The Beast Player

Japanese Title: 獣の奏者 I 闘蛇編 (Kemono no sōja ichi: Tōda hen) and 獣の奏者 II 王獣編 (Kemono no sōja ni: Ōjū hen)
Author: Nahoko Uehashi (上橋 菜穂子)
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Illustrator: Yuta Onoda
Publication Year: 2006 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Henry Holt
Pages: 344

The Beast Player collects the first half of a four-book epic fantasy series set in a world of warrior kings and monsters. The story follows a young woman named Elin as she befriends a winged wolflike creature and attempts to save her kingdom from a cataclysmic disaster.

Elin’s mother Sohyon cares for serpentine megafauna called Toda, which serve as symbols of the authority of a tribe of warriors called the Aluhan. After an ailing Toda dies in her care, Elin’s mother is sentenced to death. Sohyon flees with her daughter and sacrifices herself so that Elin can escape on the back of a Toda. Upon waking in a far-away land, Elin is adopted by a reclusive scholar who keeps bees at his hermitage in the mountains. When he is called back to the capital, he offers to formally adopt Elin as his daughter, but she chooses to enroll in a school for people who care for creatures called Royal Beasts.

The bulk of The Beast Player is about Elin’s time as a student at this fantasy vet school. She bonds with an injured Royal Beast cub named Leelan and saves its life, which is nothing short of miraculous. As you can imagine from the name “Royal Beast,” these animals are politically important to the Yojeh, a matriarchy of priestess-queens. Both the Royal Beasts and the Toda are considered to be untamable and only controllable by means of brute force. Elin nevertheless discovers how to communicate with Leelan through music, just as her mother secretly communicated with Toda. This unfortunately puts Elin in a politically fraught situation. By the end of the novel, the twenty-year-old Elin has become unwillingly involved in a conspiracy over imperial succession, with a war between the Yojeh and the Aluhan looming on the horizon.

Although Elin is a child and teenager throughout most of the novel, The Beast Player is not middle-grade fiction. The story takes time to get started, and it’s not always easy to read. The first one hundred pages are filled with fantasy terms, names, and political factions that neither Elin nor the reader understands. Everything gradually begins to make sense, but only if the reader has enough patience to make it through the confusing and chaotic scenes at the beginning of the novel. Even as an adult reader, I found my head swimming with the fantasy politics at first, especially during the chapters that didn’t feature Elin. Once I made it through the opening salvo of decontextualized names and places and political titles, however, I fell in love with the world of the novel.

Elin is obviously a very special girl – the brightest witch of her age, one might say – but the adults are equally interesting characters. Joeun, the scholar who adopts Elin after her mother’s death, is a kind man who nurtures his young charge’s interest in the natural world. Esalu, the headmaster who administers the school attached to the Royal Beast Sanctuary, is just as curious and compassionate as Elin and risks both her career and her life to protect her student. Damiya, the Yojeh’s cousin who orchestrates a political coup, is suave and sinister and makes an excellent villain.

Cathy Hirano’s translation is nuanced and evocative and brings the small and vivid details of The Beast Player to life. Yuta Onoda’s spot illustrations are lovely as well. Neither the Toda nor the Royal Beasts are explicitly described in the text, and Onoda’s illustrations sketch a few hints of the animals while leaving them largely up to the reader’s imagination.

If you’re interested in getting a more precise visual sense of Elin’s world, a fifty-episode anime called Beast Player Erin (獣の奏者 エリン) was broadcast on NHK throughout 2009, and a manga drawn by Itoe Takemoto was serialized and collected in eleven volumes between 2008 and 2016. Although Beast Player Erin was briefly available on Crunchyroll, neither the anime nor the manga versions of the story are currently available in English.

I think it’s worth copying and pasting the Japanese title of the series into a search engine to get a glimpse of what these characters and their environments look like, especially if you’re an adult sharing the novel with a younger reader. The Beast Player is definitely “Asian” fantasy modeled on imperial China (with hints of Korea and Japan) instead of medieval Europe, and the characters’ costumes are quite interesting and colorful.

I also believe the reader’s understanding of the setting of the story will be greatly enhanced by seeing just how mountainous the terrain is supposed to be. One of the ongoing mysteries of the novel is the exact nature of the apocalypse that caused Erin’s people to hide the secret that communication with Royal Beasts and Toda is possible, and the revelation at the end of the book might be a little confusing if the reader isn’t able to envision the size and scale of the mountains bordering the Yojeh’s empire.

No prior cultural knowledge is necessary to enjoy The Beast Player, just a willingness to accept a slightly different style of fantasy, as well as the patience to wait as the threads of the story unspool at their own pace. The Beast Player won the Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence in young adult literature in 2020, and rightly so. The worldbuilding is marvelously detailed, the characters are sympathetic despite their flaws, and the fantastic creatures are suitably awe-inspiring.

