why her feet stop. In the last chapter when this exchange repeats itself, Setsumi’s feet continue to walk towards the water; symbolizing that her subconscious and conscious are fully in tune. It is at this moment that she has finally chosen death.

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Setsumi’s suicide is not a tragic one, and in a very bitter way it is a happy ending. Setsumi escaped her fate, which is what she wanted. From the very start, Setsumi only ever had two choices: die naturally in the 7th floor or at home; or she could die elsewhere, but unnaturally. Allowing death to take her would be the easier choice, actively seeking her own demise being the more difficult one. This is not a story without progress. Yes, from the start Setsumi is condemned to die, but through her actions she does alter her fate. In drowning herself, she exercised power over the only decision regarding her life she had; how she ends it. As the protagonist notes in the epilogue, “Not the 7th floor, nor home. Of her own will, she avoided them.”

Setsumi was brave in facing death head on instead of waiting for it; which is what defines her as a tragic hero. Her suicide and aura of hopelessness, promotes a very nihilistic view. Again, contrary to many stories that deal with terminally ill people, there is a complete absence of hope or love. No hope in an afterlife, and no signs of people who affectionately care about Setsumi. The protagonist being the closest companion of hers we see, and Setsumi pushes him away. All that awaits Setsumi is a lonely death. Instead of cheapening the grim, lonely, and cold reality of transient existence with love and hope; this story showcases an uncensored portrayal of the complete hopelessness and isolation in facing death.

~Zalor

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Zalor

14 Comments

  • Thanks for the article. It is pretty interesting, and funny on how one’s perception can be different from one another.
    I agree with most of the things you say, but there’s too much things that you depict that I do not pay attention because I do not think that it was the author will to express that explicitely and to convery such feeling or emotions.
    Such like the sexual part of your article.

    Is the lack of sexuality truely means that we have to analyse it thoroughfully? I don’t think so. It’s not an eroge even if it is a visual novel, you emhasize it too much I think 🙂

    Second point, you said it, but I want to rephrase it 🙂 Narcissu is before everything a long nightmare, an awaiting death that never come, a pain for the reader whom want to do only one thing: to make it stop, to stop being hurt by the unknown yet already spoiled future of the main protagonists.

    Combined with the beautiful OST, this is the main memory I keep after I first played/read it two years ago.

    • I think the point of the sexual bit here is that in a “normal” VN, and perhaps story in general, this would be where you put the sex scene.

      On a sidenote, I actually thought it would end with protag-kun driving off a cliff and them both dying (maybe a certain arto paasilinna book’s concept got to me, though I never did read it…).

      Anyway, the contrast between my own expectations and what actually happened is certainly an example of death/life contrast between Setsumi and the protagonist.

    • Zakamutt pretty much got it right. I was trying to emphasize that under normal situations those would have been scenes with sexual tension. But because Setsumi (and the protagonist to a slightly lesser extent) are in such despairing situations the potential sexual vibes don’t happen. This only further reinforces the fact of how close to death these characters are.

    • Ok fair enough, it may be true.
      My pure soul didn’t see it that far :p

      And, it’s pretty clear that they are both slowly waiting for the unknown (not to say for the death), in the despair, and our expectations meet finally meet with what happen in some different ways which is one of the reasons on why this VN is a chef-d’oeuvre.

  • Personally , i think it was a refreshing change compared to what we often read x)
    Actually , enjoying VNs like this one will likely never inspire a thrill to superficial people . Because in my opinion , the reader must ‘live the story’ to (or at least try to) feel what the characters are going through ^^

  • By the way , very nice review ^^ I didn’t pay major attention to the sexual side , but it may be as you said , because of the aura of the characters .

    • Thank you very much. 🙂 As you said in your first comment, this story is about feeling what the characters are psychologically going through. Narcissu is kind of like poetry in that regard. I also feel that the translation I quoted from (Agilis’s translation) captures a poetic style more accurately than Haeleth’s translation. Zaka and I both prefer different translations by they way. 😛

  • Maybe I’m just an overly emotional person, or perhaps I’m a bit biased having dealt with clinical depression and thoughts of suicide, but this VN really moved me. I daresay I even cried at the end when Setsumi accomplished what she had set out to do. The utter hopelessness I guess is what really got to me. I know what it’s like to feel that way and what drives a person who has lost all hope to do this, but at the same time, it distresses and saddens me when a person takes their own life. If only there was some way to lessen that person’s burden, but in her case of course, nothing could really be done.

    At any rate, I felt it was compelling enough to make for a pretty good VN. As a side note, no worries about me, I’m good 🙂

  • Well, I’m a self proclaimed sadist based on my experience when watching clannad and see both nagisa and ushio died, then I laughes as hard as I can

    But now…
    I’m really feel terrified seeing a heroine died by suicide and everyone seems to think it’s either beautiful scene or whatsoever ending even makes me more scared then ever

    It takes me few minutes to understand that the heroine did suicide few text before

    Guess I’m not sadist from the beginning

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