Little Busters! – A wonderful coming-of-age story that doesn’t sell itself as one

…Hey Riki, have you discovered the secret of the world?

*NOTE: This post contains HUGE SPOILERS about the visual novel and anime of Little Busters!/Little Busters! Refrain. If you have any intention to play or watch the anime without having the story ruined for you, stay away from the main content of this post. It won’t hurt your understanding of the concepts if you do decide straight into my post, but you’d be doing yourself an injustice by not reading the story first.*

Visual novels are a pretty interesting medium in regards to all of the other mediums within Japanese culture. They’re not quite stories, but not quite games; they are both combined  to create a story told through audio and simple images. As a lover of both mediums, I get really excited when someone tells me about a good visual novel, considering lots of visual novels are… pretty lacking in the story department. Although, since it’s a medium that isn’t particularly common to find outside of Japan, you can mostly distinguish good novels from bad ones by simply looking at if they’ve been translated into English. Yet, the community always translates a certain company’s content as soon as possible.

Key, one of the companies most famous for their visual novels, is that company. When people think visual novels, they are most likely the first one that comes to mind. If you asked someone to name their top three visual novels, most likely one of their works would be made by Key, and there’s a good chance that the novel they mention will be Clannad. With it receiving both a visual novel and an anime adaptation, it’s probably one of the most well-known visual novels among anime fans, mostly for the fact that it’s known to bring tears to anyone that has a soul.

Little Busters Picture 1 - It's snowing... again

Seriously, I don’t think it’s humanly possible to get through Clannad without crying. It’s probably a law of the universe or something.

While Clannad is a good story, I can’t say it’s their best work considering there’s some issues with the story-writing and the overall premise of the story (there’s even more issues in the anime, but that’s another post for another time). After playing bits and pieces of some other “famous” visual novels by them, specifically Clannad and Kanon, I figured that they all were pretty much the same in terms of what I should expect.

I was wrong. Very wrong, actually.

About a year and a half ago, I played Little Busters! and discovered how wrong I really was. It was completely different from both of those in the way that it told its story. Unlike Clannad and Kanon where after the setting is explained, you’re more focused on the romantic experiences, Little Busters! shows that it’s not going to be that type of story by focusing on the relationships with your friends for the first few hours of the game.

Little Busters Picture 2 - Eel Pie Best Weapon

Yeah, one of the first scenes in the novel is a lunch room battle. Notice how I specified with “battle”. Also note that there’s a significant gap in the weapons they’re using.

This is interesting because the male characters are the focus for the first 30 minutes of the novel, even though the cover photo clearly shows that there will be several others eventually introduced. Even though it sells itself romance novel, they hold off on introducing the other female characters to establish your relationship with the main group of characters, which are aptly named the Little Busters. All of them are unique characters too, despite what other people may think when they first see these characters in the novel. Riki would be the standard main character, Masato would be like the dumb jock character, Kengo would be the serious mature character, Kyousuke would be the leader/older brother character, and Rin (the main heroine) would be the shy/tsundere of the group. Boiling the characters down like that is what some people will do when they first see the novel, but will quickly realize there’s plenty more to these characters than those basic traits.

What also makes this novel different from others is the structure, while is familiar to players of Key novels, but completely deviates from the standard visual novel set-up. Most visual novels have a common route, possibly choices within that route, and then a bunch of branches off of the common route. While Little Busters! mostly does the same thing for the first part of the novel, it also has a final route referred to as “Refrain”. Clannad has “After Story”, Rewrite has “Terra”, Little Busters! has “Refrain”; it’s a common theme within a Key novel to have a final route and is usually where everything is explained and the “Key magic” happens. Whether you think the “Key magic” is appropriate or not is up to you.

There are plenty of “Key magic” instances that happen in Little Busters!, but the most notable is definitely during the “secret of the world” alluded to throughout the novel and is the primary focus of the Refrain segment of the novel. Throughout the entire novel, Riki is told that there is a “secret of the world” via a note tied to one of Rin’s kittens, and he’s meant to discover this “secret” as certain events unfold. Keeping this in mind, he slowly meets different girls that each have their own struggles and attempts to help them through them as much as he can. Although this differs when you attempt Rin’s route for the first time (known as Rin1), in which you’ll get a very bizarre ending with a cryptic message.

“Alright, good job. But aren’t you forgetting something?”

Pretty spooky, really.

