Back in 2014, my friend Arujei gifted the visual novel World End Economica to me for Christmas. Though I had always been aware of their existence, I had never played a visual novel before – to me, the prospect of a story riddled with multiple “routes” and “flags” seemed confusing to me. In this regard, I was fortunate to have started with World End Economica; as a linear “kinetic novel,” its presentation was easy for me to digest and enjoy. Having thoroughly enjoyed the work, I then decided to take on a full-fledged, multi-route visual novel. At the insistence of another friend, Balance, who had been wanting me to experience its story for quite some time, my first true visual novel became known as… Little Busters!
Before I delve into my impressions and study of the work however, I would like to note that, due to the nature of the visual novel, I will be openly discussing numerous plot points that can be considered spoilers for the first-time reader. Furthermore, I would also like to clarify that I have based everything off the original Little Busters! release as translated using the unofficial translation patch headed by applehq over at the TLWiki. Perhaps one day I will revise parts of my post with the release of the properly polished Little Busters! Perfect Edition, but for now my understanding of the story is limited to the content, errors, and localization choices of the unofficially patched original release.
When my friend first introduced me to the premise of Little Busters!, I likened it to a slice-of-life anime. While there had been a time when I used to actively seek out slice-of-life series as my genre of choice, my interests had since moved away from anime altogether due to a perceived repetitiveness of archetypes and tropes. For this reason, I was not particularly enthused about reading a visual novel that would likely be structured the same way. In fact, I initially had a false start in beginning it; the manner in which the opening sequence thrust me head-first into a ridiculous situation somewhat decolored my expectations and made me feel as if the story’s substance would be diminished by a desire to instead have the characters engage in trite scenes of anime hijinks. Then, as life would have it, I ended up leaving medical school and, having been isolated from the school setting, felt myself wanting to revisit the world presented in Little Busters! I would later come to realize the symbolism behind this perceptual progression.
There were definitely some superficialities that I had to come to terms with, however. For one, I was not a fan of the “typical” visual novel set up: the reader plays as a male main character who is apparently supposed to court and form a romantic relationship with a character from the smorgasbord of clichéd female personalities in the cast; the self-serving arrangement evidently for the sake of fulfilling some sort of fantasy girlfriend scenario was the very quality that made me hesitant to seriously engage in reading visual novels in the first place. In my eyes, such setups fluffed up the narrative with unrealistic archetypical characters that would only feel natural in the anime world – a character such as “playful” as Yuiko would be entirely creepy in real life.
Moreover, I found the overall writing to have a “fansub” feel to it – from time to time, the dialogue shows awkwardly worded sentiments such as Komari “perform[ing] a self-destruction” that gave the writing an amateurish feel when compared to more polished localized works such as the aforementioned World End Economica as well as the array of dialogue-heavy JRPGs available on the Western market. However, the quality of the translation was clearly a result of the unofficial translation patch being developed by a group of fans on their own time so it is completely understandable that it would come off as less polished when compared to professionally translated works. Even so, the writing in Little Busters! persists in packing itself with tropes that commonly saturate anime and manga. When the cast is not busy patting each other on their backs and telling one another to “do [their] best!” over the most trivial of efforts, the narration is intent on meticulously spelling out their happenings so as to leave little to imagination; for whatever reason, the story felt the need to explain the fact that Mio was struck on her buttocks by a stray baseball no fewer than three times during the encounter. To top it off, the dialogue is peppered with the strange verbal tics that anime characters sometimes display.
But in the end, as I wrote earlier, all of these aspects were ultimately superficialities that, while initially jarring, were easy enough to look past after getting immersed into the visual narrative. Little Busters! is, in fact, a splendidly written story with surprisingly complex stylistic choices to paint the lives of its characters. Given my personal situation at the time, being able to frolic across the campus grounds let me revel in a certain peace imparted by the story. As I familiarized myself with Riki’s life and the friends that he would spend his days with, I eventually began to work my way through the various “routes” offered by the visual novel.
