Humans are competitive, whether wanting to be the best at something they have practiced their heart out of or trying to best themselves in a skill, people always want to be the best. With this in mind, it is no surprise that sports are as popular as they are, whether engaging in the activity hoping to come out on top or cheering on your favourite team or player, competition brings people together. However, not everything about competition is positive. With a victor in a competition comes a loser, and while losing is never the end of everything in a competition, it can stir up a number of incomprehensible emotions for someone dedicating their time and effort to something.
Aokana is a visual novel released back in 2014 from a small company known as Sprite. The visual novel has received high praise for its well-written characters, fun comedy, well-paced romance, and the subject of this blog, its exciting action and intricate details of a brand new sport. The story revolves around a boy named Masaya in a world with the technology that allows people to fly with the help of special gravitational shoes. With these shoes soon came a sport, known as Flying Circus, or FC for short, that has taken the world by storm. This sport involves 4 buoys that competitors must race to for points in a square pattern, however this is not the only way to score points. Points can be earned by touching the buoys, as well as getting the edge over your opponent and pressing their back. The sport is known for high octane action, combining both high speed racing and dogfighting while with a lot of flexibility in techniques and strategies employed. Many of the characters in Aokana that participate in this sport have their own style, whether they try to overwhelm the opponent with pure speed or take advantage in weaknesses in their opponents flying form to force them into an awkward position. While there is much else that could be explained about the intricacies presented about this sport, it makes for the perfect backdrop for a story that revolves around competition and what competition can bring out of people.
On the basis of this we have our protagonist, Masaya, who used to be one of the greatest FC players in the world when he was younger, considered by many to be a prodigy of the sport. Despite being on top of the world, one evening he was challenged by a new kid who had never played the sport before, and within a few hours lost a point to this person. This left him spiralling, feeling as though all his hard work and dedication to the sport for years had just been trumped in a few hours. These feelings only got worse afterwards, worry and stress overtaking him, feeling as though he couldn’t hold himself to the lofty expectations he and everyone else had for him. From there, he swore off the sport and no longer wanted any part in it. Masaya’s story itself represents something that can be felt at any level of competition, the pressure to perform and expectations placed on you. In this case, it isn’t necessarily the impact of the loss, just the perception that one’s endless and tireless work can somehow be undone. You can only fly alone for so long before all you have left are your worries and fears, however, one thing competition can also bring is companionship and help from others. Through the other characters, their struggles and their resolves, Masaya finds his own answer to how he wants to move forward past his old trauma and finally begin to let his wounds heal and enjoy his favorite sport once again. Each of the 4 main heroines have their own route exploring their own personal conflict in FC and what they seek out by competing, all while illustrating aspects of competition and what motivates and drives us, and what lies at the heart of competition.
Mashiro is someone who never held much interest in FC, and only ended up joining the club due to Misaki joining because of how close she is with her. Mashiro at the start has very little talent in the sport, she struggles with some of the basics and doesn’t excel in any particular aspect leading to a lot of losses early on. Her story revolves around her closest friend, Misaki, dropping out of the club due to reasons detailed later, only promising to return if Mashiro is able to defeat her. With this, Mashiro has a goal to strive for, looking for more ways to train and improve her technique. Despite this drive however, she continues to struggle, losing against other players and losing tournaments despite her work ethic and motivation. While her goal is not nearly as lofty as some of the other characters in the story, it is something very personal to her, and she wants nothing more than to see it through.
