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.

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna)

shuna-no-tabi

Title: シュナの旅 (Shuna no tabi)
English Title: The Journey of Shuna
Author: Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿)
Publication Year: 1983
Publisher: Animage Bunko
Pages: 149

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna) is a short watercolor manga by Studio Ghibli director Miyazaki Hayao. Shuna is not only the precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but also to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä’s spiritual successor. It contains many of the themes that define Miyazaki’s oeuvre, such as the relationship between humans and nature, human rights, and pacifism.

Shuna is a prince from a small nation in a valley where food cannot grow easily and the people and animals are starving. One day, an injured old traveler wanders into his community. Before the man dies, he tells Shuna about a place where golden grain grows in abundance and gives him some seeds that a traveler gave him when he was a young man. Shuna decides to set off on a journey in search of the grain with Yakuul, his red antelope. Along the way, he fights slave traders and thieves and rescues a young woman, Thea, and her sister from slavery in the castle town of Dorei. They outrun the slave traders and eventually part ways. Thea and her sister go to a town in the north where they live with an old lady. Thea farms, raises animals, and weaves. Meanwhile, Shuna enters a forest full of giant green humanoids who become the forest when they die. The giants are people sold into slavery who are transformed into giants in an organic machine with the help of the Moon, who appears almost like a mask in the sky and appears to be a deity or other supernatural creature. Shuna finds the fabled golden grain in the forest, but his journey back to Thea and her sister is more difficult than anticipated.

Fans of Miyazaki’s work will be delighted to discover the prototypes for certain themes and scenes from both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke in Shuna no tabi. While the story is certainly more simplistic than the works it inspired, there’s still a lot going on beneath the surface. What is the machine that turns people into forest giants? If the Moon is a god, are there other gods? What relationship do the slave traders have with the Moon?

Additionally, many illustrations from Shuna no tabi were later recalled in Miyazaki’s animation. A scene of Shuna eating while looking at some fox-squirrels in the forest is reused in Nausicaä, whose heroine eats with her pet fox-squirrel Teto in an identical pose. After Shuna leaves the city, he encounters and camps with an old man who tells him to go west to find the grain, a scene that is used again in Mononoke when Ashitaka camps with the monk Jiko, who tells him the iron bullet he found came from the west. The old man’s character design is reused for a priest in Nausicaä as well. The aesthetic elements of the Valley of the Wind also have their origins in Shuna no tabi, particularly the formal wear of the northern village and the murals in Shuna’s home. Some of the illustrations depicting the forest, especially the image of the flowers growing out of Shuna’s gun, were later reused in Mononoke.

From the perspective of gender representation, one thing I’ve noticed and admired in many of Miyazaki’s works is that he doesn’t use extreme sexual dimorphism – that is, his young adult male and female protagonists tend to be built alike. Shuna and Thea look nearly identical in body shape and facial features, and they both resemble Nausicaä and Ashitaka. While Miyazaki’s character designs for middle-aged characters feature more differences in height and build, the dimorphism is nowhere as extreme as it is in Disney and Pixar films (and for that, this genderqueer reviewer is grateful).

The biggest difference between Shuna no tabi and the works that followed it, however, is Miyazaki’s commitment to pacifism. Shuna spends a lot of time defending himself by shooting at people with his gun, and at the end of the story the village in the north still has to use guns to defend their land. In contrast, both Nausicaä and Ashitaka commit acts of violence in the beginning of their stories, mostly in self-defense. These experiences directly shape their commitment to pacifism as they both try to end the violence surrounding them; Nausicaä’s goal is to end a war between the kingdom of Tolkmekia and its colonies, while Ashitaka does his best to intervene in a conflict between Tataraba (Iron Town) and the deities of the forest. This is not to say that these characters refuse to commit violence, but that the narrative tone regarding violence shifts significantly as their stories develop.

The watercolor images are gorgeously rendered, and all the pages are in full color. My only complaint with the publication quality of the book is that the text, which is often printed directly onto the images instead of in word bubbles, can sometimes be hard to read, especially when the text is printed in white or blue ink. Adding the standard border and background to set off the text from the surrounding image would have eliminated this difficulty, albeit at the expense of preserving the full glory of the paintings.

I recommend Shuna no tabi primarily for fans of Miyazaki’s films who want to explore his earlier work. Shuna no tabi has not been translated into English, but it is written at a middle school level of language and should be accessible to readers with a high intermediate proficiency in Japanese. I would evaluate the Japanese at an N2 level, more so for the vocabulary than for the grammar. There isn’t a lot of violence in Shuna no tabi, but its depictions of slavery and starvation may be uncomfortable for some readers.

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L.M. Zoller is a former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. Ze wrote zir senior thesis on moral development theory in Miyazaki’s films and has probably seen Princess Mononoke 100 times (no joke). L.M. blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

shuna-no-tabi-page-93

The Book of Yōkai

the-book-of-yokai

Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

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Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.

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You Died: The Dark Souls Companion

You Died

Title: You Died: The Dark Souls Companion
Authors: Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth
Illustrators: Paul Canavan and Angus Dick
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: BackPage
Pages: 333

This guest review is written by Ryan Nock.

