Parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The God of Bears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aside from the title story, which can be found in the 2012 anthology March Was Made of Yarn, The God of Bears has not yet appeared in English translation. I just printed a zine (with cover art by Koyamori) containing my translation of the story “Summer Break” to use in my “Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy” class, which I’m offering in Spring 2020. I have a few extras that I’d love to share, so please use this blog’s contact form to get in touch if you’d like me to mail you a copy free of charge.

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.

Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter

Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter
Artists: Atelier Sentō (Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard)
Translator: Marie Velde
Publication Year: 2016 (France); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 128

This story was inspired by one of our trips to Niigata, during the fall of 2014. We dedicate it to the people we’ve met there. They welcomed us with overwhelming generosity and helped us discover the region and its secrets. Some of these people will appear in this book. We hope they will enjoy it.

This paragraph prefaces Onibi, a diary-style graphic novel written and drawn by Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard, who work together as a creative team called Atelier Sentō. In the late summer and fall of 2014, Brun and Pichard were able to spend ten weeks living in the small village of Saruwada thanks to the efforts of Kosuke and Sumie Baba, who run a small restaurant and international guesthouse called Margutta 51. At the beginning of their stay, Brun and Pichard bought a toy Polaroid camera from a man who assured them that it could photograph spirits, so they went out ghosthunting. Onibi is the result of their travels and conversations.

Along with a short prologue and epilogue, Onibi has seven chapters, each of which chronicles a local legend related to the yōkai of Niigata prefecture in northern Japan. A few of Brun and Pichard’s excursions were facilitated by the proprietors of Margutta 51, who introduced them to people with stories to share. Some of their encounters happened completely by chance, however, and most don’t play out as expected. In the second chapter, for example, Brun and Pichard take the train to a small village to find a creature called “Buru Buru-kun,” but they find that the old forest where it’s said to live has been cut down to make room for rice fields. In the seventh chapter, Brun and Pichard visit Osorezan, a temple located in the caldera of an active volcano where the world of the living and the world of the dead are believed to meet. They misplace their ghost camera as they explore the strange landscape surrounding the temple, but the conversations they have with their fellow pilgrims make the journey worthwhile.

I especially enjoyed the fourth chapter, “Mountain’s Shadow,” which is about the pair’s chance encounter with a man who gives them a walking tour of Yahiko. The village is famous for its fall foliage, but it’s deserted during the week. After taking in the sights, Brun and Pichard step into a small udon restaurant, where they’re approached by a man who offers to tell them about the local yōkai. He takes them to a large tree in town and then up a hill to a mountainside temple, after which they embark on a hiking trail through the woods. Instead of taking the tram down the mountain once it gets dark, they decide to walk, and they hear strange noises in the trees as they descend. This episode is enhanced by its visual appeal as the color palette shifts from the brown of the restaurant interior to the gold of the afternoon sunlight in the village to the blue of the forest twilight.

The comic artwork in Onibi is gentle and warm, with a gorgeous color palette and a pleasing compositional balance on each page. The humans who appear in the book are distinctive without coming off as caricatures, and the landscapes, townscapes, and interiors are striking. Brun and Pichard devote special attention to natural and artificial lighting and weather conditions, making the reader feel almost as if they’re walking right alongside the artists as the summer shifts into fall. Tuttle has released a beautiful Kindle edition of the book, but I highly recommend the print version, which allows the reader to appreciate the details and textures of the artwork.

Although it hints at some fairly dark themes, Onibi is more atmospheric than spooky, and it should be suitable for people of all ages. If I were teaching a class about Japanese folklore (and Onibi makes me dearly want to teach such a class), I think the graphic novel might serve as an interesting companion to Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing, especially its chapter on Osorezan. Even for people with no background knowledge of Japan, Onibi is a fascinating exploration of a beautiful part of the world, as well as a lovely introduction to the people who live there – and the supernatural creatures who might just coexist with them.

A Small Charred Face

Title: A Small Charred Face
Japanese Title: ほんとうの花を見せにきた (Hontō no hana o mise ni kita)
Author: Kazuki Sakuraba (桜庭 一樹)
Translator: Jocelyn Allen
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 239

A Small Charred Face is a collection of three interconnected stories about vampires and the humans who love them. These vampires sleep during the day, fly by night, feed on human blood, can’t see their reflections, and never age during their 120-year lifespan. They also smell like grass and burst into bloom at the end of their lives, and they are called Bamboo. Their laws forbid them from befriending humans, but sometimes an outsider, alone and destitute on the margins of society, manages to catch the attention and the heart of a Bamboo.

