NOTE: This review does not contain any sexually explicit content.
It’s no secret that I’ve been greatly looking forward to the trial of new adult otome game brand MariaCrown’s maiden title, Yoshiwara Higanbana. Technical difficulties meant that the trial was released on the 14th instead of the 11th of September. Honestly, that’s far from a good first impression (and if I were the creators, I’d be reeling). I remain worried about this bungle, but nevertheless eagerly downloaded the fixed, re-uploaded trial.
Anyway, the main things that attracted me to Yoshiwara Higanbana since its announcement are as follows: the darkly dramatic, tragic and mature aura, the brothel setting appearing to be utilised without any bowdlerisation and a protagonist who’s seemingly unlike the many others in the otome world. Plus I’m not gonna lie- the gorgeous art by Ranpumi really helps!
In my eyes, Yoshiwara Higanbana has the makings of a good game… However, does the trial live up to the hype?
Full game release date: 25-9-2015
Platform: PC (Windows only)
Age rating: CERO Z [R18+]
Voice acting: Fully voiced except for the protagonist
Developer and publisher: MariaCrown
Writer: Hazuki Erika (main writer), Kazami Yui (sub writer)
Official website: http://mariacrown.com/yosiwara/index.html
VNDb link: https://vndb.org/v13994
OP Info: Unfortunately, still unknown (if anybody has any info, please don’t hesitate to let me know!)
* Cast *
Note: All characters that don’t have a “★” next to their name don’t appear in the trial.
+ Main Characters +
~ Iseya Souichirou – Sawa Manaka (Nakazawa Masatomo)
~ Kaguraya Akito – Higeuchi Waruta (Takeuchi Ryouta)
~ Ootsuki Shinobu – Suga Kiya (Majima Junji)
★ Oukaya Shigure – Houdentei-gatsu (Morikawa Toshiyuki)
★ Sakuya – Kijima Uta (Mizushima Takahiro)
+ Supporting Characters +
★ Tatsukichi – Yotsuya Cider (Okitsu Kazuyuki)
~ Kichou – Voiced, but currently uncredited
★ Yuzu – Voiced, but currently uncredited
It is the Edo era.
Lust and desire swirls within the “other side” of the luxurious and gorgeous Shin-Yoshiwara. At the long-standing brothel called “Oukaya”, the protagonist Chihaya works as its top-ranking prostitute. In order to go back to her motherland, she enterains male strangers day and night.
Her unchanging everyday life… Yoshiwara might be a small world, but to Chihaya, it’s a treasured place in which she can prove herself. The brothel’s owner, Shigure. Her servant, Yuzu. The strong-willed fellow harlots that work alongside her. Surrounded by irreplaceable people, though her line of work is called “the world of suffering”, Chihaya is proud of being a courtesan…
…Until she learned what true love is.
This is the story of upheaval in which a prostitute gets swallowed by a fate she cannot fight against.
Story, Setting and Writing
While I’m not particularly interested in wafuu settings as a whole, I became interested in Yoshiwara Higanbana due to the tone of the overall story and how no contrivances are used to prevent the protagonist (Rin, oiran name Chihaya) from being a prostitute (for example, making the protagonist a “prostitute-to-be” but we all know the writers have no intent on actually going through with it). Better yet, Rin is proud of her job and it doesn’t seem like one of those awful “rich Gary Stu will buy me out of the brothel I work at and save me from my awful life of degrading myself!” stories.
The trial is quite basic. Like most otome game trials, players are introduced to the story’s common route from the beginning up until a designated point in the common route (though some let you play all of a common route and even the earlier parts of individual routes). Some R18+ games include a sex scene or two to sample the H content, but not Yoshiwara. This isn’t really a big deal to me, but it would have been interesting to see how Rin is portrayed in a sex scene.
To summarise the events, you get a look into Rin’s daily life and interactions. You then briefly meet the characters, reading the interactions to an extent that you can basically grasp their relationship with Rin. You get to see how the choices affect the main characters’ reactions and to what degree. Yoshiwara did all of this, and that’s fine with me. What ISN’T, however, is only introducing two out of five of the main characters. Akito gets talked about, but Souichirou and Shinobu don’t even get mentioned. I even wondered if I bungled the choices and repeated the trial over and over, mixing up my responses as I went along. Yup, it’s official. You only meet Sakuya and Shigure.
