On Romeo Tanaka’s Writing

mainArtI routinely receive some great comments on my blog. Sometimes, I receive a comment that is so lengthy and detailed that it really deserves to be a blog post in its own right.

Thus, I feel compelled to share this comment, which I received on my post about the Shoujo-tachi wa Kouya wo Mezasu visual novel the other day. Kouya is the only visual novel of Romeo Tanaka’s I’ve read, so I don’t feel informed enough to comment on his writing. Hence, I’ll let chinjianxiong do all the talking here:

I translated a scene from Romeo’s visual novel Saihate no Ima here with commentary. The first one is the version edited to fit English, while the second one is the scene with the Japanese for every line included as well as some comments on how I translated some lines.

Anyway, the method I outlined that Romeo uses is balancing microcosm with macrocosm. In Japanese, he’ll use the shortest possible pitch perfect sentences to build poetic tempo, and then lay you with a good one by showing how the poetic movement links to a larger picture, usually a soliloquy or meditation on society, science or the world. In the example above, he starts with a description of a ruined factory, transitions into a simple scene of two characters talking, adds a layer by having a psychological analysis of one character, then expand it into a commentary on modern society’s degradation, all in the span of about 100 lines. Of course, that’s just one of his many tactics.

That higher poesy, I think, is more or less bulldozed over in the Amaterasu translation [of Cross Channel]. For example, when Taichi first meets Misato on the roof, looking at a distance it’s otherwise a scene that you think would appear in any other kind of harem/anime setting: The pervert protagonist calls out to the glasses wearing student president and makes sexual jokes about being able to see her panties. Yet the mood is completely different simply because of how it’s told.

For reference, I’ve transcripted the Japanese with the English here:

Also, there’s this playing, which already does a lot for the atmosphere:

The problem with English, which is actually one of its strengths elsewhere, is something called the ‘double register’. English takes Latinate words mixed with Anglo-Saxon words. This means you can speak in two ways, one which is longer and ornate Latin, and the other which is shorter. Example would be “Obscure” and “Dark”. Besides that we steal a lot from everywhere. What this means is that sometimes the words we want are just too long or varying in tone because English is a massive melting pot language. I’ll show how this screws the translation process with some Amaterasu choices below.

Because you can excise stuff like the subject, etc… in Japanese, you can cut short a lot of the sentences and still have the same meaning. You can also do this in English, but it’s more limited because it’s very casual and super specific. Romeo seems to always excise as much as possible to create sentences that are like hyper-short statements describing exactly what is needed to be described. This is quite hard to capture in English without sounding detached.

If you look through the translation choices from Amaterasu, there are some very questionable translations.

The most glaringly ruinous one is “her expression had become senile” which is just a straight mood-killer. While in Japanese (惚けた) one of the words meanings is that, it also can just mean having a blank look. Why the heck Amaterasu even chose that word out of all other possible word choices is probably because they wanted to link it to their translation of the second line of ‘fading away’. They wanted to have a direct transition in meaning from the first line to the last line even though in Romeo’s text, it was more subtle.

Direct translation without connectors would be akin to:

A strong wind took her shimmering hair into a fierce stream.
Misato, befuddled, cut through the flow of hair with her hand, and peeked through.
Misato: “…”
A sudden increase in the strength of light, and a blank expression.
The dimming summer days.
That’s why, with that, in a moment I knew how it melts and falls away.

Amaterasu narrowed the meaning to create a link specifically to her expression, starting with that bad usage of ‘senile’. Romeo allows for a couple of possible approaches, allowing it to exist both as her expression and as a general meditation. Good writers are those who know when to specify, and when to hold back in order to create a mood through a mere subtle inference, but never actually touching upon.

But my version, although closer to what actually appears there, probably sounds over-weird in English. How a writer in English would get a terse mood is, like Hemingway, to cut it with full stops a lot. If I were trying to get that tone I may have to cut some of the descriptors that Romeo can keep because Kanji allows for much shorter syllables than English speak so it can carry on smoothly without being too purple. E.g.:

A strong wind blew her hair into fierce streams.
Misato was troubled. She cut the flow with her hand. Her face peeked through.
Misato: “…”
A sudden increase in the strength of light. A blank expression.
The dimming summer days.
That’s why, with that, I knew how it could fall away in a moment.

Another questionable translation is “I screamed while thrusting both hands in the air”. The word ‘thrusting’ creates too much jankiness and force. Totally unsuited when the original was “両手を突き上げて叫ぶ。”

Once again, closer to the tone, it goes more like:

Responded grin
Taichi: “I’m cooooming.”
Misato: “Peke-kun”
Two hands raised in a scream.

Edited I would probably do:

A grinning response.
Taichi: “I’m coming” (italics if possible, rather than stretching out the letters)
Misato: “Peke-kun…”
With two hands raised, I bellowed.

