Apparitions

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

Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo is a collection of nine supernatural stories set in the Edo period (1603-1868), a historical era of relative peace that preceded Japan’s modernization. The author, Miyuki Miyabe, is known outside of Japan for her fantasy and suspense novels, but she also writes historical fiction informed by her love of the city of Tokyo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970” section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. […] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

Ico: Castle in the Mist

Title: Ico: Castle in the Mist
Japanese Title: イコ:霧の城 (Iko: Kiri no shiro)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 400

When people complain about sexism in video games, they’re not complaining just to start a fight or to prove that they’re on the right side of the social justice movement. The sexism in many games is not only unnecessary but also detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game. For example, when I played the original Tomb Raider game for the Playstation, I remember being frustrated at Lara’s inability to navigate certain terrain and thinking this wouldn’t be a problem if she were wearing pants. A better example might be Metroid: Other M, in which your female player-character (a veteran soldier who has already saved the world multiple times) can’t use even the most insignificant of her abilities until given permission to do so by her male commanding officer in a gameplay paradigm that has to be one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. This sort of sexism is dangerous precisely because it is so frustrating. Instead of hating the (male) developers who imposed such ridiculous limitations on the female protagonist, the player’s frustration at these limitations instead causes him to hate the female protagonist herself.

It is for this reason that I despise Ico: Castle in the Mist, a short puzzle platformer released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 that was received with almost universal acclaim. In this game, you are Ico, a boy with mysterious horns who is mysteriously dumped in a mysterious castle in which he mysteriously encounters a mysterious young woman named Yorda. As Ico, your job is to find your way out of the castle while simultaneously rescuing Yorda. Considering that Yorda (a) has lived in the castle for a very long time and (b) is magic, this shouldn’t be too difficult of a feat. Unfortunately, Yorda also (c) either can’t or won’t communicate with Ico and (d) is almost entirely passive. Ico quite literally must lug Yorda around like an inarticulate sack of meat, and the main challenge of the game is not for Ico to navigate his way through the castle but rather for Ico to bully and cajole Yorda over and around obstacles while she remains both vulnerable and inscrutable. If the player, as Ico, wanders off on his own for a moment, Yorda is besieged by shadow monsters that she will not attempt to ward off or escape in any way. Ico is a truly beautiful game that creates a hauntingly atmospheric experience through its graphics, music, and gameplay, but it is difficult to make it through the game’s roughly eight hour playtime without hurling obscenities at Yorda for being so useless. Sexism is thus built into the gameplay mechanics, and I remember thinking that Ico would have been a lot more fun if Yorda had actually done something instead of passively allowing herself to be rescued by a younger male hero.

When I heard that the novelization of Ico would be released in North America, I was really excited. I thought that Miyabe Miyuki, who writes about awesome female detectives and manages to create a strong yet believable female protagonist in The Book of Heroes, would be able to do something interesting with Yorda, or at least to make her more of a subject than an object. Thankfully, she succeeds – at least to an extent.

Like the game on which it’s based, Miyabe’s novelization is the story of Ico, a thirteen-year-old boy with horns who is exiled from his village and dumped at the Castle in the Mist by a group of soldiers. In the otherwise empty castle Ico finds Yorda, who is suspended in a hanging cage covered by thorns. Ico wakes Yorda and then extracts her from her cage, resolving to rescue her from her imprisonment in the castle. Yorda doesn’t speak Ico’s language and in any case doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with him, but her touch can open certain magical doors through which Ico needs to pass. Furthermore, Ico’s body is filled with light and energy whenever he holds Yorda’s hand, so he quickly develops an attachment to her.

As Ico and Yorda progress through the castle, Ico begins to see Yorda’s memories of her life before the castle was reduced to its current state. Through these memories, it becomes clear that Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, is the “daughter” of the Dark God. In ages past, Yorda’s mother used her power to keep outsiders away from her kingdom, mainly by turning them into stone. She also kept her own people within her country’s borders by means of an enchantment that kept their hearts and minds peaceful. Convinced that other nations coveted the beauty, wealth, and material prosperity of her kingdom, Yorda’s mother would hold a tournament every three years to bring the world’s mightiest warriors into her castle to compete for glory. The winner of these tournaments would teach the latest military technology to her soldiers – and then secretly be turned to stone. The tournament of Yorda’s sixteenth year brought a horned warrior, a servant of the Light God, to the tournament, and his interactions with Yorda led the kingdom to its current state of timeless abandonment. Ico’s job is thus to unravel the mysteries of the past in order to ascertain how to defeat the queen once and for all, after which he will presumably be able to escape with Yorda in tow.

