Himawari – The Sunflower –

Written by Decay

Himawari is the little doujin that could, making a big name for itself in Japan with such a small budget and development team. And with how ambitious it is, it’s easy to see why. It’s a gem with the potential to shine as radiantly as the biggest VNs out there. However, it’s also a gem I found to be rough and riddled with flaws. This contradiction is one I couldn’t fully come to terms with.

The story begins in 2050 when a futuristic pod containing a mysterious girl crash lands in a nearby park. Who is this curious girl? Well, she must have bonked her head or something in the crash, because not even she knows. The setup is cliched, yet effective. The the veil of mystery surrounding the plot serves as a strong impetus to keep reading. Yet it’s not that story that receives the focus in the beginning. What follows is hours of slice of life comedy with the mysteries dangling tantalizingly out of reach.

Of course, common routes full to the brim with light-hearted slice of life scenes is a staple of Japanese visual novels. What’s weird here is how out of place it actually feels. It’s funny — hilarious, even — and it helps you grow attached to the characters, but it still feels at odds with the serious kind of story they try to tell. Himawari has a branching structure with a strictly-enforced route order. They utilize this structure in an attempt to construct a rollercoaster of a story to enjoy, but what they ended up with feels rickety and uneven, not the smooth and thrilling experience you might have wanted.

And to exemplify this, Himawari pulls an abrupt 180 once the initial route ends and the next chapter begins. Taking place two years earlier, it’s dark and moody, with the protagonist brooding in a darkened room in almost record time. It’s not a downer the entire time, there are still light-hearted moments to be had, but the whole experience feels quite a bit more melancholic than the VN’s first chapter. This second chapter is actually much more consistently paced. The characters have time to show new and interesting facets of their personalities, they trickle in clues to the overarching mysteries at a good pace, and the moments of levity keep things from feeling too bleak. It’s stunning how much better this second chapter is than the first.

This is when the story truly kicks in, when they start laying on the backstory thick and heavy. This isn’t your typical sci-fi story, either. Himawari is quite literally “science fiction,” and that’s not as dull as you might think. The scenario writer G.O. is very well-versed in the scientific subjects he tackles, and uses his knowledge to great effect in the construction of Himawari’s story. Many of the game’s major plot points are given detailed scientific explanations that are fascinating to read and sound just plausible enough to allow you to easily accept them, despite clearly existing in the realm of fiction.

The heart of the story in Himawari, however, has very little to do with the complex scientific topics it tackles. The second chapter introduces a several new characters who are involved in a complex web of drama that goes back years. Himawari is in effect a multi-generational romantic drama. It almost reminds me of Hoshizora no Memoria in some respects, one of many VNs that was likely influenced in part by Himawari. The sci-fi backstory serves as the impetus for the previous generation of characters, but the bulk of the VN is about how the current generation has to deal with the aftermath of decisions made over the previous years.

The second chapter draws from the past with judicious use of flashbacks and infodumps, efficiently weaving the exposition gained from them into the current story, while giving you regular doses of cathartic revelation that makes you view the events in 2050 in a whole new light. Combined with the strong pacing, this part had me more engaged than I’ve been reading a VN in a long while. It is good enough that I was able to overlook its flaws, such as how rushed and bizarre the central relationship is. I just didn’t care, and wanted to keep reading. And then its ending is among the most powerful I’ve ever read in a VN.

If the rest of the VN was this good, I don’t think I’d ever be able to stop talking about it. Unfortunately, what follows is a steady downturn of uneven pacing, sloppy character development, and a hodgepodge of themes with muddled and incomplete messages. The game returns to 2050, and with it the easygoing slice-of-life nature returns. This is fine if they can pace it well with the rest of the story, but they cannot. The romance in the Aqua route is rushed, I never quite figured out how those two characters actually fell in love. The impact of its messages feel blunted by how the Aqua character is written. And some of the characters feel inconsistent with how they behaved in the past. In short, it’s a messy story.

The next route doesn’t feel much better, either. The abrupt turns some of the characters make are a little too hard to swallow. This is ultimately the way the entire rest of the VN plays out. Too many shortcuts are made in the storytelling, and too many characters behave inconsistently. Coming from my high following the stellar second chapter, this was all too much of a let down for me. Himawari writes a slew of checks it’s unable to cash.

And then the side stories happen. Once you finish the main story, three side stories open up in the main menu. One really short story focusing on one of the main heroines, and two rather long multi-hour affairs that supply ample amounts of additional backstory and even introduce a whole new major plot element. That’s right, once you reach the conclusion of everyone’s story, the game decides to essentially turn everything on its head with a new plot device. And then once it’s done flipping the table on you, it simply ends.

I believe these side stories were meant to be a prologue for the Aqua After fandisc, but in the version of the VN we received, they are positioned as epilogues to the main story. And they are awfully destructive epilogues, at that. They start something dramatically different from what we’ve been experiencing up until that point, suggesting that everything you thought you knew about Himawari was a lie, only to end it at the peak of your confusion. Want the conclusion? Better hope MangaGamer translates Aqua After as well. Maybe we’ll know what really happened in Himawari in 2018. The real shame is that these side stories aren’t even very good. The second one, to put it bluntly, is a horribly uninspired second-rate mystery story. The decision to include them in this release is simply baffling.

