Under the Midnight Sun

under-the-midnight-sun

Title: Under the Midnight Sun
Japanese Title: 白夜行 (Byakuyakō)
Author: Higashino Keigo (東野 圭吾)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder
Publisher: Minotaur Books (a division of St. Martin’s Press)
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Pages: 560

This guest review is written by Tyran Grillo (@TyranGrillo on Twitter).

Although Naoko was the first novel by Keigo Higashino to appear in English, it wasn’t until The Devotion of Suspect X that an energetic following of the author grew among Anglophone readers. Subsequent novels by Japan’s salaryman-turned-mystery writer, however, left fans hungry for something different, as the clothes of his popular Detective Galileo were beginning to wear thin. Enter the gruffer Sasagaki, whose investigation of a 1973 murder in Osaka starts him on a 20-year chase after the truth. The circumstances surrounding said murder play on the classic locked room scenario, as the body of a man is discovered by children playing in an abandoned building.

Our body of interest was once the property of Yosuke Kirihara. The owner of a pawn shop, the unfortunate Yosuke has left behind a son, Ryo, and a wife, Yaeko. Sasagaki immediately suspects the latter, due to a seeming lack of emotion toward her spouse’s death. Ryo, for his part, is broken by the loss, and offers little in the way of helpful information. Even as Sasagaki fears for the boy’s future, he cannot help but marvel at Yaeko’s performance. As he watches her late husband’s funeral procession from a respectable distance, he thinks to himself, “The strange attraction of a woman in mourning…. If she’s trying to play the part of the beautiful young widow, she’s doing a knockout job.” Such statements may be common hardboiled fare but here set the tone for an unnecessarily chauvinistic slog of a novel. Sasagaki’s suspicions turn to Fumiyo Nishimoto, the last person to have seen Yosuke alive, and her daughter Yukiho is described in such perverse terms that it’s all this reader could do not to gag on their persistence.

Yukiho and Ryo, in the wake of a tragedy that has affected them both, become our main protagonists. We follow their diverging paths out of the nostalgic ignorance of the 1970s into adulthood. Along the way, Higashino introduces us to a chain of new characters, some of whom feel unnecessary as false witnesses. Each subsequent chapter throws new names into the mix to throw us off the scent. Ryo goes on to become a bootleg video game manufacturer, while Yukiho goes on to become a male fantasy of femininity.

Therein lies a fundamental problem of the narrative. Like all of the women in Higashino’s testosterone zone, she is little more than the sum of her apparently siren-esque charms, which Yukiho hones in service of being what she is called from the start: a “perfect lady.” On the surface, one might read this as a noble critique of the ways in which women are expected to live up to idealized images of beauty, but assertions of this point reach a level of absurdity that make the story nearly impossible to finish. For while Yukiho’s beauty is doubtless the very epitome of feminine perfection, she is also described as having “thorns in her eyes,” and, as our omniscient narrator so dutifully explains, a “true lady would never have eyes like that.” In other words, a “true lady” cannot be prone to dark thoughts or ever have an off day; she must maintain a perfect and consistent exterior, if only to please the men around her.

Higashino’s descriptions of the mature Yukiho are striking in their blatant vacillation between praise and condemnation, not to mention their occasional slip into racial stereotypes. To give an example: “Yukiho looked down at the table. She had long eyelashes. Some of the people in the club said she looked like one of those French porcelain dolls. The comparison was admittedly apt, with the exception of her Asian eyes.” When a younger detective by the name of Imaeda picks up where Sasagaki left off years ago, his first look at Yukiho reminds him of the “women he’d seen in old foreign films” and makes him wonder “where she got her seemingly natural elegance and grace. What had polished her to gleam so brightly?” More than overstating Yukiho’s beauty, such language elevates it to farce, so that the woman herself no longer functions as a human character.

When Yukiho finally marries, her husband Makoto cheats on her by falling for a temp who works at his company. Not only does this downplay Yukiho’s tireless attempts to live up to perfection, it undermines her intelligence in choosing a suitable life partner, a point further stressed when we learn that Makoto, who admits to having an inferiority complex around his savvy wife, has beaten her in a drunken rage that he conveniently forgets. In addition to being entirely out of her husband’s character, this disclosure comes across as a desperate attempt to elicit pity for a woman of whom by this point we have no idea what to think.

Anytime a female character is described, the reader can be sure to learn a lot about her body, and Yukiho is no exception. Rather than add to knowledge of her character, as his visualizations of men do, Higashino indulges in details that have no bearing on her psychological profile. In an awkward scene of lovemaking between Yukiho and her husband, for instance, we get this: “Her breasts were soft and bigger than you might think to look at them.” Does this detail matter? Only to a voyeuristic narrator who takes pleasure in it.

