A Small Charred Face

Title: A Small Charred Face
Japanese Title: ほんとうの花を見せにきた (Hontō no hana o mise ni kita)
Author: Kazuki Sakuraba (桜庭 一樹)
Translator: Jocelyn Allen
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 239

A Small Charred Face is a collection of three interconnected stories about vampires and the humans who love them. These vampires sleep during the day, fly by night, feed on human blood, can’t see their reflections, and never age during their 120-year lifespan. They also smell like grass and burst into bloom at the end of their lives, and they are called Bamboo. Their laws forbid them from befriending humans, but sometimes an outsider, alone and destitute on the margins of society, manages to catch the attention and the heart of a Bamboo.

The first and longest story, which frames the other two stories in the book, is “A Small Charred Face.” The story begins with horrific violence, with the narrator, a boy named Kyo, trying to escape a criminal organization that has just raped and killed his mother and sister. A Bamboo appears, hoping to feed on the bodies, but it ends up rescuing Kyo instead. The Bamboo, a young man named Mustah, takes him home to a seaside cottage where he lives with his partner Yoji. Kyo, who has grown up in wealth and privilege, is forced to adapt to life in the impoverished community, and Mushtah and Yoji convince him to disguise himself as a girl so that the people who killed his family won’t find him. Growing up as a girl in a household with two vampire fathers in a neighborhood ravaged by economic inequality, Kyo actually manages to enjoy a relatively normal childhood, but problems arise when a period of adolescent rebellion brings him to the attention of other Bamboo, who will not tolerate their existence becoming known to humans.

The second story (and the title story of the original Japanese publication), “I Came to Show You Real Flowers,” follows Marika, a female Bamboo from “A Small Charred Face,” several decades after her life intersects with Kyo’s story. Marika was transformed into a Bamboo when she was a teenager, so her mind and body remain those of a young woman. Marika adopts a human girl named Momo who has nowhere else to go, and together the two of them enact revenge on the men who prey on the weak and defenseless, which Momo luring them into a secluded spot so that Marika can swoop down, break their necks, and eat them. As Momo grows older, however, she begins to grow weary of being constantly on the run and surrounded by violence.

The third story, “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” is the origin story of Ruirui, who will go on to lead a group of Bamboo immigrants from China to Japan. This story is narrated from the perspective of Ruirui’s older sister, the fifth child of the Bamboo royal family. This nameless young woman describes how the Bamboo are respected and revered in the small and isolated rural community that surrounds their castle in the mountains, and how the princes and princesses are carefully brought up according to Confucian tradition. All of this changes with the Cultural Revolution, however, which brings outsiders to the village and spreads distrust among the villagers. Anyone who deviates from the narrow ideology of the Communist Party must be struck down for the good of the people, so even the seemingly invincible Bamboo find themselves is terrible danger.

Kazuki Sakuraba began her career by writing light novels; and, although A Small Charred Face contains scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault, it still feels like young adult fiction in many ways. The narrators are children (or have the minds of children), and their worldview is correspondingly myopic. Although the third story occurs during the Cultural Revolution, it’s difficult to ascertain when the first two stories are set. They might be set in the present, or in the near future, or at the end of the twenty-first century. Technology is never mentioned, nor are any events that would have led to the circumstances under which Kyo and Marika lost their families. What is “the Organization” that goes around murdering and raping women and children, and why doesn’t anyone have a cellphone? Is the story set in an alternate universe in which Japan descended into chaos at some point during the twentieth century; and, if so, what happened? Unfortunately, the narrators are not interested in anything other than their own teenage emotional drama, so they don’t even hint at the state of the society outside of their own circle of acquaintances. Meanwhile, they simply take it for granted that the people around them are routinely raped and murdered as a matter of course. The stories also decline to explore the nature and culture of the Bamboo, and there’s only a bare minimum of worldbuilding and trope exploration.

As frustrating as these limitations may be, I think they’re fair. The reader can only speculate about what happened to Japan in this fictional universe, but the Cultural Revolution was very real, and there’s no reason a fourteen-year-old who survived something like that would be able to understand the larger geopolitical currents that resulted in everyone around them being suddenly being dragged out into the street and killed. Perhaps it’s not so farfetched to think that something like this could happen in Japan – or that it could happen anywhere, for that matter.