This baffles me. The love interests are one of the biggest selling points of any otome game. I’ve thought up of a few theories as to why the trial was so short and lacking in any notable events, but this still doesn’t make sense to me. It got cut off so early that I thought, “that’s it?” instead of “damn, cliffhanger! To buy or not to buy…” That’s not to say that Rin’s interactions with Sakuya and Shigure were boring- they weren’t. Sakuya’s cold, stoic and professional demeanour shone through. Shigure’s caring yet firm personality was introduced nicely through the way Akito was brought into his and Rin’s conversation. The amount of adoration and respect Rin has for Shigure is introduced nicely, in my view. In fact, I’m further disappointed by the lack of Akito, Souichirou and Shinobu because their introductory interactions with Rin would have been quite informative and interesting if they were done as nicely as Sakuya and Shigure’s.
As for the writing itself, the first thing I noticed about the style is how little Hazuki Erika shys away from using archaic/obscure words, terminology and dialects in order to bring the Edo era Yoshiwara to life. Most words that can be written in kanji was done so, with minimal katakana (the menu had some, but I can’t recall the narrative itself having any) and of course, no wasei-eigo outside of the game’s menu. Perhaps as a result of this, her writing style is “meatier” and slightly more text-heavy than the average otome game. While I’m far from an expert on Japanese history (I’d say my knowledge is basic), so far, I do feel as though quite a bit of effort has gone into researching the setting. I get the feeling that one or maybe both writers have a personal interest in it as well, but in fairness I really can’t sing praise of “WOW, SO AUTHENTIC!” without finishing the full game.
Unfortunately, adherence to authenticity comes at a small price: unless you’re a Japanese history buff, a good handful of the “jargon” will fly right over your head. In my opinion, Yoshiwara Higanbana is not recommended for those who don’t have an at least intermediate understanding of Japanese. Even some of the native Japanese trial reviewers I came across admitted to having to look up more than just a couple of words in a dictionary. Thankfully, the lesser-known words have furigana to help readers out. Of course, furigana only assists with reading and not the definitions, so words without context clues will pretty much require help from a dictionary (I used Jim Breen’s online one and that worked out well for me).
While I commend the more authentic direction- as I really do feel like I’m reading something set in the Edo era- I really wish they created an in-game dictionary, à la Rejet. This would have been so much more convenient for readers to check the obscure words. Plus an in-game dictionary is less immersion-breaking than switching to your browser or using an actual dictionary.
The protagonist, Rin (oiran name: Chihaya) works for Oukaya (which is amongst the top brothels in Yoshiwara) as its highest-ranked courtesan. Information outside of the trial says that she was separated from her childhood friend and has some small, lingering feelings for him. It sounds like most people think this childhood friend is Iseya Souichirou, but I’m not jumping to any conclusions. Sadly, you don’t get to learn much about her in the trial, though her seriousness and dedication to her job is made crystal clear. I found that I learned the more interesting parts of her personality through interactions with other characters rather than her narrations when she’s alone.
Yuzu is a kamuro, which were children who attended to a fully fledged oiran. Befitting this title and position, Yuzu is a polite young girl who looks up to Rin very much. She’s quite serious about wanting to become an oiran; never dropping the dialect an oiran adopts (known as “arinsu-kotoba“) even outside of work and aspires to be “just like Chihaya-oiran” when she’s older. A standard, if purpose-serving introduction. However, the part I found interesting was the brief moment of Rin outwardly supporting Yuzu’s aspiration, but inwardly hoping that Yuzu doesn’t become an oiran so that she may have a normal life.
Tatsukichi is a live-in store attendant of Oukaya, referred to as a miseban. Outside of the typical duties one might expect of a regular store attendant, his other duties appear to involve assisting the oiran themselves. An example of this is his kasamochi duties, which involve him accompanying an oiran to a hikidejaya (tea houses in which clients are introduced to the oiran) whilst holding a long-handled umbrella called a nagaegasa for her. I don’t really have an opinion on him as he barely has any lines, but I did enjoy Okitsu Kazuyuki’s deeper voice. Given Tatsukichi’s design and his voice actor’s popularity, I’m sure many are hoping he gets a sub-route.
Sakuya is a highly skilled hairdresser bought and employed by Oukaya. His character profile, sample CG dialogue and trial all collectively impressed upon me as him not deviating from the typical kuudere character archetype: aloof, stoic, taciturn and unemotional, but once in love, he’s devoted and “suprisingly” passionate. However, since Sakuya is unlike the handful of other characters of this type who often start off as merely being antisocial jerkwads (rather than just plain aloof or introverted), he didn’t leave me with a poor impression.
I like how he’s confident in his skills (which is further enhanced by his consummately professional demeanour) and doesn’t hesitate to suggest style alternatives if he feels as though it would be better suited for the occasion (such as if you pick wanting to wear a red shikake (an overcoat-like garment worn over the kimono, much like an uchikake in today’s traditional Japanese bridal attire) in the middle of summer, he suggests blue as it leaves a “cool” impression rather than red’s “hot” impression)… but isn’t an arrogant, impolite dick about it. Which is refreshing to me, considering I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve come across the “arrogant-jerk-but-warranted-due-to-[X] highly desirable skill” character descriptor. It further shows his attention to detail and commitment to producing the best results.
