The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels in translation.

Neon Pilgrim

Neon Pilgrim

Title: Neon Pilgrim
Author: Lisa Dempster
Publication Year: 2009
Publisher: Aduki Independent Press
Pages: 237

According to her own description of herself, Lisa Dempster was an overweight and depressed woman approaching thirty when she decided to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage route between eighty-eighty temples. I am currently an overweight and depressed woman who just turned thirty, and I have dreamed of visiting Shikoku ever since I read Kafka on the Shore as a college senior. Since I moved to the Midwest this past fall, I’ve been mostly confined to my car as the snow piles grow ever higher in the frigid air outside my windows. How lovely it would be, I keep thinking, to be able to walk the Shikoku pilgrimage. Failing that, how lovely it would be to read someone else’s account of traveling, exploring, and walking across a region known for its beautiful mountains and lush tropical beaches.

Neon Pilgrim is just such an account, but what I love about Dempster’s narration of her pilgrimage is that she is completely upfront about how difficult it is to complete the pilgrimage on foot, especially while doing nojuku, or sleeping out in the open. At the beginning of her journey, she is in almost constant pain. It’s summer, and it’s unbearably hot and humid. Her thighs are chafing, there are blisters on her feet, and her skin is breaking out in all sorts of embarrassing places. During the first two weeks of the pilgrimage, the physical strain causes her to throw up at least once a day. People that she meets along the road jovially tease her about how slow she is, and she does indeed move too slowly to have regular walking companions. When all she wants is to sit down in the air conditioning and have something to eat, she has trouble explaining what she means by “vegetarian.”

As Dempster passes through the mountains, she worries about snakes and inoshishi. As she walks along the side of roads and highways, she worries about the lack of shade and places to stop and rest. At one point, she has to deal with a (possibly good intentioned?) stalker who doesn’t understand that she doesn’t want to get in his car or go out to dinner with him. Temple offices keep strict hours, and the rudimentary lodgings they sometimes provide for pilgrims can fill up, so she worries about making good time and not getting lost as well. Although nothing truly frightening or terrible happens to her, Dempster makes it clear that walking all day every day without a guidebook, a smartphone, or any clearly defined itinerary is not as fun and spiritually liberating as one might imagine it to be. After all, sleeping under the stars isn’t as romantic as it’s cracked up to be, as illustrated by Dempster’s attempt to spend the night in a building housing a public restroom:

I turned my attention to the toilet. As promised, it was clean and new, and with lovely stones and polished wood. Two wings of toilets led off from a small undercover vestibule – ladies to the right, men to the left. The vestibule would be the best place to sleep; at least I wouldn’t actually be in the toilet. It was weird but ok. I already felt more secure here than I had back at the road station.

Putting my bag down, I went to use the facilities. Pushing the door to the cubicle open, I screamed. There was an enormous black spider on the wall! If there’s one thing I’m scared of, more than bears and snakes, even more than inoshishi, it’s spiders. Even thinking about them makes me shake. I know it’s wussy but fear is irrational like that.

The door slammed as I jumped back in fright, and the bang of the door sent the spider scurrying over it. I backed up some more. Hang on, that wasn’t the same spider. It was big and black, sure, but it was a decidedly different size. Everything suddenly came into sharp focus – like those stupid Magic Eye pictures – and I realized that the place was riddled with spiders. I counted seven of them. All big. All black. All waiting to suck my brains out of my nose while I slept.

Although Dempster doesn’t marginalize the difficulties of the pilgrimage, she doesn’t whine about them either. For the most part, Neon Pilgrim is an account of interesting experiences and unique interactions with cool people met along the way. When these experiences, interactions, and people are painful, ridiculous, or creepy, Dempster handles them with a light touch so that they become amusing to the reader. What her narration of her difficulties does is to move the story forward and make it compelling to the reader. Will she make it through the whole pilgrimage? Will she give up and go home? Is she going to be okay? How is she going to get out of whatever bizarre situation she’s currently found herself in?

Despite the author’s concerns over her state of mind and the physical hardships she experiences, her account of the Shikoku pilgrimage glitters with tiny gems of natural splendor, as in this description of her ascent to the sixtieth temple in the pilgrimage, Yokomineji:

Everything was green and mossy, glistening with moisture. It was very calm and the dark, cloudy atmosphere made me think again of the pilgrims who had gone before. It had an amazing kind of energy. There were many sets of steps, hewn into the mountain, or constructed from stone now smooth from millions of feet. The path was slippery and precarious and I picked my way up slowly and gingerly, stopping to catch my breath and gaze with amazement at the view around me.

Every now and then a little wooden bridge, strung together with rope, would cross over a mountain stream. They were the slipperiest bits of all, and yet I didn’t care that the weather was bad or the climb was an arduous three kilometers. I had fallen under the spell of the ancient mountain.

Another thing I appreciate about Neon Pilgrim is that it contains a minimum of editorializing about Japanese society. Sometimes tourists from other parts of Japan gawk and make strange comments about the gaijin, but the people who actually live along the pilgrimage route are mostly friendly and treat the author like a normal human being. The students partying on the beach and other pilgrims also treat her normally and offer her whatever food and alcohol they have at their disposal. Since Dempster can speak Japanese, the interactions she describes have nothing to do with “the Japanese character,” or any sort of related silliness, but are instead exchanges between individuals, some of whom are quite eccentric (one of my favorites is the charmingly filthy and half-blind old man who drives the author to the foot of the mountain path described in the previously quoted passage). Occasionally, however, Dempster will wander into an interesting cultural experience, such as when she arrives in Kochi right in the middle of the city’s famous Yosakoi festival:

I had, completely unwittingly, wandered into the Yosakoi matsuri, an annual dance festival that takes place during the height of summer, and a crazy one at that.

Dancers in the festival use a traditional Japanese instrument, the naruko. Known as ‘clackers’ to the rest of the world, the one function of the instrument is to make noise. Wood slaps noisily on wood, and with several thousand dancers clutching a naruko in each hand, the noise is deafening.

The teams, which can be as big as several hundred people, each have their own costumes and moves. Some teams go for traditional kimono and hairdos, others modern and funky. The dance teams weave through the long streets and shopping malls in town, dancing the whole way, each booming their own music, each clacking their naruko. It’s a riot of noise and color.

Like most Japanese festivals, for spectators the usual schedule is about six minutes of watching dancers followed by six hours of drinking. Kochi is known for its love of alcohol, and at festival time it’s fairly safe to say the whole city gets incredibly drunk.

Even if you can’t visit Shikoku in person, it’s an incredible experience to follow Dempster on her pilgrimage while sharing her defeats and triumphs. The chapters of Neon Pilgrim are short, generally around ten pages or so, which makes it easy to put down the book and pick it back up again whenever the spirit moves you. Because there’s no sort of introduction or afterword that provides a broader perspective on the author’s pilgrimage, I have no idea how she took down or edited her notes, but her narrative flows smoothly without any backtracking or inconsistencies. Although the reader can turn the process of reading Neon Pilgrim into a sort of daily practice, I personally found it difficult to stop reading the book – I always wanted to find out what lay around the next corner on the path to the next temple. The author’s good humor is infectious, and she’s a perfect companion for the journey.

