The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels in translation.

Fandom Glossary

Fandom Glossary

fandom
The fan culture that surrounds a particular franchise, fictional work, or fictional character. There is a huge fandom for the Final Fantasy series of video games; and, within that larger fandom, there is a sizable fandom focusing specifically on Final Fantasy VII; and, within the FFVII fandom, there is a relatively large fandom for Sephiroth, the game’s main antagonist. Losing interest in participating in a particular fandom, or at least losing track of the fannish works and conversations surrounding that fandom, is referred to as “quitting the fandom.” Actors and musicians may also generate their own fandoms; but, in this specific context of the term “fandom,” casual mainstream fans who do not follow or participate in internet-based subcultures should not be considered as belonging to the fandom.

pairing
Two characters in love, or at least having sex with each other.

OTP
One True Pairing. A pairing that a fan is really, really into. This pairing may be canonical, but canonical approval is not necessary. A fan can have multiple OTPs within a single work or fandom.

OT3
One True Threesome. This term is often used in reference to the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Avengers movies.

stanning
The act of obsessively promoting one’s fannish interests, usually in the form of attempting to persuade other fans of the appeal or validity of an OTP. This term has recently lost most of its pejorative connotations and can now simply mean sharing and promoting the work of another fan.

canon
The relationships that actually occur between the characters of a particular work. In the case of the Harry Potter novels, Harry ending up with Ginny, Ron ending up with Hermione, and James ending up with Lily are all canon. In a broader sense, “canon” refers to what is actually stated or what actually takes place within the original work, as opposed to what happens in fan works or according to fan speculation. Thus, according to canon, a certain character may have brown eyes and be thirty-seven years old, which may have no bearing on how this character is portrayed or interpreted by fans.

headcanon
What absolutely and indisputably happens in a particular work – at least in your own head. The epic and tragic love affair between Sirius Black and Remus Lupin is a fairly common headcanon for the Harry Potter franchise. Another common headcanon concerning the Harry Potter series is that Draco Malfoy is not a mean, weak-willed, and spiteful bully as he is characterized by canon, but rather a tortured soul and sensitive young man who is trying to do the right thing but not given the right resources and opportunities.

fan canon
Something that a fandom accepts as canonical, even if it is not canonical or not implied in the actual work itself. Also referred to as “fanon.”

Word of God
A label applied to information that an author or creator has provided about a fictional work outside of the context of the work itself (in an interview or on a personal blog, for example). Many fans use the so-called Word of God to argue for the authenticity of a headcanon or fan canon, but other fans argue that the Word of God cannot be accepted as true canon.

shipping
This word comes from “relationship” and refers to creating or being really into a certain pairing. This pairing doesn’t have to be canon, but the two characters may actually end up together before the series is finished. That being said, fans can ship just about any pairing, no matter how canonically improbable. There are many puns and idioms involving the expression, such as “I ship it like FedEx” and “this ship sails itself.”

slash ship
A pairing involving two male characters, neither of whom has to have a clearly identified gay identity in the original work. A homosexual pairing can also be “shipped,” but “slash” is a more specific word. Attractive male characters are often referred to as being “slashable.” Fan fiction that slashes characters is called “slash fiction,” or “slashfic” for short.

femslash
A pairing involving two female characters.

twincest
A type of slash ship. This term is frequently used to describe homoerotic relationships between brothers or foster brothers in anime and manga, but it has also been applied to Sam and Dean, the two protagonists of the American television show Supernatural. “Twincest” can also apply to sisters or foster sisters, but this is far less common.

selfcest
Shipping a character with a younger, older, or alternate universe version of him/herself.

het
Short for “heterosexual,” as in a heterosexual pairing. This term is generally used to label the work of a writer who usually authors slash fiction or to label work featuring a heterosexual pairing involving a character whom the fandom generally considers to be homosexual, the idea being that a het pairing is a deviation from the fandom’s assumption of homosexual pairings as a default. The expression “het” often appears in fandoms for original works in which the majority of important characters are male such as that for the BBC series Sherlock.

BNF
Big Name Fan. A fan fiction writer, fan artist, or other producer of fannish works who is especially well known within a particular fandom.

SMOF
Secret Masters Of Fandom. The SMOF cabal of a particular fandom controls who becomes a BNF within the fandom and who is ostracized or ignored completely. Although the expression is often used ironically in reference to the strange social patterns that may occur within internet subcultures, such groups of fans have existed in reality, either as community or discussion board moderators, cliques of BNFs, or organizers of fan conventions. Although this is far from common, it is not unheard of for the original creator of the text or franchise to act as a SMOF.

