The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa Normal people quietly go about their lives on a sleepy island where memories collectively vanish a bit at a time. But what happens to the people who can’t forget?
Masks by Fumiko Enchi Two cultured and handsome men compete for the affections of a beautiful young widow while her devious mother-in-law manipulates their relationships from the shadows.
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan is intrigued by the Woman in the Purple Skirt – so intrigued that she follows her every move and investigates every detail of her private life.
All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe Pursued by debt collectors, loan sharks, and yakuza henchmen, a woman vanishes, leaving behind a trail of false identities and broken lives.
The Eighth Day by Mitsuyo Kakuta A desperate woman, spurned by her married lover, kidnaps his child and goes on the run. Now an adult, the kidnapped child has no memory of this and must piece together what happened from interviews and newspaper clippings.
Penance by Kanae Minato A young girl is assaulted and killed in a small rural town, and the murderer is never caught. Years later, a series of letters from the girl’s mother forces her former friends to reflect on what they knew and what they could never tell anyone.
The Graveyard Apartment by Mariko Koike A family moves into an inexpensive apartment next to a graveyard, but their hopes for a new life are shattered as strange and inexplicable things begin to happen in their building.
There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura A woman suffering from burnout leaves her white-collar position and goes to a temp agency, requesting that she be placed in an “easy” job. There’s no such thing as an easy job, however, and it stands to reason that companies who are desperate for temp workers have shady ulterior motives.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata An unmarried woman finds joy and meaning in the comfortable routine of working at a convenience store. When pressured by her family and friends to quit her job and find a partner, how far will she go to prove that she’s “normal”?
Real World by Natsuo Kirino A teenage boy from an affluent Tokyo suburb kills his mother in a fit of explosive rage. The friends of the girl next door decide to help him escape and gradually succumb to the darkness at the core of their seemingly perfect lives at a prestigious private high school.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The illustration above is by James of ShelfWornDrawn, whose work can be found on Instagram (here) and on Tumblr (here). You can commission a portrait of your own library via his Etsy page (here).
Content Warning: This review contains a frank discussion of child abuse and incest.
If you’ve made it past the content warning, you should also be aware that Earthlings contains extended and explicit descriptions of parental child abuse, incestuous child sexuality, adolescent sexual abuse, severe dissociation, suicidal ideation, mental illness, murder, starvation, and cannibalism. This material is central to the story, which has a truly disturbing ending.
While I would happily recommend Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman to anyone, Earthlings is definitely not for everyone. Elif Batuman calls this novel “hilarious” in the blurb on the front cover of the American edition, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Earthlings is deeply sad and upsetting. It’s not the least bit funny, joyous, offbeat, or quirky. The author’s tone may be deceptively light, but the themes of her story are as dark as they come.
Earthlings is a novel about the deteriorating mental state and unfortunate life decisions of a relatively normal girl named Natsuki who is made to feel that she isn’t human because of the sustained abuse she receives at the hands of her parents and teachers. The point of the story isn’t to argue that we need to free ourselves from the normative expectations of an oppressive society. Rather, Earthlings demonstrates just how deeply painful and unhealthy social alienation can be to the people who are arbitrarily designated as outcasts and scapegoats.
The novel begins with the eleven-year-old Natsuki’s confession that she is a special child who was chosen by an alien named Piyyut, who came from Planet Popinpobopia to help her fight evil witches as a magical girl. Although Piyyut looks like a stuffed animal to ordinary people, he’s actually an emissary sent by the Magic Police. This is a secret to everyone except Natsuki’s cousin Yuu, who tells Natsuki that he understands Piyyut’s situation because he’s an alien too.
From the very first page, it’s clear that Natsuki has created a fantasy version of herself in order to escape the neglect of her parents. Neither of Natsuki’s parents attempt to hide their preference for her older sister Kise, who has a codependent Münchhausen-by-proxy relationship with their mother. While Kise can do no wrong and requires special care and attention, Natsuki becomes the scapegoat of her mother, who constantly criticizes her appearance and personality. Instead of defending Natsuki, everyone in her family defers to her mother – everyone except her kind and friendly cousin Yuu, whom Natsuki decides is her boyfriend and future marriage partner.
