your name.

Content warning: discussion of body swapping, gender dysmorphia, and social dysmorphia

Title: your name.
Japanese Title: 君の名は。(Kimi no na wa.)
Author: Makoto Shinkai (新海誠)
Translator: Taylor Engel
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 192

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

your name. is a novelization of director Makoto Shinkai’s your name., an animated film that tells the story of Mitsuha, a high school girl from rural Gifu prefecture who wishes she could be a boy in Tokyo in her next life. After an incredibly vivid dream in which she wakes up as “Taki,” a high school boy living in downtown Tokyo, she discovers it’s not a dream at all – and Taki is also switching bodies with her. As the two teenagers try to navigate each other’s lives and relationships, only able to communicate with each other only by writing notes in each other’s cell phones when they switch, they begin to unravel a mystery involving Mitsuha’s town.

First, a note about the style of the book: the film was not created for an unfinished book series, nor was it a post-release novelization. Rather, the novel was written in the late stages of the film’s production but released before the film debuted in Japan. In his Afterword, Shinkai writes,

In other words, it’s a novelization of the movie, but actually, as I’m writing this afterword, the movie hasn’t been finished yet. They tell me it will take another three months or so to complete. That means the novel will go out into the world first, so if you asked me which is the original work, the movie or the novel, I’d have to say, “It’s complicated.” (Kindle location 2177)

As a result, the novel doesn’t have to backfill the character’s internal monologue, nor does the film have to focus on getting the characters’ internal dialogue to come across visually; both works fill in gaps in the other.

The film’s biggest strength is, by and large, bringing the imagery and emotions of the characters to life. In a film, narrative exposition can get in the way of acting and using visual cues to explain emotions of the characters. While the movie is heavily visual and expresses the subtlety of its characters’ emotions by showing instead of telling, the novel (as well as the translation) gets off to a rough start because the writing style is overly descriptive in light novel/YA novel fashion. Shinkai’s attempts to describe physical reactions and facial expressions while simultaneously describing the characters’ underlying emotions sometimes make the opening chapters seem clunky. However, the novella really hits its stride after the third chapter. With the difficulty of the exposition out of the way and the setting and characters established, Shinkai’s writing shines and the pace picks up.

What I really love about the book, in addition to the mystery of why Taki and Mitsuha start and stop switching bodies, is how both characters come to experience themselves differently because of swapping bodies. Mitsuha gets to explore her sexuality – she, not Taki, is the one that sets up the date with his coworker Okudera-sempai in the hopes that she herself will get to go on it as Taki. This is a contrast to a common plot line in body-swap fiction: that one of the two swapped people has a datemate and is scared of being expected to kiss or have sex with the other person’s partner for a variety of reasons, chiefly the consent of all three parties.

Another body-swap trope that Shinkai averts is that Taki doesn’t learn to be more emotional just by being in Mitsuha’s body. Instead, he learns from her actions, especially how she treats Okudera-sempai while in his body. Eventually, he says, he’s given up on pretending to be her and just acts like himself when he’s in her body, though he notices that he has her memories and that he experiences emotional and visceral reactions to people in her life, such as feeling comforted by seeing her grandmother and friends and angry when meeting her father.

The book also deals with a number of existential questions. For example, what is consciousness and how tied to ones body is it? Does the spirit live on apart from the body? Related, but not explicitly spelled out, is to what degree sexuality and gender identity are consciousness or a physical body. As a queer nonbinary person who experiences social dysphoria (being read as the wrong gender in social contexts) but not usually body dysmorphia (the feeling that something about your body is wrong), the book and film versions of your name. raised a lot of questions for me. Would I experience body dysmorphia if my body looked differently than it does? Would I experience body dysmorphia if I woke up in someone else’s body? Would I experience social dysphoria to be called by the wrong pronouns but not the ones I was assigned at birth? Would it matter if the other person were built similarly to me or if they had a very different body shape? If I were in a binary person’s body, would it be weird to be called by the wrong pronouns? For cisgender people, who have the luxury of knowing their own gender and rarely have their gender questioned, would swapping bodies seem awkward but not dysmorphic or dysphoric?

