A Small Charred Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl Who Is Getting Married

Title: The Girl Who Is Getting Married
Japanese Title: もうすく結婚する女 (Mō sugu kekkon suru onna)
Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Strangers Press
Pages: 36

Aoko Matsuda’s The Girl Who Is Getting Married, published as a stand-alone chapbook by Strangers Press in the same series as Mikumari, is a lovely puzzle box of a short story. The unnamed narrator is going to visit “the girl who is getting married,” but who is the narrator, and what is her relationship with the girl who is getting married? Instead of revealing its answer, the question twists and turns in on itself as the possible answers fracture and multiply.

According to the “About the Author” section on the inside of the chapbook’s front flap, Aoko Matsuda has “translated into Japanese Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” There are many similarities in the tongue-in-cheek yet still unsettling weirdness that characterizes the short fiction of both authors, and it’s appropriate that Russell has written a short foreword to The Girl Who Is Getting Married. She aptly summarizes the uncertainty that lingers between the narrator and the girl who is getting married by explaining, “Each new paragraph shifts our understanding of their relationship. At some points they seem to merge into one girl, amoeba-like; at other moments, it’s tough to believe that they have ever shared a word” (9). Are they childhood friends? College roommates? Cousins? Sisters? A mother and her daughter? Casual acquaintances? Complete strangers? The exact same person?

The mystery of the narrator’s identity is ultimately less compelling than the odd rhythm and tempo of her narrative voice, however. As she gradually climbs the stairs to a fifth-floor apartment, she takes the reader along with her, step by step by step, with the expression “the girl who is getting married” repeated like a talismanic refrain. Just as the relationship between the two women shifts and changes, so too does the architecture of the building, which gradually begins to take on its own character. For example…

Special mention must be made of the stone staircase that rises up in the centre. It is a very large staircase, with a smooth, pale sheen. Even if it were the case that some other stone was used, I would like to assert quite definitely that this is marble. Although the staircase is flanked by rooms on both sides, its presence is so powerful that there would seem no exaggeration in suggesting that it is the reason for the building’s existence. Followed up and up by an obedient black hand-rail, the staircase is an unobtrusive white, a little grey in places, brining to mind the bones of a dinosaur. I do not know a great deal about dinosaurs so I cannot identify the exact type, but I am thinking of one with a very long neck. One that looks as though it would eat vegetation rather than meat a comparatively gentle one.

This is a dinosaur that, stretching out its elegant neck, will take me to the room where the girl who is getting married will be. (11-12)

Just as it’s difficult to grasp the identity of the narrator, it’s also impossible to visualize the building whose staircase she climbs, which is described in terms of the sensations it evokes. The girl who is getting married could be anyone, but the ascent to her apartment is like a description of a surrealist painting.

Matsuda plays with words to create and reshape concrete images and abstract illusions; and, in many ways, this short story feels like an extended prose poem. That being said, it doesn’t demand any unnecessary work from the reader, who is invited to explore the evocative emotional chiaroscuro of its dreamspace along with the narrator. The story is carefully translated and delightfully easy to read, and it’s a lot of fun to get lost in its labyrinth.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married can be ordered directly from Strangers Press, which ships internationally.

GO

Title: GO
Japanese Title: GO
Author: Kazuki Kaneshiro (金城 一紀)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2000 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 165

GO is an unabashedly sincere adolescent power fantasy. The novel’s teenage protagonist and first-person narrator, Sugihara, is not only intelligent and an intellectual, he’s also a powerhouse in a fight and respected by the other boys in his school. He reads weighty philosophical books and has an astounding knowledge of music and movies. A beautiful and popular girl named Sakurai is head-over-heels in love with him and has been since she first saw him. His father, an independent businessman and grizzled former boxer, treats him as an equal, and his mother and her friends adore him. Sugihara isn’t gay, but all of his close male friends still ask him out on dates and would do anything for him. There’s just something special about Sugihara, who is the perfect idealization of the teenage boy we’d like to think that we were or could have been.

The plot of GO is exceedingly simple. Sugihara switches schools between middle and high school, struggles to fit in to the new school’s culture, meets a beautiful girl and falls in love, starts studying to get into a good university, encounters a problem in his romantic relationship that leads to tension in his family life, overcomes his conflict with his father in a cathartic argument, and is then approached by his girlfriend with a sincere apology that repairs their relationship.