Of course, this is used as a hint to guide the reader through all of the other routes first, since your experiences from them are required for what’s referred to as Rin2, the “finished” route. While you gain insight as to what the “secret of the world” may be in those routes and how that insight reflects this theme of the novel, Rin2 and Refrain are really what makes Little Busters! what it is. They also contain some of the strongest story elements and over-arching themes I’ve seen within a visual novel. One of those themes being the concept of “maturity”.

While most stories that try to be coming-of-age stories or talk about maturity (AKA most shounen stories) usually seem cheesy or stereotypical, Little Busters! neither tries to follow the elements of those stories, nor does it try sell itself as a story of that type. Honestly, it seems to market itself more as a rom-com harem than anything, but that’s also inaccurate. This story manages to encompass several elements of sports, drama, romance, comedy, and coming-of-age elements, and while that may sound like it’s doing too much, all of it is being done concurrently and manages to make the end product into something beautiful.

They begin by discussing this concept of maturity near the beginning of the novel, which is when you found out that Riki was recruited into the Little Busters because of the loss of his parents, and he emotionally needed a role model to help him through the tough times. This is when Kyousuke asked him to join, and ever since then, Riki has always relied on Kyousuke for guidance. Obviously though, he can’t rely on him for the rest of his life. Kyousuke also realizes this and knows that Riki needs to mature in order to deal with the problems that will lie ahead of him in life.

Little Busters Picture 3 - OP

Heck, it even mentions the concept of maturity in the opening. If that’s not what this novel is about, then it somehow did an near-perfect job of doing something it wasn’t even meant to do.

This leads to the biggest example of maturity presented in the novel, which is the “secret of the world” that Riki is meant to discover. This begins in Rin1 when it’s presented to Riki that Rin will be changing schools in order to help their sister school emotionally deal with several students being injured in a bus crash while on a field trip. Since Riki and Rin are together in this route, it’s obvious that they don’t want to be away from each other, and Rin especially, doesn’t want to go somewhere remote because of it pulling her away from her new friends, the Little Busters, and also Riki. With no actual choices presented, the route rolls on with the standard response of “I don’t want to leave you.” Riki then proceeds to randomly faint and the perplexing dialogue from earlier appears.

When you go through Rin’s route again after completing the other routes, Rin2 begins and continues past where you initially fainted in Rin1. In Rin2, you can tell Riki and Rin have matured due to the different nuances of their responses to events in the common route, and also through them having higher stats in the “battles” that they participate in. Through helping all of their friends with minimal outside help from Kyousuke, they think they have finally gained the maturity and confidence to take on any scenario presented to them.

This time, both Rin and Riki come to the decision that Rin should go help at the sister school, no matter how hard it may be. While they are okay with the decision made, Riki is not okay with the fact that there seemed to be an outside force that was pushing them inevitably to come to this decision. The main reason Riki comes to this conclusion is that someone was obviously writing the notes that Rin’s kitten gave them. After some investigating, that someone is discovered to be Kyousuke. Although he doesn’t yet reveal his true motivation for pushing Rin to do this, he off-handedly implies that he’s doing it to strengthen Rin’s independence and also that it has something to do with the “secret of the world” that his notes referred to. As expected, Riki doesn’t accept this as a suitable answer, nor does he accept how the situation is coming about.

After Rin leaves to go to the sister school, Rin becomes in complete isolation from her friends. Knowing this, Riki attempts to take matters into his own hands and free her immediately from the school. While leaving, Kyousuke gives him a warning that nothing good will come from doing things this way, and for the first time in the novel, Riki ignores Kyousuke’s advice and continues on his way to free Rin. Although after events that ultimately stop Riki from doing so, he resides to waiting for the weekend and coming up with a new plan to free her then. What he doesn’t realize though, is how bad of a state Rin is in when she returns from the school. After just one week, her character changed from being serious about her decision, to being afraid, meek, and drained of any kind of motivation of returning to that school the following week.

Since Riki is now against the motives of Kyousuke, he asks Kengo to help him get through to Kyousuke and help him save Rin from the heart-breaking scenario that she’s currently in. Kengo agrees and goes to ask Kyousuke if they can do anything about the scenario at hand. Kyousuke responds that they should resolve this with a challenge. The challenge is, of course, a baseball match that is incomparable to any of the other matches that have happened thus far.

Little Busters Picture 4 - Wet and ready

Nope, no cute kittens here. Sorry guys.

The outcome of this match is that Kyousuke ends up winning due Kengo getting distracted by an outside force while batting.

While first-time readers may have questions during this scene, it gets across the feelings of urgency and necessity to win this match well and leaves the questions to be answered later. This scene is one of the most important ones in the pre-Refrain section of the novel, as it shows that Kyousuke does indeed have a huge secret that he’s hiding from us.