Moreover, Taki and Mitsuha are two thin, conventionally attractive, and able-bodied cisgender teenagers. How would the narrative vary if one of them had a disability, or if one were trans or openly queer, or much younger or older? (For example, what if Taki and Mitsuha’s grandmother switched places?) your name. doesn’t answer Taki’s questions about memory or mine about gender, but the gentle manner in which it raises these questions is less of an existential crisis and more of a catalyst for self-reflection.

Along with the human characters, Mitsuha’s hometown Itomori is practically a character itself. Itomori is based on the city of Hida in Gifu prefecture, which is one of my favorite vacation spots. The descriptions of the town in the book and the visualization of the town in the film are vivid and gorgeously rendered, taking me right back to traveling to Hida-Takayama in the fall. While Mitsuha hates Itomori and dreams of moving to Tokyo, Shinkai avoids both painting rural Japan as either superior or inferior to urban Japan. Mitsuha’s complaints are ones many young people have: there are not many jobs, there are no cafes or places to hang out, and everyone knows your business, especially when your family is visibly and heavily involved in town politics (her estranged father is the mayor) and religious life (she and her sister are shrine maidens at her grandmother’s family shrine). However, there is merit in the traditions of the town, which preserve not just history for history’s sake, but important cultural and historical information.

Mitsuha’s grandmother, who is the head of the town shrine, repeatedly tells Mitsuha and her younger sister Yotsuha that the meaning underlying the shrine dances, braided cords, and festival rituals were lost when the original shrine and all its old records were lost in a fire two hundred years ago. What Taki realizes when he drinks ritual sake at a sacred location deeper in the mountains is that the braided cords and dances all told the story of how a meteorite created the crater lake in Itomori and destroyed the town a thousand years ago. With the records gone, the rituals survived without meaning, and this lacuna between history and folklore becomes crucial to the plot of Mitsuha and Taki’s story. As Shinkai’s focus expands beyond the two teenagers out into the larger environment they inhabit, I thought about not just the local dances of the places I had lived in and visited but also about the tsunami markers on Aneyoshi.

your name., while not perfect, is easy fantasy read that deals with open-ended questions of gender, memory, and rural depopulation. If possible, I recommend reading the novel as well as watching the movie, as Shinkai’s prose exploration of Mitsuha and Taki’s interiority complements and deepens the impact of the gorgeous artistry of his film.


L.M. Zoller is a nonbinary writer and former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. All zir favorite manga and anime seem to involve gender fluidity and sword fighting. Ze blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko

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Title: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Poems: Kaneko Misuzu (金子 みすゞ)
Illustrations: Hajiri Toshikado (羽尻 利門)
Text and Translation: David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
Publication Year: 2016
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 64

This guest review is written by Holly Thompson (@hatbooks on Twitter).

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, published by Seattle-based Chin Music Press, is an unusual picture book — bold and broad in concept and scope. This is a multifaceted book, containing a history of the rediscovery of the writings of Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930), a biography of Kaneko’s short life, current context for her work, and a selection of 25 of her poems.

With a foreword by Setsuo Yazaki, the Japanese children’s author and poet whose curiosity led to the rediscovery of her writings in 1982 and subsequent publication of all 512 of her poems in six volumes plus his own complete biography of Misuzu Kaneko, the reader is offered context: “Misuzu Kaneko’s poems are part of every child’s curriculum at Japanese elementary schools.” Of the intense fondness readers feel for Kaneko’s poems, Yazaki points out that her words “possess a deep kindness toward all things whether they are alive or inanimate.”