Yukiho is animalized, as when she is compared to a cat for her “feline eyes.” When she later becomes a suspect, she is variously likened to a “black rose,” an “evil flower,” and ultimately an “artificial flower,” as if the combination of intelligence and femininity were a surefire recipe for malice. Although one might argue that Higashino is simply playing with the femme fatale trope like so many before him, it is far too convenient that Yukiho’s beauty, which for most of the novel has been seen as a divine gift inherent to her every fiber, suddenly ceases to be real once it’s revealed as a mask hiding an actual human being. Such classical sexism precludes any progressive tendencies that might be attributed to Under the Midnight Sun.

The issue of its depictions of female characters aside, problems abound in the novel’s structure and pacing. Aside from being too long for its own good – there is, for example, a full page of unnecessary dialogue between Yukiho’s college classmate and a future boyfriend about how wet one gets by either walking or running in the rain – it pads out a foreseeable conclusion with unrealistic conceits. The result is a novel whose flaws are, like Yukiho’s much-discussed features, bigger than you might think to look at them.

In addition, Detective Sasagaki is a rather uninteresting lighthouse decorating a coastline of possible perpetrators. We understand that he is skillful at his job, but his obsessive interest in this case feels somewhat out of place, given what we know about him. Then again, mistakes have been made on both sides of the equals sign that would have brought his suspicions to a verdict much sooner, and perhaps subconscious awareness of this drives him to overcompensate for the embarrassment of what ends up being a simple explanation. As in any mystery of this length, it’s the actions of investigators who unwittingly build a complex wall around the truth that allow murderers to get away with what they do for so long. As the story progresses, the plot becomes so unbelievable that it feels like a letdown when one reaches the tail end of its denouement.

Ironically, the novel’s meandering tendency is also its greatest strength, and the clearest justification of its author’s fame. Higashino makes it easy to keep track of an ever-growing cast of characters – almost to a fault, because many revelations, at least to this reader, were clear from many pages away. Above all, the book provides a fascinating cross-section of late twentieth-century Japan, tracing trends in manga, television shows, video games, and other popular arenas of technological production through a key transitional period in the nation’s history. Higashino juggles multiple arcs and implications with ease, and the reverse engineering required to put them all together will satisfy even some avid mystery fans, to be sure.

As a published translator of Japanese fiction myself, I feel compelled to note that none of my criticisms are the fault of Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder, who have done an admirable job rendering Higashino’s often-terse and idiomatic prose into fluent English. The novel reads smoothly, handles cultural differences with tact, and evokes the original’s grittiness with clarity. If anything, it was the quality of their work that kept me engaged.

In the end, Under the Midnight Sun is a lackluster story with little payoff. As for the back cover copy’s comparisons of this book to Les Misérables and Crime and Punishment, I can only say these constitute a deception as criminal as the novel they are describing.

Under the Midnight Sun will be released on November 8, 2016. Review copy provided by St. Martin’s Press.

* * * * *

Tyran Grillo is a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, where his research focuses on the (mis)representation of animals in contemporary Japanese literature. He has translated nine books from Japanese into English, five of which have been published. The most recent of these is the science fiction masterpiece Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku. Tyran is also an avid blogger, having to date written over one million words of criticism on music, books, and film at ecmreviews.com.

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

Title: 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights
Japanese Title: 百億の昼と千億の夜 (Hyakuoku no hiru to senoku no yoru)
Author: Mitsuse Ryū (光瀬 龍)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 284

According to a 2006 poll published in Hayakawa SF Magazine, 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights ranked at the top of the list of science fiction novels originally published in Japanese. I can’t say for certain whether 10 Billion Days is the “greatest” Japanese science fiction novel of all time (or what that would even mean), but it certainly is epic. The writing (and translation) are beautiful, and there are some interesting ideas floating around as well.

Also, 10 Billion Days has an entire chapter devoted to a cyborg deathmatch between Buddha and Jesus. It’s awesome.

This review will contain spoilers. The concept of “spoilers” doesn’t really apply to this novel, as its narrative tension is generated more by speculation and atmosphere than it is by plot, but be warned. If you’d like the point of the review here at the beginning, here you go: I love this book and you should totally read it. It’s not perfect, and it will try (and reward!) your patience, but it will stay in your memory for years. The short commentary by Oshii Mamoru (the director of the landmark animated sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell) is of interest as well, especially to fans of Japanese pop culture.

The premise of 10 Billion Days is that all life on earth has been painstakingly curated by an extraterrestrial (and possibly extradimensional) entity that may not be benevolent. Some characters are aiding it, some characters are opposing it, and some characters are merely trying to understand it. What is clear is that our world is very small and unimportant on the sort of cosmic scale suggested by the novel’s title.

After a prologue that sets the tone by emphasizing the eternal passage of time across aeons, the novel opens with a dramatic description of the struggles of the first fish to walk on land. At the end of the chapter, it is revealed that this creature is being monitored and gradually enhanced by highly advanced technology.