All of the events of Rin2 up to this point really demonstrate to the reader both the development of Riki as a character, and also shows the maturity that he has definitely gained from the previous routes. He went from someone that always was feeling down and needing help through every scenario, to someone that’s willing to fight for what he thinks is right against the person that’s been helping him this entire time. Although, it’s clear that he still has some ways to go, as his next proposed idea is a pretty immature one. Him and Rin decide to run away from everyone where no one will be able to bring her back to the sister school.

During this act of running away, they realize that they also go into hiding from everyone that was supporting them. This action obviously shows that they haven’t fully matured yet, as they’re running away from their problems instead of facing them head-on like Kyousuke would want them to. With only having each other and little support from anyone else in society (and the support that they do try to get is always blocked in some way or another), they start to realize how much they truly relied on others for their assistance. This solidifies the idea that they weren’t as mature as they thought.

With probably no surprise to the viewer, Riki’s idea to run away ends up failing due to lack of planning and several other mistakes they made. They end up getting caught by the police for living in an abandoned house without permission and are both sent back to their respective schools. The last few scenes of the novel consist of Riki’s monologue, now being all alone back at school, saying how everything that he had built up had now been destroyed. Relationships, his friends that he had now betrayed, all of it is now gone from that single decision he made. He ends his monologue with not only a great line, but also one that remains true to the themes of the novel.

“I wish I’d been stronger.”

After this message appears, the route ends and flashes back to Riki’s inner monologue, saying that he’s back on the road to how he used to feel as a kid and how he doesn’t want himself to return to being that way. He then hears a voice talk back to him asking him “…So, what are you going to do now?” and finally, the last choice of pre-Refrain is presented to us.

Riki:

Riki: “Am I going to escape the same way again…? I don’t like it.”

Now, this entire post I’ve been building up to the Refrain route. I’ve waited this long because everything I’ve mentioned thus far answers all of the questions that I’ve laid out within this post. Refrain picks up after Rin2, and has a HUGE twist in both plot and character aspects, which is why it’s such an integral part of the novel. The big reveal of this novel, the Refrain route, and the “Key magic” is done through several glimpses through the perspective of Kyousuke.

The viewer now learns that all of the characters that we’ve seen thus far are on the verge of death due to a bus crash that happened while they were on a field trip. Notice the parallel with the sister school mentioned earlier? That’s completely intentional writing on the novel’s part. We also learn how Kyousuke has been preparing Rin and Riki for the harsh reality that will await them when they wake up from being unconscious by creating several different “worlds” for them to experience and mature them for reality. Each of the routes that have been played up to this point have just been different versions of the world that Kyousuke has created. This explains why he pushed so hard for Riki and Rin to become stronger by assigning them the tasks through the kitten earlier in the story and also explains why strange things happened within the different routes.

This also explains Kengo’s distraction during the baseball match in Rin2 and also why when Riki always tried to free Rin from the sister school, certain circumstances would always prevent him from doing so. Since Kyousuke can control the world he’s created, he feels like he can do whatever he wants and justifies it as long as it helps Riki and Rin in the end. Furthermore, it shows why he pushed so hard for Rin to go to the sister school, why he discouraged Riki from saving her, and also pieces together every bit of the novel that’s happened at this point and shows that Kyousuke was somehow in control of that. This alone shows Kyousuke’s maturity and selflessness by having him suffer both physically in the real world and mentally by experiencing the same things over and over again, all to prepare for those two for the future.

Though, this is only half of what makes Refrain such an excellent part of this novel.

You're probably thinking

You’re probably thinking “Holy shit, that’s not enough for these characters!?” Meanwhile, while I was playing the game, I’m thinking “OH GOD WHAT IS GOING ON? THIS IS TOO INTENSE.” Hence the crazy names of some of these saves.

The other half is that in the actual route of Refrain, between all of these glimpses that we get of Kyousuke, Riki and Kyousuke do a complete role reversal in terms of who is actually helping who. Refrain starts out like the common route, but makes Riki reform the Little Busters! from scratch, since Kyousuke is too traumatized by what he did to Rin in her route in order to help with anything. At least, that’s his cover story. It’s really because he’s become exhausted from holding the dream worlds together for this long and can’t do anything to help Riki besides push him further into maturity. In short, Kyousuke in Refrain is pretty much useless in order to strengthen Riki to the point where he can handle the real world. Whether you see the “real world” idea as a part of the story or an actual metaphor for someone maturing to handle the actual “real world” is up to you and makes sense in either context.