I should note that I place a very high value on experiencing stories organically and treated Little Busters! the same way; I refused to follow any guides or “recommended” sequences in completing the routes because I felt that doing so was contrary to the structure and limitations that typify the visual novel format. As it would so happen however, the first “route” I ended up following was that of Rin. As experienced readers of Little Busters! know, Rin’s story has a very unique structure that can only be properly explored after finishing other routes. After being unceremoniously dumped back to the title screen, I felt the strange gatekeeper aspect of the route to be clumsily implemented and chalked it up to a limitation of the visual novel format. Though the story was not hiding the fact that it wanted me to complete the other routes first, I still felt that the choices leading up to the route could have be structured in such a way so as to avoid the route altogether rather than making Riki succumb to his narcolepsy to put a sudden end to its progression. As I pressed onwards in the main story, I eventually came to understand why the story chose to “tease” the reader in this manner, but I would like to expand on this point when I begin to discuss the “Rin 2” segment along with the realizations uncovered by the Refrain arc.
In uncovering the remaining characters’ individual routes, it would always be a bit of a surprise for me to see which route the game would lock me into – since I was aimlessly playing the game based completely on my own impulses, it was fun for me to see the “consequences” of my actions over the course of the story. I suppose it is for this reason then that the first route I actually completed was that of Haruka Saigusa.
As I navigated the common route, Haruka’s escapades stood out to me for the same reason that Masato’s boisterous presence turns heads in the cafeteria – she brought a form of self-directed chaos to the otherwise blithesome mood pervading their lives. As I learned more about her, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discover just how complex her actual thoughts and motivations were so as to influence her behavior. Though the visual novel goes into detail explaining the extent of the abuse she suffered at home, it suffices to say that Haruka was a psychologically scarred individual who could only bear to get through the day by wearing the mask of the relentlessly impish troublemaker for which she had garnered a reputation. I felt that this coping mechanism, along with the secondary themes of sibling rivalry and familial interference, helped Haruka’s story stand out as one of the more realistic arcs in the visual novel; it is entirely within the realm of possibility – even common – for traumatized individuals to struggle with questions relating to identity and appropriate coping methods.
Still, Haruka was not simply “acting out” – she had a semblance of a goal in mind. Accordingly, the same can be said for the other half of the equation: Kanata Futaki. Though Haruka’s sister still opted to cope with her abusive situation in a destructive manner, she too appears to embrace a mask that she has created for herself. Kanata is also shown to have a nascent plan in her mind, but similarly appears to lose herself in her efforts to the point that her actions become more and more disproportionate. Though the influence of the twins’ family undeniably vitiates their interactions, some insight into the psychology in play can be offered by the famous Stanford Prison Experiment.
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted a study to investigate whether inherently hostile personality traits can incite abusive behaviors between prison guards and inmates. In order to test this hypothesis, he recruited middle-class college students to participate in a prison simulation for two weeks. Students were randomly assigned to play the role of either a guard or a prisoner. Since the study’s exclusion criteria ensured that all participants were free of criminal, psychological, or medical problems, Dr. Zimbardo hypothesized that the simulation would play out in an orderly manner.
The opposite occurred. After a singular day, the “prisoners” were becoming more defiant and the “guards” showed increasingly abusive behavior. Prisoners would blockade their cells. Guards would voluntarily work overtime to subdue them. The detained would go on hunger strikes. The authorities would punish them with solitary confinement. The Stanford Prison Experiment came to be known as a horrific spectacle that would later prompt researchers to rewrite the ethical guidelines surrounding such experiments.
Needless to say, the results of the experiment completely disagreed with Dr. Zimbardo’s hypothesized outcome. Based on the behavior of the participants, it was clear that their dispositions were not the catalyst for the abuse – it was their situations. Once placed in a role by a higher authority (in this case, Dr. Zimbardo), the students internalized their roles and embraced their circumstances to a frightening degree – simply because someone told them to. A similar phenomenon was also observed in the famous Milgram Experiment, where psychologically sound individuals proceeded to deliver electric shocks to an otherwise protesting shill, simply because they were instructed to do so.
