Overlord: The Undead King

Overlord, Volume 1: The Undead King
Japanese Title: オーバーロード 1 不死者の王 (Ōbārōdo 1: Fushisha no ō)
Author: Kugane Maruyama (丸山くがね)
Translator: Emily Balistrieri
Illustrator: so-bin (@soubin)
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2016 (United States)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 246

Overlord is about a normal man from contemporary Japan getting trapped in an MMORPG. It’s a typical isekai story, but there’s a twist. Instead of valiant hero who must learn to fight monsters, the protagonist is the monster, and his goal is nothing less than to take over the world.

The premise of Overlord is fairly standard. An MMORPG called Yggdrasil that was developed to take advantage of an immersive “neuro-nano interface” is scheduled to go offline after a successful twelve-year run, but a max-level player and guild master who calls himself Momonga (after a supremely adorable type of flying squirrel) decides to stay logged in until the last second. Momonga is not forced out of the system but remains inside the virtual world, and he quickly realizes that he’s unable to leave. He has no friends or family outside of Yggdrasil, so this is not as distressing for him as it could be. Nevertheless, he decides to “take over the world” in an attempt to find other players who may have become similarly trapped inside the game.

I’m not sure I can recommend Overlord to someone looking for a more literary type of fantasy. To begin with, there’s a fair amount of nerd talk concerning game mechanics like quickcasting and debuffer immunities, especially early in the novel. Overlord assumes that its reader is already familiar with MMORPG culture and the conventions of the isekai genre. If none of this is new to you, however, the way the novel fast travels through issues that aren’t pertinent to the immediate plot (such as “where am I” and “how did I get here”) is a welcome change of pace.

This novel is an unabashed power fantasy. Not only is Momonga inhumanly strong on his own terms, he now possesses all of the magical treasures left behind by his guildmates. On top of that, all of the powerful level bosses in the dungeon formerly occupied by his guild are tripping over themselves to swear allegiance to him. Momonga can heal the sick, raise the dead, summon dragons, and make all of his subordinates (male and female) swoon at his very presence.

There’s a bit of boob grabbing and panty wetting, but it’s very silly and feels perfunctory, almost as if it’s something the writer felt that he needed to check it off a list. For the most part, Momonga is a decent person who’s not particularly interested in romancing the (dubiously?) sentient NPCs that were originally created by his friends. He’s a “demon king” in title and appearance only – although he doesn’t hesitate to kill an entire battalion of soldiers who attack a civilian village later in the novel.

The real power fantasy explored by Overlord has very little to do with swords and sorcery, however. Rather, the novel is essentially a story about what it means to be a good boss. All of the fantasy-themed gaming business aside, what Momonga needs to figure out is how to become an effective leader who is able to work efficiently while maintaining the respect of his subordinates. The decisions he makes concerning matters such as when to intimidate people and when to let things slide are interesting, and they form the core of the story, whose conflicts have fairly low stakes – at least in the opening volume.

The Overlord light novel series has sold millions of copies in Japan. It was also adapted into an anime series in 2015, with its third season airing in 2018. The illustrator, @soubin, has a massive following on social media, not in the least because of his stylish fan art for anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Attack on Titan. Maruyama’s novel was originally serialized online, and it reads a bit like fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off. If you enjoy this type of writing, Overlord is a decadent treat.

I should add that I’m extremely impressed by the quality of the hardcover book. Yen Press always does a fantastic job with its physical publications, but Overlord is something special. There’s a beautiful pull-out map at the beginning, character profiles at the end, and full-color illustrations at the beginning of every chapter. I have to admit that I’m not sure why Overlord merits this sort of “collector’s edition” treatment – aside from its massive popularity, of course – but I’m not complaining! Yen Press has currently published twelve volumes in the series, and each is as devilishly handsome as the last.

(Image from the Yen Press official Twitter account)

Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy V
Author: Chris Kohler
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 165

Final Fantasy V is a book about the experience of growing up in the 1990s and discovering Japan by way of video games. This story is familiar to many people who came of age along with the internet, and Chris Kohler, who was born in 1980 and currently works as an editor at Kotaku, is the perfect person to tell it.

The book opens with a history of the early Final Fantasy series narrated from the perspective of the author, an American who has to glean bits and pieces of knowledge from magazines like Nintendo Power. Kohler also had access to computer industry trade magazines with ads in the back, which is how he came to acquire a Japanese copy of Final Fantasy V. His account reads like a child detective story, and I especially enjoyed how he dramatizes the process of “unlocking” the Japan-specific cartridge by manually prying off a set of small plastic tabs.

