Posts Tagged ‘Japanese young adult fiction’

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.

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!

Title: Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime
Japanese Title: “文学少女”と死にたがりの道化 (“Bungaku Shōjo” to shinitagari no piero)
Author: Nomura Mizuki (野村 美月)
Illustrator: Takeoka Miho (竹岡 美穂)
Translator: Karen McGillicuddy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 183

Oh, Yen Press. Oh, how I love you; oh, how I hate you.

I love the money and effort you put into publishing your books. I love that you took a chance on titles like Black Butler and succeeded remarkably. I love that you turned garbage like Maximum Ride and Cirque du Freak into readable and artistically beautiful graphic novels. I love that you found room in your capitalistic heart for series like Bunny Drop and One Fine Day. I love how you don’t put Japanese manga-ka on a pedestal but instead give equal attention to Korean and American artists. I hate that you stopped publishing the paper-and-ink version of your monthly magazine. I hate that I can only access the digital version from your website even after I pay for it. I hate that you sent cease-and-desist orders to scanlation sites but then decided to launch your digital titles exclusively on the most expensive e-reader on the market.

I am similarly conflicted about the light novels Yen Press has released. I enjoyed Spice & Wolf, even if it was a bit bland (the most interesting bits were the watered-down speculations on preindustrial economies, if that gives you any idea how clumsy the characterization was). Kieli had an intriguing premise and was set in a fun dystopic fantasy world but was riddled with stereotypes and awkward dialog. Worst of all, the nails-on-a-chalkboard banality of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya made me despite not only Tanigawa Nagaru but the entire genre of light novels. So, when Nomura Mizuki’s Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime was released last July, I decided to give it a pass. I felt justified in my decision after reading the opening epigraph:

Mine has been a life of shame. I’m like the one black sheep born into a pure white flock. Unable to enjoy the things my peers enjoyed, unable to grieve the things they grieved, unable to eat the things they ate – being born an ignoble black sheep, I didn’t understand the things my friends found pleasant, such as love, kindness, and

Actually, let’s just leave it at that. There’s no need to copy the full paragraph. Glistening tears leaving black ebony trails of eyeliner down a tragic alabaster face – you get the picture. Maybe I would be more patient with such things if I were seventeen; but I’m ten years past seventeen and not quite as intrigued by alienated narcissism as perhaps I once was, regardless if said narcissism is a deliberate homage to Dazai Osamu. And so it was that Book Girl fell off my radar.

What made me leave my desk and walk straight to Borders to pick up a copy was Erica Friedman’s glowing review of the second book in the series, Book Girl and the Famished Spirit, over on Okazu. If the series is that good, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? And so I did. Suicidal Mime was short and engaging enough for me to read from cover to cover the very evening I bought it, and I did indeed enjoy the experience.

The “book girl” of the title is Amano Tohko, who seems to be an ordinary high school student save for the fact that, instead of food, she consumes the written word. She is the president of her prestigious high school’s book club, the only other member being Inoue Konoha, whom Tohko has drafted to write short, impromptu snacks for her. Tohko’s secret is that she quite literally eats paper with stories written on it, and Konoha’s secret is that he once wrote a bestselling novel under the name of his former girlfriend, who had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of her middle school in front of him. Konoha is taciturn but good-natured, and Tohko is brash but unflaggingly cheerful. The dynamic between these two characters is typical (one might almost say stereotypical) of the genre of Japanese high school comedy, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

The book is plot-driven instead of character-driven, though, and the plot is set in motion with the introduction of Takeda Chia, who asks Konoha to write a series of love letters for her. The recipient of these letters is Kataoka Shuji, an upperclassman on the archery team. As Konoha soon discovers, however, Shuji doesn’t exist. Or, at least, not anymore – he supposedly committed suicide ten years ago, but a letter found inside an old copy of Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human hints that there might have been more to his death than suicide. The story is thus propelled by three intertwined mysteries. Who was Kataoka Shuji? How did he die? What stake does Chia have in the matter? Playing the role of Sherlock, Tohko knows more than she lets on but sends Konoha on several fetch quests to discover concrete clues.

These clues seem unconnected at first; and, unfortunately, they tend to remain unconnected towards the end of the book, when everything wraps up so quickly that I was left wondering what had just happened. It turns out that Dazai Osamu is not the only sociopath in the story; literally everyone is a black sheep who has lived a life of shame. This sudden plot development boggled my mind, and I ended up not really caring about any of the inexplicably psychologically damaged characters. Perhaps this makes me a sociopath, but, in my defense, the characterization is rather weak. For example, Tohko is introduced to the reader in this way:

Tohko was perched on a metal folding chair, her knees pulled up to her chest. It wasn’t a very modest way for her to sit. Her pleated skirt was almost wide open – but not quite. If she moved her legs even slightly she would be flashing me.

This is how Chia is introduced:

A girl was splayed out on the floor, her skirt flipped up in her fall, exposing her bear-print underwear for all to see. It occurred to me that my little sister had the exact same pair of underwear, but she was only just starting elementary school.

In other words, the characterization depends fairly heavily on anime tropes, which are emphasized and reinforced by the illustrations:

To make a short story even shorter, then, Book Girl and the Suicidal Meme is a plot-driven novel with a ridiculous and poorly paced plot populated by characters that are little more than amalgamations of tropes culled from the otaku database. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), the book is a fun read. It’s short, and it moves quickly. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I imagine how it would be perfect for a younger audience. If nothing else, Tohko’s synaesthetic responses to literature are kind of cute:

“Mmmm, so good. Fitzgerald has a really snazzy flavor. I feel as if flamboyance, glory, and passion are dancing a waltz in my mouth, like I’m eating glittering caviar with champagne at a party. When I bite into it, its delicate skin pops, and a fragment of liquid spills into my mouth.”

As you can probably tell from the above passage, the touch of the translator is feather-light, so reading Book Girl feels really no different than reading “normal” (ie, contemporary American) young adult fiction, save for the eight full-color pages of illustration at the beginning. At $8.99, the book is priced like normal young adult fiction as well, so it’s well worth picking up and breezing through for anyone interested in light novels, young adult fiction, or anime and manga in general. I’m definitely going to order the second volume of the series before my next plane ride. The Famished Spirit is about sixty pages longer than The Suicidal Mime, so hopefully there will be more room for plot and character development.

Another mystery-flavored light novel I read recently was the first volume of Sakuraba Kazuki’s Gosick series, which is published by Tokyopop and still (as of this writing) available at a discount through Right Stuf. Like Book Girl (and many of Doyle’s original stories), Gosick employs a Todorovian element of fantasy in that the reader never quite knows if the cause of the story’s improbable events is supernatural in origin. The innocence of the beautiful young female Holmes-equivalent can be grating at times (as is that of Tohko), and there were times I suspected that her “astronomical genius” was only given to her by the author to make her a more desirable prize for the male reader-stand-in protagonist; but, if you can get around that, the first volume of Gosick is an enjoyable mystery novel. The Gosick anime series is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, and it’s worth briefly checking out if only for its gorgeous Mucha-inspired art nouveau opening sequence.