Company: Clock Up
Release date: 7-25-14
In the pursuit of salvation, what would you do? Would you be willing to be saved, by any means necessary?
As a victim of rape, Mio struggles to recover in the aftermath, feeling isolated from Taichi, her caring older brother, and Mei, her younger sister. She becomes socially withdrawn, and unable to cope, she is considering options of suicide when she receives a message from Yuka, a similar victim of trauma. Soon the two become close friends, and Yuka introduces Mio to the Friendship Club, where she promises that she will be saved.
Through her friendship with Yuka and her visits to the club, Mio makes an extraordinary recovery, to Taichi’s relief. Against his better judgement, his curiosity leads him to visit the mysterious club—and there, he learns the awful truth: the Friendship Club is a ruse. In actuality, it is a prostitution ring for young men and women to service their customers, and more disturbing still, every member is convinced that they are not being manipulated or deceived, but that this is their true salvation.
The first half is a character study, switching between the perspectives of each of the large cast, giving the opportunity to see events, conversations, and the different thought processes through the eyes of every character. Because of this, the pacing is slightly tedious by having sections of the same storyline repeated, but each time, it adds immeasurable depth to the character whose viewpoint is presumed. Friendships and relationships may seem innocent to an outsider, but when we can see their personal commentary and their own opinions, it develops an undertone of suspense and tension.
The second half is when the plot begins in earnest, when the origins of the club and the truth of certain characters are revealed. However, the most horrific realization is what inhumanities the club members are willing to commit, and what moral codes they are willing to break, in their desperation for happiness.
It addresses issues such as the cycle of abuse and learned helplessness, peer pressure and cult logic, the weight of societal expectations, and the denial of self-worth. It poses questions as to what are the limits of self-preservation, whether unrelenting cynicism or optimism is ultimately more realistic, and whether interfering with another’s happiness is correct, even if that happiness is manufactured, or leading to a path of self-destruction. It is not a simple matter of saving the heroines from the club, but from themselves as well.
It may not be pleasant, or even entertaining to the audience, but it is more than worthy of being read and appreciated for its merits. It is an unflinchingly dark story, perhaps even hopelessly so, yet it also has one of the most bittersweet, heartbreaking endings to ever be produced in the medium.
“I’ll definitely save everyone, no matter what.”
With the best intentions and a determination to succeed, Taichi is willing to do anything to save his older sister from the club’s immoral dealings. However, as he witnesses more classmates joining the club, each convinced that they have found their own happiness, he begins to question if he is correct in trying to save everyone against their will.
“You will save me, won’t you?”
An oddly formal, withdrawn girl who appears to have few friends, yet somehow she has become deeply involved in club activities. Megumi is the only club member who has reservations over whether it can truly bring people salvation, having suspicions of its true intentions, but lacking the resolve to actively defy it. With Taichi’s encouragement, she becomes his only ally in attempting to dismantle the club and expose its sinister motives.
“I’ve been saved by the club. Why can’t you understand?”
Taichi’s older sister, her days at the club have given her a renewed sense of hope and joy in life. She has a maternal, gentle nature, but in the club, she abandons all pretenses of modesty. Yet with Taichi’s vocal disapproval, and her unsuccessful attempts to have him understand, a friction begins to develop between the siblings.
“If onee-chan says so, then…it’s not wrong, is it?”
Taichi’s younger sister, she is innocent to a fault and adores her family beyond compare. Her idolization of her older sister in particular is unconditional, which has unfortunate consequences when Mio persists in convincing her that she should also be a member of the club.
Cynical and stern, Saeko lives by her strict sense of duty and devotion to her studies, upholding the school rules without exception. Yet those same moral standards are soon distorted by the club, and she comes to revel in the depravity that she once scorned.
“What can you do to help me? You don’t know anything about me!”
Timid and pessimistic, Shion has suffered from repeated incidents of atrocious abuse at the hands of her classmates, both physical and emotional. Unsuccessful attempts for mercy have made her reluctant to seek help, even at the insistence of others, believing that that there is no happiness to be had in her future. With effort, she is convinced by Saeko to join the club, and embrace control of her own world.
“We have to get out of this place.”
As Megumi’s friend, Madoka is both protective and always willing to lend her support. Her straightforward sense of honesty, combined with her sharp sense of perception, causes her concern when Megumi grows distant. Worrying that her friend is hiding secrets from her, Madoka’s good intentions lead her into the depths of the club.
“I can save you, Mio. Will you believe in me?”
Despite having had a difficult past, Yuka has made a complete recovery, with an energetic personality and always wearing a bright smile. Out of all the members, she is the most enthusiastic about the club and its merits, truly believing that it will bring everyone happiness.
“Is there anything I can do to help? Don’t force yourself, all right?”
Saeko’s childhood friend and a member of the student council, Akira is intelligent, compassionate, and selfless, the perfect example of academic diligence and mild-mannered charm. He is kind to everyone he meets and popular with his classmates, however, he can confide in very few of them. Truthfully, his desire to dress and act femininely, along with his homosexual orientation, have caused him confusion and grief over whether he would not have been better as the opposite sex.
“I’m sorry… For me to talk to you like this, it must seem disgusting, right?”
Unpopular and unwanted because of her appearance, Chiharu suffers from low self-esteem, thinking herself to be lesser than the rest of her classmates. She has a sweet, timid demeanor, yet which is rarely seen due to her shyness around others. She attends the club to be comforted and to feel loved, even if by strangers who only want her physically.
The absence of typical cute character designs, with realistic hair color and body proportions, instantly makes it stand out from an aesthetic point. While it lacks the more traditionally attractive artwork of most titles, it is not at the expense of production values, with the multiple paper dolls for clothing and expressions per character, including the protagonist.
The backgrounds are photo-realistic, if not actual photographs, and the muted color palette both contribute to the oppressive atmosphere of the story. Considering the circumstances, it may not be the most picturesque, but it is a fitting choice.
The sound selection is rather sparse, consisting of minimal piano pieces for the lighter scenes, or a distressing combination of sound effects for when the unthinkable is about to occur. It would be wrong to say it lacks emotional resonance, though, since it can be atmospheric, and does succeed in portraying a bleak environment.
The voice acting is utterly haunting. Voices are matched to every character, sounding pitiable during the subtle moments, but also matching the frenzied hysterics needed for the more extreme lines. Even the protagonist is voiced, and he too gives an excellent delivery.
It would be misleading to classify the sex scenes as erotica, since there is nothing erotic about them. The redeeming quality is that, as gratuitous as they may seem, these moments emphasize the gradual distortion and deterioration of the participants’ sanity, and each character has a unique theme which suits their personal methods of reaching salvation.
That said, the sex scenes are some of the most cruel and sickening of the medium. Even the tamest scenes all involve some amount of coercion, whether by the use of drugs, or an unstable mindset being taken advantage of. The very darkest scenes often are a nauseating combination of torture, and are mentally and emotionally exhausting to read through, to say the very least.