*This post contains no spoilers!
Before starting this post, I suppose that I should give a brief introduction and summary for Subarashiki Hibi ~Furenzoku Sonzai (Our Wonderful Everyday ~Discontinuous Existence). However, Asceai in his review of the VN probably gave the best and most condensed summary for this fairly complicated story. So I will borrow his words:
“Subarashiki Hibi is a story told in six chapters. The chapters are of varying lengths and structure, but for the most part, they cover the month of July 2012 from a number of different perspectives.
The story begins in chapter #1, 'Down the Rabbit-Hole" on July 12, 2012. The protagonist; Minakami Yuki; lives a peaceful everyday life with Tsukasa and Kagami; her childhood friends; when one day she meets a mysterious girl, Takashima Zakuro (a girl in another class in Yuki's school, who seems to have met Yuki before but Yuki does not remember this).
The next day, she learns that Takashima Zakuro has killed herself. Rumors in school are abuzz about predictions of the end of the world in 2012 - one of which is a Web site called the "Web Bot Project", a network of crawlers designed to harness the 'collective unconsciousness' to make predictions.
A boy in Yuki's class named Mamiya Takuji stands up and makes an apocalyptic prediction, stating that the world will end on the 20th, and that Zakuro's death was the first sign. He speaks of an event he dubs "the Last Sky", where the world will be destroyed and reborn.
The clock is ticking and more people die as the prophesied date draws closer and closer while Yuki attempts to get to the bottom of the identity of Mamiya Takuji, the Web Bot Project and the Last Sky.”
Although this is a highly accurate plot summary of Suba Hibi that avoids spoilers, what a prospective reader of Suba Hibi should also know, is that the story is divided into two parts. The two parts are fundamentally interlinked, but are also kept separate. And it is this aspect of the visual novel that really defines it as a masterpiece. There is the part of the work that is a story, and then there is the part that is a philosophical work. Both parts are handled excellently well, and mix together in a fascinating and integral way. Simply, these chapters: Down the Rabbit Hole 2, It's My Own Invention, Looking-Glass Insects, Jabberwocky, Which Dreamed it, Jabberwocky 2, and the first two epilogues are a complete story. The VN very well could have been just these parts, and it would have been a damn good work of art. And yet, the visual novel is not just these parts. Down the Rabbit Hole 1, End Sky 2, and all the scenes with Ayana throughout all the chapters are included as well. And by virtue of just being there, it forces the reader to question why? These parts add nothing to the actual narrative of the story, and yet it is these parts that mark the very start and the very end of the story. With a mysterious girl named Ayana showing up periodically throughout the story to remind us not to get too caught up in the events of the story. That while the narrative part of the story is fascinating, and very easy to get lost in. There is a whole deeper layer to everything going on that we will only get a clue of at the very end.
Down the Rabbit-Hole 1, which I will refer to as Chapter 0, gets a lot of flak for being considered a weak start to an otherwise excellent story. And although Down the Rabbit-Hole 1 does have a fair bit of fluff, it is an absolutely integral part of the story. As an introduction, Chapter 0 has the role of establishing what kind of mind set the reader should approach this story with. And it is for this reason that Chapter 0 is so important. Suba Hibi is a philosophical work above all else. Upon finishing this story, you get the feeling that Sca-ji (the primary creator) wanted to write a philosophical thesis of his own, but then decided to create a whole visual novel instead. And I'm so glad he chose that route. By using fiction to express these concepts, and forcing the reader to see the story not as a story but as a world of its own, it gets us to see the relevance of said philosophies. The whole story is essentially there to create a conversation about various philosophical topics, with solipsism being one of the big ones. This is what Chapter 0 exists for, to get the reader to understand that the events we will see unfold as the actual story progresses is not meant to be just mere entertainment (and oh boy is it a thrill ride), but to keep in mind that there is even deeper subtext to everything going on.
Takashima Zakuro, the girl whose suicide is the triggering point, or perhaps even the direct cause of all the events that follow, plays an entirely different role in Chapter 0. With the exclusion of this chapter, she is a normal character and even the primary protagonist of the Looking Glass-Insect chapter. But in Chapter 0, she has the role of being a character that knows what is going on. A role that she shares only with Otonashi Ayana (except that Ayana retains that role throughout the entire duration of the story, not just in Chapter 0 as is Zakuro's case). When reading Chapter 0, we are told and even see some interesting and cryptic things, but have no way of piecing those things together. Thereby giving you enough information to be curious about the under workings of everything that is going on, but with no means of figuring that out yourself without continuing into the proverbial “Rabbit Hole”.