What makes GO interesting and worth reading, however, is the fact Sugihara is a Zainichi Korean, a person born and raised in Japan by Japanese-speaking parents who is not, legally speaking, Japanese.

Sugihara and his family begin the novel as Chōsenjin, or Zainichi Koreans who hold North Korean citizenship. Although his father was born on Jeju Island in South Korea, he was an active member of the North Korean Marxist Chongryon organization for most of his life and declared his family’s citizenship accordingly. The family officially switches their citizenship to South Korea when Sugihara is fourteen because his mother wants to visit Hawaii. Of course they can’t travel to the United States with North Korean passports, so they join the Mindan, the organization for South Korean residents.

Sugihara’s citizenship changes along with that of his family, but he wants nothing to do with what he calls “their Hawaii adventure.” What he decides to do instead is attend a Japanese high school. Up until that point he had gone to a Korean high school run by the Chongryon, where (male) students are given a strict Marxist education. Sugihara doesn’t care anything for Hawaii, but his citizenship changing overnight sparks a desire to be a part of the wider world. In his mind, this needs to start with attending a mainstream Japanese university. To do so, he needs to enter a Japanese high school, so he studies his butt off and, to the surprise of his classmates and the infuriation of his Chōsenjin teachers, he passes.

When he was younger, Sugihara toughened his fists against the Japanese boys who would chase after Koreans trying to pick fights, and he manages to earn the respect of his classmates at his Japanese high school by beating up a student who tries to pick a fight with him there. This student ends up being a yakuza boss’s son, and his defeat causes him to respect Sugihara as a peer. It’s at one of this young man’s lavish birthday parties that Sugihara meets Sakurai, who had once seen him playing basketball and decided to pursue him. Their relationship proceeds relatively normally, but Sugihara can’t quite bring himself to tell Sakurai and her family that he’s not actually Japanese.

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about this novel.

On one hand, I think Sugihara is obnoxious, and the story he tells about himself is utterly contrived. Every time a conflict arises, Sugihara handles it by being A Super Cool Guy™, which isn’t particularly interesting in terms of plot or character development. I’m also not a fan of Sugihara’s narcissism, which is so overwhelming that it doesn’t leave any room for him to acknowledge that any of the other characters might have an interior life of their own. Sugihara’s relationship with his girlfriend, for example, mainly consists of him lecturing her on his taste in entertainment media. When she expresses an extremely racist viewpoint at a critical moment, there is absolutely no reason for her to have done so save that her entire function is to serve as a plot device in a story that revolves entirely around Sugihara.

On the other hand, the author provides plenty of context for Sugihara’s bravado, citing numerous instances of discrimination that Sugihara and his family have to deal with within Japanese society, a difficult situation that isn’t made any easier by the harsh emphasis on ideological purity within the Chōsenjin community. If everything in Sugihara’s society is telling him that he’s literal garbage, can’t he be forgiven at least a little for indulging in a power fantasy as he narrates his own life?

Interspersed throughout Sugihara’s personal story of how he’s awesome and smart and tough and attractive is the story of his family circumstances. This secondary story begins at the start of the novel…

My father came to Japan with a brother who was two years younger than he was. This brother – my uncle, that is – returned to North Korea during the repatriation campaign that began in the late 1950s. The campaign essentially touted North Korea as an “earthly paradise,” encouraging persecuted North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland and forge a life with their compatriots. At the time, most North Koreans had a vague suspicion that nothing good ever came out of anything called a campaign, but thinking it might be better than Japan, where they faced discrimination and poverty, many went back to North Korea anyway. My uncle was among them. (5)

…and reaches something resembling a conclusion when Sugihara gets in a fistfight with his father after his girlfriend dumps him. To me at least, Sugihara’s parents are far more interesting characters than he is, and his relationship with his father is much more compelling than his relationship with Sakurai. Sakurai is a one-note airheaded racist because teenage girls only exist as plot devices, but Sugihara’s father provides a much more nuanced portrayal of the subtle tensions and outright conflict that can arise between national, ethnic, and personal identities.

