What are Denpa (Dempa/電波) Visual Novels? An Introduction to the Weird World of Denpa Games

The script of my YouTube video for those who prefer the written medium.

Those immersed in the visual novel sphere may have seen the term denpa tossed around here and there and, if sufficiently compelled by curiosity to dig into what exactly it referred to, probably discovered that there wasn’t much in the way of a crystal clear definition. Comparatively, those outside this bubble have likely never heard of the term denpa at all, both in general, and with respect to its vague taxonomic usage, so this article is an attempt to explain the intriguing history of the perplexing, arcane aesthetic that is denpa, in addition to covering the best denpa VNs with which to get started, assuming you find yourself interested in diving further into this extremely niche, but nonetheless extremely fascinating phenomenon.

Defining “Denpa”

The word denpa is Japanese for electromagnetic waves, also known as radio waves or RF signals, and its colloquial use stems from the idea that people’s consciousness’ are subtly, or not so subtly, affected and distorted by the soup of electromagnetic radiation that we find ourselves submerged in, as we live in a world surrounded by cell towers, satellite spot beams, wi-fi access points, and ambient emissions from ubiquitous smart devices that form the rapidly expanding Internet of Things.

Serial Experiments Lain

The term denpa first gained traction in the 90s, as a reference to the Fukagawa Street killings of 1981, a high-profile murder case where an unhinged 29-year-old man carried out a stabbing spree in broad daylight, indiscriminately assaulting innocent passersby, killing several and injuring many more. HIs official defense at trial was under the plea of insanity, predicated on the notion that years of being bombarded and tormented by electromagnetic radiation had driven him to carry out these horrific crimes out of madness.

Because of this, the term denpa surfaced as a way to refer to individuals who operate on an entirety different wavelength than the rest of humanity, writ large, preferring the solitude of their own concocted fantasies over the harshness of reality. In the most generous of interpretations: strange, offbeat individuals who march to the idiosyncratic beat of their own drum. In the most derogatory of interpretations, which is the more commonly fielded one: societal outcasts and misfits whose inability and/or refusal to conform with reality and their flippant disregard for the social mores is perceived by others to be the result of an unsubstantiated persecution complex.

The term denpa thus tends to carry a negative connotation, arising from its checkered origin and it shares some commonality with the label otaku which touts a similar pejorative social stigma. Because of this denpa works tend to be confined to a laser-focused niche within the already niche otaku demographic, which is quite fitting, as denpa works themselves tend to be both meditative and commentative with respect to otaku subculture, creating something of a self-contained feedback-loop of otaku-centric creation and consumption.

Welcome to the NHK!

So now that we’ve covered the history and broad use of denpa, what does the term mean in the context of, for instance, denpa game (電波ゲ)? The word to best sum up the denpa aesthetic is “surreal”, but it’s more nuanced than that as its surrealism tends to manifest in its uniquely protracted scenes of bleak everyday mundanity punctuated by out-of-left-field bursts of Kafkaesque terror, increasing in both severity and regularity as the story progresses, resulting in a slow and unrelenting descent from vaguely disquieting normality into sheer apocalyptic madness.

Paranoia Agent

Denpa also maintains a keen focus on vivid, visceral character introspection, with the medium of visual novels particularly well-suited to being able to empathize with and lose yourself in the terrifyingly incoherent and delusional headspace of someone dangerously close to losing their tenuous grip on reality. Accordingly, denpa themes tend to revolve around a starkly grim and sobering stance on humanity, showcasing the ease with which the human mind at its most despondent and desperate can be molded by the preachings of cults, by conspiracy theories, or by the false promises peddled by the most charismatic of ideologues, transforming it into something malignant that is capable of carrying out frightening atrocities, all in the name of regaining some semblance of control and meaning over its seemingly orphaned existence.

Fans of dark psychological thrillers should be able to relate to the gist of that long-winded description, as elements of denpa can indeed be found scattered throughout prominent series and films of the subgenre, such as the unabashedly experimental Lain, the everlasting and iconic Evangelion, and the works of the late, great, Satoshi Kon, famous for his ostensibly arthouse productions that focus on blurring the line between fiction and reality such as Paranoia Agent and Perfect Blue. The latter of which even shares denpa’s otaku sensibilities, as a caustic exploration of the perilously obsessive nature of idol otaku culture.