Kohler later coauthored the first fanmade English-language Final Fantasy V FAQ guide. This expansive document was meant to help Final Fantasy fans make sense of the Japanese-language game, which was circulated online as a ROM file that could be played on any number of software programs that emulated the Super Nintendo gaming console. Kohler discusses how the content of the game was officially and unofficially translated and retranslated, as well as why it was worth translating. Kohler also goes into rich and fascinating detail about the online cultures that have formed around Final Fantasy V, as well as many other Japanese RPGs that were slow to receive an English-language release.

Final Fantasy V is about a specific video game, but it’s also about how the gaming subculture of the 1990s explored and embraced the potential for communication across linguistic and cultural barriers. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the Final Fantasy series or video games in general, this short book is a lovely memoir of the early internet era. Final Fantasy V stands alongside Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine as a representative example of the excellent narrative nonfiction created by the generation of people between Gen X and the Millennials who grew up along with the internet, with all the weirdness and thrill of discovery that entails.

Chris Kohler is also the author of Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. Although it shows its age (in a dignified manner, of course) as a book that was written during an earlier period of gaming history, Power-Up is still an immensely fun read, and it contains a wealth of treasure for fans of the Final Fantasy series and people interested in how Japanese pop culture has been translated, localized, and interpreted by a global audience.

The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders
Japanese Title: EUGENIA (ユージニア)
Author: Riku Onda (恩田 陸)
Translator: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2005 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
Pages: 315

In 1973, in a small seaside town on the west coast of Japan, the prominent Aosawa family and their guests were poisoned with cyanide during a birthday party, an incident resulting in the death of seventeen people. Makiko Saiga, who was a child at the time, later interviewed people connected to the family for her senior thesis, which ended up becoming a true-crime bestseller titled The Forgotten Festival. Makiko never published another book and refused to give interviews, and the sole survivor of the Aosawa family, a young woman named Hisako, married and moved to the United States. When the man who delivered the poisoned alcohol to the party committed suicide, the police closed the case.

Thirty years after the incident, however, it becomes apparent that there may be more to the story. There are fourteen chapters in The Aosawa Murders, each narrated from the perspective of someone once connected to the Aosawa family or the publication of The Forgotten Festival. Makiko Saiga is polite yet evasive. Her research assistant knows that there are small departures from reality in her account but doesn’t know what to make of them. The detective who investigated the case is convinced that Hisako Aosawa is responsible for the murders but can’t quite prove it. Someone who knew the supposed culprit believes the young man was manipulated by a mysterious woman. A handful of other people, such as Makiko’s brother and the daughter of the Aosawa family’s housekeeper, offer additional intriguing anecdotes.

The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn. For the first two-thirds of the novel, the reader has no choice but to take each separate account as it comes while trying to pick out the connecting threads, which initially seem to be few and far between. The Aosawa Murders respects the intelligence of its reader by presenting information impartially and without cliffhangers, false leads, or red herrings. The circumstances surrounding the mystery are compelling enough to warrant sustained attention, but the carefully measured narrative pace allows the reader to take time with each account without being driven to rush forward.

When things begin to come together in the last hundred pages, the true brilliance of the story becomes apparent. The final two chapters focus on Hisako Aosawa (now Hisako Schmidt) and Makiko Saiga, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with both of them. After hearing so much about them from secondhand accounts, the down-to-earth reality of their actual personalities is refreshing. Regardless of what each of them may or may not have done, the author reminds us that both of these women are far more than archetypes in someone else’s story.

Although an astute reader will have formed several theories about what happened, the novel never presents a simple and neatly packaged explanation. The ending is fragmented and recounted in a jarring manner that serves as one of the strongest clues concerning the identity of the narrator who has presumably assembled the accounts that appear in the story. I can imagine that some people may find this sort of open-ended conclusion anticlimactic, but it was extremely satisfying to me.

I have to admit that I enjoy formulaic murder mysteries in which everything is neatly arranged and fits together perfectly at the end. The Aosawa Murders is not that type of story, however – not by a long shot. Instead, the novel is a sprawling puzzle that rewards the reader’s active attention and engagement. This is not a book that can be read in an afternoon. Thankfully, the strength of the writing and the quality of the translation encourage sustained reflection and speculation. I had an enormous amount of fun with The Aosawa Murders, and I would happily recommend it to anyone looking for an uncommon mystery written by a mature and confident storyteller.

