The theme of true happiness in Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star comes directly from the classic Japanese story Night on the Galactic Railroad.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a game with an absurd premise and a big heart. It’s a bird dating simulator, but the story addresses death, guilt, and sacrifice. And while the puns and outrageous situations are fun, Hatoful Boyfriend and its companion story Holiday Star draws on heavy themes from a classic Japanese children’s book.
The follow-up game Holiday Star takes place before the end of the first game and is told in four main episodes. The first two embody much of the same humor from the main dating routes of Hatoful Boyfriend, and the second two episodes draw on the wonder and self-reflection in the novella Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. Night on the Galactic Railroad is as well known in Japan as The Little Prince is in the west, for children and adults alike, although Night on the Galactic Railroad has had fewer translations and is thus unfamiliar to audiences outside of Japan. Many books, animations, and films have referenced Night on the Galactic Railroad in its discussion of religion, science, sacrifice, death, and the pursuit of true happiness.
Night on the Galactic Railroad’s biggest theme is the pursuit of happiness — a true happiness that does not rely on false ideas. The story is full of wonder and adventure, and it’s not obvious whether the main character Giovanni was on a train through the stars in reality, but the conversations he has with his friend Campanella and various passengers lead toward a bigger revelation for Giovanni to find his own path toward happiness. To Miyazawa, this meant doing good for others and testing various versions of “truths” to find the real truth.
The story in both Night on the Galactic Railroad and the second half of Holiday Star opens in a classroom before that night’s astronomy event. The people in Night on the Galactic Railroad are preparing for a festival of the stars, and the students in Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star are going to watch the lunar eclipse. Giovanni looks at the Milky Way from atop a hill, and Hatoful Boyfriend's player character Hiyoko and Nageki, the mourning dove confined to the library, wait for the lunar eclipse to begin with their friends. Suddenly, a train roars in; like a dream’s nonsequitur, Giovanni is on board, and his best friend Campanella, who was by the river during the festival, joins moments later, drenched. Hiyoko and Nageki fall asleep on the school roof and wake up on a train traveling the stars. This train is between life and death, which is confirmed in Holiday Star: the conductor is the same grim reaper who appears in its game over scenes. Nageki and Campanella are both dead — Campanella having died moments before by drowning in the river, and Nageki having died before Hiyoko enrolled in their school — but Hiyoko and Giovanni are alive and aboard by some mistake.
Giovanni and Campanella explore many towns in the stars at the different train stops, but Hiyoko and Nageki disembark at the first stop: the Holiday Star. The King of this star is a vaguely monstrous yet cowardly bird-shaped king with a cape who looks similar to the description of a bird causing mischief in Night on the Galactic Railroad.
The King does not allow anyone to leave his paradise where everybody is happy. When Hiyoko and Nageki demand to leave, he locks the two of them and their classmates who stumbled onto the star in a series of rooms connected like a star chart. He believes their truths about the world are frightening, so he tries to persuade them that reality is cruel and that a paradise of false happiness is better than the truth.
The Holiday Star is like heaven, but the King uses it as a lure to bring other scared souls trapped inside to stave off his loneliness. Holiday Star is not necessarily a stand-in for the heaven Giovanni and Campanella see from the train, to which some passengers depart, but the idea of what is a true paradise in life or death is debated in the story. When the passengers explain they’ll be departing for the next station, where heaven is, Giovanni argues they should stay and create a place here that’s better than heaven. He and the passengers debate over which God is real which God is false, but one of the passengers stops the conversation and suggests that they will all meet again someday. I don’t believe Miyazawa was implying either the passengers or Giovanni was right or wrong; he writes about a neutral synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism. At the end of the story, a man tells Giovanni to think hard, to experiment to find the difference between true beliefs and false beliefs — that is how we find true happiness.
Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star has no such religious theming, but it is about finding that true happiness by getting rid of false assumptions. To free each bird from their cages in the constellation, they must confront the false paradise the King has constructed for them. The King creates a picture book for each bird that paints reality in a negative light, focusing on all the pain it brings. For example, childhood best friend Ryouta is scared of a future where he and Hiyoko are no longer close. He’s scared of the changes the future will bring to their relationship. He assumes the worst will happen, and thus he is comfortable in Holiday Star where nothing changes. It’s not until he decides to discard false comfort that he can find a path toward happiness.
But no one represents complacency in false beliefs better than the King. The King, haunted by his own past, constructed a place where he tricks the dead into stopping at the paradise of the Holiday Star. Holiday Star isn’t heaven, but the King would like everyone to believe that.
In a confrontation with the King, Nageki confirms that his favorite book and the King’s favorite book are the same: Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. In this moment, Nageki explicitly references a parable in Night on the Galactic Railroad about a dying scorpion’s sacrifice to burn forever and light the way for others who search for happiness. More than that, Nageki confronts his death. He has been dead for the entirety of both games — and thinks he killed himself at the school — but this time he would burn away his own chance to search for happiness after death. Campanella, too, is dead. Nageki tries to burn away his existence to save the others just as Campanella died rescuing a classmate who had fallen into the river. Campanella wonders if his mother will be angry with him because of this, but he thinks because he did something good, she’ll forgive him.
Hatoful Boyfriend’s Hiyoko does not agree with this. She refuses to let Nageki sacrifice himself for their sakes, so she finds another way: she persuades the King to leave Holiday Star and to travel with other passing souls. Hiyoko is unyielding optimism; she is already living a life where she pursues true happiness.
Hiyoko and company take the train back home, waking up from their dream, and Nageki decides to stay in the school some more to find his own answers about his past before he boards the train again. Instead of just existing, he has his own path to follow now.
Giovanni wakes up to the reality that his best friend is dead. Yet Campanella feels he achieved his happiness by doing good for others, and now Giovanni is resolved to make his own happiness on his own path. He returns to his sick mother at home with a smile on his face.
Night on the Galactic Railroad doesn’t have a happy ending; Giovanni has resolve, and it’s implied his life will get better, but his only friend died. Despite the characters’ suffering in Hatoful Boyfriend: Holiday Star the game’s finale has a brighter conclusion. Maybe we need that happier ending now to inspire us to be understanding of other people’s pain.
Various works referencing Night on the Galactic Railroad take on different meanings concerning the novella’s ending. It’s presented with a lighter tone, yet those of us still alive have to bear the weight of loved ones’ deaths, even if they were doing it out of selflessness. Campanella’s mother may forgive Campanella, but still she will be heartbroken. Hatoful Boyfriend ends very differently; there is sadness in the story, but it is not resolved with self-sacrifice that leads to death. There are things you can still do for others while you are alive.
Carly Smith is a freelance writer and editor in the Greater New York City area whose work has appeared in Five out of Ten Magazine, Polygon, Gamasutra, Paste, and others. Find her on Twitter at @roseofbattle.