Posts Tagged ‘The Twelve Kingdoms’

I suppose, at this point, it’s not news to anyone that Tokyopop has shut down its manga publishing operations. At first I couldn’t believe this was really happening, but the website was just taken offline a few days ago (although the Facebook page still remains, oddly). People have been writing touching elegies for the company (and perhaps an even greater number of people have been castigating its president); but, for me, it’s really all about the books Tokyopop published – and getting my hands on the good ones before it’s too late.

Because there are some titles you don’t want to miss. Ships like Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss have already sailed, unfortunately, but there are still some excellent Tokyopop manga available on Amazon. For example:

Castlevania: Curse of Darkness (Kou Sasakura)
A vampire manga based on a video game? Why yes, yes it is. And it’s really good, too. Even for someone who’s never played the games. The story is perfectly paced, and the artwork is gorgeous.

Dramacon (Svetlana Chmakova)
This is a really fun manga for anyone who’s ever been to an anime convention – or for anyone who’s ever been a teenager with an impossible crush and an even more impossible dream.

Eensy Weensy Monster (Masami Tsuda)
This (ridiculously-titled) manga is the perfect light-hearted shōjo romance. The art is clean and pretty, the characters are adorable and develop nicely, and the story ends exactly where it needs to end.

Gerard & Jacques (Fumi Yoshinaga)
Yoshinaga has drawn some crappy boys love manga, but this is not one of them, not by a long shot. Think Ellen Kushner-esque snarky historical drama, except with fewer swords and more sexy funtimes.

Goth (Kendi Oiwa)
Based on an intensely disturbing light novel by Otsuichi, this manga captures the darkness of its source material with artistically sophisticated illustrations. The pictures amp up the shock value exponentially, and that’s saying a lot.

Legal Drug (CLAMP)
This short (and tragically abandoned) series has been eclipsed by CLAMP’s more high-profile titles, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, clever, creepily gothic, and full of handsome boys flirting with each other.

Suppli (Mari Okazaki)
Besides Ai Yazawa’s Nana, this is probably the best long-form josei manga in translation that I know of. It’s mature, it’s honest, and it has more drama than you can shake a designer handbag at.

Speaking of josei manga, if you can find anything by Erica Sakurazawa or Mitsukazu Mihara, get it! The short story collections of both artists are unique, quirky, and not likely to be seen again after the last copies vanish from Amazon.

Unfortunately, most of the Tokyopop light novels I’d like to recommend have long since been out of print. Thankfully, there are two happy exceptions, and they are the paperback editions of the second and third books of Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms series of young adult fantasy novels (their titles are Sea of Wind and The Vast Spread of Seas, respectively). Both of these novels stand on their own as stories, and both are excellent reads with lucid translations and interesting illustrations that add a great deal to the text.

Most of the opinion pieces I have read concerning Tokyopop’s demise either lament the company’s slow slide into irrelevance or reminisce about long-gone gateway series such as Love Hina or Fruits Basket. I’m not a Tokyopop apologist by any means, but I think the publisher was still coming out with quality titles right until the end. Although it’s no longer a question of supporting the company, manga fans should still be able to get their hands on many of these titles at Amazon discounts (as opposed to eBay markups). If they act quickly, that is…

Title: Crest of the Stars: Princess of the Empire
Japanese Title: 星界の紋章:帝国の王女 (Seikai no monshō: Teikoku no ōjo)
Author: Morioka Hiroyuki (森岡浩之)
Translator: Sue Shambaugh
Publication Year: 1996 (Japan); 2006 (America)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 212

I am a great lover of books, and I spend a great deal of my time reading. I genuinely enjoy almost everything I read, no matter what the genre, and rarely do I dismiss something as absolutely not worth reading. It is very easy for me to explain why I like a particular book, or what is valuable about a particular work, but I think that sometimes it’s important to also discuss what is mediocre, and what can be done better.

Morioka Hiroyuki’s Crest of the Stars series was recently held up to me as a paragon of Japanese science fiction. I wasn’t impressed with the translation of the first book in the series, Princess of the Empire, when it was released in the fall of 2006, but I decided to try it again. The series is massively popular in Japan, and it has quite a dedicated fan base in America as well. I have heard it described as a masterpiece of Tolkienesque proportions in several reviews; and, in my mind, there is no higher praise. Perhaps I had misjudged it four years ago.

Unfortunately, upon re-reading the book, that turned out not to be the case. Princess of the Empire starts off with a wonderful prologue, which briefly introduces the main character of the series in an interesting and beautifully described setting before launching into a short but fascinating account of the space journeys that led to the present moment. This history is then interrupted by action! intrigue! betrayal! and emotion! Unfortunately, this prologue is only sixteen pages long. What follows is 161 pages of utter garbage.

