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!

Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.