10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

Title: 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights
Japanese Title: 百億の昼と千億の夜 (Hyakuoku no hiru to senoku no yoru)
Author: Mitsuse Ryū (光瀬 龍)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 284

According to a 2006 poll published in Hayakawa SF Magazine, 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights ranked at the top of the list of science fiction novels originally published in Japanese. I can’t say for certain whether 10 Billion Days is the “greatest” Japanese science fiction novel of all time (or what that would even mean), but it certainly is epic. The writing (and translation) are beautiful, and there are some interesting ideas floating around as well.

Also, 10 Billion Days has an entire chapter devoted to a cyborg deathmatch between Buddha and Jesus. It’s awesome.

This review will contain spoilers. The concept of “spoilers” doesn’t really apply to this novel, as its narrative tension is generated more by speculation and atmosphere than it is by plot, but be warned. If you’d like the point of the review here at the beginning, here you go: I love this book and you should totally read it. It’s not perfect, and it will try (and reward!) your patience, but it will stay in your memory for years. The short commentary by Oshii Mamoru (the director of the landmark animated sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell) is of interest as well, especially to fans of Japanese pop culture.

The premise of 10 Billion Days is that all life on earth has been painstakingly curated by an extraterrestrial (and possibly extradimensional) entity that may not be benevolent. Some characters are aiding it, some characters are opposing it, and some characters are merely trying to understand it. What is clear is that our world is very small and unimportant on the sort of cosmic scale suggested by the novel’s title.

After a prologue that sets the tone by emphasizing the eternal passage of time across aeons, the novel opens with a dramatic description of the struggles of the first fish to walk on land. At the end of the chapter, it is revealed that this creature is being monitored and gradually enhanced by highly advanced technology.

The next chapter skips to Plato, who is seeking the mysteries of Atlantis. What he finds is that the gods are real, and frighteningly so. The next chapter focuses on Siddhārtha, and the next on Jesus of Nazareth. Both God and the Buddha realms are real, but these early seekers of truth can only see a fraction of the picture and describe it in terms they can understand.

The first half of the book is dedicated to creating an air of mystery and adventure. For example, when Plato arrives at the village where the last descendants of the people who fled Atlantis live, this is how Mitsuse sets the scene:

Far across the sea of burnt yellow sand, the fading sun had set halfway, sending its rays upward to paint the high clouds blood red. Crimson spread out across the darkening sky even as night seeped from the eastern horizon toward the vault of heaven, reddish-gray melding with crimson blue. The wind was completely still, and the twilight pooled like heavy oil upon the sand. There was not a sound. Plato wondered what the people who lived inside the stone houses of the village must be doing for such silence to reign – not a single spoken word, no faint echo of evening song. All was filled with the barren quiet of the sand sea and the silence that comes with the death of something long forgotten, unchanged for thousands of years. (49)

This passage is interesting not only for its lovely imagery but also because of its treatment of one of the main themes of the novel, which is that all civilizations will eventually fade into shadows of their former selves. This theme is visually translated at key points in the story, in which the spotlessly clean metal of a future space city is just as desolate as an ancient desert.

The second half of the novel tessellates to the year 3905, in which the entire planet has become a wasteland. Just as the cyborg fish of the first chapter cautiously made its way onto land, cyborg Siddhārtha (yes, really!) emerges from the ocean into the ruins of Tokyo, where cyborg Plato (who is now calling himself Orionae) fills him in on the situation. As the two are talking, they are accosted by Jesus, who also turns out to be a cyborg – a dirty cyborg with rotting teeth a gross clothes. So a cyborg zombie, then. And then they fight! I promise this is just as ridiculous as it sounds. There are some great lines during this section, such as…

Siddhārtha gingerly extended his tri-D antenna from the crack in the wall, searching for his foe. (181)


Glumly, Jesus admitted to himself that his attack had probably failed to destroy his enemy. (194)

Just roll with it, okay?

Siddhārtha and Orionae (in other words, Buddha and Plato) are joined by a non-organic lifeform in the shape of an adolescent girl, who is called “Asura” after the eternally warring god-kings of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Asura had earlier revealed herself to Siddhārtha, claiming she is fighting the entity that Jesus understands to be God, and at the end of the novel she takes him and Orionae on a journey through space to meet and hopefully defeat this being. What follows is a series of battles and revelations that progressively mount in scope and impact throughout the last eighty pages of the book. Like the beginning of the universe itself, this novel is a massive explosion.