The art feels just as confused as the writing. Not to say the art is bad, but it feels horribly out of place. Simply put, it’s adorable. The extreme moe-ness of it feels wholly inappropriate considering the rest of the work’s tone. Even during the light-hearted moments, there are undertones that feel at odds with the aesthetic. It quite honestly never sat right with me. At least the music is good. Well, the compositions are good. The version that MangaGamer released contains some rather dubious rearrangements, however. Thankfully there is a fan patch that restores the original doujin version’s music.

I’m also glad to say that the translation is rather good. The translation was handled by the same duo that tackled Tokyo Babel. If you read that one, you know how capable these guys are. The dialogue has a humorous, natural feel to it that matches well with the VN’s tone, and the characters’ unique personalities shine through well, although there are some odd translation choices in a handful of instances that seem incongruent with the rest of the translation. I have to say that the translation does feel a bit unpolished overall. I spotted numerous typos and grammatical errors, as well as a couple missing/repeated lines. This aspect is mystifying when you consider that the translation was finished an entire year before release. MangaGamer had time to proofread it and provide a more polished product, but they didn’t. I can’t even begin to guess as to why not. As of this writing, over six weeks since release, there has yet to be a fix patch, although apparently one is on the way.

If I sound disappointed, that’s because I am. Himawari should have, and could have been better. The peaks are tremendously high, and the potential is there for a masterpiece, but Himawari falls tragically short. When all’s said and done, though, I can’t say I hated my time with it, side stories excepting. The high points are truly memorable, and even the rest of the VN has its moments. But I can’t forgive its lower points, or look past its numerous flaws. Himawari will live on as an inconsistent yet noteworthy experience.

Pick up your copy of Himawari – The Sunflower – here VNDB

Follow Decay on Twitter and Fuwanovel.

This review was written using a review key provided by MangaGamer.


Update: A patch went live on 1/19/2017, one day after this review’s publication. Its purpose is to fix various translation issues, though we have not verified if it fixes all issues spotted.

  • Decay's Review

Summary

Pros:

+ The slice of life moments are genuinely cozy and hilarious.

+ Very strong second chapter with pacing and drama that's a cut above the rest.

+ Intriguing use of science fiction elements.

Cons:

- Inconsistent characters and overly convenient writing makes some of the drama feel contrived.

- Sloppily paced with a story that stops and goes in spurts.

- Mediocre side stories that close the experience out on an awful cliffhanger.

3.0

About the author

Decay

Hello, I'm Decay, an avid fan of visual novels and a regular poster on Fuwanovel. Also, I now review and write about VNs officially for Fuwanovel? Yeah, that started happening at some point. You may also see me on VNDB as dk382.

15 Comments

  • I finished the second chapter and wasn’t that impressed. I’m in the middle of replaying the first chapter for the romance but even that I worry I won’t like. I almost feel like dropping it. You didn’t review much on the romance. Is there strong romance?

    • The romance in the Aqua route is pretty unusual. I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t say much more, but I think ultimately the way they develop feelings for each other feels sort of rushed and their relationship isn’t as well developed as it could have been. The Asuka route’s romance is a bit better, but other things in that route hold back the story from being as good as it could have been.

  • What I’m reading is basically the reviewer rambling about how everything is “unbelievable” “badly written” and “inconsistent” while never explaining why. I didn’t read the side stories but I absolutely didn’t feel like anything I was reading was full of “shortcuts”, just pretty unconventional but still believable in many ways if you take the time to put two and two together (aside from one twist regarding Youichi’s amnesia that definitely was too convenient). I really respect G.O. for his to the point writing after the first route, he knows what he wants and certainly won’t change his views to rub his readers the right way, pretty much like Anno does.
    If you want to talk about clumsy writing, absurd or lazy character development then there is Steins;Gate and its sequel whose popularity still eludes me to this day (the 0 review showing up just below this comment section didn’t fail to trigger me).

    • I chose not to get deep into specifics because I didn’t want the review to be particularly spoilery. It did concern me as I was writing it that I wasn’t giving concrete enough examples, but digging too deep into minutiae can also be a problem. So…

      —SPOILERS START—

      The elements surrounding Youichi’s amnesia was definitely a pretty big part of what bothered me. But it’s more than just the amnesia itself. What was concealed by that amnesia, and its impact on Youichi and the story, was also much less significant than perhaps it should have been. In Aqua’s route, the way Youichi was able to almost immediately able to resolve his issues and move on as soon as they came up felt really cheap to me, and how Youichi was able to do that on his own while Aqua is completely dependent on others heavily undermines the message they were going for there.