The story opens with a question — “Who was Misuzu Kaneko?” — then chronicles Yazaki’s quest to learn more about this insightful poet. From Yazaki’s encounter of Kaneko’s poem “Big Catch” about a huge sardine catch, which led to his desire to learn more about the poet and his ultimate discovery of her pocket diaries full of her poems, the narrative shifts to Kaneko’s life story and her childhood in the town of Senzaki (now part of Nagato City) in Yamaguchi Prefecture near the western tip of Honshu where her family ran a bookstore. Raised among books, Kaneko began writing poems, and at the age of twenty, after several of her poems were published in Japanese magazines, she became a well-known children’s poet. Kaneko’s poems appear interspersed with the book’s narrative — poems that focus on ordinary local topics, imbued with a sense of awe and curiosity. The poems “Benten Island,” “Wonder,” “Beautiful Town,” “Fish,” “Snow Pile,” and “Flower Shop Man” provide a solid introduction to the deceptively simple poetics of Misuzu Kaneko.

Kaneko’s life unfortunately took a tragically dark turn after her marriage to a man who was, as explained in the story, “a bad, unfaithful husband.” She gave birth to their child who she adored, but she “caught a disease from her husband that caused her great pain.” What’s more, he forbade her to write. Kaneko divorced him, but he demanded custody of their daughter. The book does not shy away from the truth that Kaneko, in her illness and despair, made the decision to end her life after writing a letter to her husband imploring that he leave their child in the care of her mother.

This is admittedly dark material, but picture books are not only intended for the youngest readers. Are You An Echo? is a picture book for all ages and is especially well suited to the middle grades. Kaneko’s poems resonate in part because she wrote while suffering and longing. Her poems, so simple at first glance, reach straight to the heart, lift the spirit and stay with you. To write a story about Misuzu Kaneko without broaching her death by suicide would have constituted a huge omission.

Thus, after a spread illustrated in gray tones that includes Kaneko’s poem “Cocoon and Grave” containing a metaphor of a butterfly as an angel, a subsequent warm double-page spread offers hope, depicting Kaneko’s mother and her daughter by the sea remembering Kaneko’s “kind and gentle soul.” The narrative then shifts once again, this time to more recent history — the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, in northern Japan. Kaneko’s poem “Are You An Echo?” was featured in a public service announcement televised after the disaster, and survivors in Tohoku, and people all around Japan struggling to cope after such profound and enormous loss, found comfort and hope in her words.

Following the story is “A Selection of Misuzu’s Poems,” with fifteen illustrated double-spread pages of Kaneko’s poems, impressively presented side by side in both the original Japanese and in English translation. Counting the poems that appear in English within the narrative, as well as the fifteen selected poems presented bilingually, Are You An Echo? offers 25 of Kaneko’s tender poems that reveal her extraordinary heart and boundless empathy. The titles of poems like “Stars and Dandilions,” “Telephone Pole,” “White Hat,” “Waves,” and “Dirt” reveal Kaneko’s unique ability to imbue ordinary items with sensibility and love.

What a feat to contain all of this material — history, biography, poetry collection — in a single picture book, including an informative author’s note by David Jacobson and a Translators’ Note by co-translators Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi. Expansive watercolor illustrations by Tokushima-based Toshikado Hajiri capture early 1900s provincial Japan and provide sweetly detailed and poignant accompaniment to the story and various poems.

Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko is a beautifully packaged, substantial picture book to treasure — a book to give poetry lovers of all ages, in all corners of the world.

Visit the Chin Music Press website for the book, Misuzu Kaneko, for information, backstory and further resources.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press.

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Holly Thompson (www.hatbooks.com) is a longtime resident of Japan and author of the novel Ash and three verse novels for young people: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth, The Language Inside, and Orchards, winner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. She compiled and edited Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction — An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and she teaches writing in Japan, the U.S. and places in between.

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Manabeshima: Island Japan

Manabeshima

Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 142 (plus one amazing map)

I love French artist Florent Chavouet‘s 2009 book Tokyo on Foot, which captures the charm and vibrancy of my favorite city. Manabeshima: Island Japan was a tougher sell for me, as I’m not particularly interested in nature or rural communities. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the careful attention Chavouet brings to human habitats – garbage and vending machines and rusting powerlines and all – has carried over from Tokyo to Manabeshima. Regardless of whether he’s drawing the town or the ocean and forests that surround it, Chavouet transforms the mundane into the extraordinary with his gorgeous colored pencil illustrations.