As someone who belongs to a culture where immigrant literature is an established genre, it was an interesting experience for me to read the story of a second-generation immigrant in a society that is known for its relative ethnic homogeneity. I’ve encountered numerous discussions relating to Zainichi Koreans, but I’ve never read anything quite like GO. Kazuki Kaneshiro, a Zainichi Korean himself, is writing from a firsthand perspective, and his narrator’s deliberate resistance to received narratives about who Zainichi Koreans are and what their place in Japan is supposed to be is extremely powerful.

I suppose that GO can be read as a story of star-crossed lovers, but the relationships with the most emotional impact involve the friendships between high school boys, the frustrated affections between different generations within immigrant families, the misunderstandings between different socioeconomic classes, and the historical tensions between Korea and Japan. If you can get past the casual sexism of the central love story, GO has a lot to offer anyone interested in international literature or, more broadly speaking, coming-of-age stories in general. If nothing else, its narrator’s triumphantly oppositional attitude and cheerfully competitive shōnen manga-style life narrative is a refreshing alternative to more serious literary depictions of the helpless pathos and dysfunctionality of immigrant communities in Japan.

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.

Mikumari

Title: Mikumari
Japanese Title: ミクマリ (Mikumari)
Author: Misumi Kubo (窪 美澄) 
Translator: Polly Barton
Publication Year: 2009 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Strangers Press
Pages: 30

Mikumari is one of the chapbooks published as part of the Keshiki series, which is intended to showcase “the work of some of the most exciting writers working in Japan today” and is “a unique collaboration between University of East Anglia, Norwich University for the Arts, and Writers’ Centre Norwich, funded by the Nippon Foundation.” A great deal of talent has gone into the creation of these beautiful chapbooks, and it shows in the high quality of the publication, the design, and the translation.

As the “About the Author” blurb at the beginning of this particular chapbook states, Misumi Kubo’s Mikumari “won the R-18 prize for erotic fiction” and then became “the first of five linked stories in her debut novel.” There is quite a bit of smut in this short story, but the translator handles it well, without any stilted phrasing or unnecessary awkwardness. To me, as someone who reads a lot (and I mean a lot) of fanfic, Mikumari didn’t actually strike me as particularly erotic. A kid in high school regularly meets a woman in her late twenties to have sex, and have sex they most surely do, but the story is about the evolution of the young man’s broader understanding of social maturity and adult human relationships. The sex, such as it is, is largely incidental.

The nameless first-person narrator initially encountered his partner, who calls herself Anzu, at the Comiket fan convention, and when they get together for sex they cosplay as characters from Anzu’s favorite anime. Meanwhile, the narrator works a summer job as a lifeguard at a pool, and he has a crush on one of his fellow teenage coworkers, Nana. In my reading of the story, however, the narrator’s strongest relationship is with his mother, a midwife who delivers babies in their apartment. After the narrator’s father left her with a young son, she raised him as a single mother, and she has occasionally asked him to help deliver babies when her regular assistants are unavailable. As it happens, he’s quite good at it.

What seems to be the selling point for Mikumari – namely, kinky otaku sex – is more of a veiled analogy for how the narrator is still in the process of growing up. There are still parts of him that are childlike, like his innocent schoolboy crush on his lifeguard coworker Nana, while there are parts of him that are already admirably mature, such as the fondness and protectiveness he feels for his mother, as well as the care he gives his mother’s clients, whom he views without the slightest bit of disgust. Even for a decent person like the narrator, however, growing up is never a smooth slope, and his final breakup with Anzu dramatizes the bumps along the way.

Lest the reader think that Anzu is nothing more than a narrative device to showcase the male narrator’s character development, however, it’s important to note that she has her own narrative arc, as well as a respectable sense of dignity. Misumi Kubo’s portrayal of her characters is nuanced but sympathetic; and, even though the short story doesn’t end in a way that’s easy draw lessons or even conclusions from, it’s a satisfying work of literary fiction.

Mikumari also has its fair share of bullet vibrators, frenzied against-the-wall sex, detailed accounts tongue-on-clitoris action, and lines like “Put your cock in me,” but who says literary fiction can’t be at least a little fun sometimes?

Kudos to Glen Robinson for the cover illustration and book design, because Mikumari is a really cool little chapbook. It can be ordered directly from Strangers Press, which ships internationally.