A stalker’s room is full of 8x10 glossy photos of Mima posing in different headshot positions
Perfect Blue

Crossing over into the western hemisphere for one quick example, the markedly surrealist works of David Lynch have an uncanny knack for effectively capturing the atmosphere and spirit of denpa. In fact, if you’ve seen Lost Highway, Blue Velvet, or Mulholland Drive, which centers on retreating into the recesses of one’s own dilapidated mind as a means of coping with the quiet, deceptive terror of everyday life, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from denpa, stylistically speaking, and even thematically speaking, as all three echo denpa’s depressing anti-humanistic pessimism to varying degrees.

By now, you’ve doubtlessly figured out that denpa works are dark and gritty, to say the least, and the process of finishing one can be a real endurance test on how much you can stomach in terms of exceedingly graphic and disturbing content. Denpa works can be legitimately, deeply distressing, which is why I would highly caution against overlooking any content warnings as they pop up because they are there for a very, very good reason. But on the other hand, if a provocative and withering condemnation on what lurks in the twisted depths of the human soul is your cup of tea, denpa games can be a uniquely rewarding and profoundly satisfying experience.

Because denpa is, by its nature, painstakingly obscure, sales are based on tying it with other, more popular genres, such as horror, a natural fit alongside denpa’s propensity for effectively conveying scenes of haunting psychological deterioration, and bishoujo games along with all their associated subcategories such as eroge, which juxtaposes nicely against the former, resulting in that notorious brand of hidden, subversive horror that typify notable works such as Higurashi.

The History of Denpa

The progenitor of denpa was Shizuku in 1996, released by Studio Leaf, best known for the To Heart\, White Album, and Utawarerumono franchises, and has the distinction of coining the term “visual novel” itself, as before then, they were broadly classified as either adventure games or bishoujo games.

Shizuku was followed by what are known as the “big three” denpa games (3大電波ゲーム): Tsui no Sora in 1999, the debut work of acclaimed visual novel author, SCA-DI, famous for imbuing his writing with a healthy dose of philosophical and literary themes and references, and then both Sayonara Wo Oshiete and Jisatsu no Tame no 101 no Houhou in 2001.

Owing to the aforementioned narrow appeal of denpa, however, these quote-unquote “pure” denpa works struggled to attain anything beyond a cult following, leaving the phenomenon essentially aborted by the early 00s. A quick search of the denpa tag on VNDB reveals its sparse legacy, sporting punishingly slim pickings, most of which have low aggregate ratings, which is unfortunately quite accurate as none of these prototypical works were particularly good in their own right, – their scant development resources seemingly funneled into tasteless, vulgar H-scenes. In fact, combined with their equally low-budget B-movie shock horror vibes, the big three plus Shizuku have the distinct air of an American grindhouse exploitation flick.

Sayonara o Oshiete

That said, they are nonetheless intriguing and edifying from a historical standpoint, and to be fair, Sayooshi does stand out as the best of the lot, so that in particular one may be worth a read if you can find it…and also assuming you can either read Japanese, Spanish, or are willing to use a text scraper to translate as you go. But, in the name of practicality, it’s probably better to get started with something more easily accessible to the Western world, thus my top visual novel picks for getting started with denpa.

Top Recommendations to Get Started with Denpa

A couple of caveats, however.

  1. Since what defines a work as denpa is somewhat nebulous, you can think of the aesthetic as a spectrum with ‘contains elements of denpa’ on one end and ‘pure denpa game’ on the other. For the most part, these recommendations will fall on the left end of that gradient, again mainly out of practicality.
  2. As an addendum to 1), this list will only cover titles which I personally consider denpa. For example, VNDB tags Higurashi as denpa, which I am only personally somewhat convinced by. So just to get it out the way, I’ll give it the novel its dues right now as an honorable mention: denpa or not, go play Higurashi.
  3. Denpa works tend to be for mature audiences only, sporting content warnings as far as the eye can see and almost all works contain copious amounts of hardcore adult content i.e. H-scenes and the like. It bears repeating: do not take any content warnings you see lightly, because the gratuitous, and at times controversial, depictions of violence, smut, and psychological trauma can be genuinely upsetting and morally repellent.