10 Billion Days is not a perfect book, and at times it moves through complicated and nuanced religious and philosophical topics quickly and with an absolute minimum of narrative grounding. I will also admit that I find the actual story unsatisfying. However, the strength of 10 Billion Days lies in the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. These questions are almost classically existential. In an uncaring and absurd universe, how can an individual find meaning and hope?

The weekly speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons will be hosting a roundtable discussion of 10 Billion Days in October, and I’m honored to be one of the participants. I have strong feelings and opinions about this novel, and I’m looking forward to learning what the other discussants think. There’s a lot going on in this book; and, if nothing else, it’s a fantastic conversation starter.

Yūrei The Japanese Ghost

Title: Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost
Author: Zack Davisson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 206

Zack Davisson is a major rising star in the world of manga translation, having worked on high-profile and award-winning titles such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan and Oishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi’s Seraphim: 266613336 Wings. He is also a consultant for the ongoing comic series Wayward, for which he writes the closing essays. Fans of yōkai and other Japanese cryptids will know him from his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and he also maintains an active Twitter account, which is a great source of news on the American comics scene. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is Davisson’s first book, and it’s published by no less than Chin Music Press, which regularly releases Japan-related literary objets d’art such as Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan and Otaku Spaces. There’s obviously been a great deal of talent invested in this book, and it shows.

Yūrei are the ghostly cousins of yōkai, and their spectral tendrils stretch deep into Japanese history. Although he occasionally touches on contemporary popular culture, Davisson is mainly concerned with the society and print media of premodern and early modern Japan. Each of the twelve chapters in Yūrei covers one in-depth topic, the discussion of which is usually centered around a specific artistic work.

The first chapter takes as its subject “The Ghost of Oyuki,” the Edo-period painting by Maruyama Ōkyo that appears on Yūrei‘s cover. Davisson investigates the origin of this iconic image, melding history with legend. The second chapter covers kaidanshū, or “collections of weird tales,” while the third delves into the world of kabuki. The fourth and fifth chapters offer maps of the geography of the land of the dead, both imagined and, in the case of certain sacred mountains, real. Chapter 6 conveniently details how not to end up as a ghost, and Chapters 7 and 8 recount the lives and afterlives of people who really could have used this advice. Chapter 9, “The Ghost of Okiku,” is an Edo-period case study in how hauntings occur, and Chapter 10 brings the concept of haunting, or tatari, into the present by way of horror movies and urban legends. The eleventh chapter provides an explanation of the traditions surrounding Obon, the festival of the dead. Finally, the twelfth chapter is an informative analysis of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which was published in 1776 but still stands (or hovers creepily) as one of the finest works of dark fantasy in any language.

Although every chapter is a lot of fun, my favorite section of the book is its Introduction, in which Davisson relates a personal anecdote about how he and his wife lived in a haunted apartment in Osaka for seven months. Part of the appeal of reading ghost stories is imagining that you yourself might one day come into contact with the supernatural, so I can’t imagine a better way to begin a book like this. Davisson transitions into a brief overview of what the term “yūrei” signifies, how it differs from the Western concept of “ghost,” and its pervasiveness in contemporary film and literature. If I were a curious horror fan, or perhaps a teacher looking for a concise and engaging essay to assign as reading for a class on Japanese folklore, Yūrei‘s Introduction would suit my needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, the writing in Yūrei is not always uniformly smooth. In certain sections of the book, there are brief moments of jarring dissonance, as when one paragraph states that the constant warfare of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) generated countless ghost stories because of people needed a way to process their fear, while the next paragraph argues that ghost stories proliferated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in a way that they couldn’t before because people were finally free from fear. These paradoxes are relatively minor; and, in Davisson’s defense, such seeming contradictions need not be regarded as such, as multiple interpretations are equally valid. This is a book about ghosts, after all.

Yūrei is an extremely handsome publication. It opens with eight full-color images depicting yūrei as imagined by artists in the Edo period. There are fifteen additional images interspersed throughout the book, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation. There is also a glossary at the end, which helpfully provides the kanji for each term, as well as a useful five-page list of English-language works referenced.