The next chapter skips to Plato, who is seeking the mysteries of Atlantis. What he finds is that the gods are real, and frighteningly so. The next chapter focuses on Siddhārtha, and the next on Jesus of Nazareth. Both God and the Buddha realms are real, but these early seekers of truth can only see a fraction of the picture and describe it in terms they can understand.

The first half of the book is dedicated to creating an air of mystery and adventure. For example, when Plato arrives at the village where the last descendants of the people who fled Atlantis live, this is how Mitsuse sets the scene:

Far across the sea of burnt yellow sand, the fading sun had set halfway, sending its rays upward to paint the high clouds blood red. Crimson spread out across the darkening sky even as night seeped from the eastern horizon toward the vault of heaven, reddish-gray melding with crimson blue. The wind was completely still, and the twilight pooled like heavy oil upon the sand. There was not a sound. Plato wondered what the people who lived inside the stone houses of the village must be doing for such silence to reign – not a single spoken word, no faint echo of evening song. All was filled with the barren quiet of the sand sea and the silence that comes with the death of something long forgotten, unchanged for thousands of years. (49)

This passage is interesting not only for its lovely imagery but also because of its treatment of one of the main themes of the novel, which is that all civilizations will eventually fade into shadows of their former selves. This theme is visually translated at key points in the story, in which the spotlessly clean metal of a future space city is just as desolate as an ancient desert.

The second half of the novel tessellates to the year 3905, in which the entire planet has become a wasteland. Just as the cyborg fish of the first chapter cautiously made its way onto land, cyborg Siddhārtha (yes, really!) emerges from the ocean into the ruins of Tokyo, where cyborg Plato (who is now calling himself Orionae) fills him in on the situation. As the two are talking, they are accosted by Jesus, who also turns out to be a cyborg – a dirty cyborg with rotting teeth a gross clothes. So a cyborg zombie, then. And then they fight! I promise this is just as ridiculous as it sounds. There are some great lines during this section, such as…

Siddhārtha gingerly extended his tri-D antenna from the crack in the wall, searching for his foe. (181)

…and…

Glumly, Jesus admitted to himself that his attack had probably failed to destroy his enemy. (194)

Just roll with it, okay?

Siddhārtha and Orionae (in other words, Buddha and Plato) are joined by a non-organic lifeform in the shape of an adolescent girl, who is called “Asura” after the eternally warring god-kings of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Asura had earlier revealed herself to Siddhārtha, claiming she is fighting the entity that Jesus understands to be God, and at the end of the novel she takes him and Orionae on a journey through space to meet and hopefully defeat this being. What follows is a series of battles and revelations that progressively mount in scope and impact throughout the last eighty pages of the book. Like the beginning of the universe itself, this novel is a massive explosion.

10 Billion Days is not a perfect book, and at times it moves through complicated and nuanced religious and philosophical topics quickly and with an absolute minimum of narrative grounding. I will also admit that I find the actual story unsatisfying. However, the strength of 10 Billion Days lies in the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. These questions are almost classically existential. In an uncaring and absurd universe, how can an individual find meaning and hope?

The weekly speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons will be hosting a roundtable discussion of 10 Billion Days in October, and I’m honored to be one of the participants. I have strong feelings and opinions about this novel, and I’m looking forward to learning what the other discussants think. There’s a lot going on in this book; and, if nothing else, it’s a fantastic conversation starter.

All You Need Is Kill

All You Need Is Kill

Title: All You Need Is Kill
Japanese Title: オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (Ōru yū nīdo izu kiru)
Author: Sakurazaka Hiroshi (桜坂 洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder with Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 200

Although I read and very much enjoyed Sakurazaka Hiroshi’s virtual reality gaming novel Slum Online, I was not interested in All You Need Is Kill, even after watching Emily Blunt do endless sexy pushups in Edge of Tomorrow. I have trouble with prison stories, and army stories are like prison stories except worse.

After hearing Akiko Hirao give a paper titled “All You Need Is Kill: Deciphering the Game Elements in the Novel and Film” at the Japanese and Korean Mediascapes conference at the University of Oregon this summer, however, I knew I had to give the book a shot. Drawing on Henry Jenkins’s essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Hirao outlined how the structure of the novel’s narrative evokes the experience of playing a video game but ultimately bows to the demands of fiction as a storytelling medium.

The main protagonist of All You Need Is Kill is Kiriya Keiji, a recent high school graduate who enrolled in the United Defense Force after he was romantically rejected by an older woman. Since he has no other ambitions, he decides to prove himself by joining humanity’s fight against alien invaders called Mimics. After spending six months training to fight in a special armored exoskeleton called a Jacket, Keiji is deployed to the Flower Line Base at the southern tip of the Bōsō peninsula (in Chiba Prefecture, on the east side of Tokyo Bay). The novel opens with Keiji’s swift death in his first battle and continues when he wakes up alive and unharmed – but with all of his memories – that same morning. After falling in battle three more times, Keiji realizes that he is caught in a time loop that is reset by his death. He decides that the only way out is to not die, but that’s easier said than done.