I came to You Died: The Dark Souls Companion as a casual fan of the Japanese video game series Dark Souls (and its sister Bloodborne), and I was expecting the text to explore the craft, the development, and the secrets of the games. It’s not quite that book, though, and devotes its attention to the game’s fandom rather than its creation.

The Souls series is infamous for its difficulty, and you’ll see the words “YOU DIED” flash on the screen dozens of times as you learn how to play. The most casual encounters with enemies can kill your character repeatedly until you get into the groove and learn the dangers of the world and the attack patterns of the undead and other monsters that roam it. While you’re connected online, other players can scrawl notes from a limited set of available words to offer hints, and you can call on help from other players, but they cannot speak to you. Moreover, those same players can “invade” your game and try to kill you.

While yes, this is challenging, it has created an interesting sense of community, as players all struggling at the same time to survive the game and solve its mysteries. That community, which expanded from the video game to the internet and even into the real world, is the focus of You Died.

The authors, Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth, are both game journalists who had early access to games in the Souls series and were early popularizers of them in the West. Through this book (which doesn’t have a table of contents), they recount the history of how the precursor game Demon’s Souls came to the West through imports and fan translations, how its popularity led to the enthusiastic reception of the eventual release of Dark Souls, and how the fanbase proselytized the game firmly into the sphere of gaming pop culture icons.

Today, myriad YouTube channels highlight hidden bits of lore and showcase the skills of expert players, and the authors document some of the most famous examples of each. They seem to be trying to craft a sort of historical record of the game community, with whole chapters devoted to the time a Twitch stream crowd-sourced playing Dark Souls, or how one YouTube celeb got in hot water for collating insights into the gameworld’s mysteries without providing proper attribution to the messageboard community where that information was first posted.

Unfortunately, You Died is not adequately comprehensive as a reference, and as a documentary piece it doesn’t remain engaging all the way through. The presentation is a tad dry and perhaps a bit overlong; and, for a book about a video game, it’s a shame the only art is a series of black-and-white line drawings. I wonder if I, as a casual fan, am not the target audience. The authors assume the reader has beaten Dark Souls, and every once in a while I found passages of the book rather self-congratulatory, like the twelve pages detailing how one author got a 100% completion achievement. Rather than a unified book with a coherent through-line that builds to a satisfying conclusion, You Died is better read as a series of articles, which makes sense considering the pedigrees of the authors.

Still, there’s plenty to like. Entertaining vignettes recall how a couple bonded through co-op play, and how trickster players subvert the “invasion” mechanic to goof around and give rewards to would-be enemies who play along with their shenanigans. The chapters I found most interesting were the ones about the actual craft of the games – a biography of and excerpted interview with the series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, recollections of the translators who localized the games and the British voice actors who gave gravitas to a mournful story about a world where nothing can truly die, and musings of other game designers on what lessons they’ve learned from the Souls series.

One early and appealing chapter quotes from a long email chain that bounced back and forth among game reviewers who got advance copies of Dark Souls before it was released in the West. The reader is invited to witness their shared amusement and frustration as they work through the game, share tips with each other, and brag about their successes.

For my taste, there’s a bit too much on the community around the game – a still-active community one can easily learn about with some web searches – and not enough behind-the-scenes information. Dark Souls has a setting you have to dig your teeth into in order to really appreciate the game’s plot. Today, it’s easy for someone new to the franchise to hit up a wiki and have all the secrets revealed, and I wish this book had cared more about the unrolling of revelations in the games – the lovely “aha!” moments that cause pieces of the puzzle to fit together.

Also, the focus is almost wholly on Westerners, with scant attention paid to the fans in Japan or the other designers – artists, programmers, composers – who are all Japanese. What inspired these developers to create a setting so firmly rooted in a medieval and Renaissance European aesthetic? All the authors offer the reader is a few paragraphs on Miyazaki’s interest in Western fantasy, and I lament that the topic was not explored in more detail.

By chance, shortly before reading You Died, I finished another book about a pop culture phenomenon with a large community centered on unraveling mysteries. In 1979, the British artist Kit Williams buried a bejeweled golden rabbit and published Masquerade, an illustrated, riddle-filled book that served as a treasure map. In 1982 the rabbit was found, and in 1983 Bamber Gascoigne (a name which will be familiar to players of Bloodborne) released Quest for the Golden Hare. The book served as both a thriller, deftly portraying a cast of characters trying to locate the rabbit, and as an oral history of William’s creation of the puzzle and of the phenomenon of Masqueraders around the world trying to crack the code he’d crafted. Perhaps unfairly, I ended up comparing the two books, and I found Quest for the Golden Hare more compellingly written, though this could be a result of different journalistic styles separated by thirty years – or because I’m not exceptionally engrossed in the Souls franchise.

You Died certainly has its moments, and as a celebration of a fandom it has the potential to inspire appreciation within the community of people who love the game. Its content could have been tightened and condensed, however, and I think it would have been improved by a stronger focus on its Japanese origins rather than just its reception in the West.

You Died: The Dark Souls Companion is available on Kindle and in print.

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Ryan Nock is a writer and tabletop game designer at EN Publishing and product line director of ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution and War of the Burning Sky, two adventure series for Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.