The Aosawa Murders

The Aosawa Murders
Japanese Title: EUGENIA (ユージニア)
Author: Riku Onda (恩田 陸)
Translator: Alison Watts
Publication Year: 2005 (Japan); 2020 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press
Pages: 315

In 1973, in a small seaside town on the west coast of Japan, the prominent Aosawa family and their guests were poisoned with cyanide during a birthday party, an incident resulting in the death of seventeen people. Makiko Saiga, who was a child at the time, later interviewed people connected to the family for her senior thesis, which ended up becoming a true-crime bestseller titled The Forgotten Festival. Makiko never published another book and refused to give interviews, and the sole survivor of the Aosawa family, a young woman named Hisako, married and moved to the United States. When the young man who delivered the poisoned alcohol to the party committed suicide, the police closed the case.

Thirty years after the incident, however, it has become apparent that there may be more to the story. There are fourteen chapters in The Aosawa Murders, each narrated from the perspective of someone once connected with the Aosawa family or the publication of The Forgotten Festival. Makiko Saiga is polite yet evasive, her research assistant knows that there are small departures from reality in her account but doesn’t know what to make of them, the detective who investigated the case is convinced that Hisako Aosawa is responsible for the murders but can’t quite prove it, while someone who knew the supposed culprit believes the young man was used by a mysterious woman. A handful of other people, such as Makiko’s brother and the daughter of the housekeeper of the Aosawa family, offer additional intriguing anecdotes.

The Aosawa Murders is a slow burn. For the first two-thirds of the novel, the reader has no choice but to take each separate account as it comes while trying to pick out the connecting threads, which initially seem to be few and far between. The Aosawa Murders respects the intelligence of its reader by presenting information impartially without cliffhangers, false leads, or red herrings. The circumstances surrounding the mystery are compelling enough to warrant sustained attention, but the narrative pace allows the reader to take time with each account without being driven to rush forward.

When things start to come together in the last hundred pages, the true brilliance of the story becomes apparent. The final two chapters focus on Hisako Aosawa (now Hisako Schmidt) and Makiko Saiga, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with them both. After hearing so much about them from secondhand accounts, the down-to-earth reality of their actual personalities was refreshing. Regardless of what each of them may or may not have done, the author reminds us that both of these women are far more than archetypes in someone else’s story.

Although an astute reader will have formed several theories about what happened, the novel never presents a simple and neatly packaged explanation. The ending is fragmented and recounted in a jarring manner that serves as one of the strongest clues concerning the identity of the narrator who has presumably assembled the accounts that appear in the story. I can imagine that some people may find this sort of open-ended conclusion anticlimactic, but it was extremely satisfying to me.

I have to admit that I enjoy formulaic murder mysteries in which everything is carefully arranged and fits together perfectly at the end. The Aosawa Murders is not that type of story, however – not by a long shot. Instead, the novel is a sprawling puzzle that rewards the reader’s active attention and engagement. This is not a book that can be read in an afternoon, but the strength of the writing and the quality of the translation encourage sustained reflection and speculation. I had an enormous amount of fun with The Aosawa Murders, and I would happily recommend it to anyone looking for an uncommon mystery written by a mature and confident storyteller.

To anyone concerned about such things, there is no overt violence, sexism, or misogyny in The Aosawa Murders. In addition, aside from a minor subplot involving a Buddhist priest, the story doesn’t contain any particularly “Japanese” elements, and it’s not necessary to be familiar with Japanese society or police procedure in order to fully appreciate the characters and plot. In fact, I think The Aosawa Murders would make an excellent addition to a reading list of contemporary international mystery writers.

A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Bitter Lemon Press. The quality of the publication is excellent, and I’m thrilled and delighted that Riku Onda’s work has been able to make such a stunning debut in English translation.

Villain

Title: Villain
Japanese Title: 悪人 (Akunin)
Author: Yoshida Shūichi (吉田 修一)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Year Published: 2010 (Britain); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 296

Yoshida Shūichi’s Villain is not a classy novel. It’s got sex scenes, murder scenes, chase scenes, masturbation scenes, scenes of mothers abandoning their children, scenes of fathers crying over their dead daughters in the rain, scenes of catty girls, and scenes of men and women being obnoxious to each other. It’s got poison love, pathetic love, tragic love, and codependent love built on unfulfilled ideals. It’s the most unapologetically pulpy book I’ve read recently, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

Villain is the story of the murder of Ishibashi Yoshino, a graduate of a junior college who worked as an insurance saleswoman and lived in her company’s dorms in Fukuoka City. Yoshino had been involved in online dating and had occasionally taken on clients as an amateur prostitute. When her dead body is found dumped alongside a highway running between Fukuoka and Saga prefectures, an investigation opens in search of the person who strangled her and left her on the side of the mountain underneath a lonely highway pass.

