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 near-future Japan who becomes 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 species 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 geeky 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 that the author felt he needed to check off a list. For the most part, Momonga is a decent person who’s not particularly interested in romancing the (dubiously?) sentient NPCs who 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 mercenary 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 franchise 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. The first volume of Overlord was originally serialized online, and it reads a bit like fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off. If you enjoy this type of writing, Kugane Maruyama’s novel is a decadent treat.

I should add that I’m extremely impressed by the quality of the hardcover edition of this 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 a full-color illustration on the cover page of every chapter. I have to admit that I’m not sure why Overlord has been singled out for 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)

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,” and 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 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 paired with 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 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.

The Memory Police

The Memory Police
Japanese Title: 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na kesshō)
Author: Yoko Ogawa (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 274

The Memory Police is set on an island isolated from the rest of the world. The island is large enough to support a hospital, a university, and even a publishing company, but its community is small enough for people to be able to gather together for significant events. Like her parents before her, the narrator has lived on this island her entire life, and she takes its idiosyncrasies for granted.

The narrator’s island is cozy, with lovely bakeries and gardens. No one seems worried about money, and the narrator is able to live in a comfortable house despite the fact that the only work she does is to write novels that, by her own admission, no one reads. The narrator focuses her attention on the small details of everyday life, and it’s only gradually that the peacefulness and nostalgia of the narrative begin to unravel.

Every so often an object will “disappear.” Almost overnight, whatever has disappeared will vanish not just from the world, but from everyone’s memory as well. It’s not entirely clear how or why this works, but no one questions it. In some instances, such as perfume and photographs, the objects that disappear must be discarded, usually by means of being ritually thrown into a river or incinerated. In other cases, such as when the concept of “fruit” disappears, all the fruit on the island literally falls from the trees to the ground. Once something disappears, all perception of it disappears as well, and people aren’t able to recognize something that’s disappeared even if they’re looking at it. Even idiomatic expressions change, as with “to hit two creatures with one stone” after birds disappear. The world of the narrator is limited, but her attention to detail is precise, so even small disappearances take on an emotional weight for the reader.

Some people don’t lose their memories, however, and this is where the eponymous memory police come in. This is also where the novel becomes dystopian, with midnight arrests, people suddenly going missing, families fleeing, and all records of these incidents buried deep within an impenetrable bureaucracy. The narrator’s mother, who worked as a sculptor and kept a variety of disappeared objects hidden in a cabinet, was an early casualty of the memory police, leaving the narrator an orphan.

The narrator gradually realizes that her editor is also immune to disappearances, and she resolves to keep him safe by concealing him in a sealed room in the basement of her house while his pregnant wife flees to a rural area north of town, ostensibly for the sake for her health. As her editor continues to read and comment on the narrator’s manuscript in secret, an intimacy develops between them, which is reflected in the strange and surreal excerpts from her novel interspersed throughout the main story.

As the novel progresses, the rate of disappearances increases, an alarming trend that is exacerbated by environmental disaster. At the end of the story, the concept of “disappearances” is followed to its logical conclusion in an undeniably disturbing yet surprisingly soft and gentle manner.

The Memory Police is dystopian horror fiction reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s also a meditation on the ghosts that quietly follow us without ever attracting our notice. There may be no memory police in the real world, but we still forget things all the time, and we forget them so thoroughly that we don’t even realize we’ve forgotten them. The narrator is just as susceptible to these small disappearances as everyone else, but what sets her apart is that she understands the value of remembering and the importance of preservation. By maintaining a diversity of small narratives, the larger narrative represented by the memory police – namely, that which is not productive must be aggressively forgotten – can be resisted. The novel works on multiple levels as historical and political allegory, but it’s also universal and deeply personal.

The Memory Police was originally published in 1994, but it feels contemporary, fresh, and relevant. There are no specific cultural markers in the text, and most character names are abbreviated as single letters, a device that confers an air of timelessness to the story. This novel is therefore accessible to a broad general audience with no knowledge of Japan, and the translation is gorgeous. The Memory Police is brilliant and extraordinary, and it refuses to be forgotten.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Golden Yarn

The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Golden Yarn
Japanese Title: 魔法使いの嫁 金糸篇 (Mahōtsukai no yome: Kinshi hen)
Editorial Supervisor: Kore Yamazaki (ヤマザキコレ)
Translator: Andrew Cunningham
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Seven Seas
Pages: 349

The Golden Yarn collects eight short stories set in the world of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, an urban fantasy manga series that was adapted into a three-part anime OVA in 2016 and a television series that aired in 2017. Even though I’m only a casual fan of the franchise, I still found this collection delightful. Each of the stories stands on its own, and the book is accessible even to people entirely unfamiliar with the manga or its animated adaptations.