Because he felt that he had only been exposed to a tiny fraction of the Japanese archipelago, Chavouet decided to spend a summer on an island he hadn’t yet seen, and he ended up in Manabeshima, Okayama Prefecture, population 326. According to the artist, the average age of the people living on the island is around 50 years old, and many of them are already well set in their daily routines. Chavouet observes them on their daily progress, taking careful note of their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, as well as the props they use on the stage of their daily lives. His artistic interest is drawn not only to humans, but also to the island’s abundant wildlife, including cicadas, fish, and cats. These cats gradually become characters in their own right as Chavouet documents their small dramas and battles over contested territory.

My favorite part of Manabeshima is how the artist portrays architecture as a living part of the environment and the island society, with each room and table and upended bucket telling its own story. Cars and boats become palimpsests of personal history, and each garden and untended backyard is portrayed its own tiny ecosystem. Chavouet also pays particular obeisance to food, placing each meal in context, whether it’s a community barbeque or freshly prepared sashimi.

I must admit that a certain amount of anxiety underlay my reading of Manabeshima. As with any travel account, part of the pleasure of the experience involves imagining yourself following in the footsteps of the writer. Even if it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, like the hiking the Shikoku pilgrimage route, it’s still fun to pretend that you’re there along with the author, sharing her triumphs and sympathizing with her tribulations. In the case of Chavouet’s account of Manabeshima, this sort of identification was very difficult for me.

Although nothing in the book makes this explicit, Chavouet’s experiences are gendered. Within the first twenty pages, he makes it clear to the reader that he has been, after a fashion, accepted into the community. He is taken in by Ikkyu-san, the owner of a small bar and restaurant who plies him with food and alcohol, asking only that he sit and eat and drink with the regulars. He is invited to two religious ceremonies (a Buddhist ritual presided over by Ikkyu-san and an evening of Shinto kagura dances), where he is expected only to sit and eat and drink. He goes to the neighborhood association meetings, he gets invited to go out crab fishing, and he participates in the island summer festival. He seems like an extremely friendly person, and he mentions exchanging drawings for food and goodwill; but, if anyone ever requests that he do anything except enjoy himself, the reader never hears anything about it.

My own experience with small communities both inside and outside of Japan is that, in order to be included, I am expected to perform labor, such as cooking or laundry or childcare. Since I am an undomesticated animal who is not good at any of this, things always get awkward. If you asked me if I, as a woman, would want to spend two months in a tiny village on a small island, my response would be something along the lines of AW HELL NO. While Chavouet would be eating and drinking, I would more than likely be summoned to the kitchen to help do the dishes. I use the hypothetical example of being asked to help clean up because it’s actually happened to me enough times (especially in Japan) that I would almost be taken aback if it didn’t. In other words, the price of admission is gendered and – let’s be honest – unfairly so.

Again, there’s nothing in the book that suggests that the people on Manabeshima are old-fashioned sexist pigs, but Chavouet is definitely writing from a privileged position, and your ability to identify with this position will more than likely affect your relationship to the world Chavouet creates for you with his words and illustrations. Personally, I found reading Manabeshima to be a bit stressful because I couldn’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop, like, so when are they going to ask him to serve tea? (Spoiler: No one ever does.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am enamored of Chavouet as a kind and compassionate observer who can communicate the wonder and beauty of even the most commonplace objects and settings, and his already enviable skill in drawing and annotating his environment has tangibly improved since Tokyo on Foot. Still, I can’t help but prefer Tokyo on Foot, which pieces together a physical, social, and cultural landscape that even the most casual of readers can easily enter. While Tokyo on Foot collects a multitude of fragments and progressively demonstrates how they are all connected, everything is already a cohesive whole in Manabeshima, which, unlike Tokyo on Foot, has a cast of recurring characters and something resembling a narrative. On the other hand, although it’s harder for a reader to imagine entering this narrative herself, the easy flow of the story renders Manabeshima a more satisfying extended reading experience.

