Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
I’ve been interested for a while in writing about a certain character from Fate/Extra CCC, and particularly how she ties narrative elements to strictly mechanical level design. As it happens, the character—one Jinako Carigiri—made a reappearance last week in the fourth chapter of Fate/Grand Order: Cosmos in the Lostbelt, Yuga Kshetra. Jinako’s role in Yuga Kshetra is a really excellent example of how to reuse a character with an already-complete character arc in a later work, so I’ve decided to take this opportunity to roll the two topics into one.
Jinako starts off as something of a cliché. She’s both a “hikikomori” and a “Neet”—terms that are sometimes used interchangeably but technically mean different things. The term “hikikomori” is a nominalization of the verb “hikikomoru,” which means to physically hide away or seal oneself off. Hikikomori are people who never leave their homes. It’s something of a social phenomenon and issue in Japan right now and as a result the character type pops up in Japanese fiction with some regularity. They’re often portrayed in fiction as having some form of agoraphobia, though I don’t know how strongly agoraphobia and being a hikikomori are correlated in reality.
The term “Neet,” on the other hand, is an acronym for “Not in Education, Employment, or Training.” It basically just means “unemployed,” though it typically has the connotation in Japanese fiction of “someone who plays games and surfs the web all day without actually doing anything productive.” Jinako is both a hikikomori and a Neet, but the two terms don’t necessarily have to go together—someone can never leave home but still be employed (such as in a work-from-home situation), and someone can be unemployed but nonetheless spend a fair bit of time outside.
Long story short, Jinako is an immediately recognizable character type. She fits all the usual clichés associated with hikikomori Neet characters—an unhealthy fondness for junk food, esoteric computer skills, a love of video games, extreme-but-high-energy social awkwardness, and so on. What makes Jinako particularly interesting, though—and the key element that carries over to Persona 5’s Futaba Sakura, who is likely modeled after Jinako—is the way her character develops.
For the first half of CCC, Jinako adheres closely to her trope. She’s relatively unfriendly and she only takes action after much prodding. In CCC’s fourth chapter, though—the point where Jinako comes into focus—things change somewhat.
Although it’s not initially visible, Jinako is a character who feels trapped by forces beyond her control and who despairs at her own uselessness. Her parents died in a car accident when she was young, and the combination of their life insurance and her inheritance ensured she would never be in danger of financial ruin so long as she lived frugally. Teenage Jinako, traumatized by the sudden loss of her family and support network, saw this as a blessing—rather than face the world, she was able to retreat into her own home indefinitely. She didn’t “need” to go out into the world in order to maintain her lifestyle, so she just… didn’t.
Over time, though, she grew less and less satisfied with her life of endless leisure, and by the time in which CCC was set—as Jinako was approaching her 30’s—she found herself despairing at her decade of wasted time. She wanted to make her life meaningful, but she had neither the experience nor the connections necessary to find worthwhile work, and as a result she felt trapped. Prior to the beginning of CCC, Jinako took a single step toward her goal of finding meaning, but immediately she became overwhelmed by the world outside of herself and retreated into a prison of her own making, deeper in despair than before.
Jinako covers this with a self-deprecating levity through the first three chapters of CCC, but at the beginning of the fourth chapter, CCC’s secondary antagonist (BB) brings Jinako into direct awareness of her own despair, and her demeanor changes entirely. Jinako sinks fully into apparent depression, and her story chapter begins.
Each chapter of CCC features three dungeon floors followed by a chapter boss. Each floor reflects an aspect of the chapter boss’s psyche, with the entire chapter serving to make the chapter boss accept the feelings or sentiments she has been repressing. If this sounds familiar, it’s ripped more-or-less wholesale from Persona 4—CCC borrows several key ideas from the Persona games that precede it, and then Persona 5 steals Jinako from CCC (to the point that Futaba even has the same voice actress). There’s a definite give-and-take happening here.
The first three chapters of CCC are fairly straightforward in terms of dungeon design. They do have a few clever gimmicks or puzzles that relate to the chapter boss’s character arc, but for the most part they’re straightforward dungeon-crawling segments punctuated by narration. Standard fare.
What makes Jinako’s chapter so memorable, though, is the way it subverts both the structure of the game to that point and typical conventions of RPG dungeons in the service of developing her character.
The first floor is a meandering path filled with signposts covered in misinformation. Things like, “There’s a powerful enemy ahead, so you should turn back,” or, “The area up ahead is a complex maze, so you should give up.” While a typical RPG might use this as a puzzle—having signs that say, for example, “The left path is the correct path” when the right path instead leads onward—here it’s strictly narrative. The path forward is clear and obvious throughout. The significance of the signs is less the misinformation they provide and more their attempts to discourage the protagonist.
