Books on Japanese Culture and Society

This past semester I taught a class on Japanese science fiction and fantasy, and I was surprised by how interested my students were in learning more about the social and cultural context of contemporary Japan. I therefore put together a list of recommendations for popular-audience books that are smart and specific yet still accessible to a casual reader. I decided to share this list here with the hope that it might prove useful outside the classroom.

If you’re interested in social issues facing contemporary Japan…

Dreux Richard’s Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century (2021) tackles two of the most significant demographic concerns in Japan, immigration and rural depopulation, as well as a major environmental concern, Japan’s aging nuclear reactors. Richard approaches these topics by conversations with people who are directly involved, from Nigerian immigrants to census workers to nuclear regulatory officials. The writing is remarkably rich and features a large cast of characters with interlocking stories.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “Triple Disaster” of March 2011…

Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (2017) tells the stories of people who survived, as well as the stories of people who didn’t. There are elements of true crime in Parry’s journalism, which seeks to understand what happened, how it happened, and how it affected those involved. Parry is never needlessly dramatic or unkind, but he is justifiably critical of the decisions of elected officials at all levels of government.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into the “Lost Decade” of Japan in the 1990s…

John Nathan’s Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose (2004) was written at a time when people were just beginning to understand the causes, repercussions, and long-term effects of Japan’s prolonged economic recession. Although it was published almost twenty years ago, this book remains relevant. Nathan is a professor and a literary translator, and reading each chapter is like listening to a fascinating class lecture.

If you’re interested in the dark side of Japan’s postwar economic miracle that emerged in the 1980s…

Norma Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century’s End (1991) is simultaneously an academic study and an intensely personal memoir. It’s also a genuine work of literature, and it won an American Book Award in 1992. Field’s prose is impeccably beautiful and a true pleasure to read, and her critique of the rise of neoliberal capitalism in Japan is penetratingly sharp. This book doesn’t feel the least bit dated, and it’s actually somewhat uncanny how all of Field’s predictions for Japan’s future came true.

If you’re interested in the history of how Japanese pop culture has been exported and received in the United States…

Matt Alt’s Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World (2020) is recounted from the perspective of an active working professional in the field of cultural exports from Japan. Alt begins in the immediate postwar period, and the scope of this book is impressively expansive. Alt regularly writes intriguing longread pieces for the New Yorker, and his 2018 essay “The United States of Japan” is a fascinating preview of an equally fascinating book.

If you’re interested in the American anime explosion during the early 2000s…

Roland Kelts’s Japanamerica: How Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (2006) feels charmingly retro in its perspective on Japan’s anime industry, especially when it comes to Kelts’s optimistic enthusiasm. This book captures the excitement of the mid-2000s anime boom fueled by DVD sales and anime conventions, which were springing up like mushrooms in North America. Kelts hits all the high points of the conversation at the time as he discusses topics ranging from anime auteurs to otaku fandom subcultures.

I also want to mention Jonathan Clements’s Anime: A History, which was published in 2013 by the British Film Institute. This is a muscular book that might be a bit too powerful for a casual reader, but it’s exquisitely well-researched and absolute required reading for anyone’s who’s serious about studying anime in the context of the creative industry that produces it.

If you’re interested in how the gaming industry developed in America during the 1980s through the 2000s…

Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America (2012) is a lot of fun. Very few people knew how to write about video games back in the early 2010s, but Ryan has perfect pitch. Nintendo is an apt focus of Ryan’s exploration of how the gaming industry underwent numerous rapid shifts during a twenty-year period, but the book is still interesting and accessible even to people who don’t particularly care about Nintendo games.

If you’re interested in landmark speculative fiction and sci-fi anime from the 1980s and 1990s…

Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007) is an academic essay collection, but most of the essays are fun, interesting, and easy to read. There’s a lot of intriguing analysis here, as well as a great deal of literary and media history that you can’t find in English anywhere else.

If you just really love Hayao Miyazaki…

Helen McCarthy’s Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation (1999) is a classic, with beautiful summaries, insights, formatting, and screenshots. Susan Napier’s essay collection Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (2019) is published by an academic press but still accessible and enjoyable, and it has the added bonus of covering Miyazaki’s manga in addition to his films.

If you’d like to do some armchair tourism of otaku subcultures in Tokyo…

Gianni Simone’s Tokyo Geek’s Guide: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Otaku Culture (2017) is filled with incredible photos and a wealth of interesting recommendations. It also includes several illustrated essays on the history and cultural context of various subcultures, from comics to cosplay to pop idols to anime musicals.

If you want to learn about Japanese folklore while doing some armchair tourism of rural Japan…

Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard’s Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter (2016) is a collection of comic nonfiction essays about the artists’ travels to various points of interest in the Tōhoku region of north Japan. There is indeed ample discussion of ghosts and yōkai, but this book’s true charm is its depiction of small rural towns and the colorful human characters who live there.

If you want to learn about Japanese urban legends and the true stories that inspired them…

Tara A. Devlin’s Toshiden: Exploring Japanese Urban Legends (2018) is self-published on Amazon, but that doesn’t make it any less well-researched. This book covers many internationally well-known Japanese urban legends, as well as a few that are infamous in Japan but aren’t yet widespread on the English-language internet. It’s much longer and denser than you might expect, but every chapter is extremely entertaining.

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This post’s header illustration was created by Marty Tina G., who goes by @geezmarty on Twitter. You can check out their portfolio (here) and download their short fantasy and sci-fi comics (here). Marty is an expert at bold character designs and bright color palettes, and I trusted them to capture the energy and excitement of reading an interesting book that expands the world.

Japanese Suspense Novels by Female Authors

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Normal people quietly go about their lives on a sleepy island where memories collectively vanish a bit at a time. But what happens to the people who can’t forget?

Masks by Fumiko Enchi
Two cultured and handsome men compete for the affections of a beautiful young widow while her devious mother-in-law manipulates their relationships from the shadows.

The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura
The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is intrigued by the Woman in the Purple Skirt – so intrigued that she follows her every move and investigates every detail of her private life.

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe
Pursued by debt collectors, loan sharks, and yakuza henchmen, a woman vanishes, leaving behind a trail of false identities and broken lives.

The Eighth Day by Mitsuyo Kakuta
A desperate woman, spurned by her married lover, kidnaps his child and goes on the run. Now an adult, the kidnapped child has no memory of this and must piece together what happened from interviews and newspaper clippings.