The teenage hero of the series, Jinto, arrives at a spaceport, where he is met by a beautiful blue-haired space elf named Lafiel. Lafiel takes Jinto to a space elf ship which will transport him to the space elf academy (Jinto, although genetically human, is politically an honorary space elf). The ship is attacked by a human group that seeks to oppose the space elf empire, and only Jinto and Lafiel escape. The ship is destroyed, and the unlikely pair (well, actually, very likely, considering that there are no other characters) is stranded on a small backwards planet. The end. Oh, and if you guessed that Lafiel is the princess of the space elf empire, you win a cookie.

You might be thinking, well, if Morioka spins 161 pages out of relatively nothing, then he must be a fairly talented writer with an eye for detail and a talent for dialog. Wrong. The Crest of the Stars series is known for its world building, and what Morioka has given us is 161 pages of almost unmitigated world building. The space elves are called Abh, they have a space empire, they have strange breeding practices, and they are genetically engineered to be beautiful, blue-haired, and psychic. That’s right, they are psychic space elves – which would perhaps be forgivable if there were more to them. Unfortunately, Morioka’s world building reads like a world history textbook written for fourth graders. Even when delivered in speech, the tone of this information is uniformly dry, essentialist, and uninteresting. Population statistics and general government details are provided, but nothing is said about culture, religion, art, lifestyles, political factions, diversity, philosophy, attitudes towards technology – or anything that the reader might actually care about. The clunky constructed language that annoyingly pervades the text is substituted for any real imagination. The almost complete lack of any visual imagery makes the book seem almost sterile, which I don’t think is a deliberate choice on the part of the author, whose writing is incessantly puerile:

Sure, Jinto had experience interacting with girls – he’d made a point on Delktou, in his own way. However, older women were still a complete mystery to him – especially gorgeous older women who were commanders of interstellar battleships. He couldn’t get his heart to stop racing.

In other words, instead of building a fictional world gradually while pulling his readers deeper into said world through plot thickening and character development, making them increasingly curious about the universe in which the characters live as they become increasingly attached to the characters themselves, Morioka completely forgoes plot and character development in order to construct his setting, which quite frankly feels like a cliché mix of Star Wars empire-and-princess driven space opera and Star Trek alien-culture-of-the-week episodic exploration adventure. The fact that the Abh are long-lived, pointy-eared, and dismissive of humans does not make Crest of the Stars Tolkienesque, unfortunately. In his postscript, Morioka states that he hopes “to make shameless sci-fi fans groan.” I’m pretty sure “groan” is the operative word here, since even Troy Denning’s novels set in the Star Wars universe are better written. Alas.

Princess of the Empire is everything I hate about the genre of young adult fiction, which tends to presume that its readers can’t handle complex plots, three-dimensional characters, figurative language, or middle school vocabulary. It could be argued that Japanese light novels are an entirely separate medium than young adult fiction; but still, there are infinitely better light novels out there. One of my personal favorites is Ono Fuyumi’s The Twelve Kingdoms series. A translation of the fourth installment, Skies of Dawn, was recently released a week or two ago, and I am happy to report that the series is only getting better with each successive book.

If it’s Japanese science fiction you’re looking for, then popular mainstream writers from Abe Kōbō to Ōe Kenzaburō to Miyabe Miyuki have successfully tried their hands at hard science fiction at one point or another. If you’re looking for the epic adventure and unparallel world building of Frank Herbert (or China Miéville), then check out Murakami Haruki’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which benefits from one of the most artistic and creative translations I have ever read. If you’re more in the mood for the intellectual short fiction of someone like Ray Bradbury (or Tim Pratt), then check out Tsutsui Yasutaka’s collection The Salmonella Beings from Planet Porno. If you’re in the market for lighter fare, I have been especially impressed by several of the translations I have read from an upcoming press called Haikasoru, which is an arm of Viz Media, an established publisher of manga intended for a slightly more mature audience than that targeted by Tokyopop.

In any case, to return to Princess of the Empire, it’s a morass of weak writing and tired stereotypes. Perhaps the Crest of the Stars series deepens in the second and third books, which are also available from Tokyopop, but I would rather spend my time reading all the cool new stuff that seems to be coming out almost every month. For those who want to know what all the fuss is about but don’t have the stomach to brave the light novels, there is always the Crest of the Stars manga trilogy (also published by Tokyopop). The manga are just as mediocre as the books – but at least the female characters provide the service of bending over to reveal themselves every few pages. Which, I suppose, is always a welcome distraction from heavy-handed world building and the overuse of a constructed language.