How accurately and vividly I can recall the layout of the island of Rokkenjima is at once both frightening and a major testament to the craft of Umineko no Naku Koro ni.
Some light Umineko spoilers ahead.
Upon finishing the last episode, all of the tea parties and ‘???’s, it may not register for a while that you just spent around 80 hours witnessing events that took place almost entirely on the same island, in the same locale.
It certainly didn’t register for me until I took a trip to the Kyu-Furukawa gardens and mansion in Kita, Tokyo. Built in 1917 by wealthy zaibatsu (huge Japanese conglomerate) owner Toranosuke Furukawa and designed by English architect Josiah Conder, the mansion sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of Tokyo, surrounded by modern skyscrapers and freeways.
Normally, such a place wouldn’t interest me – a typical otaku enjoys a day out in Akihabara or Nakano Broadway, after all. However, once I found out that Ryukishi – the writer of Umineko – had used photos of the gardens as backgrounds for Umineko, I had to go and check it out. It was the closest thing to the real Rokkenjima that you could get, but thankfully without mass murders.
Yet, as soon as I stepped into the gardens after paying the 150 yen entrance fee, I was immediately taken aback. The reality of the ‘real life Rokkenjima’ was much less complete than I had originally imagined. The outside of the mansion was exactly as it appeared in the game, with the view up to the mansion being almost picture-perfect to the game CGs. The rose garden was barren since I came out of season, yet it was still obviously the one used as backgrounds in the game. But venture outside of the mansion’s grounds, and you are affronted with a strange reality. It turns out that only half of the gardens are occupied by the mansion and the rose garden – the side we saw in the game – and that the other half is a Japanese-style garden, complete with bonzai, little rivers and pagodas.
Stranger still was the interior of the mansion. I recognised some of the walls and windows as those used in the game, such as the red carpet and sofas of the Rokkenjima tea room. Seeing the spot where the Beatrice portrait would’ve been hung brought a huge smile to my face. But beyond those few locales, the mansion was completely different from how it was represented in the game. On the upper floor, most of the rooms were Japanese style, with tatami and sliding doors. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the outside, however, since they were built within the western rooms themselves, hidden behind giant wooden doors, only adding to the peculiarity of the mansion. In fact, only one of the western rooms on the upper floor I recognised, as it was used for the cousin’s room in the guesthouse.
I had expected my trip to the mansion to be like the other small pieces of anime tourism I had done up until that point, such as to the Iidabashi area – which was used as the basis for Sangatsu no Lion’s fictional Sangatsu and Yongatsu districts – and to Takayama, the inspiration for Hyouka’s Kamiyama. So, I must admit that I was initially disappointed. But, then I realised the level of skill that it must have took Ryukishi in writing and direction to elevate the setting of Kyu-Furukawa gardens to something completely unrelated to it’s source, to become Rokkenjima.
Rokkenjima has always felt like a real place to me. In my mind, I can retrace the floor plan of the mansion, the guesthouse, and most likely the entire topography of the entire island. Locales such as Natsuhi’s room, the dining room and Kinzo’s study will always feel like real places to me, even though I now know that they have no real basis in the material world.
A lot of this is due to the events that take place within them. How could I forget the layout of Natsuhi’s room when the scene in which she attempts to destroy Beatrice with her mirror was so intense and nerve-wracking? The dining room will also always feel tangible in my memory thanks to the scene where Kinzo appears in episode four and murders everyone, which was totally unexpected. Ryukishi understood that using Kyu-Furukawa gardens as his backgrounds was simply an aesthetic choice – and that through his excellent writing, he could transform the locale into something completely different, completely unrelated to it’s source. One testament to the power of his writing in transforming Kyu-Furukawa gardens was strongly revealed to me once I stepped into the guest room on the upper floor, which functioned as the background for the cousin’s room in the guesthouse. In real life, this room was part of the mansion, but when playing the game I never would have doubted for a second that this room was part of the Rokkenjima guesthouse, actually detached from the main house itself.
Yet, strong writing alone only makes up part of how Ryukishi was about to elevate the real-life setting. His use of sound effects and music is also key. The peaceful backdrops of Kyu-Furukawa gardens can at once be changed into a sinister landscape for murder and death when Ryukishi employs the sound of howling wind, cracking bones, or the excellent tracks crafted by dai, zts et al. The choice to employ photographs instead of video or any other format with audio clearly shows that Ryukishi recognised the power of other diegetic elements in creating a setting. In exploiting the relationship between the diegetic elements of CGs, music, and sound effects, Rokkenjima once more was able to become a tangible place, separate from it’s real-life inspiration.
Furthermore, the sheer amount of time we, as readers, spend immersed in the world allow us to gain a keener sense of the island and the mansion, and manifests them as tangible places in our consciousness. For over 80 hours, we occupy these places and see events unfold within them, allowing us to form connections to them, as well as internalise the setting through the backgrounds alongside the other diegetic elements, such as music and sound effects. Ryukishi was aware that he had much more time on his hands than many other writers do because of the medium in which he was writing in, and subsequently set out to immerse the viewer in the locale by exploring each nook and cranny of the island.
In this sense, I was perhaps naïve to think that Kyu-Furukawa gardens were simply a ‘real-life Rokkenjima’. In fact, to call Furukawa’s gardens Rokkenjima would be doing a disservice to the careful work of Ryukishi in crafting his own island, and his own locale. The reason that Rokkenjima persists so tangibly in my mind is due to Ryukishi’s work in elevating the locale beyond the gardens, beyond the backgrounds, in order to realise Rokkenjima.
I may have been a bit hyperbolic in explaining my thoughts on the gardens, but I hope I was able to communicate my point correctly. This one was a bit of a rush this week, but I can always write anything about Umineko very fast. Let me know what you thought in the comments or via Twitter, as always. I’ll dump all of my photos down below for those interested.