Even in controlled settings, these experiments are now illegal to perform in the United States due to the lasting psychological trauma that results from participation. However, if this is the case, consider how much more profound the damage could be if allowed to continue indefinitely. In the case of Haruka and Kanata, both were forced into roles defined by their family from a very young age and accordingly went on to internalize their parts. This too, I believe, sheds light on why the sisters were paradoxically reluctant to give up their roles while yet also casting them aside once finally given the chance – they had embodied their pre-written roles for so long that they had to be snapped out of them. While I am certain that in the real world, such a sudden change would be accompanied by relapses and self-doubt, I ultimately accepted the girls’ reconciliation as a means to illustrate that both parties were the victims in this story – not simply Haruka. For this reason, I ended Haruka’s route feeling content with both the thematic sense of the story and the realism of the characters involved.
The next route I completed left a bit more to be desired, for it was that of Yuiko Kurugaya. To be honest, I found her overtly archetypical design off-putting; Yuiko’s oddly supernatural air, lecherous personality, and penchant for inexplicably carrying a katana around made it a little difficult for me to see her as a proper character. Now, I definitely enjoyed some of the elements that her story showcased however – I had a lot of fun watching the ill-conceived schemes of Kengo and Kyousuke in helping Riki confess his romantic feelings to Yuiko. Their efforts, along with the Little Busters’ solidarity after falling victim to Yuiko’s bullies, shed light on some of the ways the group approached problems – both the good and bad. In particular, the manner in which Yuiko came to experience her time with the others as a respite from her otherwise unemotional, monotone life serves to illuminate the power of the Little Busters; the group had something to offer even to the archetypically all-powerful Yuiko.
However, Yuiko’s route also has a bit of a unique structure and sets itself apart from the others by inducing a level of confusion that is only slightly elucidated with the completion of the Refrain arc. In addition, Yuiko’s story is the only one that gains a “proper” ending after finishing all routes, including Refrain. Even so, the concepts presented in her story are among the least tangible in the visual novel and I was warned beforehand that hers should be the last to complete before unlocking Refrain in order to have the story to make the most sense. As I wrote earlier however, I chose to reject the notion of predefining my choices in favor of allowing my decisions to shape the story naturally. With the “Rin 1” segment still fresh in my mind, I considered how the visual novel clearly had the capability to “open” new routes after meeting certain conditions. Furthermore, I had noticed during this playthrough that the game actively sought to “lock” routes that had already been completed. Therefore, I once again came to the conclusion that a conscious decision was made by Key to not enforce an order between most of the character routes; in their eyes, the purpose of the arc would not be adversely affected if the reader is given a choice of when to experience it. For this reason, in analyzing its contribution to the overarching story, I would like to explore this purpose once I begin to discuss the story as a whole.
I am fortunate to have followed up Yuiko’s route with a decidedly more cohesive one – that of Komari Kamikita. Almost immediately after her introduction, Komari demonstrates herself to be one of the most empathic characters in the visual novel. Though the manner of her speech suggests a callowness in her ideals, the arc slowly reveals the means in which she has shaped her values; rather than forming her “spiral of happiness theory” purely out of a desire for happiness, an exploration of Komari’s pastimes shows that she has arrived at her conclusions through direct interactions with others, such as through her volunteering efforts. Yet, despite this relatively mature approach in cultivating her values, a deeper investigation of her psyche finds the reverse to be true.
The crux of Komari’s story revolves around her inability to cope with death and mortality. As she suppressed the trauma she endured with the passing of her older brother, she also developed a general aversion to “sad” things; as she grew older, she learned to fixate on happiness. As Riki soon found out, practically the entirety of Komari’s being was an existence molded by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and her efforts to cope with it.