While this is also going on, all of the characters that make up the Little Busters group are all split apart for different reasons, and it’s not only Riki’s job to join them back together, but also to do it without any assistance from Kyousuke. This is the first time in the novel that Riki has to do something completely by himself. While in the routes of others characters, he still had to receive help from Kyousuke or other members of the Little Busters in order to help the girls with their problems. For example, in both Kud’s and Mio’s routes, Kyousuke helps him out by giving him a hint of some sort which gets him through the mental block when he can no longer help them out.

As a sidenote, I love her character and her route is probably my favorite. So many tears though... Also I want both that pin and that hair-clip.

As a sidenote, I love her character and her route is probably my favorite. So many tears though… Also I want both that pin and that hair-clip.

As he’s piecing the Little Busters back together, Refrain also has a third aspect that’s a really innovative concept within a visual novel and was an excellent way to explain even more in-depth parts of the story, the character’s themselves, and their motivations for joining the Little Busters initially. Specifically, Refrain also focuses on the main male characters of the story, and to be honest, I love their motivations just as much, if not more so than some of the heroines. All of these characters have their own definition of “maturity” and is thoroughly explained via these flashback segments of Refrain.

Kengo, while reflected as one of the more “mature” characters of the cast (although you may not always think so while reading), has a very immature way of viewing things not only in the Refrain route when he’s asked to re-join the Little Busters, but also when he joined the first time as a kid. The way that Kyousuke got him to join the Little Busters in the first place was because of the amount of pressure on him for being a kendo prodigy, since his father was a master of a dojo. Because of this immense amount of pressure, he focused so hard on becoming good at kendo for his father (and basically society, since that also a status thing) that he forgot when to have fun and enjoy himself. As a child, he thought that being serious all of the time meant that he was more mature than everyone else. That obviously isn’t true though, and when Kyousuke managed to get him to join the Little Busters, Kengo finally learned that having a balance in your life is maturity in its own way.

Masato also experiences something similar during Refrain. Out of all of the Little Busters members, I would actually say that Masato is probably one of the more mature characters of the bunch, if not the most mature. Now, if you’ve read the novel, this statement may actually come as a surprise to you since Masato is known to be one of the sillier characters.

“Like really, how is this mature?” is totally what you’re thinking. This isn’t even the half of it either.

The reason I say this though is the fact that his actions in Refrain, particularly in the latter segments of Refrain and after his backstory is explained, is when the mature part of his character shines the brightest. We learn that Masato knew about what Kyousuke was doing and also that Kyousuke nominated him as his right-hand man in making everything come together to mature Riki and Rin for the future. While he didn’t necessarily agree with everything that Kyousuke was doing, he decided to follow through with it anyway since it was obviously the necessary thing to do in this scenario. Masato knew there was going to be suffering on both Riki and Rin’s parts, but for the end result, he decided to put all of that behind him and fulfill the wish that Kyousuke had. This isn’t only displayed in the common route and in the Refrain route, but also in the real world where he protects Riki from the initial impact of the crash. Masato clearly knows that this world could entirely be the last time he sees Riki, and yet he continues to smile and be silly throughout the entire novel, clearly knowing what the outcome could end up being. That takes a great deal of maturity to deal with, and is probably why he may be one of the best characters in the entire novel.

As Refrain nears its close, the dream world begins to fall apart and Riki says his possibly last good-byes to everyone before he comes back to reality. But that’s not how the novel ends. When Riki and Rin both wake up in the real world, they both see the reality of the situation and choose to run, since this is what Kyousuke had set up for them to do. While running away, Riki again, faints, and Rin has to drag him away while the scene is set ablaze due to a fuel leak that was ongoing while they were in the dream world.

Rin then has many pseudo-dream flashbacks to the dream world and sees Komari, another girl which Riki pursued in one of the world’s iterations, on the rooftop. Since her route was focused on her moving beyond the past and into the future with a smile, she shows her maturity in this scene by telling Rin exactly what they told her in her route.

Someone taught me to keep smiling 'til the very end, but I want Rin to be able to smile. Let's part with a smile, okay?

Someone taught me to keep smiling ’til the very end, but I want Rin to be able to smile. Let’s part with a smile, okay?

With that, Komari makes a wish that Rin should keep on smiling until the very end and the dream fades away.

