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.

Speculative Japan 3

Title: Speculative Japan 3: “Silver Bullet” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editor: Edward Lipsett
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 270

In my review of Speculative Japan 2, I said that I loved the anthology and couldn’t wait until the next installment was released. Speculative Japan 3 is finally here, and it’s everything I hoped it would be: a diverse collection of intelligent and beautifully translated short stories.

Speculative Japan 3 opens with several shorter pieces. These shorter pieces, which range in length from five to twenty pages, run the gamut from hard science fiction to magical realism to fantasy with a sci-fi twist to elegiac horror. Fujita Masaji’s “Angel French” is about the romance between two deep space robotic probes who began life as two college students hanging out in Mister Donut. “To the Blue Star,” written by Ogawa Issui (whose novels The Lord of the Sands of Time and The Next Continent are published in translation by Haikasoru), is another story about a self-aware technological entity. This entity, whose name is X, is a collective intelligence made up of a fleet of robotic star cruisers that represent the last remnants of human civilization. X tells its own story as it travels through the universe, watches civilizations rise and fall, fuses with other advanced life forms, and finally meets God. Matsuzaki Yuri’s “The Finish Line” is a thought experiment in the form of a short story and features a quiet but chilling scenario of the end of all life on earth. Kamon Nanami’s “A Piece of Butterfly’s Wing,” which is probably my favorite story in the collection, is a beautifully creepy ghost story in the literary tradition of writers like Kurahashi Yumiko and Kanai Mieko. Like the work of these masters of the poetics of horror, Kamon’s story is filled with beautiful, atmospheric imagery and resonant symbolism. It also features a delightfully disturbing twist at the end.

The longer stories of Speculative Japan 3 shine just as brightly as the shorter pieces. Even though none of these stories are more than thirty-five pages in length, they’re long enough to allow nuanced character development as they explore their premises in greater depth. Suga Hiroe’s “Five Sisters” is about a woman named Sonogawa Hanako who meets four clones of herself that have all been raised in different households. Each of these women has a different personality, and it’s fascinating to see how each has lived her life with the knowledge that she is a clone created to be harvested for organs. Ueda Sayuki’s “Fin and Claw” is a window into a future where humans have been genetically modified to be more adaptable to an environment covered in seawater. “Fin and Claw” is sort of like Jurassic Park with enormous sea creatures, and the moral of the story is the same. The last three pages of Ueda’s nightmarish vision are particularly terrifying in their visual imagery.

The title story, Yamada Masaki’s “Silver Bullet,” is a Japanese Cthulhu mythos story (more of which are collected in Kurodahan’s Night Voices, Night Journeys). In my experience, there are two main types of Cthulhu mythos stories: pseudo-Victorian and classy, and unabashedly pulpy. “Silver Bullet” belongs to the latter category. Its protagonist is sufficiently hard boiled, and the story contains more cheap sexuality than you can shake a flagella at. Still, all of the story’s thematic elements mesh together nicely, the ending is well earned, and the method used to summon Cthulhu is awesome (as is the instrument used to stop the summoner).

If there’s one story in the collection that feels out of place, it’s “Green Tea Ice Cream,” which is written by Mark Schultz. Perhaps it feels out of place because it’s merely good instead of excellent, but perhaps this is also because it bears the traces of awkwardness that often afflict stories written about Japan in English (a few of which have been recently collected in The Future Is Japanese). It’s difficult to pinpoint what the exact causes or sources of this awkwardness are, but it probably has to do with the writer feeling the need to explain certain “Japanese” things to the reader, as well as with the unstable balance between Japan as a real place and Japan as a fictional creation in these stories. “Green Tea Ice Cream” also revolves around a science fiction trope that I personally find silly and boring, namely, the unnecessary sexualization of a young woman who embodies fears concerning the changing relationship between human beings and technology. If the non-consensual impregnation and subsequent abduction of mindless machine girls is your cup of tea, though, knock yourself out. There are also some uncomfortably sexual father-daughter issues on display, if you’re into that sort of thing. That being said, the unsavory nature of the scenario and the characters of this story gives it greater depth and impact as a speculative commentary on contemporary bioethics.

To counter the sour taste of “Green Tea Ice Cream,” Mori Natsuko’s “It’s All Thanks to Saijō Hideaki” is made of pure sugar. To give a summary would be spoiling the fun, so let it suffice to say that this is one of those stories that you can’t believe you’re reading while you’re reading it and then can’t believe you’ve read once you’re finished. The experience of reading this story filled me with joy. If you’re a fan of yuri or bara stories (or brilliant parodies of such stories), then this is the story of the elegant, fabulous apocalypse you’ve been waiting for.

As in Speculative Japan 2, the translation is smooth and even throughout, with each story retaining the individual characteristics and quirks of its author. It’s a pleasure to read the stories in this anthology not just for the freshness and wonder of their ideas but also for the high quality of their writing and translation. As both an anthology of contemporary science fiction and an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature, Speculative Japan 3 succeeds brilliantly in collecting not the newest or the most popular, but rather the most interesting and the best written. Speculative Japan 3 is an excellent collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for intelligent and exciting new fiction, speculative or otherwise.

