Another, Volume 1

Another

Title: Another, Volume 1
Japanese Title: Another (Anazā) 上
Author: Ayatsuji Yukito (綾辻 行人)
Translator: Karen McGillicuddy
Year Published: 2013 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 254

If you’ve watched the Another anime and are looking for a quick answer regarding whether or not you should read the novel the anime is based on: Yes, you should read it. It’s a fun book and a quick read. It’s just as creepy as the anime, but it’s creepy in different ways. The basic plot is the same, but enough of the details are different to maintain a feeling of suspense.

Before I begin, I should say that this review only covers the first volume of a two-volume novel. According to Amazon, the second volume won’t be released until July 23, 2013. Since Another is a highly compelling mystery novel, and since the first volume doesn’t offer closure but instead only deepens the mystery, I might caution anyone who hasn’t already seen the Another anime series (which is available on Hulu) against reading the first half before the second half is available.

Another begins in April of 1998 in a small mountain town called Yomiyama. The narrator is Sakakibara Kōichi, who suffers from a lung disease called “primary spontaneous pneumothorax.” Since his father is spending a year abroad in India, Kōichi has moved from Tokyo to Yomiyama to live with the parents of his deceased mother. Before he can start ninth grade with his new class (the Japanese school year begins in April) at the North Yomi Middle School, however, Kōichi suffers a relapse of his disease and is hospitalized. While in the hospital, he is visited by two students from his class who badger him with a series of unpleasantly persistent questions about his background in relation to Yomiyama. Even more curious is his encounter with a strangely taciturn girl wearing a North Yomi uniform in the hospital’s elevator. This girl, Misaki Mei, is wearing a conspicuous eye patch and headed down to a part of the hospital basement that should be empty.

As soon as Kōichi is released from the hospital, his mother’s younger sister Reiko, who lives with Kōichi’s grandparents, sits him down and tells him the “North Yomi fundamentals,” the third of which is “you must at all costs obey whatever the class decides.” Kōichi, who had been bullied at his old school because of his family name, is uncomfortable with this rule; and, when he finally begins school, he is unpleasantly surprised when he realizes that everyone in his class is bullying Mei. No one acknowledges her presence in the classroom, and no one will discuss her with Kōichi. Kōichi gets hints that what is going on is more than mere bullying, however; the class’s treatment of Mei is somehow tied to a curse laid on the third class of the third year students at North Yomi.

Another is half horror and half mystery. The horror comes from the existence of ineffable supernatural phenomena, the grisly deaths of Kōichi’s classmates, and the looming inevitability of the class’s fate. The “you must at all costs obey whatever the class decides” dictum is majorly creepy as well. These horror elements lend a major sense of urgency to the mysteries Kōichi must puzzle out: Why is everyone ignoring Misaki Mei? What is the curse afflicting Class 3-3? How did the curse come about, and how does it work?

The answers to these questions are eventually revealed at the end of the volume. To be honest, the specifics of the curse don’t actually make a great deal of practical sense, but that’s okay – the setup and nature of the curse are clever and interesting. Since this is only the first half of the story, it goes without saying that not everything is revealed. In fact, the end of the first volume sets up an even more interesting mystery. The curse is apparently linked to one specific person in each class in which the curse is active, the so-called “casualty” (死者), but who could this be? The first volume doesn’t give the reader the necessary clues to figure this out, but it does hint at a particularly nasty moral dilemma that the reader can look forward to exploring in the second half of the story.

Another isn’t the most beautifully written book in the world. When compared to the anime, with its moody musical score, atmospheric lighting, and lush background images, the novel doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the potential creepiness of its setting in an isolated mountain town before the advent of widespread cell phone and internet use. What the novel does do is to deliver an additively readable young adult horror story that can also be read as a power fantasy of working through some of the more unpleasant aspects of ninth grade. A new kid transfers into a new class at a new school, and things are weird and awkward not because fifteen-year-olds are weird and awkward but because there’s a curse. The class seems to be bullying a shy girl who doesn’t fit in not because fifteen-year-olds can be terrible people but because there’s a curse. The homeroom teacher is sketchy and the librarian is spooky not because some adults have trouble dealing with fifteen-year-olds but because there’s a curse.

Class 3-3 is in its own little universe created by both unknowable supernatural forces and unstated institutional regulations, and everything the students in the class do is truly a matter of life and death. Under the veneer of normalcy created by daily routine, nothing is normal at all, and the sickly transfer student and uncanny quiet girl might just end up being the heroes who save everyone. It’s a fairly heady fantasy for anyone who’s ever that things at their middle/high school weren’t quite right. Even without the analogy to the implicit strangeness of ninth grade, the momentum of the race to get to the bottom of what’s going on at North Yomi Middle School is enough to keep anyone reading until the end.

Even though I know what happens, I’m still eagerly awaiting the second volume.

The Fox’s Window

Title: The Fox’s Window: And Other Stories
Japanese Title: きつねの窓 (Kitsune no mado)
Author: Awa Naoko (安房 直子)
Translator: Toshiya Kamei
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of New Orleans Press
Pages: 232

I found out about this book due to the happy accident of stumbling upon the website of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Tokyo Translation Group. It’s a fantastic site that has taught me a great deal about Japanese children’s literature, and I’m grateful that it’s so well organized and contains so many interesting and well written essays.

Before I discovered the website, however, I had never heard of “the revered Japanese author” Awa Naoko. Thankfully, her translator’s short introduction does a fine job of sketching out her background for the reader:

Naoko Awa (1943-1993) was an award-winning writer of modern fairy tales. She was born in Tokyo, and while growing up, lived in different parts of Japan. As a child, Awa read fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Wilhelm Hauff, as well as The Arabian Nights, which later influenced her writings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Japanese literature from Japan Women’s University, where she studied under Shizuka Yamamuro (1906-2000), who translated Nordic children’s literature into Japanese. While still in college, Awa made her literary debut in the magazine Mejiro jidō bungaku (Mejiro Children’s Literature).