Because of the strength of her magical girl fantasy, Natsuki is able to survive the abuse she suffers at home. Unfortunately, precisely because this abuse makes her vulnerable, she becomes the sexual target of a young and popular teacher at her after-school tutoring program. The author gets the abusive teacher’s mentality exactly right. He starts with small acts that have plausible deniability, such as using “posture correction” as an excuse to grope Natsuki. When he escalates his behavior in an attempt to test the boundaries of what he can get away with, he does so in a way that Natsuki will be ashamed to talk about, such as fishing her used sanitary napkin out of the trash after she uses the bathroom.
Natsuki knows there’s something wrong with the teacher’s behavior and tells her mother, but her mother takes the teacher’s side and scolds Natsuki for overreacting. She then punishes Natsuki for “making up stories” by forcing her to spend more time with the teacher. Natsuki ends up going to the teacher’s house for a private lesson, which leads to exactly the scenario you’re afraid it will. The sexual assault scene is long, explicit, and extremely difficult to read. Once again, the author depicts the mentality of child abuse with perfect accuracy, in that the teacher forces Natsuki into a situation in which she feels compelled to “consent” to her assault, thus making it seem like her own fault.
Severely traumatized and knowing from experience that no one will believe she’s been raped, the now twelve-year-old Natsuki resolves to commit suicide in the mountain forest surrounding her grandparents’ house during the annual family get-together for the summer Obon festival. Before she dies, Natsuki wants to experience genuine physical affection, so she convinces her cousin Yuu to go out in the woods with her to have penetrative sex, after which she swallows an entire bottle of her aunt’s sleeping pills.
As Elif Batuman says in the blurb on the front cover of Earthlings, the abuse, rape, and attempted suicide of a twelve-year-old girl is “hilarious.”
Except it’s not. Natsuki’s fantasy of being a magical girl is a psychological coping mechanism, and her lack of affect is the result of severe trauma. Not only are the events Murata describes terrible to read, it’s also terrible to hear them recounted in the voice of a twelve-year-old narrator who doesn’t yet possess the emotional maturity to process what’s happening to her. This narrative style isn’t “quirky.” It’s horrifying.
After Earthlings firmly establishes itself as a horror story told by an unreliable narrator, it jumps forward in time to 34-year-old Natsuki, who is currently in her third year of marriage to a man named Tomoya. After her suicide attempt, Natsuki was essentially treated as a prisoner by her family for two decades, and marriage seemed to be the only way for her to escape. Natsuki met Tomoya on a website for people in situations similar to her own, namely, people who need to get married in order to appease their families. The site caters mostly to the LGBTQ+ community; and, while Tomoya’s sexuality is never specified, he seems to be aro-ace, meaning that he does not experience romantic attraction and is disgusted by physical sexual contact.
Tomoya and Natsuki are essentially roommates who sleep in separate bedrooms while sharing an apartment. This arrangement works well for both of them, at least until their families begin to exert pressure about having children. The stress of this pressure weakens the deep fault lines of their respective childhood traumas, and they decide to escape society by fleeing to Natsuki’s grandparents’ house in the mountains. The house is currently occupied by Yuu, who has been acting as a caretaker for the property after having been laid off from a prestigious office job in Tokyo. As you can imagine, what happens to these three characters in an isolated cabin in the woods isn’t great, and the novel’s ending is shocking.
Earthlings is about three broken people whose connection to reality gradually deteriorates as they feed one another’s delusions while in total social isolation. The plot summary I’ve provided is the background necessary for the reader to understand the core of this story, as well as its tone.
In Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata argues for the quiet dignity of menial service jobs and the validity of neurodivergent perspectives. The narrator of Convenience Store Woman enjoys her job as a clerk at a convenience store because she finds the routine comforting and appreciates being able to interact with other people according to a preset script. Toward the end of the novel, she finds herself in a difficult situation because she succumbs to her family’s pressure to find a partner and chooses the first person to make himself available despite his unsuitability. Many readers of this internationally bestselling novel identified with the narrator’s perspective and sympathized with the author’s description of the small pleasures of part-time service industry jobs that are often looked down on by older generations.