Miyabe’s novel is divided into four parts. The first part details Ico’s life before he was taken to the castle and thereby provides information concerning the greater world in which the story takes place. The second part describes Ico’s adventures in the castle before Yorda begins communicating with him through her memories. The third part tells the history of the castle from Yorda’s perspective, and the fourth part follows Ico through his final confrontation with the evil queen. As Miyabe jokes in her introduction, her novelization isn’t meant to be a walkthrough for the game, and the first and third sections are almost entirely her own invention. Miyabe adds layers of depth to game’s characters and creates a handful of her own characters, who manage to be interesting and engaging despite only being onstage for small portions of the novel. Miyabe also renders the ending of the story slightly less ambiguous.

This is all well and good, but how does a puzzle platforming game translate into prose? Mainly, I suppose, in the way one might expect, though descriptive passages:

The thought put Ico at ease. Maybe if we can get down to those doors, we can get outside. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any way to get from the top of the bridge on the second floor down to the floor of the great hall. What stairs he could see went up to the ceiling, not down to the floor below, forming a sort of catwalk that seemed without purpose.

Besides such descriptions of setting, there is also a great deal of running, jumping, climbing, flailing at shadow monsters with a stick, and holding Yorda’s hand.

If the reader can successfully visualize what Miyabe is describing, then her descriptive passages, which form the bulk of the two sections from Ico’s perspective, create a sense of adventure and awe. If the reader is too engrossed in figuring out the mysteries of the castle to slow down and mentally picture the landscape Miyabe is describing, then these passages can come off as clunky and annoying. My sympathies tend to lie with the latter reader, especially if that reader has never played the game; trying to describe the visual aesthetics of the Castle in the Mist is like trying to describe an Escher painting. The game Ico is all about the atmosphere created by its visual and auditory elements, and a purely textual medium will never be able to capture that atmosphere, no matter how hard it tries.

What text can do, and what text can do well, is characterization, and it seems to me that the lion’s share of the game’s atmosphere is conveyed in the novel by Ico’s perceptions of and interactions with Yorda. Just as the castle is architecturally majestic and full of mysteries, Yorda is physically beautiful and conceals secrets upon secrets beneath her silent exterior. For example:

Ico glanced at her. She did not look sad or even frightened. Nor did she smile or seem engaged with the world around her at all. Though she was right next to him, and he could look directly into her face, he felt like she was standing on the other side of a veil.

Here’s another example:

The girl turned to him and to his surprise, she smiled faintly. She’s beautiful. He thought her smile looked like a flower in full bloom, swaying gently in a forest breeze, sending its petals out to drift on the wind. He could almost smell the flower’s perfume on her breath.

Here’s yet another example:

Filled with hope, Ico looked into Yorda’s eyes. He felt like he was looking into an hourglass, trying to pick through the grains of truth buried there long ago. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the warmth of Yorda’s hands in his told him that he was getting close.

Yorda is thus delicate and mysterious, and her main function as a character is to reflect the emotions Ico projects onto her. Because this novel is a work of young adult fiction, Ico is exceptionally pure of heart, and – perhaps as a result – Yorda is as well. What Ico is about, at its core, is the bravery of two children challenging the old, the impure, and the monstrous. For me, the main problem with Ico and Yorda is that, although purity of heart is inspiring, it is also somewhat boring. The evil queen is far more interesting. At a certain point I stopped caring about Ico and his youthful hope and good intentions and started waiting for the next appearance of the queen, who is the only halfway intelligent and rational character in the entire novel.

For example, unlike Ico’s caretakers, who tell him nothing, the queen respects her daughter enough to explain to her what she is doing and her motivation for doing it. The queen’s explanations are always pragmatic and hint at a lifetime of experience. The following passage, for example, is how the queen justifies to Yorda why the two of them never leave the castle:

“Beauty is a high and noble thing. Thus are men enchanted by it and seek it out. But those who desire you also desire our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice or enchant them – because, my dearest, while your beauty holds the power to command the actions of a few men, it does not bestow the ability to govern.

“It is the same for me. The land I govern is the most wealthy and beautiful of all the lands that divide this vast continent. They crave it, as they crave me. From their slavering jaws and their multifarious schemes have I escaped many times. All to protect myself and my beautiful domain, blessed by the Creator. You, who were born into the world as the lone daughter of the queen, have noble blood and noble beauty, thus must you bear my burdens.”