The first story, “Frozen Flowers,” is by Kore Yamazaki, the artist who created the Ancient Magus’ Bride manga. Like the other stories in The Golden Yarn, “Frozen Flowers” offers a glimpse into the world of the series without assuming any prior knowledge. In this story, a centaur named Hazel visits his aunt Marie, who was born with two feet instead of four. Marie looks like a normal human, but she has the heart and mind of a centaur, and she wants nothing more than to run under the open sky with the rest of her herd. Because of her appearance, however, she’s ostracized by her fellow centaurs and lives alone in an isolated area in rural England. It’s difficult for Hazel to understand why Marie doesn’t try to pass as human, but he still accepts her and offers her his friendship and kindness.

“Frozen Flowers” introduces the main theme of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which is the various relationships people negotiate with difference. Some of these relationships are healthy and affirming, as in “Frozen Flowers,” while others are toxic and exploitative.

There’s a strong current of horror running through the stories in The Golden Yarn. It’s most present in Jun’ichi Fujisaku’s “The Man Who Hungered for Trees,” in which the assistant to a genius video game programmer uncovers the sinister roots of his supervisor’s talent. The programmer makes small blood sacrifices to the spirits of marijuana bushes in exchange for energy and inspiration, but the plants are hungry for larger prey. As you might imagine, this doesn’t end well for anyone involved.

All of the stories in The Golden Yarn were contributed by authors associated with various light novel series. I was especially impressed with “The Sun and the Dead Alchemist,” which was written by Kiyomune Miwa, the author of the steampunk zombie-hunting series Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (which was adapted into an anime in 2016). Miwa haunts similar grounds in this story, which describes the bittersweet romance between a necromancer and a young woman whom she inadvertently destroys with her magic.

An interesting aspect of this collection for me, as an American, was the opportunity to look at Europe and America from an outside perspective. For example, the venerable Yuu Godai, the author of the long-running Guin Saga series of dystopian fantasy novels, contributed a piece called “Jack Flash and the Rainbow Egg,” which is about a fairy who lives in New York but is obsessed with Japanese popular culture and sets up a detective agency to earn human money in order to buy dōjinshi. Godai’s energetic adventure story is a fun take on American culture, but what I found even more intriguing than a New York run by magical secret societies is the fantasy of twenty-first century Great Britain as a mystical land of rolling green fields, garden cottages, and magical creatures. I suppose The Golden Yarn is sort of like Harry Potter without the overt allusions to class conflicts and real-world fascism, but none of the stories shy away from the darker side of human nature.

Seven Seas has also published a companion volume, The Ancient Magus’ Bride: The Silver Yarn. Aside from the second half of “Jack Flash and the Rainbow Egg,” The Silver Yarn can be read independently, and its stories are just as engaging as those in The Golden Yarn. I can happily recommend both of these short story collections to any fan of historical fantasy and contemporary urban fantasy regardless of their level of familiarity with the Ancient Magus’ Bride franchise. Although there’s no explicit mention of sexuality, some of the stories are quite violent and disturbing, and the books are best suited to older teens and adults.

Killing Commendatore

Killing Commendatore
Japanese Title: 騎士団長殺し (Kishidanchō Goroshi)
Author: Haruki Murakami (村上春樹)
Translators: Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 704

If you read Haruki Murakami’s 2010 novel 1Q84 and thought, “Wow! I could use more dream rape and magical wormhole pregnancy in my life,” then Killing Commendatore is bespoke tailored to your interests. If you’re put off by that sort of thing, you may be put off by more of the same in this novel, not to mention its multiple detailed descriptions of the bodies of 12-year-old girls from the perspective of an adult man. If you fall into either of these groups, you know who you are, and you probably already know how you feel about Killing Commendatore. If you’re still undecided about whether to jump into a 700-page slipstream adventure, however, this review is for you.

I’ve read some intensely negative reviews of Killing Commendatore, but I don’t think the novel is all that bad. The weird and creepy sexual bits are indeed weird and creepy, but they’re not that frequent, that important, or even that noticeable within the context of the larger story, which is about finding oneself and creating connections with other people through the struggle of artistic expression.

The nameless narrator is a 36-year-old painter who has separated from his wife, Yuzu. His friend from art school, Masahiko, offers to rent him a small villa in the hills of Kanagawa Prefecture that belonged to his father, a famous Japanese-style painter named Tomohiko Amada. The narrator, who has left his apartment in Tokyo and now needs somewhere to live, takes Masahiko up on his offer. He also accepts a part-time teaching position at a local art center that Masahiko sets up for him.

