Loups-Garous

Title: Loups-Garous
Japanese Title: ルー=ガルー (Rū=Garū)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極 夏彦)
Translator: Anne Ishii
Year Published: 2010 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 450

Spoiler: There are no actual werewolves in this book.

The real shape-shifter is Loups-Garous itself, which wears multiple skins. The novel is a murder mystery and a sci-fi suspense thriller. It is a police procedural, a cyberpunk dystopia, and a high school drama. It can also be read as a series of philosophical musings on technology, authority, and human nature.

Loups-Garous is set in the not-too-distant future (the 2030s are referred to as if they were the 1990s) of Japan, in which many of the laws and social conventions concerning food, housing, education, communication, and privacy are no longer what they once were. For example, although minors are assigned guardians who may or may not be their parents, they are apparently not required to cohabitate with these adults. Furthermore, children learn from computer modules instead of from teachers, and their only physical contact with other people is through periodically scheduled meetings with selected peer groups and guidance counselors. The younger generation has gradually come to interact with the world almost exclusively through computerized devices called “moniters,” which range in size from wristband models to screens the size of bedroom walls. Cities are divided into carefully controlled zones, all food is artificial, and the movements and consumption patterns of every individual are recorded through omnipresent video cameras maintained in both public and private spaces by the corporation that controls the country.

Despite the fact that this micro-management of individual lives is supposed to keep people safe, a series of connected murders has broken out in an otherwise peaceful residential district. A possibly related set of school absences draws three high school girls, Hazuki, Mio, and Ayumi, to meet together in person. Meanwhile, the girls’ guidance counselor, Shizue, is pulled into a police investigation of several students who may be either suspects or victims. As Hazuki and Shizue are pulled deeper into the circumstances surrounding the murders, the grimy foundations of their seemingly utopian society are revealed, as is a major government conspiracy.

The cyberpunk gothic noir setup of Loups-Garous attracted me to the novel and kept me reading, but I will admit that I ultimately did not enjoy the experience. None of the plot devices are particularly original, the themes are spread too thin, and the pacing is uneven. Long passages of exposition and dialog are broken by fights and chase scenes in a way that seems random and frenetic, and the last fifty pages of the novel read like the two minutes of downhill careen that follow a very long and very slow slog up the first hill of a roller coaster ride. Furthermore, the big surprises at the end, such as the identity of the killer, have almost no foreshadowing. To give an example, there’s a giant mecha at the end of the novel. It comes out of nowhere. The lack of suspenseful buildup leading to its appearance is so total that mentioning it doesn’t even feel like a spoiler.

I also found the main characters infuriating. I understand that these characters, who have grown up in a world in which there is very little interpersonal interaction, are supposed to be socially maladjusted, but that doesn’t make their antisocial awkwardness any easier to read. To bring up a topical analogy, Sherlock Holmes is interesting (and bearable) as a character because he is juxtaposed against foils such as John Watson and Inspector Lestrade. These foils don’t just help to demonstrate what is so unique and fascinating about Holmes; they also serve to drive the story forward by providing a means to address the more commonplace concerns that exist for a reader who lives in a world governed more by social and accidental systems of cause and effect than by pure logic. A story with two Sherlocks and no Watson wouldn’t be nearly as readable. Loups-Garous has five Sherlocks and no Watson, and it’s painful to watch these characters bicker with each other endlessly. Besides being socially maladjusted, each of them is idiosyncratic in her own way (“I’m a genius, so I don’t have a sense of aesthetics.”), and the weird gaps in their knowledge of the world mean that each of them will often say things that can come off as inane to the reader (“You think you can actually eat animals? That’s stupid.”).

Speaking of the characters’ knowledge of their world, the author’s construction of the novel’s setting felt uneven to me. Specifically, the story is supposed to be set in a time in which people who were adults in the twentieth century still hold active positions of power, yet the main characters act completely ignorant of the history, economic systems, and technologies that existed before their own lifetimes (even though the reader is left to assume that such information is freely and easily available, such as in the form of entertainment media). For example, when the self-proclaimed genius Mio explains the concept of a “telephone” to Hazuki, Hazuki is completely flabbergasted over the fact that such a thing could ever exist, and Mio herself admits that she doesn’t know what language the word “telephone” comes from. There is thus a deep contradiction in the novel’s construction of its setting (which is either super-futuristic or not really futuristic at all) that prevents the reader from really understanding the novel’s worldview or becoming absorbed in its atmosphere.

Finally, perhaps partially as a result of the awkwardness of the characters and setting, the long philosophical passages that fill the novel are written in a style that is somewhat confusing. For example, a chain of logic might be set up like this:

“It goes without saying that scissors are good for cutting paper. Similarly, the best accounting software can’t make music. Computers are nothing more than calculators. It’s a system built to do the math necessary to accomplish a task. If humans were able to do several calculations at once there’d be no need for computers. No matter how grand the calculation, nothing but cutlery can cut paper.”

Or a theme of the novel might be expressed in a meaningless repetition of chichés and platitudes:

“The adults don’t know anything.” Don’t they? It wasn’t just the adults. Kids wouldn’t know anything about other people either. No one wanted to know and no one wanted to be known. So no one knew anything about anyone else. They weren’t bothered by not knowing. They weren’t bothered by not being known. Moreover… They actually hated being known.

Unfortunately, Loups-Garous is filled with many such pseudo-philosophical soliloquies, which detract from what little plot, character development, and world building the novel is able to offer.