Penance by Kanae Minato
A young girl is assaulted and killed in a small rural town, and the murderer is never caught. Years later, a series of letters from the girl’s mother forces her former friends to reflect on what they knew and what they could never tell anyone.

The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike
A family moves into an inexpensive apartment next to a graveyard, but their hopes for a new life are shattered as strange and inexplicable things begin to happen in their building.

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura
A woman suffering from burnout leaves her white-collar position and goes to a temp agency, requesting that she be placed in an “easy” job. There’s no such thing as an easy job, however, and it stands to reason that companies who are desperate for temp workers have shady ulterior motives.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
An unmarried woman finds joy and meaning in the comfortable routine of working at a convenience store. When pressured by her family and friends to quit her job and find a partner, how far will she go to prove that she’s “normal”?

Real World by Natsuo Kirino
A teenage boy from an affluent Tokyo suburb kills his mother in a fit of explosive rage. The friends of the girl next door decide to help him escape and gradually succumb to the darkness at the core of their seemingly perfect lives at a prestigious private high school.

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The illustration above is by James of ShelfWornDrawn, whose work can be found on Instagram (here) and on Tumblr (here). You can commission a portrait of your own library via his Etsy page (here).








There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job

Japanese Title: この世にたやすい仕事はない (Kono yo ni tayasui shigoto wa nai)
Author: Kikuko Tsumura (津村 記久子)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2015 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Press: Bloomsbury Publishing
Pages: 400

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job is a collection of five connected stories about the different jobs undertaken by a 36-year-old woman suffering from burnout. After leaving her professional career, she tells her agent at the recruitment center that she wants “an easy job.” True to the book’s title, however, each of her five temp jobs has a catch – or, from the reader’s point of view, an interesting twist.

The setting is never specified, but the narrator seems to live in a suburb where people get around by bus. Based on the name of the (fictional) local football club, as well as the hometown of the author, I suspect that the suburb is somewhere in the vicinity of Osaka. The pace of life is more relaxed than it is in Tokyo. The narrator’s coworkers are friendly, and her supervisors are kind and supportive. She is never asked to do anything dangerous or illegal, and nothing bad happens to her. Her parents are happy to support her while she finds herself, and she’s free to quit at any time. Nevertheless, there is indeed no such thing as “an easy job.”

The fourth story, “The Postering Job,” is the most representative, especially in its revelation that the job the narrator is hired to do is only a cover for what her supervisor actually wants her to do.

Tired of sitting alone in a small office surrounded by reference books, the narrator requests that the next job assigned to her by the temp agency somehow involves being able to go outside. She’s therefore placed at a small office that hangs public service posters in a residential neighborhood. These posters, which are ubiquitous in certain parts of Japan, encourage people to “Make our town greener!” while reminding them to “Check behind you when turning corners!” The narrator’s job is to walk around the neighborhood putting up new posters while taking down the old ones.

The narrator’s supervisor asks her to make an effort to chat with the people in the neighborhood. In doing so, she discovers that some businesses and residences have already hung posters advertising a social group called “Lonely No More.” This group seems to be targeting retired elderly people and young singles, and it hosts free dinners and social gatherings. As the narrator begins to investigate, she learns that Lonely No More is not a cult… at least, not yet. It appears to be heading in that direction, though, and the wife of the narrator’s boss is one of the organization’s leaders. In other words, the narrator wasn’t actually hired to hang posters, but rather to track down and make contact with her boss’s wife.

I love each of the twists in There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job. It’s difficult to pick a favorite, but the second story, “The Bus Advertising Job,” skims across the glimmering surface of a deep pool of magical realism. The fantastic elements of “The Bus Advertising Job” don’t affect the narrator’s pragmatic attitude or matter-of-fact tone, even as they become progressively stranger. I’m not going to spoil the twist, but it’s wonderful.

The final chapter, “The Easy Job in the Hut in the Big Forest,” was the story that resonated with me most powerfully. At this job, the narrator is tasked with manning a small rest station located along one of the trails in a large suburban nature park next to a football stadium. Tsumura’s descriptions of the park are so vivid that you can almost hear the wind in the trees and see the dappled shadows of leaves fall across the page.

The narrator enjoys her time in the woods, but the catch to this job is that someone is secretly living in the park. The reader is initially led to suspect that this person might be the narrator’s supervisor, who seems to be hiding some sort of secret. As the story progresses, the reader realizes that the supervisor almost certainly knows about the situation, and that he more than likely hired the narrator with the understanding that she would discover this person and hopefully entice them to communicate with her.

At the end of the story, it’s revealed that the narrator was originally a social worker. This information helps the reader make sense of all of the seemingly random positions she was assigned by the temp agency. Tsumura seems to be suggesting that, in many (if not most) service positions, the actual job itself is secondary to human connection and cooperation. Essentially, all work is social work. There’s no such thing as an “easy” job; but, if work culture were more focused on the human connections between local businesses and the communities they serve, then perhaps we could collectively save ourselves from exhaustion and burnout.

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job invites comparisons to Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. Both novels celebrate individual dignity and encourage a more tolerant understanding of difference, but the tone of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job isn’t quite as bleak and nihilistic as that of Convenience Store Woman. Tsumura’s stories advocate for empathy toward alienated social outsiders, but they also serve as a model for how people can help and support each other through the work they do and the social connections they make.

This is not to say that There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job is sentimental, nor is it always easy to read. The narrator’s flat affect hides an iceberg of psychological damage that’s only revealed in small details. She gets upset about inconsequential things – generally the availability of the specific snacks she enjoys – while shrugging off important things, and she runs away from problems that would be easy to solve with a simple conversation. The story doesn’t flat-out say “this is what burnout looks like,” but it subtly demonstrates the mindset of someone who has reached their limit and exhausted the energy necessary to deal with the intricacies of social interaction.

Although Tsumura’s sensitive treatment of mental illness is important, the broader social implications of There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job don’t detract from the simple pleasure of how fun and addictive each of the stories is to read. I wanted to learn more about the narrator’s weird jobs, and I couldn’t help being curious about how each of these bizarre situations would turn out. Polly Barton’s award-winning translation is excellent, and I couldn’t be happier that Kikuko Tsumura’s work is finally available in English.

The End of the Line for the Shinra Corporation

One of the most iconic images of Final Fantasy VII is Cloud standing tall as he faces the dark tower of the Shinra corporate headquarters. Over the meandering course of its expansive story, Final Fantasy VII changes direction and shifts focus, but its story holds fast to the end goal of saving the world from a crisis created by Shinra. Even if there were no interstellar demons or mad scientists, the planet would never have survived were it not for a small group of activists who dared to challenge the most powerful corporation in the world.