RP
Role Play. This is when someone creates an account on a fannish social networking site such as Dreamwidth or Tumblr specifically for the purpose of posting entries as a fictional character. Most of these journals don’t make it past a user icon and a profile page, but there are many communities dedicated to hosting group RPs.

RPS
Real Person Shipping (or Ship). This is a ship between two nonfictional people, generally actors or musicians. Occasionally historical figures are shipped as well. A good example of RPS is shipping Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom instead of or in addition to the characters they portray in the Lord of the Rings films, Aragorn and Legolas.

tinhatting
This expression is used to describe the behavior of fans who stridently insist that their headcanon exists in canon or in real life. Although the term can apply to fannish arguments concerning fictional universes, it is most often used to comment on the perceived creepiness of fans who believe that two real-world human beings (generally actors or musicians) are dating and must keep their relationship secret from their fans and the media.

OC
Original Character. This is an oft-reviled genre of fan fiction in which the writer inserts an original character into the universe of a well-established series. More often than not, this “original character” is meant to act as a stand-in for the author him or herself. In the realm of fan art, an OC is generally the artist’s own character that exists in the artist’s own universe separate from any fandom. It is common for fan artists to label work featuring their OCs as such so that this work is not mistaken as fan art.

Mary Sue
This is what a female OC is called if she is too obviously a self-insert device used to realize the desires of her creator. There is significant debate within fandoms concerning what constitutes such a character and whether such characters can be objectively considered as examples of bad writing. Characters from professionally published fiction, such as the characters Lessa and Menolly from Anne McCaffrey’s novels set in the Pern universe, are occasionally labeled as Mary Sues as well. There are multiple variations on Mary Sue tropes, such as the Einstein Sue (who is naturally smarter than the canonical characters) and the MacGuffin Sue (who is a personification of an object for which the canonical characters have been searching). A male Mary Sue is referred to as a “Marty Stu,” “Gary Sue,” or “Gary Stu.” The gender of the Sue in question need not indicate the gender of the author.

wank
This is how Americanocentric fan cultures refer to abrasive and ignorant comments and criticism, as well as fannish misbehavior. The term has also come to metonymically refer to the internet drama resulting from such comments and misbehavior.

kerfluffle
A specific instance or outbreak of wank.

mouse
A pun on “anonymous.” A mouse is someone who anonymously reports one fannish community’s wank to another fannish community for the purpose of amusement and edification. The term can also be used to describe a BNF or moderator who acts anonymously within a community to diffuse or encourage wank. A common variation is “mousie.”

fail
This is what happens when fan wank on a particular topic reaches critical mass. Although fail is usually generated by a controversial topic that attracts wank, the fail may also spring from the wank itself. If there is one post or comment that started the wank, this post or comment is often referred to as having “broken the internet.”

racefail
Sometimes people on fannish social media networks get into extended discussions of race in science fiction and fantasy. Since the participants in these discussions often come from different positions of cultural context, and since race is a tricky subject in any context, such discussions have an uncommonly high potential to result in fail.

author fail
When the wank in question is generated by a creator, usually in the context of condemning fannish work, actions, or behavior. Diana Gabaldon’s comparison of fan fiction to rape in a (now-deleted) 2010 entry on her personal blog is a particularly notorious example of author fail.

retcon
A portmanteau of the expression “retroactive continuity,” which is when a writer or creator retroactively changes aspects of a character, story, or universe that had previously been accepted as canon. As fandom often holds a strong attachment to canon, and as many fandom discussions center around the nature and specific details of canon, such retconning of canon, either officially or through an isolated Word of God, tends to generate amounts of wank directly proportionate to the size of the fandom.

Cry MOAR
A popular response to attempted wank used to draw attention to the wankish nature of the offending comment. For example: “The only reason why your artwork is so popular is because you only draw fan art, and you should quit so that people will pay more attention to real artists.” Response: “I’m sorry you’re not popular on the internet, why don’t you cry some MOAR.”