This operates on a few levels. On the surface it’s emblematic of Jinako’s perceived laziness. Rather than actually create a complicated labyrinth to keep the protagonist out, she created a simple hallway and just filled it with discouraging lies. She couldn’t be bothered to put effort into making her maze challenging—all she could do was lie about its difficulty. This emphasizes her “uselessness,” though I think the point is not that Jinako is useless but rather that she perceives herself as such.
More importantly, though, this section of dungeon-crawling is a metaphor for how Jinako experiences her life. Even simple, easy tasks appear daunting and nearly impossible, and every step along the way induces the temptation to turn back. A straightforward path is as intimidating as a maze. A small roadblock looks like a gigantic monster. Et cetera. Rather than presenting a gameplay challenge, the floor is an experiential analogue to moving through life with anxiety or depression.
Jinako’s second floor, then, twists things even further. Instead of the long, twisty hallways typical of every chapter thus far, the second floor is just a huge, empty square. There’s no obvious way forward—it’s a floor where you feel simultaneously lost and trapped, just like Jinako does. This floor then subverts the game thus far further by having Jinako narrate a significant section of it—CCC’s first notable example of a narrative perspective shift.
And then there’s the third floor. The third floor is somewhat more normal except for the very end—the floor’s exit is protected by a barrier that will kill anyone that passes through it. This floor represents Jinako’s sense that her actions are futile and her life meaningless. No matter what she does, the only way her life can end is with her death. This is the thing that most firmly stops Jinako from taking action. She deeply desires some form of meaning in her life, but she also feels that the world is inherently meaningless and thus that nothing she does can possibly create meaning.
Jinako is ultimately persuaded to open up and take action regardless—primarily through the help of another character, Karna. Karna is a hero from the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. He is in many ways the opposite of Jinako—infinitely selfless, enormously competent, a hero who lived a full, meaningful life. It is his support and encouragement that enables Jinako’s eventual reversal. Jinako holds Karna in enormously high regard, and his unfailing support ultimately inspires her to continue to try to take action, even if she doesn’t find the answers that allow her to resolve her anxieties.
Jinako’s character arc in CCC is interesting in that it doesn’t resolve to the degree that one typically might expect. Jinako doesn’t suddenly find all her answers and go from being an anguished, deeply flawed person to a heroic figure or anything. All her chapter really represents is an early stumble in the course of her overall journey towards self-betterment. It’s surprisingly subtle in a game that (and I don’t mean this negatively) is not especially subtle as a whole.
And then, six years later, Jinako resurfaced in Fate/Grand Order. Each Nasuverse work exists in its own timeline, so even when familiar characters show up in FGO they typically function essentially as cameos—the characters don’t “canonically” experience the events of FGO within their home works, which keeps each Nasuverse work isolated, as it should be.
Jinako, however, is a special case. The Jinako who appears in Yuga Kshetra is the exact same character as from CCC. CCC’s secondary antagonist—the aforementioned BB—has the ability to transcend timelines, and after the events of CCC she sent Jinako from CCC’s world to FGO’s, which means Yuga Kshetra is canonically a follow-up to Jinako’s story arc in CCC.
This works because Jinako’s character arc was technically left unfinished. CCC did everything for Jinako it needed to—we didn’t need to see her arrive at her answers in order for her development to feel complete and satisfying—but there was room leftover to explore Jinako’s full growth as a person, and that’s exactly what Yuga Kshetra does.
When Jinako first appears in Yuga Kshetra, she’s reluctant to do anything at all. It takes a reunion with Karna to motivate Jinako to continue pushing towards her own personal growth. As the chapter develops, she fades into the background somewhat, doing very little and growing more and more frustrated with her inability to make an impact. Meanwhile, several other characters grapple with the meaning of taking action in an inherently meaningless world, with the overall sentiment expressed most concisely by a line from the character Lakshmibai: “I do not take action because my cause is meaningful; my cause is meaningful because I take action.”
In other words, Jinako’s traveling companions struggle with the same anxieties that colored Jinako’s CCC arc, and the conclusion they come to is that meaning can be created through action even if those actions are not intrinsically meaningful. This is not lost on Jinako, and near the end of the chapter she steps up and volunteers herself for a horrific mental trial necessary to the heroes’ goals. She survives this trial, of course, and after she finishes Karna commends her for her work, acknowledging her not only as a worthwhile human being but as a hero worthy of standing beside him as equals.
Jinako is, of course, moved to tears.
