The year is 1956 in Japan. Reiji Tokisaka is an ordinary detective who is drawn into a gruesome series of murders. Or, more precisely, his former colleague detective volunteered him in his place, because these were “right up his alley.”
A girl is found, but she is missing her torso. Another, buried just below the dirt with her foot propped up and on fire. The one with her torso still intact has a broken black egg surgically implanted into her abdomen. Both are left in the open, modesty protected by only a single black cloth.
A gruesome story if I’ve ever seen one, but Kara no Shoujo isn’t simply about bringing a killer to justice. It’s about discovering the truth and learning to come to terms with the past. It’s about immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the game, which is dedicated to convincing you to care about the characters like Reiji does, wanting to save the missing like he does, and mourning the lost like he does. Kara no Shoujo thrives off of emotional responses, whether it’s uneasiness thanks to the creepy chapter titles or the joy of finally managing to save one of the many victims.
Kara no Shoujo is honest and blunt about everything. The art does not censor, and the narration does not shy away from the more macabre details. If there is a body with a broken neck, it will be drawn and described precisely as it is. The same goes for decapitations, broken limbs, missing limbs, or whatever other bodily harm you can think of.
In contrast to the gruesome happenings, Kara no Shoujo’s artwork is beautiful; or perhaps I should say it brings about the feeling of another reality. The backgrounds are almost like a photograph in their amount of detail, yet the colors are almost like those in a painting. The overall feel of the art is kind of soft and demure, which gives all the more contrast to certain scenes.
And just after you’re done taking in the horrible image of red and death, you go to the “Character List” in Reiji’s notebook, and you see a smiling beautiful portrait of how they were when they were still alive.
But not everything is death and destruction in the world of post-war Japan. The game divides the dialogue scenes up with “intermissions” or “investigation periods.” A map of Tokyo is presented, and you choose to visit two of the available locations. There, you can interact with some of the characters and, occasionally, you’ll acquire a clue important to the case. Interestingly, I could relate to these locations even if Japan at the time is most definitely a foreign and unfamiliar setting for me. They have a sort of “old-fashioned” flavor to them, but it wasn’t ancient enough to isolate me from the game. Everything is slightly romantic, with everyone wearing yutakas and kimonos at home, but otherwise, there are still trains, cars, girl-only private academies with uniforms, cafés with maids…
The characters in Kara no Shoujo are certainly likeable, and I found myself vying for a certain route. Kyoko is the understanding owner of the café “Moon World,” Reiji’s favorite haunt, and is also childhood friends with him. Yukari is Reiji’s eccentric little sister — great with housework, but has an overwhelming fascination with bugs. And let’s not forget about Toko, the heroine of the story, the girl who “hires” Reiji to find her “true self”. Despite her frail appearance, she likes to tease Reiji about his faults, yet trusts him to get to the bottom of everything.
Thus far, this sounds just like any other game in the genre; you get to deepen your relationship with different girls, and if you’re dedicated enough, you could earn a “rewarding” scene with them. However, “routes” are defined very vaguely laid out in Kara no Shoujo. While you can try all you want, some people are destined to die, and others are put in danger thanks to Reiji’s more reckless actions.
Because of the ephemeral nature of the relationships you develop, the game isn’t about hooking up with some girl. Sometimes this was frustrating, because I would really love to save as many people as I can. Unfortunately, in this story, that’s just not possible, and, like Reiji, I could only bear with it and move on.
Ultimately, Kara no Shoujo is about a mystery waiting to be resolved, both on a physical and a spiritual level. This mystery not only involves the victims and Reiji and Toko, but also you as the player. Rather than just choosing random choices until you get a correct answer during Reiji’s “let’s review what we know thus far,” the game will actually pretend that you were correct, and Reiji will rationalize your answer.
This doesn’t mean that you were actually correctly, however. Perhaps you missed finding a clue while investigating the bodies, and Reiji moved on because he figured there was nothing more to find. Investigations in Kara no Shoujo are yours to conduct. Eventually, you’ll realize you don’t have the necessary pieces to solve the puzzle. Unfortunately, by this time, you’ll be on fast track to a bad ending without you realizing it until you’re actually there.
Not that the bad endings are something you want to avoid completely. It’s possible to discover new details that fill out the story through these, and some of the endings are entertaining (if your tastes tend towards horror).
To help you avoid these more disturbing endings, Reiji has a notebook that keeps tabs on all sorts of information. It updates frequently, every time you find something new, and is extremely extensive. The profiles contain every person you’ve met. The Investigation Memo shows everything that’s happened, day by day. The case-important facts are filed under the Evidence List. The notebook is like a Swiss army knife that is extremely helpful every time you forget a small detail, and the plot is just complicated and twisted enough to warrant any help you can get.
Kara no Shoujo is a game that makes you actively think and remember the details of the cases, which is one of the many ways it tries to pull you into its world. It’s also most definitely one of the more beautiful exhibits of art I’ve come across in the visual novel world, not only because of its artwork and music, but also because of the intricacies of its characterization and story.
Food for Thought:
Kara no Shoujo is actually directly related to another Innocent Grey game. The main character of Cartagra is one of the main supporting characters in Kara no Shoujo. Given Shugo Takashiro’s quirky, laidback manner, I think he’d be an interesting protagonist to play as. (For reference, the first time you see him, he’s lying “dead” on the living room table, covered in tomato juice.)