The novel is less concerned with the police and their investigation than it is with the social and emotional ripples that spread from Yoshino’s death. Villain jumps between the various people who end up becoming involved, no matter how tangentially. There is Yoshino’s friend Sari, a virgin who tells lies about having dated a certain boy in high school. Yoshino’s friend Mako is chubby and good-natured and profoundly gullible. Yoshino had lied to her friends that she was dating a business major and named Masuo Keigo, a playboy who has dropped out of college in all but name. Yoshino’s dad is a deadbeat who runs a barbershop outside of JR Kurume Station that is slowly going out of business. Shimizu Yuichi is a construction worker from Nagasaki who drives a flashy car and was one of Yoshino’s johns. Yuichi has a grandmother named Fusae, who is hassled by thugs, and an uncle named Norio, who is also Yuichi’s tough-guy boss. Yuichi ends up running away with a woman named Mitsuyo, who has reached thirty without marrying and works a crappy job in a crappy department store in a crappy suburb. There are also a handful of other characters who only appear briefly, such as Keigo’s dippy friend Koki and Mitsuyo’s spinster sister Tamayo.

The thread connecting these characters is that they are all pathetic sadsacks who are weak, petty, stupid, gross, and despicable. The forward momentum of Villain isn’t created by plot or mystery but rather by the reader’s compulsion to see just how nasty the novel’s characters can become. Over the course of the book, the author delves deeper and deeper into the individual, familial, and social dysfunction that makes up the world in which Ishibashi Yoshino lived. Villain is like a long, glorious train wreck in which terrible personalities are compounded by idiotic lies that are in turn compounded by bad decisions. The sheer maliciousness of this novel must be read to be believed.

The Japanese setting of the story, and in particular the geography of the Kansai area, constitutes a significant portion of its meaning and appeal, and I’m sure that an astute observer can find all manner of trenchant social commentary embedded in the novel. In the end, though, Villain is an engaging psychological thriller. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s great guilty pleasure reading for people who find the more unpleasant side of human nature amusing rather than upsetting.

Loups-Garous

Title: Loups-Garous
Japanese Title: ルー=ガルー (Rū=Garū)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極 夏彦)
Translator: Anne Ishii
Year Published: 2010 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 450

Spoiler: There are no actual werewolves in this book.

The real shape-shifter is Loups-Garous itself, which wears multiple skins. The novel is a murder mystery and a sci-fi suspense thriller. It is a police procedural, a cyberpunk dystopia, and a high school drama. It can also be read as a series of philosophical musings on technology, authority, and human nature.

Loups-Garous is set in the not-too-distant future (the 2030s are referred to as if they were the 1990s) of Japan, in which many of the laws and social conventions concerning food, housing, education, communication, and privacy are no longer what they once were. For example, although minors are assigned guardians who may or may not be their parents, they are apparently not required to cohabitate with these adults. Furthermore, children learn from computer modules instead of from teachers, and their only physical contact with other people is through periodically scheduled meetings with selected peer groups and guidance counselors. The younger generation has gradually come to interact with the world almost exclusively through computerized devices called “moniters,” which range in size from wristband models to screens the size of bedroom walls. Cities are divided into carefully controlled zones, all food is artificial, and the movements and consumption patterns of every individual are recorded through omnipresent video cameras maintained in both public and private spaces by the corporation that controls the country.

Despite the fact that this micro-management of individual lives is supposed to keep people safe, a series of connected murders has broken out in an otherwise peaceful residential district. A possibly related set of school absences draws three high school girls, Hazuki, Mio, and Ayumi, to meet together in person. Meanwhile, the girls’ guidance counselor, Shizue, is pulled into a police investigation of several students who may be either suspects or victims. As Hazuki and Shizue are pulled deeper into the circumstances surrounding the murders, the grimy foundations of their seemingly utopian society are revealed, as is a major government conspiracy.

The cyberpunk gothic noir setup of Loups-Garous attracted me to the novel and kept me reading, but I will admit that I ultimately did not enjoy the experience. None of the plot devices are particularly original, the themes are spread too thin, and the pacing is uneven. Long passages of exposition and dialog are broken by fights and chase scenes in a way that seems random and frenetic, and the last fifty pages of the novel read like the two minutes of downhill careen that follow a very long and very slow slog up the first hill of a roller coaster ride. Furthermore, the big surprises at the end, such as the identity of the killer, have almost no foreshadowing. To give an example, there’s a giant mecha at the end of the novel. It comes out of nowhere. The lack of suspenseful buildup leading to its appearance is so total that mentioning it doesn’t even feel like a spoiler.

