Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse

Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Japanese Title: 夏と花火と私の死体 (Natsu to hanabi to watshi no shitai)
Author: Otsuichi (乙一)
Translator: Nathan Collins
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1996, 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 350

I don’t know why I haven’t reviewed anything by Otsuichi yet. Tokyopop has released two collections of his short stories (Calling You in 2007 and GOTH in 2008), and Haikasoru released the collection ZOO, which is a major bestseller in Japan and ended up getting its own film adaptation, around this time last year. It might be that I haven’t reviewed his work before now because, even though his stories are fun and creative, they tend to be hit or miss. Also, they fall squarely into the genre of horror, which has gradually eroded away into “Dark Fantasy” or “Thriller” in the American market (the back cover of my paperback copy of Stephen King’s most recent novel, which involves murder, rape, cannibalism, and mass asphyxiation, tells me that it is “Fiction”). However, the majority of Otsuichi’s stories are pure shock horror of the type that might be found in magazines like Black Static or Macabre Cadaver, which might explain the “hit or miss” factor and also makes them difficult to review. If you like horror, you’ll like Otsuichi. If you don’t like horror, why would you want to read him?

The three stories in Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse are still horror, but I feel like two of them are fleshed-out enough (what a lovely analogy for horror fiction) to appeal to a wider audience. The title story, which is seventy pages long, tells the story of a murder from the perspective of the dead person, who is surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing. Being dead, however, she’s able to follow the thoughts and movements of her best friend, who inadvertently killed her, and her friend’s older brother, a budding sociopath who helps his sister hide the body. The pair isn’t exactly professional in their cover-up operation, so there are a lot of delightfully suspenseful moments in which they are almost, almost found out. The surprise ending is morbid but equally playful. The setting of the story, the forest surrounding a Shintō shrine, is used to full advantage. I think those small forests are the closest thing to a Shakespearean green world in contemporary Japanese fiction; every time one pops up in a story, you know that something weird and exciting is going to happen. (Another good example might be found in the manga Tenken, which is absolutely brilliant and should be read by everyone.) Not just the suspense and the setting but everything about the story is well executed, and it’s hard to believe that Otsuichi made his literary debut with it while still in high school.

The following story, “Yuko” (優子), is the usual Otsuichi fare. It’s short, grisly, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you’re the sort of manga fan or Lolita fashionista who’s into the mock horror and period trappings of titles like Yuki Kaori’s Godchild, though, you’ll dig the gothic atmosphere and the creepy, creepy doll parts.

And then there’s the two hundred page novella Black Fairy Tale (暗黒童話), which was published five years after the other two stories in a separate volume. For me, this story is the best part of the collection. The narrative switches between a traditionally styled fairy tale and a more modern one, which is itself told from several points of view. The main point of view is that of a high school student named Nami, who loses her memory along with her left eye in a freak accident. She receives an eye transplant and gradually realizes that she can see the memories of the eye’s former owner if exposed to certain triggers. The blurb on the book’s cover makes it seem like this element of the story is its primary source of horror, in an I see dead people sort of way; but, as Nami has lost her own memories, she can only live her life though borrowed memories, and she becomes emotionally attached to the scenes of someone else’s life that she sees through the transplanted eye, which belonged to a college student named Kazuya. Since Nami has effectively become a different person than she was before her accident, her school friends and family distance themselves from her, so she drops out of school and uses the savings left behind by her former self to travel to Kazuya’s hometown, a backwater village called Kaede. As with the shrine forest of Summer, Otsuichi makes good use of his setting in this small mountain town, perfectly capturing both the charm and the pathos of rural Japan.

Black Fairy Tale is more than a travel novel, however. Of course Nami wants to visit the places and meet the people she has seen through the eye’s memories, but she also knows that its former owner was murdered for seeing something he shouldn’t have. The reader knows this too, as the narrative shifts between Nami’s story and that of a man who has the ability to keep living things alive, no matter what he does to them. He uses this ability to experiment on the human bodies he keeps in his basement, which are somehow able to maintain their lives and their consciousness despite the terrible things that have been done to them. Nami knows that, if she finds the house whose basement she has glimpsed through her transplanted eye, she will be able to rescue the people there and also avenge Kazuya. There is obviously a great deal of suspense in Black Fairy Tale, but it’s handled in a more sophisticated and effective way than it is in Summer. The character development is much stronger, as well. The separate narrative threads are woven skillfully throughout the story, and the story’s various themes and systems of visual imagery mirror each other artfully. Black Fairy Tale is undoubtedly a horror story, but it’s also put together in a fairly literary way, and it appealed to me and stayed with me in a way that Otsuichi’s previously translated work has not.