Unfailingly professional, punctual, formal and serious, though perhaps inflexible (Sakuya reveals that he often gets called as such by those around him), this all contributes to why he’s such a fantastic hairdresser. However, I’m left to wonder about how this rigidity will impact upon his relationship with Rin.
Finally, we’re introduced to Oukaya Shigure, the owner and operator of Oukaya. This of course, makes him Rin’s boss, but Shigure is also Rin’s guardian (as Rin describes herself as being “taken in” by Oukaya about 15 years prior to the game’s events. Wow… just how old is this guy?!) and her instructor in the literary and performing arts. She already knew of him before going to Oukaya, due to him and her family formerly being business associates (Rin’s family are wholesale dry-goods dealers and once sold the kimono those at Oukaya wear).
Calm, mature and wise, readers quickly grasp how greatly Rin respects and admires Shigure. However, she frequently reminds herself to not depend on him more than she should, regardless of how much kindness he displays. This is because not only is he the owner of Oukaya, but he’s her boss and mentor as well. In the end, she realises her position: she’s a courtesan working for him and is the store’s “property”. It’s a sad mentality to have of oneself, but this was definitely not uncommon back in those times. After all, this is an era in which wives and daughters could be sold off as “assets” to pay back debts. Which brings some sad implications as to why Rin became an oiran in the first place…
The conversation of Rin and Shigure’s I enjoyed the most was about his warning her of Kaguraya Akito’s return. This is because I got the most out of it information-wise. Shigure and Akito are friends, and Rin knew the latter during the time she was a shinzou (courtesans-in-training that are a rank above kamuro). She saw him quite often as Akito was close to Rin’s senior oiran at the time, only known as “Chikage” (I wonder if she had any bearing on Rin’s oiran name?) After Chikage left, Akito stopped frequenting Oukaya, but is now coming back- it’s not clear if he’ll be a regular again, though. Anyway, Rin never got along with Akito due to him constantly berating her (calling her singing “crap” and laughing at her, for instance).
Hence the reason why the kind Shigure wanted to warn her that Akito was coming. While Shigure is aware of the poor way Akito treats Rin and won’t force her to spend time with him, Shigure stresses that since Akito is a customer, Rin must be the bigger person and remain mature. Throughout, Rin tries to reassure Shigure that she’s older now and that her opinion of Akito has changed (out of not wanting to disrespect Shigure by having a negative opinion of his friend), but of course, he sees through her polite front. After a few more words of caution about how it’s Rin’s duty to remain professional as “Chihaya”, Rin thinks to herself that Shigure might think she has a lot to learn…
Like most otome games, Yoshiwara Higanbana is presented in the ADV format. As you can see in the screenshot above, the text box menu is quite standard, and this isn’t in a bad way. The most frequently visited and important functions- such as saving and skipping- are easily accessible. The menu at the top of the screen is where you can access the less used and more specialised functions/customisation options (e.g., skipping to and fro choices or changing the window size). Overall, the menu layout is very minimalistic, rendered in a combination of black, red, white and brown, keeping in line with the distinct wafuu flavour of the game.
This is further enhanced by the default font being a calligraphic Japanese style rather than a modern print variety (this can be changed in the settings). The settings and menu items are presented in kanji anywhere it is applicable, but even if you’re not confident with your kanji ability, you should be able to glean what function does what through context clues. While some might call Yoshiwara Higanbana’s system aesthetics boring- and I don’t totally disagree- it’s better than it being too ornamental and clashing with the visuals. They’re not horrendously ugly and they serve their purpose without any issues. Anything above that standard is a bonus, in my eyes.
Like most otome presented in the ADV style, there are multiple routes and endings that can be reached by making choices. While some choice systems are frankly, a complete affront to the intellect of anybody older than four, Yoshiwara Higanbana’s choices are not painfully obvious. It’s not like they’re super-cryptic or anything, but you won’t be seeing anything like “Hmm, who should I visit today?” with a list of all the love interests. You’ll be required to think before you choose, but not too hard. In addition, not all choices are just divided into two. There are also choices with three options, with the third option seeming like neutral ones designed for players who don’t want to add nor subtract from the relationship values of a character.