I found Keiji to be a bit generic. Even though I just finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I couldn’t tell you exactly how old Keiji is, or where he grew up, or what his relationship with his parents was like, or whether he had any friends, or what his interests and hobbies are. For the first one hundred pages of the novel, all the reader gets is Keiji the soldier in a time loop. He is bitter, introverted, and fairly introspective, but he seems to act as more of a substitute for the reader than as a character in his own right. Keiji is a video game protagonist, and his musings are the musings of a video game character on the game world he occupies:

At the end of the day, every man has to wipe his own ass. There’s no one to make your decisions for you, either. And whatever situation you’re in, that’s just another factor in your decision. Which isn’t to say that everyone gets the same range of choices as everyone else. If there’s no one guy out there with an ace in the hole, there’s sure to be another who’s been dealt a handful of shit. Sometimes you run into a dead end. But you walked each step of the road that led you there on your own. (54)

As the passage above illustrates, the language used by Keiji and his fellow soldiers is rough; but, as far as military diction goes, it’s fairly tame. There’s “fucking” but no “cunting” or “cock-sucking,” for example. I feel like an especially good opportunity was missed in the author’s failure to assign a creative and obscene nickname for the Mimics. The banter between the soldiers is stale, and Keiji doesn’t take advantage of his consecutive time loops to come up with good one-liners to use against his superior officers or the jerks who try to pick fights with him in the cafeteria, which for some reason is actually referred to as a “cafeteria” instead of a “mess hall,” “cookhouse,” “DFAC,” or any number of other military slang terms. The blandness of the language is indicative of how uninterested the novel is in building a world beyond Keiji’s limited range of experience.

This all changes in the novel’s third chapter, which takes the American Major Rita Vrataski as its point-of-view character. The nineteen-year-old Rita became the Mimic-destroying “Full Metal Bitch” after being caught in a time loop of her own; and, unlike Keiji, she actually has a personality. Rita verbally spars with a war photographer named Ralph Murdoch, lets down her guard down around an engineer named Shasta Rayelle, and remembers her childhood in Pittsfield, Illinois, offering glimpses not just into her inner world but out onto the wider world as well. In her paper, Hirao referred to Rita as an NPC (“non-player character” in a game), and this description is apt, as it is through Rita that the player/reader learns more about the nature of the conflict that drives the novel. What are the Mimics? Where do they come from? How can they best be fought? What’s up with this time loop business anyway? Rita doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good guesses.

Rita also has some cool passages in her section, such as when Shasta says…

“America’s at war, and we still find the time to turn out terrible movies.”

Rita couldn’t argue with that. The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rita thought. (130)

Preach it, sisters.

The fourth and final section of the novel switches back to Keiji’s perspective, which is a shame, because at the end of the story he becomes the video game hero he was meant to be, which is to say that he is awarded his own tragic backstory. If you’ve ever played any video game ever, you can probably guess how this happens: A woman has to get fridged, and it has to be the woman Keiji falls in love with despite the fact that she doesn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. It’s a really stupid ending. To make matters worse, the author is too lazy to expand on any of the implications of this ending beyond the fact that Keiji becomes the warrior he never wanted to be. He is a troubled teenager, hear his angst.

In his Afterword, the author explains how is inspiration for All You Need Is Kill did indeed come from a life spent playing video games, writing,

I’m just an ordinary guy, and I’m proud of it. I’m here because I put in the time. I have the blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my […] powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. (199)

The Afterword contains one of the more interesting passages in the entire book, as Sakurazaka is fairly negative both towards video games and the people who play them. Okay buddy, whatever.

If you’re curious about what a video game with all of its gameplay mechanics intact would look like in novel form, look no farther. I thought Slum Online was much more entertaining and skillfully constructed in its representation of what it means to be a video game protagonist, but All You Need Is Kill has the advantage of being short and fast-paced. Also, it’s got forty gorgeous pages full of Rita Vrataski, which is not enough but better than nothing.

I want to give a big thanks to Akiko Hirao for her wonderful and insightful paper on this novel, and I hope to encounter more of her work soon!

Ico: Castle in the Mist

Title: Ico: Castle in the Mist
Japanese Title: イコ:霧の城 (Iko: Kiri no shiro)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 400

When people complain about sexism in video games, they’re not complaining just to start a fight or to prove that they’re on the right side of the social justice movement. The sexism in many games is not only unnecessary but also detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game. For example, when I played the original Tomb Raider game for the Playstation, I remember being frustrated at Lara’s inability to navigate certain terrain and thinking this wouldn’t be a problem if she were wearing pants. A better example might be Metroid: Other M, in which your female player-character (a veteran soldier who has already saved the world multiple times) can’t use even the most insignificant of her abilities until given permission to do so by her male commanding officer in a gameplay paradigm that has to be one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. This sort of sexism is dangerous precisely because it is so frustrating. Instead of hating the (male) developers who imposed such ridiculous limitations on the female protagonist, the player’s frustration at these limitations instead causes him to hate the female protagonist herself.