The Great Passage

Title: The Great Passage
Japanese Title: Fune o amu (船を編む)
Author: Shion Miura (三浦 しをん)
Translator: Juliet Winters Carpenter
Publication Year: 2017 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 217

The Great Passage is one of the kindest and most gentle books I’ve read during the past year. Despite the fact that it tells the story of a seemingly tedious enterprise, namely, the compellation of a dictionary, I found myself blazing through the novel because I had to find out whether or not the editors would manage to get their dictionary published. I then went back and read the book again so that I could take my time enjoying the quality of the writing and the translation.

The novel’s story is centered around Mitsuya Majime, a man who loves words but has trouble communicating with other people. Majime is initially placed into the Sales Department of Gembu Books, a large publisher based in Tokyo, but he flounders there like a fish out of water. His ineptitude comes to the attention of Masashi Nishioka, an extroverted and smooth-talking young man who, through a strange twist of fate, has been assigned to the Dictionary Editorial Department. Nishioka brings Majime to the attention of Kohei Araki, the editorial section chief, who immediately heads over to the Sales Department, notices Majime as soon as he steps into the room, and hires him on the spot.

By the end of the first chapter of The Great Passage, a dream team has been assembled. Majime is a philologist who is more than happy to check and double-check words and definitions, Nishioka recruits experts to write definitions for specialist words and placates the egos of grumpy professors, and Araki oversees the minutiae of editorial operations while running interference with the corporate bosses. Also on the team are Professor Matsumoto, an elderly academic who has devoted his life to the creation of a new dictionary, and Mrs. Sasaki, who is nominally an administrative assistant but pulls her weight around the office by picking up the slack of her male colleagues.

As Majime and his new coworkers deal with the mundane work and bureaucratic challenges involved in the compilation of a dictionary, a love story unfolds between Majime and a young chef named Kaguya, who lives in the same communal boarding house where Majime has rented a small room since college. Both Majime and Kaguya are shy and serious people, but they’re able to bond with each other through the auspices of Také, their chatty landlady, and Tora, the large tomcat that roams through the building at night. The couple is well-suited to one another, and their romance progresses quietly and without incident – with one major exception.

Majime, unsure of how to confess his feelings to Kaguya, decides to write her a love letter. As might be expected of the sort of person whose life’s passion is dictionary editing, his love letter is a garbled mess of rare words and convoluted literary allusions. Majime allows his extroverted colleague Nishioka to read the letter; and, although he tells Majime that the letter is perfect as it is, it causes Nishioka no small amount of amusement. It’s partially because of this ridiculous letter that Nishioka begins to feel a protective affection for Majime and resolves to do everything in his power to aid the budding dictionary editor in his goals. Later on in the story, when Nishioka is transferred to another department, he leaves a copy of the letter hidden in the dictionary editorial office so that his successor, a stylish young woman named Kishibe, will be better able to understand and appreciate Majime’s quirky but earnest personality. At the end of The Great Passage, after the main story concludes, there is a nine-page abbreviated excerpt of this letter with humorous annotations from Nishioka and Kishibe that are overflowing with silly jokes and heartfelt goodwill.

The dictionary itself, titled Daitōkai (translated as “The Great Passage”), eventually emerges as its own unique character in the story. The editorial staff regularly meets to discuss what sort of material belongs in an effective dictionary, as well as how an ideal definition should be structured. Unlike the numerous Japanese dictionaries that will have proceeded Daitōkai, Majime and his colleagues want their work to accurately reflect the concerns and interests of the people who live in contemporary Japan. To give an example…

“Dictionaries do tend to be written from the male perspective,” Professor Matsumoto said mildly. “They’re mostly put together by men, so they often lack words having to do with fashion and housework, for example. But that approach won’t work anymore. The ideal dictionary is one that everyone can join in using together, men and women of all ages, interested in all matters of life.” (34)

There is also some light discussion regarding the constructed nature of gender and sexuality implicit in certain words, and the staff ultimately takes a progressive view on many issues. They conclude, for example, that “love” need not be defined as the romantic attraction between a “man” and a “woman.” Kishibe, who initially worked in the editorial department of a women’s lifestyle magazine, is surprised to have been transferred to the staff of a dictionary, but she quickly realizes that what she considered to be common knowledge for a young professional woman serves as a valuable area of expertise to a staff largely comprised of middle-aged men. As she begins to devote herself to the project, Kishibe gains a mounting sense of appreciation for the endeavor…