What A Small Charred Face does – and what it does very well – is to allow the reader to share the experience of living on the absolute margins of society as an outsider. The vampires in these stories are a metaphor for difference, of course, but this metaphor is far from abstract. The Bamboo are openly in same-sex relationships, and they are openly immigrants, openly working awful night-shift jobs, and openly in economically precarious positions. Mustah is Brazilian, Yoji is Chinese, and Ruirui is a political refugee. Although these characters live in hand-to-mouth circumstances, none of them threatens Japanese society. On the contrary, they provide the love, hope, and comfort that Japanese society is not able to offer to its own children. Yes, the Bamboo are literal vampires who feed on the blood of humans, but the majority of them obtain the blood they need by working in healthcare-related industries, especially those that force people to work awful hours and don’t pay well. Given Japan’s aging population and the severity of its healthcare crisis, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I’m not generally a fan of young adult fiction, especially when it intersects the genre of supernatural romance, and I was not expecting to be as deeply moved by A Small Charred Face as I was. Sakuraba stages a trenchant social critique within the dystopian environment she has created for her vampires, but her characters are beautifully realized and full of heart. Their flaws are relatable, their kindness is believable, and their unhappy endings are a consequence of the profound injustices of our own world. If you believe in the transformative potential of young adult novels like The Hunger Games and Divergent, then I cannot recommend A Small Charred Face highly enough. And if you love monsters and see their difference as a reflection of your own, please rest assured that the gay romance in these stories is treated with sensitivity, as are feminist politics and gender fluidity.

Apparitions

Title: Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Daniel Huddleston
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2000 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 265

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo is a collection of nine supernatural stories set in the Edo period (1600-1868), a historical era of relative peace that preceded Japan’s modernization. The author, Miyabe Miyuki, is known outside of Japan for her fantasy and suspense novels, but she also writes historical fiction informed by her love of the city of Tokyo.

Apparitions is a difficult book to break into, especially for someone who doesn’t have a great deal of background knowledge about Japan. Although the six-page thematic introductory essay by Higashi Masao attempts to situate Miyabe’s historical fiction within the tradition of Western horror, each of the stories in this collection is thoroughly suffused with what might be termed Japanese cultural odor. While this is far from a bad thing, the jumble of geographic and personal names that Miyabe employs to add color to her stories won’t carry the same narrative weight for most readers of this translation as it would for someone more familiar with the cultural and historical context she references.

The opening story, “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū,” provides a good example of how these references work to create a sense of atmosphere – or, for many readers, may simply be strange and confusing. After the end of the Kyōhō era, in the fourth year of Bunka, a boy named Ginji is “sent off to work at a cotton wholesaler called the Daikoku’ya, in Tōri Setomono-chō” by an older man at the Mannen’ya, an employment agency “located in Ōdenma-chō Block 1” that places apprentices in the wholesale businesses “that dotted the way from Ōdenma-chō and the surrounding area on through Muromachi, Takara-chō, Suruga-chō, and Nihonbashitōri-chō” (18). Miyabe uses the names of these emperor reigns, businesses, and neighborhoods as a shorthand to create a sense of time and place. Unfortunately for those of us not already well versed in Edo Period historical fiction, this sort of highly specific allusion is largely unaccompanied by any sort of explanation. As a result, to someone who isn’t a specialist in the Edo Period, the stories in Apparitions can seem rather dry.

Even the broader cultural allusions that Miyabe uses to add flavor to her stories are only mentioned in passing without any sort of elaboration. To return to “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū,” the premise of the story is that the fourteen-year-old protagonist Ginji is employed by Tōichirō, the son of the prosperous cotton wholesale business Daikoku’ya, to run errands, some of which involve carrying messages to Tōichirō’s various ladyfriends. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Tōichirō wants his family’s business to start selling tea towels printed with monogatari moyō, or scenes from literary romances such as The Tale of Genji. His father tells him that this is a bad idea, as such items have come to be associated with real-world cases of shinjū, or double suicide, in which several pairs of lovers tied their hands together with these towels so that they would have a greater likelihood of drowning when they jumped into a river.