It is for this reason that I despise Ico: Castle in the Mist, a short puzzle platformer released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 that was received with almost universal acclaim. In this game, you are Ico, a boy with mysterious horns who is mysteriously dumped in a mysterious castle in which he mysteriously encounters a mysterious young woman named Yorda. As Ico, your job is to find your way out of the castle while simultaneously rescuing Yorda. Considering that Yorda (a) has lived in the castle for a very long time and (b) is magic, this shouldn’t be too difficult of a feat. Unfortunately, Yorda also (c) either can’t or won’t communicate with Ico and (d) is almost entirely passive. Ico quite literally must lug Yorda around like an inarticulate sack of meat, and the main challenge of the game is not for Ico to navigate his way through the castle but rather for Ico to bully and cajole Yorda over and around obstacles while she remains both vulnerable and inscrutable. If the player, as Ico, wanders off on his own for a moment, Yorda is besieged by shadow monsters that she will not attempt to ward off or escape in any way. Ico is a truly beautiful game that creates a hauntingly atmospheric experience through its graphics, music, and gameplay, but it is difficult to make it through the game’s roughly eight hour playtime without hurling obscenities at Yorda for being so useless. Sexism is thus built into the gameplay mechanics, and I remember thinking that Ico would have been a lot more fun if Yorda had actually done something instead of passively allowing herself to be rescued by a younger male hero.

When I heard that the novelization of Ico would be released in North America, I was really excited. I thought that Miyabe Miyuki, who writes about awesome female detectives and manages to create a strong yet believable female protagonist in The Book of Heroes, would be able to do something interesting with Yorda, or at least to make her more of a subject than an object. Thankfully, she succeeds – at least to an extent.

Like the game on which it’s based, Miyabe’s novelization is the story of Ico, a thirteen-year-old boy with horns who is exiled from his village and dumped at the Castle in the Mist by a group of soldiers. In the otherwise empty castle Ico finds Yorda, who is suspended in a hanging cage covered by thorns. Ico wakes Yorda and then extracts her from her cage, resolving to rescue her from her imprisonment in the castle. Yorda doesn’t speak Ico’s language and in any case doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with him, but her touch can open certain magical doors through which Ico needs to pass. Furthermore, Ico’s body is filled with light and energy whenever he holds Yorda’s hand, so he quickly develops an attachment to her.

As Ico and Yorda progress through the castle, Ico begins to see Yorda’s memories of her life before the castle was reduced to its current state. Through these memories, it becomes clear that Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, is the “daughter” of the Dark God. In ages past, Yorda’s mother used her power to keep outsiders away from her kingdom, mainly by turning them into stone. She also kept her own people within her country’s borders by means of an enchantment that kept their hearts and minds peaceful. Convinced that other nations coveted the beauty, wealth, and material prosperity of her kingdom, Yorda’s mother would hold a tournament every three years to bring the world’s mightiest warriors into her castle to compete for glory. The winner of these tournaments would teach the latest military technology to her soldiers – and then secretly be turned to stone. The tournament of Yorda’s sixteenth year brought a horned warrior, a servant of the Light God, to the tournament, and his interactions with Yorda led the kingdom to its current state of timeless abandonment. Ico’s job is thus to unravel the mysteries of the past in order to ascertain how to defeat the queen once and for all, after which he will presumably be able to escape with Yorda in tow.

Miyabe’s novel is divided into four parts. The first part details Ico’s life before he was taken to the castle and thereby provides information concerning the greater world in which the story takes place. The second part describes Ico’s adventures in the castle before Yorda begins communicating with him through her memories. The third part tells the history of the castle from Yorda’s perspective, and the fourth part follows Ico through his final confrontation with the evil queen. As Miyabe jokes in her introduction, her novelization isn’t meant to be a walkthrough for the game, and the first and third sections are almost entirely her own invention. Miyabe adds layers of depth to game’s characters and creates a handful of her own characters, who manage to be interesting and engaging despite only being onstage for small portions of the novel. Miyabe also renders the ending of the story slightly less ambiguous.

This is all well and good, but how does a puzzle platforming game translate into prose? Mainly, I suppose, in the way one might expect, though descriptive passages:

The thought put Ico at ease. Maybe if we can get down to those doors, we can get outside. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any way to get from the top of the bridge on the second floor down to the floor of the great hall. What stairs he could see went up to the ceiling, not down to the floor below, forming a sort of catwalk that seemed without purpose.

Besides such descriptions of setting, there is also a great deal of running, jumping, climbing, flailing at shadow monsters with a stick, and holding Yorda’s hand.

