Valentine’s Day may be over, though all but the most stone faced reflects on their path towards love more than once a year.
Anime adaptations of successful visual novels or dating simulation games are nothing new. Especially to someone engaged with keeping tabs on modern airing series.
One is likely to trip over a small bundle when seeing what is coming out in a given calendar season. Among them, properties trying to laser target all manner of marketing demographics. The reasons for this, of course, are completely understandable from a business perspective. A narrative and character based game already released and found successful. Many times made by small independent studio teams, which can be easier or cheaper to license rights from than bigger media groups. Making an animated version of such games is now often viewed as rather reliable contract work.
But things were not always like that, in multiple ways. The market testing margins were more unknown. How much return on investment to plan for from animating such licenses, and thus what to spend upfront. Or even the question to balance the works as direct story adaptations, or looser approaches using characters from the source material. It sounds like a simple enough matter to plan for an animated adaptation. But given how issues still arise even for established formats like novels or comics going through the same process, one can imagine figuring how to sculpt out ways to shape a young evolving video game genre in ways fit for a television format would be a series of headscratchers.
As a result, earlier anime adaptations trying to make such jumps had less of an established body of visual-novel-turned-anime work to draw inspiration from. They were taking shots in the dark.
Sentimental Graffiti was a game released by NEC Interchannel in 1998 for the Sega Saturn, having observed the success Konami had been able to maintain with 1994’s Tokimeki Memorial.
They are each names that even today I remember quite well. Sentimental Graffiti and Tokimeki Memorial became frequent features mentioned in the small “Cool in Japan” or such oriented import pages of my domestic video game and anime magazines at the time. Dating sims and visual novels were a relative unicorn to come across in western markets. In turn, they made for a bit of easy page filler to point out games the subscriber may never get to play. With lack of availability comes at least a little air of mystery or curiosity, as reading material goes.
Sentimental Graffiti in particular stood out to me at the time for its narrative hook. Tokimeki Memorial utilized a system reliant on the round-robin dating of multiple girls at once. This in addition to other mechanics made the goal to keep as many of them pleased as possible, and avoid bomb like social link detonations. NEC Interchannel, observing over the years, took a different path. The driving concept of Sentimental Graffiti was the main player character as a high school student receiving an unsigned letter from a past admirer. But, having moved around so much during their middle school years, they have only a limited idea of who it would have come from. The player would go around Japan to meet up with twelve different girls from twelves cities from their past days. The game featured a travel mechanic with multiple modes of transport, as well as associated shifting prices and arrival time. A calendar system for appointments and to better plan your journey. These were combined with with what we would now see as more traditional visual novel route choices and dating sim elements. All to reconnect and determine the source of the love letter.
it is a simple but compelling enough little idea in a young adult escapist romantic fiction sense. Plot and system convenience of the letter sender’s name being so ambiguous to allow the game to function at all aside, I feel it fair to say it is a cute enough little idea.
The travel aspect being made a gameplay function especially.
I always thought there was something intriguing with that set-up.
I never lost sight of the construction inherent to such a game of course (it is art, story, and code, an interactive romance novel). But the girls already know the player character from years ago. Time advances in-game. And you are (or are not, depending on actions taken) reestablishing connections. More importantly, there is an implicit narrative through line for not only what these characters may have gotten up to in the time since, but what they may do next with their lives. Which is to say, should no further relationship or re-establishment of ties be occurring at all.
The gameplay mechanics line up with the idea one’s relationships with others inherently means some people become but a sub-point in life. That always seemed leap out at me from the magazines years ago. When it came to my trying to wrap my head around ideas of what Sentimental Graffiti could be shooting for as a game experience, it seemed to pushing for so much more than Tokimeki Memorial. The ideas of moving on or not, or what they got into next after someone one likes is gone. How that could perhaps work in an interactive fiction setting. It seemed at least a bit more thought out and core to the structure. Ideas that there would in a sense be be “lives,” in how their stories would have gone on, for these girls regardless. In a late 1990’s visual novel sense, granted. But, if one did not chase after a long distance reconnection goal with some of the girls, their stories would still continue to exist in a way. Much like how people met and then lapsed in our own lives have their own tales without our tracking them back down.