(One of the things that may trip people up is probably tense, since you have to fix yourself into one tense in English, but ability to translate the poetics is severely limited if you stick to a single tense. One method to translate Romeo, or other Japanese that cut out the subject, is something I’m experimenting with, to try and mix present tense and past tense if you don’t attach the sentence to a subject or time frame and ‘float’ it, getting something close to Japanese tone in general. Other things I’m trying includes playing with parentheses, colons and dashes.)

Anyway, you get the point. A style that focuses on being able to consistently strike at exactly what is needed for the scene becomes ruined when you overdo with either wrong word choices or over-ornamentation. The scene in the original is this poignant scene charged with a summer’s atmosphere and deftly subtle poetic guides to the notion of trying to communicate with others (like how the wind muffles the voice but he can still read her lips, or the whole antenna motif) and ruminations on the fragility of their daily life. Amaterasu’s translation places a tint of their own interpretation into the text, which kills the parts where it’s left purposely ambiguous or lingering to create an emotional effect.

Now imagine that ability spanning a whole visual novel, intermixed with parts where Romeo can go the OPPOSITE direction and write comedic scenes with highly varying tones and puns (like the joke that comes exactly after that extract above) or long soliloquy-like psychological meditations. One scene in Saihate no Ima involves just the protagonist walking to school. In the process he meets up with his six other friends one by one on the street and they walk together. The entire scene has this light-hearted guitar tone in the background and it literally strikes to the atmosphere of just fucking around with the people you know. Furthermore, all six other characters have their own personality traits, running gags, voice styles, and what occurs is this crazy mix of voices in banter. Because Romeo is Romeo, he also throws in legalese and satirical jibes in the conversation, yet is still somehow able to keep it in terse sentences and exchanges to create this constant witty-gag momentum.

I guess the main off-putting thing to some may be his ability to create crazy tonal changes (though, usually with a purpose). Sometimes he can write a scene that is poignant, but swaps into high comedy. If you analyze his structure at a deeper level though, Romeo’s comedic slice of life scenes peters out usually once the primary conflict comes in, and furthermore, he usually has the importance of joy and daily life as his primary themes, and creates characters who significantly seek those moments because they’re usually separate from them. Taichi’s erratic zaniness, and the whole cast’s interactions in general, is in contrast to the deep alienation and lack of connection between them. Rewrite even has a character commentate on how immature joke-slinging banter falls away simply because people will eventually attune themselves to what they want to do, and they’ll be able to connect on the level where each one respects the other’s space – the sign of maturity and hard experience. That, to me, is pretty much like slapping Key hard in the face. Romeo always places a dagger between modes of possible calmness and enjoyment, and the people on the fringe who are farthest away from that state, and how they cope with it. (I think the only other series that provides both sides of a coin is the Monogatari series or Oregairu, in both with the second season being the counterbalance to the naïve elements in the first season.)

Also, he is intensely logical in writing the plot although his tone will vary with his variety and density of comedic scenarios. Look at Rewrite for example and see what he does to Key clichés in the routes he writes. He conjectures correctly that the stupid ‘forming a friendship club’ trope will immediately dissolve once shit goes down simply because the characters have no proper depth of connection with one another. Then he stomps on Key romance clichés by having the plot expand beyond human connection into a greater connection with the world and a higher intelligence in general. And the way the whole scenario ends provides no easy answers, but wraps up nicely.

(Incidentally, yes, I did read Silvachief’s review – my method of reading Rewrite was to read only Romeo’s writing and skip the other routes, and then everything came together quite nicely and I was able to see his full message. You have zany comedy stuff to tie in to that theme, Kotori’s route as Romeo showing Key that he can pull a better Key route than they can though it suffers because of that, Akane’s route as touching upon the main theme of what it takes to save the world. Moon is my favorite route because its like a surreal mix of hard science fiction that ends with a shounen battle as a mood piece. Terra is the best part exactly because none of the heroines are really involved. It’s the part where Romeo really hammers home the message that, when you’re involved with the act of saving the world itself, what you have to do is to go beyond those idle pleasures from the past, yet you do it precisely because of the joy you earned from those moments, and by sacrificing that joy, you buy into future possibilities. Also why I love the ending because it puts a nice bow-tie on that message.

You have to look at Romeo’s perspective as a freelancer roped into a Key project, and being forced to work on Key’s terms, which is the lengthy comedic side route mixed together with heroine routes written by other writers, and forced to write in Key’s style which is highly melodramatic. Yet, somehow, he was not only able to be on-point with top shape comedy for the entire common route, but he was able to take those limitations and the guaranteed fact that he would not be able to control the cohesive tone of the arcs due to the two other writers, and use that disjunction in tone to create his own message by transcending those cliches in his own way. Rewrite is incredibly flawed, but once you see through exactly what Romeo is doing, you suddenly gain insight into the whole structure. Also helps that I love the common route because I went into it knowing that the entire first part was like that, so I just took it as a long running comedy series written by Romeo that was separate from the rest of the game. Probably if you went into it expecting a more cohesive story, you would be less able to context-switch like that. I think, though, that Rewrite is cohesive, but in terms of its message rather than its story. If you abstract the content from the structure, you’ll realize the brilliance of the structure.