If the reader can successfully visualize what Miyabe is describing, then her descriptive passages, which form the bulk of the two sections from Ico’s perspective, create a sense of adventure and awe. If the reader is too engrossed in figuring out the mysteries of the castle to slow down and mentally picture the landscape Miyabe is describing, then these passages can come off as clunky and annoying. My sympathies tend to lie with the latter reader, especially if that reader has never played the game; trying to describe the visual aesthetics of the Castle in the Mist is like trying to describe an Escher painting. The game Ico is all about the atmosphere created by its visual and auditory elements, and a purely textual medium will never be able to capture that atmosphere, no matter how hard it tries.

What text can do, and what text can do well, is characterization, and it seems to me that the lion’s share of the game’s atmosphere is conveyed in the novel by Ico’s perceptions of and interactions with Yorda. Just as the castle is architecturally majestic and full of mysteries, Yorda is physically beautiful and conceals secrets upon secrets beneath her silent exterior. For example:

Ico glanced at her. She did not look sad or even frightened. Nor did she smile or seem engaged with the world around her at all. Though she was right next to him, and he could look directly into her face, he felt like she was standing on the other side of a veil.

Here’s another example:

The girl turned to him and to his surprise, she smiled faintly. She’s beautiful. He thought her smile looked like a flower in full bloom, swaying gently in a forest breeze, sending its petals out to drift on the wind. He could almost smell the flower’s perfume on her breath.

Here’s yet another example:

Filled with hope, Ico looked into Yorda’s eyes. He felt like he was looking into an hourglass, trying to pick through the grains of truth buried there long ago. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the warmth of Yorda’s hands in his told him that he was getting close.

Yorda is thus delicate and mysterious, and her main function as a character is to reflect the emotions Ico projects onto her. Because this novel is a work of young adult fiction, Ico is exceptionally pure of heart, and – perhaps as a result – Yorda is as well. What Ico is about, at its core, is the bravery of two children challenging the old, the impure, and the monstrous. For me, the main problem with Ico and Yorda is that, although purity of heart is inspiring, it is also somewhat boring. The evil queen is far more interesting. At a certain point I stopped caring about Ico and his youthful hope and good intentions and started waiting for the next appearance of the queen, who is the only halfway intelligent and rational character in the entire novel.

For example, unlike Ico’s caretakers, who tell him nothing, the queen respects her daughter enough to explain to her what she is doing and her motivation for doing it. The queen’s explanations are always pragmatic and hint at a lifetime of experience. The following passage, for example, is how the queen justifies to Yorda why the two of them never leave the castle:

“Beauty is a high and noble thing. Thus are men enchanted by it and seek it out. But those who desire you also desire our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice or enchant them – because, my dearest, while your beauty holds the power to command the actions of a few men, it does not bestow the ability to govern.

“It is the same for me. The land I govern is the most wealthy and beautiful of all the lands that divide this vast continent. They crave it, as they crave me. From their slavering jaws and their multifarious schemes have I escaped many times. All to protect myself and my beautiful domain, blessed by the Creator. You, who were born into the world as the lone daughter of the queen, have noble blood and noble beauty, thus must you bear my burdens.”

Judging from what happens in the rest of the novel (which I will not spoil), and judging from the way that Ico, his horned ancestor, and everyone in between has treated Yorda and her mother, the queen is not incorrect. Unfortunately, because the queen is a sexually mature and politically powerful older woman, she is EVIL and therefore cannot be reasoned with or redeemed but must be DEFEATED. The final battle between the queen and Ico is somewhat disappointing, as the queen is made to lay aside her primary weapons – her intelligence and wit – in order to fight boss-battle style with attacks that are easily deflected in a room filled with obstacles that deflect them.

The moral of the story seems to be that inarticulate yet delicately beautiful and innocent younger women are good (for men) and that brilliant and powerful mature women are EVIL (to men).

At least, that is the moral of the second and fourth sections of the novel, which are told from Ico’s perspective and closely follow the plot of the video game. The first and third sections are much more interesting and open-ended. The first section is, in my option, a superlatively excellent example of fantasy world building that establishes setting, mythology, history, and worldview through its characters instead of in spite of them. The third section, which is told from Yorda’s perspective, is an almost archetypal story of innocence awakening to experience as Yorda begins to question and investigate the world around while realizing the consequences of her own actions on the lives of others. By the end of the third section, Yorda has become a powerful queen in her own right…

…before we switch back to Ico’s perspective, in which Yorda is a helpless and naive young girl once more. Although this is jarring, it is also necessary. The game Ico is so deeply sexist that, in order for Miyabe to subvert this misogyny, she would have to abandon her goal of novelization. If Yorda were an active agent and not a passive victim, the events leading up to the final battle and the battle itself would not be possible. Good must triumph over evil in a decisive showdown; and, as everyone who has ever played a video game knows, such a task is the man’s job. This is why I complain about I sexism. Not only is it frustrating and unnecessary; it also tends to diminish from the overall quality of the work in which it appears.