TL;DR
Too Long; Didn’t Read. This is how people preface a response to a body of writing (such as fan fiction or a blog entry) that they didn’t finish (or never started) reading. It’s also used self-referentially as a substitute for “in conclusion” by someone who has written a long post. The expression also tends to be used ironically.

badfic
Exactly what it sounds like: fan fiction that is atrociously written.

sporking
A type of badfic critique, generally centering around the identification and mocking of Mary Sue characters.

bleeprin
A combination of bleach and aspirin used to cure the symptoms of having read badfic. The bleach gets rid of the terrible images, and the aspirin gets rid of the headache.

PWP
An acronym for “Plot? What plot?” that describes a fannish work in which two characters essentially walk into a room and start having sex or are otherwise depicted as engaging in sexual activity without any context. Another attribution of the acronym is “Porn Without Plot.” This label is generally applied by the author or artist him/herself.

TWT
An acronym for “Timeline? What Timeline?” occasionally applied to fan fiction in which a writer completely ignores the cause and effect relationship between the events in the original work, contracts or expands the original timeline, or positions certain fan-created events in a moment of the original timeline in which they could not have conceivably occurred. Like the expression PWP, this label is often self-applied.

AU
Alternate Universe. This label, which is commonly used as an adjective, is applied to fannish works in which pre-established characters are recast into a universe substantially different from the setting of the original work. An example might be placing the characters from the Twilight franchise into Hogwarts. Although fannish writers and artists are encouraged to label their AU work as such, many fans look down on AU fiction in particular and will even refer to certain canon-based works as AU, which is meant to be an insult indicating the author’s inability to accurately convey the basic worldview and personalities of the characters as they are depicted in the original work. Changing one or several major canonical details is not considered AU, nor is using a different narrative tone than that of the original work. Despite the continuing prejudice against this genre, many AU works have become quite popular within their fandoms.

OOC
Out Of Character. A pejorative expression intended as a critique of characters as they are portrayed in fan fiction, especially in the case of AU works. Fans may also refer to a certain pairing as OOC, especially if this pairing conflicts with their OTP.

weeaboo
Someone who is so into Japanese popular culture that s/he tries to act as if s/he is Japanese. Unlike the expression “otaku,” which tends to be a badge of honor among Western fans of Japanese popular culture, the term “weeaboo” is extremely pejorative, often conjuring up images of embarrassing instances of cultural appropriation, such as young Americans asking their friends to call them by their “true” Japanese names. Although it is debatable whether such people actually exist in the real world, fans who transpose characterizations, narrative tropes, and visual styles common to anime, manga, and video games onto fandoms that have nothing to do with Japan (such as those surrounding The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter) run the risk of being ridiculed as weeaboos.

beta reader
A friend, internet acquaintance, or randomly assigned stranger who offers suggestions on a partially or fully completed work of fan fiction before it is publicly posted. A good beta reader can turn water into wine, and many beta readers act more as collaborators than as copy editors.

Yuletide
An exchange of fan works that occurs annually in December. In these Yuletide exchanges, participating fans act as Secret Santas to fill the requests of other participating fans, but the rules can vary widely according to the fandom or online community. Larger Yuletide communities generally specify that only requests for smaller fandoms or less appreciated pairings will be accepted so that people with relatively obscure interests that are generally ignored can feel the fannish love and support of a large fandom community.

Pokémon as Japanese Literature

Even though plenty of scholars have written essays about the Pokémon franchise, almost no one seems to take it seriously as literature. Despite this academic trend, I think the Pokémon video games can and should be read as Japanese literature, by which I mean that we should look carefully at their content and worldview as they are transmitted through gameplay and in-game text. I believe that, if we can look deeper than the transnational economic implications of the games and the “gotta catch ‘em all” ideology used to market them, it’s clear that they deal with some interesting issues. Here are three of these issues:

(1) Human society must constantly negotiate its paradoxical relationship with the natural world.

The theme of pokémon acting as symbolic stand-ins for natural resources has always been present in the video games, but it has become more clearly defined with each successive generation. Each of the games is set in a region loosely based on an area of Japan (or, in the case of the most recent generation, New York City and its suburbs), and each of these regions spreads out around a central urban area. Pokémon (usually) cannot be found in cities or towns, however, but must be sought out in the green spaces of each region – the fields, the caves, the mountains, the rivers, and the seas. Although some pokémon are similar to domestic animals, the majority are closely linked to nature. Some even have control over natural forces such the tides, the winds, and volcanic eruptions. In other words, pokémon are not creatures that are somehow separate from nature, such as dogs or cows (or digimon), but they in fact are nature.