Neon Pilgrim is published by Aduki Independent Press in Australia, and it’s almost impossible to get a physical copy of the book (trust me, I tried). A digital copy can be had for five USD from Smashwords, however, so it’s worth checking out. I read the mobi version of the book on my Kindle app, and it was beautifully formatted and functioned flawlessly.

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons

The Night Parade

Title: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons
Author: Matthew Meyer
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace
Pages: 224

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, which began its life as a Kickstarter project, collects roughly four dozen entries on various yōkai, which are accompanied by lavish full-color illustrations. Both the pictures and the text are by Matthew Meyer, an artist heavily influenced by Japanese prints. Meyer has lived in a rural town in Fukui prefecture since 2007, and, as he explains on his Kickstarter page, he has been collecting and translating local folklore for years. There are a number of other books on yōkai available for digital download (such as Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s fantastic Yokai Attack!), but what The Night Parade does especially well is to add regional color and variety to Japanese legends of supernatural creatures that may already be familiar to many Japanophiles.

Compiled in such a way as to resemble an illustrated bestiary, The Night Parade is divided into several sections, which include “In the Wilds,” “Out on the Town,” and “In the House.” The book includes entries on yōkai that appear frequently in popular media, such as the kappa, the kirin, the kitsune, the tanuki, and the yuki onna, as well as many lesser-known creatures, such as the bake kujira (an enormous ghostly whale), the jorōgumo (a man-eating spider), and the nuppepō (a flabby, stinky lump of flesh that lives in temple graveyards), and the nopperabō (who looks and acts like an ordinary person but has no face). Each entry contains information on the diet and appearance of these yōkai, their behavior, their interactions with human beings, and the various forms they may take, as well variations on and translations of their names.

Many of the entries are also peppered with interesting information about the historical and cultural contexts of these creatures. For example, the entry on the takanyūnō, or “tall priest,” contains a special section on why suffixes relating to Buddhism and Buddhist priests are so common in the names of yōkai. (Apparently, it’s not so much a connection to religion as it is a certain wariness regarding traveling priests, or at least strangers dressed as traveling priests.) The entry on the kerakera onna, a gigantic “cackling woman” who haunts the alleyways of red light districts and hounds men into their graves with her incessant laughter, alludes to the tendency in Japanese folklore to grant great power to long-lived things, whether they be cats (which become neko mata) or eating utensils (which become tsukumogami), and surmises that prostitutes who managed to live into middle age may well have become yōkai, an interesting conjecture that leaves the mind to wonder about what such a bit of folklore might correspond to in a less numinous context.

Meyer has published his work through Amazon’s CreateSpace program, which offers both print and digital versions of the collection. I can’t offer an opinion of the physical copy of The Night Parade, but the digital edition is beautifully formatted, and its images are of extremely high quality. Although the book is relatively kid-friendly, it includes frank (although far from explicit) references to prostitution and human sexuality. Most of the images are stylized as colorful and cute or understated and eerie, but a few (such as the illustration of the ubume, a spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth) may be too intense for younger readers. My honorary nieces and nephews have been delighted by pictures like the illustration of the onryō, a vengeful ghost who is depicted as a pale shrieking woman bleeding from her eyes, but discretion might be advised for more sensitive children.

Meyer has recently launched a successful Kickstarter project for a second collection, titled The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, so expect another excellent illustrated bestiary from him soon!

Matthew Meyer - Tanuki

In the Miso Soup

In The Miso Soup

Title: In the Miso Soup
Japanese Title: イン ザ・ミソスープ (In za miso sūpu)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 217

In the Miso Soup was serialized during 1997 in the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper with the highest circulation in Japan (and perhaps in the world), and it won the 1998 Yomiuri Prize for Literature, an extremely prestigious award given to superlative works of writers who have already established themselves as leaders in their fields. The novel’s North American and Japanese publishers have marketed it as a “psycho thriller,” and its extreme and violent content will more than likely shock anyone who isn’t familiar with Murakami’s oeuvre, especially his other suspense novels from the 1990s, such as Piercing (1994) and Audition (1997).

The twenty-year-old protagonist of the novel, Kenji, is a high school graduate from Shizuoka Prefecture who makes his living by acting as a guide of Shinjuku’s Kabukichō neighborhood, which is internationally famous for its nightlife. Kenji specializes in sex tours for foreigners, who learn about his services through Tokyo Pink Guide, a publication helmed by a man named Yokoyama, who believes it is his calling in life to bring the people of the world together through something all human beings have in common. On the morning of December 29, Kenji is contacted by an American named Frank, who claims to be a distributer of Toyota car parts and meets Kenji while clutching a copy of Pink Guide in his meaty hands.

If you mention In the Miso Soup to anyone who’s read the novel, the conversation will instantly turn to how delightfully creepy Frank is. Frank is a pathological liar, for starters. If one of the bizarre things Frank says is challenged in any way, he becomes suddenly and irrationally furious, his expression transforming into a mask of rage that Kenji soon comes to refer to as “the face.” The skin on Frank’s neck and hands is loose and seems artificial, and a sex worker who services Frank at a peep show says that there is something inexplicably wrong with his penis as well. To make matters even more upsetting, the body of a high school junior named Takahashi Akiko had been found dismembered and distributed across Kabukichō early in the morning of the 27th; and, after Frank goes on a rant about killing homeless people during his first night out with Kenji, the charred corpse of a homeless man is found in Shinjuku Central Park the next morning. By the end of the first of the novel’s three chapters, both Kenji and the reader are supplied with ample evidence to suspect that there is something not quite right with Frank.

Although Kenji is understandably apprehensive about spending more time with Frank, he is even more worried about what Frank might do in retaliation if he were to break their agreement and stand him up. He thus goes out for a second night on the town with Frank, who now makes very little effort to appear normal. After an episode of highly concentrated weirdness at an underground shot bar, Kenji and Frank go to an omiai club, a bar where people hoping to hook up with a stranger can meet. The girls who enter the club are given numbers and chosen by the men, who must pay a cover charge to enter. If a girl is chosen, she will share a table and drinks with the man who selects her. If they hit it off, they can then proceed to a nearby love hotels, and it is understood that money will more than likely change hands after the encounter. It’s not quite prostitution, but the women do have a financial interest in convincing the men to leave the club with them, and they will put everything they have into flirting and appearing attractive. What could be a quirky comedy of errors in another novel becomes an absurdist drama in the bizarro realm of In the Miso Soup, and Frank puts an end to the staged and artificial interactions of the club’s patrons with a lengthy orgy of meticulously narrated ultraviolence. Although Kenji is clearly traumatized by this turn of events, he also takes tentative steps towards an acceptance of what has happened to the other people at the club, who have upset his fundamental faith in humanity with their superficiality:

They were like automatons programmed to portray certain stereotypes, these people. The truth is it bugged the hell out of me just to be around them, and I’d begun to wonder if they weren’t all filled with sawdust and scraps of vinyl, like stuffed animals, rather than flesh and blood. Even when I saw their throats slit and the gore oozing out, it hadn’t seemed real to me. I remembered thinking, as I watched the blood drip down from Lady #5′s throat, that it looked like soy sauce. Imitation human beings, that’s what they were.