There are a variety of defense mechanisms that the human mind utilizes to protect itself from anxiety. Defense mechanisms are not inherently bad – they are only considered as pathological if the resulting behavior is “maladaptive,” or destructive to the individual’s wellbeing. A normal individual faces a healthy amount of stress (eustress) throughout the day and is able to adaptively cope with it to avoid distress. In Komari’s case however, she exhibits signs of utilizing the defense mechanisms of repression, regression, denial, and projection. Other defense mechanisms such as intellectualization may be applicable as well, but I personally consider such to be fallout from her pervasive repression.
There is a very key difference between repression and suppression: suppression is a conscious effort, while repression is an involuntary exclusion of painful memories from awareness. Given that Komari has difficulty remembering her brother and makes a conscious effort to locate him, it is clear that she has repressed the pain associated with her brother’s death by losing awareness of his existence altogether. Though a maladaptive response, Komari’s coping can still be considered adequate largely thanks to the efforts of her family and loved ones in maintaining her delusion. However, when entering a panic state as a result of experiencing a PTSD flashback, the body is unable to maintain these defenses and the individual’s entire personality becomes disorganized. Fortunately, through the help of others, such panicked individuals are able to identify coping mechanisms to return to a pre-crisis level of functioning. When Komari experienced a flashback triggered by the death of an alley cat, she entered into a panic state but was able to cope somewhat due to Riki’s presence. Unfortunately, her new defense mechanisms were once again of the maladaptive variety and led her behavior to regress to that of a young girl.
For individuals who habitually utilize maladaptive defense mechanisms, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is typically the treatment of choice. Though CBT has a fancy moniker, it is actually an intangible process in which the therapist works to restructure the patient’s cognition. Riki was in a unique position to help Komari in this manner since he served the role of both her “therapist” and the object of her projections, her “big brother.” The manner in which Riki approached this restructuring was very realistic as well – he focused on Komari’s values and reshaped them from the ground up. Riki utilized Komari’s love for her family, her friends, and himself to help reinforce her support system before charging her to accept sadness into her life. By the end of the route, both Komari and Riki radiated with a level of humanity that left me feeling what I can only describe as the warmth one feels when watching others mature.
The next route I found myself embarking on belonged to Kudryavka “Kud” Noumi and, if I had to describe her story in one word, I would ultimately settle on describing it as “inconsequential.” Due to the sheer amount of patently supernatural elements in her story, it is difficult for Kud’s story to be a relatable one for both the reader and even Riki. In comparison to the other character arcs, Kud’s arc also stands out in offering no particular underlying “problem” for Riki to solve – the issues that arise during her story are to nobody’s fault. Despite these aberrations in her story however, there is one major redeeming factor in her route: Kud herself.
Though Kud was always a delight to see on-screen, I quickly noticed that Riki was acting differently around her. With Kud, Riki behaved in a far more assertive manner than he did with the others – with Kud, Riki radiated confidence. Personally, since I had not seen Riki show any backbone until this arc, this demeanor was refreshing for me to see and showcased to the reader that he indeed possessed the ability to behave in a self-assured manner under the proper circumstances. (I might add however that, while I enjoyed seeing Riki be honest with his feelings for Kud, the detailed descriptions of them kissing throughout the route engendered a somewhat sickening air to the dialogue considering that the artwork would illustrate Kud as if she were eight years old). Nevertheless, despite the circumstances of Kud ultimately having to travel to Tevua, Riki faced a very real dilemma in urging Kud to make the best decision for herself. Unfortunately, I feel that the realism behind this set up was sadly cheapened by the nigh incomprehensible thaumaturgy enveloping the tail end of the route.
As a result, on completing Kud’s route, it was abundantly clear to me that the visual novel has no qualms about casually implementing preternatural plot elements to advance the narrative. With this in mind, as I began to progress through the route belonging to Mio Nishizono, the sporadic supernatural elements peppered within her story were easy enough to look past; even despite such elements, Mio’s plight was that of a human – and one of a very troubled girl.