Many players may have initially questioned the morals of Barret Wallace, the leader of the ragtag group of guerilla activists calling themselves Avalanche, but Barret’s anger and frustration prove to be justified when Shinra brings an entire section of the suspended concrete city of Midgar down on the slums, just as it had once ruined the towns of Corel and Nibelheim. The Shinra Electric Power Company authors its own demise with its destruction of the environment and the people whose lives depend on the land. It seems therefore natural, and perhaps even validating, when Shinra’s massive office tower becomes the target of an avenging meteor.

But why was the fantasy of saving the world from an evil corporation so powerful and pervasive in Japan, a wealthy country famous for its powerful economy?

This essay situates Final Fantasy VII within the political and cultural context of the 1990s, a decade of economic depression characterized by social malaise in Japan. I will begin by explaining the collusion between Japan’s public and private sectors before sketching an outline of how local groups protested and disrupted corporate destruction of the natural environment. I will then discuss how Avalanche reflects real-world grassroots environmental activism in Japan. I hope to demonstrate that, while Cloud and Aerith become heroes by saving the planet from a magical meteor, Barret and Tifa’s stand against the Shinra Corporation is just as brave and inspiring.

Japan’s postwar economic recovery was admired throughout the world, and the country boasted the second-largest global economy by the 1980s, when it was considered to be a serious threat to American economic hegemony. Japan’s swift economic recovery was facilitated by the coordination of the country’s “iron triangle” of elected officials, career bureaucrats, and large corporations known as keiretsu.

The expression keiretsu designates a “grouping of enterprises,” and it primarily refers to holding companies that oversee a diverse range of business interests. To give an example, the Mitsubishi keiretsu controls holdings ranging from Japan’s largest private bank to automobile manufacturing plants, as well as an electronics company that produces everything from industrial robots to home appliances. The economic activities of keiretsu like Mitsubishi were enabled by bureaucratic subsidies and adjustments to corporate law, which were in turn engineered by politicians, many of whom also served on the board of directors of various keiretsu. Through the coordination of activity between the public and private sectors, Japan’s economy was able to expand at a rate that amazed even the United States.

When Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, however, Japan was deep into what has become known as “the Lost Decade,” a period of severe economic depression. Like the global financial crisis of 2008, Japan’s Lost Decade was partially the result of the implosion of a real-estate speculation bubble. Essentially, financial companies made investments without the necessary capital to back their speculation. When they defaulted on their loans and went bankrupt, the entire economy spiraled into a tailspin.

Salaried workers lost their jobs, and middle-class families lost their houses and apartments. People working for hourly wages at the bottom of the economic ladder, a demographic that included foreign nationals and the vast majority of the female workforce, fell into even greater financial precarity. Average middle-class company employees who had sacrificed their personal lives while working long hours could do nothing but watch as their savings evaporate and their investments become worthless.

The fall of the mighty keiretsu resulted in deep cultural tremors. Along with the widespread social unrest that unseated Japan’s long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party, there was an intellectual pushback against the economic philosophy now known as neoliberalism, which refers to a return to nineteenth-century “liberal” policies that hold that the market functions best when unregulated. Not only had the unregulated activities of the keiretsu ultimately resulted in economic collapse and social instability, but the incestuous relationship between the national government, local bureaucracies, and corporate interests was also responsible for unnecessary and absurd incidents of environmental destruction.

The radical activist group Avalanche is representative of growing public support for ecological movements in Japan during the 1990s as coverage of horrific cases of industrial pollution began to appear in the media. Japan ultimately took a leadership position in various protocols of the United Nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change, but these top-down initiatives would never have been possible without the ongoing grassroots activism of local groups like Avalanche.

The 1960s saw the rise of Japanese environmental activism. Environmentalism was tied to other prominent activist movements of the decade, such as protests against American military conflicts in East Asia and demands to end institutional discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. In 1970, the Japanese Diet passed a number of laws regulating industrial pollution, thus ending the discharge of dangerous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic into rivers and ocean harbors.

Because of the Iron Triangle collusion driving Japan’s rapid economic growth, the bureaucratic systems in charge of enforcing environmental regulations worked with elected officials, many of whom had close ties to keiretsu with holdings in construction and real estate. The former environmental threat of pollution from mines and factories was therefore replaced by the threat of land development as municipally owned forests, riverbanks, and other uninhabited areas were sold to private business interests and cleared in order to build apartment complexes and shopping centers.

Essentially, the government facilitated the sale of public land to corporations, which destroyed natural environments for short-term economic gain. In Japan, the “economic bubble” years of the 1980s are notorious for absurd development projects in remote areas that included malls, museums, and amusement parks that have since closed and been abandoned. Contracting companies with ties to politicians and bureaucrats also received government funding to build unused bridges and tunnels in the countryside while needlessly coating mountainsides and shorelines with concrete reinforcement.

Widespread popular protest movements had become rare by the early 1980s. Nevertheless, local citizen’s groups once again banded together to take action against environmental destruction during the early 1990s. Along with raising public awareness, these groups pooled their resources to file lawsuits against corporations and buy land under consideration for development. A few high-profile cases, such as acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki’s ongoing efforts to conserve a forest in Saitama, have been celebrated by the international news media, but most of these activist groups were treated as nuisances, as their activities intentionally disrupted corporate development.

Barret Wallace is very much a representative of the “disruptive” guerilla activism that characterized Japan’s local environmental movements during the 1980s and 1990s. Barret saw his hometown of Corel exploited and abandoned, and he has firsthand experience of the emptiness of Shinra’s promises to create a better future. Barret initially supported Shinra’s plans to build a reactor on Mt. Corel, as the town’s mining economy had fallen into a gradual decline as a result of the spread of mako energy. At the slightest hint of trouble, however, Shinra burned Corel and converted it into a prison. Barret therefore understands from firsthand experience that it’s not possible to peacefully disagree with Shinra, as the corporation is essentially the government, legal system, and military.

Tifa, whose hometown of Nibelheim was destroyed by Shinra in order to protect its assets, also understands that Shinra cannot be resisted using conventional means. Unlike Barret, who is interested in combating a corrupt system, Tifa seems to be more concerned with nurturing personal relationships and protecting her community. Barret and Tifa’s goals are not in opposition, however. “Protecting the planet” is a lofty ambition, but environmental activism in Japan is grounded in the efforts of local communities attempting to deal with the effects of industrial pollution and overdevelopment in specific areas. Activist groups have often formed around small community meeting spaces like Tifa’s Seventh Heaven bar, especially as public spaces have become increasingly corporate owned.