The first and longest story, which frames the other two stories in the book, is “A Small Charred Face.” The story begins with horrific violence, with the narrator, a boy named Kyo, trying to escape a criminal organization that has just raped and killed his mother and sister. A Bamboo appears, hoping to feed on the bodies, but it ends up rescuing Kyo instead. The Bamboo, a young man named Mustah, takes him home to a seaside cottage where he lives with his partner Yoji. Kyo, who has grown up in wealth and privilege, is forced to adapt to life in the impoverished community, and Mushtah and Yoji convince him to disguise himself as a girl so that the people who killed his family won’t find him. Growing up as a girl in a household with two vampire fathers in a neighborhood ravaged by economic inequality, Kyo actually manages to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, but problems arise when a period of adolescent rebellion brings him to the attention of other Bamboo, who will not tolerate their existence becoming known to humans.

The second story (and the title story of the original Japanese publication), “I Came to Show You Real Flowers,” follows Marika, a female Bamboo from “A Small Charred Face,” several decades after her life intersects with Kyo’s story. Marika was transformed into a Bamboo when she was a teenager, so her mind and body remain those of a young woman. Marika adopts a human girl named Momo who has nowhere else to go, and together the two of them enact revenge on the men who prey on the weak and defenseless, which Momo luring them into a secluded spot so that Marika can swoop down, break their necks, and eat them. As Momo grows older, however, she begins to grow weary of being constantly on the run and surrounded by violence.

The third story, “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” is the origin story of Ruirui, who will go on to lead a group of Bamboo immigrants from China to Japan. This story is narrated from the perspective of Ruirui’s older sister, the fifth child of the Bamboo royal family. This nameless young woman describes how the Bamboo are respected and revered in the small and isolated rural community that surrounds their castle in the mountains, and how the princes and princesses are carefully brought up according to Confucian tradition. All of this changes with the Cultural Revolution, however, which brings outsiders to the village and spreads distrust among the villagers. Anyone who deviates from the narrow ideology of the Communist Party must be struck down for the good of the people, so even the seemingly invincible Bamboo find themselves is terrible danger.

Kazuki Sakuraba began her career by writing light novels; and, although A Small Charred Face contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault, it still feels like young adult fiction in many ways. The narrators are children (or have the minds of children), and their worldview is correspondingly myopic. Although the third story occurs during the Cultural Revolution, it’s difficult to ascertain when the first two stories are set. They might be set in the present, or in the near future, or at the end of the twenty-first century. Technology is never mentioned, nor are any events that would have led to the circumstances under which Kyo and Marika lost their families. What is “the Organization” that goes around murdering and raping women and children, and why doesn’t anyone have a cellphone? Is the story set in an alternate universe in which Japan descended into chaos at some point during the twentieth century; and, if so, what happened? Unfortunately, the narrators are not interested in anything other than their own teenage emotional drama, so they don’t even hint at the state of the society outside of their own circle of acquaintances. Meanwhile, they simply take it for granted that the people around them are routinely raped and murdered as a matter of course. The stories also decline to explore the nature and culture of the Bamboo, and there’s only a bare minimum of worldbuilding and trope exploration.

As frustrating as these limitations may be, I think they’re fair. The reader can only speculate about what happened to Japan in this fictional universe, but the Cultural Revolution was very real, and there’s no reason a fourteen-year-old who survived something like that would be able to understand the larger geopolitical currents that resulted in everyone around them being suddenly being dragged out into the street and killed. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched to think that something like this could happen in Japan – or that it could happen anywhere, for that matter.

What A Small Charred Face does – and what it does very well – is to allow the reader to share the experience of living on the absolute margins of society as an outsider. The vampires in these stories are a metaphor for difference, of course, but this metaphor is far from abstract. The Bamboo are openly in same-sex relationships, and they are openly immigrants, openly working awful night-shift jobs, and openly in economically precarious positions. Mustah is Brazilian, Yoji is Chinese, and Ruirui is a political refugee. Although these characters live in hand-to-mouth circumstances, none of them threatens Japanese society. On the contrary, they provide the love, hope, and comfort that Japanese society is not able to offer to its own children. Yes, the Bamboo are literal vampires who feed on the blood of humans, but the majority of them obtain the blood they need by working in healthcare-related industries, especially those that force people to work awful hours and don’t pay well. Given Japan’s aging population and the severity of its healthcare crisis, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I’m not generally a fan of young adult fiction, especially when it intersects the genre of supernatural romance, and I was not expecting to be as deeply moved by A Small Charred Face as I was. Sakuraba stages a trenchant social critique within the dystopian environment she has created for her vampires, but her characters are beautifully realized and full of heart. Their flaws are relatable, their kindness is believable, and their unhappy endings are a consequence of the profound injustices of our own world. If you believe in the transformative potential of young adult novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent, then I cannot recommend A Small Charred Face highly enough. And if you love monsters and see their difference as a reflection of your own, please rest assured that the gay romance in these stories is treated with sensitivity, as are feminist politics and gender fluidity.