To anyone concerned about such things, there is no overt violence, sexism, or misogyny in The Aosawa Murders. In addition, aside from a minor subplot involving a Buddhist priest, the story doesn’t contain any particularly “Japanese” elements, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Japanese society or police procedure in order to fully appreciate the characters and plot. In fact, I think The Aosawa Murders would make an excellent addition to a reading list of contemporary international mystery fiction.

A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Bitter Lemon Press. The quality of the publication is excellent, and I’m thrilled and delighted that Riku Onda’s work has made such a stunning debut in English translation.

Parade

Parade
Japanese Title: パレード (Parēdo)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美)
Illustrator: Takako Yoshitomi (吉富 貴子)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Book Design: Wah-Ming Chan
Publication Year: 2002 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 82

Parade is a short story that takes place during Hiromi Kawakami’s 2001 novel Strange Weather in Tokyo, which is about a woman in her late thirties who falls in love with her former high school teacher, whom she still refers to as “Sensei.” Parade stands on its own, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Strange Weather in order to appreciate Parade, which is strange and delightful.

Parade opens with the narrator, Tsukiko Omachi, preparing noodles at Sensei’s house. He asks her to tell him “a story of long ago,” she responds by relating something that happened during her childhood as they spend a lazy afternoon together.

When she was a kid, Tsukiko woke up one day to find two small people sitting beside her bed. They were about her size, and they had long noses, small wings, and bright red skin. Tsukiko decided that they were probably creatures from Japanese folklore called tengu. The two tengu followed Tsukiko to school, but no one seemed to notice them.

When Tsukiko arrives at school, however, she realizes that a few of the other children are accompanied by creatures of their own, such as a badger and a long-necked rokurokubi. The children followed by these creatures can see them, but they remain invisible to everyone else. None of the children find this odd, and Tsukiko’s mother – who once had a fox of her own – treats the issue in a matter-of-fact manner.

These creatures turn out to have less of an impact on Tsukiko’s life than a bullying incident in which Tsukiko’s classmate Yuko is ostracized by the other girls at their school. Yuko has a healthy response to this, ignoring her classmates in turn while still being friendly with other kids her age outside of class. Tsukiko is uncomfortable with the situation, however, and her tengu begin to fall ill.

The situation resolves itself, but there’s no sentimental moral or “life lesson” to the story, just children behaving in the way that children tend to behave. Instead, the “otherness” of the tengu serves as a means by which Tsukiko begins to understand her own subjectivity as someone who has never thought of herself as “a tengu person” yet has somehow come to be associated with them. At the same time, she becomes more aware of the subjectivity of other people who are attached to mythological creatures of their own, as well as the subjectivity of people who can’t see them but have no trouble accepting that they exist. There’s no direct allegory implied, but the imagery of Parade is compelling enough to resonate on multiple levels.

Soft Skull Press’s paperback publication of Parade is a lovely physical object, with a velvet-touch cover and finely textured pages. It also features creative interior design work by Wah-Ming Chan and a gallery of abstract illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (who has also published work in a number of josei magazines, although you won’t see any manga influences in Parade). The book measures about 4 by 6 inches, the perfect size for a short commute or a small gift. Although younger children may not understand the implications of the frame story (namely, Tsukiko and Sensei’s relationship), Parade is suitable for all ages, and I can imagine that it might inspire a few fledgling writers to attempt to tell “a story from long ago” of their own.

The God of Bears

The God of Bears
Japanese Title: 神様 (Kamisama)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上弘美)
Publisher: Chūōkōronsha (中央公論社)
Publication Year: 1998
Pages: 205

At the age of 36, Hiromi Kawakami submitted a story titled “The God of Bears” (Kamisama) to the Pascal Short Story Literary Newcomers Prize competition sponsored by Asahi Net, one of Japan’s largest internet service providers. “The God of Bears” was the winning entry, and it was first published online in 1994. “The God of Bears” was later published in print in 1998 in a collection of the same name, which won the prestigious Murasaki Shikibu Literary Prize of that year and the Bunkamura Deux Magots Literary Prize in the following year.

The God of Bears contains nine short stories set in contemporary Japan and connected by an unnamed narrator who encounters a variety of curious people and creatures during her daily life. In the title story, the narrator is invited out on a picnic by a bear who has just moved into their apartment complex. The narrator’s interactions with the bear over the course of a lazy afternoon illustrate both how familiar and how alien he seems as he attempts to adjust to life in human society. Other stories involve similarly supernatural yet mundane creatures, as well as normal people who find themselves in extraordinary situations.

