Estimated reading time: 15 minute(s)

An early scene in the Insani translation of Eno's 2002 visual novel, "The Poor Little Bird"
Scene from early in the game.

On April 11, 2021, I wrote the introduction for a new project – reviewing doujin Japanese visual novels that were translated into English in the 2005, 2006, and 2008 al|together translation festivals. This post is our first visual novel review for the series, Eno’s The Poor Little Bird (Kawaisou na Kotori). The Poor Little Bird takes about 10-15 minutes to read from start to finish. The creator, Eno, described it as a “Digital Picture Book.” That description is apt. Below, I will discuss The Poor Little Bird, provide information on how you can read the story yourself, and write my brief review.

Why The Poor Little Bird is Our First Al|Together Review

I decided to lead this review project with The Poor Little Bird for two reasons. Firstly, because the visual novel was originally made available in Japan on May 6, 2002, I wanted to release the review to mark its 19th birthday. Secondly, I have written extensively about children’s bird literature here at The New Leaf Journal. For example, see my series on an 1897 bird magazine and my discussion of several bird stories and poems from another nineteenth century children’s magazine. Because The Poor Little Bird is a picture book in visual/sound novel form, it fits in nicely with some of my other bird projects.

English-translated epilogue of "The Poor Little Bird," wherein the creator, Eno, discusses his "Digital Picture Book"
From the postscript of The Poor Little Bird.

A Note on “Spoilers”

Please note that there will be no story “spoilers” until the section titled “The Story of The Poor Little Bird.” From that point on, I will discuss the story in detail. Those who would prefer to read the story for themselves before reading my synopsis and analysis should bookmark this article before reading this section, and reserve those parts of the article for after they have read the story. Every main section header (see table of contents) that discusses specific events in the story will have a note about there being “spoilers” in that section and its sub-sections.

I decided to include “spoilers” in part of the review for two reasons. Firstly, The Poor Little Bird has no player choices or divergent paths. Secondly, the entire story can be read in 10 minutes by a reasonably quick reader. If I did not discuss what actually happens in the story, there would be little to discuss at all.

I do not think that “spoilers” would ruin the experience of reading The Poor Little Bird. The story does not have any dramatic plot twists. It is, as the author described it, a picture book – and not a long one at that. With that being said, I would be inclined to read it before reading a review of it.

I conclude my review by writing that, while The Poor Little Bird is not a proverbial “must-read,” it is an interesting project that is worth 10 minutes of your time. If you are downloading other Insani games, I recommend adding The Poor Little Bird to your collection.

The Poor Little Bird Details

English title card for "The Poor Little Bird" visual novel by Eno.
Title card for The Poor Little Bird – retrieved from the game’s data file.
  • Game: The Poor Little Bird (EN); Kawaisou na Kotori (JP)
  • Created By: Eno
  • Music: keNji
  • Translated By: Edward Keyes
  • Original Release: May 5, 2002 (JP)
  • English Release: October 15, 2005
  • Platform: Windows, Mac, Linux
  • Official Website: Insani.
  • Visual Novel Database Entry: Link.
  • Reviewed On: Windows version through Wine compatibility layer on Linux

The Poor Little Bird was created by Eno, an independent visual novel creator in Japan. It was released in Japan on May 5, 2002.

Eno agreed to have several of his visual novels translated into English as part of the al|together 2005 translation festival. The English translation was handled by Edward Keyes of Insani, working under the supervision of Seung Park. Insani notes that the translation was significant in that Mr. Keyes was Insani’s lead programmer rather than its lead translator.

Page for "The Poor Little Bird" visual novel clipped from the al|together 2005 website.
The Poor Little Bird page on the al|together 2005 website.

The Al|Together 2005 site has torrents available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. For my review, I ran the Windows version on Linux through Wine.

Downloading The Poor Little Bird

Torrent files for The Poor Little Bird are available on its al|together 2005 page and Insani. I managed to download the Windows version, although it took me a bit of time to do so using Qbittorrent. While I imagine that acquiring the Linux and Mac files for the game is more difficult, most Linux and Mac users should be able to run the Windows version through a compatibility layer such as Wine. I had no issue installing and running the Windows version on my computer, which runs the Manjaro Linux operating system.

“Game-Play” of The Poor Little Bird

I put “game-play” in quotation marks because The Poor Little Bird does not have any in a traditional sense. I have reviewed visual novels here at The New Leaf Journal such as Bad End which invite player input. The Poor Little Bird only invites the player to advance the text. In effect, the player turns the pages in a digital book.

There is one exception to the no-input generalization. After finishing the story, the player is offered the chance to read the epilogue, with statements from Eno and Mr. Edward Keyes. The statements are short and worth reading, especially if you enjoyed the story. However, there are no choices in the game proper.