The narrator specialized in abstract art in school, but he currently makes his living by painting the sorts of formal portraits that might hang in a company president’s office. He’s quite good at it, and his commission fees have risen as he’s established a reputation for himself as a talented and reliable artist. When Yuzu tells him that she wants a divorce, he informs his agent that he will no longer accept portrait commissions, and he emphasizes this point by throwing away his cellphone. Unfortunately, once he is alone and untroubled in Tomohiko Amada’s isolated mountainside villa, he finds that he can no longer paint anything.

The narrator therefore spends his time doing what Murakami narrators tend to do, reading and cooking and listening to music, until one day he hears a sound in the attic. The commotion was caused by a harmless owl, but the incident leads the narrator to discover a painting that Tomohiko Amada hid without showing anyone, Killing Commendatore. The painting transposes a scene from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni into the Asuka Period (552-645), and it fascinates the narrator, who takes it downstairs and puts it in his studio.

Before too much time passes, the narrator’s agent contacts him with a strange commission request. A man named Wataru Menshiki, who lives in a mansion across the valley from the narrator’s villa, wants his portrait painted, and he’s willing to pay a large sun of money for the privilege. The narrator is initially hesitant, but he agrees because he enjoys Menshiki’s company. Menshiki retired from the tech industry after a lengthy court case, and he now lives a life of leisure and good taste, which the narrator appreciates. Although Menshiki isn’t a bad person, he does have an ulterior motive in pursuing a friendship with the narrator, and their relationship gradually grows more intense as Menshiki attempts to draw the narrator into a convoluted plot.

As an aside, I think it’s worth saying that many of the overtly sexual elements of Killing Commendatore are nothing more than window dressing. The narrator has a series of brief affairs while he’s separated from his wife, and he also has several conversations with a preteen art student who demands that he provide her with a frank evaluation of her physical appearance. All of this makes sense in context, and none of it ever really goes anywhere. In comparison, Menshiki’s long and drawn-out seduction of the narrator becomes genuinely erotic as the narrator’s attention is drawn to Menshiki’s eyes and hair and hands and smell. Both men are presumably straight, but the one truly dynamic relationship of the novel springs from the attraction between Menshiki and the narrator, not any of the heterosexual encounters either man has experienced, which are recounted with a surprising lack of affect.

After the narrator spends more time with Menshiki and the Killing Commendatore painting, he begins to hear a bell ringing in the woods behind his house at night. He goes to investigate only to find that the sound is emanating from under a pile of rocks in the woods. He tells Menshiki about the strange occurrence, and Menshiki hires a landscaper to bring in a bulldozer to remove the rocks, thereby uncovering a mysterious hole. There’s nothing in the hole aside from an old Buddhist ritual implement; but, later that evening, a two-foot-tall vision of the Commendatore from Tomohiko Amada’s painting shows up in the narrator’s studio speaking in riddles and claiming to be a metaphor. The narrator takes this in stride, as it doesn’t affect him much at all during the first half the novel, which focuses on the development of his relationship with Menshiki.

In the second half, the narrator’s preteen art student disappears into thin air. He feels a sense of responsibility toward her, so he resolves to track her down. He intuits that the girl’s disappearance is somehow connected to Menshiki, who is somehow connected to the Commendatore, who is somehow connected to Tomohiko Amada, who is somehow connected to the hole on his property. The exact nature of these connections is never made explicitly clear, but the narrator does end up going on an adventure to rescue the girl while learning more about the old painter and his enigmatic neighbor in the process.

I’ve read a few reviews that claim that the second half of Killing Commendatore is not as strong as the first, which is fair. Personally, however, I appreciate that Murakami leaves so much up to the reader’s interpretation, which may or may not be affected by a familiarity with the divided worlds and split personalities of the author’s other novels. Any homage to The Great Gatsby that may have been intended in the close friendship between the “everyman” narrator and the rich and ambitious yet slightly sinister Menshiki falls apart when both men start to spend more time in holes, which the reader can never quite tell are literal or metaphorical. As Menshiki says in reference to the pit in the narrator’s yard,

“Sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting. As if the border between countries shifts from one day to the next depending on their mood. We need to pay close attention to that movement, otherwise we won’t know which side we’re on.”

Killing Commendatore reminds me of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, which is also about the deep strangeness of imagination. The truth both writers attempt to express is that the chaos of artistic creation can be extraordinarily violent and disturbing, and that the process can sometimes result in a powerful sense of disconnect from consensus reality. Nevertheless, it’s still necessary to brave this unpleasantness in order to achieve personal growth. As Menshiki puts it,

“There’s a point in everybody’s life where they need a major transformation. And when that time comes you have to grab it by the tail. Grab it hard, and never let go. There are some people who are able to, and others who can’t. Tomohiko Amada was one who could.”

