Title: Loups-Garous
Japanese Title: ルー=ガルー (Rū=Garū)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極 夏彦)
Translator: Anne Ishii
Year Published: 2010 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 450

Spoiler: There are no actual werewolves in this book.

The real shape-shifter is Loups-Garous itself, which wears multiple skins. The novel is a murder mystery and a sci-fi suspense thriller. It is a police procedural, a cyberpunk dystopia, and a high school drama. It can also be read as a series of philosophical musings on technology, authority, and human nature.

Loups-Garous is set in the not-too-distant future (the 2030s are referred to as if they were the 1990s) of Japan, in which many of the laws and social conventions concerning food, housing, education, communication, and privacy are no longer what they once were. For example, although minors are assigned guardians who may or may not be their parents, they are apparently not required to cohabitate with these adults. Furthermore, children learn from computer modules instead of from teachers, and their only physical contact with other people is through periodically scheduled meetings with selected peer groups and guidance counselors. The younger generation has gradually come to interact with the world almost exclusively through computerized devices called “moniters,” which range in size from wristband models to screens the size of bedroom walls. Cities are divided into carefully controlled zones, all food is artificial, and the movements and consumption patterns of every individual are recorded through omnipresent video cameras maintained in both public and private spaces by the corporation that controls the country.

Despite the fact that this micro-management of individual lives is supposed to keep people safe, a series of connected murders has broken out in an otherwise peaceful residential district. A possibly related set of school absences draws three high school girls, Hazuki, Mio, and Ayumi, to meet together in person. Meanwhile, the girls’ guidance counselor, Shizue, is pulled into a police investigation of several students who may be either suspects or victims. As Hazuki and Shizue are pulled deeper into the circumstances surrounding the murders, the grimy foundations of their seemingly utopian society are revealed, as is a major government conspiracy.

The cyberpunk gothic noir setup of Loups-Garous attracted me to the novel and kept me reading, but I will admit that I ultimately did not enjoy the experience. None of the plot devices are particularly original, the themes are spread too thin, and the pacing is uneven. Long passages of exposition and dialog are broken by fights and chase scenes in a way that seems random and frenetic, and the last fifty pages of the novel read like the two minutes of downhill careen that follow a very long and very slow slog up the first hill of a roller coaster ride. Furthermore, the big surprises at the end, such as the identity of the killer, have almost no foreshadowing. To give an example, there’s a giant mecha at the end of the novel. It comes out of nowhere. The lack of suspenseful buildup leading to its appearance is so total that mentioning it doesn’t even feel like a spoiler.

I also found the main characters infuriating. I understand that these characters, who have grown up in a world in which there is very little interpersonal interaction, are supposed to be socially maladjusted, but that doesn’t make their antisocial awkwardness any easier to read. To bring up a topical analogy, Sherlock Holmes is interesting (and bearable) as a character because he is juxtaposed against foils such as John Watson and Inspector Lestrade. These foils don’t just help to demonstrate what is so unique and fascinating about Holmes; they also serve to drive the story forward by providing a means to address the more commonplace concerns that exist for a reader who lives in a world governed more by social and accidental systems of cause and effect than by pure logic. A story with two Sherlocks and no Watson wouldn’t be nearly as readable. Loups-Garous has five Sherlocks and no Watson, and it’s painful to watch these characters bicker with each other endlessly. Besides being socially maladjusted, each of them is idiosyncratic in her own way (“I’m a genius, so I don’t have a sense of aesthetics.”), and the weird gaps in their knowledge of the world mean that each of them will often say things that can come off as inane to the reader (“You think you can actually eat animals? That’s stupid.”).

Speaking of the characters’ knowledge of their world, the author’s construction of the novel’s setting felt uneven to me. Specifically, the story is supposed to be set in a time in which people who were adults in the twentieth century still hold active positions of power, yet the main characters act completely ignorant of the history, economic systems, and technologies that existed before their own lifetimes (even though the reader is left to assume that such information is freely and easily available, such as in the form of entertainment media). For example, when the self-proclaimed genius Mio explains the concept of a “telephone” to Hazuki, Hazuki is completely flabbergasted over the fact that such a thing could ever exist, and Mio herself admits that she doesn’t know what language the word “telephone” comes from. There is thus a deep contradiction in the novel’s construction of its setting (which is either super-futuristic or not really futuristic at all) that prevents the reader from really understanding the novel’s worldview or becoming absorbed in its atmosphere.

Finally, perhaps partially as a result of the awkwardness of the characters and setting, the long philosophical passages that fill the novel are written in a style that is somewhat confusing. For example, a chain of logic might be set up like this:

“It goes without saying that scissors are good for cutting paper. Similarly, the best accounting software can’t make music. Computers are nothing more than calculators. It’s a system built to do the math necessary to accomplish a task. If humans were able to do several calculations at once there’d be no need for computers. No matter how grand the calculation, nothing but cutlery can cut paper.”