Kimi to Kanojo to Kanojo no Koi

Starting off gently, this mouthful of a title, also graciously known as ToToNo for short, is the tamest entry on this list with regard to denpa, which is not to say it’s the tamest entry in general, because there’s still quite a good deal of twisted chicanery lurking beneath its façade of soothing pastel watercolors and charmingly rom-com-esque love triangle of a plot. Denpa predominately leaves its mark on this title in the form of one of the two heroines, whose introduction sees her perched on the highest point of the school’s rooftop, mimicking an antenna receiving radio transmissions, hearkening way back in time to Ruriko from 1996’s Shizuku. In fact, this archetype is what came to be known as denpa onna, referring to a quirky, often madcap girl with a penchant for all things supernatural.

As far as ToToNo itself, it tends to be one of the first games recommended for Doki Doki Literature Club completionists who find themselves craving more, and due to the widespread popularity of DDLC, it certainly makes for a broadly applicable baby-step down the rabbit hole. I won’t go any further into what makes ToToNo worth reading here, because I’ve honestly probably said too much already and much like DDLC, the magic of this game works best when experienced blind.

Saya no Uta

This game is one I’ve gone back and forth on several times, because while on the surface, it’s the easiest to recommend for its immediately gripping opening scene and relatively short length, clocking it at under 10 hours on average, any denpa influence tends to be completely overshadowed by its extremely well crafted horror elements. The plot revolves Fuminori, a medical student who, as the result of a car accident, has found his perception of the world has become hideously warped, seeing the world draped in pulsating flesh and blood and all his friends, colleagues, and the rest of humanity as grotesque, gelatinous abominations, save for one individual, the mysterious Saya who appears to him as a perfectly ordinary, beautiful young girl. Like ToToNo, Saya no Uta’s denpa elements are secondary, primarily manifesting by way of Fuminori’s maddening inability to see the world as anything more than a Lovecraftian landscape, though the game does also feature denpa’s characteristically harsh and withering portrayal of humanity, thanks in no small part to its director and scenario writer, Gen Urobuchi, the mastermind behind series such as Madoka Magika, Fate/Zero, and Psycho-Pass. While it may be scarce on denpa, it’s nonetheless a tremendously effective, deeply unsettling, and at times, unexpectedly poignant horror tragedy in its own right so as long as you’ve got a strong stomach, it’s absolutely worth a shot, and pretty much a must-read for fans of the Urobutcher.

Chaos;Head and its loosely connected sequel Chaos;Child

So these two games are entries in the SCIADV universe aka “those games with semicolons in their titles.” Between the two, Chaos;Head is lower quality but undeniably more denpa, with Chaos;Child being much less denpa, but overall much higher quality; however, even Head serves a decent entry point for those looking for a slightly more grounded and conventional, yet still solid psychological thriller. The difference in degree of denpa is principally due to the games’ equally damaged, but ultimately very distinct protagonists with Chaos;Head’s Takumi being your stereotypical otaku, that is, a shamelessly misanthropic shut in and Chaos;Child’s Takuru being much more of a socially well-adjusted sociopath. Both leads suffer from regular bouts of delusions, which arise in the curious form of a gameplay mechanic as a choice presented to the player, with Takumi’s delusions in particular falling right in line with denpa’s characteristic otaku-centric disconnect from reality.

Speaking of otaku, the Chaos games are definitely the most trope-ridden entries on this list, with the heroines, at least on the surface, feeling very much like going through a checklist of all the standard female character archetypes, as well as sprinkling in a small amount of superpowered skirmishes. This is not really meant as a criticism, at least not when looking to the games as a gateway to denpa, as having a reliable anchor can make the leap into uncharted territory feel less daunting.