The book’s most interesting index is its collection of 33 yūrei kaidan (“strange tales”), which are organized by theme, such as “Tales of Ghostly Vengeance” and “Tales of Ghostly Love.” As it’s difficult to find stories from medieval and Edo-period kaidan compilations outside of out-of-print academic publications, these translations are an extremely welcome addition to the project.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this release that I begged for a review copy, and they sent me one just to get me to go away. It was totally worth it.) You can preview the book on Davisson’s blog.

The Book of Tokyo

Title: The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction
Editors: Michael Emmerich, Jim Hinks, and Masashi Matsuie
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Comma Press
Pages: 180

In his introduction to this collection of ten short stories, editor Michael Emmerich writes:

In a sense, you might say that the stories of this anthology unfold within a landscape more imagined than real – that they create a Tokyo of their own by drawing on a rather abstract sense of the moods of certain sections of the city, or on a vision of Tokyo and the smaller areas it comprises that is more conceptual than physical. (x)

This is a perfect description of The Book of Tokyo, which offers the reader less of a detailed illustration of an urban landscape than it does a vivid sense of the energy and potential generated by a city inhabited by 13.5 million people, every one of whom has a story.

In Furukawa Hideo’s “Model T Frankenstein,” a monster that may or may not be a shapeshifting goat escapes one of the Izu Islands on a ferry and makes his way to Tokyo to assume a new identity as a ‘Japanese.’ He has to kill a few people along the way, but he eventually makes a home for himself in Shinjuku. In “Picnic,” Ekuni Kaori sketches a relationship between a disaffected couple whose hobby is to have designer picnics in a park by their house, an activity that makes them marginally less alienated from one another. Kakuta Mitsuyo’s “A House for Two” is an ode to the trendy comforts of urban living. The pleasure the narrator derives from walking through the city has its roots in her relationship with her mother, whom she whom once bonded with over luxurious foreign clothes and who now commands a greater share of her affections than any man ever could.

The cosmopolitanism of Tokyo is on full display in Horie Toshiyuki’s “The Owl’s Estate,” in which the male narrator, a sushi chef and secondhand book dealer, finds himself in a strange rundown building in West Ikebukuro inhabited by foreign girls of dubious employ. In the end, though, there’s nothing particularly French or Australian or American about the way these girls enjoy drinking and laughing and being silly with each other. The single father protagonist of Yamazaki Nao-Cola’s “Dad, I Love You” must navigate his way through a maze of foreign brand names, cuisines, and business owners over the course of his day before coming home to his daughter, who encourages him to keep going with the joy she finds in things that transcend culture, such as how large the full moon looks in a clear night sky. The young woman who narrates Kanehara Hitomi’s “Mambo” doesn’t even care where she’s going when she gets into a taxi with a stranger; she’s just looking for adventure in the city.

Yoshimoto Banana’s “Mummy” encapsulates the theme of the entire collection, which is that every random encounter between strangers is accompanied by a galaxy of possibilities. A female undergrad agrees to be walked home by a male graduate student studying Egyptology. He cautions her that there’s a killer loose in the neighborhood, and it would be unsafe for her to go out alone. She suspects that he might be the murderer, but her physical attraction to him is so strong that she resigns herself to her fate. Although the grad student isn’t a criminal, he does turn out to be a complete weirdo, and the narrator has to forcibly restrain herself from judging him and the course his life takes after they go their separate ways. When surrounded by so many potential paths, she asks herself, how do you know that your own is “necessarily the correct and happiest one” (52)?

My favorite story in the collection is Kawakami Hiromi’s “The Hut on the Roof.” The main setting is an izakaya pub, where the divorced narrator, an English teacher, eats and drinks and hangs out with older men from her neighborhood. After becoming close to them through the process of exchanging casual but repeated interactions, she eventually learns the story behind the peculiar living arrangement of a local fishmonger who has befriended her. The story doesn’t have a plot, exactly, but it conveys an almost palpable sense of living your own individual life surrounded by people whom proximity has drawn into a loose yet friendly community.

Don’t let the cover fool you – despite the flying cranes and Shintō gate and temple and Chinese lanterns, the The Book of Tokyo is refreshingly contemporary. None of the stories translated for the collection was published before 2000, and reading them feels like walking through the twenty-first century just as much as it feels like walking around Tokyo. As Emmerich notes, it’s difficult to pin down the “Tokyo-ness” of these stories, but the reader who encounters them can’t help but be drawn into the living and breathing atmosphere of a huge and dynamic city.