In the end, I feel that Loups-Garous is a waste of a good premise that could have been vastly improved with either more judicious editing of the original text or more creative license on the part of the translator. I hate to bash anything published by Haikasoru, a press that has almost consistently put out quality material, but Loups-Garous weighs in towards the lower end of the publisher’s catalog (along with Mardock Scramble, another title that, like Loups-Garous, has an animated adaptation).

If you’re interested in the dystopian sci-fi premise of the novel, you might be better off watching either Fractale (streaming on Hulu) or No.6 (streaming on Crunchyroll), two anime that share similar themes but are much more intelligent and stylish in their execution of these themes. Also, while I was reading Loups-Garous, I kept wishing that I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake instead. The story and premise of Oryx and Crake are similar to those of Loups-Garous, but the readability and literary flair of Atwood’s novel are much higher. Even though I didn’t like this novel, Kyōgoku Natsuhiko is a very interesting writer, and I definitely recommend his Summer of the Ubume. With so much other excellent reading and viewing material, why would you want to waste time on Loups-Garous? The novel wears many skins, but it doesn’t wear any one of them particularly well.

Slum Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic as Metaphor in Anime

Title: Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study
Author: Dani Cavallaro
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: McFarland
Pages: 212

When Amazon recommended this book to me, I was really excited. What an interesting topic! I haven’t had good experiences with Dani Cavallaro’s work in the past, however. I felt that her books on the films of Oshii Mamoru (The Cinema of Oshii Mamoru: Fantasy, Technology and Politics, 2006) and Studio Gainax (The Art of Studio Gainax: Experimentation, Style and Innovation at the Leading Edge of Anime, 2009) were somewhat shallow and, to be frank, extraordinarily difficult to read. In these two books, Cavallaro has devoted five or six pages to films and television series to which other scholars have written thirty to forty page articles and chapters. Each of her essays reads like an outline – she skips from topic to topic with no development and little transition, using theoretical and philosophical terms without explaining what they mean in context and without giving examples. In this way, she can cover an exhaustive list of material, but it doesn’t seem like she has much to say. Since its table of contents would suggest that Magic as Metaphor focuses more on broader themes, though, I thought I would at least check it out from my university’s library and give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Magic as Metaphor is unreadable. I found so many things about this book frustrating that I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose I should start with the least damning of my criticisms: Cavallaro discusses an enormous number of titles. Her “Filmography” section at the back of the book lists forty-one primary titles (many of which are simply successive seasons of the same franchise). She’s got roughly seventy other ancillary titles listed, however, just in case the main forty weren’t enough. Even if we focus on the main titles, though, she still has less than 190 pages to talk about thirty or so anime franchises, which equals about six pages devoted to each of them. So yes, there is quite a bit of breadth, and I admire Cavallaro for being able to watch and keep track of so many titles (many of which came out quite recently); but again, it feels like she’s writing only marginally fleshed-out outlines, and the way she jumps from title to title and from concept to concept is disorienting. It’s also almost impossible to ascertain the main point of each chapter, and the way that various anime are included in the various chapters comes off as almost random.

In addition to her shallow discussions and poor structuring, I also feel like Cavallaro isn’t saying anything interesting. Certainly, she will quote key thinkers (like Tzvetan Todorov and Wikipedia) and then quickly move on without explaining what these quotes mean or how they relate to her argument, but most of her discussion is plot summary. Not explication through plot summary, but explanatory text that could be taken from an entertainment journalist’s review of a particular title. Her description of characters and themes often stems from the most simple and most obvious interpretation possible, as if it came off of the back of a DVD box. I am exaggerating, of course, but only a little bit. Certain sentences stand out as being insightful and useful and meaningful, but they are rare and isolated from one another.

The writing itself is terrible, ranging from overly flowery diction (“CLAMP’s passion for ocular impairment”) to purple prose (“whereas Lydia’s expression invariably exudes infinite kindness and compassion, Raven’s holds a malevolent light soaked with unspeakable sadness”) to condescension (“Earl and Fairy makes reference to so bountiful a range of magical entities as to occasionally come across as a concise guide to the spirit world for newbies”). Her paragraphs rarely have topic sentences, and there are no strong conclusions to be found anywhere. She quotes inane movie reviews as if they were scholarship and often uses these idiotic quotes (“Sousuke is ‘one of those adorable anime moppets with large round eyes’ amid ‘many a winsome tummy-poke and nose-wiggle’”) to close paragraphs. Things like this occur so frequently that I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I read. In short, the writing in this book toes the line between journalism and scholarship but, unfortunately, contains none of the pleasures of either.

You may be asking yourself why I read the book if it was so bad. The answer is that I didn’t. I read one chapter (“Magic Bildungsromans”) and then threw the thing against the wall. It may be possible that I picked the worst chapter to read, and it may also be possible that the rest of the book is sheer brilliance, but I highly doubt it. Cavallaro has six other books about anime in print through McFarland, and all of them have been published in the last five years. These do not include the numerous other works she has published on cyberpunk through other publishers in the past five years. Simply put, Cavallaro is a writing machine, and her output indeed reads like it was written by a machine. I have found some of her work, especially Anime and Memory: Aesthetic, Cultural and Thematic Perspectives (2009) to be useful as a guide for viewing recommendations. Otherwise, it’s best to approach her books with caution, and with a library card instead of a credit card.

In all fairness, Cavallaro’s books are more than capable of carrying their weight as reference guides to Japanese animation (as opposed to “critical studies”), but I myself prefer the work of British anime scholar Helen McCarthy, whose books are less pretentious and infinitely more enjoyable to read. They also have more pictures, which is always a good thing where visual media is concerned.