Judging from what happens in the rest of the novel (which I will not spoil), and judging from the way that Ico, his horned ancestor, and everyone in between has treated Yorda and her mother, the queen is not incorrect. Unfortunately, because the queen is a sexually mature and politically powerful older woman, she is EVIL and therefore cannot be reasoned with or redeemed but must be DEFEATED. The final battle between the queen and Ico is somewhat disappointing, as the queen is made to lay aside her primary weapons – her intelligence and wit – in order to fight boss-battle style with attacks that are easily deflected in a room filled with obstacles that deflect them.

The moral of the story seems to be that inarticulate yet delicately beautiful and innocent younger women are good (for men) and that brilliant and powerful mature women are EVIL (to men).

At least, that is the moral of the second and fourth sections of the novel, which are told from Ico’s perspective and closely follow the plot of the video game. The first and third sections are much more interesting and open-ended. The first section is, in my option, a superlatively excellent example of fantasy world building that establishes setting, mythology, history, and worldview through its characters instead of in spite of them. The third section, which is told from Yorda’s perspective, is an almost archetypal story of innocence awakening to experience as Yorda begins to question and investigate the world around while realizing the consequences of her own actions on the lives of others. By the end of the third section, Yorda has become a powerful queen in her own right…

…before we switch back to Ico’s perspective, in which Yorda is a helpless and naive young girl once more. Although this is jarring, it is also necessary. The game Ico is so deeply sexist that, in order for Miyabe to subvert this misogyny, she would have to abandon her goal of novelization. If Yorda were an active agent and not a passive victim, the events leading up to the final battle and the battle itself would not be possible. Good must triumph over evil in a decisive showdown; and, as everyone who has ever played a video game knows, such a task is the man’s job. This is why I complain about I sexism. Not only is it frustrating and unnecessary; it also tends to diminish from the overall quality of the work in which it appears.

Despite all this, Ico is a fun read. Miyabe is a good writer, and Smith has produced an excellent translation (as always). The plot and character conventions are fairly characteristic of mainstream young adult fiction, and I can imagine that younger readers would really enjoy this book, which is exactly the right length and complexity for the 7-12 demographic. It goes without saying that fans of the game will love the novelization, which does its very best to convey everything that was fun and intriguing about the original work. Fans of video games in general might also enjoy the book, which is an interesting experiment in adaptation. As for adult readers who are looking for archetypes represented in a deep and multilayered fantasy, however, I think there are much better books to spend an afternoon reading.

The Book of Heroes

Title: The Book of Heroes
Japanese Title: 英雄の書 (Eiyū no sho)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 352

Before the earthquake hit Japan, I was drafting a review of Miyabe Miyuki’s Brave Story. I was going to say something along the lines of that, while many male-centered epic novels (like Wizard’s First Rule) are sex fantasies supported by the bare-bones scaffolding of fantasy tropes, Brave Story is not like that at all. I was also going to say something to the effect that Miyabe does realism much better than she does fantasy, at least in Brave Story, where the “Frodo in the Shire” (or “Wataru in a suburb of Tokyo”) segment is much more interesting than the actual adventures in the fantasy world of Vision. And then I was going to conclude that the book did not need to be eight hundred pages long, and that Miyabe could have used some serious editing, since the reader does not need to know what every character is thinking at any given time.

But then I thought, why write a review of a promising book that turned out to be dishearteningly mediocre? Life is short, and there is more to the world than picking apart the idiosyncrasies of genre fiction. One of the great things about fantasy literature is that, when done correctly, it can inspire courage, and hope, and bravery. And since everyone following the events in Japan could probably use a “brave story” right now (I know I could), I am instead going to review Miyabe’s much shorter (and, in my opinion, much better) fantasy novel The Book of Heroes.

The Book of Heroes is about Yuriko, whose older brother Hiroki snapped under pressure, knifed a classmate, and then disappeared. In the fallout of the incident, Yuriko’s family has been suffering from media overexposure, while Yuriko herself has had to drop out of middle school because of bullying. In the midst of this chaos, there has been no sign of Hiroki. Worried about her older brother, Yuriko ventures into Hiroki’s room and is approached by a talking book named Aju, who drops a few cryptic hints concerning Hiroki’s whereabouts. These hints lead her to her reclusive uncle’s cabin in the mountains, which is filled with rare books, many of whom can also talk.