Earthlings explores similar material and themes but takes a radically different approach. In this novel, Murata emphasizes her narrator’s social alienation to an extreme degree. The narrator’s unwilling separation from “Earthlings” is not a good thing, nor is it depicted as being relatable. Instead, Murata uses these characters to ask serious questions about what it means for neurodiversity and queerness to be forcibly removed from mainstream society. For instance, why are child molesters protected by their communities while the children they abuse are treated as unbalanced and unclean? Why is traveling overseas to undergo expensive and invasive surgery in order to have children seen as normal, while choosing to remain childless is viewed as antisocial and neurotic?
If you can handle the dark tone and gruesome subject matter of Earthlings, it’s an extremely compelling story. At the risk of calling child abuse “hilarious,” I have to admit that I was entertained, especially once Natsuki starts living in her grandparents’ abandoned house in the woods. For what it’s worth, the ultimate fate of the pedo teacher and the garbage parents who enabled him is unpleasant yet satisfying.
As a fan of social horror, I love Earthlings, but I would caution potential readers to take the content warnings seriously. Sayaka Murata is a brilliant writer who tells strange and complicated stories, and I look forward to seeing more of her sizeable body of work in translation. I just hope that, in the future, she’s treated like the complex and nuanced literary figure she is instead of marketed as an easily digestible product of pop culture.
Author: Yumiko Kurahashi (倉橋由美子) Translator: Atsuko Sakaki Publisher: M. E. Sharpe Publication Year: 1997 Pages: 159
Yumiko Kurahashi was a member of the generation of female writers whose work began appearing in the early 1960s. She continued writing into the 1990s, by which time she had produced a number of collections of short stories. Kurahashi is notable for her absurdist imagination, as well as the cleverness with which she blends multiple literary traditions from Noh drama to Greek tragedy.
The Woman with the Flying Head was published in 1997 by the academic press M. E. Sharpe (which has since been incorporated into Routledge) and collects eleven stories that were originally published between 1963 and 1989. Some of these stories are playful, and some are creepy, but all are fiercely intellectual reflections on both carnal and creative desires.
There’s a fair amount of taboo sexuality in these stories, including incest and bestiality, not to mention sexual entrapment and murder. It’s important for the reader to understand that these stories are explorations of concepts and ideas, not mimetic representations of three-dimensional characters. In the opening story, “The Extraterrestrial,” why do a brother and sister have sex with the alien that hatched out of the egg that mysteriously appeared in their bedroom one morning? It doesn’t matter; what matters is the experimental space generated by the scenario.
You can have a lot of fun with Kurahashi’s stories once you accept the author’s writing on its own terms. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys close reading and analysis, there’s a lot to read and analyze. It’s also entirely possible to enjoy the stories as sex comedies and interpersonal dramas constructed on a scaffolding of absurdist thought experiments. Kurahashi has won numerous literary awards for her work, and this collection is prefaced with a serious and thoughtful introduction by the translator, but “supernatural sci-fi erotic dark comedy” is probably the most accurate label to apply to the author’s distinctive genre of fiction.
The intellectualism attributed to Kurahashi partially stems from her references to a wide range of world mythologies. Although her narrators tend to be terrible and problematic men, the real stars of the show are the demonic women who torment them. Far from being symbols of female resistance or empowerment, the majority of Kurahashi’s female characters are demons in the traditional sense. They are to be feared and abhorred instead of admired, and they tend to reflect the anxieties of a patriarchal society even as they playfully mock fears regarding female sexuality.
The demon in the 1985 story “The Witch Mask” takes the form of a Noh mask that has been passed down as an heirloom in the narrator’s family. This style of mask, the horned hannya, is used to represent women who have turned into demons after succumbing to powerful emotions. The narrator’s mask is particularly frightening because its hunger literally consumes its victims with desire.
The male narrator of the story is fully aware of the danger of the mask, but the cursed object still captivates him. He places the mask on the face of each of his lovers and watches their bodies writhe as it consumes them. He refers to his obsession with the beautiful mask as “an irresistible desire” before finally applying it to the face of his fiancée, whom he loves dearly. He attempts to justify this murderous act by confessing that he “was haunted by an idea – the call of the demon… the desire to put the witch mask on a beautiful face.”
