When you think of Japan, the ultra-modern city of Tokyo is probably one of the first things that comes to mind. For most international travellers, the capital is the first (or only) place they’ll visit, and though it’s certainly a striking city in its own right, it’s not exactly representative of Japan as a whole. Head west for a few hours, and you’ll probably end up in Kyoto. That’s arguably the country’s most historic city – it was the capital for over 1,000 years – but despite efforts to preserve traditional architecture and culture, it’s also become a very modern, globalised place.
If you keep going west you’ll eventually reach Matsue. Though it’s a relatively young city by Japanese standards, it has a rich history, and it’s done a remarkable job of preserving that. In a lot of ways, Matsue is like a city out of time; a place where you can still experience aspects of Edo-period Japan, even in 2016. It’s also a place I’ve never been, but thanks to a little-known visual novel called Root Letter, I feel like I have. More than that – I feel like it’s a place I know intimately, like I grew up there. I yearn for it. Somehow, Root Letter made me feel homesick for a place I’ve never set foot in.
Much of this is because Root Letter takes place entirely within Matsue, and despite the potential world-building limitations of the visual novel format, it’s a fascinating recreation of the city. Almost all of the locations you visit are based on real-world places. Many of these are also landmarks: Matsue Castle, Yaegeki Shrine, and the Kyomise shopping area are just a couple of the iconic places the game takes you to.
But there’s so much more than landmarks. Over the course of Root Letter, you become a regular at Nakamura Bar, Kamiari-an noodle restaurant, and a cafe called Waterworks – all of which are real-life places, though you probably wouldn’t know of them unless you’d spent some time in Matsue. You visit decidedly non-touristy places – like the Matsue City Offices and the TSK San-In Chuo TV studio – as often as you do the more memorable ones
What’s impressive about all these locations, from the grand sights to the mundane office buildings, is the meticulous attention to detail. There’s nothing photorealistic about Root Letter’s art direction, but the places you visit – all brought to life with 2D, hand-drawn stills, as is the visual novel norm – look like painterly renditions of photos. In fact, some of them are. The characters in the game, though fictional, are based on real people the development team met while on location. If you have some familiarity with the Japanese language, you might even notice some of the region’s dialectical quirks in the voice-overs – that’s the degree of authenticity Root Letter is working with.
A lifelike sense of place is only half the formula, though. It can make you interested in visiting a destination, but it can’t make you yearn for it like you would the place you grew up. That all comes from the themes of nostalgia that pervade every aspect of Root Letter, from the main plot to collectibles scattered around the place that are based on real-life souvenirs.
Takayuki (that’s you) is an everyday young professional living in Tokyo. One day, he stumbles upon a stack of old letters from his childhood penpal, Aya Fumino, inspiring him to travel to Matsue to finally meet her. He soon learns that she had died long before he’d even started corresponding with her, setting him off on an investigation to find the truth.
It’s a mystery story, but that’s a framework for something that is, I think, far more poignant. Letters are inherently nostalgic, and not just because they’ve become old-fashioned. They’re tangible in a way that archived emails can never be; the texture of the paper and the smell of ink are as much a part of the emotional experience of reading a letter as the actual words contained within. By making letters the catalyst for everything that transpires, Root Letter puts nostalgia squarely at the centre.
It doubles down on this with an art style that’s almost dreamlike. As I said, there’s a degree of attention to detail in the backgrounds that makes them lifelike, but the art itself is soft and slightly washed out, like you’re looking at it through a thin veil of fog. This is true of the character portraits as well, which are a change from the bold colors and hard lines that you typically see in Japanese visual novels.
The soundtrack is similarly muted and melancholy, burrowing its way under the skin to underline the wistful themes. I couldn’t hum the first note of any of piece of music from the game without a cue, but I’d recognise them in an instant and probably melt into a pile of feelings on the spot – it’s that kind of subtle, non-invasive, yet powerful score. The end result is a game that looks, sounds, and feels like a memory. It’s like you’re playing not in this moment right now, but from the perspective of someone remembering a childhood that’s long since passed.
It’s that, more than anything else, that makes Root Letter feel so sentimental. I’ve never set foot in Matsue, but when I’m playing this game, I pine for it. I feel like there’s a part of me that’s there in that city, and I long for the day I can go “back” there. For now, I think I might break out the stationery and write a letter.