When I ruminated on that fact, I came to love him as a creator. His illimitable love for writing simply allows him to be work on his own small little niche games in a niche industry, with a writing style that not everyone can get used to, and he’s perfectly okay with throwing himself into these kinds of projects and he’ll strive to do something with it to communicate his own message as much as possible even though everything works against him. He mixes up all sorts of themes and styles from his favorite writers, like SF writers, comedians, and even Japanese drama script writers. Also he’s made his own name simply through word of mouth and people being enamored with his stories.)

Now imagine that ability spanning beyond just Cross Channel into his other light novels and visual novels, consistently hitting the mark exactly when he wants to hit, and you have one of the most consistently powerful writers out there with an entire oeuvre that seems to cut deep into profoundly human themes about loneliness, youth, alienation, human relationships, science etc… that is able to be all parts funny, heartfelt, and thrilling.

And that’s why more work deserves to be put into fleshing out and understanding this whole entire world of writing he’s created. Of course, having good translations is the first step.

The comment was edited slightly to work as a standalone post. You can read the entire comment thread in context here.

For further reading, check out chinjianxiong’s comparison of two translations of Taichi’s meeting with Misato in Cross Channel.


Posted on March 28, 2016, in Editorials and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I don’t know how much content was lost when translating Rewrite to English (probably a lot), but Kotori’s route was the weakest and Terra was basically the worst part of the game imo. (I loved the common route, though). Judging from this comment, the translation wasn’t very good with handling the ‘good memories’ thing, in the end it seemed just a silly ornamental concept, rather than attached to the message of the game.

    Skipping the other routes, heh… I don’t think that’s a good idea, even if you consider that Romeo’s routes make sense by themselves and are good enough. Rewrite is the game with the higher route quality I’ve played (like no route fails to impress, even with varying quality). Lucia’s route, written by Ryukishi07 (Umineko writer), is easily the perfect way to write a character route. There are also great writers of VNs I’ve heard of, that just don’t focus on plot and story progression, but on prose as well, close to actual books prose. For example, a very well regarded one is Masada Takashi, Dies Irae writer and there’s also Shumon Yuu, Asairo writer.

    But still, I’m learning Japanese (also using VNs to increase my vocabulary and grammar knowledge, but still a long way to go) and someday I’ll replay Rewrite with the original text. Then I’ll judge it for myself.

    • Hey Frog-kun, thanks for the shout-out!


      Anyway Terra is an extremely interesting route because it basically functions as its own story and bulldozes everything else that came before it. The atmosphere and tone is completely separate from the rest of the game except maybe with some similarities to later parts of Akane’s route. All heroines are just dropped off the face of the map and the entire focus is on showing how these two disparate factions have to work together in order to save the Environment. I have no idea how he was able to hijack creative control like that, but I think that’s quite a testament to how much people in the industry actually trust his writing. Also notable is how choices aren’t ‘choices’ in Terra but it gives the feeling that what is being done at every moment when there’s a choice is the most intellectually sound one in all of the scenarios.

      If you look at it from a higher view, its a very sound sniping of every single theme that normally occurs in those kind of games. Love doesn’t save the day, but raw rationally and action does. Furthermore Koutarou doesn’t do it with a ragtag team of friends, but he goes at it more or less alone, and plays both factions by himself. The ending isn’t a completely happy one since none of the problems are resolved, but it serves as a foundation for the possibility of a happy one. With everything set up in the common route and the other routes, its surprising how ‘fair’ the ending is.

      There’s a quote by the other writer, Tonokawa, stating that Romeo writes very “logical” scenarios. From an overall standpoint it feels like he managed to hit upon every single goal that he wanted to hit in the work itself. Of course, Rewrite was doomed to have a haphazard atmosphere from the start because he still had to work within Key’s framework, so you get the feeling he could have only achieved what he wanted to achieve, which was a commentary on the state of the environment being pulled apart by humanity, and how the individual fits in that whole thing, by throwing out most of the stuff that came before the final route.

      Even in the ‘failed route’ like Kotori’s, you can see his motivations and intentions at work behind the scenes. From the start to the end, everything is a slow squeezing in an already tense scenario, while also doubling as a commentary on the ‘idealized love’ that results from a relation like being childhood friends. The result was that Romeo wrote himself into a corner, and you get the feeling that if it wasn’t for the fact that he was working in Key’s framework, he would have probably went for an ending where both of them weren’t able to be saved. But in the end he still had to pull it off, yet he didn’t fall back on any kind of thing that Key has done before, like Magic saving the day. Although nigh unlikely, he fell back on the theme that he always loves to write about, which is human will overcoming things in times of crisis. If you compare that arc to Key’s other arcs in their other games with a similar point of crisis resolved in a happy end, I view it as still fairer than any of those.

  2. Glad to see a post like this! It’s a learning experience to bilingual writers like me.

    Oh, and before I forget, do you know edX? It’s an online learning website by Havard and other big names. There is this course that may be of help to you:

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