In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Avalanche is a large paramilitary organization with multiple branches; but, in the original release, Avalanche is exactly what Japanese environmental activist groups are like in real life – small, local, underfunded, and dependent on community support and grassroots communication networks. Midgar may have been partially based on New York City, but the spray-painted slogans and paper billets that appear both above and below the city’s plate reflect the real-life edginess of Japanese activism, where graffiti in public places is rare and extremely eye-catching. This style of grassroots outreach occurred online as well. It’s easy to imagine Jessie, the tech guru of Avalanche, making the sort of clunky but charmingly hand-assembled website associated with Japanese activist groups.

This DIY style of environmental activism isn’t about the countercultural aesthetic of “punk” or “street,” nor is it mystical or intellectual, like the scientists in Cosmo Canyon who sit around the fire and gaze at the stars while pondering the nature of the universe. Rather, the people involved in activist groups are often older, with jobs and families and strong ties to the community. Disenfranchised but politically active people like Barret and local business owners like Tifa understand from personal experience that you can’t fight Shinra with academic monographs or polite editorials. Direct action is necessary, even if it’s uncomfortable and disruptive.

When Cloud returns to himself after falling into the Lifestream, Barret and Tifa encourage him to continue their quest to protect the planet. Whether it’s standing up to the destructive excesses of a large corporation or preventing the fall of a magical meteor, the actions taken to ensure the survival of humanity are important and necessary, even if the cause may seem hopeless. As Barret says, “You gotta understand that there ain’t no gettin’ of this train we’re on, till we get to the end of the line.” Midgar, Corel, and Nibelheim may be fictional, but human suffering caused by environmental destruction is real. Final Fantasy VII therefore functions as a form of modern storytelling that enables the children of the 1990s to understand why conglomerates like the Shinra Corporation failed while serving as a model demonstrating just how heroic it is to protect the planet.

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Selected References

Journalist and translator Matt Alt possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese popular culture, and his book Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World (2020, Crown) discusses the Lost Decade and its influence on various aspects of media from the 1990s.

Simon Avenell’s Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement (2018, University of Hawai’i Press) features an overview of postwar environmental activism and discusses its reemergence in the 1990s as local groups protested environmental degradation due to corporate development.

Alexander Brown’s Anti-Nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo (2018, Routledge) provides a solid background on contemporary environmental activism in Japan and demonstrates how the ethos of local citizen’s movements has carried over to the present day.

Rachael Hutchinson’s Japanese Culture Through Videogames (2019, Routledge) serves as an excellent model for how to discuss the “Japaneseness” of JRPGs and includes an insightful and meticulously researched chapter on Final Fantasy VII.

Matt Leone’s 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII (2018, Read-Only Memory), which is based on a lengthy Polygon article of the same name, contains a fascinating account of Squaresoft before the studio became a giant, Shinra-esque corporate media conglomerate.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015, Princeton University Press) details a few case studies of local citizen’s groups around Kyoto banding together to purchase forests threatened with development.

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This essay is my contribution to Return to the Planet, a fanzine celebrating the original 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII. The zine is free to download and filled with stunning artwork, moving fiction, and insightful meta essays. You can check out the zine on its website (here) and preview the contributors’ work on Twitter (here).

The Easy Life in Kamusari

Japanese Title: 神去なあなあ日常 (Kamusari naa naa nichijō)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: Amazon Crossing
Pages: 197

Eighteen-year-old Yuki Hirano has just graduated from high school, but he has no ambitions in life or plans for college. Not wanting him to become a hikikomori, his mother enrolls him in a special year-long forestry training program in rural Mie Prefecture. Unlike Yuki’s home in Yokohama, the tiny mountain village of Kamusari has no convenience stores or cell phone reception, just trees as far as the eye can see.

Yuki receives a warm welcome into the home of his supervisor, Yoki Iida, but he wants nothing to do with Kamusari. Forestry work is difficult and dangerous, and Yuki doesn’t have any particular knack for the job. Other employees of Nakamura Lumber judge him for his mistakes and make him feel like an outsider. The only other person his age, a schoolteacher named Nao, isn’t remotely interested in becoming friends with him. There’s nothing in Kamusari except work, and Yuki is so exhausted by the physical labor that he falls asleep right after dinner.

As he continues working, however, Yuki gradually learns to appreciate the warm hearts of the villagers and the wild beauty of the mountain forest. He becomes accustomed to the slower pace of life in Kamusari, and he’s eventually inducted into the village’s religious traditions. The Easy Life in Kamusari is divided into four chapters, one for each season, and Yuki is keenly observant of how the natural world changes around him. He has to be, as his life and livelihood now depend on his connection to the forest.

Like Shion Miura’s 2011 novel The Great Passage about an earnest young dictionary editor, the protagonist’s gender is central to the fantasy of accidentally stumbling into a meaningful and fulfilling career. And The Easy Life in Kamusari is, without a doubt, a fantasy.

All of the conservative and “traditional” aspects of society in Kamusari are quaint and charming. There’s no poverty or bigotry or bullying. Yuki isn’t gay, so he doesn’t have to deal with the locals equating homosexuality to sexual deviance. Since Yuki isn’t female, he doesn’t have to do a second shift of cooking and cleaning and childcare, which means he can fall asleep after dinner without ever having to worry about the fact that the nearest grocery store is a forty-minute drive away.

If you’re thinking, “Wow, that must be nice,” then rest assured that it is. It’s very nice! That’s the fantasy.

The Easy Life in Kamusari is a light read, and nothing unpleasant happens. An older worker isn’t happy with Yuki being included in village activities, but he’s shut down quickly by Yuki’s supervisor and coworkers, who support and protect him. There’s a bit of darkness in Nao’s character, but the reader never hears her story, as Yuki decides that it’s not his problem. Everyone in the village seems to expect that Nao will allow Yuki to have sex with her despite her lack of interest in a relationship, but he doesn’t force the issue, thankfully.

The Easy Life in Kamusari is a coming-of-age story about a boy becoming a man through manual labor and religious ritual, and the narrative perspective is staunchly masculine. Unlike its boisterous cinematic adaptation, the novel refrains from sex puns about wood, but it nevertheless expresses a strong gender dichotomy. Yuki’s sense of belonging is tied to his gradual incorporation into male spaces that exclude women, and female perspectives are not introduced into the story. If you’re sensitive to how “tradition” can trap people in gender roles and unwanted relationships, especially in isolated rural areas with no tolerance for more progressive worldviews, The Easy Life in Kamusari may not be for you.