In the second story, “Summer Break,” the narrator spends a few weeks working at a pear orchard, where she adopts a trio of small tree spirits. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. One of these creatures is introverted and oddly neurotic, and its anxiety over its short lifespan resonates with the worries of the narrator, who feels as if the world is slipping away from her. Both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with depression, but the conclusion of “Summer Break” embraces healing and self-acceptance.

The stories collected in The God of Bears are suffused with symbolism and subtext, and their themes emphasize appreciation for the natural world and a nuanced understanding of difference. The narrator is an engaging presence whose mood hovers between gentle amusement and dry cynicism, and she leads the reader along a trail of strange experiences while sharing her unique perspective on the fantastic events that befall her.

The God of Bears has the potential to speak to a broad audience of both casual and serious readers. Readers of contemporary Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa will be drawn in by the quiet elements of the fantastic and the distinctive but non-intrusive narrative voice. The folkloric nature of many of the stories, combined with the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the narrator, will also appeal to fans of anime and manga. Kawakami’s work is rich in visual imagery that lends itself to the development of a rich world for readers to explore, and the stories in this collection are filled with joy and wonder at the delightful weirdness of everyday life.

Aside from the title story, which can be found in the 2012 anthology March Was Made of Yarn, The God of Bears has not yet appeared in English translation.

 

The Little House

The Little House
Japanese Title: 小さいおうち (Chiisai ouchi)
Author: Kyoko Nakajima (中島 京子)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2019 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Darf Publishers
Pages: 268

The Little House is a novel that seems prosaic at first but becomes more interesting as mundane events and observations gradually take on a greater sense of weight and meaning. The majority of the story is presented in the form of a diary kept by its narrator, Taki. Taki is writing in the present day, but the events she describes occurred in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Little House is about wartime Japan, but it’s written from the perspective of someone far more invested in keeping a small household running than she is in supporting or celebrating the nation. The war eventually catches up to her, but her story is about resilience, not suffering or victimhood.

At the risk of reducing the novel to its subtext, The Little House is also a queer love story. Taki is employed as a maid in a house in the suburbs of Tokyo, and she enjoys a close friendship with the lady of the house, Tokiko. Tokiko’s son Kyoichi is from a previous marriage, and her current husband is an executive at a toy manufacturing company. He’s a handsome man, but he seems to have no interest in “that sort of relationship” with a woman, which is perhaps why he considers himself lucky to have married someone who already has a child. Kyoichi is bedridden with polio, so Taki has been employed to help Tokiko out around the house. Despite the difference in their ages and social status, they get along marvelously well.

It was clear to me that Taki is in love with Tokiko. I suppose it’s possible that her affection could be read as platonic, but Taki describes Tokiko’s physical appearance with quite a bit more than platonic interest. Taki also delights in her detailed memories of physical contact with Tokiko. These passages may fly under the radar of anyone who’s not attuned to them, but it’s difficult to say that the nature of Taki’s relationship with Tokiko is completely subtextual, especially given that Taki dwells on the fact that one of Tokiko’s closest female friends also had an intense crush on her while they were in school together. To drive the point home, this friend makes direct references to the fiction of Nobuko Yoshiya, who is famous for her stories about young women in intimate relationships.

To Taki’s chagrin, Tokiko is in love with a young artist named Itakura. Under the pretext of arranging a marriage for him, Tokiko meets with Itakura several times, and a romance develops between them. As Japan digs itself deeper into the Pacific War, however, Itakura is drafted. Tokiko is devastated, but Taki prevents her from meeting Itakura a final time before his deployment by means of a small but life-changing act of “housekeeping” that has been foreshadowed from the beginning of the novel.

By March 1944, the Hirai family can no longer afford to employ Taki. She is sent back to her family’s home in rural Ibaraki prefecture, where she becomes a cook and caretaker for a group of children who have been evacuated from Tokyo. This is far less heartwarming than it sounds, and both Taki and the children are utterly miserable.

When the war is over, Taki visits Tokyo again only to find that the Hirai household has been destroyed during the American firebombings. Although she promises to write more about what happened afterward, Taki’s narrative comes to an abrupt end at this point. The reader learns that she stopped keeping her diary because of her declining health, but I suspect that she lost interest in telling a story in which Tokiko could no longer be a central character.