Or a theme of the novel might be expressed in a meaningless repetition of chichés and platitudes:

“The adults don’t know anything.” Don’t they? It wasn’t just the adults. Kids wouldn’t know anything about other people either. No one wanted to know and no one wanted to be known. So no one knew anything about anyone else. They weren’t bothered by not knowing. They weren’t bothered by not being known. Moreover… They actually hated being known.

Unfortunately, Loups-Garous is filled with many such pseudo-philosophical soliloquies, which detract from what little plot, character development, and world building the novel is able to offer.

In the end, I feel that Loups-Garous is a waste of a good premise that could have been vastly improved with either more judicious editing of the original text or more creative license on the part of the translator. I hate to bash anything published by Haikasoru, a press that has almost consistently put out quality material, but Loups-Garous weighs in towards the lower end of the publisher’s catalog (along with Mardock Scramble, another title that, like Loups-Garous, has an animated adaptation).

If you’re interested in the dystopian sci-fi premise of the novel, you might be better off watching either Fractale (streaming on Hulu) or No.6 (streaming on Crunchyroll), two anime that share similar themes but are much more intelligent and stylish in their execution of these themes. Also, while I was reading Loups-Garous, I kept wishing that I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake instead. The story and premise of Oryx and Crake are similar to those of Loups-Garous, but the readability and literary flair of Atwood’s novel are much higher. Even though I didn’t like this novel, Kyōgoku Natsuhiko is a very interesting writer, and I definitely recommend his Summer of the Ubume. With so much other excellent reading and viewing material, why would you want to waste time on Loups-Garous? The novel wears many skins, but it doesn’t wear any one of them particularly well.

Comments
  1. Norman Kelley says:

    Did you feel that the novel’s plot was as non-sequential as the Japanese language is? A lot of non-sequitors? Including the ending?

    • Kathryn says:

      Hmm… Those are very interesting questions.

      If you have heard that I tend to take a very strong stance against cultural essentialism and stereotypes based on a superficial understanding of the Japanese language, and if you’re trying to get a rise out of me, shame on you.

      If your questions are genuine, I’d like to ask to clarify what you mean by the “nonsequentiality” and “non-sequiturs” of Japanese, because I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about. Then again, perhaps what I think isn’t so important, because the associations drawn by each reader are bound to be different.

      What I can tell you, objectively speaking, is that the style and structure of Loups-Garous are just about as far from understated and elliptical (words often used to describe the work of “traditional” Japanese writers like Kawabata) as you can get. Furthermore, Kyōgoku’s style in the original Japanese is extraordinarily distinctive, and I think he would be in a class of his own no matter what language he was writing in. Please check out the “Layout” section on his Wikipedia entry to get a sense of what I’m talking about.

      • Norman Kelley says:

        Gomennasai. I meant to be taken seriously. While not a student of Japanese literature, I am a student of the Japanese. I lived in Japan for 5 years, speak Japanese, can read and write some, and am married (36 years) to a Japanese lady. We are both physicians. My observation of “conclusions” of some Japanese authors (who are not English-fluent) in the medical field, includes a statement, at the end of their discourse, which has nothing to do with the topic–i.e., a non-sequitor. I thought that is what you meant by “To give an example, there’s a giant mecha at the end of the novel. It comes out of nowhere.” It’s that ‘comes out of nowhere’ notion–the “WTF?” moment–I referred to. I am ignorant of things you spoke of in your first paragraph, although I think your observations are intrigueing. I will check the “layout” section you referred to. Thanks for your very thoughtful reply.

        • Kathryn says:

          Thank you so much for responding to me! I really appreciate it.

          Since we’re both on the same page, let me go into a little more detail about how I interpreted the structure of the novel in the context of Japanese writing.

          If I’m not mistaken, I think you’re referring to the 結 portion of the 起承転結 style of structuring essays. I totally understand how such a “conclusion” could be viewed as a non-sequitur. I have had the experience, so many times, of getting to the end of an otherwise lucid essay and being like, “Wait. What just happened? Where did this come from?” I understand that this is convention, but I don’t like it. For example, a male scholar will have written an interesting, insightful, and highly rigorous academic essay about a female author, only to say in his conclusion that the author is really pretty and that he doesn’t understand how such a pretty girl can write literature of such darkness. I agree with you: “Non-sequitur” is the perfect word to describe this style of ending a piece of writing.

          My own personal sense of Loup-Garous is that it follows the 序破急 structure often associated with traditional Japanese drama. The 序 section lasts approximately forever, and then finally there is a sudden burst of action in the 急 section, which ends quickly and abruptly, bringing the work to a close without the “falling action” and “dénouement” stages common to Western drama. I don’t mean to say that all Japanese stories are structured like this, of course, but I have found almost textbook-perfect examples of the 序破急 structure in the weirdest places, like the animated version of Akira. I think Loup-Garous has about 300 pages of 序, 100 pages of 破, and then 50 crazy pages of 急, in which a lot of strange things happen very quickly with very little warning.