The major question of the novel is whether the narrator can become one of these people as well. Will he insist on clinging to the dreams of his youth while going nowhere? Will he embark on a series of random, halfhearted projects that he doesn’t really believe in? Will he keep painting portraits without changing his style? Will he, like Tomohiko Amada, create a masterpiece that’s too personal to show to anyone? Or will he be able to descend deeper into the well of his mind so that he can find a better way to communicate with people through his art? And, if he tries, what will happen to him if he fails? Just how large is his risk of becoming like Menshiki, whose shadow is so dark that the reader is never allowed to look at it directly?

I feel that Killing Commendatore can be read at two levels. The first is a slipstream adventure saga complemented by a handsome, seductive, and sympathetic villain. The second is a psychological profile of the creative process, which is frustrating and demanding and never straightforward. The first level is reminiscent of early Neil Gaiman without the more overt elements of urban fantasy, but I found that the second level to be more interesting and compelling. Killing Commendatore isn’t 700 pages of pretentious navel gazing, however; there are plenty of ghosts and wayward girls and hauntings and mysteries and even a religious cult out in the woods, and and both halves of the novel are nothing if not compulsively readable.

Sweet Bean Paste

Sweet Bean Paste
Japanese Title: あん (An)
Author: Durian Sukegawa (ドリアン助川)
Translators: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Pages: 216

Sweet Bean Paste is a novel about the trauma of discrimination and the stress of living in an unjust society, but the experience of reading it will help you remember the pleasure of being able to readjust your perspective, even if doing so is initially awkward and unpleasant.

Sentaro Tsujii is a young(ish) man who runs a stall called Doraharu that sells dorayaki, pancakes filled with sweet paste made from adzuki beans. Although Doraharu is owned by his former boss’s widow, Sentaro works by himself all day every single day of the year. When he finally decides to put up a “Help Wanted”sign, a 76-year-old woman named Tokue Yoshii shows up and offers to work for only 200 yen an hour. Sentaro declines, thinking that he doesn’t want to be bothered by an old woman hanging around, but he quickly changes his mind when he tries her homemade red bean paste, which is unlike anything he’s ever tasted.

Doraharu is located in an open-air shopping arcade called Cherry Blossom Street, which is slowly losing foot traffic as customers gravitate to suburban shopping centers. Nevertheless, thanks to the deliciousness of the bean paste Sentaro makes with Tokue, the stall experiences a brief period of prosperity. It’s especially popular with students on their way home, and Tokue chats with them as she helps Sentaro. She becomes particularly friendly with an otherwise standoffish middle-school student named Wakana. Once Tokue finally draws Wakana out of her shell, the girl asks her about her hands, something Sentaro has wondered about as well.

Tokue reveals that she once had Hansen’s disease, and Sentaro realizes that she must live in Tenshoen, a sanitarium just outside of town. Until 1996, Hansen’s patients were secluded from the rest of society by law despite the fact that the illness has been cured and is no longer transmissible. When Wakana’s mother finds out who Tokue is and where she lives, however, she spreads the information within the community. The flow of business at Doraharu dries up, and Tokue voluntarily quits her job.

Sentaro had served a prison sentence after being arrested for possession of recreational marijuana as a college student; and, as someone who was prevented from realizing the ambitions he held as a young man, he sympathizes with Tokue’s plight as a target of irrational discrimination. Wakana, a social outcast herself, regrets the part she’s played in how events unfolded, and she agrees to accompany Sentaro on a trip to visit Tokue at Tenshoen, where they learn things about their community that they never suspected.

The savory center of Sweet Bean Paste is the slow development of the relationship between Sentaro, Tokue, and Wakana, but the novel is ultimately about learning to find beauty and meaning in an unfair world despite knowing that some injustices may never be corrected. This theme occasionally results in a cloying level of sentimentality, but its emotional straightforwardness is balanced by the narrative itself, which offers no easy answers or conclusions.

Something I appreciate about Tokue is that, even though she’s a generally positive and upbeat person who doesn’t see herself as a victim, she expresses sorrow and resentment at forces beyond her control, and the reader is occasionally made to feel uncomfortable in her presence. Meanwhile, Sentaro has a history of alcoholism and depression, and Sweet Bean Paste portrays the lived experience of these conditions with the respect and sensitivity they deserve. Although the novel doesn’t normalize illness, it humanizes it.

Sweet Bean Paste is not moralistic or didactic, however, and its major accomplishment is doing what all good fiction does, which is to allow the reader to experience the world from another point of view. Sukegawa excels at narrating from different positions while subtly shifting the reader’s viewpoint away from the emphasis on able-bodied “health” conveyed by so many aspects of mainstream culture and society. Readers looking for a happy ending may be disappointed, but the novel’s wholesomeness lies in its positive outlook on life. This is a small story about ordinary people, but it’s filled with hope and sweetness.