While some pokémon are regarded as companions (nakama), there is a running discourse throughout the games that wild and semi-wild pokémon must be protected (mamoru or hogen suru). The villains of the games are criminal or terrorist organizations that selfishly and inhumanely employ pokémon for their own purposes. For example, Team Rocket, an organization present in first generation of games, sells pokémon for money as if the creatures were no more than consumer goods. This behavior is very clearly marked as evil, and its negative consequences are visibly demonstrated. The most recent generation, Pokémon Black/White, features villains who attempt to manipulate people by shaking the very foundations of their relationship with the world, telling them to release their pokémon from bondage, thereby allowing them return to nature. Your player-protagonist, however, restores balance by demonstrating that human beings and pokémon are meant to live together in harmony. Thus, exploiting nature is obviously bad, but living in a world separated from nature is also undesirable.

The primary goal of the player-protagonist is to travel the world and collect pokémon in order to complete his or her pokédex (pokemon zukan). If pokémon represent the natural world, such a project implies that human beings can break up this world into bite-sized chunks, consume it, and thus know it completely. Such arrogance is troubling. Also troubling are the pokémon battles that trainers use to develop the abilities of their pokémon, who are otherwise stored safely away in small capsules called pokéballs. It is difficult to read these two central aspects of gameplay as a positive analogy of the human relationship with the natural world. I would argue, however, that copious amounts of text in all of the generations of the games establishes pokémon battles as mutually beneficial to both the pokémon and their trainers, who are repeatedly reminded not to take their pokémon for granted and instead to respect and value them (taisetsu ni suru). Moreover, despite the grubbingly acquisitive nature of the task of pokédex completion, the text within the game justifies this project by positing that the better we understand pokémon, the better we will be able to share the world with them. According to the central ideology underlying the games, then, “catching ‘em all” is a scientific project designed to inspire curiosity towards and appreciation of the natural world.

The relationship between human beings and pokémon is presented as mutually beneficial, although humanity must constantly check its excesses in an effort to ensure that pokémon are protected and treated in a humane and respectful manner. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that the worlds of the Pokémon video games are filled with grass, trees, and flowers. Boats, trains, and bicycles help people get from one place to another, but cars and airplanes are notably absent. Pokémon Diamond/Pearl even features an electric power plant run entirely by wind power, whose giant white windmill turbines exhibit one of the most beautiful and striking uses of the Nintendo DS console’s graphic capabilities. A world that respects its pokémon, then, is a world of lush greenery that can still accommodate all the conveniences of modern technology and an urban lifestyle.

(2) A “gender-free” society is not as far-fetched as we might think.

As soon as a player begins any one of the Pokémon video games, she must create her player-protagonist. Even before she can name this character, however, she is asked a simple question in one of the series’s most iconic lines of text: “Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?”

The player’s answer to this question has almost no ramifications on gameplay. The boy protagonist is equipped with a backpack, while the girl protagonist is equipped with a messenger bag. The boy protagonist wears a beret, while the girl protagonist wears a beanie. The boy protagonist gets a blue cell phone, while the girl protagonist gets a red cell phone. The boy protagonist wears cargo pants, while the girl protagonist wears cutoff shorts.

Aside from these minor differences in in-game graphics, the gameplay experience is exactly the same for a male protagonist and a female protagonist. The male protagonist has a competitive rivalry with a childhood friend, and so does the female protagonist. The female protagonist has a close relationship with her mother, and so does the male protagonist. The male protagonist can ride around on his bicycle at all hours of the night, and so can the female protagonist. The female protagonist is bullied and treated condescendingly by the male villain, and so is the male protagonist. With very few exceptions (such as the chan or kun suffix used when other characters address the protagonist), there are no gender-dependent differences in the way the people in the games’ universe treat your character. Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence to support the claim that the stories are written for a male protagonist, with a female protagonist being tacked on as an option with no other purpose than to give the game more color and variety.

Besides the protagonist, his or her rival, and the main villains of the story, the characters with the most distinct personalities and graphic designs are the eight gym leaders whom your character must battle in order to advance in each game. After your protagonist has defeated the eight gym leaders, s/he becomes qualified to battle the “Elite Four” (shitennō), who serve as gatekeepers to each game’s most challenging opponent, the regional Pokémon Champion. The gym leaders, the Elite Four, and the Champion all have distinct personalities and character designs. In the first generation of the games, the personalities and designs of these characters tended to fall along gender stereotypes. The gym leaders specializing in defense-oriented water and grass pokémon were female, and the gym leaders specializing in attack-oriented rock and electric pokémon were male. As the series has progressed, however, the gender stereotypes that characterized the gym leaders and the Elite Four have gradually faded away. A gym leader specializing in dragon pokémon and regional history can be female, and a gym leader specializing in insect pokémon and art exhibitions can be male. The regional Pokémon Champion can be female, along with the Pokémon Professor who initially gives your protagonist his or her pokédex.