The themes of Awa’s work collected in The Fox’s Window are nature, transformation, and bittersweet pain of fondly remembered past. Like Western fairy tales, Awa’s stories are filled with animals who possess anthropomorphic attributes, such as the ability to talk. Like Classical mythology, Awa’s stories operate on at the edges of a constantly shifting boundary between plant, animal, and human; flowers can easily turn into girls, and rabbits and can easily turn into boys. In the worlds Awa creates in her writing, charming and innocuous trickster spirits abound and good deeds are always rewarded. This childhood realm is seldom presented without nostalgia, and characters often remember the past as being more vibrant than the present.

The story collection opens with “The Sky-colored Chair.” In this story, a blind girl’s father wants to paint a rocking chair he’s built for her the color of the sky so that she will be able to see the sky by sitting in the chair. On a windy hilltop, the father meets a young boy who helps him create the color of the sky for his daughter. The chair is such a success that the father begins to seek out other colors, such as those of the sea and the sunset. The boy, in an effort to help the father achieve these colors, disappears and then reappears as a young man who asks that the girl’s father take him on as an apprentice chair maker. The blind girl is never really able to see any other colors, but her story still ends happily:

After a short while, the blind girl married the young man. She became a happy wife who knew the true color of the sky better than anyone else. Even after her hair turned white, she enjoyed watching the sky in her rocking chair.

In the collection’s title story, “The Fox’s Window,” an archetypal hunter enters an archetypal forest in order to hunt an archetypal fox. After chasing and losing the fox, the hunter emerges into a clearing, in the middle of which is a house he has never seen before. Out of the house emerges the fox, now in the form of a boy, who offers to paint the hunter’s hands blue in an act of magic that will allow the hunter to see into the past. The story has no plot, per se, but the visions that the hunter sees in the window that he forms with his fox-painted hands are lovely:

In my mother’s vegetable garden, a patch of shiso plants was getting soaked by the drizzle. I wondered if she would come out into the yard to pick the leaves. A soft light seeped from the house. From time to time I heard children’s laughter mixed with the music from the radio. The voices belonged to me and my sister, who was now dead. I gave a deep sigh and dropped my hands. The house I grew up in burned down, and that yard doesn’t exist anymore.

Although many of the stories in the collection are harmlessly beautiful, a few, such as “Forest of Voices,” contain touches of genuine fairy-tale horror:

The Forest of Voices returned to silence and waited for its next prey. It was a terrifying place. Countless animals had lost their way in the forest. Like someone scared of his own reflection in the mirror, every animal going astray among the trees was surprised by its own echo and ran in circles until it collapsed and died. Sometimes humans wandered into the forest – hunters pursuing their game and woodcutters following the wrong path in the fog. They all ended up nourishing the oaks.

Such stories always end well, though. The pure of heart always prevail and no one is ever really punished. The only characters who die or get hurt are animals, and even then it’s usually just an instance of the “dead mother” trope.

Unfortunately, this lack of darkness made the stories seem shallow to me. With no true shadows or bursts of light, the separate stories began to blur together into a sepia-toned slurry of adorable children, talking animals, and nature imagery. These stories are completely harmless and thus, in my opinion, mostly forgettable.

Perhaps The Fox’s Window would appeal to parents of young children for whom the stories of Beatrix Potter and Jill Barklem are deemed too scary. The stories might also appeal to the children themselves, as younger readers have an astonishing ability to make up details to fill in the gaps of minimalist narratives. Since the visual imagery of Awa Naoko’s writing is so strong, her stories might also appeal to artists and illustrators looking for inspiration. In fact, I felt that each of the individual pieces in The Fox’s Window was highly impressionistic, like a pencil sketch of a scene onto which a single layer of watercolors has been quickly applied. Although this type of writing doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for someone like me, who finds beauty and meaning in words and narratives, I imagine that Awa’s short fairy tales could be much more interesting to someone better able to think in pictures and images.

I’d like to thank University of New Orleans Press for making The Fox’s Window available on the Kindle Store. I’ve been noticing a baffling dearth of children’s literature in digital format, and I think it’s wonderful that this collection is helping to remedy the situation.

Ico: Castle in the Mist

Title: Ico: Castle in the Mist
Japanese Title: イコ:霧の城 (Iko: Kiri no shiro)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 400

When people complain about sexism in video games, they’re not complaining just to start a fight or to prove that they’re on the right side of the social justice movement. The sexism in many games is not only unnecessary but also detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game. For example, when I played the original Tomb Raider game for the Playstation, I remember being frustrated at Lara’s inability to navigate certain terrain and thinking this wouldn’t be a problem if she were wearing pants. A better example might be Metroid: Other M, in which your female player-character (a veteran soldier who has already saved the world multiple times) can’t use even the most insignificant of her abilities until given permission to do so by her male commanding officer in a gameplay paradigm that has to be one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. This sort of sexism is dangerous precisely because it is so frustrating. Instead of hating the (male) developers who imposed such ridiculous limitations on the female protagonist, the player’s frustration at these limitations instead causes him to hate the female protagonist herself.

It is for this reason that I despise Ico: Castle in the Mist, a short puzzle platformer released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 that was received with almost universal acclaim. In this game, you are Ico, a boy with mysterious horns who is mysteriously dumped in a mysterious castle in which he mysteriously encounters a mysterious young woman named Yorda. As Ico, your job is to find your way out of the castle while simultaneously rescuing Yorda. Considering that Yorda (a) has lived in the castle for a very long time and (b) is magic, this shouldn’t be too difficult of a feat. Unfortunately, Yorda also (c) either can’t or won’t communicate with Ico and (d) is almost entirely passive. Ico quite literally must lug Yorda around like an inarticulate sack of meat, and the main challenge of the game is not for Ico to navigate his way through the castle but rather for Ico to bully and cajole Yorda over and around obstacles while she remains both vulnerable and inscrutable. If the player, as Ico, wanders off on his own for a moment, Yorda is besieged by shadow monsters that she will not attempt to ward off or escape in any way. Ico is a truly beautiful game that creates a hauntingly atmospheric experience through its graphics, music, and gameplay, but it is difficult to make it through the game’s roughly eight hour playtime without hurling obscenities at Yorda for being so useless. Sexism is thus built into the gameplay mechanics, and I remember thinking that Ico would have been a lot more fun if Yorda had actually done something instead of passively allowing herself to be rescued by a younger male hero.

