Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Japanese Title: かがみの孤城 (Kagami no kojō)
Author: Mizuki Tsujimura (辻村 深月)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2017 (Japan); 2021 (United Kingdom)
Press: Doubleday
Pages: 355

Thirteen-year-old Kokoro has stopped going to school after being bullied by her classmates and ignored by her homeroom teacher. Kokoro’s sympathetic mother has enrolled her in an alternative school, but Kokoro can’t bring herself to attend, as much as she might want to. Made physically ill by her anxiety, all Kokoro can do is stay at home while watching daytime television and waiting for time to pass. Just as she’s on the verge of spiraling into depression, the mirror in her bedroom begins glowing, and she is pulled through its shining surface into a mysterious castle.

Kokoro is one of seven middle-schoolers greeted by a girl wearing a fancy dress and a wolf mask who calls herself “the Wolf Queen.” The Wolf Queen tells the children that they have one year to locate a hidden key that will unlock a secret room. If one of them manages to make it inside the room, they will be rewarded by having a wish granted. The caveat is that, once the wish is granted, the castle will disappear. In the meantime, they can use the castle however they like during school hours.

It doesn’t take Kokoro and the other children long to figure out that none of them are going to school, at least not during the day. Instead of competing to see who can find the key and the room, then, they’re content to use the castle as a place to hang out while playing video games and chatting. They eventually grow close enough to make plans to get together as a group outside the castle; but, despite their firm promises to each other, no one appears at the designated meeting spot.

This intensifies the question that no one has wanted to bring up – what in the world is going on? And, perhaps more importantly, will they ever be able to see each again once their year in the castle has ended?  

Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a novel about friendship, specifically friendship between outcasts. In many ways, the group of children who gather in the castle is reminiscent of the Loser’s Club from the Stephen King novel IT (albeit with a much lighter tone). Each of the kids is living through the unpleasant fallout of a traumatic experience, but they gradually open up to each other and work through their issues together. Nothing about this character development is saccharine or sentimental, and misunderstandings and gaps in communication occasionally arise. There’s a fair amount of teenage awkwardness and egocentrism, but none of the characters is overtly unsympathetic.

Kokoro is struggling with having been targeted a group of mean girls, and the novel’s depiction of bullying felt especially real to me. The treatment Kokoro received at the hands of her classmates is genuinely disturbing, but even worse is the attitude of the teachers at her school, who apparently expect her to apologize to the people who went out of their way to antagonize her. Lonely Castle in the Mirror is YA fiction, to be sure – there is no strong language, substance abuse, or mention of sex or sexuality. Still, parts of the story are painfully honest, and the novel’s sensitive but realistic treatment of cruelty and anxiety doesn’t pull any punches.

Despite its fantastical elements, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is more of a mystery than a fantasy, although it admittedly takes its time warming up. Kokoro and her friends are in the process of recovering from trauma, and they’re understandably reluctant to discuss serious matters. Most of them avoid doing anything that would disturb the comfortable haven they’ve been miraculously granted. The novel ambles through what seem to be a few false starts, with one problem emerging only to be quietly resolved. Patient readers who accept the story on its own terms will be rewarded, however, as the plot gradually gains depth and momentum. It’s easy to fly through the pages of the lengthy final chapter, and the conclusion is extremely satisfying.  

As its cover copy proclaims, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a bestselling novel in Japan, and there’s no reason why this story won’t resonate with readers outside of Japan. Philip Gabriel’s translation is impeccable, preserving a sense of timelessness while handling the teenage characters’ dialog with grace and good sense. It’s easy to compare Lonely Castle in the Mirror to Eto Mori’s recently translated YA novel Colorful, or perhaps even the early Harry Potter novels, but it has its own unique charm and magic. Teenagers in the same age range will find Kokoro and her friends to be sympathetic and relatable, while the story is compelling enough to wrap adult readers in its mysteries.

Colorful

Japanese Title: カラフル (Karafuru)
Author: Eto Mori (森絵都)
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
Publication Year: 1998 (Japan); 2021 (United States)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 224

A fourteen-year-old boy named Makoto Kobayashi has committed suicide, so a nameless and formless soul is granted a second chance at life by doing a “homestay” in his body. While inhabiting Makoto’s body, the soul must also occupy his life while guided by an angel named Prapura.

As if being in middle school weren’t difficult enough, the soul soon realizes that Makoto’s life is a mess. His family initially appears to be warm and loving, but it soon becomes apparent that nothing is as simple as it seems. To begin with, Makoto’s phone is completely free of contacts, which Prapura gleefully explains is because Makoto doesn’t have friends. The only girl who’s ever been nice to him visits love hotels with an older man, which Makoto knows because he saw her – at the same time he saw his mother leaving with her dance instructor.   