“House of the Black Cat” is also about a hungry demon. This demon alternates in shape between a regular-sized housecat and a human-sized catwoman. The cat in its humanoid form is strangely alluring to the story’s human protagonist, Keiko, as she watches it go about its day in a video made by her husband’s friend Kamiya. The video becomes pornographic as the cat “devours” her human partner, who bears a strong resemblance to Kamiya himself. It seems that Kamiya disappeared shortly after lending Keiko’s husband the video. Although Keiko is never able to conclusively determine his fate, she suspects that the cat killed him so that she could feed him to her children, four black kittens. “House of the Black Cat” is about forbidden sexuality; but, as is the case with many of Kurahashi’s stories, it’s also about the creative drives that inspire artists to test the boundaries of consensus reality.
The stories collected in The Woman with the Flying Head are strange, fantastic, and thought-provoking. Kurahashi’s writing is filled with vivid imagery and suggestive symbolism that blend together to create fantasies that are both horrible and darkly fascinating. A decent comparison might be Patricia Highsmith’s Little Tales of Misogyny, or perhaps even Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, but Kurahashi’s voice is absolutely unique. I always find myself returning to The Woman with the Flying Head every October for Halloween, but these creepy little stories are perfect for whenever you want to take a step back from the grind of mundane reality to channel some playfully demonic energy.
Strange Tale of Panorama Island
Japanese Title: パノラマ島奇談 (Panorama-tō kitan)
Author: Edogawa Ranpo (江戸川 乱歩)
Translator: Elaine Kazu Gerbert
Publication Year: 1927 (Japan); 2013 (United States)
Publisher: University of Hawai’i Press
Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a short novel about murder, misdirected passion, and artistic delusion that climaxes with an explosive conclusion.
The story’s antihero, Hirosuke Hitomi, is a writer who is neither living his dream nor making a living. His life is horribly bleak until he receives news that a college friend named Genzaburō Komoda has passed away from a rare illness. Although Hirosuke was never close to Genzaburō, he knows that he was the sole heir of a wealthy family. He also knows that he resembled the recently deceased young man to such a strong degree that he could have been his doppelganger.
Hirosuke sees his chance, and he takes it. He fakes his death by leaping from a ship, an act interpreted as a suicide by the newspapers that report the event. He then disinters Genzaburō’s body, destroys it, and crawls to the Komoda family estate, claiming to have experienced a miraculous recovery. As Genzaburō, he blames his disorientation and seeming loss of memory on the trauma, knowing that the family’s doctors will be too embarrassed by their “mistake” to interrogate him.
Hirosuke is not content to live an easy life of luxury in the company of Genzaburō’s beautiful widow Chiyoko, however. Instead, he uses the vast wealth of the Komoda family to buy an island and fill it with aesthetic marvels, creating a sensualist utopia outfitted with near-future technology. The wonderland he names Panorama Island is both a museum of the fantastic and an amusement park for adults.
The short translator’s introduction explains the cultural context of the novel, specifically the public interest in panoramas during the 1920s in Japan, but none of this information is necessary to appreciate the marvelous imagery Edogawa dreams up to dazzle the reader as Hirosuke leads Genzaburō’s widow across the island. If Chiyoko knows Hirosuke’s secret, which she almost certainly does, what will become of her? Like Chiyoko, the reader can only be amazed by the island while disturbed by the troubled genius that created it.
Edogawa is interested, like his namesake Edgar Allan Poe, in the precise mechanics of how Hirosuke’s series of crimes might be possible. The novel contains a touch of the pulpy adventure story, as well as an earnest foray into the realm of medical science. Thankfully, the narrative never becomes mired in superfluous details, with most of the science remaining staunchly fiction. Hirosuke’s degeneration as a human being receives much more attention, as does his erotic and grotesque fascination with the confused and powerless widow of his former friend.
Although it’s published by a university press, Strange Tale of Panorama Island is a pleasure to read. The introduction and endnote sections are short, discrete, and quite interesting. If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the books in the Penguin Horror Classics series, including the handsome reprints of the work of Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, you’ll more than likely have a lot of fun with Strange Tale of Panorama Island. The novel was originally written for a broad but intelligent audience, and it’s aged extremely well, partially thanks to the excellent translation.
I also want to recommend the manga adaptation drawn by Suehiro Maruo and published in English translation by Last Gasp Press. Maruo, a gekiga artist who has adapted numerous other works of dark mystery fiction, delights in the lurid imagery of the story, which he depicts with his signature detailed linework and bold panel compositions. Readers should be cautioned that, although this is a “classic” that’s taught in university classes, it is most definitely not safe for work.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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)
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.
As his father is dying of pancreatic cancer, a young(ish) man named Ryosuke discovers a set of notebooks hidden in a box in his father’s study. The handwritten confession contained in the notebooks is shocking, and Ryosuke begins to suspect that the woman who raised him may not be his biological mother. Then again, a part of him has always known that something was strange ever since he was four years old, when his family moved from Tokyo to Nara while he was in the hospital. It may well be that Misako, the person he was told to call mother when he was brought home, replaced his real mother, especially if the woman who gave birth to him is the same person who has written something resembling a “murder diary” in the notebooks he’s found.
The woman who admits her darkest secrets in these notebooks knows that something is wrong with her. She has trouble empathizing with other people, and nothing in life brings her joy. When she discovers that witnessing a death makes her feel human, she can’t stop thinking about it, and she takes indirect action that results in the death of a young boy and one of her female classmates. Killing, she realizes, is her “Nan-Core,” something a doctor once told her parents that she was lacking and whose pronunciation she misremembered as a child. Her “Nan-Core” is what makes her feel alive, and she continues to search for opportunities to trigger it as she grows up, goes to college, and starts working at an office.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Misako, the woman who wrote the confessions in the notebooks, is indeed Ryosuke’s biological mother, and that the woman who called herself Misako as she raised him and his brother is a surrogate. Ryosuke wants to find out how and why this happened, and most readers will quickly come to the obvious conclusions, which are later confirmed by Ryosuke’s father. The most intriguing element of this family drama is what happened to the original Misako, whose fate remains a mystery until the very end of the novel.
As Ryosuke steals time during his father’s hospital visits to read Misako’s notebooks, a disturbing series of events plays out in his own life. Ryosuke runs a mountainside dog café called Shaggy Head, and he’s fallen in love with one of his employees, Chie. Chie was once a bar hostess, and she’s on the run from her abusive husband, who is in turn hounded by the yakuza. When Chie disappears into thin air, another of Ryosuke’s employees, Ms. Hosoya, takes it upon herself to find the missing woman, a decision that results in dangerous complications for everyone involved.
Despite all the murder and spousal abuse, Nan-Core tells a surprisingly gentle story. The novel’s focuses is mystery or violence, but rather the evolution of the relationships between the members of Ryosuke’s family as he and his brother learn more about their parents and begin to see them as people. Ryosuke also starts to develop a new sense of family as he develops stronger bonds with Chie and Ms. Hosoya. The secrets hidden within these relationships stem not from malice and neglect, but from attempts to do the right thing under difficult circumstances.
Even Misako is able to grow and change because of the kindness of the people who adopted her into their family. Her homicidal tendencies can be read as an attempt to form connections with other people despite extreme alienation, and some of her murders are even a bit gratifying. For example, why continue to deal with sexual harassment at work when you can just murder the creep who keeps bothering all the female employees? In the end, the gentle Ryosuke is able to borrow strength from his mother’s confessions; and, when his story finally intersects with hers, the result is extremely satisfying.
Nan-Core may at first seem to be a paper-thin mystery propelled by a cast of one-dimensional stereotypes, but the plot slowly thickens as layers are added to each character. The story can be melodramatic at times, and the lack of any real consequences resulting from the characters’ actions is a bit fanciful, but none of this detracts from the charm of the novel.
My only real complaint is that, given that Ryosuke manages a dog café, Nan-Core has an unfortunate lack of canine characters. Judging from its trailer (link), the 2017 cinematic adaptation of the book (link) doesn’t have any dogs either. This is a shame, because I think the story’s odd but intriguing blend of horror and romance could have been enhanced by more puppies. Honestly, probably everything could be enhanced by more puppies, but at least Nan-Core offers its readers a batch of warm and cuddly murderers.
My rating: 13/10, it would be an honor to be murdered be this family of cutie pies.
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)
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.