I should point out: I have never played Sentimental Graffiti.
To this day, my entire knowledge base about Sentimental Graffiti comes via blurbs in old magazines when it was still a Saturn game. The odd FAQ walking readers through menus and mechanics. Picking up on things here and there I would slam into at random from various niche gaming sites in the years that followed.
But I thought about these ideas from those parts sometimes. Reading the game magazines about products I could never dream at the time of owning. How and why they would have been made or function. Even if the game itself may not be the most academic subject, it is the kind of thing that can fill a recess or three. Reading and theorizing about how such a thing would work as story or writing is the sort of thing that probably helped on some level with being a building block to something larger. So I do not think it was a useless exercise. Though the game itself would by all odds not benefit me much now outside of finally knowing how the gears rotate.
I tell all that first, before moving on to the 1998 anime, which I have seen.
This is because the Sentimental Journey adaptation does make some intriguing inroads. Its attempts to succeed or fail at some of the key ideas I had cooked up parallel to its source in my head all those years ago.
Sentimental Journey is an anthology series. Each episode forming what is in practice an epilogue for one of the twelve girls from the video game.
These stories never intersect. There is no larger, say, Boogiepop Phantom style linking device. By extension, the series also never assumes a True Route narrative. More critical and crucial of all: none of these narratives begin from or otherwise play out as a “Win” state from the game.
Every one of the stories for the twelve girls works outwards. They assume the young women never reconnected with their crush or relationship from younger days. As a result, its way of handling the “What If…” scenarios undergoes some radical choices by modern standards. There is an array of small yarns about moving on. The little ways one thinks of something long ago in a present situation. And so on and so forth, but with who would be the player character in the game just as a years old memory.
So, there are stories like Chie Matsuoka’s. A lead singer in a rock band who has a tricky time with love songs due to her past circumstances. Wakana Ayasaki’s episode involves her conversing with a Zen Buddhist monk. She is questioning the meaning and values of unrealized love in light of things like parental divorce existing while also flashing back to her previous heartbreak. Yuu Nanase gets to talk about why she does think love exists in the world. Despite not being in a relationship herself anymore, she gets into talks and an unplanned for expedition with a hard drinking fellow traveling woman on a train to take her someplace special. And so on down the list of characters and their lives.
Most of these would be of the caliber of reasonable and fine beach reading romance novel stories in their own right. Never shooting above and beyond the call of duty. Not intended to be eternally revisited. But also wholly consumable and engaging enough as they play out in the moment. Yet at the same time, there was also a refreshing quality to it. When one compares its execution methods to how many modern visual novel anime adaptations play out, it is pushing for something alarming different. These are all new stories, after all. It is aggressive with pushing the player character from long ago as someone to move on from. These stories cover their bases within twenty minutes or so, to keeping that page turning beach read short romp quality. The more gimmicky archetype characters have less time to potentially wear out their welcome, isolated to their own episodes.
As every girl is in separate towns with their own lives and scenarios, the series never feels like it is valuing some characters more than others in the screen time department.
As it is very much trying some experimental approaches with adapting a young game genre for television, there are pitfalls.
That some episodes come out feeling vastly more rickety than others is unsurprising. Choice instances are flat out weaker in construction in my eyes, biting off more than they can handle. I think the first episode is even guilty of this, trying to sell a much older age gap romance in little time. Or, given the very palpable beach read sense I wish to keep stressing, matters can end up being far more dependent on what specific kinds of simple stories regarding moving on one would resonate with best. The three I highlighted as standouts before (Yuu’s, Chie’s, Wakana’s) I would consider the strongest of the program for me personally, for instance. Meanwhile, Asuka Hoshino’s story is the sort of material which zooms right on past me. An entertainment industry talent manager taking an ill mannered girl under his training wing so she can win a My Fair Lady contest. And in turn he would win a bet for a china plate. The Taming of the Shrew style narratives do little to nothing for me. And as these site write-ups are as much personal reflections and my experience with the work as they are anything else, I feel that is important to share as well.