During the leadup to Mio’s dissociative identity disorder (DID) being expressed, I thoroughly enjoyed understanding the manner in which Mio viewed the world; in discussing both her proclivity towards books and her own lamentations regarding the transience of human experience, Mio offers a unique far-sighted mindset in comparison to the rest of the group. In particular, I found Mio’s assessment of Riki’s feelings for her to be exceptionally insightful – when Mio pointedly chose to relabel Riki’s romantic feelings as those of pity, she struck against the fourth wall with a sentiment highlighting Key’s approach to many of its character arcs; the reader is made to feel pity for the character so as to enhance the feelings of attraction between them.
The focus of Mio’s route however is undoubtedly her struggles with her DID – or rather… not. DID is rarely diagnosed during childhood and has not been well studied among the age group; given that children frequently engage in magical thinking, discussions of “imaginary friends” are not uncommon occurrences (though typically begin to wane after three years of age). An individual said to be struggling with DID would be past the point of habitually engaging in magical thinking while still having difficulty discerning between the multiple personalities within their psyche. Mio is not such a person. Mio does not struggle with her DID because she had come to regard Midori as an irreplaceable companion in her otherwise reclusive life; the one time that she effectively resisted the manifestation of Midori under medical intervention left her feeling inundated with guilt upon relapsing. Aside from medication, psychiatric textbooks suggest eliminating sources of stress and, similar to managing Komari’s affliction, helping the individual utilize effective coping mechanisms. Given that a significant stressor in Mio’s life is the guilt stemming from the very attempt to forget Midori, a textbook approach to simply ignore the Midori personality would be ill-advised.
Mio made it abundantly clear that she would be happiest if she could live out the rest of her life as a carefree seagull while Midori takes on her human life. To Mio, this not only assuaged her guilt in temporarily shutting Midori out of her life, but also allowed her to live in the manner that she perceives herself: fleeting and inconsequential. As this dream began to take shape, a question of ethics arose: was it right for Riki to want Mio back at the expense of Midori even though this was the scenario that both girls wanted? It is the type of question psychotherapists sometimes ask themselves when faced with a harmless yet noncompliant client. In the world of science however, sometimes the intangible is overlooked, even if it boils down to something as simple as right vs wrong. Riki decided that it was wrong for Midori to take Mio’s place because Mio, like all individuals, was one of a kind. In further analyzing the behavior of both Mio and Midori, it is clear that the girls also understood that their decision was wrong – in helping Mio overcome her quandary, Riki helped her come to terms with Midori’s place in her heart so that she may live her school life free from penitence.
Having bonded with my friends, the Little Busters, over my now numerous playthroughs, it was finally time for me to finish what I had started almost immediately after beginning the visual novel – Rin’s story. I consider the “Rin 2” segment to be my absolute favorite character arc in the game and, up to this point, the contents of this post have mirrored my own progression through Little Busters! Due to the implications of Rin’s completed route however, I will now be discussing both her story and the ideas presented within the Refrain arc simultaneously in order to better examine the overarching themes of the visual novel. In order to most colorfully dive into the revelations presented in the Refrain arc, I would first like to first introduce a 2009 speculative fiction piece by writer Andy Weir.
The release of Little Busters! predates The Egg by about two years. Even so, the thought and intent behind the short story does a stellar job at introducing the unique structure of the Little Busters! visual novel as unveiled in Refrain. Per the author, The Egg was written because he “wanted to come up with some way to look at the world such that life was fair . . . a way where everyone came out even in the end.” Despite the similarities between the cyclical worlds in both works however, owing to the fact that the world depicted in the visual novel was an artificial one, it becomes quite clear that the story told in Little Busters! is not one of fairness.