The editing and story selection of The Book of Tokyo is excellent. I was so impressed that I ended up ordering several other titles in Comma Press’s “Reading the City” series, which include The Book of Gaza, The Book of Rio, and The Book of Liverpool.

Review copy provided by the wonderful people at Comma Press.

Metal Gear Solid

Title: Metal Gear Solid
Authors: Ashly Burch and Anthony Burch
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Pages: 178

I don’t often talk about Metal Gear Solid.

It’s like how I might feel about a middle-school crush – my emotions concerning the games were once so intense that now I’m almost embarrassed by the object of my affection. There were so many cool things going on in the series, but it’s difficult to look back as an adult and not notice its glaring flaws.

Still, it’s impossible to deny the influence of the Metal Gear Solid series (and of its controversial director, Kojima Hideo), so I’ve always been on the lookout for someone to proselytize the games and remind me why I once loved them.

That is exactly what Metal Gear Solid, the latest title from micropublisher Boss Fight Books, manages to do. As Anthony Burch explains in the opening chapter:

Ash and I are, to put it bluntly, going to shit on Metal Gear Solid. We’ll talk about flaws in its story. We’ll talk about how it’s sexist and regressive. We’ll talk about how, despite its reputation, it’s actually a pretty bad stealth game. Today, MGS1 represents many things we either disagree with, find irritating, or actively fight against in our jobs as critics and creators.

But: Metal Gear Solid was the perfect game to Ash and me as kids. We love it with the part of our hearts protected by Kevlar nostalgia. In the chapters to come, we’re going to try to remember that love and we hope you’ll do the same.

Anthony Burch is one half of the brother-sister team that has co-authored Metal Gear Solid. Burch writes both for and about video games, and he also runs one of my favorite sites on Tumblr, No Wrong Way To Play, which documents creative and unusual gaming challenges and objectives meant to surprise players into seeing classic and popular games in a different light. He trades off sections with Ashly “Ash” Burch, a writer, speaker, voice actress, and online personality. The siblings respond to and play off each other both in the main text and in their footnotes to each other’s writing, and reading through Metal Gear Solid feels like being a fly on the wall during a conversation between two fun and intelligent people who obviously have a great deal of respect for each other.

(What I’m trying to say here is that the joint authorial voice of this book is really cool. I want to see more of this in nonfiction writing, please.)

Anthony and Ash don’t waste any time breaking down what the Metal Gear Solid games are and how they work. Or, as the case may be, don’t work. Their comments are consistently apt and cleverly stated. To give an example from one of Anthony’s sections:

The are two Hideo Kojimas.

One Kojima injects every Metal Gear Solid game with earnest if overbearing discussions of nuclear disarmament, the morality of genetic experimentation, the nature of warfare, and the difference between patriotism and terrorism.

The other Kojima lets you call Rose in Metal Gear Solid 4 and shake your SIXAXIS controller to make her boobs jiggle.

One Kojima is interested in genetic and memetic legacies, and predicted the rise of social media and information overload before Twitter.

The other Kojima helped design a sniper whose breasts are so large and exposed that she caused a controversy before the game in which she appears even had a release date.

These are all things that are true, but the authors don’t simply throw them at the reader without further analysis. Instead, they take these shortcomings and try to make sense of them. In the case of the above dichotomy between serious themes and ridiculous fanservice, Anthony points out that there are many such dualities implicit in the game. Although the player’s avatars in the games are supposed to be master soldiers, the players are just players, prone to making mistakes and dying. This in turn points to a paradox regarding the player-protagonist’s agency vis-à-vis the agency of the player, a constant negotiation that becomes increasingly complicated as the Metal Gear Solid series progresses.

Unlike the earlier titles released by Boss Fight Books, which include EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario Bros. 2, Metal Gear Solid does not delve deeply into the personal histories of its authors, who do not chronicle a playthrough of any of the titles in the series. Instead, the book focuses on key elements of game design and how these elements reflect the narratives and characterization patterns of the games, as well as how they affect the player.

