Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle

Title: Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle
Japanese Title: クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い
(Kubikiri cycle: Aoiro savant to zaregoto-zukai)
Author: NISIOISIN (西尾 維新)
Translator: Greg Moore
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 332

I am not a big fan of NISIOISIN (who I am going to refer to as “Nisio” for my own convenience). I didn’t get a terribly good impression of him from what I had read of his work before, which was limited to Death Note: Another Note, a collection of three short stories based on the manga xxxHOLiC (you can find my review of that one here), and the short story “Magical Girl Risuka” in the second English edition of the literary magazine Faust. Judging from these stories, Nisio is obsessed with the concept of genius. Of course, genius and its practical applications are fascinating, which is why characters like Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark are so appealing. Nisio’s problem, however, is that he amps the asshole factor of Holmes and Stark all the way up to eleven and turns it directly towards the reader. When I read his work, I feel like he’s attacking me personally for being so stupid and incompetent, unlike his collection of beautiful geniuses. I think there’s perhaps an element of tsundere at play here, and perhaps it’s my fault for not being Nisio’s target audience, but there’s an even more annoying problem with his recurring descriptions of genius. I am going to call this problem the Hannibal Lecter paradox. Sure, it’s easy to say that a character has an IQ of 250, but it’s a bit tricky to write such a character if the author himself falls within a more normal range of intelligence, and most authors – including Nisio – fail.

I myself may not be the sharpest tool in the shed; but, if someone is going to tell me (or at least my reader-vehicle protagonist) that I’m stupid, I would at least prefer for that person to be interesting and intelligent, not a poorly-written, bloated mass of anime clichés. Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle is filled with many such bloated masses; but somehow, it works. In the same way that one angry bird is annoying, yet hundreds of angry birds are epic, Zaregoto is so ridiculously cliché that somehow it ends up being awe-inspiring. Are you ready to play cliché bingo? Let’s go!

Mild-mannered and unassuming teenage male protagonist who has secret depths of inner strength, Ii-chan, is friends with a beautiful teenage girl who is such a genius that she has trouble taking care of herself. She is a super-elite international computer hacker who builds her own super-amazing hardware and software and prefers the virtual world to the real world, you see. Anyway, this beautiful girl genius, Kunagisa Tomo, is invited to a small island inhabited by an outcast daughter of a very rich family. This outcast rich girl, Akagami Iria, is herself young, beautiful, and a genius. Since she either can’t or chooses not to leave her island, she invites all sorts of other geniuses to come to her. It just so happens that all of the other geniuses who visit her are also young, female, and beautiful. All of these gorgeous geniuses are cared for by Akagami’s (young and beautiful) trio of maids, who are sisters and hyper-talented at martial arts, among many other things. Everything is going well on Wet Crow’s Feather Island as the geniuses compare the sizes of their respective penis envy by taking turns telling Ii-chan what a stupid idiot he is, but suddenly! Someone is murdered! And we don’t know who did it! And then the prime suspect herself is murdered! In a locked room!

It gets worse from there, but I imagine my point has already been made. My mind boggles at how Nisio was able to hit so many of the high-profile mystery and anime stereotypes all at once. I kept reading just to see what would come out the bag next, and I was never disappointed. What is even more interesting about the book, however, are its logic puzzles. I’m not sure whether our narrator Ii-chan is deliberately unreliable or just an idiot; but, in either case, Sherlock Holmes he is not. He almost never notices anything for himself, and other characters are constantly pointing things out to him. What Ii-chan is good at doing, however, is taking all of this information, putting it together, and analyzing it. Along the way, he explains classic logic flaws and paradigms to the reader, which is fun in a Michael Crichton “this is how science works” sort of way.

None of this helps him solve the mystery, however, because the mystery itself is beyond ridiculous. Let it suffice to say that several people on the island are in the habit of amusing themselves by switching identities. And by “several people,” I mean “almost everyone.” (I kept expecting Ii-chan to pull off his pants and surprise everyone by being a beautiful girl genius himself, but alas, it didn’t happen.) There is no way that the reader can figure any of this out, so one must simply follow the twists and turns of the story developments and its various revelations along with the narrator. The dénouement of the mystery is so convoluted that it ceases to make any sense whatsoever about halfway through, but the identity of the killer at the core of the tangles of plot thread is actually quite interesting, especially as a conclusion to Nisio’s fetishistic focus on genius.

I will be honest. I bought Zaregoto because it was on sale for three dollars at an anime convention, and I read it because my plane back home from said convention was delayed for a few hours. Under those circumstances, which allowed me to read the book all the way through in one sitting while fueled by sleep deprivation and gallons of cheap coffee, I enjoyed it immensely. The translation is smooth and polished, and the illustrations by take are a very nice touch. This novel is the first in a nine-volume series, and it thus leaves certain plotlines open, like Ii-chan’s past and his budding romantic relationship with Kunagisa. The second volume of the series was released in English translation earlier this summer, but I’m not sure if I enjoyed the first volume enough to seek it out. But if I find it on sale for three dollars at another anime convention, I will definitely grab it.

xxxHOLiC

Title: xxxHOLiC (ホリック)
Artist: CLAMP (クランプ)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 16)
Publisher: 講談社 (Kōdansha)
Pages: 180 (per volume)

As embarrassing as this is to admit, I have been reading manga for a very long time. I started reading manga as a freshman in high school in 1998, back when Japanese comics were published in America as forty-page, A5-sized, left-to-right-reading comic books. A lot of things have changed in both American manga publishing and in my own personal tastes in manga since then, but two things have stayed the same. The works of CLAMP have always been popular, and I have always loved them.

