How Kindred Spirits on the Roof both represents and exploits queer teen girls

By: Shayna February 5, 20200 Comments
One girl straddling another and grasping her hands. text box: Her intent was clear in her voice and in her eyes. And in the hands that held tight to mine.

Content Warning: Discussions of queerphobia, student/teacher relationships, and sexualization of minors.

Spoilers: General discussion of the primary relationships in Kindred Spirits on the Roof.

Officially released in English by MangaGamer in 2016, Kindred Spirits on the Roof (KSotR) garnered a lot of attention due to it being the first uncensored game released on Steam. Press surrounding the release paid attention mostly to the adult content and the “frank depictions of same-sex relationships.” Its release was considered even more significant due to the visual novel belonging to the yuri genre, which came with a promise of having a focus on sexual relationships between women. 

I remember feeling doubtful about how KSotR would balance its adult content with its depiction of queer relationships. Other adult visual novels with female same-sex relationships that I was familiar with, such as Sono Hanabira and Ne No Kami, seemed to rely on objectifying young girls and fetishes meant to excite a male, heterosexual reader. I remained unconvinced that KSotR had me, a queer woman, as its intended audience. 

Curiosity eventually got the best of me, and when I finally ventured to read it (KSotR has a set story and you do not influence any outcomes), I was pleasantly surprised to have many of my expectations subverted. I was even grateful, because it often felt as if KSotR was speaking specifically to my questioning teenage self. The game attempts to honestly portray queer female relationships, but sometimes blurs the line between depicting attraction and sensationalizing it.

two girls sharing an umbrella. text box: But like...isn't that kind of weird? You know, we're both girls.

More Than Just Tropes: Expanding discovery and sexual identity

KSotR follows a pair of spirits who convince closed-off high school student Toomi Yuna to help them pair up young girls and nurture their relationships, so that the two spirits can learn how to be sexually intimate themselves. Such a premise makes sense for an adult visual novel, and you can probably imagine how a story like this might play out. 

However, KSotR’s pull, for me at least, was how it attempts to capture a story about coming out and discovering one’s sexuality. While the visual novel is not always successful in staying grounded and can sometimes wander back into fantasy, there seems to be an honest intention to accurately portray a coming-out experience. 

Sachi explaining their background. text box: We liked girls, fell in love with girls...and died when those feelings were at their strongest. Which is why we're still here now as spirits.

KSotR seems acutely aware of some of the infamous tropes present in Class-S and early-yuri stories—particularly that wlw relationships are chaste, innocent, and either a “phase” that ends after high school or doomed to end in tragedy—and intentionally pushes against them. This is most cleverly shown through the two spirits, Enoki Sachi and Nagatani Megumi. Not only did both characters suffer melodramatic deaths related to their feelings for other women, Sachi, who died in the 1930s, and Megumi, who died in the 1970s, each lived during the times when Class-S and Yuri were popular narratives for intimate female relationships.

As you get to know Sachi and Megumi more, you begin to see how they expand (and wish to continue expanding) beyond those narratives. These are the two who put the story in motion, hoping they could help other girls be more honest with their own feelings, as well as become more fulfilled in their relationship with one another. Now existing in the modern age, even just as spirits, Sachi and Megumi have an entirely different expectation and understanding of same-gender attraction, one that contradicts what was commonly propagated when they were alive. 

They define their relationship explicitly in a conversation to Yuna before persuading her to help them in their mission. Together, the three of them cycle through the common labels given to wlw attraction—lesbian, S, and yuri—and try to find the appropriate one for Sachi and Megumi’s relationship.

Megumi explaining. text box: It means female homosexuals, Sachi-san. But there are differents ways to say it, aren't there? You know, like "S."

KSotR gives us characters who seriously consider what their sexuality might mean to the world around them, which was starting to become more common in yuri when the visual novel was originally developed in 2012.  

Inamoto Miyu and Toomi Yuna are excellent examples of how the narrative chooses to highlight the fears that surround girls attracted to other girls. Miyu and her long-term girlfriend, Amashima Matsuri, decide to keep their relationship a secret until they graduate high school and can live on their own. This causes conflict between them, because Miyu and Matsuri can’t agree on how careful they really need to be when it comes to keeping their relationship a secret.

There are many places in the world where coming out isn’t safe, physically or emotionally, and Miyu and Matsuri’s conflict reflects a common worry for many people, both closeted and out. In my own life, I have continually had to make the decision of whether or not it is safe to come out to someone. 

Two girls standing together in the locker room. text box: I start thinking and I can't help it. Thinking that maybe I'm the only one bothering with these things; the only one worrying about them...

All-girl settings in yuri have often been used as a way to ignore these concerns by excluding men and heteronormativity from the story and creating a fantasy world that doesn’t represent any kind of real experience or place. Miyu’s concern over keeping their relationship a secret grounds the narrative in real feelings that people actually have. Despite attending an all-girls school, these girls do not live in isolation, but in a world full of social expectations and prejudices. 

In protagonist Yuna’s case, she struggles to identify her feelings for her childhood friend, Komano Hina. She then delays admitting those feelings because she fears what her parents may think and doesn’t want people to start treating Hina poorly because of their relationship. When Yuna admits these concerns, she demonstrates something similar to Miyu’s worries: That there is a very real world around her that likely won’t approve of her feelings and choices. 

Her struggles give the common “but we’re both girls!” conflict a lot more weight as she considers the societal consequences of pursuing a relationship with another girl. The choice to plant these honest thoughts and moments for specific characters seems out of place for an adult visual novel, which is primarily expected to fulfill a fantasy and provide sexual gratification for the reader. 