Anthony dominates the first half of the book, which is largely focused on gameplay; but, when the discussion shifts to story and character development, Ash becomes the more impassioned and articulate of the two voices. She begins dropping truth bombs that are both spot-on and beautifully stated, and I wanted to applaud after every one of her sections in the latter half of the book. Unfortunately, the radiance she cast was often blighted by the shadow of her co-author, who for whatever reason had trouble reading the atmosphere.

Meryl’s characterization is problematic because her entire purpose is to act as an objective for the male hero to achieve, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that the interesting thing about Meryl’s characterization is how it acts as an objective for the male hero, and therefore it has a purpose. I wish Ocelot could have been a point-of-view character, because his perspective as a someone capable of feeling deep yet complicated emotions shows just how damaged and unrealistic Snake is, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that Ocelot has too many feelings, which is why the obviously emotionally balanced Snake gets to the hero. Sexism in the stories of games is a problem, Ash will say. In response, Anthony will say that sexism is an opportunity for interesting gameplay.

As I continued reading, I became increasingly frustrated with Anthony. I resisted this at first, because up until that point I had been in complete agreement with every word he put on the page. What this the same person that I quoted earlier in this review? How could someone who had made such a compelling argument for the ludic effectiveness of Snake’s vulnerability be working so hard to justify sexist game design? This was the moment when I snapped:

ASH: No exaggeration – time actually slows down so that Snake and the player can take a good, long look at Meryl’s sweet, blocky butt. But don’t worry, it’s not like it’s in there just so that dudes can gawk at her hind quarters. It’s actually a game mechanic! That’s right. In a cinematic stealth game about the horrors of nuclear warfare, you are required to stare at a woman’s ass to advance the plot.

ANTHONY: This scene is objectifying. It’s sexist. It undermines the game’s attempts to characterize Meryl as a smart, tough, self-possessed woman. It’s also, infuriatingly, one of the many interesting gameplay twists in the series. Where many of the game’s one-off challenges ask the player to disregard all of the stealth mechanics on which the game is based, the Butt Mission encourages the player to gain a deeper understanding of enemy patrols, vision cones, and proximity.

He then continues to talk about how great the “Butt Mission” is for another few paragraphs. I wanted to reach out across time and space and tell him to PLEASE SHUT UP. Somehow the rote acknowledgment that sexism is bad made this exchange even more maddening to me.

If you’re wondering how a less face-palm inducing version of this conversation might have proceeded, let me provide you with a model:

FEMALE CRITIC: The objectification of this female character, when combined with the way that all of these games develop all of their female characters in relation to members of their overwhelmingly male casts, made me hate women and myself as a younger gamer and contribute to a toxic culture of gender relations among older gamers. Both the objectification and the consistently sexist characterizations of the women in the series are ridiculous. I have developed this theme over the past dozen pages, and now I will offer a particularly egregious example to illustrate my many cogent points.

MALE CRITIC: You know, I previously thought your example was one of the more interesting gameplay twists in the series, but now that you’ve put it into a larger context I can appreciate how totally messed up it is. Since sexism is gross and stupid and I’m super interested in gameplay, let us brainstorm several alternative game mechanics that aren’t sexist and might be of immense practical interest to the current and future game developers reading this book!

If the male half of this conversation couldn’t be redirected to something more interesting and useful, perhaps it would have been better to omit it altogether. According to the book’s colophon, the editors at Boss Fight Books are all male, which is something a shame, because I have no trouble imagining a female editor rolling her eyes and crossing out Anthony’s five-paragraph justifications of sexism with a red sharpie without thinking twice.

I’m dwelling on the unpleasant gendered aspects of Metal Gear Solid not just because they grated so harshly on my nerves but also because they extend over roughly 2/5 of the text. This conversation about the intersections between gender, story, and gameplay is important and fascinating, and the Metal Gear Solid series is an ideal framework for such a discussion. It’s a shame it was handled so poorly, especially since the rest of the book is so brilliant and engaging.

There are a few other missed opportunities in Metal Gear Solid. Attempts to explain Kojima’s bizarre fourth wall breaking antics fall flat (although the jokes the authors make at the director’s expense are much more successful), and there was very little acknowledgment that the games weren’t made by an American developer for an audience of Americans. Regardless, Metal Gear Solid contains some of the most insightful and entertaining writing on gaming and game design that I’ve read in the past several years.