Murakami therefore configures Frank’s dispassionate killing spree into a sort of social critique, a theme that comes to fore in the novel’s third chapter. After the bloodbath at the omiai club (which Kenji refers to as “The Great Omiai Pub Massacre,” as if it had happened years ago), Frank shanghaies Kenji into spending the night with him in the abandoned medical facility in which he has ensconced himself. While Kenji shivers in the darkness of the unheated building, Frank regales him with stories from his childhood in America. As might be imagined, Frank’s childhood is dysfunctional and disturbing enough to make Stephen King proud (Frank even grew up in Maine!), as it includes the creepiness of small towns, the killing of small animals, murder, institutionalization, and extreme body horror courtesy of American mental health practices. Frank is obviously a sociopath, and he has already been established as a pathological liar, so it’s not entirely certain that he’s telling the truth, but he does seem to be telling Kenji his life story for a reason. Frank is almost like an overweight Tyler Durden as he explains that society needs terror, discord, and disruption in order to evolve:

“I see myself as being like a virus. Did you know that only a tiny minority of viruses cause illness in humans? No one knows how many viruses there are, but their real role, when you get right down to it, is to aid in mutations, to create diversity among life forms. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject – when you don’t need much sleep you have a lot of time to read – and I can tell you that if it weren’t for viruses, mankind would never have evolved on this planet. Some viruses get right inside the DNA and change your genetic code, did you know that? And no one can say for sure that HIV, for example, won’t one day prove to have been re-writing our genetic code in a way that’s essential to our survival as a race. I’m a man who consciously commits murders and scares the hell out of people and makes them reconsider everything, so I’m definitely malignant, yet I think I play a necessary role in this world.

I won’t spoil what happens to Frank, Kenji, and Kenji’s girlfriend Jun at the end of the novel, as the suspense regarding the fate of the trio lends an air of immediacy to Frank’s metaphysical speculations and the moral decisions Kenji begins to make concerning Frank. Let it suffice to say that the shock horror of the first two-thirds of the novel are compounded by the social horror of its final chapter. In the Miso Soup is a short book and a blisteringly quick read, but it stays with the reader long after it draws to its conclusion on New Year’s Eve, at which point its seemingly nonsensical title takes on chilling connotations. In the Miso Soup is a sublime dose of nihilism and ultraviolence that illuminates the seedy side of Tokyo in its blindingly dark shadow that is sure to please fans of Japanese horror and readers of extreme literature.

Fandom Glossary

Fandom Glossary

fandom
The fan culture that surrounds a particular franchise, fictional work, or fictional character. There is a huge fandom for the Final Fantasy series of video games; and, within that larger fandom, there is a sizable fandom focusing specifically on Final Fantasy VII; and, within the FFVII fandom, there is a relatively large fandom for Sephiroth, the game’s main antagonist. Losing interest in participating in a particular fandom, or at least losing track of the fannish works and conversations surrounding that fandom, is referred to as “quitting the fandom.” Actors and musicians may also generate their own fandoms; but, in this specific context of the term “fandom,” casual mainstream fans who do not follow or participate in internet-based subcultures should not be considered as belonging to the fandom.

pairing
Two characters in love, or at least having sex with each other.

OTP
One True Pairing. A pairing that a fan is really, really into. This pairing may be canonical, but canonical approval is not necessary. A fan can have multiple OTPs within a single work or fandom.

OT3
One True Threesome. This term is often used in reference to the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Avengers movies.

stanning
The act of obsessively promoting one’s fannish interests, usually in the form of attempting to persuade other fans of the appeal or validity of an OTP. This term has recently lost most of its pejorative connotations and can now simply mean sharing and promoting the work of another fan.

canon
The relationships that actually occur between the characters of a particular work. In the case of the Harry Potter novels, Harry ending up with Ginny, Ron ending up with Hermione, and James ending up with Lily are all canon. In a broader sense, “canon” refers to what is actually stated or what actually takes place within the original work, as opposed to what happens in fan works or according to fan speculation. Thus, according to canon, a certain character may have brown eyes and be thirty-seven years old, which may have no bearing on how this character is portrayed or interpreted by fans.

headcanon
What absolutely and indisputably happens in a particular work – at least in your own head. The epic and tragic love affair between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin is a fairly common headcanon for the Harry Potter franchise. Another common headcanon concerning the Harry Potter series is that Draco Malfoy is not a mean, weak-willed, and spiteful bully as he is characterized by canon, but rather a tortured soul and sensitive young man who is trying to do the right thing but not given the right resources and opportunities.

fan canon
Something that a fandom accepts as canonical, even if it is not canonical or not implied in the actual work itself. Also referred to as “fanon.”

Word of God
A label applied to information that an author or creator has provided about a fictional work outside of the context of the work itself (in an interview or on a personal blog, for example). Many fans use the so-called Word of God to argue for the authenticity of a headcanon or fan canon, but other fans argue that the Word of God cannot be accepted as true canon.

shipping
This word comes from “relationship” and refers to creating or being really into a certain pairing. This pairing doesn’t have to be canon, but the two characters may actually end up together before the series is finished. That being said, fans can ship just about any pairing, no matter how canonically improbable. There are many puns and idioms involving the expression, such as “I ship it like FedEx” and “this ship sails itself.”

slash ship
A pairing involving two male characters, neither of whom has to have a clearly identified gay identity in the original work. A homosexual pairing can also be “shipped,” but “slash” is a more specific word. Attractive male characters are often referred to as being “slashable.” Fan fiction that slashes characters is called “slash fiction,” or “slashfic” for short.

femslash
A pairing involving two female characters.

twincest
A type of slash ship. This term is frequently used to describe homoerotic relationships between brothers or foster brothers in anime and manga, but it has also been applied to Sam and Dean, the two protagonists of the American television show Supernatural. “Twincest” can also apply to sisters or foster sisters, but this is far less common.

selfcest
Shipping a character with a younger, older, or alternate universe version of him/herself.

het
Short for “heterosexual,” as in a heterosexual pairing. This term is generally used to label the work of a writer who usually authors slash fiction or to label work featuring a heterosexual pairing involving a character whom the fandom generally considers to be homosexual, the idea being that a het pairing is a deviation from the fandom’s assumption of homosexual pairings as a default. The expression “het” often appears in fandoms for original works in which the majority of important characters are male such as that for the BBC series Sherlock.

BNF
Big Name Fan. A fan fiction writer, fan artist, or other producer of fannish works who is especially well known within a particular fandom.

SMOF
Secret Masters Of Fandom. The SMOF cabal of a particular fandom controls who becomes a BNF within the fandom and who is ostracized or ignored completely. Although the expression is often used ironically in reference to the strange social patterns that may occur within internet subcultures, such groups of fans have existed in reality, either as community or discussion board moderators, cliques of BNFs, or organizers of fan conventions. Although this is far from common, it is not unheard of for the original creator of the text or franchise to act as a SMOF.

RP
Role Play. This is when someone creates an account on a fannish social networking site such as Dreamwidth or Tumblr specifically for the purpose of posting entries as a fictional character. Most of these journals don’t make it past a user icon and a profile page, but there are many communities dedicated to hosting group RPs.

