Disclaimer: This article is an analysis, which by nature requires spoilers. In addition, spellings of names and the quotes used are from JAST USA’s release of Saya no Uta.
Rather ambitiously the visual novel Saya no Uta addresses one of the oldest topics of art, aesthetics, and presents it in a very twisted and unconventional way. It begins by focusing on why humanity is so allured by beauty. But it then develops that argument into a broader question of whether humanity itself can be recognizable in something that looks repulsively unhuman.
Saya no Uta opens with the main protagonist Sakisaka Fuminori passively engaged in a conversation with his friends in a cafe. First we see this conversation play out from Fuminori’s perspective, then we see it again from a third person perspective. Immediately this establishes the disparity between how Fuminori perceives the world from how normal humans experience the sensory world. Fuminori literally sees the world as being made up of pulsating, viscous flesh like some sort of Dantean hellscape. His friends, nay all people to him, resemble humans only in so far as humans might look inside out. Even when he hears speech, it can be described as nothing short of ear-rape. Quite naturally (as I would imagine anyone doing in his situation) he does his best to end the conversation and leave as soon as possible. How can anyone maintain friendships if they are utterly repulsed by the people they are in contact with? Despite intellectually knowing who they are he has little qualms cutting them off from his life, as they are no longer human to him. Or as Koji’s girlfriend Omi puts it, “he looks at us […] like we’re not even human!” The only creature he can treat as human, is Saya.
In a grotesque world covered in gore and flesh, “only Saya is pleasing to [his] five senses.” Fuminori is motivated to tolerate his gross disorder, solely because of Saya’s aesthetic beauty. In his own words, “If I had not met Saya – if I had been all alone in this twisted, filth-ridden world – I would no doubt have succumbed to madness. It is no exaggeration to say that Saya alone is keeping me alive.” This is confirmed in a later scene which flashes back to his first contact with Saya. At the time he was preparing to end his life in order to escape his madness, but by a chance of serendipity he meets Saya, an image of salvation. Even if just her, a diamond in a world of muculent gore, that is enough to motivate Fuminori to live.
His revival in a desire to live requires a complete social rebirth that disregards conventional morality and social taboos. Fuminori eventually comes to realize that he finds Saya attractive for precisely the same reason he finds regular humans repulsive, due to his cognitive disorder. The very things that revolt regular people, Fuminori instead draws a sense of pleasure in. This is made explicitly clear when Omi initially enters his house for the first time after the accident. It reads, “her nostrils are instantly assaulted by a choking stench”. Soon after Omi is brutally devoured by Saya, and the pungent smell of her blood and decaying organs emanate throughout the room. When Fuminori arrives home, he notices that something is different, and describes that “Something smells strange, though not unpleasant. The aroma is quite soothing, in fact. It reminds me of Saya’s hair.” Not only do his new aesthetic and sensory preferences suggest a taste for cannibalism, but they indicate that Saya smells just like butchered flesh. Saya is not human, and Fuminori’s newfound appreciation for what humans would consider disgusting calls into question his humanity as well.
When (if) Fuminori chooses to remain with Saya, he acknowledges that he is turning over a new leaf. “Now I know what I lost in the accident. Saya says that I can take it back, but I know that I cannot”. Even if Saya fixes his disorder, the person he was would never return. What he lost, what he really seems to be alluding to, is his humanity. When he decides on committing his love for Saya, he rips apart an organ of the neighbor he had just killed and prepares to feast on it with her. While technically cannibalism, is it really if gore appears more appetizing to him than human food? It boils down to the question of perception and aesthetics. Would the reader rather eat what they know to be bread but appear as raw entrails; or would they rather eat what they know to be raw human organs, but appear as sweet jello? This question requires you to consider, if your senses reviled what you ate, what would prevent you from vomiting it out? For Fuminori human food doesn’t just look ungodly, but tastes it as well. When describing some ordinary food prepared for him, he says that, “The taste is as gut-wrenching as I expected”. Through accepting Saya for who she really is, and by willingly accepting his new self that is governed by his madness, Fuminori has found some semblance of happiness.
Perception and relativism are huge themes in Saya no Uta. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, to quote a common adage. This visual novel essentially argues that this phrase applies not just for aesthetics, but for morality itself. Or even more complicated than that, it debates whether aesthetics and morality are perhaps intertwined.
“I like things neat and tidy. I can’t stand people like [Fuminori] who lurk outside of the world. They’re like cockroaches in your bedroom. Can you sleep with them scuttling underneath your pillow? The moment I find one, I kill it and stamp out all trace of its existence. I have to, for the sake of my mental well-being.” ~Dr. Ryoko
Ryoko begins her train of thought by saying that she likes “things neat and tidy” and then likens Fuminori to a cockroach, which she can’t stand. In other words cockroaches do not agree with her understanding of “neat and tidy”. In fact she uses that as pure justification for why she kills them. I don’t want to speak for others, but certainly I can relate to her disdain of cockroaches. Indeed, nobody would think twice about someone who killed a cockroach or another undesired insect, but what if that person killed stray puppies loitering around their property? Suddenly you may call into question the cruelty of the act. Why is it perfectly okay to kill cockroaches but not puppies? The only answer I could honestly come up with is that cockroaches are disgusting and physically unrelatable, whereas puppies are adorable and easy to anthropomorphize. Yes puppies are cute, but digging deeper than that they’re cute because they kind of look like us. They have eyes, ears, four libs, a nose, and a mouth; which are features that often get emphasized in anthropomorphized depictions of dogs. Cockroaches don’t have ears or a nose, and the rest of the wretched creature looks so different from a human that it doesn’t matter that they have a mouth and eyes. So how is this all relevant?