One thing leads to another, and when Tōichirō gets married he moves his mistress O-Haru to the neighborhood of Ōshima-mura, which “was on the other side of the Ōkawa River, on past Fukagawa” (34). On being sent to O-haru’s villa one afternoon, Ginji arrives to find it empty, and as he dozes off in the foyer he dreams that he sees the lifeless bodies of Tōichirō and O-haru deeper inside the house, their wrists bound with a monogatari moyō tea towel.

To anyone familiar with Japanese drama, “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū” is redolent of numerous other stories involving the ghosts of star-crossed lovers appearing in forgotten and out-of-the-way places. It’s precisely because Miyabe is confident in her reader’s familiarity with such ghost stories in the Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatrical traditions, however, that she doesn’t go out of her way to deepen the eerie atmosphere by means of other literary devices. Perhaps a Western equivalent of this might be naming a character Horatio and thereby expecting the reader to associate him with chilly Scandinavian sea winds and the sun setting early in the day without otherwise supplying the character with any personality traits. Unfortunately, Miybe’s allusions may pass entirely over the heads of unfamiliar readers.

Although two or three of the stories in Apparitions are strong enough to stand on their own, the book isn’t so much a collection of accounts of individual people and the ghosts they leave behind as it is a cumulatively growing narrative about the city of Edo itself. If the reader can tough out their initial sense of disorientation, however, the geography of the city and the character of its people gradually begin to take shape with each successive story.

That being said, the best stories need no contextualization. In my favorite story, “The Oni in the Autumn Rain,” an older woman offers sound and canny advice to a younger woman that transcends time and place. Moreover, the cleverness of the surprise ending to the story, in which it is revealed that the circumstances of this conversation were not what they seemed, needs no cultural background knowledge to be appreciated.

I use another of the stand-out stories in the collection, “Cage of Shadows,” as one of the readings in my upper-level “Tokyo Stories in Japanese Fiction” seminar. It serves as an excellent starting point for a discussion of Edo period fiction in that it evokes the themes and tone of popular stories from the eighteenth century while still employing conventions relating to psychologically astute characterization and linear plot progression that contemporary readers have come to take for granted. As an added bonus, the imagery of the story is deliciously grotesque, and the way it ends is downright creepy.

Overall, it’s difficult to recommend Apparitions to a casual thrill seeker; but, to a patient reader, allowing the stories enough time to build a gradual atmosphere of strangeness on the margins of human activity is akin to watching twilight deepen into darkness as an evening fog rises from the ground. Again, many readers may find themselves lost in the maze of foreign words and names, but if you’re interested in Japanese ghost stories and looking for a nice collection of original and historically grounded horror fiction with lovely Gothic undertones then Miyabe Miyuki has you covered.

Dendera

Title: Dendera
Japanese Title: デンデラ (Dendera)
Author: Satō Yūya (佐藤 友哉)
Translators: Nathan A. Collins and Edwin Hawkes
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 360

Dendera is not an easy book to read. Although the cover copy describes the story as being set in “a utopian community” of old women, this is no tale of feminist empowerment. Rather, every page practically bleeds with suffering and human misery, and the only salvation for any of the characters lies in death.

In the Village, there is a strictly enforced rule that everyone must Climb the Mountain when they reach the age of seventy. Men and women who reach this age are carried on the back of their oldest child, who leaves them in the wilderness so that they may ascend to Paradise. That time has come for Kayu Saitoh, and she is ready – all she wants is to lie down and rest. As the snow falls around her on the Mountain, she embraces the sensation of her body becoming cold, knowing that when she sleeps, she will not wake in this world.

Right before she passes out, however, Kayu Saitoh is rescued and taken to Dendera, a settlement formed on the Mountain by all the women who were abandoned by their families and left to die of exposure. Dendera is little more than a collection of flimsy huts, but the community of fifty women has supported itself for more than three decades. These women don’t want to die, and so they rescue each other, eking out a meager living from the harsh environment.