Although the soul now occupying Makoto’s body is given a year to figure out its past crime, there’s very little sense of narrative urgency involved in solving this mystery. Instead, the forward momentum of the story comes from “Makoto” gradually realizing that life isn’t so black and white, and that every person has different colors. As he explains it…

The idea of the Kobayashi family I’d had in my head gradually began to change color. It wasn’t some simple change, like things that I thought were black were actually white. It was more like when I looked closely, things I thought were a single, uniform color were really made up of a bunch of different colors. That’s maybe the best way to describe it. (149)

Although Colorful is YA fiction, some of the “colors” of its characters may require an unusual degree of empathy for many American readers, but I would argue that it’s precisely this exercise of empathy that makes the experience of reading the novel so powerful and moving.

To give an example, Hiroka, the fourteen-year-old girl who is “dating” an adult man for money, is represented as being in control of her body and decisions. When Makoto attempts to rescue her from the doorway of a love hotel, she initially goes along with him, but it doesn’t take long for her to make it clear that she doesn’t appreciate his heroic gesture. She actually enjoys having sex with a considerate and experienced older partner, she says, and she appreciates the money he gives her. When Makoto asks if she can’t just wait until she’s older, Hiroka doesn’t hesitate to explain her reasoning, telling him that she wants to be able to buy nice things while she’s still the appropriate age to appreciate them. She wants to enjoy her body, and she wants to enjoy her life, and she doesn’t want to date Makoto, whom she considers to be a friend.

Later in the story, Hiroka admits to occasionally feeling depressed, confessing to Makoto that she’ll want to have sex on six days of the week but then want to join a convent on the seventh. By this point, Makoto has matured enough to accept Hiroka’s decisions. He assures her that it’s normal to feel confused sometimes, and that there’s nothing wrong with her. This conversation does not lead to romance, but rather to Makoto’s self-awareness that he has grown enough as a person to accept Hiroka on her own terms.

This is what is expected of the reader as well – a willingness to accept the characters not as stereotypes or idealizations, but as they actually exist. Colorful does not place any value judgments on Hiroka’s personality, desires, or decisions. She does not decide to stop having sex with her older partner, nor does she realize that the things she spends the money on are childish and shallow. She is not diagnosed with any sort of mental illness or personality disorder, and she does not decide to “get help.”

It’s extraordinarily refreshing to see teenage female sexuality discussed with honesty and sensitivity without being punished. Hiroka is not a slut or a victim, but rather a normal young woman who enjoys having sex with people who enjoy having sex with her. She’s not 100% emotionally mature, and she doesn’t entirely understand who she wants to be or what she’s doing with her life, but that’s okay. The point of Colorful is that human beings are complicated.

Makoto’s father is another example of a relatable character whose story requires empathy to appreciate. When Makoto tells him that, as an aspiring artist, he prefers to draw landscapes because he dislikes people, his father confesses that he dislikes people too. Although he’s a talented designer, he was bullied at the company where he works. He thought he was highly positioned and highly respected enough to be able to speak up about the CEO’s mismanagement of the company, which was causing real and serious harm. This backfired, and he was ostracized for two years by his former friends and colleagues even though they knew he was right. He explains to Makoto that, although he was promoted when the CEO was eventually forced to step down after a public scandal, he will never get back those two years of his life, nor will he be able to return to his former easy friendships with his colleagues.   

This is a difficult lesson – that “doing the right thing” is not always going to be appreciated. Many times, in fact, speaking out against something that is clearly wrong will turn you into a social pariah. Even worse, this damage can linger for years, perhaps even for the rest of your life. Doing the right thing can ruin your career, and you might become so focused on damage control that you don’t notice that you’re sacrificing your relationships with the people who are close to you.

In so many stories, young people who do the right thing despite the hardships involved are rewarded for their uncompromising bravery. Meanwhile, the “absent father” figure has to make difficult and complicated decisions and ends up being positioned as the villain. As with Hiroka, being able to hear Makoto’s father’s side of the story is refreshing, not to mention validating to me as an adult reader.

The beauty of Colorful rises from the novel’s ability to take simple stereotypes and explode them into rich and detailed character portraits as Makoto comes to understand and empathize with people who aren’t perfect but are doing their best to live their lives with dignity. Along with Hiroka, Makoto is able to forge friendships with two other classmates; and, along with his father, he’s also able to better understand his mother and brother. The fantasy bits about souls and angels and resurrection are little more than props for an extremely character-driven story that doesn’t feel like a fantasy at all.