It is for that reason that Suba Hibi is first and foremost a philosophical work, because above all else our purpose is to try to figure out what is going on. And once the story really gets rolling in Down the Rabbit-Hole 2, we experience the main events from a myriad of unreliable perspectives. Meaning that trying to figure out what is going on is less like a puzzle as would be in a typical mystery, but more about determining what makes the most sense from the scrambled information we get. In fact, without giving any major spoilers, it is made quite clear at the very end of the story that interpreting the story is the only solution we have, meaning that everything isn't laid out clearly by the end. Which once again, adds significance to Chapter 0.
Upon finishing Suba Hibi (meaning reading End Sky 2), you will want to reread Chapter 0 since now we as readers will no longer be in Minakami Yuki's shoes as we were the first time. Throughout the whole first reading of the story, Chapter 0 was nothing but a source of questions. Upon the second time, it is our source for answers. We have the necessary knowledge to be sharing the table with Takashima Zakuro and Ayana, since this time around, like them we will also know what is going on. When Zakuro and Ayana spoke to Yuki in our first reading, it felt like the two characters with any sort knowledge of what was really going on were keeping us in the dark. They would give subtle clues, but those clues were useless at that time. In the second reading of chapter 0, as readers we are equals in knowledge to Ayana and Zakuro and can finally make use of those clues. And the VN understands this. In fact, Ayana first introduces herself in Chapter 0 by saying “It's been a while”, addressing herself not to Yuki, but to the audience. The true meaning of this remark is very apparent to a second time reader, and instantly reminds you of the conversation you had with Ayana in End Sky 2.Although in a first reading, you probably will easily disregarded this, thinking that Ayana and Yuki briefly met before, and that Yuki simply doesn't remember. And it is here where the role that Ayana and Zakuro play differ in Chapter 0.
(Here is an upload of that entire first encounter with Ayana in Down the Rabbit Hole 1, English subtitles are available)
When Zakuro speaks, she is speaking to Yuki the character, not us the audience. Ayana however, really speaks directly to us, the audience (in all the chapters of this story), and that “it's been a while” (久しぶり) is essentially proof of that. As you progress in the story and work through the other chapters, Takashima's role is quite different from Chapter 0's, and she is much more ignorant compared to her chapter 0 self. Ayana however, no matter what chapter you read (and therefore which character's perspective you are seeing), is the exact same. In a story so filled with inconsistency, she is always the one consistent factor. Which goes back to my first point, just as Chapter 0 and End Sky2 are separate from the main story, so is Otonashi Ayana.
Suba Hibi is not a simple story, and it is not meant to be only enjoyed for its emotional highs and lows; it's strange beginning makes that clear. Furthermore, during the process of reading, in case you ever forget that, Ayana is always there to remind you of that fact. Especially with the appearances she makes near the climax of the story in various chapters.
But perhaps what I love most is the use of perspective. Returning to a previous point, in your first reading of Chapter 0 you will naturally orient your own perspective with Yuki's since all the information we receive in that chapter is from her. In fact, the whole story is told from the first person perspective of various unreliable narrators. And in every chapter we will identify our understanding of things from that character's point of view.
But by the second reading of the story, because we have a complete picture of everything, there is a dichotomy between the reader, and the protagonist's narration. An artificial feeling that we are in a third perspective emerges. Because at this point we can balance what the protagonist perceives, with an objective understanding. Which causes us to identify with out own (third person) perspective of the story, rather than submitting to the protagonist's point of view. The more the reader develops their own personal perspective of things, the more they can relate to Ayana. The one character whose role is simply to be an objective observer.
In a first reading, conversations with Ayana seem like she is teasing the reader for how little they actually know of what is going on. But this is because in a first reading, we identify with whichever protagonist's perspective we are seeing. Ayana is teasing us the reader by teasing the character she is talking to. The more we identify with the character's point of view, the more annoying and weird Ayana seems. But the more we identify with our own perspective (meaning by having read everything already), the more Ayana feels like an equal talking to us. Since just like the reader, she is the only other objective perspective on everything.
In fact, this brings us back to the fact that unlike a book, where a first person narrative is without dispute a first person narrative. This is a visual novel, with choices. Even with all the information presented to us is in first person, it is by nature of its medium a third person experience since we dictate the story at certain key points. And Ayana is there to remind us that we like her, are experiencing things from an objective point of view.