The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels 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.

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