Social awkwardness is something a surprisingly large amount of people experience. While it’s something most of them overcome over the course of their lives, some of them continue to have trouble dealing with other people until the day they die. Human relationships are much more complex than we like to think, as we tend to sugarcoat a lot of things, and different people handle them differently. So what happens when you gather a bunch of people who cannot adapt to modern society for several reasons and lock them in the same place? The answer is Cross Channel.
Cross Channel is a visual novel written in 2003 by Romeo Tanaka, the same guy who wrote Rewrite. Its premise is simple: in the setting in which it takes place, students have to take an exam to determine whether they can adapt to society or not. This exam has a score that goes from 0 to 100, and the higher that number is, the lesser your probabilities are of being a regular human who can hope to fit in. Usually a score under 20 seems to be quite normal, whereas it’s hinted that stuff like self-harm or self-hate start at 30. People who get a high score on this test are sent to Gunjo Academy, though regular people can also enter it if they so wish to. The purpose of this school is to isolate these people from society so they cannot harm others – or themselves – until they improve, at which point they are free to transfer out. This academy houses all kinds of people, from people who simply cannot interact at all with others to people who are completely normal in every way.
The protagonist Kurosu Taichi is someone who wants to make memories with his friends, who previously to the start of the story were in the same club – the broadcasting club. However that club was disbanded because its individual members started having fights, among many other reasons to be revealed. One day, Taichi decided to organize an outing with all of his friends, to try and improve their relationship, only to actually make it worse, as it became evident it wouldn’t be so easy. When they come back, however, the world as they know it is gone – every single living creature disapperared without a trace. And this is where the story truly starts to unfold, as revelations will be made about every member of the club, and especially about Taichi.
This visual novel doesn’t work quite like the others: instead of having a regular route system or a completely linear story, Cross Channel is a mix of both. It consists of seven “Weeks”, with the first five being dedicated to a specific heroine, Week 6 being used as “second routes” for each of them, and Week 7 being entirely for Taichi. There aren’t too many choices, fortunately, and they’re easy to guess for the most part.
Let’s get the problems out of the way first. Now, Cross Channel is most definitely not a plot-oriented work. It fails to explain a lot of its world’s mechanics, leaving them aside to develop its characters, and leaves some mysteries up to the interpretation of the reader. The pacing of the story is really awkward at times, it feels extremely slow during the first Week, and other times it’s too fast for its own good. Nevertheless, when CC wants to have great pacing, it definitely hits the mark, as Week 6 and 7 did an absolute wonderful job at this. It also doesn’t do justice to some characters, like Misato, who end up falling behind on screentime and becoming much less interesting than the others, which was unfortunate.
Depending on who you ask, it also suffers from a very slow start. If you dislike fanservice or sex jokes, Week 1 will be the bane of your existence, since the protagonist Taichi is constantly throwing those out there, and they’re much harsher than in your typical ecchi-harem anime. It’s to the point where it becomes extremely annoying, and might make you hate Taichi. And liking Taichi – or at least understanding him – is VITAL to enjoy both his character AND the overall work. Finally, Cross Channel becomes extremely repetitive without the skip button, as many scenes are repeated over and over, which DOES have a purpose, but until you actually understand why it does that, it’s a horrible way to present the story to the reader, and was one of the things that tested my patience.
Now that the major weaknesses are out of the way, let’s focus on what makes Cross Channel one of my favorite works: the characters! The protagonist is Kurosu Taichi, and he starts off as one of those protagonists most people will hate, as his only role in the story is to sexually harass everything that moves: overused jokes, lifting skirts, everything. The good thing is that, looking back at it, I definitely understand why Romeo did this, since it gets revealed later on why Taichi acts like this. Taichi is one of those characters that comes off as extremely well written and interesting once you start to understand him. To this date, I have yet to see a more complex character in terms of how his thought process works and how he views the world. Week 1 gives you some hints on this, when he has his monologues, and this is valuable information for later on. Taichi goes overboard many times (there is one time in specific where Taichi does something that will upset a good portion of the readers), but instead of doing it “for the lolz”, Cross Channel takes the tragedy of his character very seriously, as each instance where you see him acting different or in a weird way gives you a better insight of how his mind works. He often describes himself in a very negative light, calling himself “ugly” or “a monster”, which can be interpreted in several ways. He never seems to think of himself as a human being, and he’s sure he will never be able to be a member of society, as his score in the test was 84%, which means he can barely be considered a human being in the true sense of the word. I could write an essay on Taichi’s character alone, and how he’s one of my favorite characters in fiction, but I will refrain from doing so here.
The other characters are less impressive than Taichi, but most are actually pretty damn good, and they all have their own “little secrets”. Misato is the heroine in Week 1, she’s the president of the former broadcasting club, and the first person to communicate with Taichi when he first entered Gunjou Academy. She still likes to participate in club activities, but prefers to do it alone, isolating herself from the rest of the former members. She’s also obcessed with the rules she comes up with for herself, and often applies said rules to others as well. Her score, like most of the other heroines, is not revealed, but stated that it’s “higher than 30 for sure”. Then we have Touko, she seems like your usual tsundere heroine who despises the main character but sometimes shows a cuter/softer side, and this is how she acts most of the time, though as story progresses, it becomes evident she is not quite as her archetype makes her seem. She seems to have issues handling herself when she’s left alone, and is revealed to have dated Taichi previously to the start of the story.