When I heard that the novelization of Ico would be released in North America, I was really excited. I thought that Miyabe Miyuki, who writes about awesome female detectives and manages to create a strong yet believable female protagonist in The Book of Heroes, would be able to do something interesting with Yorda, or at least to make her more of a subject than an object. Thankfully, she succeeds – at least to an extent.

Like the game on which it’s based, Miyabe’s novelization is the story of Ico, a thirteen-year-old boy with horns who is exiled from his village and dumped at the Castle in the Mist by a group of soldiers. In the otherwise empty castle Ico finds Yorda, who is suspended in a hanging cage covered by thorns. Ico wakes Yorda and then extracts her from her cage, resolving to rescue her from her imprisonment in the castle. Yorda doesn’t speak Ico’s language and in any case doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with him, but her touch can open certain magical doors through which Ico needs to pass. Furthermore, Ico’s body is filled with light and energy whenever he holds Yorda’s hand, so he quickly develops an attachment to her.

As Ico and Yorda progress through the castle, Ico begins to see Yorda’s memories of her life before the castle was reduced to its current state. Through these memories, it becomes clear that Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, is the “daughter” of the Dark God. In ages past, Yorda’s mother used her power to keep outsiders away from her kingdom, mainly by turning them into stone. She also kept her own people within her country’s borders by means of an enchantment that kept their hearts and minds peaceful. Convinced that other nations coveted the beauty, wealth, and material prosperity of her kingdom, Yorda’s mother would hold a tournament every three years to bring the world’s mightiest warriors into her castle to compete for glory. The winner of these tournaments would teach the latest military technology to her soldiers – and then secretly be turned to stone. The tournament of Yorda’s sixteenth year brought a horned warrior, a servant of the Light God, to the tournament, and his interactions with Yorda led the kingdom to its current state of timeless abandonment. Ico’s job is thus to unravel the mysteries of the past in order to ascertain how to defeat the queen once and for all, after which he will presumably be able to escape with Yorda in tow.

Miyabe’s novel is divided into four parts. The first part details Ico’s life before he was taken to the castle and thereby provides information concerning the greater world in which the story takes place. The second part describes Ico’s adventures in the castle before Yorda begins communicating with him through her memories. The third part tells the history of the castle from Yorda’s perspective, and the fourth part follows Ico through his final confrontation with the evil queen. As Miyabe jokes in her introduction, her novelization isn’t meant to be a walkthrough for the game, and the first and third sections are almost entirely her own invention. Miyabe adds layers of depth to game’s characters and creates a handful of her own characters, who manage to be interesting and engaging despite only being onstage for small portions of the novel. Miyabe also renders the ending of the story slightly less ambiguous.

This is all well and good, but how does a puzzle platforming game translate into prose? Mainly, I suppose, in the way one might expect, though descriptive passages:

The thought put Ico at ease. Maybe if we can get down to those doors, we can get outside. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any way to get from the top of the bridge on the second floor down to the floor of the great hall. What stairs he could see went up to the ceiling, not down to the floor below, forming a sort of catwalk that seemed without purpose.

Besides such descriptions of setting, there is also a great deal of running, jumping, climbing, flailing at shadow monsters with a stick, and holding Yorda’s hand.

If the reader can successfully visualize what Miyabe is describing, then her descriptive passages, which form the bulk of the two sections from Ico’s perspective, create a sense of adventure and awe. If the reader is too engrossed in figuring out the mysteries of the castle to slow down and mentally picture the landscape Miyabe is describing, then these passages can come off as clunky and annoying. My sympathies tend to lie with the latter reader, especially if that reader has never played the game; trying to describe the visual aesthetics of the Castle in the Mist is like trying to describe an Escher painting. The game Ico is all about the atmosphere created by its visual and auditory elements, and a purely textual medium will never be able to capture that atmosphere, no matter how hard it tries.

What text can do, and what text can do well, is characterization, and it seems to me that the lion’s share of the game’s atmosphere is conveyed in the novel by Ico’s perceptions of and interactions with Yorda. Just as the castle is architecturally majestic and full of mysteries, Yorda is physically beautiful and conceals secrets upon secrets beneath her silent exterior. For example:

Ico glanced at her. She did not look sad or even frightened. Nor did she smile or seem engaged with the world around her at all. Though she was right next to him, and he could look directly into her face, he felt like she was standing on the other side of a veil.

Here’s another example:

The girl turned to him and to his surprise, she smiled faintly. She’s beautiful. He thought her smile looked like a flower in full bloom, swaying gently in a forest breeze, sending its petals out to drift on the wind. He could almost smell the flower’s perfume on her breath.

Here’s yet another example:

Filled with hope, Ico looked into Yorda’s eyes. He felt like he was looking into an hourglass, trying to pick through the grains of truth buried there long ago. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the warmth of Yorda’s hands in his told him that he was getting close.

Yorda is thus delicate and mysterious, and her main function as a character is to reflect the emotions Ico projects onto her. Because this novel is a work of young adult fiction, Ico is exceptionally pure of heart, and – perhaps as a result – Yorda is as well. What Ico is about, at its core, is the bravery of two children challenging the old, the impure, and the monstrous. For me, the main problem with Ico and Yorda is that, although purity of heart is inspiring, it is also somewhat boring. The evil queen is far more interesting. At a certain point I stopped caring about Ico and his youthful hope and good intentions and started waiting for the next appearance of the queen, who is the only halfway intelligent and rational character in the entire novel.