If you’ve never played any of the games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, I would still recommend this book, which references many of the big topics and debates in the gaming community, rendering them accessible even to non-gamers.

You can purchase a digital copy of Metal Gear Solid on the Boss Fight Books website (or on Amazon), and you can read an excerpt on Kotaku.

All You Need Is Kill

Title: All You Need Is Kill
Japanese Title: オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (Ōru yū nīdo izu kiru)
Author: Sakurazaka Hiroshi (桜坂 洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder with Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 200

Although I read and very much enjoyed Sakurazaka Hiroshi’s virtual reality gaming novel Slum Online, I was not interested in All You Need Is Kill, even after watching Emily Blunt do endless sexy pushups in Edge of Tomorrow. I have trouble with prison stories, and army stories are like prison stories except worse.

After hearing Akiko Hirao give a paper titled “All You Need Is Kill: Deciphering the Game Elements in the Novel and Film” at the Japanese and Korean Mediascapes conference at the University of Oregon this summer, however, I knew I had to give the book a shot. Drawing on Henry Jenkins’s essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Hirao outlined how the structure of the novel’s narrative evokes the experience of playing a video game but ultimately bows to the demands of fiction as a storytelling medium.

The main protagonist of All You Need Is Kill is Kiriya Keiji, a recent high school graduate who enrolled in the United Defense Force after he was romantically rejected by an older woman. Since he has no other ambitions, he decides to prove himself by joining humanity’s fight against alien invaders called Mimics. After spending six months training to fight in a special armored exoskeleton called a Jacket, Keiji is deployed to the Flower Line Base at the southern tip of the Bōsō peninsula (in Chiba Prefecture, on the east side of Tokyo Bay). The novel opens with Keiji’s swift death in his first battle and continues when he wakes up alive and unharmed – but with all of his memories – that same morning. After falling in battle three more times, Keiji realizes that he is caught in a time loop that is reset by his death. He decides that the only way out is to not die, but that’s easier said than done.

I found Keiji to be a bit generic. Even though I just finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I couldn’t tell you exactly how old Keiji is, or where he grew up, or what his relationship with his parents was like, or whether he had any friends, or what his interests and hobbies are. For the first one hundred pages of the novel, all the reader gets is Keiji the soldier in a time loop. He is bitter, introverted, and fairly introspective, but he seems to act as more of a substitute for the reader than as a character in his own right. Keiji is a video game protagonist, and his musings are the musings of a video game character on the game world he occupies:

At the end of the day, every man has to wipe his own ass. There’s no one to make your decisions for you, either. And whatever situation you’re in, that’s just another factor in your decision. Which isn’t to say that everyone gets the same range of choices as everyone else. If there’s no one guy out there with an ace in the hole, there’s sure to be another who’s been dealt a handful of shit. Sometimes you run into a dead end. But you walked each step of the road that led you there on your own. (54)

As the passage above illustrates, the language used by Keiji and his fellow soldiers is rough; but, as far as military diction goes, it’s fairly tame. There’s “fucking” but no “cunting” or “cock-sucking,” for example. I feel like an especially good opportunity was missed in the author’s failure to assign a creative and obscene nickname for the Mimics. The banter between the soldiers is stale, and Keiji doesn’t take advantage of his consecutive time loops to come up with good one-liners to use against his superior officers or the jerks who try to pick fights with him in the cafeteria, which for some reason is actually referred to as a “cafeteria” instead of a “mess hall,” “cookhouse,” “DFAC,” or any number of other military slang terms. The blandness of the language is indicative of how uninterested the novel is in building a world beyond Keiji’s limited range of experience.

This all changes in the novel’s third chapter, which takes the American Major Rita Vrataski as its point-of-view character. The nineteen-year-old Rita became the Mimic-destroying “Full Metal Bitch” after being caught in a time loop of her own; and, unlike Keiji, she actually has a personality. Rita verbally spars with a war photographer named Ralph Murdoch, lets down her guard down around an engineer named Shasta Rayelle, and remembers her childhood in Pittsfield, Illinois, offering glimpses not just into her inner world but out onto the wider world as well. In her paper, Hirao referred to Rita as an NPC (“non-player character” in a game), and this description is apt, as it is through Rita that the player/reader learns more about the nature of the conflict that drives the novel. What are the Mimics? Where do they come from? How can they best be fought? What’s up with this time loop business anyway? Rita doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good guesses.