The leader of Dendera is a woman named Mei Mitsuya, who founded the settlement because, as she says herself, “I had no intention of dying.” Mei Mitsuya hates the Village, but simply staying alive is not revenge enough for her. Her ultimate goal is therefore to accumulate enough resources to attack and destroy the Village. This is easier said than done, however, as life is not easy on the Mountain, especially for a small group of older women. They barely have enough to eat, and it is only by monitoring the community’s food supply that Mei Mitsuya is able to maintain her control over the other women.

Kayu Saitoh, who is resents being robbed of the opportunity to die a “pure” death, feels no gratitude toward Mei Mitsuya or any feeling of investment in Dendera. This sense of detachment allows her to see the power dynamics of the community, especially the tension between the “hawks,” which is what Mei Mitsuya’s faction calls itself, and the minority group of “doves,” who seem to want nothing more than for the village to prosper. This conflict is subtle, however, as the main concern of the Dendera inhabitants is feeding themselves. After all, no one has much energy to spare for anything besides hunting, scavenging, and rudimentary farming, not to mention the care of those too senescent to care for themselves.

Unfortunately, the old women aren’t the only ones going hungry, as this particular winter has been especially fierce. A large bear who has established her territory on the Mountain is starving, as is her cub. She eventually becomes desperate enough at attack the human settlement, which throws the tiny society into complete disarray. As Kayu Saitoh watches everything fall apart around her, she begins to catch glimpses of Dendera’s dark secrets. The bear is a terrible enemy, but this creature is far from the most frightening threat besieging the community.

If you want to read about old women being evil to each other in a wilderness setting, Dendera is your book. I found myself fascinated by this story, especially when it became clear that there was a deeper mystery underlying the basic struggle for survival. I appreciate just how unapologetically mean and selfish each of the women is, and this darkness of characterization served to render their rare moments of kindness and cooperation shine all the brighter. I also enjoyed the interludes of narration from the bear’s perspective, which don’t attempt to attribute her with human characteristics but still engender a strong sense of sympathy for her own struggle to survive.

Although the story isn’t set in any particular time or place, it might be possible to read Dendera as an allegory for the precarity faced by a rising number of older people in Japan, especially in the context of the plethora of (relatively) recent news media stories about people who fall out of touch with their families and effectively “disappear” only to then be found in their houses or apartments weeks after they die. That being said, the story has a certain quality of timelessness that allows it to function as a study of human character that transcends any specific social or historical context. I could easily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys highbrow horror fiction, regardless of whether they know or care anything about Japan.

Dendera is gritty and compelling human drama. The story takes a number of interesting turns before moving in a surprising direction as it builds up to an ending that is magnificently transcendent. The unrelenting unpleasantness of its subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste; but, if your stomach is strong enough, Dendera is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

Asura Girl

Ashura Girl

Title: Asura Girl
Japanese Title: 阿修羅ガール (Ashura Gāru)
Author: Maijō Ōtarō (舞城 王太郎)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 214

Asura Girl is narrated by Aiko, a seventeen-year-old student who just so happens to be a total badass of the sort we all wish we could have been in high school. She does what she wants, doesn’t apologize for anything, and isn’t interested in your shit. Sure, she’s a little messed up in the head, but what teenager isn’t?

If Aiko’s life were nothing more than maintaining her self-respect while dealing with bullying and subpar sex, she’d be okay, but there’s a serial killer on the loose. When a boy disappears almost immediately after she left him in a love hotel, she takes steps to lure the murderer to her, because she is pissed off and ready to lay down the law. She is inspired by her enviable collection of DVDs of American movies, especially after she picks up on a parallel between the abduction of her single-serving boytoy and the abduction in The Big Lebowski.

That’s right, The Big Lebowski – a perennial favorite of seventeen-year-old girls everywhere.

Asura Girl was written by a thirty-year-old man, and it shows. Aiko is more or less a cross between Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, and a basement-dwelling neckbeard. It makes very little sense to try to understand her as anything other than a construct. There is no sensitive or nuanced portrayal of girlhood in this novel, but that’s okay. Sometimes you’re just looking for a hardcore metal portrayal of a manic pixie murder girl.