Despite all this, Ico is a fun read. Miyabe is a good writer, and Smith has produced an excellent translation (as always). The plot and character conventions are fairly characteristic of mainstream young adult fiction, and I can imagine that younger readers would really enjoy this book, which is exactly the right length and complexity for the 7-12 demographic. It goes without saying that fans of the game will love the novelization, which does its very best to convey everything that was fun and intriguing about the original work. Fans of video games in general might also enjoy the book, which is an interesting experiment in adaptation. As for adult readers who are looking for archetypes represented in a deep and multilayered fantasy, however, I think there are much better books to spend an afternoon reading.

The Book of Heroes

Title: The Book of Heroes
Japanese Title: 英雄の書 (Eiyū no sho)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 352

Before the earthquake hit Japan, I was drafting a review of Miyabe Miyuki’s Brave Story. I was going to say something along the lines of that, while many male-centered epic novels (like Wizard’s First Rule) are sex fantasies supported by the bare-bones scaffolding of fantasy tropes, Brave Story is not like that at all. I was also going to say something to the effect that Miyabe does realism much better than she does fantasy, at least in Brave Story, where the “Frodo in the Shire” (or “Wataru in a suburb of Tokyo”) segment is much more interesting than the actual adventures in the fantasy world of Vision. And then I was going to conclude that the book did not need to be eight hundred pages long, and that Miyabe could have used some serious editing, since the reader does not need to know what every character is thinking at any given time.

But then I thought, why write a review of a promising book that turned out to be dishearteningly mediocre? Life is short, and there is more to the world than picking apart the idiosyncrasies of genre fiction. One of the great things about fantasy literature is that, when done correctly, it can inspire courage, and hope, and bravery. And since everyone following the events in Japan could probably use a “brave story” right now (I know I could), I am instead going to review Miyabe’s much shorter (and, in my opinion, much better) fantasy novel The Book of Heroes.

The Book of Heroes is about Yuriko, whose older brother Hiroki snapped under pressure, knifed a classmate, and then disappeared. In the fallout of the incident, Yuriko’s family has been suffering from media overexposure, while Yuriko herself has had to drop out of middle school because of bullying. In the midst of this chaos, there has been no sign of Hiroki. Worried about her older brother, Yuriko ventures into Hiroki’s room and is approached by a talking book named Aju, who drops a few cryptic hints concerning Hiroki’s whereabouts. These hints lead her to her reclusive uncle’s cabin in the mountains, which is filled with rare books, many of whom can also talk.

These books tell Yuriko that her brother has become a Summoner, a being who can channel the evil King in Yellow, who sows discord wherever he goes. The King in Yellow is not an easy threat to quell, as he is one half of the Hero, the archetype who inspires brave and great deeds. To prevent her brother, who believes himself to be the Hero, from summoning the King in Yellow, Yuriko must become an allcaste, an adventurer with the ability to travel between worlds. Yuriko learns that all worlds (including her own), are created from fictions, and so she must travel through and into books in order to chase down Hiroki.

Yuriko’s journey begins in the third chapter (about eighty pages into novel), when she is transported to The Nameless Land, a kind of land beyond time where monk-like “nameless devouts” spin the wheels that cycle stories throughout the many worlds. This might sound as if The Book of Heroes is wading waist-deep through a meta-textual philosophical sludge, but the novel’s self-reflexive fantasy is actually quite fascinating. Miyabe’s descriptions of both modern Tokyo, The Nameless Land, and the fantasy book world that Yuriko enters are beautiful and striking. There is a sense of wonder in the storytelling, but also an appropriate sense of urgency. The odds that Yuriko faces are overwhelming, but she is accompanied by the book Aju, who temporarily takes the form of a mouse, a older male guardian and guide called Ash, and a nameless devout whom Yuriko names Sky. Each of these three supporting characters has his own story to tell, and each of them is as interesting and important as Yuriko, who really comes into her own as a protagonist over the course of the book.

As she grows stronger, Yuriko learns that her power does not come without a price, and the answers to her many questions are difficult and painful. The novel’s ending is bittersweet yet satisfying, and the endgame revelations are heartbreaking yet thought-provoking. Thankfully, the story is compelling enough to keep the reader feverishly flipping pages all the way through. Honestly, if you are in need of a break from current events that you can come back from refreshed and re-energized, The Book of Heroes is an excellent story to immerse yourself in. It’s got the same sort of quiet yet driving mystery and the same sort of exploration of fantasy with real-world implications as the anime series Haibane Renmei or Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians. I cannot give it higher praise than that, although I should mention that Haikasoru has done a beautiful job publishing the book, and Alexander O. Smith’s translation is beyond excellent (as it was in Brave Story).