Rita also has some cool passages in her section, such as when Shasta says…

“America’s at war, and we still find the time to turn out terrible movies.”

Rita couldn’t argue with that. The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rita thought. (130)

Preach it, sisters.

The fourth and final section of the novel switches back to Keiji’s perspective, which is a shame, because at the end of the story he becomes the video game hero he was meant to be, which is to say that he is awarded his own tragic backstory. If you’ve ever played any video game ever, you can probably guess how this happens: A woman has to get fridged, and it has to be the woman Keiji falls in love with despite the fact that she doesn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. It’s a really stupid ending. To make matters worse, the author is too lazy to expand on any of the implications of this ending beyond the fact that Keiji becomes the warrior he never wanted to be. He is a troubled teenager, hear his angst.

In his Afterword, the author explains how is inspiration for All You Need Is Kill did indeed come from a life spent playing video games, writing,

I’m just an ordinary guy, and I’m proud of it. I’m here because I put in the time. I have the blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my […] powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. (199)

The Afterword contains one of the more interesting passages in the entire book, as Sakurazaka is fairly negative both towards video games and the people who play them. Okay buddy, whatever.

If you’re curious about what a video game with all of its gameplay mechanics intact would look like in novel form, look no farther. I thought Slum Online was much more entertaining and skillfully constructed in its representation of what it means to be a video game protagonist, but All You Need Is Kill has the advantage of being short and fast-paced. Also, it’s got forty gorgeous pages full of Rita Vrataski, which is not enough but better than nothing.

I want to give a big thanks to Akiko Hirao for her wonderful and insightful paper on this novel, and I hope to encounter more of her work soon!

Buchou wa onee

Title: Mr. F. Vincent Is……
Japanese Title: 部長はオネエ (Buchō wa onee)
Artist: Nagabe (ながべ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Akane Shinsha (茜新社)
Pages: 231

Falnail Vincent is a section chief at a large corporation in Japan. He is cool, collected, and very good at his job. His colleagues respect him, and his subordinates admire him, but he’s desperately trying to keep a secret from his co-workers: When he leaves work, Falnail becomes Fal-chan, a hostess at an onee bar. At typical onee bars, patrons are served by glamorous “older sister” types, but Fal-chan’s bar, Jewelry, happens to be staffed by huge beefcakes in heels, hairbows, and strapless minidresses.

Cracks in Falnail’s masculine persona appear when he forgets that he’s not supposed to gush about girly topics like patisseries and makeup bags with his female co-workers. Still, he’s able to keep his two lives separate until a new patron at Jewelry, an American named George Weaver, shows up at his office the next day as a foreign business associate. Being a typical American (the kind that speaks perfect Japanese), George is upfront about his interest in Fal-chan and won’t take “no” for an answer, inviting Falnail out on dates to an amusement park and a fancy restaurant. Meanwhile, George’s advances have sparked the competitive spirit of Danto Impasu, Falnail’s junior at work who’s been harboring a crush on his boss. Because this is a manga, Danto also ends up visiting Jewelry, and hijinks ensue.

None of this deviates far from the routine BL nonsense we all know and love, but what’s a bit out of the ordinary is that everyone in this manga is an animal. George is a bird, Danto is a wolf, and Falnail is some sort of dragon. The mama-san of Jewelry is a tiger, and Fal-chan’s fellow hostesses are a shark and a ram. During his day job, Falnail works with rabbits, roosters, foxes, tanuki, and all manner of other creatures.

The tagline for Buchō wa onee, which just finished serialization in the bi-monthly BL magazine Opera, is “Jūjin + Suits + ML.” Jūjin (獣人) is a subset of a genre of manga called kemono-kei (ケモノ系), which might be glossed as “anthro.” As opposed to jingai (人外), in which mostly human characters have isolated animal body parts like ears or tails, jūjin, or “beast people,” are animals that speak, dress, and walk upright like humans. “ML” is an abbreviation of “mens love,” a subgenre of BL in which the characters are middle-aged and built like brick houses.

As in English-language anthro communities, there seems to be a strong interest male/male romance written and drawn by men and for men in Japanese kemono-kei, with bears being portrayed as literal bears (or wolves, or lions, or Satanic demons, or what have you). Buchō wa onee is extremely silly and lighthearted, but its overt bara stylizations hint at what I see as a movement away from the classic portrayal of androgynous bishōnen masculinity within the world of original dōjinshi comics for women.