The “Rin 2” arc presented the first of many hard truths for Riki to swallow. Throughout the entire visual novel, Riki shares his fondness for his school life, expressing a wish that “such pleasant times could continue forever.” Rin’s departure from the school proved irreconcilable for Riki not only because he was presented with a reality in which the Little Busters could not remain together, but also because he did it by his own hand in convincing Rin to go. Riki was strong enough to selflessly urge Rin towards an experience that would enable her to grow as a person, but was not yet strong enough to maintain this new status quo. In a particularly abject sequence, Riki is pathetically shown responding to Rin’s multiple pleas for comfort with just one phrase over and over: “hang in there.” Lacking the strength to even support the girl of his affections, there was no conceivable way that Riki possessed the fortitude to overcome the situation. Both literally and figuratively, Riki decided to run away from his problems alongside Rin.
When Riki’s world is revealed to be a synthetic one, we realize that everyone apart from Riki and Rin are dying in the real world. The vulnerable, innocent existences lead by Riki and Rin had been protected by the Little Busters all their lives – right up until the very end when their bodies were shielded from the worst of the accident. It is said that when people have near-death experiences or know that they are about to die, they reminisce about their lives in rapid chronological detail; the phenomenon known as a “life review” is understandably noted to be a transformative experience in which the individual gains perspective and closure about their earthly existence. In the case of the fading Little Busters, their recollections of their happiest moments are tempered by their love for those who worked so hard to bring them together: Riki and Rin.
There is some insight provided with regards to what must have been flashing through the minds of the Little Busters based on the content provided in each character’s route. If the entire group wished for nothing more than an opportunity to strengthen Riki and Rin for the pain that would await them in the real world, each creator of their artificial world would have had a hand in designing a scenario to help the two mature. Ultimately, this does not seem to be the case – while I do not doubt the desire for everyone to nurture Riki and Rin, I feel that some had separate, more powerful regrets in their lives that subconsciously shaped their created world, in turn creating the individual character routes as part of their stories. Even out of the male cast, the original members of the Little Busters, there is some discord behind the direction of their created world with Kengo opposing Kyousuke in a clash of principles.
First and foremost, Kyousuke, the one with the strongest willpower and greatest amount of unconditional love for both Riki and Rin, becomes a god in their world with the ability to directly impact even the most minute details in their lives – Kyousuke shapes all of their day-to-day elements for the purpose of preparing them for the dark future. Having been a part of the original Little Busters as well, Masato and Kengo also set themselves apart as some of the most powerful characters in their world by retaining the metaphysical knowledge that their life was synthetic; while unable to control the world, they were aware of its nature and opt to nurture Riki by acting.
The female cast seems largely unaware that they are living in a loop – though they had a hand in creating the world, as newer members of the Little Busters, their hearts were still fixated on their own separate, unrealized worries. Whatever had been weighing them down in their past life had manifested in this world, and fortuitously too, as they had an opportunity to at least experience the resolution of these problems at least once while providing Riki with an invaluable opportunity to grow. Thus, Haruka, Komari, Kud, and Mio manifested in the world not as actors to merely help Riki grow, but as the same burdened individuals who could no longer find closure in the real world. Now in Yuiko’s case, there seems to be a bit of a different story, and I believe that it is first worth discussing the overall structure of the visual novel before addressing her role in the artificial world.
In utilizing the visual novel format to the fullest, Key artfully acknowledges each playthrough undertaken by the reader not as a simple alternate retelling of Riki’s school life, but rather as yet another “loop” in Riki’s carefully curated existence. Each character route was written to serve a purpose. In Haruka’s route, Riki realizes the extent that life could be unfair and how one can feel utterly alone without someone else extending their hand to help. In Komari’s route, Riki learns the importance of accepting the bad things in life and drawing strength from the good. In Kud’s route, Riki understands what it means to unabashedly show love to another and encourage them to make decisions for their betterment, even if it makes him unhappy. In Mio’s route, Riki faces a task that he must face without the rest of the Little Busters’ help and derives strength in doing the right thing. Every route has utility in Riki’s journey, which is exactly why I believe that the “Rin 1” and Yuiko routes were also, very deliberately, mixed in with the rest of the arcs – they had purposes to serve.
