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.

xxxHOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC

xxxHOLiC

Title: xxxHOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC: Landolt-Ring Aerosol
Japanese Title: xxxHOLiC アナザーホリック ランドルト環エアロゾル
Author: NISIOISIN (西尾維新)
Translator: Andrew Cunningham
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Pages: 203

Given my fondness for the supernatural genre, it is no surprise that I love CLAMP’s manga xxxHOLiC. It took me awhile to pick up the first volume, however, because the concept seemed so cliché and gimmicky: an excitable high school boy who can see spirits works at the shop of a witch who promises to eventually cure him in a story featuring numerous plot crossovers from the simultaneously running epic manga (I believe there are currently twenty-seven volumes of it) Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles. I was tempted, however, by the Japanese tankobon, which Kodansha has published in beautiful editions, and ended up becoming addicted to the series. Not only is the artwork gorgeous in the style of early twentieth century Japanese lithographs (or Edward Gorey drawings), but the manga is dark and engaging in a deliciously creepy way. Besides, I am in love with Yūko, the hedonistic yet wise ‘Dimensional Witch’ who employs Watanuki, the hapless protagonist.

I had known about NISIOISIN’s novelization of xxxHOLiC for some time, but, unimpressed by his work in the two translated volumes of the short fiction anthology Faust, I never bothered to pick it up (ditto with his novelization of Death Note). Upon accidentally running across the book in a local bookstore, however, I was seduced by the beautiful gold-foil embossed cover and the chapter heading illustrations provided by CLAMP. Perhaps I should give it a chance, just like I did the original manga. Perhaps there is more to NISIOISIN than meets the eye.

Nope. Wrong. In short, this is a waste of a hardcover book. All of the subtle black humor and eeriness of the original manga turns to dust in the hands of the novelist. To back up a bit, it is perhaps a stretch to call ANOTHERHOLiC a novelization. The book is made up of three episodic short stories featuring the characters from xxxHOLiC. The first story, “Outerholic,” is a prose adaptation of an episode in the first volume of the manga and thus retains a modicum of the charm of the original. The second two stories are, as far as I can tell, NISIOISIN’s original creations. And they suffer for it.

Why do I hate NISIOISIN so much? Because I think he hates me, his reader. In all sincerity, what he has written is so full of bitterness that it left me feeling defensive. I’m not the sort of person who feels the need to evaluate whether NISIOISIN was true to the original characters, but I definitely got the feeling that he does not like them. Watanuki comes off as juvenile and whiny, Yūko is petty and self-important, and the writer even extends harsh editorial judgment towards his own original characters. If the writer’s unrelenting antagonistic attitude were not enough to turn me off to this book, I’m sure the sloppy writing would have pushed me over the edge. NISIOISIN’s prose is rife with sentence fragments and ellipses, which might have some sort of dramatic effect if they didn’t appear multiple times on every page. On a broader scale, NISIOISIN relies not on foreshadowing, atmosphere, or suggestion to create a sense of mystery but rather on withholding information from the reader in a taunting way that almost resembles bullying. The last story forgoes any plot at all in favor of a long and tediously sophomoric pseudo-philosophical conversation. Moreover, things like the frequent otaku references to anime like Azumanga Daioh, combined with Yūko’s debate with Watanuki over the meaning of moe, left my head spinning.

According to the author biography in the back of the book, NISIOISIN was born in 1981, which would make him 27 or 28 this year. Although his accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at, ANOTHERHOLiC made me feel like he really needs to get a life and grow up. When I first started reading this book, I was considering buying the translation of the first volume of the author’s Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, but now I’m not sure I want to read anything written by him ever again. In any case, despite Del Rey’s lovely publishing job, ANOTHERHOLiC is not worth the money, even for fans of CLAMP’s original manga.

I should mention, however, that I don’t think the failure of this book is the fault of the translator, Andrew Cunningham. Cunningham does a wonderful job of rendering NISIOISIN’s numerous idiotic puns into English, and in fact the most enjoyable part of the whole thing were the translator’s footnotes. I can only hope that Cunningham will apply his considerable talent to other authors in the future.

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

Twinkle Twinkle

twinkle-twinkle

Title: Twinkle Twinkle
Japanese Title: きらきらひかる
Author: Ekuni Kaori (江国香織)
Translator: Emi Shimokawa
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Pages: 171

About thirty pages into Twinkle Twinkle, I thought to myself, “Are all contemporary Japanese books written by women this depressing?” It’s an interesting literary trend. In America, writers like Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, 2005) and Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, 2004) craft literary paeans to female sisterhood, hope, and endurance, while contemporary Japanese female authors seem to be losing the struggle to gaman, or to deal with the hardships presented to them by Japanese society until they are able to claim some immaterial reward in the far-off future. In short, the new breed of Japanese women writers seems to be cracking under the strain of contemporary Japanese society, which has been slow to acknowledge new gender roles, even as the economic structures that have supported these gender roles have crumbled. Ekuni Kaori’s novel Twinkle Twinkle perspicuously demonstrates the effects of this societal paradox.

Twinkle Twinkle follows the fortunes of the newlywed couple Shoko and Mutsuki. Mutsuki is gay and quite in love with his boyfriend. Shoko is highly emotionally unstable and is quite open about the fact that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with anyone. Although the pair lives together, and although they are quite affectionate towards one another, their marriage is nothing more than a legal convenience. In fact, the only reason they agreed to marry in the first place was to escape from the pressure imposed upon them by their parents. Through the first months of their married life, Shoko and Mutsuki make friends and lose friends, battle their respective families, and learn how to live with one another in the strange situation they’ve created.

Because Shoko and Mutsuki take turns narrating the chapters, the reader is able to gain a very interesting perspective into their relationship and their individual personalities. I found myself becoming frustrated with the characters and sympathizing with them in turn. Mutsuki is kind, but passive and somewhat clueless. Shoko displays the classic symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which occasionally devolves into depression and alcoholism, but she is honest, true to her herself, and genuinely means well in her interactions with others. Both of the two main characters, as well as the cast of supporting characters, are expertly realized, and I felt that I came to know them quite well over the course of the novel, as if perhaps they were friends of mine in real life.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, the characters occasionally have fun and enjoy each other’s company, but the challenges they face are quite real, extremely frustrating, and never entirely resolved. Although the novel has something of a happy ending, I found myself fearing for the fate Shoko and Mutsuki several years down the road. Also, I found it hard to accept Shoko’s extreme behavior at times, and the all too accurate portray of her emotional instability was difficult to deal with. The hardheadedness of her traditional Japanese parents was even worse.

Overall, though, I think Twinkle Twinkle provides a welcome antidote to the bubblegum fluff of shōjo manga, “light novels,” and the works of novelists like Yoshimoto Banana. Don’t let the bright cover of this book fool you – Ekuni’s novel contains more insight into the dark side of contemporary Japanese society than you may find comfortable.