Colorful doesn’t go out of its way to be gritty or nasty or unpleasant. It’s honest and sincere, and it handles serious topics with gentle nuance and an occasional touch of humor. As the author describes her intentions in the Afterword,  

I chose to write about a serious subject with a comical touch. I chose to depict it lightly. I wanted kids who liked reading and those who didn’t have fun with it to start. I wanted them to laugh and roll their eyes and relate to everything the characters did. I wanted them to enter the world of the book and be free of their everyday lives. And then, when they closed the book at the end, I wanted the weight on their hearts to be just a little lighter. (210)

I believe that Mori succeeded marvelously, and I could not write a better summary of her novel.

I should also mention that Colorful received a high-profile anime adaptation in 2010 that was later released in North America in 2013 by Sentai Filmworks. The movie makes a number of interesting choices regarding plot and characterization that help keep the story moving forward at a brisk pace. It also includes a charming interlude into Japanese train fandom as a means of showing Makoto’s growing friendship with one of his classmates. Although it might be difficult to find a copy of the officially licensed DVD version, it’s definitely worth the effort to seek out a way to watch the movie. Colorful is on par with slice-of-life Studio Ghibli movies like Whisper of the Heart and From Up on Poppy Hill, and its art, animation, and voice actor performances are all lovely.

Jocelyne Allen’s translation of the original novel is equally fun and lively, with an especially good ear for the dialog of the teenage characters. Over the years, many of my international students have told me that Colorful meant a lot to them as they were growing up, and that it sparked their interest in Japanese fiction. I’m delighted that Colorful is finally available in translation, and it’s my hope that this heartfelt coming-of-age story inspires readers with a sense of joy and appreciation for the rich and vibrant colors of the world.

I want to extend my gratitude to Counterpoint Press for sending me an advance review copy. Colorful will be released in paperback on July 20, 2021. You can learn more about the book on their website (here), and you can find a set of pre-order links on the book’s page at Penguin Random House (here).

Where the Wild Ladies Are

Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Japanese Title: おばちゃんたちのいるところ (Obachan-tachi no iru tokoro)
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2020 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 271

Where the Wild Ladies Are collects seventeen short stories about the everyday lives of ghosts, demons, and yōkai in contemporary Japan. Although all of these stories are a bit strange, their tone is light and comedic, and all the hauntings are consensual.

My favorite story in the collection is “Quite a Catch,” which is about a young woman named Shigemi who has found herself in a romantic relationship with the ghost of a skeleton she inadvertently pulled out of the Tama River in Tokyo while fishing with a friend. The ghost, Hina-chan, appears outside of Shigemi’s apartment to thank her for dredging her bones from the riverbed. Shigemi is alarmed at first, but before long she and Hina-chan are chatting while watching television, not to mention bathing and sleeping together. Hina-chan’s nightly visits are a best-case scenario for the narrator, who has always wanted companionship without having to live with a spouse or roommate.

As the story notes in the back of the book explain, “Quite a Catch” is based on the comedic folktale Kotsutsuri (Skeleton Fishing) about a man who, after having heard a friend’s story about being thanked by the beautiful ghost of a drowned skeleton, goes to the river in an attempt to snare himself a supernatural girlfriend of his own but ends up fishing up the skeleton of the villain of a famous kabuki play.

Other stories in the collection feature other well-known figures from Japanese drama, lore, and legends narrated from unusual perspectives. “On High,” for example, is about a ghostly princess who haunts the beautiful hilltop Himeji Castle while it’s in the process of undergoing extensive renovations in the name of “historic preservation.” Meanwhile, “Enoki” is narrated by a sacred tree that is both frustrated and amused by the humans who insist on praying to it for various blessings, while “A Fox’s Life” is about a woman who’s been told she resembles a fox so often that she finally decides to go up into the mountains and become one.

“Smartening Up” is the first story in the collection, and it’s an excellent introduction to the author’s playful voice as she expresses the central theme of learning to embrace your weirdness and imperfections. The narrator begins the story obsessed with the darkness of her hair, spending a considerable amount of time and money on hair removal treatments while wishing she were born blond. On returning home after a rigorous session at an aesthetic salon one evening, she finds her aunt waiting for her in her apartment. This is something of a surprise, as her aunt had committed suicide in the wake of a failed love affair. Even more shocking, this aunt tells the narrator that she knows all about how she’s come to hate her appearance after being dumped. There’s nothing wrong with her hair, her aunt insists, especially since the fault lies with the piece of trash who cheated on her. The aunt assures her that her black hair is gorgeous, and that there’s no need for her to feel gross and ugly.