Words were necessary for creation. Kishibe imagined the primordial ocean that covered the surface of the earth long ago – a soupy, swirling liquid in a state of chaos. Inside every person there was a similar ocean. Only when that ocean was struck by the lightning of words could all come into being. Love, the human heart… Words gave things form so that they could rise out of the dark sea. (164)

Special mention must also be made of the fine work of the translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter. The conversations surrounding Japanese words, their synonyms, and their cultural contexts never feel awkward or forced, and even a reader with no familiarity of Japanese language and culture will be able to enjoy the linguistic play and fine distinctions of meaning. Moreover, the oddities of Japanese corporate culture are glossed over masterfully so that the reader is able to understand the relationships and tensions between professionals without getting bogged down in a mire of titles and hierarchies and formal modes of address.

Although The Great Passage may seem like a novel that will only be of interest to a niche audience, its appeal is far more expansive. This is a book for people who love words. It’s a book for people who love reading. It’s a book for people who love translation. And, in the end, The Great Passage is a celebration of people who love books.

Oh, and also! The novel was adapted into an anime, which is available in the United States through Amazon’s streaming service.

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.

Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

Ms Ice Sandwich

Title: Ms Ice Sandwich
Japanese Title: ミス・アイスサンドイッチ (Misu Aisu Sandoicchi)
Author: Mieko Kawakami (川上 未映子)
Translator: Louise Heal Kawai
Publication Year: 2013 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 92

Ms Ice Sandwich is a novella that gradually opens a door into the interior world of its protagonist, a boy living with his mother and grandmother in a commuter suburb. This boy is fascinated by a woman who sells sandwiches at the grocery store outside the train station, whom he calls “Ms Ice Sandwich” because of the ice-blue eyeshadow she always wears. Her makeup emphasizes her eyes, which she has had surgically altered to appear larger. The narrator, who is a strange little kid, becomes preoccupied with trying to capture Ms Ice Sandwich in art, obsessively drawing her facial features line by line and eyelash by eyelash.

The boy also gravitates toward Tutti, a girl in his class who was given this nickname (by the narrator himself, no less) after she once farted in class. Like the boy, Tutti is a bit strange, and she’s obsessed with gunfights. The boy learns that she lives alone with her father, who has filled their apartment with shelves of DVDs and makes time to sit down and watch a movie with her every week. Tutti’s love of gunfights stems from her interest in cinematic choreography, and the boy appreciates her ability to mimic calmness in the face of danger in the same way that he’s awed by the no-nonsense attitude of Ms Ice Sandwich in the face of customer rudeness.

Meanwhile, the boy’s mother is a weird one herself. Although the boy isn’t entirely sure what she does, she seems to be a self-employed spiritualist and fortune teller, and she’s recently had part of their house remodeled to resemble a caricature of a Western palace complete with a red carpet, foreign furniture, heavy curtains, and statues of angels. While the boy’s grandmother is bedridden in the back of the house, his mother spends an inordinate amount of time online, typing on her phone even when she’s out shopping. Like Tutti and Ms Ice Sandwich, however, the boy’s mother isn’t actually a bad person, and she loves her son in her own way.

The boy is perhaps ten or eleven years old, and Kawakami’s first-person narration skillfully captures his close attention to small and seemingly insignificant details, which are contrasted against a larger cluelessness concerning how the world works. The narrator doesn’t really know what’s going on with his mom, or his grandmother, or Tutti’s dad, or even Ms Ice Sandwich, but he nevertheless observes them with care and compassion. He is content to observe the movements of the people in his life until Tutti startles him out of his passivity, saying,

“When you say see you tomorrow to someone, it’s because you’re going to keep seeing them. It’s like at school you see everybody because they go to school every day. But when you graduate and you don’t go to school anymore, it stops and you don’t see everybody any more. If you want to see somebody, you have to make plans to meet, or even make plans to make plans, and next thing you end up not seeing them any more. That’s what’s going to happen. If you don’t see somebody, you end up never seeing them. And then there’s going to be nothing left of them at all.” (75)

Ms Ice Sandwich has no real plot or denouement, but Tutti’s words spark a small but significant shift in the narrator’s worldview that allows him to more fully appreciate the fact that his mother, his grandmother, and Ms Ice Sandwich all have lives that exist independently of his presence. Judging from the cover copy it might seem as if this is a novella about a boy’s sexual awakening, but the story actually hinges on a far more subtle emotional revelation. Thankfully, the narrator’s perspective is so singular and well-crafted that Ms Ice Sandwich‘s message about the ephemerality of human connection is never in any danger of becoming trite and sentimental.