          If you approach the structure of the novel in this way, it makes much more sense, and it may be my own ethnocentrism as a reader that causes me to see Loup-Garous as “poorly structured.” Still, as a matter of my own personal impressions, this felt less like a conscious artistic decision and more a product of poor editing. Having very recently read the first book in the author’s 巷説百物語 series, I know he’s capable of constructing a tight plot even while having fun with the philosophical soliloquies and dialogs he loves so much. Loup-Garous just felt lazy to me. I feel that saying this is doing a disservice to translator Anne Ishii, who is awesome, but sometimes the material itself is a tad on the stinky side, and that’s not the translator’s fault. I would love to see her tackle another of Kyōgoku’s novels.

          Anyway, thank you again for your comment, and thank you for clarifying your position in spite of my snark. As you can see, you really gave me a lot to think about!

          • Norman Kelley says:

            No prob–snark is good! I don’t have Japanese language on this (the office) computer, so I have to make do with Romaji. When I opened your reply and read it, the Kanji appeared, but when I set about answering you, they became empty boxes. (sigh) My Japanese language reading is very limited and laborious, propped by dictionaries, left and right. Aliteration often escapes me, and nuanced passages bewilder me, But I have a living, walking dictionary and thesaurus with me! so it’s fun. I have not yet read “Ru-Garu-” but I know the novel-type: it’s like drinking beer and solving the problems of the world, philosophically speaking, of plot. Cleverness matters more than substance. And you mentioned the stinky side. Remember that Nature is natural to the Japanese; poop stinks and it’s okay to acknowledge that. To us Westerners, Nature is to be obeyed and commanded; poop is not spoken of. Regardless, your review has piqued my curiosity. I enjoyed your analysis and development of the concepts you brought out. I assure you, I will read the novel–in translation, of course. Only in New York have we found a Japanese language bookstore, and now it is online, too! (See what I mean by non-sequitors!) Maidoo arigatoo!

  2. gradland says:

    Thanks for this–had been thinking about reading Loup-Garous but was honestly underwhelmed by Ubume no Natsu. I thought it started out well, but there were too many long passages that seemed to fall into “The author is going to expound on folklore now” mode, and the ending just seemed to go in circles and become more ludicrous by the page. Still, if you really liked it, I’m curious what stood out for you as its best qualities–I may have just been in an odd mood while I was reading it.

    I adore Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, nobody does gradually creeping dystopian unease like Atwood! Eagerly awaiting the third installment.

    • Kathryn says:

      I will be honest – there is a lot of sophistry in Kyōgoku’s work, and the condescension with which he delivers it can be grating, especially to someone who has formally studied what he’s talking about. The first forty or so pages of Ubume no natsu are almost unbearable, and the ending is totally improbable, like you say.

      My own personal fascination with the book stems from the fact that my great literary weakness is the Gothic genre. Some horrible writer like Dean Koontz could write a Gothic novel about, say, gay vampires in Manhattan, and it would be utter shit, but I would still read it and love it. Still, I think Ubume no natsu does the whole Gothic story setup really well. The Gothic family drama is reflected in the Gothic descriptions of postwar Tokyo, and the whole “Shōwa nostalgia” atmosphere itself is presented as deeply Gothic. “Postwar Japan as Gothic” is really difficult to pull off (and I have seen it done poorly a number of times), but I think Kyōgoku nails it in this novel.

      Also, a friend of mine in my graduate department is studying something that involves the creation of folklore as an element in the construction of nationalized identity, and listening to his talks and conference papers has made me sensitive to and interested in the use of folklore in contemporary Japanese literature. I therefore found the folkloric elements of Ubume no natsu fascinating, not in sense of what the author is actually saying (which is kind of silly), but rather in the sense of how these elements function in the story.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that Ubume no natsu resonated with me on a personal level and also connected with many of the strands of academic inquiry I’ve been pursuing. Perhaps if I were studying science fiction or education I might have found Loups-Garous more interesting. However, I think it might also be an issue of translation. Vertical is known for its loose translation, which makes scholars grumpy but readers happy. I think the translator of Ubume no natsu was able to get rid of and smooth over a lot of the more unsavory aspects of Kyōgoku’s style while keeping many of the interesting aspects, but the translator of Loups-Garous just translates, warts and all. This is not to say that she didn’t do a good job, but I still think a bit more artistic license would have gone a long way in this particular case.

  3. gradland says:

    Arrrghh, yes, the beginning drove me nuts, and then there was this lovely buildup of Gothic atmosphere, and I was really intrigued, but then it all seemed to implode at the end. “Postwar Japan as Gothic” is a fascinating idea, will be on the lookout for other stories with that flavor. I think my weakness these days is for dystopia–Margaret Atwood could write a book about a dystopian kitten planet and I would totally read it.

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