If you’re reading this alongside articles of the death and destruction in Japan and find my review of a fantasy novel trifling and tasteless, then I will hang my head, apologize, and humbly suggest Murakami Haruki’s short story “The Seventh Man,” which is published in the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection but immediately available in several “unofficial” translations through a quick search on Google. “The Seventh Man” is about a memory of a tsunami, and its primary themes are terror, helplessness, and guilt – which I suppose is the other side of the “brave story” of disaster survival offered by The Book of Heroes.

Regarding the situation in Japan, I think Matt Alt makes an excellent point when he says, Don’t Panic. The best coverage of the quake and its aftermath from a personal level that I have read thus far has been on the blog Adventures in Gradland (which is a fantastic read even when its author isn’t being the most sane and level-headed person to post about what must be a terrifying series of experiences). This post over at The Lobster Dance contains a list of links for more reliable news sources, as well as information on charities (the word on the street is that Second Harvest seems to be doing the right work, right now). The art historian over at A Man with Tea has taken this opportunity to reflect on what might be lost in Japan, as well as why we need to keep calm and carry on. Finally, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber has issued an appeal for donations over at All About Manga, which is accompanied by a plan to make a difference. As for me, all I can do is cheer my friends and the people of Japan on from a distance. You guys are amazing, and you can survive anything!

The Summer of the Ubume

Title: The Summer of the Ubume
Japanese Title: 姑獲鳥の夏 (Ubume no natsu)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極夏彦)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 320

Reading The Summer of the Ubume was like being in a trance. Honestly, it feels weird to not be reading the book right now, but I imagine that I’m going to be reading it again soon. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Which is not to say that Summer of the Ubume is in any way like the Harry Potter series, aside from its sheer literary addiction quotient. On the surface, the book presents a simple “sealed room” murder mystery. Underneath, however, is mystery upon mystery upon mystery. Running through these mysteries is a current of Japanese folklore, especially folklore concerning spirit possession. The “ubume” of the title is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and carries out her grudge against still-living mothers by stealing their infant children. This trope is connected to the household of a family that is just about as gothic as they come, with frail maidens and hereditary curses and hidden murders set on the stage of an almost abandoned hospital, which was designed by an insane architect and almost destroyed during the wartime firebombing of Tokyo.

The Summer of the Ubume is set in 1952 in the Nakano area, which used to be a residential district on the northwest periphery of Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from the prisons, insane asylums, and black markets of Ikebukuro. Its narrator is a man in his early thirties named Sekiguchi, a freelance writer who specializes in essays on supernatural incidents. Sekiguchi is friends with the brilliant yet antisocial proprietor of the Kyōgokudō used bookstore (which is the name his friends use to refer to him). Sekiguchi is the Watson to Kyōgokudō’s Holmes, and a great deal of the book is devoted to their conversations concerning metaphysical matters, which end up having a great deal to do with the mystery at hand.

In the course of his work (which borders on yellow journalism), Sekiguchi has stumbled upon a rumor of a woman who, having been mysteriously deserted by her husband, has been pregnant for eighteen months. After asking several magazine editors about the source of the rumor, Sekiguchi becomes more intrigued. Due to a strange series of coincidences, the writer has the opportunity to meet the woman’s family, which is deeply dysfunctional in every possible way. As Sekiguchi learns more about these people, it turns out that his ties to them are deeper than he initially suspected.

The first chapter of the novel is a forty-page discussion of the supernatural between Kyōgokudō and Sekiguchi. Each page is dense with ideas and metaphysical language (not to mention text – the book’s margins are practically nonexistent), and neither Sekiguchi nor Kyōgokudō is presented in a particularly sympathetic light – Sekiguchi comes off as rather dense while Kyōgokudō is supremely abrasive. If the reader can weather this initial chapter, however, he or she will be rewarded with a deliciously convoluted mystery populated by a genuinely fascinating cast of characters. The action of the story reaches its climax 230 pages into the novel, which leaves 90 pages for the explanation of the mystery. Although this may seem like poor pacing, the explication is well-plotted, engrossing, and bizarre, reaching its own climax at the end of the novel.

The Summer of Ubume is Kyōgoku’s debut novel, and at times it does feel unpolished. The momentum of the story more than makes up for any flaws in the narrative’s structure, however. The occasional clichés implicit in the mystery (such as the uncertainty that is inevitably created when there are two almost identical sisters in a fictional family) are balanced by the writer’s unique take on the gothic genre. The novel’s setting in 1950’s Tokyo is fully taken advantage of by Kyōgoku, who skillfully renders the city as a sinister gothic landscape.

Although, as I mentioned, there is a greater emphasis on talking heads in this novel than is strictly necessary, the characters and setting are superbly handled, and the mystery is just about as addictive as they come. I can only hope that more of Kyōgoku’s work is translated into English as soon as possible.