As far as I can recall, I’ve read through most of Key’s titles, save for Kanon, and though they’ve all made me sob or shed a tear or two, the one that really hit me the most and left me dwelling on it for several days after was Air’s Common Route Bad End. The first time I read through it, I simply glossed it over as a simple ending of failure, and went on to complete the VN. Only in my second playthrough, when I absorbed myself in doing close reading and analysis on the VN, did the Bad End hit me right in the feels. In fact, personally, I find the Bad End to be one the biggest tragedies of Air.
Confessional incoming to briefly explain why I still feel bitter and sad about the Bad End even though five years have passed since I first read it:
Personally, I found the bad end remarkably well-constructed. Of course, I find the entirety of Air close to being a work of literature, but that is a topic for another post. Throughout the Common Route, Yukito brings up the issue of his stay - and ponders how long he should continue staying in the Kamio household, and where he should head to next. Effectively, Yukito takes on the trope of the traveller/migrant, and perhaps to some extent - the missionary. The emphasis placed on Yukito’s livelihood and money issues in the beginning sections of the Common Route (which gradually wanes as the route progresses) clearly puts forth the notion that the small town of Kasumi simply functions as a liminal space for Yukito, where he procures the cash necessary to carry on his journey. Seen in this light, the Bad End comes as no surprise to anyone: Yukito finally leaves Kasumi. He never intended to stay in the town, and he seems bent on reaching the end of his journey, so it’s only to be expected that he gets about his business in the end.
However, the Common Route might as well be constructed as an antithesis to Yukito’s initial aims. As befitting of Key, the Common Route is a very comedic, heart-warming slice-of-life section that sows the seeds for further routes in the VN. Even if we just scratch the surface of the Common Route, it’s easy to see that whatever happens in the Common Route, and whatever interactions Yukito makes in it, fosters Yukito’s attachment to the town and its inhabitants. We are treated to, if not the development of, the uncovering of Yukito’s characterisation, through the lens of individual and society (Yukito and the society of Kasumi). In the beginning of the VN, he is more or less portrayed as pointedly aloof - the kind of character who can easily look the other way - perhaps suggesting a hint of egocentrism there, if it is not simply a consequence of his days of wandering. The children who he meets at the start of the VN, are visibly disinterested in his puppet act (after the initial astonishment), and can be said to be representative of the town. The town doesn’t seem to care about, or value, his puppeteering act, more so than other towns - when Yukito attests that he would probably have made more money elsewhere (July 23, Bad End) - and this observation is repeated time and time again throughout the Common Route. Ironically, it is the children’s antagonistic act of bullying that causes him to have to dig deeper into the town, and (if I recall correctly) he collapses from hunger and is treated by unnamed fisherpeople - and from here on out, it seems that Yukito is thrown right into the heart of the Common Route.
In the beginning, none of the choices Yukito makes really matter. Even if he chooses to respond negatively to Misuzu (or practically anyone for that matter), it seems to have no great bearing on the course of the VN. The choices which have the most of the impact in the beginning, seems to revolve not around how he treats the residents of the town, but where he goes and whether he stays to interact. Effectively, many of the choices readers have to make are inconsequential to the actual progression of the plot in the early-VN; putting it in another way, though Yukito is mentioned to be a drifter and to roam from one place to another with relative ease, here he is involuntarily growing more fond of the town. My argument here is this: the large amount of choices in the beginning - while adding onto the organic feel of the Common Route and further inviting readers to be even more personally invested in Yukito’s journey - don’t really affect the most important and pertinent issue in the VN’s early stages, that is, to make money and move on. Since most of the major events in the VN are precipitated by the choices that readers have to make for Yukito, the choices in the beginning of the Common Route are insignificant and bluntly speaking, aimless/pointless. Not even the reader’s choices can make a dent in the gravitational pull of the town on Yukito, which leads him to gradually feel comfortable in the rural, homely atmosphere, and ultimately causes him to put off his wandering. This is also in part due to Misuzu proposing that the “girl in the sky” is her other self, conflating the aim of Yukito’s life-journey with Misuzu, thus giving him a legitimate reason to linger around.
The Bad End is where everything comes crashing down. On July 23 in the VN, along the Bad End trajectory, Yukito meets all of the major factions in the VN: Misuzu, Minagi, and the Kirishimas (only Hijiri is seen). And as it were, it seems like the VN is progressing down a normal path, until the kitchen scene. If the reader chooses to “Make use of this meaningless time” while Misuzu is cleaning, a one-man manzai show commences, after which he mutters to himself “I feel completely out of place” or “I don’t feel at ease in this situation” or something of the like, and casually comments that men shouldn’t be left alone in the kitchen. In Misuzu’s route, this small incident doesn’t have much significance since he waits for Misuzu to finish, and healing comedy ensues. Otherwise, Yukito steps outside. Then, he is at a major metaphorical crossroads.