When compared to the rest of the female cast, Yuiko is clearly stronger by a fair amount. As such, it stands to reason that her heart would also manifest more strongly than those of the other characters in the artificial world, yet still not to the same degree as the male cast’s. Yuiko’s “problem” is unique in the way that it did not exist prior to joining the Little Busters – it was a discord that developed in her heart only after experiencing happiness as part of a group that offered her comfort. The unresolved burden that Yuiko brought into the artificial world was her desire to remain close to the only people in her life who had offered her unconditional closeness. Given Yuiko’s own exceptional strengths, she appears to be vaguely aware of the looping nature of the artificial world, yet is not cognizant enough to realize why she took part in creating it in the first place. Even so, Yuiko still seems powerful enough to, even if subconsciously, create a sub-loop within the looping world to preserve the most important moments that she has spent with the Little Busters; in this case, she yearned to hold onto Riki’s love after he confessed his romantic feelings for her, prompting the start of the sub-loop.
There is no denying the complexity of Yuiko’s route, but the question still remains as to why Key chose to allow access to such an arc even before the reader has a chance to realize the revelations presented in Refrain. When introducing conflict to an otherwise peaceful story, well-written works offer a build-up to the conflict — injustice, signs of tension, and unsettling premonitions can all be used to give the reader a sense of trouble in the foreseeable future. Put a different way, not even a history textbook would spend a chapter dedicated to a country’s era of peace only to suddenly launch into the horrors of war. Though such a purpose can be said to be served to an extent by the other routes as well, Yuiko’s route unequivocally gives the reader a sense that something is not right. Whether one were to complete Yuiko’s route first, after another character’s route, or right before concluding Rin’s route, the end effect is the same – doubt has been cast over the otherwise placid school life presented to the reader. The reader realizes that the secret to Riki’s world is very real and carries with it an ominous air.
As previously noted, Rin’s route is also unique with regards to its structure within the visual novel. Key has allowed unrestricted access to the first segment of Rin’s route (“Rin 1”) despite the fact that the reader is not allowed to experience its full story until the rest of the routes have been completed. Similar to the reasoning behind leaving Yuiko’s route open, I would posit that access to the “Rin 1” route serves a structural purpose for the visual novel; whereas Yuiko’s route cast doubt on the legitimacy of Riki’s world, the sudden end to “Rin 1” implies that Riki’s world has a purpose. The blackout monologue at the end of the segment introduces the idea that there are “wrong” courses of action available in Riki’s world – paths that Riki is not allowed to take. By now, the reader not only has the sense that something is a little “off” in Riki’s idyllic school life, but also realizes that Riki is somehow being guided towards an objective. This is not a mere slice-of-life vignette.
Thus, when Refrain is finally set to begin, the tone cannot be better set. The dramatic shift in atmosphere as the route opens washes a sense of dread over the reader – something went wrong. This was not supposed to happen.
The Refrain route goes on to explain the secret of the world and the heartless apathy of the universe. In music and poetry, a “refrain” refers to a verse or cluster of words that is repeated to form a leitmotif within the work. Considering the name of the Refrain arc, it is not difficult to see the parallels between the “resets” in Riki’s world and the poetic definition of the word. Moreover, in further analyzing the structure of Little Busters!, one realizes that the entire visual novel has been patterned around this metaphor. Little Busters! appears to follow the form of a sestina, a fixed verse form used in poetry that consists of six equally lengthed stanzas followed by one stanza comprised of three lines – it is a form that often features refrains. The visual novel is comprised of six female character routes that must be completed before entering a final arc centered around the three male cast members.