I don’t want to read too much into the series of cute tableaus collected in Buchō wa onee, but the normalized strangeness of animals going about their daily lives in an environment otherwise exactly like our own lends an interesting perspective on Falnail’s dilemma, which is that he feels the need to keep his two personas entirely separate. He worries that his colleagues, who depend on him to be authoritative, won’t respect him if they find out about Fal-chan, but the fact that everyone is a different type of animal betrays the reality of the true diversity of the world, where it is not necessarily the case that one’s “species” affects one’s personality in any way. Over the course of the manga, it’s suggested that, even if Falnail isn’t completely comfortable with moving to America and living with George as an openly gay man, he can begin to bridge the gap between his two identities by slowly revealing himself to a sympathetic co-worker.

Mostly, however, Buchō wa onee is about ferocious anthro muscleheads being adorable. Sometimes it’s good to just leave all the real life gay drama behind in real life, you know?

If you’re interested in checking out more of the artist’s work, Nagabe is on Pixiv and Tumblr.

Since today is August 1, I also want to give a shout-out to the round-up of 2015 yaoi-themed web comics posted by Khursten Santos over at her blog Otaku Champloo. To all my fellow fujoshi and fudanshi, stay fabulous and never lose your sparkle-tinted glasses. Happy 801 Day!

Buchou wa onee Page 228

Last month I posted an essay titled The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga in which I argued that the work of young comics creators in North America has increasingly come to demonstrate narrative and visual allusions to shōjo manga.

Such influences are readily on display in the Artist Alleys at anime conventions, which I illustrated in an earlier post on fan comics at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. Transformative works based on anime and manga are obviously drawn to reflect the artistic conventions employed in these media, as are the majority of the original comics distributed at anime conventions.

What about comics conventions that aren’t directly connected to anime and manga?

This past May, I had the opportunity to travel to Canada to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), one of the largest and most prominent gatherings of small comics presses and independent comics creators in North America (others include the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York and the Small Press Expo just outside of Washington DC). On the day I attended, the venue was absolutely packed with fans and creators, and there were tons of references and homages to manga to be seen.

The most high-profile celebrations of manga culture at the TCAF came in the form of two special guests from Japan, the contemporary alternative manga posterchild Taiyo Matsumoto and the god of bara (male/male) manga Gengoroh Tagame, both of whom were enthusiastically welcomed. Established and well respected comics publishers such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly also actively promoted their releases of translated manga.

In addition, the TCAF was bursting with self-published comics of all shapes and sizes, and I’d like to share my scans of the covers of some of the manga-influenced work I had the great fortune to get my hands on while I was there.

Destroy Rape Culture

Destroy Rape Culture, by Starchild Stela
In which the Sailor Senshi encourage you to smash the patriarchy.

Magical Beatdown

Magical Beatdown, by Jenn Woodall
In which a magical girl beats the everloving crap out of street harassment.
(This comic is brilliant and should win the next Nobel Prize for Literature. Sorry Murakami.)

How to Make a Magic Wand

How to Make a Magic Wand, written by Chris Eng and illustrated by Jenn Woodall
A field guide to utterly decimating the sexist assholes in your life like a badass mahō shōjo.


Lacrimancer, by Jade F. Lee
I’m digging that Revolutionary Girl Utena realness.

Louisa Roy Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts, by Louisa Roy
Such gorgeous art, such lovely writing, such interesting research, so Rose of Versailles.

This Tastes Funny

This Tastes Funny, an anthology by the Suddenly Sentai collective
Stories about food with shōnen manga stylings.

No Scope

No Scope, by Sara Goetter
And let us not forget that video games are part of the manga media mix too.
(Sara Goetter’s RPG-inspired original comics are amazeballs, by the way.)

The Enemies of Twenty Something Mega Man

The Enemies of Twenty-Something Mega Man, published by The Devastator (NSFW)
They also have a book about otaku, but it’s too close to home and it hurts.

This is the standard disclaimer that the work posted above is not universally representative and is subject to my own taste and resources. If I have misrepresented an artist, or if you are an artist who wants any links or images removed, please let me know.