Still, if you can accept the limitations of the narrative perspective, it can be nice to indulge in the fantasy of “traditional” masculinity as recounted in the light and gentle storytelling of a female author. No one gets hurt, either by toxic masculinity or in a gruesome forestry accident.

Speaking of which, the other fantasy presented by The Easy Life in Kamusari is the fantasy of living in harmony with nature. Forestry work is fairly dangerous in reality, as are wild animals, diseases carried by insects, and extreme weather conditions. While I admire the research Miura did for this novel, I can’t help but wish that she had been willing to explore a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of rural life and agricultural labor. Japanese cedar plantations have been harshly criticized by domestic and international environmental groups, and it would have been interesting to see these issues acknowledged and discussed from the perspective of people withing the industry. In addition, I would have liked to see a hint of the ongoing discussion about Japan’s aging rural population, perhaps in terms of what it means to have so many older people doing such dangerous work so far away from any healthcare resources.

But again, The Easy Life in Kamusari is a fantasy. It’s a charming and pleasant novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read a few pages at a time, and I’d always come away refreshed by the beauty of Miura’s writing and Juliet Winter Carpenter’s translation. Although I wish the story were more engaged with the realities of its setting, I would happily recommend The Easy Life in Kamusari as a light read to anyone interested in nature writing, Japanese religion, or a heartwarming story of growing up and finding one’s place in the world.

500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII

Editor: Matt Leone
Book Design: Rachel Dalton
Publication Year: 2018
Press: Read-Only Memory
Pages: 240

500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII is a book-length collection of interviews with the game developers and staff members who worked on the original release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997. These interviews originally appeared on the website Polygon and can be accessed (here). Despite an ingenious bookmarking system, the piece is extraordinarily long, which is one of the many reasons why the book publication project received an enthusiastic level of support on Kickstarter.

Another explanation for the project’s success has to do with the canonical status of Final Fantasy VII, as well as the curiosity of many longtime fans. The insights that 500 Years Later provides concerning the creative process behind the game are indeed interesting. To give an example, I learned that the city of Midgar was originally modeled on New York, not Tokyo. Barret was originally named “Joe,” and he was the first character the development team created. Cloud, who was supposed to be Barret’s sidekick, was the second.

I was especially intrigued by a short interview with Tetsuya Nomura, who says that he gave the protagonist the name Cloud, “as in overcast gray clouds, because he was a slightly depressed, moody character.” Nomura adds that he wanted to make Cloud “a more human, weak character with flaws,” and that he was never intended to be a symbol of heroism. When the creators of Final Fantasy VII talk about their ideas and process, you can almost hear the enthusiasm in their voice.

Unfortunately, the majority of 500 Years Later is corporate gossip. Many of the interviewed staff members hint at issues that they never fully explain. For example, why were there so many errors in the original English translation? Because the circumstances were bad. How were they “bad,” exactly? No one will say. In addition, there are a lot of contradictions, as well as people vaguely suggesting that perhaps someone is misremembering something.

There’s also a lot of discussion concerning why the Honolulu studio that produced the Spirits Within movie failed, but no one will come out and say what they mean. The closest anyone gets is Alexander Smith, who laments that there were significant tax breaks offered by the state of Hawai’i that Square wasn’t interested taking advantage of. Apparently, the studio could have saved millions of dollars by signing an agreement saying that they would employ local Hawai’ians, but they refused to do the paperwork even though they could have easily hired local people as property maintenance staff.

Many of the Japanese staff aren’t willing to step on anyone’s toes, while the members of the American and European staff have moved on during the past twenty years and don’t really remember the specifics of what they were doing in 1997. I wish 500 Years Later were more “tell us about these characters and the world you helped create” and less “tell us how you feel about your bosses and coworkers from twenty years ago.” The small flashes of insight on the creative development of Final Fantasy VII are lovely, but they’re few and far between.

In terms of formatting and layout, the book is very stylish, but there are a distressing number of pages in which magenta text is printed against a slightly lighter magenta background. If you don’t read these pages in direct sunlight, they’re almost illegible. The staff bios at the back of the book are printed in tiny pink font, and I didn’t even try to read them. Hot pink magenta isn’t a color I associate with Final Fantasy VII, so I’m not sure what’s going there.

Aside from this relatively minor issue, the book design, text layout, and illustrations of 500 Years Later are all phenomenal. The interviews are edited and structured in a way that makes them easy to read, as well as surprisingly entertaining. Despite my lack of interest in the oral history of Square Enix as a corporation, I genuinely enjoyed the interviews with its current and former staff, and the physical edition of 500 Years Later is a treasure. If you’re interested, you can order a copy of the book from the publisher’s website (here).

Earthlings

Japanese Title: 地球星人 (Chikyūseijin)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2018 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Press: Grove Press
Pages: 247

Content Warning: This review contains a frank discussion of child abuse and incest.

If you’ve made it past the content warning, you should also be aware that Earthlings contains extended and explicit descriptions of parental child abuse, incestuous child sexuality, adolescent sexual abuse, severe dissociation, suicidal ideation, mental illness, murder, starvation, and cannibalism. This material is central to the story, which has a truly disturbing ending.

While I would happily recommend Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman to anyone, Earthlings is definitely not for everyone. Elif Batuman calls this novel “hilarious” in the blurb on the front cover of the American edition, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Earthlings is deeply sad and upsetting. It’s not the least bit funny, joyous, offbeat, or quirky. The author’s tone may be deceptively light, but the themes of her story are as dark as they come.

Earthlings is a novel about the deteriorating mental state and unfortunate life decisions of a relatively normal girl named Natsuki who is made to feel that she isn’t human because of the sustained abuse she receives at the hands of her parents and teachers. The point of the story isn’t to argue that we need to free ourselves from the normative expectations of an oppressive society. Rather, Earthlings demonstrates just how deeply painful and unhealthy social alienation can be to the people who are arbitrarily designated as outcasts and scapegoats.  

The novel begins with the eleven-year-old Natsuki’s confession that she is a special child who was chosen by an alien named Piyyut, who came from Planet Popinpobopia to help her fight evil witches as a magical girl. Although Piyyut looks like a stuffed animal to ordinary people, he’s actually an emissary sent by the Magic Police. This is a secret to everyone except Natsuki’s cousin Yuu, who tells Natsuki that he understands Piyyut’s situation because he’s an alien too.