I think it would be fair to say there is likely at least some functional character stories here for everyone though. The stories do aim to be as different as possible, and push hard to get away from its visual novel source material. Given its romance anthology format, it is better equipped to avoid more devastating across the board condemnation. There is expectation not everything in such a genre collection can work for all viewers. It is a far harder cocktail to mix than comedy anthologies than a Space☆Dandy. Or Excel Saga, if we want to consider a contemporary to Sentimental Journey.
Sentimental Journey is not a show which encourages one to binge watch it. I would even go so far as to say doing so may be actively detrimental to viewer experience. It is rainy day slice of life romance roulette. To the extent where it lacks even anchoring central characters from one episode to the next. Many anthology series would at least have that much to play with and attach audiences to as a consistent presence. While the series uses characters from Sentimental Graffiti, it assumes no familiarity with anyone. There is no flow from one to another. So, the episodes can be picked up like short stories from a book collection. Once selected, their time limited worlds are dwelled upon and explored until their conclusion. Then one does something else for a little while before coming back to the collection again. Like one was on vacation or otherwise going about their day, and needing a passing fancy over a brain buster. It strengthens the opportunity for the stronger stories to work better.
For an anthology, who is guiding the writing is both paramount and an interesting endeavor with modern eyes.
As such, scriptwriter Naruhisa Arakawa would be the most prominent name attached to this television series. Their name continues to carry weight with anime fans via what would arguably be his crowning industry achievement years later. He would go on to pen the handling of Spice and Wolf’s two animated series, adapted as they were from the light novels of the same name. It is easy to see some of the foundational experiences that had been honing those skills here on a more primordial level. Working through tales as characters find their ways in the world regarding love, professional craft, memories, and the aspirations which may drive them. Since the audience insert player character of the video game past is already a memory of the girls living in the present, the show material focused on the girls themselves. What they are doing with their lives now, and where they go. And a number of them, at at. I can see this as almost a workshopping show, in retrospect. Something that the experience of allowed Arakawa to capture a character like Holo for television far better later on.
Of additional note to me is the series pulled in Keiichi Satou to handle the role of visual direction (overall director being Kazuyoshi Katayama). When circumstances and the material allow, he most prefers to drench his works in a sense for older styles (such as Asura) or pushing for nostalgic qualities. This would be most prominent in The Big O, which bases the core of its being around such themes and presentation. But, The Big O was not for some time still. As Sentimental Journey reflects on its characters pasts while also trying to set them in a present of opportunity, his eye makes for an interesting mix with what the writing department is at least aiming for episode to episode. How Satou wanted lighting and color to work for a treasured memory, while balancing how they would punch to make noteworthy moments for characters in the present.
I do find a value in that in more than one way.
While these epilogue stories are not too far off from a lot of traditional romance novel material, they are less about the viewer slapping themselves into the story for fun and frolicks with their girl of choice. They are trying to be a reasonable and rounded set of aftermaths for the young women who make up the face of the source material. The player character being but a memory of youth, as life goes on and they find their ways without them.
And I have respect for that. It would be a daring move, even now.
Traveling through Sentimental Journey may not have been the sort of thing life lasting memories are made of.
But, I did think it was a fine enough time I can not say I regret taking. Many visual novel anime adaptations can come off as very out of date even just a few years down the road. Tastes rapidly speed on to chasing one new thing or another given the fast turnaround in the format. Visual novel adaptations of even a few years ago can seem downright ghastly now. Even if one liked the material at the time. So I feel this is pretty remarkable in its own right in context. That Sentimental Journey functions as a baseline. How it even does some interesting things with how it handled itself. There is at least a stability to the experience, even almost twenty years later, because of what it wanted to try.
There is a foundation and groundwork here more visual novel and particularly dating sim adaptations could by all means take lessons from. Which they should be learning from, even if they do not outright take its formula. Ways to try and imagine their characters separate from the player or lead. How to attempt to inject even a bit more agency. Reflection on them as fictional people with lives apart from the lead. Who do not require the player character.
Which can be a neat selling point in digging it up now its own right. If we wish to take to heart the series themes of our past as being a ladder step towards where we can hope to someday go next.