The character that shocked me the most in this work was Kiri, who is also a bit of a tsundere but one who seems to actually despise Taichi, not only as a cork of her personality, but actual HATE. She seems to consider him an animal that cannot control himself, and fears he will one day snap and kill those he calls friends. Kiri’s thought process is extremely interesting, but is also what makes her VERY unlikable, especially in her own Week. I have no doubt that she’s the best written heroine in the novel, but unfortunately I didn’t like her that much due to several reasons concerning her actions and dialogues. Kiri’s best and only friend is Miki, and together they are known to Taichi as “The Flowers”. Miki is the opposite of Kiri, she’s very likable and likes to have fun with people, as well as exchanging sex jokes with Taichi. She never misses a chance to troll Kiri or Taichi, and seems to be more social than the other heroines. Miki was my personal favorite heroine, as I absolutely loved how Romeo handled her facade and her overall character. She becomes a painfully realistic character by the time her Week ends.
And to wrap up the heroine cast, we have Youko. Youko seems to be Taichi’s childhood friend, and shared a very dark past with him. She follows him everywhere, attempting to protect him from all dangers even if that means hurting herself or killing others for his sake. This makes her sound like some sort of yandere, but that’s not the case at all. She follows Taichi’s requests even if that means taking her panties off, though Taichi seems to be annoyed by her in many instances. She’s also the most important heroine during Week 6. There are other minor characters that weren’t very well explored but added a lot of substance and themes to CC. There’s Tomoki, Taichi’s friend and Misato’s brother, who seems to hate his sister, calling her a traitor at all times. He’s one of the two normal people in the group; Sakuraba is the other, he’s a guy who helps Taichi with a lot of his jokes, and also seems to be… in love with him at times, being the source of comedy for a decent portion of the story; and Nanaka, an extremely mysterious girl who loves crashing her bike against Taichi, often knocking him out, and who plays a very important part on Taichi’s self-discovering journey.
And this journey is what makes Cross Channel so damn good. Throughout the entire story, but especially in Week 7, Taichi constantly struggles with himself: the way he acts in front of others, trying to supress his terrible urges, his point of view on human relationships… and he seems to always learn a bit more about himself when he takes a good look at how he treats people, and his individual relationships with each of his friends. He’s one of those characters that is extremely hard to understand, and it’s almost impossible to know everything about him with just one playthrough. CC’s themes of self-reflection and social dilemma are extremely well presented and explored via Taichi, and it poses questions that will surely make the reader think back to his/her own personal relationships and re-evaluate them. For instance, there was one time when Taichi was communicating with a girl who “locks herself in her own world”, and he explains how it IS possible to communicate with people like her if you don’t give up on them, it’s all about having the right approach and following their rules. It constantly “asks” the reader what the meaning of “being normal” is, and it challenges him/her to think about issues they wouldn’t otherwise. It’s one of those works that can really make someone think about their lives, their mistakes, their regrets, and this is all accomplished because the writing is REALLY good. I am personally definitely no stranger to social awkwardness, and the feeling of not being able to fit into society, and this work really touches on some themes that I appreciated seeing in fiction for the first time – or at least the first time it was DONE WELL.
Other than its themes and character writing, Cross Channel also excels at building up tension – a common trait in Romeo’s works. I don’t know whether it was the soundtracks, the writing in general or just the overall mood of the novel (or maybe a combination of all three) that made it work so well, but good God, when Romeo wanted me to feel tension, I felt tension. And it works the same way with the climatic scenes, which are, for the most part, very well built and executed. They can feel a bit disappointing, however, if you haven’t been following the characters closely, and paying attention to what they do/say, as some of their changes will come off as exaggerated or even unrealistic if you don’t. But sometimes, Cross Channel can really exaggerate some scenes in order to get the point across, even if a softer approach would have accomplished the same goal. Some scenes can be cringe-worthy because of this, and unfortunately so. The foreshadowing could use some work for some characters, but as far as Taichi and Youko go, it was absolutely superb. I don’t “ship” Taichi x Youko, but their relationship and interactions are so well done when you consider their situation, and a lot of the things they end up going through are foreshadowed several times during the early-mid parts of the novel. This also applies to his relationships with some of the other heroines, specifically Touko, but not in such an impressive way.
I have mixed feelings on the production values. The artwork is very nice for the year it was released, but after twelve years it looks extremely dated. The CG artwork, while quite decent, is unfortunately restricted to a very low resolution, because the engine that CC uses is not that good at all. There could have been more CGs too, but that’s just nitpicking. The soundtrack is not that memorable on its own – they work extremely well while you’re reading it, but they’re not something you’d want to listen to outside of it. The exception to this is “Crossing”, the ending song, which is absolutely amazing and invokes very powerful images of the work everytime I listen to it. Many people complain the translation butchers Romeo’s prose, but as someone who could care less about prose, it wasn’t a problem to me. It’s a very good translation that accomplishes what it should, with very few typos.
At the end of the day, Cross Channel is not a work that everyone will like – it treads into very dangerous territory, explores many controversial issues, and takes down many psychological barriers in a similar fashion as Evangelion. It removes the sugarcoating in a hardcore way, but it definitely accomplishes the right results when it wants to. It’s not a novel I’ll recommend to most VN fans, because it’s simply too different from your typical VN. However for people who like the themes I mentioned above, or who just want something very well written, and can overlook its technical problems, it’s definitely something that can become a favorite of yours. The characters aren’t written to be likable, but when you look back at them it’s extremely difficult to hate them, because the writing allows you to understand them very well, which is a huge plus for any work trying to go for a complex self-reflection story. And hey, if you’re the kind of guy/girl who suffers or used to suffer from social awkwardness, you’ll definitely be able to relate to some of the ordeals the characters go through on a daily basis. With amazing themes, the right execution and approach, and a main character as good as Taichi, Cross Channel is one of my favorite works to date – one that I will not forget in a long time.
Thanks for reading!