The gender of each of the game’s characters therefore has very little bearing on that character’s interests, talents, or personality. In fact, the gender of these characters often seems little more than window dressing. The various generic trainers whom your character encounters come in male and female varieties, and there is almost no gendered difference in their choice of pokémon, fighting ability, clothing, or dialog text. (There are a few exceptions, such as the gender-specific trainer categories of yama otoko and otona no onēsan, but these exceptions are relatively minor.) In the pokémon universe, then, it seems that there is no social, political, or cultural discrimination between genders. You can choose to be a boy, or you can choose to be a girl. Outside of your own personal choice, the games are almost entirely gender free. This is part of what makes them fun.

(3) There are as many versions of a text as there are readers who engage with the text.

Just as a player is free to choose the gender of her player-protagonist, she is also free to choose her path through each of the games. The narrative progression of the pokémon games is more or less linear – defeat the eight gym leaders and then battle the Elite Four to become a Pokémon Master (dendō iri) – but the player can follow or deviate from this linear structure as she chooses. The opening chapters of each game shuffle your character from one gym battle to the next; but, around the halfway point of each of the games, the player is given significantly more freedom to set off on her own and explore the world around her.

The game opens up to the player in two ways: through the acquisition of skills and through optional side quests. As your character wins gym battles, s/he gradually becomes able to train pokémon to remove obstacles such as large rocks and impassable underbrush. An astute player can remember the locations of these obstacles and return later in order to investigate what lies beyond. The ability to move across the surface of water also opens expansive areas that the player may choose to either explore or ignore entirely. Along with the ability to access more of the in-game world, the player is also offered the option of visiting out-of-the-way areas such as ancient ruins, wrecked ships, steel welding plants, mountain valleys, and underwater caves. Although visiting such areas will yield tangible benefits to gameplay, such as useful items and an opportunity to test one’s pokémon against a wider variety of trainers, it is absolutely not necessary to the game’s plot or progression that the player do so. Instead, the thrill of discovery and the adventure of venturing into the unknown drive the player to complete tasks that have nothing to do with defeating the bad guys and challenging the Elite Four.

It stands to reason, then, that every player will follow a different path through the games. It is also possible that different players will encounter different variations on each game’s story. These stories are told mainly through choreographed cut scenes over which the player has no control, and the player is not able to affect the outcome of the game in any way. Supporting this main story, however, are dozens of smaller stories that are fleshed out through the player’s interaction with the various NPCs (non-player characters) that inhabit the world alongside the player-protagonist. Each city and town that the player visits, for example, is populated by people willing to talk to the player-protagonist and even invite him or her into their houses and apartments. The player can choose to seek these people out and engage them, or she may simply ignore them and continue to advance the game’s plot without being bothered by such details. Likewise, the player may enjoy visiting the maritime museum and learning about sea currents and ship buoyancy in Poké Ruby/Sapphire or visiting the library in Pokémon Diamond/Pearl and reading short stories based on creation myths from the Hokkaido region, but she has no reason or motivation to do so besides her own curiosity. As a result of this type of open-ended gameplay, each player’s experience will be uniquely her own.

In other words, each of the games in the Pokémon franchise is an open text from which the player can gather bits of information according to her interests and desires. It could also be argued that the minimal characterization of the blank-slate protagonists also allows the player a significant degree of freedom of interpretation, as well as an augmented ability to insert herself in the world of the game. The Pokémon games are not true “sandbox” (complete open world exploration) games, however, but are driven by a fairly linear narrative of personal advancement and good triumphing over evil. In this way, I think, they are able to serve as experimental models of the way people read literature: not as slaves chained to the words on the page and the intentions of the author, but rather as empowered agents capable of making their own choices regarding interpretation, character identification, emotional investment, and non-linear progress through the story.