According to the colophon, “This piece was published in the literary journal Shincho first in 2013, and in 2014 it was included in the novel Akogare, which is a combination of two stories: ‘Miss Ice Sandwich’ and ‘Strawberry Jam Minus Strawberry.'” At roughly ninety pages, Ms Ice Sandwich is short enough to read in one sitting, but it’s still substantial enough to feel like a self-contained world. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and I’m impressed by the fantastic work that Pushkin Press has put into its ongoing series of translations of quirky Japanese novellas.

Ravina The Witch?

Title: Ravina The Witch?
Artist: Junko Mizuno (水野 純子)
Translators: C.B. Cebulski, Patrick Macias, and Jason Thompson
Publication Year: 2014 (France); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Titan Comics
Pages: 48

This guest review is written by Erica Friedman (@OkazuYuri on Twitter).

Imagine if you will, an image of two goats looking at each other. Maybe a younger animal looking up at an older one.

“The younger, cuter one is looking up at the older and wiser one,” your brain immediately fills in for you. You then tell yourself a story about how the older goat is teaching the younger one, or scolding it, or… And in the end, you have created meaning in what is a picture of two animals who are literally just looking at one another for one brief moment.

Ravina is a girl who lives in a garbage heap, raised by crows. She is given a magic wand by a dying old woman. Ravina is captured and brought to the palace of a corrupt king, whom she unmasks as a cheater. She then lives briefly with an older man who wears dresses, and while she stays with him she learns that to use the wand she must be drunk. Ultimately, Ravina is saved from angry villagers by her crow family and returned to her home in the garbage dump.

Ravina The Witch? by Junko Mizuno is the fairytale equivalent of two animals looking at one another. We can be moved deeply by the story and we can find all sorts of meaning in it – whether it is truly there or not. In fact, we’re going to make damn well sure it is by telling ourselves the moral of the story. There is a single moment when Ravina explicitly accepts the man who wears dresses, telling him that if it makes him happy, that’s fine by her. Other than that moment, whether you see Ravina The Witch? as profound tale of acceptance of life’s vagaries or two goats looking at one another, is entirely up to you.

Titan Comics has done a bang-up job with this book. The color palette consists of muted pukey pastels, reminiscent of barfed up blueberry yogurt – entirely suitable for a fairytale that begins and ends in a garbage heap. The cover is highlighted with gold metallic ink, and Mizuno’s illustrations are detailed, intricate, and often framed in black. The combination of these visual elements imbues the book with an atmosphere similar to that of a Russian fairy tale. And, like Russian fairy tales, this story is filled with creatures that are simultaneously cute and disgusting, a lot of drinking, and the kind of ambiguous ending that one expects from Mizuno’s work.

Readers may identify this story as a deconstructed “magical girl” series. Ravina’s magic comes from her wand, but she needs to summon a special power to activate it, and she needs to be drunk to do so. So is she a “witch,” or is she a “heroine”? Or is she a kind of Vasalisa, willing to take risks to achieve morally opaque goals and personal power? You’ll have to decide for yourself, because Mizuno isn’t going to help you with this at all. You may have to re-read the book and then tell yourself another story or two to figure it out.

Ravina The Witch? is an awesome must-get book if you’re a fan of Mizuno’s work or enjoy alternative and deconstructed fairy tales. It will also make a great gift to determine who your real friends are.


Erica Friedman (@OkazuYuri on Twitter) holds a Masters Degree in Library Science and a B.A. in Comparative Literature, and is a full-time researcher for a Fortune 100 company. She has lectured at dozens of conventions and presented at film festivals, notably the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Erica has written about queer comics for the Japanese literary journal Eureka, Animerica magazine, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and she has contributed to numerous online magazines such as Forbes, Slate, and Huffington Post. She has written news and reviews of Yuri anime, manga, and related media on her blog Okazu since 2002.