For example, unlike Ico’s caretakers, who tell him nothing, the queen respects her daughter enough to explain to her what she is doing and her motivation for doing it. The queen’s explanations are always pragmatic and hint at a lifetime of experience. The following passage, for example, is how the queen justifies to Yorda why the two of them never leave the castle:

“Beauty is a high and noble thing. Thus are men enchanted by it and seek it out. But those who desire you also desire our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice or enchant them – because, my dearest, while your beauty holds the power to command the actions of a few men, it does not bestow the ability to govern.

“It is the same for me. The land I govern is the most wealthy and beautiful of all the lands that divide this vast continent. They crave it, as they crave me. From their slavering jaws and their multifarious schemes have I escaped many times. All to protect myself and my beautiful domain, blessed by the Creator. You, who were born into the world as the lone daughter of the queen, have noble blood and noble beauty, thus must you bear my burdens.”

Judging from what happens in the rest of the novel (which I will not spoil), and judging from the way that Ico, his horned ancestor, and everyone in between has treated Yorda and her mother, the queen is not incorrect. Unfortunately, because the queen is a sexually mature and politically powerful older woman, she is EVIL and therefore cannot be reasoned with or redeemed but must be DEFEATED. The final battle between the queen and Ico is somewhat disappointing, as the queen is made to lay aside her primary weapons – her intelligence and wit – in order to fight boss-battle style with attacks that are easily deflected in a room filled with obstacles that deflect them.

The moral of the story seems to be that inarticulate yet delicately beautiful and innocent younger women are good (for men) and that brilliant and powerful mature women are EVIL (to men).

At least, that is the moral of the second and fourth sections of the novel, which are told from Ico’s perspective and closely follow the plot of the video game. The first and third sections are much more interesting and open-ended. The first section is, in my option, a superlatively excellent example of fantasy world building that establishes setting, mythology, history, and worldview through its characters instead of in spite of them. The third section, which is told from Yorda’s perspective, is an almost archetypal story of innocence awakening to experience as Yorda begins to question and investigate the world around while realizing the consequences of her own actions on the lives of others. By the end of the third section, Yorda has become a powerful queen in her own right…

…before we switch back to Ico’s perspective, in which Yorda is a helpless and naive young girl once more. Although this is jarring, it is also necessary. The game Ico is so deeply sexist that, in order for Miyabe to subvert this misogyny, she would have to abandon her goal of novelization. If Yorda were an active agent and not a passive victim, the events leading up to the final battle and the battle itself would not be possible. Good must triumph over evil in a decisive showdown; and, as everyone who has ever played a video game knows, such a task is the man’s job. This is why I complain about I sexism. Not only is it frustrating and unnecessary; it also tends to diminish from the overall quality of the work in which it appears.

Despite all this, Ico is a fun read. Miyabe is a good writer, and Smith has produced an excellent translation (as always). The plot and character conventions are fairly characteristic of mainstream young adult fiction, and I can imagine that younger readers would really enjoy this book, which is exactly the right length and complexity for the 7-12 demographic. It goes without saying that fans of the game will love the novelization, which does its very best to convey everything that was fun and intriguing about the original work. Fans of video games in general might also enjoy the book, which is an interesting experiment in adaptation. As for adult readers who are looking for archetypes represented in a deep and multilayered fantasy, however, I think there are much better books to spend an afternoon reading.

The Friends

Title: The Friends
Japanese Title: 夏の庭 (Natsu no niwa)
Author: Yumoto Kazumi (湯本 香樹実)
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1992 (Japan)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 170

For one reason or another, I’ve never been a huge fan of Stephen King’s IT (it might be something about the gang rape of immense magical significance that occurs towards the end of the book), but I’ve always enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the characters as children. King’s characterization of the kids as occasionally cowardly and petty yet genuinely concerned for each other strikes me as fairly accurate. Kids are not innocent, and they don’t always do the right thing. They’re mean to each other, and they make decisions according to a logic that doesn’t always make sense to adults. And yet they notice things that adults don’t. They also put a lot of faith in their friendships, which seem to change quickly from an outside perspective but which mean the world to the kids involved in them. Kids aren’t embodiments of a romantic ideal of childhood, but they’re not adults, either. Therefore, when a book handles its child characters well, you have to give it credit.

One of the reasons I like The Friends is that it lets its three twelve-year-old protagonists think and act like twelve-year-olds. Another reason I like The Friends is that it treats adults like real people, too. Obviously the narrative focus is on the child protagonists and not the adult supporting characters, but these adult characters are not evil, incompetent, or strangely absent as they are in so many other works of fiction for children. Also, because The Friends is meant for a young audience, it does not dwell on issues like sexuality and abandonment that might be upsetting to a child reader – or at least to the adult reading the book to her child. What this book does address frankly is death, as well as adolescent fear and curiosity regarding death.

The Friends opens with a boy named Yamashita telling his friends Kawabe and Kiyama (our narrator) about a relative’s funeral. Kawabe reacts to Yamashita’s story by announcing that he would like to see someone die. He therefore convinces his two friends to help him keep watch over the house of an old man whom the neighborhood housewives have discussed as someone who is likely to die soon. Thus, over the summer before their last year of middle school, the three boys skip studying for the cram school classes that are supposed to prepare them for their high school entrance exams in order to hang around the old man’s back yard. They quickly notice that the old man isn’t taking good care of himself, and they finally come to his attention by taking out his trash. Even though the old man is not initially pleased by the fact that three middle schoolers are stalking him, he gradually forms a friendship with the boys by roping them into helping him clean up his yard. You can probably figure out how the story ends, but I promise it’s handled well and with a minimum of sentimentality.

One thing I like about The Friends is that, although the three boys are clearly misfits, their relative social position is never fetishized or glorified. This is how their friendship is introduced:

I’ll never forget Kawabe’s face. He was furious. Grinding his teeth, he glared at Sugita so hard that I thought his glasses would fly off his chalk-white face. Even his customary jiggling was stilled.