Mashiro’s story details the trials, tribulations, and results of hard work, as Mashiro lacks any sort of skill or talent at the start of the game. She constantly trips up on her way to her goal, left to wallow in her losses as she struggles to pick herself back up. This perfectly exemplifies the struggle many face when taking on something new, sometimes you don’t have anything to go off of, and it can take days, weeks, months, years, for that work to pay off. But in the end, it will pay off, no matter how big or small. If you have the drive and motivation to keep pushing forward, one day you’ll see improvement, and that improvement helps keep us motivated. Hard work pays off is a cliche phrase, however it still holds true, despite the challenges that we face on that path. Anyone can tell you that even with hard work, they still struggled to reach their goals, but many have persevered to reach them, afterwards finding something new to strive for, and in the end Mashiro does as well. In the final tournament of the year she is able to win against Misaki and do what she set out to do. Her accomplishments of course were small in the grand scheme, she didn’t last much longer afterwards in the tournament, but sometimes just seeing some improvement from where you were can be fulfillment in itself, and taking on competitive sports is a way for us to find fulfillment in pursuing a challenge that can mean the world to us.
Although one of the main characters, Rika herself goes to a different school from the others, instead attending a prestigious academy entirely focused on FC. Near the beginning of the story she moved next to Masaya where the two formed a friendship and learned more about her association with FC. Rika overall is an extremely talented individual who knows the game inside and out, which is where her main issue lies. Although she is passionate about the sport and is always working to improve, she finds herself trapped in her rigid mindset of doing things by the book. This leads to her being rather predictable in her movements and unable to adapt to things on the fly. Her story focuses on her rivalry with a former friend who has a bit of a bad streak in FC, facing many suspensions and inflicting injuries in a relatively safe sport in her efforts to secure wins. Her unpredictable nature combined with other players’ inability to keep up or handle her unorthodox playstyle leaves Rika to try and tackle this adversary in order to prove that you don’t need underhanded tactics in order to win or find enjoyment in something you love.
While Mashiro’s story focused on improvement primarily physically combined with passion, Rika’s route illustrates how important adaptability is, and also never forgetting the passion and fun for a sport. When we learn and practice, it’s easy to lose perspective on how things should go, and when things don’t go as anticipated its easy for you to lose focus. Competition is always people against people, and people can be unpredictable and won’t act always how you want them to. While you are learning and adapting during a sport, so are your opponents, looking for ways to get past your defenses or exploit your habits. Sometimes we just need to let our conceived notions go and avoid playing it by the book. Humans are adaptive creatures, and part of the fun of a sport is the constant back and forth that comes from these adaptations. The route also focuses a bit more on the more unsavoury aspects of competition, cheating, inducing injuries and a bit of what drives someone to act with those intentions. For some people winning is everything, and if someone gets stuck in that type of mindset they’ll have no issue resorting to underhanded tactics to obtain that win.
What Rika’s route illustrates is how in the end, cheating isn’t satisfying. Although this may be an obvious point, lost in the glory and praise of victory or feeling like you need to win to make a statement, at the heart of competition is fun, people pushing themselves to their furthest point to come out on top. Despite her opponent tending to use underhanded tactics, Rika used what she learned, the fun she had in the sport and the skills that she’s taken that she could never just learn from a textbook, to help them understand why everyone is there competing in the first place. Although more straight forward than some of the others, Rika’s story still illustrates profoundly about overcoming mental struggles and reminding yourself about the fun of it all.
Asuka is one of the main routes, and is one of the two stories I find really emphasizes the thematic core of this story. Asuka is brand new to the sport, someone who before moving to Masaya’s home island had never heard of or involved herself with FC. When she is introduced to both the feeling of flying and the sport of FC itself, she is immediately captivated and is one of the primary catalysts for the creation of the FC club at Masaya’s school and involving him once again in the sport. Asuka’s beaming personality and optimistic attitude along with her newfound capabilities in the sport quickly put her on the map as she holds her own against increasingly stronger players, hoping one day to take down the most fearsome individual in the Japanese FC scene. The dynamic between Asuka and Masaya is one of the most important elements of Asuka’s route, as they learn quickly they make an excellent team, with Masaya’s guidance being crucial to her fast improvement. Together they are able to push the sport beyond what people had thought capable, taking down international competition and showing everyone how much joy she finds in the sport and how powerful the bond between her and Masaya are as a team.