This story is loosely based on the Dōjōji legend, specifically the kabuki play Musume Dōjōji (The Maid of Dōjō Temple). The original story, in which a lustful woman is spurned by a celibate monk and turns into a giant snake to pursue him, is almost laughably misogynistic. The kabuki version, on the other hand, celebrates the woman’s serpentine transformation as an act of beauty and magic, with the dancer twirling in a robe that shines silver with the gorgeous gleam of scales.

The narrator’s aunt reminds her of the time they saw this play together and then admits that she’s still figuring out what her own secret power is. As the narrator considers the matter, she realizes that her own power is indeed in her hair. She begins eating hair-fortifying foods like liver and seaweed, helping her hair to become as monstrous and powerful as the snakes commanded by Medusa. She hides her demonic hair during the day but allows it to come out at night, brushing it to a high sheen and thinking about what sort of special skills she will learn in the future as she grows more comfortable wielding her magical power.

This may sound sentimental and a bit self-helpy, but the tone is actually very tongue-in-cheek and down to earth. The narrative voice, which is expertly captured through Polly Barton’s translation, is highly engaging. Many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are were inspired by rakugo comedic storytelling, which is meant to be a bit salty and ridiculous. A set of brief notes concerning sources and inspirations is provided at the end of the book, but it’s absolutely not necessary to be familiar with the original legends to appreciate and enjoy the stories in the collection.

Although many of the stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are revolve around the theme of supernatural female empowerment, there’s no man-hating here – far from it. There are plenty of interesting male characters, including a time-traveling and dimension-hopping wizard who was inadvertently roped into the job and decided, like any good salaryman, just to stick with it. Although the reader doesn’t figure this out until late in the collection, all of the stories are loosely linked, with the various male and female characters managing to get along with each other in relative harmony.

Between the creative contemporary re-imaginings of folklore, the strong female friendships, the queer monster romance, and the general disdain for boring office jobs and awful bosses, the target audience of Where the Wild Ladies Are is specifically me, and I feel very seen and catered to. Still, Where the Wild Ladies Are should resonate with a broad readership. I suspect that a lot of anime fans and yōkai enthusiasts will be highly entertained by the collection, and the stories will appeal to anyone of any gender who enjoys clever comedy about how wild it is to live in the modern world.

People From My Neighborhood

People from My Neighborhood
Japanese Title: このあたりの人たち (Kono atari no hitotachi)
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (川上 弘美)
Translator: Ted Goossen
Publication Year: 2019 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Granta
Pages: 121

The unnamed first-person narrator of People From My Neighborhood lives in a town that was rural when they were a child but has since developed and gentrified as farmers sold their land. Young people now commute to Tokyo, but a number of interesting people – and creatures – remain in the area. Some of the stories in this collection of microfiction are about the supernatural, but many are about people who are just a little odd or different.

There’s the taxi driver, for example, who spends all night driving around the ghosts of three women who supposedly died in the old tenement housing he refuses to vacate. There’s the self-appointed principle of a dog training program who spends all day loafing around the local park and sharing gossip. A child named Hachirō rotates between families in three-month intervals determined by lottery, as his parents already have fourteen kids. An elderly man who lives in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of town is called “Grandpa Shadows” by the local children because he has two shadows, one of which is rowdier than the other.

Then there is the mysterious diplomat who comes to town and provokes panic by going fishing in a lake that doesn’t exist. A princess keeps a beautiful garden and may or may not be responsible for a handful of murders and mass poisonings. One day a temporary mountain of sand appears along with a temporary god, and one day gravity simply disappears for a few hours.

My favorite story is “The White Dove,” in which a high school student picks up a peculiar avian creature during a fieldtrip. She takes the creature home, and it undergoes several metamorphoses before transforming into a sweet-tempered middle-aged man. He has a great destiny to fulfill, but this is largely irrelevant to the girl, who has a healthy sex drive and can think of far better uses for the man-shaped creature who now lives in her house. Although I’m always a fan of monster romance, what I love about this story is the way it sidelines the spectacular in order to focus on the drama of the mundane.

Some characters appear in more than one story, such as the narrator’s friend Kanae, who has a strong personality and goes on to live a storied life. Kanae’s sister, whose dream is to become a psychic medium, also finds herself at the center of several strange occurrences, as do a number of the narrator’s friends and acquaintances. The progression of stories jumps backwards and forwards through time, but the reader is nevertheless able to develop a sense of the social landscape of the small town and its population.

Since each story is only about two to six pages long, it’s fun to dip into the collection a bit at a time to see what’s new in town. By the end of the book, you almost feel as though you live there yourself. If you’re in the mood for a vacation to a place where anything could happen, People From My Neighborhood is your ticket to a bizarre yet relaxing experience.

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)

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 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 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.