In other words, the collection Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse should be fun for both fans of horror and fans of fiction in general, and I don’t feel bad about recommending it to anyone. My only regret is that I didn’t write about it in time for Halloween…

Slum Online

Title: Slum Online
Japanese Title: スラムオンライン
Author: Sakurazawa Hiroshi (桜沢洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 210

Slum Online is a short novel about MMORPG gaming. I was skeptical of this concept at first, as I wondered how level grinding, ammunition collection, and/or interpersonal dialog along the lines of “omg n00b pwned” could be any less tedious in fiction than in real life (so to speak). Thankfully, the fictional game in question is a fighting game, and its setup and mechanics are both simple enough to be understood by a non-gamer and complex enough to not lose their freshness after two hundred pages.

I was also worried that, since the novel’s cover (which is a mirror of the original Japanese cover) sports a manga-style illustration, Slum Online would be nothing more than a light novelized plot worthy of an anime (whose plots and dialog tend to not work so well without the animation). Again, my worries were unfounded, since the story more or less eschews anime tropes and works fairly well as fiction that can be read by someone not familiar with the quirkiness of characters like Suzumiya Haruhi and Lina Inverse.

Slum Online follows an older teenager named Etsuro through his real and virtual life. In real life, he is a college student pursued by a classmate named Fumiko who is pursuing a blue cat through the streets of Shinjuku. In his virtual life, he is a karate fighter named Tetsuo who is pursuing a mysterious player known as Ganker Jack while being pursued by a ninja character named Hashimoto. The novel’s chapters alternate between Tetsuo’s real life and his virtual life, but there is little disconnect between the two; and, in the end, they come together quite nicely. It’s equally amusing for the reader to follow Etsuro through the backstreets and arcades of Shinjuku as it is to follow Tetsuo and Hashimoto through the alleyways and watering holes of the gaming world. Moreover, the cast of characters in either world is equally interesting, especially as they interact with each other across both worlds.

I wouldn’t call Slum Online science fiction, necessarily, and it doesn’t quite belong in the realm of cyberpunk, either. I found it quite realistic in its depiction of gaming technologies, their applications, and the cultures that surround them. Nobody is downloading anything directly into their brains or raving about the awesome theoretical potential of cyberspace. The characters go to school and go to work like anyone else, and the only men in black suits are the salary men on the commuter trains. Everyone knows what Google and Wikipedia and Playstation are. I personally found it refreshing to read a story about real kids playing video games. No one is a hacker, and there aren’t any cyber police; it’s just a kid and his game console and his online network.

There’s no nonsense in the book about not being able to tell the difference between the real world and the cyber world either, although Etsuro’s language occasionally betrays how his awareness of the real world is influenced by gaming. He describes hearing things in terms of “sound FX” and perceiving people’s faces in terms of polygons or anime-inspired designs. As he walks around Shinjuku, he remarks how convenient it is to not have to worry about running into invisible walls, and how in real life one can’t just approach someone and start a conversation as if he or she were an NPC. Despite (or more likely because of) his mild geekiness, Etsuro is an amusing and sympathetic narrator.

Slum Online should be a fun read for gamers, and I think it should even be a fun read for non-gamers, who won’t be alienated by any specialist vocabulary. The translation is smooth and readable, the narrative flows quickly and seamlessly, and the layout is professional and engaging. The only bad thing I might have to say about this book is that it tends to come off as male-dominated, but whatever – I enjoyed it anyway.

Kamikaze Girls

kamikaze-girls

Title: Kamikaze Girls
Japanese Title: 下妻物語
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本野ばら)
Translator: Akemi Wegmüller
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 219

In his afterward to Kamikaze Girls, Takemoto Novala writes that “Lolita is a fusion of the spirit of punk rock with formal beauty that honors tradition. Lolitas value independence and beauty above all else. In Kamikaze Girls, the two girls are drawn to each other’s independent natures and eventually come to respect one another.” Such a lofty statement is belied by the colorful and overwhelmingly pink cover of the novel, as well as the fact that the “two girls” in question (the protagonists of the novel) are a stereotypically representative Sweet Lolita and a stereotypically representative Yanki, or juvenile motorcycle (or, as the case may be, scooter) gang member.

The novel is narrated by Momoko, who describes herself in this way: “A red felt mini-hat accented with rose-shaped burnout lace is perched on my hair, which is styled in a princess cut with long ringlets, and I have on frilly white over-the-knee socks. So aside from my shoes, which are Vivienne Westwood’s Rocking Horse Ballerinas and Lolita must-haves (they go with any Lolita outfit), I am clad head-to-toe in my darling Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.”

In other words, Momoko is a Lolita among Lolitas, and she peppers her story with all sorts of references to and explanations of Lolita culture. In fact, Momoko begins her engagingly chatty narrative with a pseudo-historical lecture on the Rococo era in France, which supposedly inspired Lolita fashion and its ideals. Despite the silliness of the premise, Momoko’s narrative style is one of the major attractions of the novel. An unreliable narrator par excellence, Momoko relates the often sordid and depressing details of her personal and family history in witty, toungue-in-cheek monologues that reflect teenage power fantasies (at least as I remember my own) to an amazing degree.