From the very first page, it’s clear that Natsuki has created a fantasy version of herself in order to escape the neglect of her parents. Neither of Natsuki’s parents attempt to hide their preference for her older sister Kise, who has a codependent Münchhausen-by-proxy relationship with their mother. While Kise can do no wrong and requires special care and attention, Natsuki becomes the scapegoat of her mother, who constantly criticizes her appearance and personality. Instead of defending Natsuki, everyone in her family defers to her mother – everyone except her kind and friendly cousin Yuu, whom Natsuki decides is her boyfriend and future marriage partner.

Because of the strength of her magical girl fantasy, Natsuki is able to survive the abuse she suffers at home. Unfortunately, precisely because this abuse makes her vulnerable, she becomes the sexual target of a young and popular teacher at her after-school tutoring program. The author gets the abusive teacher’s mentality exactly right. He starts with small acts that have plausible deniability, such as using “posture correction” as an excuse to grope Natsuki. When he escalates his behavior in an attempt to test the boundaries of what he can get away with, he does so in a way that Natsuki will be ashamed to talk about, such as fishing her used sanitary napkin out of the trash after she uses the bathroom.

Natsuki knows there’s something wrong with the teacher’s behavior and tells her mother, but her mother takes the teacher’s side and scolds Natsuki for overreacting. She then punishes Natsuki for “making up stories” by forcing her to spend more time with the teacher. Natsuki ends up going to the teacher’s house for a private lesson, which leads to exactly the scenario you’re afraid it will. The sexual assault scene is long, explicit, and extremely difficult to read. Once again, the author depicts the mentality of child abuse with perfect accuracy, in that the teacher forces Natsuki into a situation in which she feels compelled to “consent” to her assault, thus making it seem like her own fault.

Severely traumatized and knowing from experience that no one will believe she’s been raped, the now twelve-year-old Natsuki resolves to commit suicide in the mountain forest surrounding her grandparents’ house during the annual family get-together for the summer Obon festival. Before she dies, Natsuki wants to experience genuine physical affection, so she convinces her cousin Yuu to go out in the woods with her to have penetrative sex, after which she swallows an entire bottle of her aunt’s sleeping pills.

As Elif Batuman says in the blurb on the front cover of Earthlings, the abuse, rape, and attempted suicide of a twelve-year-old girl is “hilarious.”

Except it’s not. Natsuki’s fantasy of being a magical girl is a psychological coping mechanism, and her lack of affect is the result of severe trauma. Not only are the events Murata describes terrible to read, it’s also terrible to hear them recounted in the voice of a twelve-year-old narrator who doesn’t yet possess the emotional maturity to process what’s happening to her. This narrative style isn’t “quirky.” It’s horrifying.  

After Earthlings firmly establishes itself as a horror story told by an unreliable narrator, it jumps forward in time to 34-year-old Natsuki, who is currently in her third year of marriage to a man named Tomoya. After her suicide attempt, Natsuki was essentially treated as a prisoner by her family for two decades, and marriage seemed to be the only way for her to escape. Natsuki met Tomoya on a website for people in situations similar to her own, namely, people who need to get married in order to appease their families. The site caters mostly to the LGBTQ+ community; and, while Tomoya’s sexuality is never specified, he seems to be aro-ace, meaning that he does not experience romantic attraction and is disgusted by physical sexual contact.

Tomoya and Natsuki are essentially roommates who sleep in separate bedrooms while sharing an apartment. This arrangement works well for both of them, at least until their families begin to exert pressure about having children. The stress of this pressure weakens the deep fault lines of their respective childhood traumas, and they decide to escape society by fleeing to Natsuki’s grandparents’ house in the mountains. The house is currently occupied by Yuu, who has been acting as a caretaker for the property after having been laid off from a prestigious office job in Tokyo. As you can imagine, what happens to these three characters in an isolated cabin in the woods isn’t great, and the novel’s ending is shocking.

Earthlings is about three broken people whose connection to reality gradually deteriorates as they feed one another’s delusions while in total social isolation. The plot summary I’ve provided is the background necessary for the reader to understand the core of this story, as well as its tone.

In Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata argues for the quiet dignity of menial service jobs and the validity of neurodivergent perspectives. The narrator of Convenience Store Woman enjoys her job as a clerk at a convenience store because she finds the routine comforting and appreciates being able to interact with other people according to a preset script. Toward the end of the novel, she finds herself in a difficult situation because she succumbs to her family’s pressure to find a partner and chooses the first person to make himself available despite his unsuitability. Many readers of this internationally bestselling novel identified with the narrator’s perspective and sympathized with the author’s description of the small pleasures of part-time service industry jobs that are often looked down on by older generations.

Earthlings explores similar material and themes but takes a radically different approach. In this novel, Murata emphasizes her narrator’s social alienation to an extreme degree. The narrator’s unwilling separation from “Earthlings” is not a good thing, nor is it depicted as being relatable. Instead, Murata uses these characters to ask serious questions about what it means for neurodiversity and queerness to be forcibly removed from mainstream society. For instance, why are child molesters protected by their communities while the children they abuse are treated as unbalanced and unclean? Why is traveling overseas to undergo expensive and invasive surgery in order to have children seen as normal, while choosing to remain childless is viewed as antisocial and neurotic?

If you can handle the dark tone and gruesome subject matter of Earthlings, it’s an extremely compelling story. At the risk of calling child abuse “hilarious,” I have to admit that I was entertained, especially once Natsuki starts living in her grandparents’ abandoned house in the woods. For what it’s worth, the ultimate fate of the pedo teacher and the garbage parents who enabled him is unpleasant yet satisfying.   

As a fan of social horror, I love Earthlings, but I would caution potential readers to take the content warnings seriously. Sayaka Murata is a brilliant writer who tells strange and complicated stories, and I look forward to seeing more of her sizeable body of work in translation. I just hope that, in the future, she’s treated like the complex and nuanced literary figure she is instead of marketed as an easily digestible product of pop culture.

The Life-Changing Magic of Embracing Your Inner Weirdo

Marie Kondo instructs readers of her bestselling home organization guide The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to surround themselves only with things that spark joy. I don’t care one way or the other about tidiness, but I’ve found joy in reading this book as an autobiography of its author, who is a charming and unabashedly weird person.