Jinako’s combined development in CCC and Yuga Kshetra sees her coming from a position of total incompetence and emotional paralysis and ending as a proactive, positive person capable of standing as equals with her hero and role model. It is, if nothing else, heartwarming.
At the end of Yuga Kshetra, rather than permanently joining FGO’s main characters (as most new servants do when story chapters end), Jinako chooses to travel through parallel worlds, seeing as many different places and perspectives as she can, and learning as much as possible. In other words, she quite literally breaks out of her own world—the ultimate victory for a character whose defining trait once was locking herself in a storage closet and refusing to leave out of fear.
Spoilers are something of a perennial annoyance in online communities. Most people like to read or watch things without knowing about any twists or secrets beforehand, and there’s a sense that knowing the ending in advance can somehow “ruin” a book, movie, or game. Temporary prohibitions on spoilers in the period following the release of something popular—the most recent Avengers movie, for instance—are common.
The idea of “spoilers” is an interesting phenomenon. If you look at literature that’s more than, say, fifty years old, knowing the outcome in advance typically becomes considerably less of an issue. In some cases this is, of course, because the “twists” are such common knowledge that everyone has already been spoiled—no one reading Romeo and Juliet in the modern day will be surprised when the two die in the end, for instance—but even in cases where a typical reader might not already be familiar with the work, knowing the outcome in advance doesn’t meaningfully impact the enjoyment of a work. Something like Huckleberry Finn is just as strong and engaging no matter how much of the plot you know going into it.
An argument that occasionally pops up around spoilers is that if a work is strong enough, spoilers shouldn’t diminish its value. Put another way, if the only merit in reading something is to experience the twists and surprises, the work is probably hackish and not worth reading anyway. The great works of classic literature don’t rely on heavy-handed plotting and gimmicky twists to be good, so spoilers can’t damage an already strong work, right?
There is an element of this that’s true, I think. Even in the case of modern works that are most vulnerable to spoilers—mysteries, for instance—the best ones are worth reading even if you know the twists in advance. Danganronpa V3, for example, is full of major twists and surprises just waiting to be spoiled, but the game has such thorough narrative and thematic strength that even with the element of surprise entirely removed it would be worth playing.
The issue with this is that it implies the existence of once strength (strong writing independent of plot twists) negates the possibility that there might be value in the elements of the experience that are lost when a work is spoiled. Spoilers are most problematic in cases where a reader’s first experience with a work will be measurably different from subsequent experiences and where (most crucially) that first experience is intentionally cultivated by the author such that it plays into the thematic message and core strength of the overall work.
In fairness, there aren’t many works for which this really holds true. In order for spoilers to meaningfully diminish the value of a work that is strong beyond its surprises, the work’s author needs to have created the work with careful attention to the likely expectations and beliefs of the audience. There has to be a set of intended assumptions that color audience interpretations of the work, and the spoilers must subvert those assumptions in such a way that the meaning of the work becomes obscured.
Danganronpa V3 is, again, a good example of this. Without going into detail (for fear of spoilers), the game carefully manipulates player expectations in such a way that the resolution of the game’s mysteries calls the player to question certain core assumptions that extend beyond the literal plot of the game. The game tricks the player into accepting certain fallacious lines of thinking and then later reveals that thinking to be false, drawing attention to the ways it tricked the player in order to get the player to examine other instances outside the game where similar fallacies might color perception.
If a player goes into the game knowing in advance what will happen, the player never experiences getting “tricked” and therefore never has the opportunity to think on the broader implications of the game’s misdirections. As the game uses its plot twists to advance its thematic ideas, spoiling the plot weakens that first experience with the game.
Moreover, that first experience colors and contextualizes subsequent readings of the game. Having had that blind first experience, the player is better able to appreciate the nuances and tricky intricacies of the game’s writing. To spoil the game is to permanently deny a player the full range of experience the game is meant to provide. In this sense, at least, spoilers are absolutely damaging to an extent that is neither the fault of the player nor of the work.
Additionally, there are plenty of works meant solely to entertain where spoiling certain plot elements seriously diminishes the work’s entertainment value. This is in some cases a sign of weak plotting, but in others it can be a result of structural or narrative creativity, especially in works that center on subverting a set of audience expectations in a crucial way. To spoil such a work is to do a disservice to anyone who wishes to experience it as intended.
Generally speaking, authors assume their audiences will experience their works in a particular order and write based on that assumption. It is entirely fair to want to respect the author’s intent and to avoid coloring perceptions of a work with prior knowledge. It may not matter for everything, but for some things it matters a great deal.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition