Books on Japanese Culture and Society

This past semester I taught a class on Japanese science fiction and fantasy, and I was surprised by how interested my students were in learning more about the social and cultural context of contemporary Japan. I therefore put together a list of recommendations for popular-audience books that are smart and specific yet still accessible to a casual reader. I decided to share this list here with the hope that it might prove useful outside the classroom.

If you’re interested in social issues facing contemporary Japan…

Dreux Richard’s Every Human Intention: Japan in the New Century (2021) tackles two of the most significant demographic concerns in Japan, immigration and rural depopulation, as well as a major environmental concern, Japan’s aging nuclear reactors. Richard approaches these topics by conversations with people who are directly involved, from Nigerian immigrants to census workers to nuclear regulatory officials. The writing is remarkably rich and features a large cast of characters with interlocking stories.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “Triple Disaster” of March 2011…

Richard Lloyd Parry’s Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (2017) tells the stories of people who survived, as well as the stories of people who didn’t. There are elements of true crime in Parry’s journalism, which seeks to understand what happened, how it happened, and how it affected those involved. Parry is never needlessly dramatic or unkind, but he is justifiably critical of the decisions of elected officials at all levels of government.

If you’re interested in a deep dive into the “Lost Decade” of Japan in the 1990s…

John Nathan’s Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose (2004) was written at a time when people were just beginning to understand the causes, repercussions, and long-term effects of Japan’s prolonged economic recession. Although it was published almost twenty years ago, this book remains relevant. Nathan is a professor and a literary translator, and reading each chapter is like listening to a fascinating class lecture.

If you’re interested in the dark side of Japan’s postwar economic miracle that emerged in the 1980s…

Norma Field’s In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: Japan at Century’s End (1991) is simultaneously an academic study and an intensely personal memoir. It’s also a genuine work of literature, and it won an American Book Award in 1992. Field’s prose is impeccably beautiful and a true pleasure to read, and her critique of the rise of neoliberal capitalism in Japan is penetratingly sharp. This book doesn’t feel the least bit dated, and it’s actually somewhat uncanny how all of Field’s predictions for Japan’s future came true.

If you’re interested in the history of how Japanese pop culture has been exported and received in the United States…

Matt Alt’s Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World (2020) is recounted from the perspective of an active working professional in the field of cultural exports from Japan. Alt begins in the immediate postwar period, and the scope of this book is impressively expansive. Alt regularly writes intriguing longread pieces for the New Yorker, and his 2018 essay “The United States of Japan” is a fascinating preview of an equally fascinating book.

If you’re interested in the American anime explosion during the early 2000s…

Roland Kelts’s Japanamerica: How Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. (2006) feels charmingly retro in its perspective on Japan’s anime industry, especially when it comes to Kelts’s optimistic enthusiasm. This book captures the excitement of the mid-2000s anime boom fueled by DVD sales and anime conventions, which were springing up like mushrooms in North America. Kelts hits all the high points of the conversation at the time as he discusses topics ranging from anime auteurs to otaku fandom subcultures.

I also want to mention Jonathan Clements’s Anime: A History, which was published in 2013 by the British Film Institute. This is a muscular book that might be a bit too powerful for a casual reader, but it’s exquisitely well-researched and absolute required reading for anyone’s who’s serious about studying anime in the context of the creative industry that produces it.

If you’re interested in how the gaming industry developed in America during the 1980s through the 2000s…

Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America (2012) is a lot of fun. Very few people knew how to write about video games back in the early 2010s, but Ryan has perfect pitch. Nintendo is an apt focus of Ryan’s exploration of how the gaming industry underwent numerous rapid shifts during a twenty-year period, but the book is still interesting and accessible even to people who don’t particularly care about Nintendo games.

If you’re interested in landmark speculative fiction and sci-fi anime from the 1980s and 1990s…

Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime (2007) is an academic essay collection, but most of the essays are fun, interesting, and easy to read. There’s a lot of intriguing analysis here, as well as a great deal of literary and media history that you can’t find in English anywhere else.

If you just really love Hayao Miyazaki…

Helen McCarthy’s Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation (1999) is a classic, with beautiful summaries, insights, formatting, and screenshots. Susan Napier’s essay collection Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art (2019) is published by an academic press but still accessible and enjoyable, and it has the added bonus of covering Miyazaki’s manga in addition to his films.

If you’d like to do some armchair tourism of otaku subcultures in Tokyo…

Gianni Simone’s Tokyo Geek’s Guide: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Otaku Culture (2017) is filled with incredible photos and a wealth of interesting recommendations. It also includes several illustrated essays on the history and cultural context of various subcultures, from comics to cosplay to pop idols to anime musicals.

If you want to learn about Japanese folklore while doing some armchair tourism of rural Japan…

Cécile Brun and Olivier Pichard’s Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter (2016) is a collection of comic nonfiction essays about the artists’ travels to various points of interest in the Tōhoku region of north Japan. There is indeed ample discussion of ghosts and yōkai, but this book’s true charm is its depiction of small rural towns and the colorful human characters who live there.

If you want to learn about Japanese urban legends and the true stories that inspired them…

Tara A. Devlin’s Toshiden: Exploring Japanese Urban Legends (2018) is self-published on Amazon, but that doesn’t make it any less well-researched. This book covers many internationally well-known Japanese urban legends, as well as a few that are infamous in Japan but aren’t yet widespread on the English-language internet. It’s much longer and denser than you might expect, but every chapter is extremely entertaining.

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This post’s header illustration was created by Marty Tina G., who goes by @geezmarty on Twitter. You can check out their portfolio (here) and download their short fantasy and sci-fi comics (here). Marty is an expert at bold character designs and bright color palettes, and I trusted them to capture the energy and excitement of reading an interesting book that expands the world.

The End of the Line for the Shinra Corporation

One of the most iconic images of Final Fantasy VII is Cloud standing tall as he faces the dark tower of the Shinra corporate headquarters. Over the meandering course of its expansive story, Final Fantasy VII changes direction and shifts focus, but its story holds fast to the end goal of saving the world from a crisis created by Shinra. Even if there were no interstellar demons or mad scientists, the planet would never have survived were it not for a small group of activists who dared to challenge the most powerful corporation in the world.

Many players may have initially questioned the morals of Barret Wallace, the leader of the ragtag group of guerilla activists calling themselves Avalanche, but Barret’s anger and frustration prove to be justified when Shinra brings an entire section of the suspended concrete city of Midgar down on the slums, just as it had once ruined the towns of Corel and Nibelheim. The Shinra Electric Power Company authors its own demise with its destruction of the environment and the people whose lives depend on the land. It seems therefore natural, and perhaps even validating, when Shinra’s massive office tower becomes the target of an avenging meteor.

But why was the fantasy of saving the world from an evil corporation so powerful and pervasive in Japan, a wealthy country famous for its powerful economy?

This essay situates Final Fantasy VII within the political and cultural context of the 1990s, a decade of economic depression characterized by social malaise in Japan. I will begin by explaining the collusion between Japan’s public and private sectors before sketching an outline of how local groups protested and disrupted corporate destruction of the natural environment. I will then discuss how Avalanche reflects real-world grassroots environmental activism in Japan. I hope to demonstrate that, while Cloud and Aerith become heroes by saving the planet from a magical meteor, Barret and Tifa’s stand against the Shinra Corporation is just as brave and inspiring.

Japan’s postwar economic recovery was admired throughout the world, and the country boasted the second-largest global economy by the 1980s, when it was considered to be a serious threat to American economic hegemony. Japan’s swift economic recovery was facilitated by the coordination of the country’s “iron triangle” of elected officials, career bureaucrats, and large corporations known as keiretsu.

The expression keiretsu designates a “grouping of enterprises,” and it primarily refers to holding companies that oversee a diverse range of business interests. To give an example, the Mitsubishi keiretsu controls holdings ranging from Japan’s largest private bank to automobile manufacturing plants, as well as an electronics company that produces everything from industrial robots to home appliances. The economic activities of keiretsu like Mitsubishi were enabled by bureaucratic subsidies and adjustments to corporate law, which were in turn engineered by politicians, many of whom also served on the board of directors of various keiretsu. Through the coordination of activity between the public and private sectors, Japan’s economy was able to expand at a rate that amazed even the United States.

When Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997, however, Japan was deep into what has become known as “the Lost Decade,” a period of severe economic depression. Like the global financial crisis of 2008, Japan’s Lost Decade was partially the result of the implosion of a real-estate speculation bubble. Essentially, financial companies made investments without the necessary capital to back their speculation. When they defaulted on their loans and went bankrupt, the entire economy spiraled into a tailspin.

Salaried workers lost their jobs, and middle-class families lost their houses and apartments. People working for hourly wages at the bottom of the economic ladder, a demographic that included foreign nationals and the vast majority of the female workforce, fell into even greater financial precarity. Average middle-class company employees who had sacrificed their personal lives while working long hours could do nothing but watch as their savings evaporate and their investments become worthless.

The fall of the mighty keiretsu resulted in deep cultural tremors. Along with the widespread social unrest that unseated Japan’s long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party, there was an intellectual pushback against the economic philosophy now known as neoliberalism, which refers to a return to nineteenth-century “liberal” policies that hold that the market functions best when unregulated. Not only had the unregulated activities of the keiretsu ultimately resulted in economic collapse and social instability, but the incestuous relationship between the national government, local bureaucracies, and corporate interests was also responsible for unnecessary and absurd incidents of environmental destruction.

The radical activist group Avalanche is representative of growing public support for ecological movements in Japan during the 1990s as coverage of horrific cases of industrial pollution began to appear in the media. Japan ultimately took a leadership position in various protocols of the United Nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global climate change, but these top-down initiatives would never have been possible without the ongoing grassroots activism of local groups like Avalanche.

The 1960s saw the rise of Japanese environmental activism. Environmentalism was tied to other prominent activist movements of the decade, such as protests against American military conflicts in East Asia and demands to end institutional discrimination against women and ethnic minorities. In 1970, the Japanese Diet passed a number of laws regulating industrial pollution, thus ending the discharge of dangerous chemicals such as mercury and arsenic into rivers and ocean harbors.

Because of the Iron Triangle collusion driving Japan’s rapid economic growth, the bureaucratic systems in charge of enforcing environmental regulations worked with elected officials, many of whom had close ties to keiretsu with holdings in construction and real estate. The former environmental threat of pollution from mines and factories was therefore replaced by the threat of land development as municipally owned forests, riverbanks, and other uninhabited areas were sold to private business interests and cleared in order to build apartment complexes and shopping centers.

Essentially, the government facilitated the sale of public land to corporations, which destroyed natural environments for short-term economic gain. In Japan, the “economic bubble” years of the 1980s are notorious for absurd development projects in remote areas that included malls, museums, and amusement parks that have since closed and been abandoned. Contracting companies with ties to politicians and bureaucrats also received government funding to build unused bridges and tunnels in the countryside while needlessly coating mountainsides and shorelines with concrete reinforcement.

Widespread popular protest movements had become rare by the early 1980s. Nevertheless, local citizen’s groups once again banded together to take action against environmental destruction during the early 1990s. Along with raising public awareness, these groups pooled their resources to file lawsuits against corporations and buy land under consideration for development. A few high-profile cases, such as acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki’s ongoing efforts to conserve a forest in Saitama, have been celebrated by the international news media, but most of these activist groups were treated as nuisances, as their activities intentionally disrupted corporate development.

Barret Wallace is very much a representative of the “disruptive” guerilla activism that characterized Japan’s local environmental movements during the 1980s and 1990s. Barret saw his hometown of Corel exploited and abandoned, and he has firsthand experience of the emptiness of Shinra’s promises to create a better future. Barret initially supported Shinra’s plans to build a reactor on Mt. Corel, as the town’s mining economy had fallen into a gradual decline as a result of the spread of mako energy. At the slightest hint of trouble, however, Shinra burned Corel and converted it into a prison. Barret therefore understands from firsthand experience that it’s not possible to peacefully disagree with Shinra, as the corporation is essentially the government, legal system, and military.

Tifa, whose hometown of Nibelheim was destroyed by Shinra in order to protect its assets, also understands that Shinra cannot be resisted using conventional means. Unlike Barret, who is interested in combating a corrupt system, Tifa seems to be more concerned with nurturing personal relationships and protecting her community. Barret and Tifa’s goals are not in opposition, however. “Protecting the planet” is a lofty ambition, but environmental activism in Japan is grounded in the efforts of local communities attempting to deal with the effects of industrial pollution and overdevelopment in specific areas. Activist groups have often formed around small community meeting spaces like Tifa’s Seventh Heaven bar, especially as public spaces have become increasingly corporate owned.

In the Final Fantasy VII Remake, Avalanche is a large paramilitary organization with multiple branches; but, in the original release, Avalanche is exactly what Japanese environmental activist groups are like in real life – small, local, underfunded, and dependent on community support and grassroots communication networks. Midgar may have been partially based on New York City, but the spray-painted slogans and paper billets that appear both above and below the city’s plate reflect the real-life edginess of Japanese activism, where graffiti in public places is rare and extremely eye-catching. This style of grassroots outreach occurred online as well. It’s easy to imagine Jessie, the tech guru of Avalanche, making the sort of clunky but charmingly hand-assembled website associated with Japanese activist groups.

This DIY style of environmental activism isn’t about the countercultural aesthetic of “punk” or “street,” nor is it mystical or intellectual, like the scientists in Cosmo Canyon who sit around the fire and gaze at the stars while pondering the nature of the universe. Rather, the people involved in activist groups are often older, with jobs and families and strong ties to the community. Disenfranchised but politically active people like Barret and local business owners like Tifa understand from personal experience that you can’t fight Shinra with academic monographs or polite editorials. Direct action is necessary, even if it’s uncomfortable and disruptive.

When Cloud returns to himself after falling into the Lifestream, Barret and Tifa encourage him to continue their quest to protect the planet. Whether it’s standing up to the destructive excesses of a large corporation or preventing the fall of a magical meteor, the actions taken to ensure the survival of humanity are important and necessary, even if the cause may seem hopeless. As Barret says, “You gotta understand that there ain’t no gettin’ of this train we’re on, till we get to the end of the line.” Midgar, Corel, and Nibelheim may be fictional, but human suffering caused by environmental destruction is real. Final Fantasy VII therefore functions as a form of modern storytelling that enables the children of the 1990s to understand why conglomerates like the Shinra Corporation failed while serving as a model demonstrating just how heroic it is to protect the planet.

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Selected References

Journalist and translator Matt Alt possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese popular culture, and his book Pure Invention: How Japan Made the Modern World (2020, Crown) discusses the Lost Decade and its influence on various aspects of media from the 1990s.

Simon Avenell’s Transnational Japan in the Global Environmental Movement (2018, University of Hawai’i Press) features an overview of postwar environmental activism and discusses its reemergence in the 1990s as local groups protested environmental degradation due to corporate development.

Alexander Brown’s Anti-Nuclear Protest in Post-Fukushima Tokyo (2018, Routledge) provides a solid background on contemporary environmental activism in Japan and demonstrates how the ethos of local citizen’s movements has carried over to the present day.

Rachael Hutchinson’s Japanese Culture Through Videogames (2019, Routledge) serves as an excellent model for how to discuss the “Japaneseness” of JRPGs and includes an insightful and meticulously researched chapter on Final Fantasy VII.

Matt Leone’s 500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII (2018, Read-Only Memory), which is based on a lengthy Polygon article of the same name, contains a fascinating account of Squaresoft before the studio became a giant, Shinra-esque corporate media conglomerate.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015, Princeton University Press) details a few case studies of local citizen’s groups around Kyoto banding together to purchase forests threatened with development.

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This essay is my contribution to Return to the Planet, a fanzine celebrating the original 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII. The zine is free to download and filled with stunning artwork, moving fiction, and insightful meta essays. You can check out the zine on its website (here) and preview the contributors’ work on Twitter (here).

500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII

Editor: Matt Leone
Book Design: Rachel Dalton
Publication Year: 2018
Press: Read-Only Memory
Pages: 240

500 Years Later: An Oral History of Final Fantasy VII is a book-length collection of interviews with the game developers and staff members who worked on the original release of Final Fantasy VII in 1997. These interviews originally appeared on the website Polygon and can be accessed (here). Despite an ingenious bookmarking system, the piece is extraordinarily long, which is one of the many reasons why the book publication project received an enthusiastic level of support on Kickstarter.

Another explanation for the project’s success has to do with the canonical status of Final Fantasy VII, as well as the curiosity of many longtime fans. The insights that 500 Years Later provides concerning the creative process behind the game are indeed interesting. To give an example, I learned that the city of Midgar was originally modeled on New York, not Tokyo. Barret was originally named “Joe,” and he was the first character the development team created. Cloud, who was supposed to be Barret’s sidekick, was the second.

I was especially intrigued by a short interview with Tetsuya Nomura, who says that he gave the protagonist the name Cloud, “as in overcast gray clouds, because he was a slightly depressed, moody character.” Nomura adds that he wanted to make Cloud “a more human, weak character with flaws,” and that he was never intended to be a symbol of heroism. When the creators of Final Fantasy VII talk about their ideas and process, you can almost hear the enthusiasm in their voice.

Unfortunately, the majority of 500 Years Later is corporate gossip. Many of the interviewed staff members hint at issues that they never fully explain. For example, why were there so many errors in the original English translation? Because the circumstances were bad. How were they “bad,” exactly? No one will say. In addition, there are a lot of contradictions, as well as people vaguely suggesting that perhaps someone is misremembering something.

There’s also a lot of discussion concerning why the Honolulu studio that produced the Spirits Within movie failed, but no one will come out and say what they mean. The closest anyone gets is Alexander Smith, who laments that there were significant tax breaks offered by the state of Hawai’i that Square wasn’t interested taking advantage of. Apparently, the studio could have saved millions of dollars by signing an agreement saying that they would employ local Hawai’ians, but they refused to do the paperwork even though they could have easily hired local people as property maintenance staff.

Many of the Japanese staff aren’t willing to step on anyone’s toes, while the members of the American and European staff have moved on during the past twenty years and don’t really remember the specifics of what they were doing in 1997. I wish 500 Years Later were more “tell us about these characters and the world you helped create” and less “tell us how you feel about your bosses and coworkers from twenty years ago.” The small flashes of insight on the creative development of Final Fantasy VII are lovely, but they’re few and far between.

In terms of formatting and layout, the book is very stylish, but there are a distressing number of pages in which magenta text is printed against a slightly lighter magenta background. If you don’t read these pages in direct sunlight, they’re almost illegible. The staff bios at the back of the book are printed in tiny pink font, and I didn’t even try to read them. Hot pink magenta isn’t a color I associate with Final Fantasy VII, so I’m not sure what’s going there.

Aside from this relatively minor issue, the book design, text layout, and illustrations of 500 Years Later are all phenomenal. The interviews are edited and structured in a way that makes them easy to read, as well as surprisingly entertaining. Despite my lack of interest in the oral history of Square Enix as a corporation, I genuinely enjoyed the interviews with its current and former staff, and the physical edition of 500 Years Later is a treasure. If you’re interested, you can order a copy of the book from the publisher’s website (here).

Magazines and the Making of Mass Culture in Japan

Magazines and the Making of Culture in Japan
Author: Amy Bliss Marshall
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Publication Year: 2019
Pages: 221

Magazines and the Making of Culture in Japan is an in-depth historical treatment of two of the most influential magazines in twentieth-century Japan, Kingu (King) and Ie no hikari (Light of the Home). In this monograph, Marshall argues that magazines, perhaps more than any other medium of communication, shaped the population of the Japanese archipelago into a mass audience that could be marketed to and mobilized. It was through the pages of these magazines, both of which had a clear ideological agenda, that people came to share a sense of common “Japanese” values.

Marshall describes how the editors of these two magazines envisioned and created publications with a range of written material and illustrations that appealed to broad audiences in the rapidly developing cities (in the case of Kingu) and in the rural countryside (the target of Ie no hikari) in the opening decades of the twentieth century. These magazines were patriotic without being propaganda. As Marshall puts it, “The commonality of the mass audience did not require empire, even though it was created and coexisted comfortably within it” (79).

The topic of this study may seem to be specialist in its scope, but the monograph is beautifully written, nicely edited, and a pleasure to read. Each chapter is like a guided tour through an archive, with Marshall providing overviews of each magazine’s content while selecting interesting textual materials and editor interviews to expand on each point. Although each archival excerpt is fascinating, Marshall never gets lost in the details and continually situates the discussion within its broader historical context. Magazines and the Making of Culture in Japan is marvelously well-structured, with each topic flowing neatly into the next to form a larger narrative about the creation of mass media culture in early twentieth-century Japan.

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)

Final Fantasy V

Final Fantasy V
Author: Chris Kohler
Publisher: Boss Fight Books
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 165

Final Fantasy V is a book about the experience of growing up in the 1990s and discovering Japan by way of video games. This story is familiar to many people who came of age along with the internet, and Chris Kohler, who was born in 1980 and currently works as an editor at Kotaku, is the perfect person to tell it.

The book opens with a history of the early Final Fantasy series narrated from the perspective of the author, an American who has to glean bits and pieces of knowledge from magazines like Nintendo Power. Kohler also had access to computer industry trade magazines with ads in the back, which is how he came to acquire a Japanese copy of Final Fantasy V. His account reads like a child detective story, and I especially enjoyed how he dramatizes the process of “unlocking” the Japan-specific cartridge by manually prying off a set of small plastic tabs.

Kohler later coauthored the first fanmade English-language Final Fantasy V FAQ guide. This expansive document was meant to help Final Fantasy fans make sense of the Japanese-language game, which was circulated online as a ROM file that could be played on any number of software programs that emulated the Super Nintendo gaming console. Kohler discusses how the content of the game was officially and unofficially translated and retranslated, as well as why it was worth translating. Kohler also goes into rich and fascinating detail about the online cultures that have formed around Final Fantasy V, as well as many other Japanese RPGs that were slow to receive an English-language release.

Final Fantasy V is about a specific video game, but it’s also about how the gaming subculture of the 1990s explored and embraced the potential for communication across linguistic and cultural barriers. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the Final Fantasy series or video games in general, this short book is a lovely memoir of the early internet era. Final Fantasy V stands alongside Leigh Alexander’s Breathing Machine as a representative example of the excellent narrative nonfiction created by the generation of people between Gen X and the Millennials who grew up along with the internet, with all the weirdness and thrill of discovery that entails.

Chris Kohler is also the author of Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. Although it shows its age (in a dignified manner, of course) as a book that was written during an earlier period of gaming history, Power-Up is still an immensely fun read, and it contains a wealth of treasure for fans of the Final Fantasy series and people interested in how Japanese pop culture has been translated, localized, and interpreted by a global audience.

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.

Mahou Josei Chimaka

Title: Mahou Josei Chimaka: Magical Woman Chimaka
Writer and Artist: KaiJu (Jennifer Xu and Kate Rhodes)
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: Chromatic Press
Pages: 120

Chimaka Shi was once a magical girl. She had a cute magical mascot, a handsome magical boyfriend, and a great magical destiny… but then things didn’t quite work out. As a teenager, Chi managed to save the day (sort of?), but her final battle against her cosmic nemesis left a huge crater in the middle of the city. Her boyfriend dumped her, and since she’d spent so much time fighting she had trouble getting into college. Now, fifteen years later, she’s a regular office worker – until she gets a call from a mysterious government agent who tells her that the threat to humanity has returned. Chi hasn’t transformed into a magical girl since her life-defining battle, and she’s not surprised when she realizes that she’s lost her magical abilities during the interim.

But not to fear! After Chi somehow manages to convince her close colleague Pippa that she used to be a magical girl (spoiler: alcohol is involved), Pippa determines that all Chi needs in order to transform into Shimmer Shimmer Sky Patcher once again is to regain her sense of being magical. As a hole gradually opens in the sky over the city and an ecological crisis ensues, Pippa arranges a series of magical moments that will hopefully trigger Chi’s reawakening.

To make a short story even shorter, Chi finally manages to awaken as her true self, and it is epic. And then she and Pippa kiss, which is equally epic.

Mahou Josei Chimaka: Magical Woman Chimaka is a fantasy female/female romance with lots of flowers and sparkles and cute women in their early thirties being adorable. This short graphic novel is an enjoyable and uplifting read, and both the writing and the art flow smoothly. The characters are believable, and their faces and outfits are equally expressive. The story unravels against the backdrop of a number of unique and eye-catching settings, and all of the set pieces are perfectly designed to give the reader a thrilling sense of the doki-dokis.

In the Fall 2018 semester I’m teaching an “Introduction to Anime and Manga Studies” seminar, and I’ve decided to use Mahou Josei Chimaka as one of the assigned texts for the course. English-speaking readers are lucky to have a variety of yuri manga translations currently in print, but what I love about Mahou Josei Chimaka is that it showcases the brilliance of the OEL (original English language) manga that have been inspired by Japanese stories of female/female romance. KaiJu have mastered the visual style characteristic of both shōjo and yuri manga, with delicate clean lines, open paneling, and lots of screentone. Meanwhile, the writing steers away from many of the tired yuri tropes common to stories about schoolgirls, and it’s refreshing to read a story about grown-ass women with adult freedoms and responsibilities who are still maidens at heart.

Mahou Josei Chimaka is not shy about flaunting its artistic influences from both shōjo and yuri manga and American young adult romance novels, but it also manages to mask its cultural odor, which I can only assume must have been a deliberate decision on the part of the creative team. There are very few cultural markers in the story, which is not set in any specific location. It could take place in North America, or South America, or Europe, or even in Asia. Moreover, the manga-inspired artistic style makes it difficult to assign racial characteristics to any of the characters. Although I think most readers will assume that Chi is ambiguously South Asian and Pippa is ambiguously white, the key word is “ambiguous.” KaiJu doesn’t address any social issues relating to queer sexuality, which is never discussed either by the primary characters or by any of the background characters. Mahou Josei Chimaka therefore doesn’t position itself within any contemporary conversations about queer sexuality, which gives it a sense of timelessness and geographic ambiguity. None of this is necessarily bad or “problematic;” rather, it’s precisely this ambiguity that makes the graphic novel interesting as an artifact of Western interpretations of Japanese manga.

The main reason I’d want a class to read Mahou Josei Chimaka, however, is that it is super duper cute and a whole lot of fun. The art is beautiful, the writing is compelling, and the tight editing keeps the story moving forward at a steady pace while still allowing the reader time to enjoy the sweetness of the romance.

You can order a Kindle edition of the graphic novel from Amazon, and print copies are available directly from the online store of Sparkler Monthly, a digital magazine associated with Chromatic Press, an indie publisher specializing in a dazzling diversity of romance. KaiJu’s latest work can be found on their Tumblr site or on Twitter, where they go by @KAIxJU.

Banquet of the Wild

Title: Banquet of the Wild
Artist: Kari Fry
Publication Year: 2018
Publisher: Fangamer
Pages: 65

The cooking system in the 2017 Nintendo Switch game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a thing of beauty, and the gorgeous artwork in this fan-created guide illustrates both the simplicity and intricacy of its craft.

I grew up in a remote location that it’s probably fair to call a food desert. A trip to the grocery store was an occasion to be celebrated, and my family had to travel to be able to eat at a restaurant. As a result, I never learned to cook. Food wasn’t scare, necessarily, but there was no room for experimentation or even simply messing around in the kitchen.

Once I got to college and decided that it was high time to learn how food works, I was overwhelmed by cooking shows and websites. Even the simplest recipes used words I didn’t understand and included multiple ingredients and tools that were inaccessible to me. After a great deal of trial and error, I finally learned to prepare a few simple dishes, but I still tend to approach the task with trepidation.

Breath of the Wild is all about exploration, and gradually discovering how its cooking system works is one of the rewards of venturing far and wide throughout Hyrule. As players traverse various ecosystems, they are able to gather a range of ingredients that they can use to prepare different dishes. Many of these dishes, such as baked apples and grilled meat, are relatively simple, but each culture in Hyrule has perfected a number of more complicated meals, from curry pilaf to salmon meuniere to wildberry crepes. The recipes for these dishes are scattered throughout Hyrule can be learned by methods such as sitting in on a cooking class or combing through the library of a monster-infested castle, but most players will more than likely stick to proven standards without going out of their way to experiment.

Banquet of the Wild is a handy guide that takes a lot of the guesswork out of Breath of the Wild’s cooking system. The first part of the guide is devoted to different categories of ingredients, with the entry for each ingredient explaining where it can be found and what effects it has on a dish. The second half of the guide delves into specific recipes of varying levels of complexity while still allowing for substitutions of various ingredients. Between these two sections are concise yet informative guides on topics such as the “Fundamentals of Cooking” and “How to Brew Elixers,” which help to structure the division of ingredients into useful components in the creation of various dishes.

Breath of the Wild is a large and immersive game that encourages players to disappear into its world, and many people end up spending dozens – if not hundreds – of hours in Hyrule. If you’ve already tried your hand at all of the cooking-related sidequests, then Banquet of the Wild probably won’t teach you anything you haven’t already figured out for yourself. For beginners and intermediate players, however, this unofficial guide is a godsend, especially in the way it clearly indicates the gameplay-related effects of each dish and ingredient with easy-to-read text and symbols. Meanwhile, completionists will appreciate the appendices and checklists at the end of the book, which will aid their goal to experience everything the game has to offer.

