Is this real life or is this just the fantasy?
Hashihime of the Old Book Town follows an aspiring young writer named Tamamori who moved to Tokyo along with his childhood friends in hopes of getting into the Imperial University. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pass the entrance exams and spends the next 2 years as a roninsei, but his lack of drive and tendency to get swept up in his own bizarre fantasies gets him kicked out of his boarding house. But as luck would have it, the mysterious owner of the used bookstore named Umebachidou takes pity on Tamamori and offers him a place to stay. His enigmatic benefactor takes care of all his living expenses, which allows Tamamori plenty of time to work on his writing. Life is sweet for Tamamori and he spends his days in an endless fantasy—writing meaningless stories and mooching off his childhood friends Minakami and Kawase.
One night, Minakami invites him to see a movie, but when he arrives at the theater, Minakami isn’t there. It isn’t until the next morning that he discovers that his friend is dead and while it is ruled a suicide, Tamamori is convinced that his friend was murdered. Unable to deal with the loss, Tamamori desperately searches for the truth behind his death and soon discovers that he has the ability to travel back in time. With his newfound powers Tamamori repeats the same three rainy days in hopes of saving his friend—but is that really enough time to change someone’s fate? And more importantly… what is real and what is fantasy?
Set in the quiet book town of Jinbouchou in the middle of the Taisho Era, Hashihime of the Old Book Town borrows heavily from the existential writers of the time—the game references several early 20th century Japanese mystery writers (and their works), though Kyusaku Yumeno’s Dogra Magra is the most prominent.
I will be the first to admit that I am not well versed on Japanese literature, (Google was definitely my friend)—but it’s hard to ignore the parallels between Tamamori’s journey and the mystery works he idolizes. At first I was taken aback by the sheer number of books and authors name dropped in this game, but as the story progressed I began to look forward to them, as they served as a window into the world of the game. I’m about as far removed from Taisho Era Japan as one can get, but with reference points like Dogra Magra, The Two Letters, and Flower Tales it was easy to immerse myself in the spirit of the times—a modern and progressive time, but with threads of myth and legend woven in so that it isn’t strange to imaging reality and fantasy coexisting in such a tangible way as it does in this story. To the point that your suspension of disbelief flies clean out the window and you really start to believe in Tamamori’s fanciful delusions.
All the world’s a stage
The story of Hashihime of the Old Book Town is certainly bizarre, but I think the most unusual part of the story is the protagonist, Tamamori, who is at times very astute (and painfully self aware) and other times, a fanciful idiot. He exists in this weird bubble of willful ignorance that is both charming and absolutely MADDENING. Tamamori is an immature aspiring writer who retreats into his own delusions when the real world simply becomes too much—which given everything going on in the year of our lord 2020, is a sentiment many of us can relate to. But, Tamamori takes it to the extreme, conjuring up elaborate stories and characters, that he interacts with in the real world. They are at times autonomous characters who act contrary to Tamamori’s will and other times they seem to be a physical manifestation of his own psyche offering candid insight into the events of the game and even Tamamori’s actions. They become so ingrained in the story that you forget that they’re just figments of his imagination.
Joining Tamamori in the stage play that is his life are a host of colorful characters. From a group of amateur detectives to combat maids to a cross dressing cafe server, Jinbouchou is definitely a melting pot of interesting people. Of course, this is a boys love game so players can try their hand at wooing five potential male suitors—Tamamori’s three childhood friends (Minakami, Kawase, and Hanazawa), an eccentric customer (Professor), and a menacing masked man. Yes, you can romance the masked behemoth who tries to kill you and your friends… trust me I have A LOT OF THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS…
Minakami is Tamamori’s childhood friend who comes to the capital to attend the Imperial University. He is a soft spoken bookworm who lives for Tamamori’s stories and more or less enables Tamamori’s fanciful illusions. He is generally a good guy, though he can be a bit absentminded at times and heaven help anyone who insults Tamamori in front of him. He harbors a one-sided love for Tamamori and while he initially doesn’t reciprocate his feelings his death early on in the route forces Tamamori to contemplate just how much Minakami means to him.
