Gahkthun – What a Shining Brave is currently the last game of the fairly popular Steampunk series (also known as the ~What a Beautiful~ series), written by Hikaru Sakurai*. Although somewhat of a niche game in the English fandom, it was a highly anticipated release among a core group of fans who hyped it up quite a lot. Being a fan of Sakurai’s work myself ever since I read Sekien no Inganock half a year ago, I took the opportunity to read it along with everyone else when Mangagamer released their localization for Christmas. Gahkthun is set in 1908, in The Academia, a gigantic campus near Marseille in France. In fact, rather than a campus it is an entire city of 100 000 students, living in quasi-autonomy. All activities from shops to entertainment to maintenance are done by the clubs, and the Academia itself is ruled by an aristocratic-looking student council. The heroine of the game, Neon, is a freshman at the academy… but belongs to the so-called “second-class students”, and is owned by a “master” and forced to work in harsh (and illegal) conditions to earn a living. Thankfully (?), she is bought back by a mysterious man called Nikola Tesla, the first transfer student in the history of the school. This pompous, white-clad man proclaims to be 72 years old and to have come to save all the students of the academy, and to defy the student council. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Sakurai’s Steampunk universe, an encyclopedia of various lore terms is conveniently included in the game. They’re not, however, of tremendous importance for the story of Gahkthun.
Several of Sakurai’s main references are well-known, and they’re obvious in this setting. Specifically, Utena is pretty clearly a huge source of inspiration for Gahkthun (a huge school setting, a mysterious, aristocratic, and admired student council, very formal and symbolic fights, an episodic structure, roses and spiral staircases, and even Neon’s hair color…), to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest at Neon pulling a sword out of Tesla or Izumi at some point. The comparison isn’t that fruitful though, since Gahkthun doesn’t borrow the themes of Utena, those about gender roles, fairytales, relationships, and power. But the Utena fan in me can’t help being excited at this setting, which I find very interesting in itself. Other inspirations include Demonbane, which is visible throughout the game, but also Lovecraftian influences that go beyond Demonbane, such as cool concepts like a “color from another dimension” among the enemies. This is something I had noticed in Inganock too: Sakurai seems to have a knack for appropriating Lovecraft’s fascinating bestiary in a way that is very specific to him. The way Sakurai depicts deformed beings or abstract entities is very different from the way Lovecraft does, all of it fitting the lore of his Steampunk universe.
Another important feature of a Sakurai game for me is his writing. He has a very peculiar, idiosyncratic writing style that resonates a lot with me. And I’m using the first person a lot here because I know not everyone likes his style (they’re bad and wrong but still). Sakurai’s style is based on short, neat, and clear sentences, made with a large but fairly specific vocabulary, that are often repetitious in nature but create a rhythm and poeticness that I find incredible. It shows particularly well in descriptions. He’s very good at setting up atmospheres and switching between them at will – this is also due to the fact that his stories are structured in a way that allows that. He’s not good at everything (I wasn’t very convinced by his attempt at horror) but there are three moods he can cast very well: depressive, heartwarming, and epic, and there’s a lot of alternation between those three. Lots of scenes are slice of life scenes that make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but when the time comes to introduce a more melancholic or dramatic scene it’s always well-handled (and supported by a very good soundtrack and the usual art style of the Steampunk series: VNs aren’t just about writing after all!). As for the fights, I love them. They’re indeed very Utena-esque: formal and symbolic, and repetitious. In fact, Gahkthun improved a lot in that aspect compared to his previous works, some of which were nearly complete copy/paste. Now there’s quite a lot of variety to them, and they’re also lengthier. What hasn’t changed is the writing, simultaneously chuu2esque and poetic. I already liked it so much in Inganock that I didn’t mind reading a lot of similar lines in every fight at all, quite the contrary.
This is obviously the point where I need to bring up the translation released by Mangagamer. Tackling a Sakurai game is not a walk in the park. Of course you could technically translate them without asking yourself questions, in a fairly literal way, and it wouldn’t come out completely wrong (that’s pretty much what Ixrec’s translations are, as far as I saw from the scripts, and they’re “readable” despite the TL mistakes). But you’d be so, so far from reproducing Sakurai’s style. The problem is that this style is just not suitable for English at all. Translating one of Sakurai’s VNs with the intention of properly conveying the “feel” of the original text is taking on a difficult translation task, a task that I think goes beyond what you usually see in the VN translation scene. I haven’t read the full game in English but I looked at various scenes, and I think Koestl really did a good job. Other people better at Japanese than me and with translation experience have confirmed its quality. Of course, it’s probably not perfect – it’s still very hard to get the same feel in the descriptions, and the dialogue might be a little too verbose. But he still clearly poured a lot of effort into it, going as far as using only vocabulary that already existed in the early 20th century to reproduce the feel of the epoch, and the result is very nice.
Now let’s go back to the story. As Sakurai likes to do, it’s structured in an episodic way. There are thirteen chapters in the game, and most of them don’t do a whole lot to advance the main plot, instead being mini-stories of their own. It might sound like I’m saying nothing, but I think Sakurai basically just writes what he wants to write. What I mean is that he’s just not interested in writing about certain things, even if the opportunity presents itself, and will instead focus on what he’d like to tell. For example, the very setting of Gahkthun, with its self-organized students, its aristocratic student council, the “second class students” introduced at the beginning of the story, opens many opportunities for interesting developments and politics/social discussion. Aside from the first chapter, Emily’s chapter would also have been a great opportunity for such developments to occur. But the surface is barely scratched in a few sentences here and there, nothing more. Simply because Sakurai doesn’t care much about this kind of development and would rather like to talk about his characters and their relationships of the familial, platonic, or romantic kind. In a way, you could argue that this limits him as a writer. It’s a bit frustrating to see all those potential threads left unexploited, and it reduces his capacity to renew himself throughout his games. On the other hand, you could also argue it is a strength as a writer: there’s a remarkable coherence in Sakurai’s works (and yet you could hardly blame them for being too similar). That coherence extends to the way he treats his influences. As I’ve already said, the Utena influence is deep and blatant, but nothing could be more different than the way Sakurai deals with the relationships between his characters: a very important theme of Utena is the notion of power in relationships, and the way things like sexuality and role models operate in this. All of that is nowhere to be found here. Another example is Lovecraft, as I’ve pointed out above. Sakurai simply has a strong creative voice, and despite the limitations that implies, it makes his Steampunk series and the rest of his works fascinating and somehow unique.
I feel like I’ve talked too little about Gahkthun and too much about its author here. I didn’t have as a goal to be exhaustive on the various elements of the game; I hope you still got something interesting out of it. Let me just conclude by saying it’s a really good game, with a lot of interesting stories and characters, beautiful writing and ensnaring atmosphere. I encourage you to try it out – you might not ‘get into’ Sakurai, not everyone does, but if you do you certainly won’t regret it.
*It seems that Hikaru Sakurai, despite everything we thought up until now, is a guy. So I’m gonna use masculine pronouns in this text, running the risk of misgendering him. Maybe some day we’ll know the truth about this great mystery of the world.