RPS
Real Person Shipping (or Ship). This is a ship between two nonfictional people, generally actors or musicians. Occasionally historical figures are shipped as well. A good example of RPS is shipping Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom instead of or in addition to the characters they portray in the Lord of the Rings films, Aragorn and Legolas.

tinhatting
This expression is used to describe the behavior of fans who stridently insist that their headcanon exists in canon or in real life. Although the term can apply to fannish arguments concerning fictional universes, it is most often used to comment on the perceived creepiness of fans who believe that two real-world human beings (generally actors or musicians) are dating and must keep their relationship secret from their fans and the media.

OC
Original Character. This is an oft-reviled genre of fan fiction in which the writer inserts an original character into the universe of a well-established series. More often than not, this “original character” is meant to act as a stand-in for the author him or herself. In the realm of fan art, an OC is generally the artist’s own character that exists in the artist’s own universe separate from any fandom. It is common for fan artists to label work featuring their OCs as such so that this work is not mistaken as fan art.

Mary Sue
This is what a female OC is called if she is too obviously a self-insert device used to realize the desires of her creator. There is significant debate within fandoms concerning what constitutes such a character and whether such characters can be objectively considered as examples of bad writing. Characters from professionally published fiction, such as the characters Lessa and Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s novels set in the Pern universe, are occasionally labeled as Mary Sues as well. There are multiple variations on Mary Sue tropes, such as the Einstein Sue (who is naturally smarter than the canonical characters) and the MacGuffin Sue (who is a personification of an object for which the canonical characters have been searching). A male Mary Sue is referred to as a “Marty Stu,” “Gary Sue,” or “Gary Stu.” The gender of the Sue in question need not indicate the gender of the author.

wank
This is how Americanocentric fan cultures refer to abrasive and ignorant comments and criticism, as well as fannish misbehavior. The term has also come to metonymically refer to the internet drama resulting from such comments and misbehavior.

kerfluffle
A specific instance or outbreak of wank.

mouse
A pun on “anonymous.” A mouse is someone who anonymously reports one fannish community’s wank to another fannish community for the purpose of amusement and edification. The term can also be used to describe a BNF or moderator who acts anonymously within a community to diffuse or encourage wank. A common variation is “mousie.”

fail
This is what happens when fan wank on a particular topic reaches critical mass. Although fail is usually generated by a controversial topic that attracts wank, the fail may also spring from the wank itself. If there is one post or comment that started the wank, this post or comment is often referred to as having “broken the internet.”

racefail
Sometimes people on fannish social media networks get into extended discussions of race in science fiction and fantasy. Since the participants in these discussions often come from different positions of cultural context, and since race is a tricky subject in any context, such discussions have an uncommonly high potential to result in fail.

author fail
When the wank in question is generated by a creator, usually in the context of condemning fannish work, actions, or behavior. Diana Gabaldon’s comparison of fan fiction to rape in a (now-deleted) 2010 entry on her personal blog is a particularly notorious example of author fail.

retcon
A portmanteau of the expression “retroactive continuity,” which is when a writer or creator retroactively changes aspects of a character, story, or universe that had previously been accepted as canon. As fandom often holds a strong attachment to canon, and as many fandom discussions center around the nature and specific details of canon, such retconning of canon, either officially or through an isolated Word of God, tends to generate amounts of wank directly proportionate to the size of the fandom.

Cry MOAR
A popular response to attempted wank used to draw attention to the wankish nature of the offending comment. For example: “The only reason why your artwork is so popular is because you only draw fan art, and you should quit so that people will pay more attention to real artists.” Response: “I’m sorry you’re not popular on the internet, why don’t you cry some MOAR.”

TL;DR
Too Long; Didn’t Read. This is how people preface a response to a body of writing (such as fan fiction or a blog entry) that they didn’t finish (or never started) reading. It’s also used self-referentially as a substitute for “in conclusion” by someone who has written a long post. The expression also tends to be used ironically.

badfic
Exactly what it sounds like: fan fiction that is atrociously written.

sporking
A type of badfic critique, generally centering around the identification and mocking of Mary Sue characters.

bleeprin
A combination of bleach and aspirin used to cure the symptoms of having read badfic. The bleach gets rid of the terrible images, and the aspirin gets rid of the headache.

PWP
An acronym for “Plot? What plot?” that describes a fannish work in which two characters essentially walk into a room and start having sex or are otherwise depicted as engaging in sexual activity without any context. Another attribution of the acronym is “Porn Without Plot.” This label is generally applied by the author or artist him/herself.

TWT
An acronym for “Timeline? What Timeline?” occasionally applied to fan fiction in which a writer completely ignores the cause and effect relationship between the events in the original work, contracts or expands the original timeline, or positions certain fan-created events in a moment of the original timeline in which they could not have conceivably occurred. Like the expression PWP, this label is often self-applied.

AU
Alternate Universe. This label, which is commonly used as an adjective, is applied to fannish works in which pre-established characters are recast into a universe substantially different from the setting of the original work. An example might be placing the characters from the Twilight franchise into Hogwarts. Although fannish writers and artists are encouraged to label their AU work as such, many fans look down on AU fiction in particular and will even refer to certain canon-based works as AU, which is meant to be an insult indicating the author’s inability to accurately convey the basic worldview and personalities of the characters as they are depicted in the original work. Changing one or several major canonical details is not considered AU, nor is using a different narrative tone than that of the original work. Despite the continuing prejudice against this genre, many AU works have become quite popular within their fandoms.

OOC
Out Of Character. A pejorative expression intended as a critique of characters as they are portrayed in fan fiction, especially in the case of AU works. Fans may also refer to a certain pairing as OOC, especially if this pairing conflicts with their OTP.

weeaboo
Someone who is so into Japanese popular culture that s/he tries to act as if s/he is Japanese. Unlike the expression “otaku,” which tends to be a badge of honor among Western fans of Japanese popular culture, the term “weeaboo” is extremely pejorative, often conjuring up images of embarrassing instances of cultural appropriation, such as young Americans asking their friends to call them by their “true” Japanese names. Although it is debatable whether such people actually exist in the real world, fans who transpose characterizations, narrative tropes, and visual styles common to anime, manga, and video games onto fandoms that have nothing to do with Japan (such as those surrounding The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter) run the risk of being ridiculed as weeaboos.

beta reader
A friend, internet acquaintance, or randomly assigned stranger who offers suggestions on a partially or fully completed work of fan fiction before it is publicly posted. A good beta reader can turn water into wine, and many beta readers act more as collaborators than as copy editors.

Yuletide
An exchange of fan works that occurs annually in December. In these Yuletide exchanges, participating fans act as Secret Santas to fill the requests of other participating fans, but the rules can vary widely according to the fandom or online community. Larger Yuletide communities generally specify that only requests for smaller fandoms or less appreciated pairings will be accepted so that people with relatively obscure interests that are generally ignored can feel the fannish love and support of a large fandom community.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Tsukuru Tazaki

Title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Japanese Title: 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年
(Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to kare no junrei no toshi)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Publisher: Bungei Shunjū
Publication Year: 2013
Pages: 370

From July to January of his second year of college, Tazaki Tsukuru was absorbed by thoughts of death. His four best friends from high school suddenly stopped talking to him, and he had no idea why. Sixteen years later, the 36-year-old Tsukuru is employed a railroad company, where he works on the design and construction of train stations. He’s single, but he has kindled a romance with a businesswoman named Sara, of whom he is quite enamored. Sara reciprocates Tsukuru’s affections, but she senses that something is holding him back from being in a fully committed relationship. She thus gives Tsukuru an ultimatum: Get rid of your emotional baggage, or I will never sleep with you again. Sara’s Lysistrata-like threat compels Tsukuru to embark on a pilgrimage that takes him across and beyond Japan to track down his friends from high school in order to figure out what happened between them and what went wrong.