I feel a little guilty when I remember that incident, because when Kawabe leaped at Sugita, I grabbed him from behind and held back. I was sure that Kawabe was going to kill Sugita if I didn’t stop him. Just the thought of it scared me so much that every pore in my body seemed to shrink shut. What a coward I was. I should have punched Sugita myself, right in the nose, as hard as I could.

That was when Kawabe and I became real friends. A little later Yamashita joined us and our trio was formed. Four-eyes Kawabe, chubby Yamashita, and me. Once we all went over to my house to do homework together. When my mother talked to Kawabe, he couldn’t stop jiggling, and then Yamashita spilled some juice on the sofa. It was terrible. After they left, my mom said, “Next time maybe you could bring over some better friends.” I never brought anyone home after that.

In other words, these kids are a little weird, but they’re not that weird. It’s easy to sympathize with them and relate them to one’s own experiences, but it’s also easy to understand why they would spend their summer hanging around an old man’s yard instead of playing with other kids or working harder on their homework. The characterization feels very natural. The writing style also makes sense as being from the perspective of a teenager looking back on what happened to him when he was a year or two younger. Kiyama doesn’t know everything, but he’s not afraid to leave out his personal impressions.

Although the story is set in Japan, which means that the boys do things like eat tempura and go to cram school over the summer and ride public transportation unattended, I feel that it’s well written enough to have universal appeal. Perhaps a young reader wouldn’t understand why three normal thirteen-year-olds would need to take high school entrance exams, for instance, but she would understand the pressure of social expectations to do well in school and have a plan for the future. The behavior and psychology of the characters didn’t strike me as “quintessentially Japanese,” either. I think The Friends could be read out loud to an eight-year-old or a fourth-grade classroom just as easily as something like The Hatchet or The Indian in the Cupboard. It’s a story for children of remarkable depth and quality, and I think any library for young readers should have in its possession.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Title: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Japanese Title: 時をかける少女 (Toki o kakeru shōjo)
Author: Tsutsui Yasutaka (筒井 康隆)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (Britain); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 170

Three things are generally true of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s writing: it’s easy to read, it’s creative and fun, and it’s usually more about the concept than the characters. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is no exception. The story is short, it’s entertaining, and the idea of time travel is more fleshed out than the characters.

Junior high school student Kazuko hears a crash in her school’s science lab while helping her friends Goro and Kazuo clean up after class. When she enters the room to investigate, she smells lavender and passes out. The next morning, she and Goro are run down by a bus while rushing to school. Right before the bus strikes them, however, Kazuko opens her eyes and finds herself back in bed. She discovers that she has somehow jumped back in time to the morning of the previous day. Kazuko tells Kazuo and Goro about her strange experience, and they suggest that she talk to their science teacher, Mr. Fukushima, after school. Surprisingly enough, Mr. Fukushima listens sympathetically before explaining that Kazuko needs to jump back in time to the incident in the science lab in order to figure out what happened. She does so and meets Kazuo, who explains everything to her before erasing her memory and returning to where he originally came from.

And that is the story. Nothing else really happens. Kazuo’s debriefing is interesting, but there is no on-screen adventuring or experimentation on the part of Kazuko. There is no narrative tension, just a bit of simple mystery solving. None of the characters really stand out. Kazuko is frightened and dependent on the help of others, Goro is childish and petty, and Kazuo drifts along without contributing anything until the last three or four chapters. The two other named characters, Mr. Fukushima and Kazuko’s friend Mariko, barely have any lines at all. Director Hosoda Mamoru’s 2006 animated adaptation is much richer in terms of storytelling and character development. Still, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a quick and easy read that should appeal to a younger audience.

A bit more interesting than the main novella is the shorter work “The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of,” which is also included in the book. In this story, junior high school student Masako tries to get to the bottom of her fear of heights, which is somehow connected to the discomfort she feels around Prajna masks. Masako’s close friend Bunichi passes along what his therapist uncle tells him about the psychology of fear, and Masako uses this information to help not only herself but also her five-year-old brother Yoshio, who suffers from night terrors. The relationship between Masako and Yoshio is charming and sweet, as is the budding romance between Masako and Bunichi.

If I had to guess, I would say that the two stories in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are meant for kids who are a bit younger than their protagonists, despite the adult woman adorning the book’s cover. They’re both entertaining, simple stories for the age seven to twelve crowd. If you’re an adult reader in North America who can’t seem to find a copy of this British publication, though, you’re not missing much. The movie is definitely better.

The Book of Heroes

Title: The Book of Heroes
Japanese Title: 英雄の書 (Eiyū no sho)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 352

Before the earthquake hit Japan, I was drafting a review of Miyabe Miyuki’s Brave Story. I was going to say something along the lines of that, while many male-centered epic novels (like Wizard’s First Rule) are sex fantasies supported by the bare-bones scaffolding of fantasy tropes, Brave Story is not like that at all. I was also going to say something to the effect that Miyabe does realism much better than she does fantasy, at least in Brave Story, where the “Frodo in the Shire” (or “Wataru in a suburb of Tokyo”) segment is much more interesting than the actual adventures in the fantasy world of Vision. And then I was going to conclude that the book did not need to be eight hundred pages long, and that Miyabe could have used some serious editing, since the reader does not need to know what every character is thinking at any given time.

But then I thought, why write a review of a promising book that turned out to be dishearteningly mediocre? Life is short, and there is more to the world than picking apart the idiosyncrasies of genre fiction. One of the great things about fantasy literature is that, when done correctly, it can inspire courage, and hope, and bravery. And since everyone following the events in Japan could probably use a “brave story” right now (I know I could), I am instead going to review Miyabe’s much shorter (and, in my opinion, much better) fantasy novel The Book of Heroes.

The Book of Heroes is about Yuriko, whose older brother Hiroki snapped under pressure, knifed a classmate, and then disappeared. In the fallout of the incident, Yuriko’s family has been suffering from media overexposure, while Yuriko herself has had to drop out of middle school because of bullying. In the midst of this chaos, there has been no sign of Hiroki. Worried about her older brother, Yuriko ventures into Hiroki’s room and is approached by a talking book named Aju, who drops a few cryptic hints concerning Hiroki’s whereabouts. These hints lead her to her reclusive uncle’s cabin in the mountains, which is filled with rare books, many of whom can also talk.