One of the first things that caught my attention is Yoshiwara Higanbana artist Ranpumi’s beautiful artwork. I don’t have much to comment on about the backgrounds. While they don’t match up to the gorgeousness of the promotional artwork, they’re nicely done. As for the character designs… I think Rin’s extravagent, layered kimono looks great and is a nice reflection of her high rank. Major props to Rin’s hair- I’m loving the classy, elaborately arranged shimada and kanzashi. I would love to get dolled up like that someday… Since wardrobe options are limited to kimono for the body and tabi, geta or zouri for footwear, it looks like each main guy has been designed around a “colour theme” to further distinguish them from each other.
I think the guys look different from each other enough even without the “colour theme” designing… So maybe this is all just purely for aesthetical value (rather than making everyone stick to realistic hair and eye colours, which may be dull to some)? Whatever the case, I like how all the men look so I’m not complaining. (•‿•) While Shigure has the loveliest threads thanks to his sophisticated purple kimono, I’d say my favourite guys looks-wise are Sakuya and Akito. I like Sakuya’s cool-colour “theme” and hairstyle. As for Akito, I like his sharp, “mean” look and the beautiful red-to-white gradient of his kimono.
While there’s no lip-syncing or blinking like you see in the more recently released titles, the character sprites change expression quite often, sometimes even in the middle of delivering a line. For instance, when they briefly pause to think and then continue talking. It’s nice to see the creators trying to add small touches to bring more emotion and life into the dialogue. Of course, blinking and lip-syncing in concert with this attention to expression would have been even better!
Music and Sound
I couldn’t get to really judge the sound effects, since there was a lack of them because none of the situations in the trial really demanded any be used. All I can say is that I didn’t find anything abnormal. However, I do want to mention that the summer setting was nicely reinforced thanks to the cicada sound effects at the beginning. The game’s background music is fairly laidback and I like it. Fitting the setting of Yoshiwara, most of the instruments used were ones you’d find in traditional Japanese music, such as the shamisen, taiko, koto and traditional Japanese flute(s). My favourite track is probably the one that played in the beginning alongside the cicada cries.
Finally, the voice acting. I must address this right away: Hirakawa Daisuke isn’t cast in this game. That alone is sad enough to me
(it’s my fault for having a selfish expectation of this happening because of Chou no Doku Hana no Kusari), but then the next cruel blow: Rin isn’t voiced! It’s a crying shame partly because I’d like to hear the archaic dialect brought to life. It would also have helped a lot more in terms of comprehending the obscurer words that don’t come with furigana. Oh well… MariaCrown is a new brand and the protagonist is typically the most expensive character to get voice acting for. If Yoshiwara Higanbana does well, maybe next time!
While I’m starting to get sick of Nakazawa Masatomo and Majima Junji appearing in every R18+ otome thing, I still would have liked to hear how they portray their characters outside of voice samples. Also, it’s very sad that Akito didn’t come out because 1) I’ve been interested in him alongside Sakuya since the early days and 2) Takeuchi Ryouta’s voice. I was a sad panda when I realised that I won’t be hearing from Akito! (;﹏;)
Moving on now, instead of whining about what I didn’t get… I’m very happy that Mizushima Takahiro is voicing Sakuya! It was a happy surprise to see him announced in the cast list. I think the last time I heard him in an R18+ game was Kuro to Kin no Akanai Kagi. His calm, youthful and refreshing (sawayaka) voice suits Sakuya (as he’s supposedly the youngest out of the five main guys). Mizushima uses a lower tone to portray Sakuya’s aloofness, as well as to make him sound a bit older. As for Shigure, he’s voiced by the magnificent and BOSS Morikawa Toshiyuki, which was another pleasant surprise. The last time I heard him in an R18+ otome was in Trick or Alice, and he wasn’t even a capturable guy. His deep and mature voice combined with his gentle voice acting for this role fits the older and wiser Shigure like a glove. No complaints!
* My Thoughts *
Since the trial was so short (around 15~20 minutes), I was more on the dismissive side and felt somewhat betrayed. Well, I still feel a bit betrayed, but after I played again for the purpose of this review, I noticed many more things. I took more notice of the writing style, more aspects of the characters’ personalities and the choices that have more thought put into them rather than the “stalk to win heart” format many otome games are fond of. Sakuya and Shigure were introduced nicely and it was good to see a more authentic approach to depicting Yoshiwara- though just to what extent this is achieved can only be judged by playing the entire game.
Overall, I’m pleased with what I played. While I still mostly have the feeling it’ll at least be a decent game, the bungling of the first release of the trial and then its subsequent revelation of being short put a damper on things, so I’ve decided to not pre-order. That being said, I’ll be keeping a very watchful eye on reviews, and won’t hesitate to buy a new copy the moment I can trust that my time won’t be wasted.
Here’s hoping that MariaCrown won’t become just another one-game wonder adult otome brand.