My interpretation of this scene is that, since the reader hasn’t made enough choices that positively build on Misuzu’s relationship with Yukito, Yukito isn’t strongly attached enough to Misuzu to curb his feeling of otherness in the Kamio household, hence he steps outside the house, and then has to make a series of quick choices that determine whether ends up in Minagi’s or Kano’s route. Additionally, because Misuzu is the only ostensible link that the town of Kasumi has with Yukito’s end-goal, when Yukito steps outside the house in acknowledgement of his lingering discomfort in the Kamio household, he has, at some level, cut off the link between his continued stay in Kasumi and his journey, i.e. by feeling discomfited in engaging further with Misuzu, he has absolutely no reason to linger in town. Therefore, here we can either get Minagi’s and Kano’s ends, whose plots are largely unrelated to “the girl in the sky” - pointing to Yukito momentarily prioritising Minagi/Kano over his travels, or the Bad End - where he pushes on with his quest.
From hereon out, I discuss the Bad End and refer extensively to the later sections of the VN.
At the initial line, “I step outside in the end” (according to Sheeta’s EN translation of the VN), only the sound of cicadas is heard in the background. Throughout the VN, cicadas mainly serve the function of adding on to the summer atmosphere - but in Japanese literary culture, cicadas are also a symbol of ephemeralitym, and this seems to be what the VN is hinting at at this point. Reinforcing this, at the very next line, Futari begins playing - which came as a surprise to me when I first read the scene. In Air, Futari is only played in the most emotional moments, be it of anxiety and powerlessness, or of other feelings (I haven’t read Air in some time), so to use Futari as the BGM for a scene which, at first, leads to nothing more than Yukito’s ‘I’m bored’ spiels and shenanigans ensue, seemed to me to be quite jarring and acted as foreshadowing. Sure enough, immediately after, the atmosphere about-faces from comedic slice-of-life to one of foreboding sorrow, heightening the dramatic impact of the line “It’s probably about time I left Misuzu’s house” and whatever follows. I took notice that this is one of the times when Yukito mentioned “Misuzu’s house” rather than the “Kamio house”, as it is usually referred to as. Compounded with Yukito not using Misuzu’s map, as he did not want to “depend on her anymore”, it seemed to me that Yukito’s aim of leaving the house was to distance himself from Misuzu and not mooch off her household. For him to have gone to the extent of not even using a map Misuzu drew, reinforces the strength of his conviction to erase his growing dependency on her, and unfortunately, his way of doing so seems to be cutting all strong connections he has with Misuzu, obscuring any lingering attachment to her.
Misuzu’s map is Yukito’s means of navigating through town without getting lost, and without it, symbolically, I thought it was as though he had lost the guidance of Misuzu, who anchored him in town. This leads us to the first big choice leading up to the Bad End.
‘Walk towards the embankment’
‘Walk towards the station’
If Yukito had used Misuzu’s map, he probably followed along with his plan and lingered in town in search for a place with a roof. By this point, his narration showed no indication whatsoever of him wanting to leave town. And at this point, all the choices presented seems to depict the full brunt of Yukito’s aimlessness - he doesn’t know where he wants to go and he doesn’t know where he’s going. Walking towards the station would have taken Yukito further inside the town, away from the bus stop, the only feasible way for him to leave town.
Walking to the embankment leads to two more choices.
‘Head towards the bus stop’
By this point, I already felt my heart being wrenched. Already, by choosing to leave the house, Yukito abandons the poor, lonely Misuzu. But when I saw these two choices, I began tearing up. If at the beginning of the common route, Yukito stays in Misuzu’s house regardless of the choices you make, here at the end of the common route, the choices you make are the most pivotal in the entire VN. Choosing to turn back locks you into Misuzu’s route (if I recall correctly). I felt that these choices were a stroke of sheer brilliance, because the choices aren’t just a mode for readers to control Yukito’s actions, they are also a reflection of Yukito’s forked thoughts and feelings. Even with the bare-bones articulation of Yukito’s feelings on leaving, the music and choices subtly give the lie to his tight-lipped facade, revealing his doubt, in my opinion. I pose this because of a similar happening in Misuzu’s route, where Yukito steels himself to leave Misuzu’s home so that Misuzu can recover, but the prose remains stoic and reflects none of his emotions.