To give you a sense of what this means, this is how Aiko interacts with her crush:

Still, it did sound a little like he was more worried about Maki than me, so as he was taking off his shoes in the doorway I kicked him – my patented Aiko whip kick, a roundhouse to the upper body that I learned from my brother. My bare foot struck his arm – chiban! – and he bent double, letting out a little yelp. Humpf. Drop dead. No, on second thought that might cause trouble. (53)

The boy is okay with it, because of course he is. Aiko is less of a girl power icon than she is a fantasy girlfriend for the author, but her ridiculous character is a perfect for this novel’s ridiculous story.

The family of one of the serial killer’s victims set up a website asking for help, a plea that went nowhere fast but still managed to inspire a great deal of internet discussion and speculation that coalesced into a vigilante group calling itself “Voice of Heaven.” The Voice of Heaven has convinced itself that the serial killer is a middle school boy, and so its members begin to engage in “middling,” or ganging up on middle school kids and beating the shit out of them. A grisly confirmation of a new murder sparks widespread riots, in the midst of which Aiko receives an unlikely visitor.

A hundred pages into the novel, there’s a vertiginous narrative shift as Aiko undergoes a near-death experience, and her already unstable imagination goes completely off the rails.

I don’t want to spoil what happens here, but it is insane.

When Aiko returns from her epic vision quest ninety pages later, she has learned nothing. Regardless, she understands that she’s been given a new lease on life to make a fresh set of terrible decisions, and she fully intends to make those decisions as terrible as possible.

And then there’s this weird bit at the end about making a sacred Buddhist statue of the warrior-god Asura out of human corpses. Should the reader understand these human corpses as literal, or are they the cast-off shells of Aiko’s identity as she constantly reinvents herself yet always stays essentially the same? Why choose when you can have both??

I just, what is this novel, what is it even.

Asura Girl is not for everyone, and I can imagine wide swaths of readers being confused and offended by it. But! If your heart went a little doki-doki when your eyes passed over the words “The Big Lebowski,” and if you always thought Reservoir Dogs could have used more Japanese schoolgirls, then Asura Girl is probably for you.

You know who you are.

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!

The Lord of the Sands of Time

Title: The Lord of the Sands of Time
Japanese Title: 時砂の王 (Tokisuna no Ō)
Author: Ogawa Issui (小川一水)
Translator: Jim Hubbert
Publication Year: 2009 (United States); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 196

Sometimes you get to the end of a book and wonder what just happened.

The Lord of the Sands of Time was like that for me.

Allow me to spoil the ending:

The weakness of the aliens attacking the earth is salt water.

There is also time travel involved. Androids with highly advanced artificial intelligence are sent back in time to fight seemingly mindless mechanical extraterrestrials who for some reason are bent on wiping out the human race, and it takes the best among the androids several sweeps of human history to figure out that sea water kills the aliens.

I’ll be the first to admit that premise of the novel is kind of silly, but it’s still an engrossing tale of adventure across alternate histories.

The Lord of the Sands of Time is about Orville, an android who was created on Triton, one of the last outposts of human civilization in the year 2598. Orville is one of many Messengers, who were engineered with the purpose of going back in time and saving the humanity from destruction at the metallic tentacles of an alien force from beyond the solar system, which is collectively referred to as ET.

The novel begins in Japan in the year 248, a destination at which Orville has arrived after many timestreams of trial and error. With the cooperation of Himiko, the ruler of the Kingdom of Wa, Orville tries once again to rally the human race against the ET, but the situation is dire. The ET have already overwhelmed the Asian mainland, and many of Orville’s Messenger comrades have fallen over the course of their long journey. Even worse, the ET are also capable of time travel; and, unlike the Messengers, they have the capacity to attack from space.

Every alternate chapter tells a segment of Orville’s backstory. The Messengers first came to Earth in the twenty-second century, but humanity was too busy bickering with itself to launch an effective resistance against the ET. After failing to rescue humanity in that timestream, the Messengers try again, transporting themselves to the eve of the second World War. Once again, however, humanity is too busy bickering with itself to fight the ET. The Messengers thus try again, and again, and again, their numbers decreasing as the ET use their own version of time travel to thwart them.