These books tell Yuriko that her brother has become a Summoner, a being who can channel the evil King in Yellow, who sows discord wherever he goes. The King in Yellow is not an easy threat to quell, as he is one half of the Hero, the archetype who inspires brave and great deeds. To prevent her brother, who believes himself to be the Hero, from summoning the King in Yellow, Yuriko must become an allcaste, an adventurer with the ability to travel between worlds. Yuriko learns that all worlds (including her own), are created from fictions, and so she must travel through and into books in order to chase down Hiroki.

Yuriko’s journey begins in the third chapter (about eighty pages into novel), when she is transported to The Nameless Land, a kind of land beyond time where monk-like “nameless devouts” spin the wheels that cycle stories throughout the many worlds. This might sound as if The Book of Heroes is wading waist-deep through a meta-textual philosophical sludge, but the novel’s self-reflexive fantasy is actually quite fascinating. Miyabe’s descriptions of both modern Tokyo, The Nameless Land, and the fantasy book world that Yuriko enters are beautiful and striking. There is a sense of wonder in the storytelling, but also an appropriate sense of urgency. The odds that Yuriko faces are overwhelming, but she is accompanied by the book Aju, who temporarily takes the form of a mouse, a older male guardian and guide called Ash, and a nameless devout whom Yuriko names Sky. Each of these three supporting characters has his own story to tell, and each of them is as interesting and important as Yuriko, who really comes into her own as a protagonist over the course of the book.

As she grows stronger, Yuriko learns that her power does not come without a price, and the answers to her many questions are difficult and painful. The novel’s ending is bittersweet yet satisfying, and the endgame revelations are heartbreaking yet thought-provoking. Thankfully, the story is compelling enough to keep the reader feverishly flipping pages all the way through. Honestly, if you are in need of a break from current events that you can come back from refreshed and re-energized, The Book of Heroes is an excellent story to immerse yourself in. It’s got the same sort of quiet yet driving mystery and the same sort of exploration of fantasy with real-world implications as the anime series Haibane Renmei or Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians. I cannot give it higher praise than that, although I should mention that Haikasoru has done a beautiful job publishing the book, and Alexander O. Smith’s translation is beyond excellent (as it was in Brave Story).

If you’re reading this alongside articles of the death and destruction in Japan and find my review of a fantasy novel trifling and tasteless, then I will hang my head, apologize, and humbly suggest Murakami Haruki’s short story “The Seventh Man,” which is published in the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection but immediately available in several “unofficial” translations through a quick search on Google. “The Seventh Man” is about a memory of a tsunami, and its primary themes are terror, helplessness, and guilt – which I suppose is the other side of the “brave story” of disaster survival offered by The Book of Heroes.

Regarding the situation in Japan, I think Matt Alt makes an excellent point when he says, Don’t Panic. The best coverage of the quake and its aftermath from a personal level that I have read thus far has been on the blog Adventures in Gradland (which is a fantastic read even when its author isn’t being the most sane and level-headed person to post about what must be a terrifying series of experiences). This post over at The Lobster Dance contains a list of links for more reliable news sources, as well as information on charities (the word on the street is that Second Harvest seems to be doing the right work, right now). The art historian over at A Man with Tea has taken this opportunity to reflect on what might be lost in Japan, as well as why we need to keep calm and carry on. Finally, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber has issued an appeal for donations over at All About Manga, which is accompanied by a plan to make a difference. As for me, all I can do is cheer my friends and the people of Japan on from a distance. You guys are amazing, and you can survive anything!

The Devil’s Whisper

Title: The Devil’s Whisper
Japanese Title: 魔術はささやく (Majutsu wa sasayaku)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部みゆき)
Translator: Deborah Stuhr Iwabuchi
Publication Year: 1989 (Japan); 2007 (America)
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 254

Some people say that Miyabe Miyuki is the Stephen King of Japan. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I think it has something to do with the fact that she has published a hell of a lot of books (as well as scripts for radio dramas, manga, and video games). Her work is superlatively popular, and a great deal of it is dark or fantastic. She is perhaps best known in America for her murder mystery novels, which more often than not feature a killer who uses a magical or semi-magical power as his or her modus operandi.

The killer in The Devil’s Whisper is a hypnotist, as the book’s title implies. (I think I may have just given away what one of the blurbs on the back cover calls “a brilliant plot twist,” but I found it fairly obvious from the beginning of the novel.) He has hypnotized a young woman to run out in front of a taxi, thus making her death seem like a suicide. So far, so good. The driver of the taxi, however, is charged with vehicular manslaughter and imprisoned. His sixteen-year-old nephew, Mamoru, senses something fishy about the police reports and decides to investigate the matter himself. Mamoru is basically a decent kid, but he’s got some skeletons in his closet that come out to haunt him as the story progresses. The novel therefore presents two mysteries to the reader: what grudge does the hypnotist killer have against the women he murders, and why did Mamoru’s father abandon him and his mother when he was a young child? The way that these two plotlines come together at the end of the book is quite interesting and enjoyable.