I also found the main characters infuriating. I understand that these characters, who have grown up in a world in which there is very little interpersonal interaction, are supposed to be socially maladjusted, but that doesn’t make their antisocial awkwardness any easier to read. To bring up a topical analogy, Sherlock Holmes is interesting (and bearable) as a character because he is juxtaposed against foils such as John Watson and Inspector Lestrade. These foils don’t just help to demonstrate what is so unique and fascinating about Holmes; they also serve to drive the story forward by providing a means to address the more commonplace concerns that exist for a reader who lives in a world governed more by social and accidental systems of cause and effect than by pure logic. A story with two Sherlocks and no Watson wouldn’t be nearly as readable. Loups-Garous has five Sherlocks and no Watson, and it’s painful to watch these characters bicker with each other endlessly. Besides being socially maladjusted, each of them is idiosyncratic in her own way (“I’m a genius, so I don’t have a sense of aesthetics.”), and the weird gaps in their knowledge of the world mean that each of them will often say things that can come off as inane to the reader (“You think you can actually eat animals? That’s stupid.”).

Speaking of the characters’ knowledge of their world, the author’s construction of the novel’s setting felt uneven to me. Specifically, the story is supposed to be set in a time in which people who were adults in the twentieth century still hold active positions of power, yet the main characters act completely ignorant of the history, economic systems, and technologies that existed before their own lifetimes (even though the reader is left to assume that such information is freely and easily available, such as in the form of entertainment media). For example, when the self-proclaimed genius Mio explains the concept of a “telephone” to Hazuki, Hazuki is completely flabbergasted over the fact that such a thing could ever exist, and Mio herself admits that she doesn’t know what language the word “telephone” comes from. There is thus a deep contradiction in the novel’s construction of its setting (which is either super-futuristic or not really futuristic at all) that prevents the reader from really understanding the novel’s worldview or becoming absorbed in its atmosphere.

Finally, perhaps partially as a result of the awkwardness of the characters and setting, the long philosophical passages that fill the novel are written in a style that is somewhat confusing. For example, a chain of logic might be set up like this:

“It goes without saying that scissors are good for cutting paper. Similarly, the best accounting software can’t make music. Computers are nothing more than calculators. It’s a system built to do the math necessary to accomplish a task. If humans were able to do several calculations at once there’d be no need for computers. No matter how grand the calculation, nothing but cutlery can cut paper.”

Or a theme of the novel might be expressed in a meaningless repetition of chichés and platitudes:

“The adults don’t know anything.” Don’t they? It wasn’t just the adults. Kids wouldn’t know anything about other people either. No one wanted to know and no one wanted to be known. So no one knew anything about anyone else. They weren’t bothered by not knowing. They weren’t bothered by not being known. Moreover… They actually hated being known.

Unfortunately, Loups-Garous is filled with many such pseudo-philosophical soliloquies, which detract from what little plot, character development, and world building the novel is able to offer.

In the end, I feel that Loups-Garous is a waste of a good premise that could have been vastly improved with either more judicious editing of the original text or more creative license on the part of the translator. I hate to bash anything published by Haikasoru, a press that has almost consistently put out quality material, but Loups-Garous weighs in towards the lower end of the publisher’s catalog (along with Mardock Scramble, another title that, like Loups-Garous, has an animated adaptation).

If you’re interested in the dystopian sci-fi premise of the novel, you might be better off watching either Fractale (streaming on Hulu) or No.6 (streaming on Crunchyroll), two anime that share similar themes but are much more intelligent and stylish in their execution of these themes. Also, while I was reading Loups-Garous, I kept wishing that I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake instead. The story and premise of Oryx and Crake are similar to those of Loups-Garous, but the readability and literary flair of Atwood’s novel are much higher. Even though I didn’t like this novel, Kyōgoku Natsuhiko is a very interesting writer, and I definitely recommend his Summer of the Ubume. With so much other excellent reading and viewing material, why would you want to waste time on Loups-Garous? The novel wears many skins, but it doesn’t wear any one of them particularly well.

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.