Although it first appears that the humans of Himiko’s timestream will also fall victim to internecine warfare and thus prove incapable of marshaling a united front against the ET, Himiko is strong willed and politically savvy enough to keep the peoples of the Japanese archipelago from killing themselves long enough to realize the full extent of the threat the ET pose. Even though Orville lends Himiko his superhuman strength and knowledge of technological advances, the outcome of this timestream seems bleak as well, and the fight will be a close one.

For the first half of the novel, tension builds steadily as Himiko deals with political machinations and Orville comes into his own as a character. The descriptions of Japan in the late Yayoi period are just as fascinating as the descriptions of the doomed yet utopian society on Triton, and Himiko’s growth as a ruler is just as compelling as Orville’s blooming love affair with Sayaka, a human woman in the Triton Defense Force, as he learns about what he is trying to protect.

Unfortunately, things begin to fall apart in the last quarter of the novel. As the narrative rushes toward its conclusion, world building and character development are neglected in favor of battle scenes. In the midst of this fighting, Orville trips and falls into bed with Himiko. This is not quite as epic as it could be. In two short paragraphs, Orville tells Himiko about Sayaka, Himiko calls Orville by his first name, Orville cries, and Himiko hugs him. There’s a page break, and then the narrative is back to talk of fighting and armies.

“From that night on, Miyo [Himiko’s personal name] and Orville shared the same bed” is about the extent of the romance between them, but Himiko undergoes a startling personality shift after she begins sleeping with Orville. She becomes a background character in her own story and spends most of her time panicked and helpless. The following “newsflash,” which has been making the rounds on Tumblr recently, states:

If a strong, independent female character falls in love, it does not automatically mean that she has lost her values or that she’s become less strong and independent, and does not necessarily change her story into an anti-feminist one. The idea that all women should fall in love and get married IS sexist, but a woman actually falling in love and getting married of her own free will is NOT sexist. Thank you and good day.

Sometimes, however, a female protagonist will fall love with a male protagonist and suddenly cease to be a protagonist at all, and that’s what happens in The Lord of the Sands of Time. Himiko is barely even fully conscious throughout the final quarter of the novel, and Orville is too busy kicking ass and taking names off camera to have any real input in the story. With the two main characters out of the picture, the novel gears up for its big reveals – what the motive of the ET is, how time travel works and doesn’t work, how the ET will be defeated – but these big reveals are rushed don’t really make any sense. The weakness of the aliens is water, the power of love plays a role in this discovery, and the aliens don’t have any real motive for attacking the earth. The time travel mechanics are especially disappointing. To be fair, time travel never makes sense, but it’s as if the author got around all the problems implicit in time travel by simply pretending that they don’t exist.

The last sixty pages of The Lord of the Sands of Time thus pass by in a flurry of tropes and battle scenes that might have worked better if they were filmed instead of written. In the novel’s defense, though, the buildup to these last sixty pages is strong enough to carry the reader all the way to the end. Sure, the love story between Orville and Himiko/Miyo never goes anywhere, and sure, this flaccid non-relationship diverts the narrative focus away from the relationships between Orville and the other Messengers (which are infinitely more interesting), but the reader is still curious to see how it all ends (and don’t worry, I didn’t spoil everything).

The Lord of the Sands of Time is not high art or epic romance, but it’s a fun novel, especially if you have a soft spot for science fiction. Jim Hubbert’s translation doesn’t call attention to itself and allows Ogawa’s prose to flow quickly and seamlessly. (In fact, I’m so impressed by the eighties American sci-fi feel of Hubbert’s translation that I’ve already ordered a copy of his other translation for Haikasoru, Hayashi Jyōji’s The Ouroboros Wave.) As much as I make fun of science fiction tropes, I can’t get enough of them, and The Lord of the Sands of Time fully satisfied my holiday craving for a sci-fi novel of manageable length to chill out with over a relaxed weekend.