The coda to Taki’s account is provided by her great grand-nephew Takeshi, whom she has mentioned several times, always claiming that he doesn’t believe her story. Takeshi inherits Taki’s diaries after her death, and he ties up several loose ends in the final chapter as he reflects on the nature of the relationships between the various people in Taki’s life. Is it possible, he wonders, that Taki was in love with Tokiko? Takeshi leaves the answer to this question up to the reader’s interpretation, but his careful reevaluation of Taki’s actions in light of this possibility speaks for itself.

Not much happens in The Little House, but the reader is swept along into the family drama of the Itakura household by Taki’s lively and engaging narrative voice. Although Taki’s observations seem trivial at first, the close attention of a patient reader will be rewarded as the details of her story come together to create a portrait of a charming group of people and the historical conflicts that interrupted their lives and relationships. Nakajima handles the legacy of the Pacific War with grace and sensitivity, and The Little House provides a welcome and insightful perspective on the early Shōwa period that is often lost in narratives about wartime Japan.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder

The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Japanese Titles: 嵐のピクニック (Arashi no pikunikku) and 異類婚姻譚 (Irui kon’in tan)
Author: Yukiko Motoya (本谷 有希子)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Years: 2015 & 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 209

The Lonesome Bodybuilder collects eleven stories originally published in two books by the celebrated author Yukiko Motoya, whose writing has been winning prestigious awards in Japan for more than fifteen years. I’m a fan of Motoya’s work, and I was looking forward to the day when it would appear in translation. I couldn’t have asked for a better rendition into English than Asa Yoneda’s lively and engaging translation, and The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a wonderful introduction to the work of a fascinating writer.

The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is an eighteen-page journey. The protagonist feels as if her husband is ignoring her, so she takes up bodybuilding. She ends up becoming serious about it, but her husband fails to notice the dramatic changes of her body. After a traumatic incident in which she’s too afraid to use her physical strength to stop a dog from attacking another dog outside the home goods store where she works, she begins to embrace the idea that her training has no practical purpose other than to make her feel good about the way she looks. This sense of agency leads her to confront her husband, who finally makes an effort to be a better partner. At the end of the story, the narrator has started to build her self-confidence as well as her muscles, and she’s even beginning to consider adopting a dog of her own.

While the narrator of “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” learns to strengthen her connections with the people around her, “The Dogs” is a surreal celebration of self-imposed isolation. The narrator lives in a cabin in the woods that she’s borrowing from a friend while she does a vague sort of work that involves tweezers and a magnifying glass. She lives with dozens of bright white dogs that emerged from the forest and now share her space and sleep with her at night. When she goes to a nearby village for groceries, she learns that people have been going missing, and she fantasizes about what it would be like if everyone were to disappear. Her wish comes true as winter sets in and snow begins to fall, leaving her alone with dozens of mysterious dogs. The narrator treats all of this as if it were perfectly natural, and it’s clear that she couldn’t be happier.

The longest story in the collection, “An Exotic Marriage,” appears to be a straightforward account of a mundane marriage, but it gradually devolves into troubled confession regarding a genuinely bizarre situation. Several people close to the narrator have remarked that she has begun to physically resemble her husband, an observation that she finds disturbing. Although he’d already been married once, her husband seemed like an ordinary person until they moved in together, at which point he stopped making any attempt to hide his idiosyncrasies. He watches variety shows on television for hours on end before eventually transferring the target of his obsessive attention to a mobile game that the narrator tries and fails to understand. His unapologetic monomania leads him to quit his job; and, as he spends more time at home and becomes even more eccentric, his appearance begins to shift. The narrator is understandably concerned about what it might mean that she’s come to look like him, but she’s at a loss for how to keep her sense of self intact. At the end of the story, she realizes that her husband’s transformation is more dramatic than she suspected – and that he may not be human at all.

The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder toe an odd and uncanny line between slipstream horror and emotional comfort food. Although some of the situations the protagonists find themselves in are strange and uncomfortable, Motoya’s writing doesn’t convey any particular sense of dread. The lighter stories play games with popular culture, humorously exploring questions such as “What would it be like to be a generic minor character in a video game?” and “What if your anime girlfriend were real?” As a collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder carries on a conversation about the tenuous relationships people forge with difference, and most of the narrative tension comes from the ways in which this difference manifests in various identities, ontologies, and communication styles that may not always be compatible or even fully comprehensible.

Each of the eleven stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder is interesting and unexpected, and Asa Yoneda’s skillful translation of Motoya’s sparkling prose is a joy to read.