Since the 1920s, the term juken jigoku (meaning ‘examination hell’) has been used in Japan to describe the period of intense studying before students take high school and university entrance exams. It’s an unbearably hectic time, when patches of hair fall like autumn leaves, faces grow gaunt, and mothers can be found offering prayer at Shinto temples. Understandably, the pressure is remarkably intense- elevated scores can earn a spot at a prodigious school, putting pupils on track for a job at a top-tier corporation or even a government ministry.
But the majority aren’t accepted. Many will try a second or third time, hoping to bolster their testing skills in the interim. But some never give another attempt, and as such, may be funneled into the unskilled labor market. Because these exams carry life-long repercussions and the tests themselves discourage creativity and favor route memorization, many are pushing for reform.
Yet, the release of Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation: Time After Time imagines a near-future where the exams play an imperative role in determining a person’s life. Following a conflicting tide of ideological and political shifts, Chuusotsu’s sees an abnormally bureaucratic system based on Authorization Seals, which are tattoo-like nanomachines etched onto the back of a person’s hand.
Governmental testing decides what kind of seal people will receive. What is most interesting is that a person’s strength and smarts are determined by the device, with stats based on job requirements. With physicality and intellect controlled by the device, a person’s early years will have a permanent effect on a multitude of factors for the rest of their live.
On the surface, things can sound utopian. Since a person’s seal determines their vocational pursuits, jobs are for life, eliminating the threat of competition, and presumably lay-offs. But naturally, people change throughout stages of their life, and the vocation you might be attached to, can become an affliction years later.
“Chuusotsu” refers to those without a seal. Separated from the rest of society, they are outsiders, susceptible to exploitation and fated for a life filled with hardship. As Time After Time opens, that encompasses the backstory of Marisugawa Arue, a girl who read manga as an escape from the ordeals of an impoverished upbringing. Illness also meant that her education stopped in the ninth grade, pushing the young girl to the fringes of society.
Fortunately, a government program allows for a rare second chance. By moving to the city and rooming with two other chuusotsu, there’s a slim hope she could earn a seal. But doing so will require change, pushing both Arue and her two roommates to discover aspects about themselves. As such, a blend of slice-of-life observation and cautionary allegory endow Time After Time with distinction.
For all the societal rumination, there’s an ample amount of playfulness. Sukajan-clad Hachisuka Koiro is a former gang leader with a heart of gold, serving as the moral compass for the apartment. Meanwhile, Fujisaki Arara, approaches events with a domineering demeanor, often referring to herself as “the ruler of the world”. Add in a busty hologram and there are enough attitudes and ego to inspire some lively banter.
But there’s also some engaging moments in this kinetic novel. Without venturing into spoiler territory, Time After Time explores the balance between doing the things we love and the activities born of obligation. Wisely, the rumination is accessible, and averts being preachy, and while the novel’s ending gives a partial sense of closure, it’s at odds with the tonality offered by the rest of the narrative. Another slight sticking point is that Time After Time is the first entry into a larger series, which isn’t explicit in the marketing. Yet, if developer Studio Beast can continue the mix of social commentary and spirited interchanges, readers might want to cleave away at their work schedule to make time for Chuusotsu.
Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation: Time After Time was played
on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Developer: Studio Beast
Publisher: Fruitbat Factory
Release date: April 24, 2018
Price: $19.99 via Steam, currently on sale for $17.99
Language: Japanese voice, Japanese or English text