I believe that the Pokémon games thus serve as an excellent analogy for the ways in which we consume, digest, and reproduce narratives. A large part of the appeal of these games, which are bought and played by many people much older than their intended demographic, is the combination of a compelling story and a rich and detailed world in which to play. Numerous studies on fandom from both sides of the Pacific suggest the same thing: It’s not just the story that draws in readers, but also the setting, which has the power to generate even more stories. The appeal of the Pokémon franchise is the appeal of something like the Harry Potter franchise; and, the more we understand how such narratives work, the more we will understand the process of reading, interpreting, and communicating the stories that shape our lives.

*****

In conclusion, I think the Pokémon games are a pretty big deal. I also think video games in general are a pretty big deal. The past five years have witnessed an influx of groundbreaking academic studies on titles like Halo and Everquest, but scholars involved in Japan Studies seem to be stuck on treating Japanese video games as an economic and anthropological phenomenon. These new media narratives are so fascinating and complex, however, that it’s a shame not to treat them as literature as well. I have high hopes for the rising generation of scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the academic articles on Japanese video games that are already starting to emerge.

Some of the most interesting academic work done on Pokémon in English can be found in Anne Allison’s anthropological study Millennial Monsters, which also covers topics like Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers franchise. Pikachu’s Global Adventure collects eleven essays on the Pokémon franchise written from various perspectives, such as marketing and early childhood psychological development.

One of my favorite essays on the Pokémon games as literary narratives is Yagi Chieko’s “Monogatari wa kawarieru ka: Seichō monogatari toshite no Pokemon o yomu,” which can be found in the 2006 issue of the journal Joseigaku Nenpō.

The April 2009 issue of the journal Eureka, RPG no bōken, is all about video games, and it contains an interesting essay by Shina Hidekuni titled “Pokemon to Monhan no yasei no shikō.” Shina is a fun writer, and he co-edits a journal called Game Maestro that I will definitely be checking out during my next research trip to Japan.

The Summer of the Ubume

Title: The Summer of the Ubume
Japanese Title: 姑獲鳥の夏 (Ubume no natsu)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極夏彦)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 320

Reading The Summer of the Ubume was like being in a trance. Honestly, it feels weird to not be reading the book right now, but I imagine that I’m going to be reading it again soon. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Which is not to say that Summer of the Ubume is in any way like the Harry Potter series, aside from its sheer literary addiction quotient. On the surface, the book presents a simple “sealed room” murder mystery. Underneath, however, is mystery upon mystery upon mystery. Running through these mysteries is a current of Japanese folklore, especially folklore concerning spirit possession. The “ubume” of the title is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and carries out her grudge against still-living mothers by stealing their infant children. This trope is connected to the household of a family that is just about as gothic as they come, with frail maidens and hereditary curses and hidden murders set on the stage of an almost abandoned hospital, which was designed by an insane architect and almost destroyed during the wartime firebombing of Tokyo.

The Summer of the Ubume is set in 1952 in the Nakano area, which used to be a residential district on the northwest periphery of Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from the prisons, insane asylums, and black markets of Ikebukuro. Its narrator is a man in his early thirties named Sekiguchi, a freelance writer who specializes in essays on supernatural incidents. Sekiguchi is friends with the brilliant yet antisocial proprietor of the Kyōgokudō used bookstore (which is the name his friends use to refer to him). Sekiguchi is the Watson to Kyōgokudō’s Holmes, and a great deal of the book is devoted to their conversations concerning metaphysical matters, which end up having a great deal to do with the mystery at hand.

In the course of his work (which borders on yellow journalism), Sekiguchi has stumbled upon a rumor of a woman who, having been mysteriously deserted by her husband, has been pregnant for eighteen months. After asking several magazine editors about the source of the rumor, Sekiguchi becomes more intrigued. Due to a strange series of coincidences, the writer has the opportunity to meet the woman’s family, which is deeply dysfunctional in every possible way. As Sekiguchi learns more about these people, it turns out that his ties to them are deeper than he initially suspected.

The first chapter of the novel is a forty-page discussion of the supernatural between Kyōgokudō and Sekiguchi. Each page is dense with ideas and metaphysical language (not to mention text – the book’s margins are practically nonexistent), and neither Sekiguchi nor Kyōgokudō is presented in a particularly sympathetic light – Sekiguchi comes off as rather dense while Kyōgokudō is supremely abrasive. If the reader can weather this initial chapter, however, he or she will be rewarded with a deliciously convoluted mystery populated by a genuinely fascinating cast of characters. The action of the story reaches its climax 230 pages into the novel, which leaves 90 pages for the explanation of the mystery. Although this may seem like poor pacing, the explication is well-plotted, engrossing, and bizarre, reaching its own climax at the end of the novel.