Minakami is the only character who is implied to be homosexual (the other guys are mostly “gay for Tamamori”) and that went a long way towards making the romance in this route work. He harbors a one sided love for Tamamori but restrictive social norms, guilt, and fear of pushing Tamamori away keeps him from acting on his feelings. Unlike the other routes where their feelings for Tamamori are very much a product of the “BL” storyline, Minakami’s relationship with Tamamori felt like a genuine next phase in their relationship. Of course it isn’t without it’s own fair bit of tragedy—it’s very much a slow burn romance, mostly because Tamamori is a selfish buttmunch, but when their feelings finally become mutual, it’s SO SATISFYING!
Minakami’s route is what I consider to be the true cannon route (as far as I’m concerned the finale is nothing more than a bad fanfic AU)—since it’s his death that really kicks off the events of the story and serves as the driving force for Tamamori’s character growth. All of the other routes are more or less offshoots of this one and if Minakami hadn’t died Tamamori never would have learned about time travel in the first place.
Kawase is the second route in the game and like Minakami he comes to the capital to attend the Imperial University where he is currently studying to be a surgeon. Upon arriving in the capital he is adopted by a wealthy older gentleman and now lives in his mansion as his ward. Despite his good looks, Kawase is a bit of a sadist who delights in the suffering of others—especially Tamamori. He goes out of his way to tear down Tamamori’s stories and not gonna lie, his criticisms are both on point and savage af.
He also has a secret crush on Tamamori and he is lowkey jealous of his relationship with Minakami. When he learns of Minakami’s death he seems to find the whole thing amusing and admits that he’s glad Minakami is dead. There is just a sense that something is seriously wrong with Kawase… almost inhuman. Even though Kawase spends most of the route being a bully, he isn’t a “bad guy”, but he does have quite a few skeletons in his closet. And as a warning this route does deal with child absue, so ya know… do with that what you will.
The romance in this route isn’t as seamless as it is in Minakami’s route, but there is clearly chemistry between them and I will admit I really liked their back and forth in the route.
I did not like this route at ALL, which is a damn shame since guys like Hanazawa are totally my type (stoic, dark haired megane). Hanazawa is the last of Tamamori’s childhood friends and more or less the big brother of the group—Tamamori and Kawase especially idolize him (and it is implied that Kawase’s feelings are of the romantic persuasion). He has been estranged from the golden trio for about 8 years, after joining the military academy right out of middle school.
He is a military man through and through, willing to do anything in the name of protecting his country. His route, is pretty closely linked to the Professor and (by this game’s standards) it starts off pretty normal and then BAM it takes a bit of a military sci-fi with just a hint of fantasy adventure teist. His route is notably shorter than all the other routes (I’m convinced that the writers didn’t have enough material to work with for a complete route). But, the real reason this route didn’t work for me was the NON CONSENTUAL SEX! I really, really, really haaaaaaate unnecessary rape in BL media. Up until that point I was all aboard the Hanazawa express but that sex scene was hard to get through.
Unlike the other love interests, the Professor is not one of Tamamori’s childhood friends—he’s just some weirdo who visits Umebachidou on rainy days. He’s a bit nervous and awkward and completely obsessed with Tamamori and his stories. He pops up from time to time in the other routes and is most notable for being overly friendly with Tamamori—even going so far as to give him one of his prized tin goldfish watering cans as symbol of their friendship.
For the most part Tamamori finds his actions extremely creepy. Surprisingly he’s best friends with Hanazawa and the pair work together as part of a secret military lab. The Professor has a knack for cooking up anachronistic inventions (in his route he is revealed to be the “creator” of the dildo and the vibrator). He’s a bit on the eccentric side, but he really is a sweetheart.
Even though he is head over heels in love with Tamamori I wouldn’t call their relationship “romantic”. Tamamori makes it clear that he doesn’t love the Professor, but he is at the very least physically (sexually) attracted to him.
Final Route (The Man in the Noh Mask)
This route is a HUGE spoiler for the rest of the game. Highlight the blank space to reveal the text for my thoughts 🙂
This route is extremely controversial, to the point that ADELTA retconned it’s “true ending” status and claims that it is in fact just another “alternate reality”. So, where to begin… This route essentially negates the entire game up to this point and reveals that EVERY OTHER ROUTE IS JUST AN ELABORATE FANTASY COOKED UP BY TAMAMORI.