Asuka’s route thematically centers on the positives of sports and competitions, that naive optimism about wanting nothing more than to aim for the top and have fun. With how much competitions weigh in on winning and losing, victory and defeat, many of us can forget about what is at the heart of competition, fun. At the end of the day, everyone participates in a competition or a sport for a reason, and typically that reason comes from a wide-eyed enthusiastic dream of wanting to learn and improve at something you care a lot about. This is something Masaya forgot about all those years ago after his loss, he began to feel crushed by expectations, and in the end forgot what it was that made him enjoy FC so much. To him, it wasn’t about being the best or winning at the start, to him it was that feeling of freedom, of flying through the sky with nothing on his mind but to fly higher. Through Asuka’s sheer optimism and faith in him, he is able to regain that passion that he had for the sport and push both himself and Asuka beyond their limits to face whatever challenges in their way. Even when the odds are stacked against her and she’s at a loss on what to do, she never loses that spirit and finds something fun to take from her experiences win or lose.
As someone who has competed a lot in the past, it is very easy to forget about why you wanted to work to compete and improve in the first place. I played baseball because it was fun. I played fighting games competitively because I found them fun, but sometimes you forget about that. You find yourself lost in a sea of challenges and frustration and you stop enjoying yourself. This loss in perspective can impact how you feel about things that you love to do, and sometimes we need to take a step back and realize there wasn’t anything to worry about. You find it fun, so you keep participating, you keep improving, and you keep moving forward.
While Asuka’s route focuses on how optimism and naivety can inject new life into a sport, Misaki’s character story instead focuses on the darker aspect to competition, the consequences of failure. Misaki throughout the early parts of the story is portrayed as a rather aloof and carefree girl, sleeping in class and living life at her own pace. Being a long time friend of both Mashiro and Masaya, she ends up joining the FC club and immediately shows an affinity for it, seeming to have a solid baseline on the fundamentals and quickly pulls ahead of the group in terms of her abilities. This brings about another aspect of Misaki’s character, her quick affinity and capabilities in whatever she tries, being able to pick up new activities rather easily. While this allows her to immediately have a strong baseline in FC, she quickly loses in the tournament to a much stronger player, one that Asuka, despite being a complete novice to flying, goes toe-to-toe with. In the end, this leaves Misaki devastated for the first time in her life, feeling inadequate and frustrated which drives her to quit the club. This is also the first time the reader sees something deeper than just the goofy and aloof character she had been up to this point. This helps illustrate Misaki’s main flaw as a character as well as one of the core themes of Aokana, the fear of failure and recovering from a loss of confidence. Initially, Misaki wasn’t too bummed out by her loss, as the player had been established as one of the strongest FC players in the country and she had managed a point. However, seeing Asuka hold her own was what left her with that empty frustration that continued to eat at her until she no longer wanted to dedicate herself to the sport. These feelings of inadequacy are all to common in sports, a sense of jealousy almost that despite your talents and efforts, someone with less experience may still outperform you, leaving you thinking that they’re at a point you can’t reach.
This is also a feeling that Masaya knows all to well after his loss to a beginner, a feeling that your efforts are wasted, and if your efforts feel wasted, what is the point of continuing when you can just enjoy everything on a surface level and avoid that pain? That feeling of frustration and jealousy that just eats away at you and makes you want to crawl in a hole and never having to think about it again. However, it’s due to this connection that Masaya and Misaki are able to pick themselves back up, Masaya determined to get Misaki to fly again. Through this, they practice and work to improve their skills and mindsets, learning new tactics to help Misaki push beyond her ceiling that she at one point felt was holding her back from holding a candle to others. By the end, the focal point of the climax is that this fear, this jealousy, this frustration, doesn’t need to be a bad thing. Fear of failure is not always a negative unless you let it control you, everyone is afraid of not living up to expectations. However, this fear can be a motivator, and there’s no shame in admitting to it. If you fall down, you can get back up and try again, and with the support of others and the drive, you can work to improve and use that fear of losing again to push yourself beyond what you thought could be capable.