In any case, the aggressively anti-social Momoko manages to attract the attention of Ichigo, a similarly dysfunctional seventeen year old. Unlike Momoko, Ichigo was born to a fairly bourgeois family; but, upon encountering ijime (group bullying) in middle school, she fell into despair and was rescued by a female Yanki gang. Although Ichigo respects and admires the leader of this gang for both her toughness and her nurturing personality, she is drawn to Momoko despite the Lolita’s almost constant derision. When the Yanki leader announces her intention to “graduate” from the gang (she intends to get married), Ichigo wants to present her with a kamikaze coat embroidered by the legendary Yanki figure Emma, who can supposedly be found in the fashionable Daikanyama district of Tokyo. Emma doesn’t exist, unfortunately, but Momoko is quite skilled at embroidery herself, and the pair’s adventures in Tokyo have some unexpected outcomes for both of them.

Even though Nakashima Tetsuya’s 2004 film version of Kamikaze Girls was so ridiculous and oversaturated that it made my eyes bleed a little, I found that I honestly enjoyed Takemoto’s original novel. As I mentioned earlier, the informal, chatty, and at times almost essay-like narrative style is quite enjoyable, the dialog is quick and jazzy and well-translated, and the characterization is surprisingly deep and complex for a book with such a pink cover. I’m not quite sure what Takemoto’s novel says about gender performity, post-modern identity construction, or the historical moment in which it was written, but hey, it’s a really fun book with two awesome protagonists.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

moribito

Title: Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Japanese Title: 精霊の守り人
Author: Uehashi Nahoko (上橋菜穂子)
Illustrations: Yuko Shimizu
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine
Pages: 260

To hold the book Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit in my hands is something of a nostalgic experience. This may be because the book is published by the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic, which is also responsible for the beautiful hardcover editions of the Harry Potter books. Like its famous cousins, Moribito features beautiful binding and page design, as well as detailed and dynamic illustrations provided by the chic young illustrator Yuko Shimizu. At the end of the book is a list of characters, a list of places and terms, and a short yet intriguing note from the author. In other words, in terms of sheer physical beauty and craftsmanship, Moribito is a pleasure to read.

Thankfully, the actual content of the book is just as appealing, both to younger and to more mature readers. There is action, adventure, magic, intrigue, and a touch of romance with none of the pandering to adult sensibilities of what children should and shouldn’t read that generally clouds the narratives of Western children’s literature. Equally refreshing is the change of scenery from a whimsical fantasyland inspired by Western folklore to a fictional yet strangely believable setting drawn from East Asian (especially Japanese) geography, history, and mythology. Gone are the kings and knights of Western fantasy; in their place are the emperors and scholars of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tradition.

One of the reasons why I personally like this book, however, is its strong female characters. The plot revolves around a young prince, Chagum, who is being hunted by his father, the Emperor of New Yogo, because he carries the seed of the land’s destruction within him in the form of a magical egg from Nayugu, a realm of spirits that overlaps the physical realm of humans. In order to save her son, Chagum’s mother enlists the services of Balsa, a spear-wielding bodyguard with three decades of fighting and hardship behind her. Aiding Balsa in her mission to protect the prince and discover the secret of the egg are Torogai, an old woman well-versed in lore and shamanistic magic, and Tanda, an herbalist and childhood friend of Balsa who heals her when she is injured in battle. Both Torogai and Balsa are extraordinary characters who have lived extraordinary lives, and they easily qualify as two of the most realistic yet appealing female characters I have encountered in literature. They are nothing if not the equals of the men they encounter, and it is their actions that drive the majority of the plot. This is not to say that the male characters are downplayed in any way; rather, the female characters are not driven into any stereotypically “female” behavior vis-à-vis their male counterparts.

Uehashi’s Moribito is courageous not just in its portrayal of female characters but also in its questioning of the Japanese myths of national founding and the imperial system. Even more than fifty years after Hirohito proclaimed that the Japanese emperor is not a god but rather the symbol of a nation, a great deal of controversy still surrounds the imperial institution in Japan. By uncovering the surprising reality behind the myths surrounding the creation of New Yogo, Uehashi indirectly encourages a more critical attitude towards Japan’s own national mythology.

Both children looking for entertainment and adults looking for something more will heartily enjoy every page of this book. And, should the reader decide that he or she wants more, there is a 26 episode, beautiful anime series (released in America by Media Blasters) that follows the events of the novel, as well as several other volumes in the series, the second of which is slated to be released in an English translation on May 1, 2009.