These books tell Yuriko that her brother has become a Summoner, a being who can channel the evil King in Yellow, who sows discord wherever he goes. The King in Yellow is not an easy threat to quell, as he is one half of the Hero, the archetype who inspires brave and great deeds. To prevent her brother, who believes himself to be the Hero, from summoning the King in Yellow, Yuriko must become an allcaste, an adventurer with the ability to travel between worlds. Yuriko learns that all worlds (including her own), are created from fictions, and so she must travel through and into books in order to chase down Hiroki.

Yuriko’s journey begins in the third chapter (about eighty pages into novel), when she is transported to The Nameless Land, a kind of land beyond time where monk-like “nameless devouts” spin the wheels that cycle stories throughout the many worlds. This might sound as if The Book of Heroes is wading waist-deep through a meta-textual philosophical sludge, but the novel’s self-reflexive fantasy is actually quite fascinating. Miyabe’s descriptions of both modern Tokyo, The Nameless Land, and the fantasy book world that Yuriko enters are beautiful and striking. There is a sense of wonder in the storytelling, but also an appropriate sense of urgency. The odds that Yuriko faces are overwhelming, but she is accompanied by the book Aju, who temporarily takes the form of a mouse, a older male guardian and guide called Ash, and a nameless devout whom Yuriko names Sky. Each of these three supporting characters has his own story to tell, and each of them is as interesting and important as Yuriko, who really comes into her own as a protagonist over the course of the book.

As she grows stronger, Yuriko learns that her power does not come without a price, and the answers to her many questions are difficult and painful. The novel’s ending is bittersweet yet satisfying, and the endgame revelations are heartbreaking yet thought-provoking. Thankfully, the story is compelling enough to keep the reader feverishly flipping pages all the way through. Honestly, if you are in need of a break from current events that you can come back from refreshed and re-energized, The Book of Heroes is an excellent story to immerse yourself in. It’s got the same sort of quiet yet driving mystery and the same sort of exploration of fantasy with real-world implications as the anime series Haibane Renmei or Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians. I cannot give it higher praise than that, although I should mention that Haikasoru has done a beautiful job publishing the book, and Alexander O. Smith’s translation is beyond excellent (as it was in Brave Story).

If you’re reading this alongside articles of the death and destruction in Japan and find my review of a fantasy novel trifling and tasteless, then I will hang my head, apologize, and humbly suggest Murakami Haruki’s short story “The Seventh Man,” which is published in the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection but immediately available in several “unofficial” translations through a quick search on Google. “The Seventh Man” is about a memory of a tsunami, and its primary themes are terror, helplessness, and guilt – which I suppose is the other side of the “brave story” of disaster survival offered by The Book of Heroes.

Regarding the situation in Japan, I think Matt Alt makes an excellent point when he says, Don’t Panic. The best coverage of the quake and its aftermath from a personal level that I have read thus far has been on the blog Adventures in Gradland (which is a fantastic read even when its author isn’t being the most sane and level-headed person to post about what must be a terrifying series of experiences). This post over at The Lobster Dance contains a list of links for more reliable news sources, as well as information on charities (the word on the street is that Second Harvest seems to be doing the right work, right now). The art historian over at A Man with Tea has taken this opportunity to reflect on what might be lost in Japan, as well as why we need to keep calm and carry on. Finally, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber has issued an appeal for donations over at All About Manga, which is accompanied by a plan to make a difference. As for me, all I can do is cheer my friends and the people of Japan on from a distance. You guys are amazing, and you can survive anything!

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse

Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Japanese Title: 夏と花火と私の死体 (Natsu to hanabi to watshi no shitai)
Author: Otsuichi (乙一)
Translator: Nathan Collins
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1996, 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 350

I don’t know why I haven’t reviewed anything by Otsuichi yet. Tokyopop has released two collections of his short stories (Calling You in 2007 and GOTH in 2008), and Haikasoru released the collection ZOO, which is a major bestseller in Japan and ended up getting its own film adaptation, around this time last year. It might be that I haven’t reviewed his work before now because, even though his stories are fun and creative, they tend to be hit or miss. Also, they fall squarely into the genre of horror, which has gradually eroded away into “Dark Fantasy” or “Thriller” in the American market (the back cover of my paperback copy of Stephen King’s most recent novel, which involves murder, rape, cannibalism, and mass asphyxiation, tells me that it is “Fiction”). However, the majority of Otsuichi’s stories are pure shock horror of the type that might be found in magazines like Black Static or Macabre Cadaver, which might explain the “hit or miss” factor and also makes them difficult to review. If you like horror, you’ll like Otsuichi. If you don’t like horror, why would you want to read him?

The three stories in Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse are still horror, but I feel like two of them are fleshed-out enough (what a lovely analogy for horror fiction) to appeal to a wider audience. The title story, which is seventy pages long, tells the story of a murder from the perspective of the dead person, who is surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing. Being dead, however, she’s able to follow the thoughts and movements of her best friend, who inadvertently killed her, and her friend’s older brother, a budding sociopath who helps his sister hide the body. The pair isn’t exactly professional in their cover-up operation, so there are a lot of delightfully suspenseful moments in which they are almost, almost found out. The surprise ending is morbid but equally playful. The setting of the story, the forest surrounding a Shintō shrine, is used to full advantage. I think those small forests are the closest thing to a Shakespearean green world in contemporary Japanese fiction; every time one pops up in a story, you know that something weird and exciting is going to happen. (Another good example might be found in the manga Tenken, which is absolutely brilliant and should be read by everyone.) Not just the suspense and the setting but everything about the story is well executed, and it’s hard to believe that Otsuichi made his literary debut with it while still in high school.