“It’s alright if I leave this town… right?” sold it for me, and I began crying. In fact, as I type, tears are silently streaming down my face. How desperately I thought, ‘It’s not right,’ or, ‘Let’s not be selfish anymore; let’s go back.’ But by this point, I remembered how Air related to me so much, from the setting to the plot, and how it mirrored two of my most life-changing years. In a moment of self-reflexivity, I remembered that once upon a time, when I was in almost the exact same position, I made a choice I thought I wouldn’t regret.
The first thing I noticed was the lack of children. Yukito only goes to the bus stop a few times. In most of them, he eventually finds children playing there, and tries to get them to give him money. In particular, the only times he doesn’t find children there are when he plans to leave town, like in Minagi’s normal end. The children seem to act as narrative agents that bond Yukito to the town and Misuzu - in the beginning, they kick his puppet onto a tree by the school, and in Misuzu’s route, he relies on them to learn some new puppeteering tricks to show Misuzu, hoping to delay her death. Consider the final scene in Air too, where a boy cryptically foretells the hardship Yukito and Misuzu are to face - so in this light, perhaps one can also take the children to be signs of validation that encourage Yukito towards the true ending of Air, the finding of the “girl in the sky”, by reminding him of the purpose behind his puppeteering and the actual motivation behind his search. Personally, this made the scene feel even more desolate than what it already was, since it was as though even the children had abandoned him.
Additionally, Yukito’s claim that “[he] just [doesn’t] get along well with the people here”, suggests that the town has rejected him, when all along - other than the fact that no one pays him money - he appears to have been blended in quite nicely. Here, it’s almost as though Yukito has put the cart before the horse, and put his journeying above his ultimate goal - as paralleled by how he forgot the purpose of his houjutsu: to make people happy with an instance of magic, and lighten up incarnations of the girl in the sky.
All these choices, like the ones in the beginning, aren’t really forks in the narrative plot of the VN. This one looked to me like a crystallisation of Yukito’s doubt. Heck, even the VN is urging the reader to turn back, taunting your emotions. It seemed to be asking me, “Can you really bear to leave it all behind, for the selfish reason of going on some unknown journey?”. The answer would, naturally, be to turn back.
But to get the Bad End, it’s only logical that you leave town. And for me, this is where the feels-train began. When I was in a similar situation, I also chose to let it all go - so a part of me was curious about where Air would take this.
By this point, Yukito seems to have completely forgotten “why [he was] being so stubborn” in choosing to remain in town. I wouldn’t have been too shaken if the VN had just ended there, but whoever the scenario writer is, he made Yukito go back to say goodbye.
Yukito’s show of reluctance to leave, or perhaps his difficulty to admit his leaving to Misuzu, knowing it would hurt her - “[Yukito] finally [brings] it up” only the next morning - made the process even more torturous for me. His insistence on being a drifter, Misuzu’s feeble attempt at rebutting him, and Misuzu’s asking him to stay in contact with her - drags out the pained exchange between them, and made me feel very guilt-stricken. The white lie that he gives to Misuzu, half-promising her that she could visit him made it all the more angsty.
“I won’t stay in other people’s houses anymore. That’s what I’ve decided.”
“It should’ve always been like this.”
Or so Yukito thinks to himself. The reluctance and pain of his parting is only implied here, as he stubbornly decides to detach himself from the town, and burns all his bridges there - for what purpose? He categorically denies attachment from thereon, as though he plans to renunciate the world.
Already, when I read up to that point, I considered the Bad End to be the most ruthless ending in all the Key’s titles that I’ve read. I thought that this ending was already far more hollow than those found in any other VN. In Little Busters, the final choice where Riki only chooses to live on with Rin was still somewhat cathartic, if highly depressing, as he prepared himself to support Rin without the others. In Clannad, the bad ending where Tomoya simply whiles his time away till graduation, at least there was no emotional build-up, and lives on aimlessly. Here, the writers somehow manage to peg both down excellently, in my opinion.
After an entire Common Route where Yukito learns to live and has a whole ball o’ fun in Kasumi, and I got attached to the various characters, with a rather high level of involvement thanks to all those of trivial, funny choices, the VN suddenly does a John Cena on me. Kano doesn’t get cured. Minagi keeps on living in dreams. Misuzu loses her only friend. Yukito turns his back on the world, and goes on an aimless journey never to be fulfilled. He never finds the “girl in the sky”; he (presumably) doesn’t even find himself, as it were. He misses the goal that is right before eyes - pearls before swine. Seen in this light, this scene seems to be an inversion of Misuzu’s famous “Goal!” scene. Here, none of them reach their goal. Yukito has even lost sight of it. While Key’s usual themes of family, friendship, grief and acceptance, etc. all appear prominently in Air, in the lens of this Bad End - Air’s lofty ideals seem to dwindle into a swath of indifferent futility. There is no moment of catharsis. There is no hope. There is not even angst or despair. Just a sense of quiet unease that, for me, after having finished the VN, balloons into a near-imperceptible, but nonetheless complete and direct denial of everything Air stands for.