Tsukuru’s friends are an interesting group, and each of them goes by a color-based nickname. Oumi Yoshio, or Ao (Blue), has an outgoing personality, and he was the captain of his rugby team in high school. As an adult, he works as a salesman at a Lexus dealership. Akamatsu Kei, or Aka (Red), is fiercely intelligent and analytical, and everyone thought he would become a university professor after he graduated from college. Instead he entered the corporate world and quickly dropped out in order to launch a consulting firm that holds management training seminars. Kurono Eri, or Kuro (Black), is quick-witted and clever and was known for her sarcastic sense humor in high school. Kuro became a potter and fell in love with a foreign student who had come to Japan to study pottery, and she now lives with him and their two daughters in Finland. Shire Yuzuki, or Shiro (White), looked like a model and had gorgeous long black hair, but she hated attention and found joy in playing piano. Unfortunately, she failed to become a concert pianist and so ended up as a private piano teacher, but her ultimate fate was even more tragic. The easygoing and unflaggingly polite Tsukuru acted as the “colorless” background against which these four could shine, and he was the invisible glue that held the group together.

The forward momentum of the first 150 pages of the novel is driven by the mystery of why Tsukuru got dumped by his friends. The first member of the former group that Tsukuru tracks down, Ao, reveals the bare facts of the answer, but this answer creates even more questions, since Tsukuru has no memory of what he was accused of doing. Moreover, what Tsukuru was accused of doing is extremely upsetting, not only to him and the other characters in the novel but to the reader as well. The accusation, as well as Tsukuru’s responsibility in the matter and the obligation his friends felt in responding to the situation, are heart-breaking and profound, and the practical and emotional complications are quite distressing. I’m sure that, when the novel is translated into English, Murakami is going to catch a lot of flak for writing such a scenario, but what he describes is extraordinarily relevant to contemporary societal debates, and the sensitivity with which his third-person narrator describes the fallout of what happened from multiple perspectives is one of the novel’s best features.

Another interesting component of the novel is the wealth of detail given to the description of each character and the interior spaces he or she occupies. The personality of each character is conveyed by his or her words, of course; but, since the narrator’s point of view is fairly limited to Tsukuru, the reader only knows what Tsukuru is doing or thinking at any given moment. The reader is thus encouraged to tease out the finer details of character through the narrator’s meticulous descriptions of clothing, hairstyle, accessories, and interior decoration. Tanaka Yasuo was strongly criticized for his endless litanies of product brand names in his novel Nantonaku, Crystal, and I imagine that it’s possible to levy the same sort of complaint against Tsukuru Tazaki, as the writing comes off as more than a bit Nantonaku-ish at times. That being said, Murakami’s method of character analysis through the intense reflection on taste and setting strikes me as less vapid and materialistic than it does as vaguely Homeric. How does the reader know that Achilles is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of his armor. How does the reader know that Aka is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of how he has set up his corporate office.

Aside from the brilliance of its characters, the novel also has some genuinely creepy moments to offer the reader. Many of these moments are encapsulated by Tsukuru’s relationship with his college friend Haida (whose name contains the character for “ash,” or “grey”). Haida tells Tsukuru a story about how his father once met a jazz musician named Midorigawa (whose name contains the word “green”) while working at an isolated inn in the mountains, and how Midorigawa possessed a strange ability that he may have passed on to Haida’s father. It’s a weird story, and Haida’s intentions in telling it to Tsukuru are unclear, but shortly thereafter Haida does something bizarre in an uncomfortable scene involving sleep paralysis before disappearing from Tsukuru’s life without a trace. Such scenes and stories-within-stories are not “softly haunting,” or “elegiac,” or anything fancy like that; they are genuinely creepy and upsetting. Furthermore, Haida is not the only source of surreal urban folklore in the novel – the story a subway station employee tells Tsukuru about something he found in one of the station’s bathrooms is particularly delightful.

As is the case with most Murakami novels, the deeper psychological and supernatural elements of the plot are never fully explained, but I found Tsukuru’s journey to be rewarding in and of itself, and I enjoyed reading the novel. Tsukuru Tazaki is evocative of the pains of youth and what it’s like to reconnect with people years after you’ve graduated from high school. In many ways, Murakami’s latest book feels like an answer to Norwegian Wood, the 1987 novel that first boosted the author into international literary stardom. Whereas Norwegian Wood is permeated by a nostalgic longing for the perceived potential for individual dignity made possible by a vanished youth in a vanished era, Tsukuru Tazaki is concerned with a more pragmatic strain of existentialism that seeks to justify the manner in which the passing years inevitably drain color from one’s life. If Tsukuru is indeed on a pilgrimage, it’s less of a pilgrimage to find his friends or to figure out the truth but rather an experiential process of recreating the story of his adolescence as a narrative that can properly function as a suitable prequel to a middle-aged adult life that is less of an anticlimactic ending and more of a canvas that is still waiting to be filled with color.

The Goddess Chronicle

The Goddess Chronicle

Title: The Goddess Chronicle
Japanese Title: 女神記 (Joshinki)
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野 夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 309

The protagonist of The Goddess Chronicle, Namima (“Woman-Amid-the-Waves”) lives on a small and richly vegetated island called Umihebi (“the island of sea snakes”). Umihebi is located somewhere in the island chain south of the kingdom of Yamato (i.e., Japan), and it is known throughout the Ryūkyū seas as a place where the gods come and go. The cape at the north end of the island is sacred and marked by a huge black boulder called “The Warning,” beyond which no one but the high priestess of the island may walk. On the eastern side of the island is the Kyoido (“Pure Well”), and on the western side is the Amiido (“Well of Darkness”), and only adult women are allowed to approach them. Between these landmarks grow plantain trees, banyan trees, pandan trees, and all manner of flowers. The water surrounding the island is filled with fish and sea snakes, which the island men take on their boats to trade with the people of other islands.

Namima’s grandmother, Mikura-sama, is Umihebi’s high priestess. She embodies the energies of light and life and protects the island from harm as she prays for prosperity. Because light and dark alternate, Mikura-sama’s daughter is dark, while Mikura-sama’s oldest granddaughter Kamikuu is light, thus entitling her to become the island’s next high priestess. If Kamikuu is light, then her sister Namima is dark; and so, if Kamikuu is to become then next high priestess of light and life, then Namima must become her dark counterpart, an outcast warden of darkness and death. While Kamikuu is fated to live at the top of a hill and be provided with generous quantities of nutrient-rich food as she prays to the gods and generates offspring from the seed of the young men on the island, Namima is fated to live in the shadow of a cliff, eating dregs and shunning the company of all save the corpses of the island’s dead, which she must watch decay in order to ensure that their souls pass on safely. Although Mikura-sama explains this to Kamikuu, the kind-hearted Kamikuu does not have the heart to tell her sister, so the teenaged Namima is outraged when she is hauled kicking and screaning down to a cave by the shore to take the place of Mikura-sama’s dark counterpart, who has vanished. Namima is immediately visited by her lover Mahito, the son of a family ostracized because of its matriarch’s inability to produce a female child, and the two escape the island on a small boat. Namima dies at sea, and that’s when the book really begins.