Options in The Poor Little Bird

The Poor Little Bird has a very minimalist title page and start menu. There is only one option: “Start.” No configuration options, much less additional content.

Start screen and title card for "The Poor Little Bird" visual novel.
Title card and start screen – clipped from game-play.

However, by right clicking anywhere in the game window, or the equivalent the player’s device, the player summons a menu with the following options:

  • Auto mode
  • Clear window
  • Save
  • History
  • Return to title

I will discuss the behavior of each of these options below, with the exception of the obvious “Return to title” option.

Auto Mode

When I first saw “Auto Mode,” I assumed that it would advance the text without player input. As it turns out, Auto Mode skips over text that the player has already read. The player can break out of Auto Mode by right clicking.

In light of the fact that the game can be read in 10-minutes, the skip function is not particularly important.

Clear Window

In The Poor Little Bird, text is displayed over the entire background. That is, while many visual novels have a text box – a specific section of the screen where text appears – text runs down the entirety of the screen in The Poor Little Bird. By toggling on Clear Window, the player can view the background without the text. Toggling the option back off causes the text to re-appear.

The Clear Window functionality is welcome, but the story (counting the developer and translator notes at the end) only has six backgrounds and no character sprites. Furthermore, all of the backgrounds are available as jpg images in the game’s data file – which is easily accessible. Thus, Clear Window is a nice feature, but it does not serve a large purpose in the context of The Poor Little Bird.

Save

There are nine save slots to create bookmarks. While the ability to save a game is always welcome, I did not have to use the save feature once for this review. I doubt that most readers will ever have a need to save in such a short game with no choices.

History

History is the most useful of the menu options. By toggling History on, the player can cycle through text that he or she read before, but which is no longer displayed on screen. For players using a mouse, this can also be triggered with the scroll wheel. Text that has already been read is rendered in yellow instead of white.

Audio-Visual Presentation of The Poor Little Bird

The audio-visual presentation of The Poor Little Bird is quite simple and has only three components:

  • Text
  • Background Images
  • Background Music

Below, I will examine each component in detail.

Text

The text is white and rendered in a simple but easy-to-read serif font. It displays well against all of the story’s backgrounds.

As I noted above, the text overlays the background and fills the entire game window.

Background

The story (and epilogue) uses seven backgrounds in total. One is a simple black background, and later in the game there is one scene with a simple yellow background. The other backgrounds are illustrated. There is an alleyway in a city or town, a cave entrance, mountain on the beach, forest, sakura tree, and the sky over the ocean.

A scene in the Insani translation of Eno's 2002 visual novel, "The Poor Little Bird" - wherein the bird starts its journey.
Clipped from game-play.

The backgrounds are all clean and well-illustrated and serve the idea of The Poor Little Bird being a digital picture book well. While there is only a small number of backgrounds, I think they offer good variety for a story that is amenable to being read in 10 minutes.

The alleyway and the sakura tree background are the two standouts from the bunch. JPG images for all the backgrounds are available in the game’s file after install.

Sakura backdrop for "The Poor Little Bird" (Kawaisou na Kotori) visual novel - retrieved from the game's data file.
The sakura background – retrieved from the game’s data file.

Absence of Character Sprites

Most visual novels that make it to the west have character sprites. The Poor Little Bird does not. We never see what the little bird or any of the other named characters look like.

Background Music

The Poor Little Bird has five background music tracks. Four of the tracks are used in the story proper and one of the tracks is used for the afterword from the author and translator. All of the tracks are pleasant enough and fit the mood, although none are particularly memorable in and of themselves. The shortest track is 1:04 and the longest is 3:45. If the player leaves the story on one track for long enough, the track will loop and start from the beginning. This should be uncommon so long as the player is attending to the story.

Like the background images, the tracks are all available as individual sound files in the game’s data. “Aeta,” the longest of the tracks, is the best of the bunch.

Translation Quality

From the epilogue of the English-language translation of "The Poor Little Bird" visual novel - a statement from translator Edward Keyes.
Translator’s statement in the postscript – clipped from gameplay.

From the outset, I note that I can neither read nor speak Japanese. For that reason, I can only judge Insani’s English-language translation by its final product, combined with external understandings about Japanese culture.

The translation reads very well. I did not notice any examples of awkward or clunky phrasing, much less typos. While I cannot speak for the original Japanese, nothing in the translation stood out at me as appearing to obviously deviate from how it would have read in its original form. The English product of Insani’s work compares favorably to the English-products of some professionally translated commercial games, such as one that I reviewed here at The New Leaf JournalBad End.

Japanese speakers and those who are studying Japanese may be interested to know that there is a text document in the game’s data file that includes the original Japanese next to the English translation, along with translation notes. The file is in the “Data” folder and is titled “0.txt”. To show an example, the following is the first line of the game in three versions and a translator’s note:

;或る所に病弱な少年がいました
;aru tokoro ni pyoujakuna shounen ga imashita.
;“aru tokoro ni” is technically “at a certain place”, but is really more of a generic story opening.
`Once upon a time, there was a boy who had a weak constitution.