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse

Title: Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse
Japanese Title: 夏と花火と私の死体 (Natsu to hanabi to watshi no shitai)
Author: Otsuichi (乙一)
Translator: Nathan Collins
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1996, 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 350

I don’t know why I haven’t reviewed anything by Otsuichi yet. Tokyopop has released two collections of his short stories (Calling You in 2007 and GOTH in 2008), and Haikasoru released the collection ZOO, which is a major bestseller in Japan and ended up getting its own film adaptation, around this time last year. It might be that I haven’t reviewed his work before now because, even though his stories are fun and creative, they tend to be hit or miss. Also, they fall squarely into the genre of horror, which has gradually eroded away into “Dark Fantasy” or “Thriller” in the American market (the back cover of my paperback copy of Stephen King’s most recent novel, which involves murder, rape, cannibalism, and mass asphyxiation, tells me that it is “Fiction”). However, the majority of Otsuichi’s stories are pure shock horror of the type that might be found in magazines like Black Static or Macabre Cadaver, which might explain the “hit or miss” factor and also makes them difficult to review. If you like horror, you’ll like Otsuichi. If you don’t like horror, why would you want to read him?

The three stories in Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse are still horror, but I feel like two of them are fleshed-out enough (what a lovely analogy for horror fiction) to appeal to a wider audience. The title story, which is seventy pages long, tells the story of a murder from the perspective of the dead person, who is surprisingly nonchalant about the whole thing. Being dead, however, she’s able to follow the thoughts and movements of her best friend, who inadvertently killed her, and her friend’s older brother, a budding sociopath who helps his sister hide the body. The pair isn’t exactly professional in their cover-up operation, so there are a lot of delightfully suspenseful moments in which they are almost, almost found out. The surprise ending is morbid but equally playful. The setting of the story, the forest surrounding a Shintō shrine, is used to full advantage. I think those small forests are the closest thing to a Shakespearean green world in contemporary Japanese fiction; every time one pops up in a story, you know that something weird and exciting is going to happen. (Another good example might be found in the manga Tenken, which is absolutely brilliant and should be read by everyone.) Not just the suspense and the setting but everything about the story is well executed, and it’s hard to believe that Otsuichi made his literary debut with it while still in high school.

The following story, “Yuko” (優子), is the usual Otsuichi fare. It’s short, grisly, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you’re the sort of manga fan or Lolita fashionista who’s into the mock horror and period trappings of titles like Yuki Kaori’s Godchild, though, you’ll dig the gothic atmosphere and the creepy, creepy doll parts.

And then there’s the two hundred page novella Black Fairy Tale (暗黒童話), which was published five years after the other two stories in a separate volume. For me, this story is the best part of the collection. The narrative switches between a traditionally styled fairy tale and a more modern one, which is itself told from several points of view. The main point of view is that of a high school student named Nami, who loses her memory along with her left eye in a freak accident. She receives an eye transplant and gradually realizes that she can see the memories of the eye’s former owner if exposed to certain triggers. The blurb on the book’s cover makes it seem like this element of the story is its primary source of horror, in an I see dead people sort of way; but, as Nami has lost her own memories, she can only live her life though borrowed memories, and she becomes emotionally attached to the scenes of someone else’s life that she sees through the transplanted eye, which belonged to a college student named Kazuya. Since Nami has effectively become a different person than she was before her accident, her school friends and family distance themselves from her, so she drops out of school and uses the savings left behind by her former self to travel to Kazuya’s hometown, a backwater village called Kaede. As with the shrine forest of Summer, Otsuichi makes good use of his setting in this small mountain town, perfectly capturing both the charm and the pathos of rural Japan.

Black Fairy Tale is more than a travel novel, however. Of course Nami wants to visit the places and meet the people she has seen through the eye’s memories, but she also knows that its former owner was murdered for seeing something he shouldn’t have. The reader knows this too, as the narrative shifts between Nami’s story and that of a man who has the ability to keep living things alive, no matter what he does to them. He uses this ability to experiment on the human bodies he keeps in his basement, which are somehow able to maintain their lives and their consciousness despite the terrible things that have been done to them. Nami knows that, if she finds the house whose basement she has glimpsed through her transplanted eye, she will be able to rescue the people there and also avenge Kazuya. There is obviously a great deal of suspense in Black Fairy Tale, but it’s handled in a more sophisticated and effective way than it is in Summer. The character development is much stronger, as well. The separate narrative threads are woven skillfully throughout the story, and the story’s various themes and systems of visual imagery mirror each other artfully. Black Fairy Tale is undoubtedly a horror story, but it’s also put together in a fairly literary way, and it appealed to me and stayed with me in a way that Otsuichi’s previously translated work has not.

In other words, the collection Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse should be fun for both fans of horror and fans of fiction in general, and I don’t feel bad about recommending it to anyone. My only regret is that I didn’t write about it in time for Halloween…

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.

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