A modern master at writing fairy tales.
Article may contain mild conceptual/structural spoilers to the works of Niijima Yuu.Within this article, I’ll be commenting on Niijima Yuu’s writing patterns. These observations are based primarily on Hatsuyuki Sakura, Natsuyume Nagisa, and Majokoi Nikki. To put it simply, Niijima Yuu writes modern fairy tales – stories with whimsical, yet grim undertones. His stories end like most utsuge do – without a clear happiness; but, more often than not, they leave the reader feeling warm & fuzzy inside. His stories are worth reading for the experience itself, which is unique – unlike that provided by any other author.
The Japanese word meruhen (メルヘン), which is derivative from the German word, maerchen, means ‘fairy tale.’ A fairy tale has several distinctive features – most prominently, they feel ‘whimsical’ when you read them. They exude a lightheartedness – a “ray of hope,” all the while, containing a more toned-down, ominous layer – a premonition of something inevitably going wrong. By their design, fairy tales are not entirely dark– but, not all fairy tales have a happy-ever-after. The plot of this genre is seldom detailed or well-defined – storylines are archetypal; the universes in which the works are set are frequently underdeveloped. There is almost always magic – some supernatural element – but scarcely an explanation. Yet, magic as an oft, ill-defined presumption can still play a center role within the story to no consequence (e.g. The Fairy Godmother plays an important role within Cinderella, yet we do not understand the source of her magic that well). In this sense, the most ‘engaging’ part of a fairy tale lies not with its plot, as it’s often based on tenuous principles, but the experience which you get from reading them.
Niijima Yuu is a writer who masterfully writes fairy tales. He manages to effectively superpose lighthearted, whimsical elements fluidly with ‘grimmer’ elements. He can on one end, craft and develop a ensemble of charming, affable characters that act cutely and live fairly ordinary lives. Yet simultaneously, his stories weave an underlying feeling of uncertainty and intrigue. Niijima tows the divide well – without creating an uncanny ‘disconnect.’ In the past, I had complained that his works feature underwhelming, vague systems of magic, despite magic playing a disproportionately significant role in his stories. But, in retrospect, I think that this complaint isn’t as large as it might seem. After all, within Cinderella, the reader doesn’t need to understand how the Fairy Godmother’s magic works in order to appreciate the story. The most indicative, and enjoyable part of a Niijima work is not necessarily the plot or its constituent parts — it’s the experience of reading in itself.
The “Niijima experience” is best described along the lines of feeling like you’re in a transient reverie – a pleasant dream that you’re afraid to end – that subtle gnawing at the back of your mind, warning you that not all is as it seems. His works immediately pull you in – the mood is set from the go; through the dreamlike artstyle & the delicate-feeling soundtrack – and of course, the intrigue – or the mystery surrounding the truth of the world. The worlds in which his works are set are ordinary – as if parallel to our Earth – with hints of magic, that elicit an uncanniness. The goal of the plot is to ultimately ‘unravel’ the mystery that makes the world.
His works frequently feature a cast of endearing characters – they tend to be more than just ordinary moeblobs (not to say they’re revolutionary though) – but, generally, they’re dynamic and experience growth. Niijima tends to center his works around the true route – the central heroine; all other routes tend to be second to this purpose. Indeed, the side heroine routes are frequently weak in plot – but generally, solid in animating the spirit of his work (and occasionally, carve out small, side details of the main plot). The true route – naturally – unveils the truth of the work’s world – for better or for worse; the alarm clock.
Of course, this is not to say that Niijima works lack meaning outside of the experience. He competently writes themes to his works – and his plots, while frequently vague – are still satisfying to read; they’re archetypal in how they end, not how they’re told – or what is told. But, to me, Niijima is an author distinguished by his unique ability of making the reader feel. He’s the only author who can consistently write works that are both utsuge and uplifting – who can make the reader shed tears at what is lost; but to smile, and to fondly remember the experience.
I really like Niijima Yuu as a writer. His success comes from him blending solid, surface-level stuff (interesting plot, likeable & marketable characters, and well-written comedy/slice of life) + providing something more (the tone + mood he develops). There are many writers who do the first part well (e.g. Kazuki Fumi and Konno Asta are both comparable ‘surface level’ writers) – but few authors are able to weave moods as alluring as Niijima (be it the paradise of Natsuyume Nagisa, the wintry ‘ghost’ town of Hatsuyuki Sakura, or the classic fairytale-feel of Majokoi Nikki – he’s a master at writing the settings).
Of his works, I’d say that Hatsuyuki Sakura is the most consistent and well-built – when it comes to fundamentals: most meaningful heroine routes outside the true; better music; solid pacing. The least ‘criticizable’ out of his works (not to say it’s impervious without flaws).
Natsuyume Nagisa is the most dreamy – it can make you fall hard into it (excels at atmosphere – more Niijima than his other works). More volatile – some routes outright don’t make much sense.
Majokoi Nikki is probably the most ambitious – but ultimately comes short because is reaches too far without putting in the proper work. The ‘newest’ of his works – and it shows a willingness to innovate a little farther than what he’s done previously. Not at all a bad thing.