Review copy provided by Kurodahan Press

Parasite Eve

Title: Parasite Eve
Japanese Title: パラサイト・イヴ (Parasaito Ivu)
Author: Sena Hideaki (瀬名秀明)
Translator: Tyran Grillo
Publication Year: 1995 (Japan); 2005 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 314

Sometimes I know that I should not write a particular review. Sometimes I have nothing nice to say. Sometimes, however, it’s way too much fun to resist writing about a hilariously bad book. This has happened before with Outlet and xxxHOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC, and now it’s happening again with Sena Hideaki’s horror novel Parasite Eve, which is so bad that it’s almost good.

If nothing else, the premise of Parasite Eve is certainly original. A woman named Kiyomi has a problem with her mitochondria, which have collectively mutated into an intelligent being. These mitochondria gradually take over Kiyomi’s body, killing her and forcing her husband Toshiaki, a pharmaceutical researcher, to cultivate her liver cells. Since Kiyomi was an organ donor, one of her livers has found its way into a fourteen-year-old girl named Mariko, who begins to suffer from nightmares. As Toshiaki’s cell culture, which he has named “Eve 1,” grows, it (she) gains the ability to move around and make herself look like Toshiaki’s dead wife. Since Eve 1 cannot live for long on her own, she wants to create a half-human, half-mitochondria offspring, a project for which she needs Toshiaki’s sperm and Mariko’s womb. Although Eve 1 has a time limit for how long she can survive outside of a cell incubator, she can reshape herself at will and shoot fire. It goes without saying that Toshiaki must find a way stop her.

The narrative shifts between Toshiaki, Toshiaki’s research assistant, Mariko’s father, Mariko’s doctor, and Kiyomi. Eve 1 occasionally gets a few italicized paragraphs, too. Each of these characters is interesting in his or her own right; but, even though none of them are wooden or stereotypical, their characterization felt a bit half-hearted to me. The real focus of the first two-thirds of the book seems to be less on the characters and more on the surgery and scientific experiments they are involved in. Toshiaki’s research and Mariko’s organ transplant are described in loving detail, with all sorts of technical terms accompanied by explanations for the general reader. Even with all the non-fiction exegesis of science and medicine, the narrative progresses normally (if a bit slowly) for 175 pages. Even though there was a bit of Eve 1 shooting orgasms at people (I am not making this up) previously, this is the point at which things get ridiculous.

The next paragraph is filled with spoilers and sex. Consider yourself warned.

In the last third of the book, Eve 1 steps into the spotlight. I was especially struck by how Sena chose to portray her as intensely sexual. When Eve 1 first gains the ability to manipulate her shape while still in the cell culture incubator, she immediately gives herself a vagina and a finger and puts the two together. She then mouth-rapes Toshiaki’s student in order to gain control of her body for a few days before breaking free, at which point she turns herself into a giant vagina and rapes Toshiaki so as to procure his sperm. I kept thinking to myself, I bet Eve 1 is going to grow a penis and rape the fourteen-year-old next. So, when Eve 1 grew a penis and raped Mariko (after a short jaunt through the sewer), I actually laughed so hard that I cried a little bit. At the very end of the book, it turns out that Eve 1’s offspring cannot live (something about the male mitochondria in her body fighting the female mitochondria; don’t ask me). Instead of using her mitochondrial superpowers to generate a small-scale nuclear reaction and blow everything sky high (as I would have done in her situation), Eve 1’s daughter decides to fuse into the body of her father Toshiaki, and all of their cells have sex before they both die. Brilliant.

Body horror seems to be one of the major selling points of Parasite Eve, but body horror needs to be subtle in order to be truly effective. I believe that the body horror in this novel is unsubtle to an extreme, however, and the book has very few genuinely creepy moments. Also, by the end of the story, I really wanted Eve 1 to succeed in her mission of evolving an all-female race of mitochondria mutants, so I was a bit (okay, extremely) disappointed when both her and her daughter were defeated by the patriarchal power structures that pervade the narrative. Also, the idea that a female character needs to be either an innocent victim, a primordial mother, or a hyper-sexualized aggressor is getting a little stale. Seriously, is the dawn of a female race of X-Men with tentacles really too much to ask for?

To summarize, Parasite Eve is somewhat slow and boring for 175 pages, becomes progressively more gross and strange for the next 100 pages, and then ends in a 15 page orgy of fire and violence and slime. In other words, the pacing is a bit uneven, as is the distribution of action and explanation. Overall, reading Parasite Eve felt uncannily like reading a Michael Crichton novel, including the way that the science became increasingly more outlandish as the story progressed. If you’re a fan of Michael Crichton novels (or Dean Koontz novels), then you’ll probably be able to gloss over the flaws in the writing and enjoy Parasite Eve. Sena is working with very interesting material, after all, and his style is neither dry nor unliterary. The translation flows smoothly, and everything from dialog to the description of surgery has been rendered into natural, idiomatic English. If nothing else, it is worth reading through the first two thirds of the book in order to get to the ending. Especially if you’re into the sort of thing that happens during the ending – and, admit it, who isn’t?