CLAMP is a creative team made up of four women: Ōkawa Nanase, Igarashi Satsuki, Nekoi Tsubaki, and Mokona. They have published popular shōjo stories (meant for girls) like Magic Knight Rayearth and popular shōnen stories (meant for boys) like Chobits, but they have always managed to effectively erase the line dividing the two different demographics. A good example of this might be their popular manga Angelic Layer, which was serialized in the manga magazine Weekely Shōnen Jump (home of such boys’ fare as Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach) but which features a young female protagonist who trains and fights her battles with small dolls dressed in ornate and fantastic costumes.

CLAMP therefore has a huge fan base spanning both genders, and what’s not to love about them? They have written stories falling into every conceivable genre, from fantasy to romance to science fiction to mystery to historical fiction to reworkings of classical mythology. Their artwork is not only beautiful and varied but also constantly evolving. They are masters of the art of storytelling, always paying careful attention to plot and pacing and always managing to keep their stories moving forward and full of fresh twists and surprises. They care about their characters and rarely write good guys who are entirely good or bad guys who are entirely bad. Their manga almost never end in simple, easy ways.

I admit that I have met more than a few people who do not care for CLAMP and their particular flavor of manga. I adore the group, however, and their popularity has grown to such an extent that a beautifully illustrated retrospective of their work, All About CLAMP, was published late last year in Japan. A similar book, CLAMP in America (authored by the perennially awesome Shaenon Garitty), is scheduled to be published stateside in May of this year. CLAMP currently has several ongoing manga series, and several of their manga series have recently been adapted into anime. I feel like right now is a good time to be a CLAMP fan, so I would like to introduce my favorite manga written by these supremely talented ladies.

xxxHOLiC (pronounced “holic”) is a story about an irritable yet essentially kind-hearted high school student, Watanuki, whose eyes have the unusual condition of being able to see ghosts. These ghosts cause all manner of trouble for Watanuki, who just wants to live a normal life. When he accidentally stumbles into a magical store run by a wish-granting witch named Yūko, he asks her to cure him. She tells him that she will, eventually, but he first must pay a price equivalent in value to the granting of his wish – he must work part-time in her store every day after school. While doing various odd jobs for Yūko, Watanuki meets all sorts of strange people who want their wishes to be granted, as well as all manner of strange creatures that seem to be friends with Yūko. At school, Watanuki is enthralled by the lovely Himawari-chan and engages in a one-sided rivalry with a boy named Dōmeki, who has the magical power to drive away the ghosts that cause so much trouble for Watanuki (which annoys Watanuki to no end).

This description of the manga sounds like a chiché-filled cross between between the “wish granting with a cost” sub-genre of horror (exemplified by works like the Pet Shop of Horrors manga and the Hell Girl anime) and the “I see dead people” sub-genre of almost everything (ranging from YuYu Hakusho to Ghost Hunt) – but it’s not. I promise. Since the plot of xxxHOLiC is tied to that of its über-popular shōnen sister manga, Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles, it might also be dismissed as a cheap marketing gimmick – but it’s not. I promise.

The series starts off slowly, drawing the reader into its mysterious world and establishing the personalities of its quirky cast of characters. As the story progresses, however, the reader is led to question certain things that have been taken for granted. In the end, nothing is as it seems. In terms of its narrative structure, xxxHOLiC vaguely resembles something like The X-Files. There are “monster of the week” episodes, but the series as a whole is tied together both by a larger story arc and by a unity of theme running through each individual episode. Unlike The X-Files, however, the shorter story arcs of xxxHOLiC are not easily resolved and are interwoven with each other and the larger story arc, which progress slowly at its own pace. The overall tone of the manga is that of horror and mystery, but there is quite a bit of humor, romance, friendship, and playfulness thrown in as well.

I imagine that I could keep praising the various aspects of this manga (such as the brilliantly rendered character of the witch Yūko, the gradual and multi-layered world building, and the gorgeous artwork, which resembles inter-war era lithographs and goes a long way towards establishing the eerie, dream-like atmosphere of the work) for many more paragraphs. Let it suffice to say, though, that xxxHOLiC is an amazing manga series. I think it is capable of standing its ground against any film or novel. To any manga fan who has been hesitant to read this series because it seems so gimmicky and stereotypical, I encourage you to give it a chance. To any fan of horror, mystery, fantasy, or the gothic who is hesitant to read a manga, I encourage you to give it a chance. In my opinion, xxxHOLiC is one of the most interesting works being published right now in any medium.

I have been reading this manga in Japanese in the beautiful volumes published by Kōdansha. An English translation of the series (which I haven’t read yet, unfortunately) is currently being published in America by Del Rey. I would like to close with a two-page spread depicting the hyakki yagyō (“night parade of one hundred demons”) that will hopefully illustrate the distinctive art style that CLAMP has created for this manga.