Title: Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle
Japanese Title: クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い
(Kubikiri cycle: Aoiro savant to zaregoto-zukai)
Author: NISIOISIN (西尾 維新)
Translator: Greg Moore
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Del Rey
I am not a big fan of NISIOISIN (who I am going to refer to as “Nisio” for my own convenience). I didn’t get a terribly good impression of him from what I had read of his work before, which was limited to Death Note: Another Note, a collection of three short stories based on the manga xxxHOLiC (you can find my review of that one here), and the short story “Magical Girl Risuka” in the second English edition of the literary magazine Faust. Judging from these stories, Nisio is obsessed with the concept of genius. Of course, genius and its practical applications are fascinating, which is why characters like Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark are so appealing. Nisio’s problem, however, is that he amps the asshole factor of Holmes and Stark all the way up to eleven and turns it directly towards the reader. When I read his work, I feel like he’s attacking me personally for being so stupid and incompetent, unlike his collection of beautiful geniuses. I think there’s perhaps an element of tsundere at play here, and perhaps it’s my fault for not being Nisio’s target audience, but there’s an even more annoying problem with his recurring descriptions of genius. I am going to call this problem the Hannibal Lecter paradox. Sure, it’s easy to say that a character has an IQ of 250, but it’s a bit tricky to write such a character if the author himself falls within a more normal range of intelligence, and most authors – including Nisio – fail.
I myself may not be the sharpest tool in the shed; but, if someone is going to tell me (or at least my reader-vehicle protagonist) that I’m stupid, I would at least prefer for that person to be interesting and intelligent, not a poorly-written, bloated mass of anime clichés. Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle is filled with many such bloated masses; but somehow, it works. In the same way that one angry bird is annoying, yet hundreds of angry birds are epic, Zaregoto is so ridiculously cliché that somehow it ends up being awe-inspiring. Are you ready to play cliché bingo? Let’s go!
Mild-mannered and unassuming teenage male protagonist who has secret depths of inner strength, Ii-chan, is friends with a beautiful teenage girl who is such a genius that she has trouble taking care of herself. She is a super-elite international computer hacker who builds her own super-amazing hardware and software and prefers the virtual world to the real world, you see. Anyway, this beautiful girl genius, Kunagisa Tomo, is invited to a small island inhabited by an outcast daughter of a very rich family. This outcast rich girl, Akagami Iria, is herself young, beautiful, and a genius. Since she either can’t or chooses not to leave her island, she invites all sorts of other geniuses to come to her. It just so happens that all of the other geniuses who visit her are also young, female, and beautiful. All of these gorgeous geniuses are cared for by Akagami’s (young and beautiful) trio of maids, who are sisters and hyper-talented at martial arts, among many other things. Everything is going well on Wet Crow’s Feather Island as the geniuses compare the sizes of their respective penis envy by taking turns telling Ii-chan what a stupid idiot he is, but suddenly! Someone is murdered! And we don’t know who did it! And then the prime suspect herself is murdered! In a locked room!
It gets worse from there, but I imagine my point has already been made. My mind boggles at how Nisio was able to hit so many of the high-profile mystery and anime stereotypes all at once. I kept reading just to see what would come out the bag next, and I was never disappointed. What is even more interesting about the book, however, are its logic puzzles. I’m not sure whether our narrator Ii-chan is deliberately unreliable or just an idiot; but, in either case, Sherlock Holmes he is not. He almost never notices anything for himself, and other characters are constantly pointing things out to him. What Ii-chan is good at doing, however, is taking all of this information, putting it together, and analyzing it. Along the way, he explains classic logic flaws and paradigms to the reader, which is fun in a Michael Crichton “this is how science works” sort of way.
None of this helps him solve the mystery, however, because the mystery itself is beyond ridiculous. Let it suffice to say that several people on the island are in the habit of amusing themselves by switching identities. And by “several people,” I mean “almost everyone.” (I kept expecting Ii-chan to pull off his pants and surprise everyone by being a beautiful girl genius himself, but alas, it didn’t happen.) There is no way that the reader can figure any of this out, so one must simply follow the twists and turns of the story developments and its various revelations along with the narrator. The dénouement of the mystery is so convoluted that it ceases to make any sense whatsoever about halfway through, but the identity of the killer at the core of the tangles of plot thread is actually quite interesting, especially as a conclusion to Nisio’s fetishistic focus on genius.
I will be honest. I bought Zaregoto because it was on sale for three dollars at an anime convention, and I read it because my plane back home from said convention was delayed for a few hours. Under those circumstances, which allowed me to read the book all the way through in one sitting while fueled by sleep deprivation and gallons of cheap coffee, I enjoyed it immensely. The translation is smooth and polished, and the illustrations by take are a very nice touch. This novel is the first in a nine-volume series, and it thus leaves certain plotlines open, like Ii-chan’s past and his budding romantic relationship with Kunagisa. The second volume of the series was released in English translation earlier this summer, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed the first volume enough to seek it out. But if I find it on sale for three dollars at another anime convention, I will definitely grab it.
One thought on “Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle”
I’m going to make an outrageously late comment here (2015 on a 2010 review), but I was just looking up opinions on Nisio Isin’s “Zaregoto” series. I actually just recently read the first 5 volumes of the series – the first two are professionally translated whereas volumes 3-5 are fan translated, but they’re still readable. I’ll just share some thoughts:
Coincidentally, I actually had the same feeling from the first volume (“The Kubikiri Cycle”), it made me feel stupid and incompetent because there were so many geniuses with such skills in the story. The only thing that stopped me from getting depressed was Iichan, because he came across as mostly normal in this volume, despite his quirks. The mystery was like a standard Agatha Christie style mystery, except the weird twist at the end. It was a decent book, overall, I think, despite being annoying.
I actually recommend that you read volume 2, because there’s hardly any geniuses and it’s a lot more fun to read (more action, more funny conversations, more characters too). However, just so you know, volume 2 is where you learn just how weird Iichan is. Iichan is actually comparable to “Dexter” from the TV series of the same name, but I think his strange nature is partly inspired by Osamu Dazai’s “No Longer Human” (without the sad and mournful qualities, but still with suicidal thoughts, paradoxically).
Volume 3 was also really fun, even more fast-paced and oriented towards battle action. Volume 4-5 are like the first volume, collection of geniuses in an isolated location again. The 4th is a slow, somewhat boring introductory novel, but the 5th is worth reading because it’s more like the 2nd novel in pace and style. Also, there’s a lot of nihilistic philosophy in Zaregoto, but it really hits its peak in volume 4, where you get the “humans are just lumps of meat” kind of thoughts coming out. Zaregoto is fun to read, but the freaky nature of Iichan and the nihilistic thinking creates a mixed bad and good kind of feeling. I think this is a problem with the author’s psychology; maybe Nisio Isin’s writing could be just totally awesome if it wasn’t for his negative and nihilistic way of thinking.