The Summer of Ubume is Kyōgoku’s debut novel, and at times it does feel unpolished. The momentum of the story more than makes up for any flaws in the narrative’s structure, however. The occasional clichés implicit in the mystery (such as the uncertainty that is inevitably created when there are two almost identical sisters in a fictional family) are balanced by the writer’s unique take on the gothic genre. The novel’s setting in 1950’s Tokyo is fully taken advantage of by Kyōgoku, who skillfully renders the city as a sinister gothic landscape.

Although, as I mentioned, there is a greater emphasis on talking heads in this novel than is strictly necessary, the characters and setting are superbly handled, and the mystery is just about as addictive as they come. I can only hope that more of Kyōgoku’s work is translated into English as soon as possible.

Dōjinshi (Part One)

In a short series of essays, I would like to discuss Japanese dōjinshi (hereafter unitalicized) based on the work of Japanese director Miyazaki Hayao. I would also like to examine the relationship between fan works and the concept of auteurship. First I will give a brief explanation of what dōjinshi are and the place they occupy in Japanese subculture. Second, I will provide examples of several dōjinshi based on Spirited Away (千と千尋の神隠し), Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城), and Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea (崖の上のポニョ). Finally, I will explore the hermeneutical relationship between these dōjinshi and the original texts on which they are based, as well as the relationship between auteurs and fan creators.

Dōjinshi (同人誌), a word that might be glossed as “fan works,” or “fan manga,” are self-published, small-scale publications written by fans and for fans of a particular work (be it a movie, a book, a television series, or a video game) or of a particular romantic pairing possible within that work. For example, there are many dōjinshi based on J.K. Rowling’s young adult fantasy series Harry Potter, and many of these Harry Potter dōjinshi focus on a specific romantic couple, such as that formed by Harry’s two friends Ron and Hermione. As in the realm of American fan fiction, many dōjinshi explore the possibility of an alternate outcome of the events in the story of the original work. This leads, for example, to dōjinshi dealing with the formation of a romantic relationship between Harry and Hermione, or perhaps between Harry and his male rival Draco. Unlike American fan fiction, however, the vast majority of Japanese dōjinshi employ both the form and the conventions of manga. In the rare case that fan fiction is published as a dōjinshi, it is often accompanied by illustrations that are either drawn by the writer or by an artist commissioned by the writer.

Since the production of manga is a labor-intensive process, most dōjinshi artists operate within what are called “circles” (サークル), or groups. Although there are a number of “individual (個人) circles” consisting of only one person, most circles are made up of two or more people. The division of labor takes different forms within different circles. In some cases, the work of two or more artists operating separately from each other will appear in the same publication, while in some cases, secondary artists will help the primary artist with things like background detail and the application of screen tone. In many other cases, different teams of artists will publish different dōjinshi under the same circle name. In any case, a dōjinshi is just as likely to be attributed to a circle as it is to be attributed to a specific artist. On the back cover of this dōjinshi, we can see both the circle name and the names of the two artists who contributed to this particular work.

One of the main reasons why artists who create dōjinshi continue to operate within the circle system despite the prevalence of labor-saving digital artistic tools like Photoshop and individual-centered communication networks like deviantART is the continuing popularity of conventions like Comiket (コミケット), short for “comic market,” a three day event held biannually at Tokyo Big Sight. The first Comiket was held in 1975; and, since then, attendance at each event has risen from several thousand to several hundred thousand. Comiket is primarily an event for the purchase and selling of dōjinshi. Since there is a limited amount of space for dealers, many fledgling artists participate in events like Comiket as members of a circle, which gives them a greater chance of acquiring a dealer’s table. Although Comiket is the largest convention of its kind, numerous dōjinshi conventions occur throughout the year all over Japan. A notable example is the Comic City convention in Osaka.

Aside from these conventions, dōjinshi may be acquired year-round at chain stores specializing in used manga (such as Mandarake) and dōjinshi specialty stores, which tend to be located in major urban shopping districts, like Ikebukuro and Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Den Town in Osaka.