Yuna fretting. text box: Everyone around us might not feel the same way. What if we caused trouble for my mom and dad, or Hina's mom and dad?

Blurring the Line: Who’s the audience again?

Visual novels have a history rooted in eroge (erotic games) and were often marketed to a male, heterosexual audience with the intention of sexually gratifying the player (see early visual novels like Lolita: Yakyuken and Joshi Ryu Panic). While the visual novel medium has grown to include more substantial stories and target different audiences since its first title in 1982, sexual content is still present and most commonly informed by the cishet male gaze. You only have to scroll through KSotR’s developer Liar-soft’s online catalog to recognize the target audience for the majority of their adult games. 

Despite being a game about queer teen girls, and despite frequently resonating with my own experiences as a queer teen girl, KSotR’s 18+ rating and voyeuristic premise mean that its target audience is explicitly adults and implicitly cishet men. This significantly complicates the conversation around it.

The ways in which KSotR is informed by the male gaze and invites a male, heterosexual audience into its narrative is where the line between honest portrayal and sensationalization really begins to blur. Most obviously, we can see this in how the sexual content is presented to the reader. In some of the early scenes, Sachi and Megumi inform the reader that the underlying reason for wanting to help other girls at the school with their feelings and relationships is because they do not know how two women have sex and they hope they can eventually catch some of the girls in the act and learn.

Megumi looking uncomfortable. text box: G-geez, don't make us have to spell it out for you! Sachi-san and I want to become one in soul AND body!

Because Sachi and Megumi are unable to leave the school, all the sex scenes (with the exception of one) must take place on campus in semi-public places. None of the girls ever know they are being watched in the act. It’s not only contrived, but voyeuristic, both in-universe and out. The game’s conceit is built around seeing intimacy between young women without their consent.

KSotR’s high school setting also places an emphasis on youth and vulnerability. While sex can be an important part of a relationship, the depiction of sex involving minors is troubling, as it serves to sexualize youth and underage characters. This isn’t a new observation for anyone who has played adult visual novels, including yuri ones, which often involve teenage girls.

Perhaps the easiest relationship to examine under this light is the student-teacher relationship between Sonou Tsukuyo and Tsurugimine Kiri. Not only does the visual novel depict sexual acts between the two, but the teacher, Tsukuyo, is drawn as a loli, making her appear much younger than she really is. She is also treated as younger by her students, who refuse to call her “senpai” and talk openly about how cute she is.

Kiri fretting in the bathroom. text box: And "cute" for me is really just a pure, yes, a beautiful feeling toward cute things and cute people... or it's supposed to be, but...

Kiri further exaggerates these qualities, as her obsession with cute things is what makes Tsukuyo attractive to her in the first place. In Tsukuyo and Kiri’s relationship, the difference in age and maturity is muted by these elements, but it only serves to emphasize the game’s preoccupation with fetishizing youth and young girls. 

While the sex scenes in KSotR aren’t overly explicit in terms of nudity, they still serve to sexualize the mostly underage cast. Sex is depicted from foreplay to orgasm, and while nothing graphic is shown, the game is more concerned with making sure these encounters fit the needs of the plot than reflecting a more grounded depiction of someone’s first time. The story railroads its cast, including shy or private characters, into actions that allow Sachi, Megumi, and the reader to watch.

Even the way the reader progresses through the visual novel is voyeuristic. As the reader completes scenes, they are rewarded with more scenes (previously “locked”) for them to view. Rather than proceeding naturalistically through the story and making decisions in the role of a character, they dig up the other character’s secrets as an outside observer.

shot of a classroom. text box: What kinda dream was it? Right. Tsukuyo-chan. I dreamed that Tsukuyo-chan and I did all sorts of things--or rather, that she did them to me, and I fell asleep at the end.

Finally, there’s the lack of identification and certainty some characters exhibit when coming to terms with their sexuality. While not wanting to identify with certain terms or not being sure how to identify can be normal for people discovering and understanding their sexuality, it takes on a subtly different meaning in a game framed within the male gaze, especially in a game that mostly stars underage characters.

This uncertainty allows the reader to interpret a character’s sexuality as situational: either as a phase they will eventually grow out of, or with the possibility that the characters could also be attracted to the (implied) male reader.

But despite these sensationalizing moments, the narrative goes beyond what one might expect for an adult visual novel when providing insight into what it means to discover and become familiar with one’s sexuality. Even its focus on sex and physical intimacy adds another aspect important to many young relationships, despite the story’s choices on how it depicts that. 

Two girls engaged in clothed foreplay. text box: Aki's lips were just slightly parted, and some heated breath escaped between them and brushed my lips.

KSotR gives its audience a different perspective by challenging and subverting certain tropes that have plagued yuri stories of the past. However, its successes in portraying a more grounded-in-reality narrative often feel overshadowed by how it exploits young girls and wlw relationships.

Due to the visual novel’s tendency towards voyeurism and its instances of fetishizing young girls, it seems clear that KSotR was created more for an adult heterosexual male audience instead of a teenage queer one. As much as I can appreciate the parts in which it deviates from many of its yuri predecessors, and while it did resonate with my personally at times, I’d still be hesitant to recommend it to anyone who shares the age and the experiences of these characters. Kindred Spirits on the Roof takes a few steps in the right direction when it comes to writing visual novels about and for young queer women, but there’s still a long way to go.

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