Players of all levels – including gamers who have no interest in ever embarking into the wilds of Hyrule – will still be able to appreciate the beauty and creativity of Kari Fry’s artwork. Fry’s botanical illustrations are superb, and she has obviously put a great deal of research into how to incorporate realistic zoological elements into her designs of the fish, insects, and other creatures of the game. Her luscious watercolors convey the texture, gloss, and temperature of the foods she draws, helping the reader to imagine just how delicious and appetizing they might be. Banquet of the Wild is primarily devoted to the wonders of the natural world, but the inserts on the book’s inside covers include sketches of people from the various races of the game enjoying cooking for themselves, which provides an interesting peek into the world of the game.

For me, playing Breath of the Wild was an adventure in cooking. The game’s protagonist, Link, takes clear and obvious pleasure in cooking and eating, and he’s more than willing to try anything once and prepare dishes from whatever ingredients he has on hand. I found his enthusiasm and open-mindedness extremely inspirational, and playing the game helped me to rediscover my love of cooking. As in Breath of the Wild, preparing food doesn’t have to involve complicated recipes or rare ingredients – just a bit of patience and a hearty appetite. If Link can do it, then I can do it too!

Banquet of the Wild celebrates the joy of cooking in Breath of the Wild. It’s a handsome book filled with fantasy cuisine and Kari Fry’s gorgeous illustrations of plants, animals, and delicious food. Kari Fry can be found on Twitter @kee_fry, and the book itself is available on Fangamer’s website.

So Pretty / Very Rotten

Title: So Pretty / Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture
Authors: Jane Mai and An Nguyen
Publisher: Koyama Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 304

This guest review is by Kyra Wiseman.

With their poofy petticoats and delicate dresses, aficionados of Lolita fashion stand out as an elegant oasis among a sea of jeans and t-shirts. It is hard to imagine how such a feminine style of dress could have a dark underbelly, but Jane Mai and An Nguyen explore this in their collection of essays and comics, So Pretty / Very Rotten.

Lolita fashion is a Japanese street fashion based off of Victorian children’s clothing. It emphasizes modesty, femininity and elegance. A basic Lolita outfit (co-ordinate, or co-ord for short) consists of a blouse with puffed sleeves and a round Peter Pan collar, a knee-length dress or skirt, over-the-knee socks, Mary-Jane shoes, a headbow, and most importantly, a bell-shaped petticoat. It is an unashamedly feminine style in a time where femininity is undermined and women feel a pressure to dress and present in a more masculine style in order to be taken seriously. I personally have been a part of this subculture since 2010, and my love for it only grows with each passing year.

While it contains several essays that go into the historical and feminine aspects of Lolita, So Pretty / Very Rotten brings to light a more macabre side of the fashion. Mai and Nguyen discuss how there is an innate sense of materialism within the community. The urge to buy, buy, buy and collect pieces to perfect one’s Lolita wardrobe is prevalent. Often one feels as if they don’t belong unless they have a wardrobe of a certain size or pieces by specific brands. One of Jane Mai’s comics depicts a character literally exchanging body parts in order to gain a deeper understanding of Lolita and what it means to be a part of the fashion.

A less macabre theme, though no less troublesome, is that of escapism. Many view Lolita and the window to another time, as it creates a gateway to a world where life is simpler and where teatime and lovely dresses help take away the pain and stresses of real life. The authors express the idea that sometimes Lolitas can get so wrapped up in this world of beauty and luxury that they forget to take care of other aspects of their lives. They do note, however, that there is also a sense of freedom in making the choice to dress in a way that is so outlandish. When you’re surrounded by a supportive community that encourages self-expression through fashion, it feels as though you have the power and opportunity to be yourself, no matter how strange your interests are. As one character says, “Isn’t there a kind of power in announcing so plainly the things that you like?”

So Pretty / Very Rotten is fantastic for readers who are interested in alternative Japanese fashion, whether they are beginners or seasoned pros. I personally enjoyed the illustrations and the love and attention that Mai and Nguyen have brought to recreating Lolita outfits in a way that is representative of their own tastes while portraying the versatility of the fashion. I hadn’t expected the book to touch on ideas relating to Lolita as escapism or to explore the darker side of using clothes to express oneself. I felt as though this unique perspective helped me look at the fashion I love in a new light, and perhaps it has also helped me recognize my own habits in the way I approach the fashion. This collection of short essays and comics will be a welcome addition to the library of those who are Lolitas or those who love them and would appreciate a better understanding of this weird yet wonderful frilly world.

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Kyra Wiseman is a Washington D.C. native with a passion for alternative fashion. She has been a part of the DC/MD/VA metropolitan area Lolita community for six years.