The following story, “Yuko” (優子), is the usual Otsuichi fare. It’s short, grisly, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you’re the sort of manga fan or Lolita fashionista who’s into the mock horror and period trappings of titles like Yuki Kaori’s Godchild, though, you’ll dig the gothic atmosphere and the creepy, creepy doll parts.

And then there’s the two hundred page novella Black Fairy Tale (暗黒童話), which was published five years after the other two stories in a separate volume. For me, this story is the best part of the collection. The narrative switches between a traditionally styled fairy tale and a more modern one, which is itself told from several points of view. The main point of view is that of a high school student named Nami, who loses her memory along with her left eye in a freak accident. She receives an eye transplant and gradually realizes that she can see the memories of the eye’s former owner if exposed to certain triggers. The blurb on the book’s cover makes it seem like this element of the story is its primary source of horror, in an I see dead people sort of way; but, as Nami has lost her own memories, she can only live her life though borrowed memories, and she becomes emotionally attached to the scenes of someone else’s life that she sees through the transplanted eye, which belonged to a college student named Kazuya. Since Nami has effectively become a different person than she was before her accident, her school friends and family distance themselves from her, so she drops out of school and uses the savings left behind by her former self to travel to Kazuya’s hometown, a backwater village called Kaede. As with the shrine forest of Summer, Otsuichi makes good use of his setting in this small mountain town, perfectly capturing both the charm and the pathos of rural Japan.

Black Fairy Tale is more than a travel novel, however. Of course Nami wants to visit the places and meet the people she has seen through the eye’s memories, but she also knows that its former owner was murdered for seeing something he shouldn’t have. The reader knows this too, as the narrative shifts between Nami’s story and that of a man who has the ability to keep living things alive, no matter what he does to them. He uses this ability to experiment on the human bodies he keeps in his basement, which are somehow able to maintain their lives and their consciousness despite the terrible things that have been done to them. Nami knows that, if she finds the house whose basement she has glimpsed through her transplanted eye, she will be able to rescue the people there and also avenge Kazuya. There is obviously a great deal of suspense in Black Fairy Tale, but it’s handled in a more sophisticated and effective way than it is in Summer. The character development is much stronger, as well. The separate narrative threads are woven skillfully throughout the story, and the story’s various themes and systems of visual imagery mirror each other artfully. Black Fairy Tale is undoubtedly a horror story, but it’s also put together in a fairly literary way, and it appealed to me and stayed with me in a way that Otsuichi’s previously translated work has not.

In other words, the collection Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse should be fun for both fans of horror and fans of fiction in general, and I don’t feel bad about recommending it to anyone. My only regret is that I didn’t write about it in time for Halloween…

Slum Online

Title: Slum Online
Japanese Title: スラムオンライン
Author: Sakurazawa Hiroshi (桜沢洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 210

Slum Online is a short novel about MMORPG gaming. I was skeptical of this concept at first, as I wondered how level grinding, ammunition collection, and/or interpersonal dialog along the lines of “omg n00b pwned” could be any less tedious in fiction than in real life (so to speak). Thankfully, the fictional game in question is a fighting game, and its setup and mechanics are both simple enough to be understood by a non-gamer and complex enough to not lose their freshness after two hundred pages.

I was also worried that, since the novel’s cover (which is a mirror of the original Japanese cover) sports a manga-style illustration, Slum Online would be nothing more than a light novelized plot worthy of an anime (whose plots and dialog tend to not work so well without the animation). Again, my worries were unfounded, since the story more or less eschews anime tropes and works fairly well as fiction that can be read by someone not familiar with the quirkiness of characters like Suzumiya Haruhi and Lina Inverse.

Slum Online follows an older teenager named Etsuro through his real and virtual life. In real life, he is a college student pursued by a classmate named Fumiko who is pursuing a blue cat through the streets of Shinjuku. In his virtual life, he is a karate fighter named Tetsuo who is pursuing a mysterious player known as Ganker Jack while being pursued by a ninja character named Hashimoto. The novel’s chapters alternate between Tetsuo’s real life and his virtual life, but there is little disconnect between the two; and, in the end, they come together quite nicely. It’s equally amusing for the reader to follow Etsuro through the backstreets and arcades of Shinjuku as it is to follow Tetsuo and Hashimoto through the alleyways and watering holes of the gaming world. Moreover, the cast of characters in either world is equally interesting, especially as they interact with each other across both worlds.

I wouldn’t call Slum Online science fiction, necessarily, and it doesn’t quite belong in the realm of cyberpunk, either. I found it quite realistic in its depiction of gaming technologies, their applications, and the cultures that surround them. Nobody is downloading anything directly into their brains or raving about the awesome theoretical potential of cyberspace. The characters go to school and go to work like anyone else, and the only men in black suits are the salary men on the commuter trains. Everyone knows what Google and Wikipedia and Playstation are. I personally found it refreshing to read a story about real kids playing video games. No one is a hacker, and there aren’t any cyber police; it’s just a kid and his game console and his online network.

There’s no nonsense in the book about not being able to tell the difference between the real world and the cyber world either, although Etsuro’s language occasionally betrays how his awareness of the real world is influenced by gaming. He describes hearing things in terms of “sound FX” and perceiving people’s faces in terms of polygons or anime-inspired designs. As he walks around Shinjuku, he remarks how convenient it is to not have to worry about running into invisible walls, and how in real life one can’t just approach someone and start a conversation as if he or she were an NPC. Despite (or more likely because of) his mild geekiness, Etsuro is an amusing and sympathetic narrator.

Slum Online should be a fun read for gamers, and I think it should even be a fun read for non-gamers, who won’t be alienated by any specialist vocabulary. The translation is smooth and readable, the narrative flows quickly and seamlessly, and the layout is professional and engaging. The only bad thing I might have to say about this book is that it tends to come off as male-dominated, but whatever – I enjoyed it anyway.