Namima, who dies with deep regret in her heart, is not allowed to move on to the world beyond death but instead finds herself in the underworld, a dark and formless landscape of unhappy souls presided over by Izanami, who is both a creator goddess and a goddess of death. Having died while giving birth to a fire god, Izanami found herself in the underworld. Her consort, Izanaki, came to retrieve her, but he was so appalled by the pollution and impurity of the underworld that he fled from his former lover and symbolically sealed the entrance to the underworld with a giant boulder. In her rage, Izanami vowed to end the lives of a thousand humans every day. In response, Izanaki vowed to erect a thousand birthing huts so that the human population would never decline.

Izanami, who has spent aeons under the earth, sees a kindred spirit in Namima and therefore draws Namima’s soul to her to act as an attendant and companion. The Goddess Chronicle is an account of how Namima rails against and finally settles into this role as she comes to understand and sympathize with Izanami’s suffering and the burden that the goddess has assumed. Over the course of her story, Namima returns to Umihebi as a tiger wasp and sees the religious and human drama of the island through the eyes of an outsider. Izanaki himself eventually enters the story and makes his own trip to Umihebi, so the reader sees the island from yet another perspective that further emphasizes how terrifying yet compelling its religious landscape and rituals are. The experiences both Namima and Izanaki have on Umihebi cause them to return to Izanami for closure and salvation.

In the end, however, there is no redemption for Izanami herself; there is only eternal hatred. I don’t want to give away certain plot developments; but, in light of these developments, it seems as if there would be so many other paths open to the goddess at the end of the novel. Moreover, although Namima can leave at any time, she decides to stay with Izanami, not as her friend or equal, but rather as the priestess of her pain. The novel ends with these lines, spoken by Namima:

I, who was once a priestess of the darkness, feel that serving here at Izanami’s side I am able to accomplish what I was unable to finish on earth. For, as I said earlier, Izanami is without a doubt a woman among women. The trials that she has borne are the trails all women must face. Revere the goddess! In the darkness of the underground palace, I secretly sing her praises.

I’m not sure if that’s a happy ending or not. So all women are united in a shared oppositional relationship to men? All women are united in their hatred, and in the fact that their destinies are shaped by the carelessness of men? Why do women have to harbor so much hatred? Why can’t men just be normal people instead of the shapers of the destinies of women? Why does there need to be an dualistic and antagonistic relationship between Woman and Man on such a deep mythical level?

In other mythological revisionist novels written from a feminist perspective, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Ursula Leguin’s Lavinia, there are layers of depth and meaning and subtle characterization added to mythological personages who were relatively flat in the original sources. In The Goddess Chronicle, the gods remain flat, and the human characters aren’t granted much depth either. The story told by the novel is fascinating, and the writing and translation are beautiful, but in the end there is almost no resolution or character development. Perhaps the point of the story isn’t to give human characteristics to nonhuman entities, however, but rather to provide the reader with an entryway into the conceptual geography of the existential questions religion and myth seek to address. In this latter purpose, The Goddess Chronicle succeeds spectacularly.

Kirino Natsuo is an extremely dark writer; and, while she never offers any feminist solutions to the problems she raises, she excels in bringing the reader’s attention to the sexism and hypocrisy that exist in mainstream narratives about women. By showing the reader the other side of the story, Kirino deftly illustrates the anger of the otherwise voiceless women who have been left out of most stories, but it is ultimately up to the reader to find hope in the situation and to figure out how to use her or his newfound anger to change the world for the better. In The Goddess Chronicle, Kirino encourages the reader to see one of the keystone tales of Japanese mythology from the perspective of darkness, and the perspective of those not showered with glory, and the perspective of those left behind. Such a perspective can be upsetting and frustrating, but it’s also an invitation to the reader to formulate her or his own interpretations, as well as her or his own ideas concerning the further adventures of these characters and their relevance to the modern world.

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.

Japanese-to-English Translation Basics

Old Books

Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to take a translation seminar with one of the finest translators of Japanese literature into English. The course texts she selected for the seminar presented all manner of interesting translation challenges, and she brought in a number of fantastic speakers from the Kyoto-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators to discuss these challenges with our class. Unfortunately, I was not able to take full advantage of this seminar; it was as if these professional translators were teaching us translation calculus, and I still didn’t grasp basic translation algebra.

I just finished a tertiary round of edits for two major translation projects, and I’ve noticed a number of patterns in the areas I’ve repeatedly needed to adjust. Once I became aware of the currents my editing was following, I started to imagine that I was getting at some of the basic and fundamental issues of Japanese-to-English translation. If I could go back in time and give my fledgling translator self some advice, this is what I might say…

(1) Japanese sentences tend to begin with prepositional phrases and other subordinate clauses that separate the subject from the verb. Although sentence variety is important in English, simple subject-verb-object sentences are the foundation of muscular and fluent English prose. Consider splitting a sentence into two sentences if the sheer number and frequency of subordinate clauses render a literal translation of that sentence into a hermeneutic puzzle in English. Also, never be afraid to switch the order of words in a sentence if it sounds better to your ear, such as in the case of placing adverbs after verbs instead of in front of them.

(2) Letting the reader know that information is hypothetical or coming from a secondhand source is a common feature of Japanese, but an overuse of expressions such as “it seems,” “I heard that,” “someone said,” “it’s often said,” “perhaps,” and “maybe” tend to weaken English prose. If the information being presented is obviously a subjective impression or something that the narrator/speaker would have no way of knowing on a firsthand basis, it’s usually safe to omit the attribution markers.

(3) Adverbs, especially temporal adverbs, are much more tolerated in Japanese writing than they are in English writing. If adverbs or adverbial phrases such as “suddenly” or “after a while” are clear from the context, the translator should feel free to omit them. Also, if the meaning of an adverbial phrase can be transferred to a verb, such as in the case of “said in a loud voice” becoming “shouted,” then the translator should consider doing so. This is not diluting the author’s language but rather transforming strong writing in Japanese into strong writing in English.

(4) Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. If the subject of a passive sentence can be inferred, insert it into the sentence and change the verb to the active voice. The implications of the passive voice are interesting and valuable but can usually be deduced in other ways, and passive sentence structures are much more common and natural in Japanese than they are in English, where they can quickly become jarring to the reader.

(5) The literal translation of the triple and quadruple negatives of Japanese rhetoric sounds ridiculous in English, a language in which a single negative or positive statement is usually considered infinitely more articulate.

(6) Think twice about retaining honorific titles such as “san,” “kun,” “chan,” “buchō,” “kachō,” and “sensei” in your English translation. Such Japanese-isms can feel gimmicky, and often they are not necessary to convey the relationships between characters. Moreover, if honorifics are maintained in translation, it may still be difficult to make the reader aware of what it means when a name is used without honorifics. Japanese is well known for being able to express multiple levels of formality, but English is no slouch at conveying degrees of distance and friendliness, and the manner in which two characters speak to each other can mean much more to the reader than which honorifics they use.