Not only do we see the original Japanese, but the translator explained why he translated it in a non-literal way. There are several other notes scattered throughout the translation.

Well done.

The Story of The Poor Little Bird

Going forward, I will discuss the story of The Poor Little Bird in some detail. If you are interested in reading the story once without knowing what happens, consider this your invitation to bookmark my review to finish later.

Story Synopsis

The protagonist of the story, a little bird, lives with a sickly young boy. One day, the bird wakes up in his cage to find that the boy is not in his room. Unbeknownst to the poor little bird, his companion had passed away. An adult in the house remarks how sad this must be for the bird and decides to set the bird free.

(Note: Please do not set domestic pet birds free.)

Searching for the Boy in Vain

The poor little bird still does not understand what happened. The bird imagines that the boy must have abandoned him for some reason.

Despite believing that he had been abandoned, the poor little bird wished to see the boy again and asked why the boy had abandoned him. The bird searched in vain for the deceased boy. People in the house called out to it and suggested that had the bird been a human being, it would have been the boy’s best friend.

The Wish to Become Human

Although the poor little bird did not understand that the boy it loved was dead, it did pick up on the boy’s relatives wishing that it had been a person. The poor little bird combined these two points and convinced itself that were it to become human, the boy would see it again.

The poor little bird pleaded to be turned into a boy. The Sun, which is a character in this story, pitied the little bird and asked god whether it was possible to turn the poor little bird into a boy. God told the Sun that there was a certain golden fruit that could turn a bird into a boy. The Sun reported this information to the poor little bird.

Searching and Death

The poor little bird searched far and wide for the golden fruit that would make him a boy. His fellow birds told him to give up the hunt, noting that he was working itself to death and that it would never see the boy again. Eventually the bird died from exhaustion while searching for the fruit.

Reuniting the Poor Little Bird With the Boy

The Sun cried, and its tears turned into drops of gold. The Sun was angry that god had done nothing for the little bird, despite its trying so hard. However, god told the Sun to look at the body of the poor little bird. The bird had begun to glow, awash in the Sun’s golden tears. God informed the Sun that the poor little bird had found the golden fruit.

The poor little bird’s body faded away. It was led to heaven by god. In heaven, the bird’s body turned into that of a human being. There, the bird, now a boy, met the boy he had missed so much. The boy smiled at the bird (now a boy), and the bird wept with joy.

It was said long after that a tree grew on the spot where the poor little bird fell and died. In autumn, the tree grew golden fruit.

My Thoughts on the Story

(Story Spoilers in this section.)

English-language version of the epilogue of "The Poor Little Bird" visual novel, wherein Eno, the creator, asks players what they thought.
Clipped from the postscript.

In seeking to understand literature of any form, one should first ascertain the meaning of the author. Only after ascertaining the meaning of the author should one consider their own view of the author’s meaning. So said John Ruskin in his Sesame lecture. He was correct.

In the afterword, the creator, Eno, asked the following question:

Did the little bird find happiness? After it lost its life and saw the boy again, was it happy?

Eno

I think that the bird found happiness in the end. The bird was only happy in its little life when it was with the boy. After the boy died, the bird was distraught. Not only was the bird lonely, but it also came to a misunderstanding that the boy had abandoned it. Deprived of its companion and its sense of self-worth, the bird desperately sought out the boy to understand why the boy had abandoned it – not receptive to signs that the boy had not abandoned it. It was from this misapprehension that the bird’s desire to become a boy was born.

In the end, the bird achieved all of its ends. The bird was willing to exhaust itself to the point of death to meet the boy and discover why the boy had abandoned it. In the end, after death, the bird transmogrified into a boy in heaven, met the boy again, and learned that the boy still loved it and had never abandoned it in the first place. The bird wept with joy because it was not only reunited with the boy but also found that the boy had loved it the whole time.

Having answered Eno’s question for readers, I move on to discuss some of my thoughts on the story.

Certain Story-Telling Conveniences Drove the Bird’s Misunderstanding

The bird suffered greatly in searching for the boy before it died. Its desperate search was not premised solely on its loneliness, but also on a misunderstanding: the assumption that the boy had abandoned it. We are told that the poor little bird did not only want to see the boy again to ameliorate its loneliness, but also to understand why the boy had abandoned it.

Of course, the bird had not been abandoned by the boy at all. The main qualm I had with the storytelling was that the bird’s misunderstanding was the product of certain conveniences. We are led to believe that the bird was not able to understand that the boy it loved had died – despite there being signs all around it. Granting that a bird may not be expected to understand such signs, the bird’s intelligence at other points in the story leave an odd impression when contrasted with its inability to understand that the boy was no more.

