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.

A Quiet Life

Title: A Quiet Life
Japanese Title: 静かな生活 (Shizuka na seikatsu)
Author: Ōe Kenzaburō (大江健三郎)
Translator: Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall
Publication Year: 1990 (Japan); 1996 (America)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 240

About a month ago, a friend for whom I have a great deal of respect said that she doesn’t like Ōe Kenzaburō’s A Quiet Life. She argued, essentially, that the novel has no forward momentum and that she couldn’t bring herself to care about the characters, especially the narrator, whom she considered silly and a bit too passive. These are all genuinely valid criticisms; but, since I happen to rather like the novel (and since I haven’t read anything else that has caught my attention recently), I thought I might defend it a bit. Of course, a book that labels itself with the title “A Quiet Life” isn’t for everyone, but I feel like there’s so much interesting stuff going on in the novel that the lives of the characters are anything but quiet.

First of all, let me say that this novel does not fit neatly into Ōe’s other work. There is very little here that is overtly political (like Hiroshima Notes), very little having to do with Pacific War era ideological confusion in the forests of Shizuoka (like in the stories of Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness), and exactly zero sleeping around with your former lover while your wife is in the hospital after having just delivered a baby that you are plotting to kill (à la A Personal Matter). Ōe’s oeuvre tends to be a bit intense, so I really appreciated reading something a bit more…quiet.

Also, there’s a really cool film adaptation directed by Itami Jūzō, the guy who directed Tampopo (1985) and A Taxing Woman (1987). It turns out that Itami was Ōe’s brother-in-law, oddly enough. But I digress.

A Quiet Life is about the author’s family. Ōe refers to everyone by nicknames, but the essential family structure is the same. A genius writer living in the suburbs of Tokyo tries to commit suicide, so his exasperated wife, who catches him in the act, persuades him to accept a year-long writer-in-residence position at a university in California. The couple leaves behind their three children, and the narrator, Ma-chan, is one of these children. She is twenty years old, writing her college graduation thesis on the interwar French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and responsible for the care of her quick-witted younger brother O-chan and her mentally-handicapped older brother Eeyore. While O-chan comes and goes like the wind, Eeyore requires a bit more attention, especially as Ma-chan comes to suspect that he feels abandoned by their parents. A Quiet Life follows Ma-chan and Eeyore through the summer after their parents leave, with Eeyore attending music composition lessons, Ma-chan working on her thesis, the pair attending a funeral in their father’s home village in Shizuoka, and other various aspects of the family’s daily life. This daily life is spiced with such incidents as Eeyore’s capture of a neighborhood pervert, the composition teacher’s ventures into socialist activism, and Eeyore’s swimming lessons, conducted by a handsome young instructor for whom Ma-chan quickly develops a crush.

Throughout the novel run Ma-chan’s thoughts and commentary on a variety of works of film and fiction, including Andrei Tarcovsky’s Stalker, the religious poetry of William Blake, and Michael Ende’s novel The Neverending Story, not to mention a forty-page rumination on Céline. I enjoyed these discussions, which were more often than not carried out in the form of lively conversations between Ma-chan and Eeyore’s music composition teacher, but I imagine how this sort of intratextual literary criticism might derail the forward momentum of the story for people who simply don’t care for that sort of thing in their fiction.

In my opinion, however, the main point of the novel isn’t its plot or its intellectual discussions, but rather the development of the relationship between Ma-chan and Eeyore. The two are obviously close; but, when Ma-chan assumes the role of Eeyore’s primary caregiver and babysitter, she finds herself repeatedly frustrated with her brother. She suspects that Eeyore himself might be the neighborhood pervert, for example, and occasionally resents him for claiming the bulk of her parents’ attention and preventing her from getting closer to boys like the swimming instructor (who actually turns out to be a creep). Eeyore, despite his idiosyncrasies, has his heart in the right place and in fact turns out to be perhaps the most interesting character to come out of Ōe’s work. Ōe’s portrayal of him, both through his words and actions and through his sister’s perception of him, is both complex and sympathetic. Ma-chan may be passive (or she may simply be a normal if somewhat oversensitive twenty-year-old college student), but Eeyore is anything but, and he emerges as the real star of the novel.

At a meta-textual level, I found not only Ōe’s portrayal of Eeyore but also his decision to use the voice of a semi-adult woman (modeled after his own daughter) for his narrator to be quite interesting. Is it realistic? Is it convincing? Why in the world would he choose to employ such a narrator? Regardless, Ma-chan is much more than the typical shōjo heroine, and A Quiet Life is much more than the typical home drama. The translation is smooth, and the narrative flows fairly quickly, jumping effortlessly from one tableau to the next. Although A Personal Matter will probably continue to hold the place of honor in the work of this Nobel Prize winning author, I feel like A Quiet Life is a close second.

Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Title: Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan
Editors: Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel
Essays: 12, with an Introduction by the editors
Publication Year: 1999 (America)
Pages: 317

This book, while undeniably academic, is perhaps the most important resource for students of contemporary Japanese literature. Included in this book are twelve essays by prominent scholars on the biggest names in post-war Japanese literature. There are essays on political writers like Ōe Kenzaburō and Nakagami Kenji, feminist writers like Ohba Minako and Takahashi Takako, and contemporary popular writers like Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto. Each of these essays aims to look at the writer as a whole, considering his or her major works and themes, while at the same time attempting to evaluate his or her place in the larger body of modern and postmodern Japanese literature. Every essay is a sound piece of scholarly work, and none of the analyses rely on theory unfamiliar to a college graduate.

Because these essays are so general and yet so rigorous in their approach, I would like to recommend the collection to general readers, as well as specialists, who have cultivated an interest in a particular writer. You won’t be disappointed by what you find. The short introductory essay is also a wonderful introduction to the state of Japanese literature at the turn on the 21st century.

Here is a list of the writers treated by the essays, as well as the authors of the essays themselves. An astute observer (such as myself, haha) will notice that many of the essayists are their subjects’ primary translators, a fact which attests to their close relationship with the authors and their works.

1. Ōe Kenzaburō (Susan Napier)
2. Endō Shūsaku (Van C. Gessel)
3. Hayashi Kyōko (Davinder L. Bhowmick)
4. Ohba Minako (Adrienne Hurley)
5. Takahashi Takako (Mark Williams)
6. Nakagami Kenji (Eve Zimmerman)
7. Kurahashi Yumiko (Atsuko Sakaki)
8. Murakami Haruki (Jay Rubin)
9. Murakami Ryū (Stephen Synder)
10. Shimada Masahiko (Philip Gabriel)
11. Kanai Mieko (Sharalyn Orbaugh)
12. Yoshimoto Banana (Ann Sheif)