Humans are as repugnant and physically unrelatable to Fuminori as cockroaches are to us. And likewise, Saya is just as repulsive to normal humans. What is interesting is that by the ending when Koji (and Ryoko depending on which choice you make) are fighting Fuminori and Saya; through the perspective of both parties they are fighting monsters. When making preparations for the showdown Fuminori assures Saya, “I don’t see [Koji] as human. I’ll have no trouble cutting him to pieces”. As for Koji, once the battle starts the first person he attacks and kills is Yoh (the girl Saya horribly disfigured to suit Fuminori’s tastes). “The white beam reveals everything — the merciless truth that finally shatters Koji’s sanity. Terror wipes his mind of all but two words, gun and trigger. His finger responds with instant obedience”. Koji knows that the person is Yoh, but her appearance is so shocking that primal fear and instinct take over. Regardless of how human somebody may be, their perceived humanity ultimately only exists in so far as they look human.
The next creature to receive such cruel treatment is Saya. In the midst of Koji’s death match with Fuminori, Saya ambushes Koji and is greeted by a shot from Ryoko’s gun. A lethal liquid is then poured on her.
With Saya’s death, a traceable human expression forms on Fuminori’s face. An appearance of utter despair, but the countenance is not lost on Koji. Despite his previous will to murder him, Koji stops and sympathizes with the man. Regardless of all the atrocities he was responsible for (the murder of his neighbor, his cannibalizing Omi, and his raping Yoh); Koji can still on a fundamental level feel and empathize with his loss. Understanding what other people feel simply through inferring their physical expression is a crucial part to being human.
Koji can recognize Fuminori’s expression, but is unable to sympathize with Saya’s pain; on the contrary Fuminori’s countenance is a result of staring at and understanding Saya’s suffering. This scene is simultaneously beautiful and tragic. From one man’s perspective a monster had been eradicated. From the other man’s perspective his sole reason for living disappeared. With Saya dead and Fuminori alone in a hellish world; he finishes what he intended to do right before he met Saya, kill himself. Thus (more or less) concludes one of the three potential endings.
The alternate ending concerns itself more with the question of what defines humanity. Whereas the previously described ending emphasizes the importance of the superficial aspects of humanity, this ending truly tries to understand humanity through an emotional lens. In this turn of events, even Dr. Ryoko is far less disdainful of Saya. This time she is given enough time to fully read Dr. Ogai’s research on Saya, and by the end of it develops a more detached and objective stance on her existence. By having been essentially raised by a human (by Dr. Ogai), Saya inevitably developed human emotions. Among Dr. Ogai’s last words was a wish for Saya’s happiness.
The goal of Saya’s species is to reproduce and through that process alter the environment of the world they inhabit to more appropriately fit their species. This is the only ending where Fuminori and Saya end up happily, and even then it is left open to interpretation whether Saya’s species dies through the process of giving birth or not. Either way, judging from the CG, the world Saya will create will be a beautiful one for her lover:
Returning to the theme of perception. While the new world will look lovely to Fuminori, it will appear absolutely horrific to everyone else.
This ending makes it painfully clear that Saya’s finding love and reproducing is in no way a good thing for mankind. While this branch in the story certainly wants to create relatability to Saya by highlighting her ability to feel human emotions, it ends in an apocalyptic style. As a happy outcome for Saya and Fuminori, this should grant us as readers a sense of catharsis since a substantial portion of this story was told through Fuminori’s eyes. From that stance (a subjective view point that favor’s the main protagonist) this is the best ending; but a utilitarian reading could only see this as a disastrous turn of events. Going with the objective view and returning to the argument on aesthetics I was making before. Saya’s emotions are only recognizably human to us as readers, because of the unique viewpoints we get from Dr. Ogai’s notes and Fuminori.
Fuminori’s perspective allows us to see Saya’s emotions personified in a human looking body; whereas Dr. Ogai’s notes provide us the backstory behind Saya’s emotional development. And indeed both these sources are heavily biased. Fuminori is Saya’s lover and literally sees her as the only beautiful thing in his world. As for Dr. Ogai, he started by looking at Saya through an objective scientific lens. However, as Saya developed speech and emotion he began to view her as an adopted daughter, and even named her. As his notes continue, he grew increasingly attached to her and even described her as having a “soul”.
But if we actually saw and heard Saya without this knowledge, we would probably instinctively interpret her as an ungodly abomination that “speaks some blasphemous semblance of human words.” The creature would appear and sound so uncanny, that we would instinctively want it eradicated, much like a cockroach. It is for this reason that I think the other ending is more accurate in its assertion that Saya is not human. It is generally believed in the social sciences that humans are social animals. Thus, how can somebody be human if they are not even recognized as such by other humans?
The above question is a philosophical one, with an answer that will vary person to person. Because of the multiple route structure of the visual novel, the story’s answer to that question itself is ambiguous. Much as perspective was a consistent theme in this work. Ultimately it is left to the reader’s perspective to determine an answer. Do they agree with the ending where Saya dies, thus satisfying a sadistic urge to see a wretched monster perish? Or do they believe that internal humanity is all that is needed, and thus want to see Saya fall in love properly; even if that involves the destruction of humankind? (Or do they want to avoid the question all together and go for the boring first ending).