Kamikaze Girls

kamikaze-girls

Title: Kamikaze Girls
Japanese Title: 下妻物語
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本野ばら)
Translator: Akemi Wegmüller
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 219

In his afterward to Kamikaze Girls, Takemoto Novala writes that “Lolita is a fusion of the spirit of punk rock with formal beauty that honors tradition. Lolitas value independence and beauty above all else. In Kamikaze Girls, the two girls are drawn to each other’s independent natures and eventually come to respect one another.” Such a lofty statement is belied by the colorful and overwhelmingly pink cover of the novel, as well as the fact that the “two girls” in question (the protagonists of the novel) are a stereotypically representative Sweet Lolita and a stereotypically representative Yanki, or juvenile motorcycle (or, as the case may be, scooter) gang member.

The novel is narrated by Momoko, who describes herself in this way: “A red felt mini-hat accented with rose-shaped burnout lace is perched on my hair, which is styled in a princess cut with long ringlets, and I have on frilly white over-the-knee socks. So aside from my shoes, which are Vivienne Westwood’s Rocking Horse Ballerinas and Lolita must-haves (they go with any Lolita outfit), I am clad head-to-toe in my darling Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.”

In other words, Momoko is a Lolita among Lolitas, and she peppers her story with all sorts of references to and explanations of Lolita culture. In fact, Momoko begins her engagingly chatty narrative with a pseudo-historical lecture on the Rococo era in France, which supposedly inspired Lolita fashion and its ideals. Despite the silliness of the premise, Momoko’s narrative style is one of the major attractions of the novel. An unreliable narrator par excellence, Momoko relates the often sordid and depressing details of her personal and family history in witty, toungue-in-cheek monologues that reflect teenage power fantasies (at least as I remember my own) to an amazing degree.

In any case, the aggressively anti-social Momoko manages to attract the attention of Ichigo, a similarly dysfunctional seventeen year old. Unlike Momoko, Ichigo was born to a fairly bourgeois family; but, upon encountering ijime (group bullying) in middle school, she fell into despair and was rescued by a female Yanki gang. Although Ichigo respects and admires the leader of this gang for both her toughness and her nurturing personality, she is drawn to Momoko despite the Lolita’s almost constant derision. When the Yanki leader announces her intention to “graduate” from the gang (she intends to get married), Ichigo wants to present her with a kamikaze coat embroidered by the legendary Yanki figure Emma, who can supposedly be found in the fashionable Daikanyama district of Tokyo. Emma doesn’t exist, unfortunately, but Momoko is quite skilled at embroidery herself, and the pair’s adventures in Tokyo have some unexpected outcomes for both of them.

Even though Nakashima Tetsuya’s 2004 film version of Kamikaze Girls was so ridiculous and oversaturated that it made my eyes bleed a little, I found that I honestly enjoyed Takemoto’s original novel. As I mentioned earlier, the informal, chatty, and at times almost essay-like narrative style is quite enjoyable, the dialog is quick and jazzy and well-translated, and the characterization is surprisingly deep and complex for a book with such a pink cover. I’m not quite sure what Takemoto’s novel says about gender performity, post-modern identity construction, or the historical moment in which it was written, but hey, it’s a really fun book with two awesome protagonists.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

moribito

Title: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Japanese Title: 精霊の守り人
Author: Uehashi Nahoko (上橋菜穂子)
Illustrations: Yuko Shimizu
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Pages: 260

To hold the book Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit in my hands is something of a nostalgic experience. This may be because the book is published by the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic, which is also responsible for the beautiful hardcover editions of the Harry Potter books. Like its famous cousins, Moribito features beautiful binding and page design, as well as detailed and dynamic illustrations provided by the chic young illustrator Yuko Shimizu. At the end of the book is a list of characters, a list of places and terms, and a short yet intriguing note from the author. In other words, in terms of sheer physical beauty and craftsmanship, Moribito is a pleasure to read.

Thankfully, the actual content of the book is just as appealing, both to younger and to more mature readers. There is action, adventure, magic, intrigue, and a touch of romance with none of the pandering to adult sensibilities of what children should and shouldn’t read that generally clouds the narratives of Western children’s literature. Equally refreshing is the change of scenery from a whimsical fantasyland inspired by Western folklore to a fictional yet strangely believable setting drawn from East Asian (especially Japanese) geography, history, and mythology. Gone are the kings and knights of Western fantasy; in their place are the emperors and scholars of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tradition.

One of the reasons why I personally like this book, however, is its strong female characters. The plot revolves around a young prince, Chagum, who is being hunted by his father, the Emperor of New Yogo, because he carries the seed of the land’s destruction within him in the form of a magical egg from Nayugu, a realm of spirits that overlaps the physical realm of humans. In order to save her son, Chagum’s mother enlists the services of Balsa, a spear-wielding bodyguard with three decades of fighting and hardship behind her. Aiding Balsa in her mission to protect the prince and discover the secret of the egg are Torogai, an old woman well-versed in lore and shamanistic magic, and Tanda, an herbalist and childhood friend of Balsa who heals her when she is injured in battle. Both Torogai and Balsa are extraordinary characters who have lived extraordinary lives, and they easily qualify as two of the most realistic yet appealing female characters I have encountered in literature. They are nothing if not the equals of the men they encounter, and it is their actions that drive the majority of the plot. This is not to say that the male characters are downplayed in any way; rather, the female characters are not driven into any stereotypically “female” behavior vis-à-vis their male counterparts.

Uehashi’s Moribito is courageous not just in its portrayal of female characters but also in its questioning of the Japanese myths of national founding and the imperial system. Even more than fifty years after Hirohito proclaimed that the Japanese emperor is not a god but rather the symbol of a nation, a great deal of controversy still surrounds the imperial institution in Japan. By uncovering the surprising reality behind the myths surrounding the creation of New Yogo, Uehashi indirectly encourages a more critical attitude towards Japan’s own national mythology.

Both children looking for entertainment and adults looking for something more will heartily enjoy every page of this book. And, should the reader decide that he or she wants more, there is a 26 episode, beautiful anime series (released in America by Media Blasters) that follows the events of the novel, as well as several other volumes in the series, the second of which is slated to be released in an English translation on May 1, 2009.