Back in reality, Rin and Riki are now both in the hospital together, and Riki promises that he’ll protect her forever and make sure that she’s always smiling. The screen fades to black, making the viewer think the novel is at an end, but then the voice Riki continuously hears comes back and says “This is okay, right?” Well, obviously it’s not. Riki then hears Kyousuke’s voice and tells him that he’s finally strong enough to deal with the real world and that he’s glad that Riki met his goal. But Riki, again, is not okay with this outcome. He says that him and Rin will make a new world with the strength they’ve gained, one with a better ending than this one. This ending itself is a display on maturity of Riki and Rin’s part, as they also manage to surpass Kyousuke’s initial expectations by creating a new world from their strength and also by some of the amazing feats they perform within the ending of this novel.

“Riki, you’re amazing. You worked a miracle. Such a feat is unbelievable, even for me.”

While some people may think that this may be too much for the novel or that some of the plot points were pretty convenient, they actually make a whole lot of sense if you think about it from this perspective of “maturing in order to keep moving forward and do amazing things”. I would even say that is probably one of the more thought-out versions of the “Key magic” being used, and I’m sure several others would also agree with that statement… unless you watched the anime first.

If you’ve seen the anime first, then I could understand why you may think it’s a bit too much or “Key magic” heavy. The anime does a good job in portraying the events of the novel, but does a really poor job in explaining the motivations behind those events, and also does a terrible job of showing these themes that are so heavily part of the visual novel. It focuses a lot of the more comedic moments of the common route and the routes themselves, which in the grand scheme of things, are really only a set-up for the great moments that happen in Refrain. Also with the adaptation of Refrain, they cut lots of plot points down to their very basic aspects and with doing so, they lost a lot of the dramatic aspects of the novel. I recommend that if you watched the anime first, then at least skim through the novel and read through Refrain, as it’ll help you gain a clearer understanding of the events that unfold and will be a completely different picture than watching the anime.

This is, in my opinion, one of the best Key visual novels out there, and may even be one of the best visual novels in general. The novel itself was very well-produced and not only did the plot and “Key magic” make sense, they managed to tie it back to a main theme, keep that theme throughout the novel, and also make a novel that’s high comedy, high drama, and has several tear-jerking moments that are unforgettable. The soundtrack, the CGs, the character designs, and the ideas are all woven together very neatly in this small package, and when you don’t think the novel has everything you want, it even has small mini-games and the more you play through the common route, additional scenes keep appearing in order to keep things interesting.

It's like the developers were like

It’s like the developers were like “Hey, you know what baseball needs…? More kittens.” I approve of their decision though. Also, there are additional pictures of this mini-game near the bottom of the post, if you’re interested.

For my final thoughts on the novel, all I really have to say that if you haven’t played it, then do so. This article doesn’t even touch on most the routes, the common route, or even half of Refrain, and there’s still plenty of laughs, tears, and fun moments to be had even after reading this article. The only difference is you now know the direction of the novel and the overarching plot. I highly recommend this novel to everyone, and I definitely say out of all the visual novels I’ve played, this is by far my favorite.

————————————————————————————————————————————

Note from the Author: The post was originally going to be about friendship, but after some thinking, I figured it’s not too much different from the concept of maturity since they both involve growth of a person through others. Riki and many other characters learn about both throughout their adventures in the novel (sometimes even within the same scenes), and while I did not mentioning the concept of friendship within this post, it’s just as prevalent of a theme within the novel as maturity. As much as I can attempt to explain the relationship in these few sentences, I don’t think I can do so with how these complex concepts are broken down within the novel.

As for me, I’ve wanted to make a post about Little Busters! for a long time, since I don’t think I can put into words exactly how much I love this series for what it does. It’s an absolutely beautiful story with a very light-hearted message, despite the stigma placed onto Key novels for being horribly depressing (although it does that masterfully as well). I’ve laughed and cried so many times while reading this novel, and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone even slightly interested in the series.

I almost wished I would have just played through this novel and done a summary of my experiences, but this turned out to be pretty satisfying as well, even if it was a bit different from my normal style of posts.

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Relevant Links and Notes:

Here are some additional silly pictures of the baseball mini-game while I was getting a good screenshot for the post.

[VN] Little Busters! Summary and Review – For giving me all of those tiny details that I previously had forgotten. Pretty strange place for a source, but it’s probably the best summary of the novel scene by scene out there. Sadly, it does use an older version of the visual novel translation for its source, so some of the quotes and interpretations are inaccurate.

[Visual Novel] Little Busters Review – Prevented me from having to replay the novel to find the examples that I needed. It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve played the novel, and it served as a good refresher and a great time saver in writing this article. The synopsis itself may be confusing to some, but it does a pretty fair job of explaining each bit of the novel and breaking the segments down.

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