Elin’s story continues in The Beast Warrior, which is a slightly more mature novel about adult protagonists in their thirties. I found The Beast Warrior extremely engaging and entertaining, and I would highly recommend this two-volume series to fans of epic fantasy grounded in the beauty and wonder of the real world.

The Friends

Title: The Friends
Japanese Title: 夏の庭 (Natsu no niwa)
Author: Yumoto Kazumi (湯本 香樹実)
Translator: Cathy Hirano
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1992 (Japan)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 170

For one reason or another, I’ve never been a huge fan of Stephen King’s IT (it might be something about the gang rape of immense magical significance that occurs towards the end of the book), but I’ve always enjoyed the author’s descriptions of the characters as children. King’s characterization of the kids as occasionally cowardly and petty yet genuinely concerned for each other strikes me as fairly accurate. Kids are not innocent, and they don’t always do the right thing. They’re mean to each other, and they make decisions according to a logic that doesn’t always make sense to adults. And yet they notice things that adults don’t. They also put a lot of faith in their friendships, which seem to change quickly from an outside perspective but which mean the world to the kids involved in them. Kids aren’t embodiments of a romantic ideal of childhood, but they’re not adults, either. Therefore, when a book handles its child characters well, you have to give it credit.

One of the reasons I like The Friends is that it lets its three twelve-year-old protagonists think and act like twelve-year-olds. Another reason I like The Friends is that it treats adults like real people, too. Obviously the narrative focus is on the child protagonists and not the adult supporting characters, but these adult characters are not evil, incompetent, or strangely absent as they are in so many other works of fiction for children. Also, because The Friends is meant for a young audience, it does not dwell on issues like sexuality and abandonment that might be upsetting to a child reader – or at least to the adult reading the book to her child. What this book does address frankly is death, as well as adolescent fear and curiosity regarding death.

The Friends opens with a boy named Yamashita telling his friends Kawabe and Kiyama (our narrator) about a relative’s funeral. Kawabe reacts to Yamashita’s story by announcing that he would like to see someone die. He therefore convinces his two friends to help him keep watch over the house of an old man whom the neighborhood housewives have discussed as someone who is likely to die soon. Thus, over the summer before their last year of middle school, the three boys skip studying for the cram school classes that are supposed to prepare them for their high school entrance exams in order to hang around the old man’s back yard. They quickly notice that the old man isn’t taking good care of himself, and they finally come to his attention by taking out his trash. Even though the old man is not initially pleased by the fact that three middle schoolers are stalking him, he gradually forms a friendship with the boys by roping them into helping him clean up his yard. You can probably figure out how the story ends, but I promise it’s handled well and with a minimum of sentimentality.

One thing I like about The Friends is that, although the three boys are clearly misfits, their relative social position is never fetishized or glorified. This is how their friendship is introduced:

I’ll never forget Kawabe’s face. He was furious. Grinding his teeth, he glared at Sugita so hard that I thought his glasses would fly off his chalk-white face. Even his customary jiggling was stilled.

I feel a little guilty when I remember that incident, because when Kawabe leaped at Sugita, I grabbed him from behind and held back. I was sure that Kawabe was going to kill Sugita if I didn’t stop him. Just the thought of it scared me so much that every pore in my body seemed to shrink shut. What a coward I was. I should have punched Sugita myself, right in the nose, as hard as I could.

That was when Kawabe and I became real friends. A little later Yamashita joined us and our trio was formed. Four-eyes Kawabe, chubby Yamashita, and me. Once we all went over to my house to do homework together. When my mother talked to Kawabe, he couldn’t stop jiggling, and then Yamashita spilled some juice on the sofa. It was terrible. After they left, my mom said, “Next time maybe you could bring over some better friends.” I never brought anyone home after that.

In other words, these kids are a little weird, but they’re not that weird. It’s easy to sympathize with them and relate them to one’s own experiences, but it’s also easy to understand why they would spend their summer hanging around an old man’s yard instead of playing with other kids or working harder on their homework. The characterization feels very natural. The writing style also makes sense as being from the perspective of a teenager looking back on what happened to him when he was a year or two younger. Kiyama doesn’t know everything, but he’s not afraid to leave out his personal impressions.

Although the story is set in Japan, which means that the boys do things like eat tempura and go to cram school over the summer and ride public transportation unattended, I feel that it’s well written enough to have universal appeal. Perhaps a young reader wouldn’t understand why three normal thirteen-year-olds would need to take high school entrance exams, for instance, but she would understand the pressure of social expectations to do well in school and have a plan for the future. The behavior and psychology of the characters didn’t strike me as “quintessentially Japanese,” either. I think The Friends could be read out loud to an eight-year-old or a fourth-grade classroom just as easily as something like The Hatchet or The Indian in the Cupboard. It’s a story for children of remarkable depth and quality, and I think any library for young readers should have in its possession.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

moribito

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

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

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

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

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

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