Dōjinshi specialty stores like K-Books tend to fall into two divisions, which reflect the preferences of the two main demographic groups of dōjinshi consumers. These two divisions are “meant for boys” (男性向け) and “meant for girls” (女性向け). Dōjinshi meant for boys are typically heavily pornographic in nature, and dōjinshi meant for girls generally focus on homosexual romantic relationships between male characters. This genre of dōjinshi (and, increasingly, mass market manga) is known as “B.L.,” which is an acronym for “boys’ love.” The line dividing “meant for boys” and “meant for girls” is not sharply drawn, however, are there does exist a large category of general audience dōjinshi that does not expressly cater to the conventions of either category.

Part Two
Part Three

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.

Chain Mail: Addicted to You

chain-mail

Title: Chain Mail: Addicted to You
Japanese Title: チェーン・メール―ずっとあなたとつながっていたい
Author: Ishizaki Hiroshi (石崎洋司)
Translator: Richard Kim
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages:209

Okay, I’ll admit it: when I came back home from Japan this past summer, I got really into Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. I know that many people like to complain about how the books are poorly written, misogynistic, heterocentric, painfully conservative, blah, blah, blah (I’m surprised no one has ever called them “phallogocentric” – that’s my personal favorite). First of all, the Twilight books are not poorly written; anyone who’s actually seen “poorly written” can attest to that fact. Second, I like to turn my feminist switch off when I read sparkly teenage vampire romance novels.

In any case, the Twilight series alerted me to the existence of the American genre of young adult fiction in a way that Harry Potter never did. (I think this is partially because I wouldn’t be caught dead reading “young adult fiction” when I was actually a “young adult,” but kids were a lot cooler seven or eight years ago.) I went to my local Borders and started doing market research, finding that, indeed, young adult fiction is a thriving genre, even though the vast majority of it is absolute crap. Perhaps the only good thing about the sudden popularity of the genre is that manga publishers like Tokyopop have started translating and publishing Japanese light novels.

A light novel is the Japanese equivalent of young adult fiction. These short, middle-school reading level books read like the plot of a manga, are often illustrated by noted manga artists, and are generally serialized like manga. Many popular anime, such as Slayers (スレイヤーズ) and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (涼宮ハルヒの憂鬱) are adaptations of even more popular light novel series. Just as is the case with America, most light novels are absolute crap, and you will find a good selection of these less-than-stellar light novel series in Tokyopop’s catalog. Thankfully, the company has chosen to publish a few good light novels, even if they don’t have brand-name recognition.

One of my favorite offerings from Tokyopop is Ishizaki Hiroshi’s Chain Mail. Ishizaki has penned the text of several manga, most notably Miss Black Witch’s Halloween (黒魔女さんのハロウィーン), but he is also quite famous in Japan as an author of realistic fiction for young women. Although the plot of Chain Mail is somewhat far-fetched, this novel focuses on the development of its characters and their daily life as high school students in Tokyo.

What attracted me to this novel was its narrative structure. The narrative is divided between three narrators: Mai, Sawako, and Mayumi. These three girls, who may or may not know each other in real life, play a game in which they collaborate on a murder-mystery novel via posts made to an online message board on their cell phones (the internet is widely available on Japanese cell phones and has been for years). Thus, the narrative switches between the main story and the story that the girls are writing. Each girl is in charge of a certain character in the online story, and things get interesting when the events that happen to the characters in real life start to mirror the events they write into the story. There is never a hint of anything supernatural, but the blurred identities and real-life mysteries are quite uncanny.

Although only one of the three characters can be called sympathetic, I did feel a great deal of sympathy for each of them. Ishizaki doesn’t pull punches in his characterization and shows each of the three girls at her weakest moments. These three girls, who have been damaged by their families and the pressures forced on them at school, seek real friendship and connection through a cell phone game that had initially been created as a joke. Is the story pathetic? You bet. But it’s also touching and exciting, with lots of Nietzsche and Shibuya thrown in for good measure.

I would highly recommend Chain Mail to anyone interested in young adult literature, contemporary Japanese popular culture, or even Japanese literature in general. It’s a fascinating book, even if it doesn’t have pictures. Other fiction I would recommend from Tokyopop includes the Twelve Kingdoms series (by Ono Fuyumi), Kino’s Journey (by Sigsawa Keiichi) and anything written by Otsuichi, like Calling You or Goth. Tokyopop has recently taken down the “novels” section of its website, which makes me worry that the company doesn’t see a future for them, but I will go ahead and provide a link to their light novel catalog:

Tokyopop Catalog