Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crest of the Stars

Title: Crest of the Stars: Princess of the Empire
Japanese Title: 星界の紋章:帝国の王女 (Seikai no monshō: Teikoku no ōjo)
Author: Morioka Hiroyuki (森岡浩之)
Translator: Sue Shambaugh
Publication Year: 1996 (Japan); 2006 (America)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 212

I am a great lover of books, and I spend a great deal of my time reading. I genuinely enjoy almost everything I read, no matter what the genre, and rarely do I dismiss something as absolutely not worth reading. It is very easy for me to explain why I like a particular book, or what is valuable about a particular work, but I think that sometimes it’s important to also discuss what is mediocre, and what can be done better.

Morioka Hiroyuki’s Crest of the Stars series was recently held up to me as a paragon of Japanese science fiction. I wasn’t impressed with the translation of the first book in the series, Princess of the Empire, when it was released in the fall of 2006, but I decided to try it again. The series is massively popular in Japan, and it has quite a dedicated fan base in America as well. I have heard it described as a masterpiece of Tolkienesque proportions in several reviews; and, in my mind, there is no higher praise. Perhaps I had misjudged it four years ago.

Unfortunately, upon re-reading the book, that turned out not to be the case. Princess of the Empire starts off with a wonderful prologue, which briefly introduces the main character of the series in an interesting and beautifully described setting before launching into a short but fascinating account of the space journeys that led to the present moment. This history is then interrupted by action! intrigue! betrayal! and emotion! Unfortunately, this prologue is only sixteen pages long. What follows is 161 pages of utter garbage.

The teenage hero of the series, Jinto, arrives at a spaceport, where he is met by a beautiful blue-haired space elf named Lafiel. Lafiel takes Jinto to a space elf ship which will transport him to the space elf academy (Jinto, although genetically human, is politically an honorary space elf). The ship is attacked by a human group that seeks to oppose the space elf empire, and only Jinto and Lafiel escape. The ship is destroyed, and the unlikely pair (well, actually, very likely, considering that there are no other characters) is stranded on a small backwards planet. The end. Oh, and if you guessed that Lafiel is the princess of the space elf empire, you win a cookie.

You might be thinking, well, if Morioka spins 161 pages out of relatively nothing, then he must be a fairly talented writer with an eye for detail and a talent for dialog. Wrong. The Crest of the Stars series is known for its world building, and what Morioka has given us is 161 pages of almost unmitigated world building. The space elves are called Abh, they have a space empire, they have strange breeding practices, and they are genetically engineered to be beautiful, blue-haired, and psychic. That’s right, they are psychic space elves – which would perhaps be forgivable if there were more to them. Unfortunately, Morioka’s world building reads like a world history textbook written for fourth graders. Even when delivered in speech, the tone of this information is uniformly dry, essentialist, and uninteresting. Population statistics and general government details are provided, but nothing is said about culture, religion, art, lifestyles, political factions, diversity, philosophy, attitudes towards technology – or anything that the reader might actually care about. The clunky constructed language that annoyingly pervades the text is substituted for any real imagination. The almost complete lack of any visual imagery makes the book seem almost sterile, which I don’t think is a deliberate choice on the part of the author, whose writing is incessantly puerile:

Sure, Jinto had experience interacting with girls – he’d made a point on Delktou, in his own way. However, older women were still a complete mystery to him – especially gorgeous older women who were commanders of interstellar battleships. He couldn’t get his heart to stop racing.

In other words, instead of building a fictional world gradually while pulling his readers deeper into said world through plot thickening and character development, making them increasingly curious about the universe in which the characters live as they become increasingly attached to the characters themselves, Morioka completely forgoes plot and character development in order to construct his setting, which quite frankly feels like a cliché mix of Star Wars empire-and-princess driven space opera and Star Trek alien-culture-of-the-week episodic exploration adventure. The fact that the Abh are long-lived, pointy-eared, and dismissive of humans does not make Crest of the Stars Tolkienesque, unfortunately. In his postscript, Morioka states that he hopes “to make shameless sci-fi fans groan.” I’m pretty sure “groan” is the operative word here, since even Troy Denning’s novels set in the Star Wars universe are better written. Alas.

Princess of the Empire is everything I hate about the genre of young adult fiction, which tends to presume that its readers can’t handle complex plots, three-dimensional characters, figurative language, or middle school vocabulary. It could be argued that Japanese light novels are an entirely separate medium than young adult fiction; but still, there are infinitely better light novels out there. One of my personal favorites is Ono Fuyumi’s The Twelve Kingdoms series. A translation of the fourth installment, Skies of Dawn, was recently released a week or two ago, and I am happy to report that the series is only getting better with each successive book.

If it’s Japanese science fiction you’re looking for, then popular mainstream writers from Abe Kōbō to Ōe Kenzaburō to Miyabe Miyuki have successfully tried their hands at hard science fiction at one point or another. If you’re looking for the epic adventure and unparallel world building of Frank Herbert (or China Miéville), then check out Murakami Haruki’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which benefits from one of the most artistic and creative translations I have ever read. If you’re more in the mood for the intellectual short fiction of someone like Ray Bradbury (or Tim Pratt), then check out Tsutsui Yasutaka’s collection The Salmonella Beings from Planet Porno. If you’re in the market for lighter fare, I have been especially impressed by several of the translations I have read from an upcoming press called Haikasoru, which is an arm of Viz Media, an established publisher of manga intended for a slightly more mature audience than that targeted by Tokyopop.

In any case, to return to Princess of the Empire, it’s a morass of weak writing and tired stereotypes. Perhaps the Crest of the Stars series deepens in the second and third books, which are also available from Tokyopop, but I would rather spend my time reading all the cool new stuff that seems to be coming out almost every month. For those who want to know what all the fuss is about but don’t have the stomach to brave the light novels, there is always the Crest of the Stars manga trilogy (also published by Tokyopop). The manga are just as mediocre as the books – but at least the female characters provide the service of bending over to reveal themselves every few pages. Which, I suppose, is always a welcome distraction from heavy-handed world building and the overuse of a constructed language.

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