Indeed, it is the male characters that truly pull the story together at the end – the three individuals that had looked out for Riki and Rin throughout their childhood spend their final moments doing just that. They are the ones that divulge the reality of the situation and tearfully send Riki off to face the harsh, unfair reality that they had been preparing him for. A gesture of unconditional love. Partly due to the efforts of Kyousuke in the artificial world, Rin and Riki are thankfully able to save their entire class and with them, the Little Busters.
I often hear the sentiment that the ending to Little Busters! would better serve the story if Riki and Rin were unable to save their friends – a tragedy in which the remainder of the Little Busters decease. At first glance, I found myself agreeing with this notion. Dramatically speaking, the sacrifice of the Little Busters, along with their efforts in creating an artificial world to steel Riki and Rin for the future, would have impacted them much more strongly in a tragic ending. However, I realized that I was overlooking something and went on to revise my judgement. As I mentioned, the consolidated Rin arc is my favorite route in the game. The reason for this is because its contents, in retrospect, made everything fall into place for me with regards to understanding Little Busters!
I did not dislike Riki and Rin by any means, but at the time that I started playing Rin’s route, I held neither character in particularly high regard. In his day to day activities, Riki had consistently come off as feeble in everything he did. Despite this, Riki still appeared as a more capable person than Rin, a person whose social ineptitude caused vicarious embarrassment near constantly. Thus, when Rin suggested the idea of dating without understanding what it entailed and Riki quickly accepted because he was enthralled with having discovered a means to permanently remain close to his group of friends, I could not help but take their newfound relationship with a hint of sardonicism. By the time the couple had run away to attempt a life on their own, it brought pain to me to see them living as destitute teenage couple. As someone who has passed their teenage years, I understood that, in the real world, such a premise for a relationship was incredibly short-sighted. But then, as I reviewed the contents of the arc, it was difficult for me to deny the fun that Riki and Rin seemed to be having – an innocent escapade between school children. This is when I realized the extent that the visual novel thoroughly embodied its central themes of childhood and adolescence; I realized that the story told within Little Busters! is a puerile one.
Just now, I was very careful in not stating the story to be “childish” or “juvenile.” While I do believe that both terms would still be satisfactory in describing the narrative, both words also carry negative connotations. The fact that Little Busters! tells such a story should not paint the work as frivolous. However, it is also important to realize that the story being told is not that of an adult; in more ways than one, the actualities of real life are foregone in favor of a mirthful, idyllic existence. In expressing not only the contents of its story but also the manner in which the story is told, the visual novel adopts an unapologetically puerile approach.
It is for this reason that I understood that this visual novel must have a happy ending. Dramatic sensibility does not matter. Practicality does not matter. Shortsightedness is nothing less than eternity. To the callow youth, the only conceivable reality in their mind is to have a happy ending where everyone gets to spend the rest of their days laughing and playing. Moreover, this unique embodiment of innocence manifested by the Little Busters! narrative is the reason why I did not seek to explain the magical elements in the story. Consider what a fantastical yet childlike notion it is to travel back in time to cure oneself of a weakness; though the idea makes no rational sense, it still adds a glimmer of innocence to the story.
In conclusion, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Little Busters! – ending and all. I was delighted by the little day-to-day escapades that the cast would engage in and the lessons they would learn. In particular, the world of the Little Busters brims with color due to the chemistry between the characters; it takes a special bond for a group of friends to get on each other’s nerves on a regular basis and still sit down to eat lunch together every single day. For the male cast in particular, one cannot help but respect the dedication they showed in supporting the growth of Riki and Rin despite knowing the harsh reality of the real world all along. For the Little Busters in its entirety to overcome their plight and triumphantly drive off into the sunset together… it is enough to make me well up with joy.
Youth is a strange thing – one cannot truly appreciate it until it is but a memory and its spirit is nigh impossible to recapture. Little Busters! embarks on an ambitious attempt to revive one’s feelings of youth, and does so by artfully manifesting juvenescence in every possible way. Though not perfect, as one’s own maturation often is, the visual novel excels in its utter dedication to this endeavor – a beautiful sestina of childhood reverie.