      Another major point of concern for me was what I perceived as inconsistencies in Akira’s character. He just changed at some point. There was a time gap, and he could have conceivably changed in that time, but we were never made privy to how or why, we’re only left guessing. It feels really jarring and cheap, like you see him again and he’s a completely different person, and the story acts as if this is the most normal thing in the world. Developing a character off-camera is generally a big storytelling no-no. It’s actually kind of a bummer, it feels like there should have been more conflict in the Asuka route. There wasn’t really much of a central conflict at all, making it a pretty weak story.

      They also have a habit of just sweeping important plot threads under the rug whenever addressing them would be too much of an issue, such as Youichi’s amnesia in the Asuka route, and Aries’ main emotional motivation for her actions in 2050 seemed to change a little bit in Aqua’s route and apparently wasn’t a concern at all in the Asuka one, for two examples.

      —SPOILERS END—

      I’m not going to go on and on about this. I just wanted to explain my review a bit more, you’re free to disagree here as much as you want but I’m not going to get into a debate about this.

  • I also don’t want to enter a lengthy debate so I won’t answer most of your arguments. Still, I believe the issue you found with Akira’s behaviour isn’t one at all, actually.

    SPOILERS

    You’re telling me his personality made a 180 off-camera in 2050 compared to his 2048 self.
    It would’ve been pretty clumsy if that was the case but you probably remember the fight he had with Aqua and Daigo during 2048. He literally got beaten up and the whole situation was pretty heavy emotionally, both for him and Aqua. It’s pretty clear he realised something when he lost all control over her. He’s also complaining about his own powerlessness to cure Akari’s defective DNA, I think it’s when his personality changed, going from a stoic and merciless individual to a slightly more gentle person (even if he retains his usual bitterness). The “villain” softening up after suffering a defeat is a pretty common trope after all.
    I also have another view on this subject, it’s that his personality never really changed. He was a real ass to Aqua in 2048 because he cared about her to some extent, she could still serve as a vessel for Akari even if it wasn’t very likely. But he gradually gives up on her and doesn’t really care anymore, which explains his behaviour in Aqua’s route when he’s still very much attached to Aries (much like in the first route) because of her potential. Akira wouldn’t (and didn’t) let such a valuable asset to the Saionji Group get away from him. But Aqua? She was never especially talented and her strong personality proved to be undesirable.

    /SPOILERS

  • My feelings on Himawari are pretty complex. Going off the four main parts–Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and then the two routes that follow–I’d probably go 3/5, 1/5, 5/5, 3/5. Which I gather is not an impression many others share.

    I think it’s a matter of expectations–no matter where you calibrate, there’s nearly always going to be a clash. The first part sets Himawari up as basically a story in the Key mold: silly slice-of-life with supernatural elements that abruptly falls into tragedy. It’s fairly decent at that, in part because the main character has no idea what’s going on and isn’t qualified to deal with any it, and the story leans into that well. It’s messy and undignified in the way that adolescence is messy and undignified, because children don’t have the power to solve their problems.

    And then you get to part 2. Aqua is pretty inarguably the most interesting part of part 1, and the second part focuses on her! …except that it’s a glacially-paced drama where the cool-headed combat expert loses every fight and spends the entirety pining after an uninterested too-old man in a central relationship that starts at “creepy” and devolves to “Freudian case study.” Other M at least had decent gameplay, you know?

    …and then it goes and has an actually-legitimately-good follow-up that’s dependent on the set-up and events in a godawful predecessor. Aqua and Youichi get to be interesting, fully fleshed-out characters! They have actual chemistry! The budding relationship is abrupt and way too intense, which is revealed to be purposeful and well-handled and grounded in established character histories! Ginga gets to be something other than the wacky space cadet! And there’s parts of it near the end that made me die laughing. (Featuring the very best father figure.) I’m very fond of it, and I wish I could recommend it in isolation… But I can’t, not when you need parts 1 and 2 to appreciate it.

    And then the fourth part isn’t great, but it makes good work of earlier stuff and salvages very nearly all the characters who were previously flat and featureless. Parts 1 and 4 are basically the two bits of Himawari that could actually stand on their own. And by this point, I tried reading the parts after this and bounced off. Judging by what I’ve heard of Aqua After, this is probably for the best.

    In the end, it ends up being a 3/5 that I can’t ever recommend to anyone. I’m glad I managed to slog through part 3, but I expect that other people have more respect for their time.

  • I’m not too far in yet and I feel like dropping it. Well, I guess I already have as I haven’t touched it in over a week and the last time I only managed to progress maybe ten minutes. The humour mentioned in the review is non-existent, giving only a couple of chuckles so far, and I haven’t found the characters too interesting yet, Aries especially sitting at the very bottom of the meh scale. I’m assuming there’s more to the girl than just sunflowers, but right now there isn’t. The butler is another character I’m not a fan of and am finding him mostly just annoying.

    I’ve seen the first part or route or whatever likened to something like Grisaia common, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in my opinion. I want to like this based on all the good things I’ve heard, but I can’t. Maybe it’s just too slow for me, because it feels like there’s absolutely no progress being made in any direction of the story.

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