(7) The written approximation of dialect is common in Japanese, but don’t try to “translate” dialect into an English equivalent unless you feel absolutely comfortable doing so. The written approximation of dialect in English will almost always appear goofy and corny to the reader. Different grammatical patterns, tonal registers, and word choices will usually help to convey dialect better than means such as replaced, duplicated, or truncated vowels.

(8) When faced with the task of translating untranslatable words, consider not translating them. You have a smartphone, your grandmother has a smartphone, your four-year-old daughter has a smartphone, and it’s not difficult to run a quick Google search for something like “kotatsu” or “umeshu.” Even without outside sources, your reader will generally be smart enough to get an approximate impression from the context. When it comes to brand names, it’s especially easy for the reader to figure out what’s being referred to from the context, and it’s generally best to leave them be without any footnoting or inserted explanation. In some cases, however, leaving a word untranslated can feel silly and pretentious to the reader, so it’s helpful to have an ideal reader in mind and cater to the presumed knowledge, tastes, and expectations of that reader.

(9) When it comes to puns, jokes, proverbs, idiomatic expressions, and made-up words, crowdsourcing translation solutions is always an option. This is why Al Gore invented the internet back in the eighties, so feel free to use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as your own personal dictionaries of creative genius. Some of the problems you face in translating certain words may also be an issue of relative expertise, so there’s no shame in relying on other people for help if you need to know more about how to refer to certain foods, colors, meteorological phenomena, or American sci-fi stories from the seventies. Translation is just as much of a research project as it is an art, but there’s no need for research to be a solitary task in a lonely room full of dusty books (unless of course you’d like it to be).

(10) Make sure you do at least one read-through of your translation while completely separated from the original Japanese text. Even if you have a crystal clear translation of a certain word, expression, or passage, it’s all but worthless if it doesn’t gel with the rest of the English on the page. Also, if you can exchange favors for translation checking, proofreading, and copyediting, do so and count yourself fortunate. If your ideal reader is an actual person, then let her actually read your drafts. Translation is difficult and complicated work, and you might be surprised by the things you miss as you juggle multiple documents and languages.

Finally, don’t let anyone get you down with analogies about how a translation is like a woman that can’t be pretty and faithful at the same time, or about how reading a translation is like having sex while wearing a condom, or about how the translator does damage to a text by forcibly penetrating it with a phallus-pen. Such analogies are not only gross but also inane and banal. Translation is awesome, and being able to read things originally written in a different language is an amazing privilege for those of us who benefit from translation, and some of the best English prose I’ve ever read has come in the form of translated literature. For what it’s worth, the word games and creative challenges of translation are also a lot of fun.

If you’ve just started translating from Japanese into English, good luck! And check out the Kyoto Journal‘s wonderful piece They Who Render Anew for inspiration.

On Being Poor in Grad School

Parthenon

Education is often described as an equalizing social force. Despite the fact that this is blatantly not true of undergraduate education, one might still think that more education is somehow more equalizing. Many people understand that financially stable graduate students are few and far between, but there are degrees of stability; and, unfortunately, students from the most disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds can suffer horribly in their pursuit of higher education.

Since the vast majority of universities are committed to lofty liberal ideals, you’d think that it would be easier to be poor as a graduate student, or that you’d be taken care of by higher-level university administrators, who possess a deep understanding of the tenets of social justice, at least on paper. To tell the truth, though, being poor in academia is actually pretty terrible.

It’s terrible to have to sit and listen to a fellow graduate student complain about a rare and elusive fellowship that allows her to do half the amount of teaching you do while receiving five times the salary. It’s terrible to receive student comments on your course evaluations like “she should not teach if she doesn’t have a smartphone.” It’s terrible to get sick constantly because you can’t afford to buy warm clothing or to heat your apartment and to then be told that “we don’t do this for the money” by the head of your department, who quite frankly doesn’t give a damn about whether you have enough money to support yourself or not.

Academia looks different in the eyes of winners than it does in the eyes of losers. Winners see a system that rewards merit and hard work, but losers are able to see hidden lines of power, cultural capital, and personal connections that are far more influential in the ultimate fate of a graduate student than individual merit. In academia, as in other societies, those with privilege are often blind to their privilege, and the ideologies of academia strongly discourage any discussion of this privilege and how it works.

Even after graduate school, personal merit plays very little role. You may get lucky and get a job during your final year of grad school; but, to be brutally honest, it’s not likely, no matter how accomplished you are. It’s therefore important to understand how poverty affects your life as a grad student and impedes your ability to succeed.

Before I go any farther, I want to clarify two points. First, I don’t want to tell anyone not to go to graduate school. If you want to go to class and do research and read books and write essays and teach at the college level and work with incredible and exceptional people, then by all means go to graduate school, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Second, I’m not complaining about my department or any of its students or professors or administrators. If you want to go into East Asian Studies, you should totally apply to the University of Pennsylvania, because we’ve got good people and excellent resources. What I’m writing is partially based on my experience, but it’s primarily a composite picture of the experiences of my friends and acquaintances from many different departments and universities across the United States.

What I hope to achieve through this essay is twofold: First, I want to give as accurate a picture as possible of the sort of severe difficulties that economically underprivileged students can suffer in graduate school; and second, I want to shame the universities that allow this sort of nonsense to happen.

Here are three things you need to keep in mind if you’re thinking about graduate school:

Money

It’s difficult to give exact figures from what the annual stipend of a grad student in the humanities looks like, but a fair estimate is about $21,000. This average doesn’t mean much, however, since stipends range from less than $16,000 to more than $25,000, depending on the university, the department, the year, and the student. Some fellowships last five years, and some last four years or less, and some must be renewed from year to year. Competition for fellowship money is intense, departmental and university politics are always involved, and many graduate students receive no money at all.

Students not supported by fellowships have the option of teaching courses for money. In my experience, a per-class salary can be anywhere from $1,600 to $5,500 (before taxes), and competition for these courses is fierce, especially since graduate students are competing with new PhDs for work.

What this means is that, while it’s possible to earn a livable wage for a few years as a graduate student, it’s also entirely possible to spend several years very close to the poverty line, especially immediately before and after you earn your degree. As of 2012, the official poverty line in the United States is $11,170 for a single-person household and $15,130 for a dual-person household. With part-time adjunct salaries averaging $2,600 per course (before taxes), the paltry income you earn during and after graduate school might make the poverty line seem like an unattainable ideal.

Although there are guides to surviving in the world without much money, the truth is that being poor sucks. If you don’t believe me, read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (or David Shipler’s The Working Poor, or Mark Rank’s One Nation, Underprivileged). There are no “tricks” to being poor, and there are often hidden costs. Furthermore, the debt you can accrue just for basics like groceries and health care can mess up your life for a long time, even if you do eventually manage to find a job.

One of the most trying aspects of not making any money as a graduate student is sitting in lectures and listening to tenured professors talk about Marxism and social justice. It’s almost as if they don’t realize that their jobs and salaries are built on the exploitation of poorly paid graduate students, adjunct lecturers, and other temporary employees (who make up an estimated 76% of the work force in American colleges and universities). The whole system of higher education, in which privilege is hidden by a tenaciously enforced illusion of meritocracy, is actually kind of terrible, and it’s even worse when the tenured professors in charge of graduate funding don’t seem to be aware of this.