In Minakami’s route, the Shopkeeper is revealed to have been Tamamori from 23 years in the future, who has been secretly guiding Tamamori actions in an attempt to avert a major disaster. In some routes (like Minakami’s) he’s an ally to present Tamamori while in others he is the main cause of all the bad shit that goes down in the game—he is the person that prompts Minakami’s suicide at the start of the game and the reason the Man in the Noh Mask murders Kawase and Hanazawa. Whether, you see his actions as justified or not really depends on whether you’re a needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few kind of person or visa versa. I honestly don’t know how I feel about him and I suppose that’s the point.
So, in the final route, he reveals that Minakami, Kawase, and Hanazawa were all killed 15 years prior to the start of the story. Unable to cope with the deaths of his friends, Tamamori retreated further into his fantasies and eventually moved to the capital, alone. Wracked with guilt and consumed by his loneliness, Tamamori created elaborate fantasies about the lives he and his friends would have lived had Minakami, Kawase, and Hanazawa NOT died tragically as children. He even drew inspiration for their adult personalities from some of the books he had read over the years.
In fact EVERYONE was a part of his fantasy and the only real person (aside from himself) is the Man in the Noh Mask—who up until this point has been the person brutally murdering his friends and stalking Tamamori from the shadows. It is revealed in Minakami’s route that his name is Kaoru and he is actually Tamamori’s adopted son from the future.
In a fit of rage, Tamamori kills his future self and attempts to end his suffering for good by jumping off a bridge. But, Kaoru follows him and Tamamori now knowing just how painful loneliness is decides to move forward and live with Kaoru at Umebachidou. The route skips forward to the “future”, where Tamamori is now a published author and running Umebachidou full time. He even compiled the events of the game into a book, which he plans to have published, called Hashihime of the Old Book Town.
But, wait there’s more! I haven’t even gotten to the controversial part of this ending, which was pretty polarizing for most audiences. So, after years of living together, Tamamori and Kaoru enter into a sexual relationship. And while they are not blood related, Tamamori states on several occasions that Kaoru is his adopted son and Kaoru even refers to him as Oji-san… there’s a whole lot wrong with this, but I think that pretty much speaks for itself.
Tamamori and Kaoru have sex (which is described in great detail) after which they briefly talk about their future plans and the story ends where it began… with the dumb pun from the beginning of the game.
Color Outside the Lines
To complement the bizarre storytelling Hashihime of the Old Book Town utilizes a unique visual style that gives the story an almost Twilight Zone-esque feel. Muted colors and the washed out cityscapes of Jinbouchou during the rainy season perfectly convey an almost morose sense of monotony that reflects the nightmarish repetition of the story. There is a sense of gloom that hangs over the city that is made more pronounced by the seemingly endless rainfall that gives the story a listless feeling of hopelessness as Tamamori desperately attempts to save his friends.
As if to contrast this, Tamamori’s fantasies and hallucinations seem to leap off the screen with their vibrant colors and bold, distinctive patterns. It’s a psychedelic acid trip, that often times appear without warning, literally snapping the reader out of the monotony of the story. While the backgrounds of the “real world” are often indistinct and just a bit out of focus, the visuals for Tamamori’s fantasies feel much more real and tangible—which is pretty fitting if you think about it.
The music and background sound effects also work to set the tone of the story, from eerie instrumentals and and upbeat jazzy bops to absolute silence—it all comes together to carry the emotional weight of each scene. I’m not the best at describing music in games, but I absolutely LOVE the opening theme song Hallucination and the ending theme EYES ONLY is perfection!
So, the Verdict—Should You Play Hashihime of the Old Book Town?
Hell yeah! I should probably say something profound right about now, like, Hashihime of the Old Book Town is a delightful trip into the bizarre that blurs the line between reality and fantasy offering a poignant look into the human psyche…but y’all, this game is WILD!
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started this game, but I am so glad I finally got around to playing Hashihime of the Old Book Town—this is one of the best games I have ever played. And, I HIGHLY recommend playing this game, especially if your in the mood for an immersive experience with a healthy dose of existential horror.
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