And speaking of less daunting, perhaps the most important note about the Chaos games is that they are the only entries on this list to not feature any H-scenes and are thus easily the tamest in terms of mature content, though they still very much deserving of their mature designation as they both involve digging into a series of gruesome murders replete with the usual assortment of gory violence from horrifically mangled and defiled corpses to scenes of gleeful dismemberment. For the most straightforward and accessible introduction to denpa, these engaging tales of mind-bending murder mystery courtesy of the SCIADV verse serve the role admirably well.


Wonderful Everyday aka Subarashiki Hibi

If this article wasn’t your first encounter with the term denpa, then it’s likely you’ve been waiting patiently for a namedrop of Wonderful Everyday, more commonly known as Subahibi, especially since footage of it has been used frequently throughout this video. And for good reason as, at least at the time of this recording, it is THE quintessential denpa title, the most highly regarded and esteemed visual novel that is also universally agreed to be unequivocally, unapologetically denpa. Released in 2010, Subahibi is by the previously noted creator of 1999’s Tsui no Sora, the acclaimed philosophical visual novel writer SCA-DI, with Subahibi actually being a reimagined overhaul of Tsui no Sora itself. Needless to say, SCA-DI has really honed his craft over the years and the difference in quality between the two games, despite telling very similar stories, is night and day.

Subahibi is an overwhelmingly emotional and cerebral rollercoaster ride, an intricate, harrowing, deeply introspective, pseudo-intellectual mystery told from the perspective of five protagonists, revolving around a series of increasingly baffling and terrifying incidents, from a portentous, ritualistic pact formed between three girls that takes place on a nearby rooftop, to a creepy website that claims to passively draw from mankind’s collective unconsciousness to predict the end of the world, to an ominous, charismatic speech by the usually reserved resident otaku Mamiya Takuji declaring that the only way to save oneself from the inevitable apocalypse, which is inching ever closer second by second, is to “return to the End Sky.”

Subahibi is personally one of my favorite works of all time, right up with the likes of Umineko. Like its denpa predecessors, it suffers from the same set of offputting problems, such as the graphic and just plain disturbing H-content, that either far outstays its welcome or is seemingly included purely for shock value, but even with all of that, the tradeoff is, in my opinion, completely worth it. Like all denpa works, it’s not for everyone, heck, it’s absolutely not for the majority of folks, but if you think you have the mental fortitude to power through all the lurid content, you’ll likely find Subahibi a fascinating, ambitious, and utterly unique experience, an enigmatic, existentialist journey like no other. One that holistically honors the essence of denpa, but at the same time, against all odds, manages to subvert it, taking something born out of cynicism and nihilism and molding it into something beautiful and even dare I say inspiring, urging us all to grasp happiness from the despair of our existence, as the wonderful days we all yearn for never out of reach.

References

Denpa (Wikipedia) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denpa

Fukugawa Street Murders (深川通り魔殺人事件): JP Wikipedia https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%B7%B1%E5%B7%9D%E9%80%9A%E3%82%8A%E9%AD%94%E6%AE%BA%E4%BA%BA%E4%BA%8B%E4%BB%B6

On Denpa: A Guest Article by Kenji the Engi https://ontheones.wordpress.com/2019/06/29/on-denpa-a-guest-article-by-kenji-the-engi/

Denpa bigaku riron: the Rise of the “Radio” Aesthetic in Japanese Subculture in the 21st Century https://altairandvega.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/denpa-bigaku-riron-the-rise-of-the-radio-aesthetic-in-japanese-subculture-in-the-21st-century/

A Look At – Jisatsu no Tame no 101 no Houhou – One of the Big Three Denpa Games https://ontlogy.wordpress.com/2020/05/28/a-look-at-jisatsu-no-tame-no-101-no-houhou-one-of-the-big-three-denpa-games/

A Look At – Shizuku (Leaf / Aquaplus) – The Very First Visual Novel* https://ontlogy.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/a-look-at-shizuku-leaf-aquaplus-the-very-first-visual-novel/

A Look At – For Elise -エリーゼのために https://ontlogy.wordpress.com/2020/03/21/a-look-at-for-elise-%e3%82%a8%e3%83%aa%e3%83%bc%e3%82%bc%e3%81%ae%e3%81%9f%e3%82%81%e3%81%ab/

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