Branding herself as “KonMari,” Kondo is the head of her own consulting company and the star of two miniseries on Netflix. The launch of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo in January 2019 was met with a blitz of editorials, not to mention a flurry of viral tweets. Many people were upset about the prospect of tidying their personal libraries, while others expressed concern regarding the cultural generalizations applied to Kondo and her interpreter. Meanwhile, jokes about “sparking joy” became a cipher for Millennial dark humor. (One of my personal favorites is Kashana Cauley’s tweet that reads, “After a heated discussion with Marie Kondo I’ve decided to throw myself in the trash.”)

Amongst the handsomely folded shirts and gorgeously organized sock drawers, however, is a person who has wholeheartedly embraced her inner weirdo. “At school,” Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic, “while the other kids were playing dodgeball or skipping, I’d slip away to rearrange the bookshelves in our classroom, or check the contents of the mop cupboard, all the while muttering about the poor storage methods.” The book is a treasury of similar anecdotes, such as the time the author missed her train stop because she was engrossed in a magazine article about household storage space and the time she repeatedly called a storage item manufacturer to ask about building materials. Kondo admits that she did not have many friends when she was younger. In high school, she writes, “I would sit on the floor for hours sorting things in the cupboard until my mother called me for supper.”

The weird kids of the world can sympathize. Regardless of whether their fixation focuses on science, sports, or video games, children have a seemingly infinite capacity for learning and experimentation. Unfortunately, many of us are socialized to keep quiet about our interests and hobbies if we want to get along with other people. While she felt the pressure of this socialization and did her best to follow a “normal” path through life, Marie Kondo was thankfully unable to repress her passion for creative organization.

In the opening chapter of her 2020 co-authored business strategy guide, Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life, Kondo describes the rough time she had at her first corporate job out of college. She was forever at the bottom of her office sales rankings, and her performance failed to improve no matter how hard she tried or how late she stayed at work each evening. It was only after offering to help the president of a rival company clean his desk that she began to realize just how valuable her unique set of talents could be to other people.

Can Marie Kondo sell you insurance? Probably not. Is she extroverted and excited about making conversation with her colleagues during a round of after-work drinks? Again, I’m guessing the answer is no. Still, Kondo knows what she’s about, and she owns the quirkiness of her personality. I care even less about business than I do about home organization, but I love the story of Marie Kondo, the office underdog, being unable to stop herself from speaking her mind to a powerful stranger about something about which she cares deeply.

Both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and the Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo are filled with the stories of people learning to state their minds about what does and doesn’t spark joy in their lives. To give an example, The Life-Changing Magic contains an anecdote about a young woman overwhelmed by her older sister’s hand-me-down clothing. Once she was able to admit to herself that stylish and revealing clothing isn’t her style, she could throw it away. As a result of setting firm boundaries, she was able to establish a healthier relationship with her sister. Likewise, one of my favorite episodes of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo follows a woman who slowly gathers the courage to tell her unsympathetic husband that she doesn’t want to throw away her mother’s saris, even though she’ll probably never wear them. Kondo never tells anyone what they should throw away, but instead encourages her clients to be honest about who they are and what they want.

The secret of the person who has become famous for her neat little boxes is that she works to help people understand that they don’t have to fit into neat little boxes. I may not be rearranging my closet anytime soon, but I’m inspired by Marie Kondo’s story. I’m happy to throw out all of the rules for compartmentalizing drawers and organizing closets, because what really sparks joy is Kondo’s mission of teaching people to love themselves by embracing their own unique personalities.

The Cat Who Saved Books

Japanese Title: 本を守ろうとする猫の話 (Hon o mamorō to suru neko no hanashi)
Author: Sosuke Natsukawa (夏川 草介)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Press: HarperCollins
Pages: 198

A high school junior named Rintaro Natsuki has inherited a bookstore from his recently deceased grandfather. During the week following the funeral, Rintaro is visited by a talking cat who spirits him away to a series of four magical book-themed “labyrinths.”

The Cat Who Saved Books is a celebration of reading in which a teenage booklover matches wits with the embodiments of academic pigheadedness and corporate greed. The warm coziness of Rintaro’s small bookstore is a welcome haven from the opulent sprawl of the Amazonian book labyrinths. At the center of each labyrinth is an adult in a position of power who misuses his authority to mistreat books. Accompanied his crush, Sayo Yuzuki, Rintaro is tasked with reminding these jaded adults of the true joy of reading. The boss of the second labyrinth, for instance, is a professor obsessed with dissecting books in order to create tidy summaries that will facilitate speed reading, but he realizes the error of his ways when Rintaro and Sayo present him with the passionate argument that reading is about the journey, not the destination.

The Cat Who Saved Books is unabashedly sentimental, and Rintaro and Sayo’s earnest sincerity can feel embarrassingly naive at times. That being said, the story’s satire is surprisingly sharp. The Cat Who Saved Books reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 in the strength of its indictment of the contemporary Japanese publishing industry. I was especially impressed by the third labyrinth, which acts as a bitter critique of giant corporations that put out a steady stream of publications simply for the purpose of pursuing profit. Natsukawa’s comments on easily digestible self-help guides written in the form of bullet points (“Five Ways to Change Your Life!”) are amusing, as is the fantastic image of endless reams of paper tossed from the windows of an impossibly tall skyscraper.

Each labyrinth’s theme is underscored by a set of books. The books referenced are (with the sole exception of Osamu Dazai’s short story “Run, Melos!”) classics of European literature. Examples include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de Nuit, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. These books line the shelves of the store managed by Rintaro’s grandfather, who stepped away from an important position in academia in order to free literature from the clutches of scholars and help make them more accessible to ordinary people. Although it’s odd not to see any Japanese fiction mentioned, these weighty European classics conjure an image of the sort of old-fashioned bookstores that used to be common in big cities but are quickly disappearing.  

That being said, the homogeneity of the “serious literature” Natsukawa valorizes in The Cat Who Saved Books is a bit disappointing. I remember what small bookstores used to be like, and I remember hating them. What if you want to read stories that aren’t written by not-so-proverbial Dead White Men? What if you want to read stories written by women? What if you want to read stories that speak more intimately to your own experiences? What if you want to read stories that challenge reality instead of simply reflecting it? It’s ironic that The Cat Who Saved Books would have no place at Rintaro’s bookstore, and it’s a shame the story isn’t self-reflexive enough to acknowledge this. It’s easy to sneer at study guides and self-help books, but that’s what funds the publication of literary fiction.