Although The Devil’s Whisper does not suffer from an abundance of characterization, almost everyone comes off as sympathetic. Mamoru does indeed bear traces of several Stephen King characters like Danny from The Shining and Jack from The Talisman, who are bright and earnest boys placed in difficult situations. The killer comes off as a kind of Hannibal Lecter figure, as logical and urbane as he is insane. The real villains of the novel actually seem to be the young women who are being killed, although the reader is forced to wonder whether they really deserved to die.

In my eyes, the major weakness of Miyabe’s style is that she tells her reader what every character is thinking. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a flaw, but Miyabe will occasionally write entire sequences of paragraphs explaining the obvious. One of the first pieces of advice given to aspiring writers is to show, not tell. A relative clause depicting a character picking at her fingernail can say much more about her state of mind than an entire paragraph attempting to chart what is going on inside of her head. Since The Devil’s Whisper is only about 250 pages long, this type of inner explication is by necessity kept to a minimum, and a great deal of it is expressed in dialog, which partially reduces the level of tedium and keeps the action moving. Miyabe’s characters are interesting; but, unfortunately, none of them are so interesting that I want to know every thought that passes through their minds.

Overall, Miyabe’s mystery novels range from excellent (All She Was Worth) to decent (Shadow Family) to so horrible that they make me want to claw my eyes out (Crossfire). The Devil’s Whisper falls somewhere in the middle, and I would recommend it over many of Miyabe’s other titles available in translation.

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.

The Budding Tree

Title: The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo
Japanese Title: 恋忘れ草 (Koiwasuregusa)
Author: Kitahara Aiko (北原亞以子)
Translator: Ian MacDonald
Publication Year: 1993 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 170

This past fall, I took a seminar on ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock prints depicting the “floating world” of the Edo period (1600-1868) urban pleasure districts. As we studied the courtesan prints of artists like Kitagawa Utamaro, we kept running up against the same issue: prostitution. Namely, what were the lives of the women painted by Utamaro really like? Were these women as glamorous as they seem in ukiyo-e, or were they sex slaves who lived miserable lives and died at an early age of starvation and disease? Or did they perhaps fall somewhere in between the two extremes, victims of their fates but still holding on to a measure of personal agency and control over their lives? As our class debated this issue, I couldn’t help but think about The Budding Tree.

Kitahara’s short story collection The Budding Tree is not about courtesans, but it is about Edo-period women who have close connections to the floating world. Each of the six stories in this collection has a different female protagonist: a Confucian tutor, a calligrapher who pens text that will be printed as gesaku popular novels, a singer of jōruri popular stage ballads, a hairpin designer who manages her own store, a rising print artist who works with Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s publisher, and the manager of an exclusive restaurant. Although the women don’t know each other directly, their stories are connected in small ways, and a unity of theme ties these stories together into a cohesive whole. Each of these women is struggling to make it in a man’s world, and each therefore leads a somewhat complicated love life.

I’m not an expert on the Edo period, so I’m not sure how realistic Kitahara’s depiction of her setting (Edo at the turn of the nineteenth century) actually is. From what I know of the lives of Hokusai’s daughters (especially Katsushika Ōi), however, her depiction of urban working women at the time isn’t too far off. As historical fiction, the stories in The Budding Tree are interesting and satisfying, especially since the swashbuckling samurai that one usually encounters in Japanese historical fiction are kept offstage. It is my (perhaps futile) hope that Ian MacDonald’s excellent translation will find a wide audience, so that other Japanese female-centric historical fiction, such as the Edo-period female detective stories of Miyabe Miyuki, will find their way into American bookstores.

I therefore recommend The Budding Tree to anyone with an interest in the Edo period, historical fiction, women’s literature, or just plain good romantic stories. The one caveat I might offer concerns the translation’s complete absence of footnotes. There are more than a few non-translated and non-glossed terms (such as jōruri, i.e., the songs of the puppet theater) that appear with frequency throughout the text, as well the names of actual historical figures and geographical landmarks with which a casual reader might not be familiar. Hopefully, however, the stories themselves will whet the reader’s appetite to learn more about the world of early nineteenth century Edo.