Then, suddenly Misuzu appears for the last time, and of all things, Natsukage plays. When Misuzu tells Yukito, “I’m glad I made it in time”, I swear I would have weeped my eyes out, if I weren’t still reading the VN.
When Yukito tells Misuzu that he’s going to walk, rather than take the bus, I was quite puzzled as to why he’d even reject the bus. I still am, since I haven’t thought it through. Perhaps the bus is a symbol of societal interdependence - after all, he’s relying on the driver to get him places, when he simply wants to journey alone.
Misuzu gives Yukito a large onigiri in aluminium foil, and talks of seeing him a similar one when she first met him. Here, a straight link is drawn from the beginning of the common route to this end of the common route. Then, Misuzu says, “Your journey’s far from over, isn’t it?” and “You have a very long road of you,” There are no (or very few) other instances where anyone in the VN says anything similar, except for Kanna and Uraha, Yukito’s mother, and the boy and girl pair in the epilogue of Air. Yet another link is drawn from this scene, but now to the very ends of the VN. All this circularity seem to be a move that ties up loose ends and provides resolution - or so that’s how it usually works. Here, it seems to me that the writers are subverting this entirely - beefing up the overtones of hope and completeness, as if to implant the idea that this isn’t such a bad ending after all, when in actuality, Yukito has basically missed his once-in-a-lifetime chance of getting any sort of closure.
Ultimately, it is this tone of innocence and hope, that felt the most tragic to me. I honestly think it’s a vastly perverted ending.
Again, Misuzu tries to establish some correspondence with Yukito, as if she is clinging onto the last vestiges of her first friendship.
"Tell me… when you arrive at the next time along."
Yukito tells her that they’ll have no way of contacting one another, and instead promises her that many years from then, he’d visit her again. I had to take a short break to sob here, because I personally don’t believe that Yukito really can’t reach Misuzu (can’t he send letters there? He’s illiterate? He doesn’t know the address of the place he’s lived for over a month? He can’t afford to send a damn letter?) and also because I had a small flashback - when I was in the same situation, I responded in almost the same way as Yukito, but when I made my promise, I lied. It made me very emotional to even consider the possibility that, in this emotionally tense parting, Yukito also had to lie to Misuzu to keep her happy. I figure it’s not all that implausible, since he did vow to never live in someone else’s house or even take the bus.
Then, Misuzu begins to talk about her hope that she won’t have any make-up lessons to attend so that their time to play won’t lessen. The emphasis on how Misuzu’s innocent child-like perspective causes her to completely misunderstand Yukito’s statement, where he only hopes that someday in the far-off future he can visit, for a promise to meet soon. Yukito doesn’t correct her, in a show of sensitivity.
While all that already wrung out a good amount of tears from my usually dry tear ducts, the last part exerted the greatest emotional force on me. Yukito tells Misuzu that he’s about to get going, but just when I expected the man who decided not to rely on Misuzu anymore, not to live under anyone else’s roof anymore, to just turn around and leave, instead he hesitates and lingers.
“You… just make sure you do your homework.”
"Be sure to get to school on time as well."
And Misuzu reciprocates in kind with her own words of advice.
But then, Yukito thinks,
"This is too awkward. I can’t take my first step like this."
As I read this, I thought that he was relent on his original decision. He’s clearly finding it difficult to leave, if not because of Misuzu sending him off, then because of a desire to “turn back”.
Truth be told, I was really at the edge of my seat here, hoping that Yukito’s indecision here would prompt yet another choice to “turn back”. But to my shock, Misuzu calls Yukito out of his thoughts, and tells him,
“I’ll say ‘get set and go’ (youi don).”
Misuzu puts up yet another strong front for Yukito’s sake. She helps give him the push forward so that they can go their seperate ways. The image of them standing back to back as they part rounded it all off for me. By that point, I was already an emotional wreck, and this was only compounded by the fact that once more - this also fell in place with my past.
Perhaps this final point is stretching a bit far, but as there is not a single scene of the world beyond Kasumi, save for Minagi’s good end, the Summer route, and flashbacks of Yukito’s mother, it seems to be that without Kasumi, Yukito is nothing. His story starts, and ends there - all else is almost irrelevant.
That is what I thought of the ending.
I did not sleep well for the next few nights after first finishing the ending.
In hindsight, maybe this post is kinda long. Apologies for any inconveniences.