The Misunderstanding that Led to the Bird Wanting to Be a Boy

After the bird was released, it kept flying around its former home. There, it heard the boy’s relatives remarking that it would have been wonderful if the bird had been in a boy so that it could have been the boy’s friend. It struck me as more than a bit convenient that the bird understood enough to believe that it would meet the boy again if it became a boy, but nothing else.

The Sun Does Not Rectify the Misunderstanding

Finally, neither the Sun nor the story’s god considered the possibility that the bird’s desire to become a boy, rather than to live out its little bird life in a healthy bird way, was based on a misunderstanding. Why would the Sun and the game’s wise god have believed that the bird needed to become a boy to see the boy again?

An Interesting Take From the Translator

In the afterword, the translator, Mr. Edward Keyes, offered some thoughts on the game. He jokingly (or perhaps half-jokingly) suggested that the moral of the story was as follows:

…Always get the full story before you leave on your epic quest.

He also suggested:

If someone tells you that you’re on a fool’s errand, maybe you should listen to them.

Statement from Edward Keyes, the translator of "The Poor Little Bird" visual novel, in the visual novel's epilogue.
Clipped from the postscript.

Mr. Keyes followed that up with a joke about being unduly cynical. However, that modesty obscures the fact that he highlighted an interesting point – at least with the first observation.

The poor little bird demonstrated some intelligence in the story. Had it been more open to listening to those around it and taken time to grasp the situation, it may have come to realize that the boy had not “abandoned” it before setting off on its journey. It was that central misunderstanding that caused the bird to not only die of exhaustion, but also to wish that it was not a bird at all.

Had the bird grasped the nature of the situation sooner, would it have been able to live out its little bird life in a happier (albeit still lonely) way? Was becoming a boy in heaven instead of meeting the boy again as a bird worth the bird’s suffering in its life?

The Morals of the Story

The poor little bird did find its happiness in the end. Nevertheless, I think Mr. Keyes’s “cynical” take pointed to a moral from the story. What should young (and old) readers glean from the tale? I suggest that the moral is that one should be open to listening to others and carefully considering a situation before driving oneself to ruin.

The Meaning of the Bird’s Suffering in Life

There is one question that we must resolve before accepting Mr. Keyes’s “cynical” reading, however.

What if the bird’s suffering in life – regardless of its cause – was necessary for its happy ending? I do not mean necessary in the sense of setting up the emotional catharsis at the end. I mean necessary in the sense of enabling the bird to be reunited with the boy.

To be sure, this reading is not necessary. The text of the story does not require us to take the position that had the bird accepted that the boy died during its life and lived out its life doing ordinary bird things, it would not have been able to meet the boy in heaven after death. However, the bird is transported to heaven (its body disappears from the Earth) only after it is touched by the Sun’s tears. After being transported, it turns into a boy just as it meets the boy. Would it have gone to heaven had it not wished to become a boy and died from exhaustion after searching for a way to make that wish come true?

I am inclined to believe that the game’s world did not require the bird to suffer from a misunderstanding in life to achieve a happy ending. This is because the game’s text does not require this reading, and also because that would yield an odd moral. We should remember that The Poor Little Bird is effectively a children’s picture book presented as a visual/sound novel.

However, even if we do not find that the bird’s misunderstanding was necessary for its being reunited with the boy, it was likely necessary for it to become a boy in heaven. The importance of that may be left up to the reader.

Overall Review

Japanese title card for Eno's 2002 visual novel, Kawaisou na Kotori - retrieved from game data.
Original Japanese title card – clipped from the game’s data file.

(Story Spoilers in this Section.)

In the afterword, Eno thanked readers for playing his “Digital Picture Book” to the end. He wrote:

If you felt touched at all by this work, then I am very, very honored.

Eno

On the whole, granting some of my caveats with the storytelling, Eno put together a pretty little story with fitting backgrounds and a pleasant soundtrack.

The story makes for an interesting read, conveniences aside. After reading through it a few times, I was left with quite a bit to reflect on for an article. Unlike many other children’s stories, it does not present a single obvious moral for readers. The little bird was loyal and well loved, but the story does not definitively answer whether its suffering – which was based on a misunderstanding – was necessary for it to be reunited with the boy again. Nevertheless, regardless of how it got there, the bird did find happiness in heaven. Happy ending aside though, I cannot rule out the moral that Mr. Keyes (perhaps sarcastically) took from the story – take the time to understand a situation before driving yourself to ruin based on the belief that you were unwanted.

Finally – I reach my recommendation.

I do not think The Poor Little Bird is a “must-read” – so to speak. But if you are downloading any other visual novels from Insani, I recommend adding The Poor Little Bird to your collection. Granting its flaws, it is a well-put together picture book in visual/sound novel form. The story is well-worth 10-15 minutes of your time.