Likewise, it’s easy for me to be frustrated with the naive idealism of The Cat Who Saved Books, but I can imagine that this title will be prominently displayed in the windows of the indie bookstores that are still fighting the good fight. Perhaps it might even help booksellers guide interested readers to more stories outside the sphere of “literary classics.”  

Thankfully, HarperCollins has put an enormous amount of love and care into the publication of the hardcover edition of The Cat Who Saved Books. This book is a beautiful physical object. I’m a big fan of the gorgeous cover drawn by Yuko Shimizu, who was given space to write an interesting note that offers insight into her creative process. There’s also a wonderful afterword by Louise Heal Kawai, who explains a number of translation choices, including her decision not to assign gendered pronouns to the talking cat.   

As a middle-grade novel, The Cat Who Saved Books is perfect for younger readers just beginning their journey with books. The fantastic elements of the story will appeal to fans of anime and video games, and older readers who enjoy light novels and visual novels will appreciate the colorful, over-the-top characters and comfortably formulaic story structure. The Cat Who Saved Books is an entertaining story filled with warmth, kindness, and bright-eyed hope for the future of books as a means of encouraging empathy and inspiring imagination, and it speaks both to the kids delighted by its adventure and to the adults amused by its satire.

.   .   . . .

I’d like to extend my gratitude to HarperCollins for providing an advance review copy of The Cat Who Saved Books. The North American hardcover edition will be released on December 7, 2021. You can learn more about the book on its website (here) and order a copy from your local small bookstore, which you can find through IndieBound.

The Beast Player

Japanese Title: 獣の奏者 I 闘蛇編 (Kemono no sōja ichi: Tōda hen) and 獣の奏者 II 王獣編 (Kemono no sōja ni: Ōjū hen)
Author: Nahoko Uehashi (上橋 菜穂子)
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Illustrator: Yuta Onoda
Publication Year: 2006 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Henry Holt
Pages: 344

The Beast Player collects the first half of a four-book epic fantasy series set in a world of warrior kings and monsters. The story follows a young woman named Elin as she befriends a winged wolflike creature and attempts to save her kingdom from a cataclysmic disaster.

Elin’s mother Sohyon cares for serpentine megafauna called Toda, which serve as symbols of the authority of a tribe of warriors called the Aluhan. After an ailing Toda dies in her care, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death. Sohyon flees with her daughter and sacrifices herself so that Elin can escape on the back of a Toda. Upon waking in a far-away land, Elin is adopted by a reclusive scholar who keeps bees at his hermitage in the mountains. When he is called back to the capital, he offers to formally adopt Elin as his daughter, but she chooses to enroll in a school for people who care for creatures called Royal Beasts.

The bulk of The Beast Player is about Elin’s time as a student at this fantasy vet school. She bonds with an injured Royal Beast cub named Leelan and saves its life, which is nothing short of miraculous. As you can imagine from the name “Royal Beast,” these animals are politically important to the Yojeh, a matriarchy of priestess-queens. Both the Royal Beasts and the Toda are considered to be untamable and only controllable by means of brute force. Elin nevertheless discovers how to communicate with Leelan through music, just as her mother secretly communicated with Toda. This unfortunately puts Elin in a politically fraught situation. By the end of the novel, the twenty-year-old Elin has become unwillingly involved in a conspiracy over imperial succession, with a war between the Yojeh and the Aluhan looming on the horizon.

Although Elin is a child and teenager throughout most of the novel, The Beast Player is not middle-grade fiction. The story takes time to get started, and it’s not always easy to read. The first one hundred pages are filled with fantasy terms, names, and political factions that neither Elin nor the reader understands. Everything gradually begins to make sense, but only if the reader has enough patience to make it through the confusing and chaotic scenes at the beginning of the novel. Even as an adult reader, I found my head swimming with the fantasy politics at first, especially during the chapters that didn’t feature Elin. Once I made it through the opening salvo of decontextualized names and places and political titles, however, I fell in love with the world of the novel.

Elin is obviously a very special girl – the brightest witch of her age, one might say – but the adults are equally interesting characters. Joeun, the scholar who adopts Elin after her mother’s death, is a kind man who nurtures his young charge’s interest in the natural world. Esalu, the headmaster who administers the school attached to the Royal Beast Sanctuary, is just as curious and compassionate as Elin and risks both her career and her life to protect her student. Damiya, the Yojeh’s cousin who orchestrates a political coup, is suave and sinister and makes an excellent villain.

Cathy Hirano’s translation is nuanced and evocative and brings the small and vivid details of The Beast Player to life. Yuta Onoda’s spot illustrations are lovely as well. Neither the Toda nor the Royal Beasts are explicitly described in the text, and Onoda’s illustrations sketch a few hints of the animals while leaving them largely up to the reader’s imagination.

If you’re interested in getting a more precise visual sense of Elin’s world, a fifty-episode anime called Beast Player Erin (獣の奏者 エリン) was broadcast on NHK throughout 2009, and a manga drawn by Itoe Takemoto was serialized and collected in eleven volumes between 2008 and 2016. Although Beast Player Erin was briefly available on Crunchyroll, neither the anime nor the manga versions of the story are currently available in English.

I think it’s worth copying and pasting the Japanese title of the series into a search engine to get a glimpse of what these characters and their environments look like, especially if you’re an adult sharing the novel with a younger reader. The Beast Player is definitely “Asian” fantasy modeled on imperial China (with hints of Korea and Japan) instead of medieval Europe, and the characters’ costumes are quite interesting and colorful.

I also believe the reader’s understanding of the setting of the story will be greatly enhanced by seeing just how mountainous the terrain is supposed to be. One of the ongoing mysteries of the novel is the exact nature of the apocalypse that caused Erin’s people to hide the secret that communication with Royal Beasts and Toda is possible, and the revelation at the end of the book might be a little confusing if the reader isn’t able to envision the size and scale of the mountains bordering the Yojeh’s empire.

No prior cultural knowledge is necessary to enjoy The Beast Player, just a willingness to accept a slightly different style of fantasy, as well as the patience to wait as the threads of the story unspool at their own pace. The Beast Player won the Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence in young adult literature in 2020, and rightly so. The worldbuilding is marvelously detailed, the characters are sympathetic despite their flaws, and the fantastic creatures are suitably awe-inspiring.

Elin’s story continues in The Beast Warrior, which is a slightly more mature novel about adult protagonists in their thirties. I found The Beast Warrior extremely engaging and entertaining, and I would highly recommend this two-volume series to fans of epic fantasy grounded in the beauty and wonder of the real world.