Lifestyle

Let’s say that, as a graduate student or a recent PhD, you are fortunate enough to make $20,000 a year. To an economically underprivileged undergraduate, whose costs of living are generally offset by financial aid, housing subsidies, and part-time jobs, this can seem like a lot of money. To an adult, a salary of less than $1,500 per month (after taxes) is severe, especially if part of that salary needs to be set aside for the expensive health insurance programs that universities require students and employees to carry (more on this later). Even more of this salary must be spent on job-related expenses, such as conference and research travel, for which graduate programs offer partial but nowhere near full subvention.

Since housing and food cost money, graduate students don’t have a great deal of disposable income, and expenses like clothing and books can become unaffordable luxuries. Home internet service and a smart phone data package might fall outside of your budget as well. If you’re a woman, you might not be able to afford birth control. It might be too expensive to take the bus or subway every day, and even the upfront cost of a bicycle can seem steep. Forget about having a car. When you’re a poor graduate student, social events held outside of school can become financial crises, and traveling to meet friends outside of your graduate school social circles becomes almost impossible.

If you’re 21 years old, being poor might seem cool and edgy, but penury looks completely different at 29, when all of your friends from high school and college have settled into careers. They have spacious apartments with furniture and windows and sunlight, or they might even own their own houses. They have pets and gym memberships. They take vacations abroad and post pictures of all the delicious food they eat on Facebook. They go to concerts and buy art, and they pursue interesting hobbies like bookbinding and horseback riding and collecting jazz records. They have flattering haircuts, and they wear nice clothing.

And you? You work well in excess forty hours a week, but you don’t even have your own office.

Health

Another reason poverty seems more bearable when you’re a college student is that you’re still young and your body still works the way it’s supposed to. As you get older, however, not having any money begins to take a serious toll on your health. Not being able to afford heating your apartment during the winter has obvious consequences, as does not being able to afford shoes that you can wear when you exercise. When combined with chronic malnutrition, environmental factors such as exposure can also have distressing consequences. A weekly food and grocery allowance of less than $100 means that you will not often have the benefit of fresh fruit and vegetables, and you can quite literally starve while eating food that is terrible for you. If you’re jocularly thinking to yourself that graduate school might function as an effective diet, the truth is that, after several months of being unable to eat nutritious food, not only are you hungry all the time, but you also start gaining weight. Your immune system tanks, so you’re sick more often than not. You’re much more likely to catch a cold, your colds last longer, and they’re much more likely to develop into something serious. Anemia and diabetes can also become problems.

Compounding the health-related consequences of poverty are university student health insurance policies. Most universities require students to carry health insurance; and, at many universities, university bureaucracy renders it almost impossible for students to carry a cheaper plan than the student health insurance plan, which generally requires the university student health service to refer you to a limited list of outside providers before it will cover the cost of your treatment. If the student health service at your school won’t write you an official referral, you may have to pay for treatment on your own. This makes it difficult to seek a second opinion, especially if you’re attending school in a large expensive city far away from where you grew up and went to college.

I don’t want to make blanket statements about the quality of student health insurance, but getting a second opinion is important, especially when the student health service roulette wheel matches you with the wrong health care provider for your specific situation. Incorrect diagnoses happen all the time; and, if you can imagine the cost of something like surgery without the referral necessary for student health insurance coverage, you can start to get a picture of the health care burdens faced by graduate students. Also, as is the case with most insurance policies, you have to pay extra for vision and dental. This means that, if you destroy your eyes reading in your dark dusty carrel in a section of the library that has no windows, it’s a problem you have to pay for out of your own pocket.

For grad students suffering from mental health issues, student health services and insurance policies can be a nightmare, and the loss of both after graduation can be even worse. On an adjunct salary, mental health care is almost impossible to afford and can mean a change in medication, which I understand can be hell on earth for people with certain conditions.

Malnutrition is real, all sorts of terrible things can happen to your body, and mental health is important. These are all things to keep in mind when you consider the cost of graduate school.

………………..

Even if you get lucky and are fully funded at a livable wage during the entirety of grad school, and even if you are astronomically lucky enough to be hired into a tenure-track job after you get your PhD, you will see your peers and colleagues suffering. You will think to yourself that “he’s overweight because he’s lazy,” or “she wears ugly clothes because she’s too stupid to dress herself,” or “his kids are always sick because he’s a bad parent,” and you probably won’t think twice about what difference even a few thousand dollars can make when you’re all so close to poverty. When the shining star of your graduate department fails to be offered a tenure-track job, you will smugly think to yourself that “maybe she isn’t so good after all” without bothering to consider that, with fewer than two dozen tenure-track jobs on the market she’s entering (including the “open rank” jobs intended for senior scholars) and more than two hundred applicants for each job, luck plays an enormous part in who gets a job and who doesn’t.

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there’s still a pervasive idea that academia is a meritocracy. This notion functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since people who are given more resources are generally able to be more productive. Winners continue to win, and losers continue to lose. Since resources in academia are so scare, the unfortunate truth is that any graduate student can become a loser at any given time for reasons that are completely arbitrary. People who win everything only to lose something for no good reason at a crucial moment (for many graduate students, this point generally comes when they are unable to secure a tenure-track job) and suddenly realize that the game is flawed tend to be understandably upset to have devoted years of their lives to supporting a system that, in the end, will not support them.

Responses to such outcries tend to betray a sense that, if someone didn’t achieve her goals, then she didn’t deserve to. To give an example, in response to a recent Slate article about the despair of investing one’s time and energy into a system that does not live up to its ideals, a certain academic blogger wrote that people who tell the truth about how academia works are “academia haters.” The author of the Slate article in particular “can’t manage [her] time well,” and is “egregiously ignorant,” a “lousy writer,” a “freakazoid,” a “despicable creature,” an “obnoxious loser before [she] even left high school,” and not “worthy to clean [my] toilet,” not to mention “a spoiled brat.” As charming as this blogger is, and as persuasive as the mindset she articulates can be, statistics concerning the academic job market truly are dire; and, in such situations, realism can be much more powerful than “positive thinking.”

I don’t want to say that only people who are independently wealthy should pursue a graduate degree, and I don’t want to say that you do not deserve a graduate degree if you cannot physically or mentally handle a year or two of poverty. The goals of higher education are well worth pursuing, and what you learn in graduate school will allow you to develop intellectual tools and practical skills that have the potential to be quite competitive on a broader job market. Furthermore, university resources can give even poor graduate students and adjunct professors fantastic opportunities for intellectual development and social change.

Still, before you decide to go to graduate school, it’s important to be realistic about financial matters and what the costs of grad school – and poverty – actually are. It’s important to understand that you are statistically unlikely to be able to support yourself completely during the entirety of grad school and its immediate aftermath, and it’s important that your family understand this as well. Careful planning and saving are necessary, as is a reliable exit (or hiatus) strategy. Although your professors and peers may discourage you from doing so, keep an eye on the world outside academia. Try to develop work experience before you go to grad school, and try to keep your work contacts fresh by networking and freelancing.

Academia is wonderful in many ways, but a system built on exploitation that allows such an enormous degree of poverty and income inequality is fundamentally broken. If you’re smart enough to go to graduate school, then you’re smart enough to arm yourself with knowledge of the realities of graduate school and to take the necessary precautions to ensure that the broken system does not break you.

Good luck!