Out of the main heroines, Misaki is my favourite and one of my characters in media as a whole due to her character flaws as well as her growth. As someone who has competed in many things in my life from sports to video games, that sense of inadequacy and frustration happens more often than one would think looking from the outside. Sports are built up on the competition, working harder to beat people who are stronger, however, your perception of yourself can easily get in the way. One bad loss or misstep and you feel like all your work is for naught. When things get tough it feels easier to quit, find something else to pursue with little investment, living in this surface level bubble. It’s a feeling I’ve had numerous times over my life when I compete, and some things once I feel like I hit my ceiling lose my passion and drive to keep working and improving. Sometimes you need to acknowledge your weakness and instead of letting that jealousy or frustration get to you and use it to motivate you to continue practicing and improving. Fear is a two way street, and in the end we decide how we use it, as an excuse or as a motivator.
Sometimes a piece of media doesn’t need to be perfect for us to get so much out of it, sometimes even simple stories can hold a meaningful impact on your life. Although I have my share of issues with the game, it’s still a story I come back to in my head time and time again, loading it up to relive some of the most exciting pieces of the narrative, and remember what I liked so much about it. Competition is many things. Competition is fun, frustrating, never-ending, and something that holds a lot of meaning in people’s lives. We may meet many friends through competitions, build rivalries and relationships that last a life time, and the emotions they bring out in us are unforgettable.
Aokana’s sport of Flying Circus being something played in the sky feels potent. At the end of the day, the only ceiling you face is the one that you create for yourself. You may face challenges, you may not reach where you want as fast as you’d like, you may even just want to give up. In the end though, the only thing waiting for you as you push yourself to improve and compete is a vast open sky that spans as high as you can see. There is no end to this journey, no conclusion, the ending only comes when you decide it’s finished. To continue to fly you need to have the motivation to improve no matter how difficult things get, the adaptability and understanding to find new ways to push yourself, the optimism to find joy in traversing this path, and a bit of fear to keep you motivated to fly without looking back. The sky is the limit, and there’s always more to learn, more to experience, and more to grow, an experience that only competition can give us. We can all fly together beyond the sky.
So I have no idea who might actually see this but thanks for reading! I’ve honestly been off and on about trying to write something for about a year but this topic just kind of came to me on a whim. Aokana’s one of my favourite pieces of media and its just stuck with me since I played it last year, and replaying bits and pieces of it again I just kind of wanted to put some of my thoughts into words. I expect this to be at least a bit of a jumble since I’d probably equate it to word vomit but I hope I was able to convey a bit of why this dumb little romance/sports story stuck with me. Most of what I’ve written though is coming just from my memory so I’m hoping I was able to convey it all properly. Its also been a while since I’ve ever really written about something in this manner in 4 years, so I just ended up relying on my passion for the subject. Thinking on and writing about pieces of media I enjoy and find meaning in I find really fun regardless so I hope Ms. Hunnisett doesn’t mind me reviving this blog page. I hope this would still get a passing grade.
Also honestly its hard looking at this page again, like 5 years? Seriously? Its been half a decade since high school? Take me back honestly. Either way, who knows if I’ll be trying to write stuff like this more just out of self indulgence. I’m definitely not out of ideas, it just comes down to how coherent are my thoughts and feelings on a topic and what I feel I can write about. I have some ideas floating around in my head from analyses to reviews so who knows how things go. I’ve been wanting to write something on Chaos; Child for over 2 years now and I hope to someday gather my thoughts to put together something poignant enough to be happy with, and same with other games and topics. To be honest I wish I did more of this when I had more time, looking back at this blog I still had a few drafts that I never was able to put together unfortunately, but perhaps another day. Honestly writing can feel pretty embarrassing sometimes.
Regardless this was fun and I’m finally putting the strange whim I had half a year ago to log back in worth it. To whoever reads this, I appreciate it and stay safe, and if this is just me screaming into the void, I hope you got some of those thoughts off of your chest.