The best part of Tuttle’s lovely softcover edition of Manabeshima is that it comes with a huge map folded into a pocket on the back cover. This map is intensely detailed, showing every house and garden and boat on the island and labeled with references to people, landmarks, and events from the main text. I spent at least an hour with the map alone, catching new details each time I opened it and spread it out over my kitchen table.

If you have kids in your life, and if you’d like to get one of those kids (or their parents) a really cool present, consider handing them a copy of Manabeshima, whose every page celebrates the thrill of exploration and discovery.

A review copy was provided by the good people at Tuttle Publishing.

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The Restaurant of Love Regained

Title: The Restaurant of Love Regained
Japanese Title: 食堂かたつむり (Shokudō Katatsumuri)
Author: Ogawa Ito (小川 糸)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (United Kingdom); 2008 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 193

The ad copy on the back cover of The Restaurant of Love Regained proclaims the book to be “for all fans of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto.” I think the comparison between the two books is apt. Both novels are short and fluffy stories of young women who attempt to ameliorate the pain caused by a recent loss through cooking. Both are meant to have a calming and healing effect on the reader. And finally, depending on the reader, the prose of both novels is either refreshingly light and bubbly or infuriatingly infantile. Before you read the rest of this review, you might first want to ascertain how Ogawa’s writing style affects you:

My dream of having my own place was now within reach. Things were still hard work, though. I still trod in [my pet pig]’s droppings at least once a day. I still had chestnuts falling on my head. And I still kept tripping over pebbles along the mountain paths and almost falling flat on my face. But the number of moments that filled my heart with joy far outnumbered those I’d felt while living in the city. Even the tiniest little thing had the power to make me feel happy. Like turning over a beetle struggling on its back and watching it walk away. Like feeling the warmth of a freshly laid egg against my cheek. Like seeing a droplet of water balance on a leaf’s surface, more beautiful than any diamond. Or like finding a Kinugasa mushroom at the entrance to the bamboo forest, carefully plucking it and taking it home to place in my miso soup, with its wonderful flavor and its underside as beautiful and intricate as hand-knitted lace. All of these things filled me with wonder and gratitude and made me want to kiss God on the cheek.

If you like this type of writing, the whole book is written like this. If you don’t like this type of writing, this whole book is written like this. Since the novel has apparently achieved “international bestseller status” and was even turned into a feature film, I suppose that enough people have found Ogawa’s prose charming. It struck me as both forced and superficial at times, and the overwrought analogies and smug statements of self-satisfaction that Ogawa tends to place at the end of her paragraphs occasionally made me cringe in second-hand embarrassment. It took me about thirty pages to get used to Ogawa’s writing; but, once I did, I started to enjoy the book for what it was: food porn. Ogawa’s narrator loves cooking, and she loves eating, and she talks about both incessantly. If nothing else, this novel will fill you with a powerful lust for food.

The Restaurant of Love Regained begins when its first person narrator, Rinko, returns to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend to find it empty. Everything – from her furniture to the food in the refrigerator to the money she had kept stashed away under her mattress – is gone. Since Rinko has neither a cell phone nor a debit card, she uses the last bit of money on her person to take a bus back to her rural hometown. Rinko had originally left this village as a teenager in order to get away from her mother, who works as a bar hostess. After moving to Tokyo and living with her grandmother for a few years, during which time she learned how to cook, Rinko started working at a Middle Eastern restaurant. She was planning on opening her own restaurant when she had saved enough money – or at least she was before her boyfriend absconded with all of her worldly possessions. The shock to Rinko is so great that she ends up losing her voice. Rinko thus can only communicate through writing, but this doesn’t stop her from convincing her mother to loan her enough money to open an “eatery” in the small mountain village where she now lives. Rinko names her eatery “The Snail” and decides to serve only one party of customers a day, a management strategy that will presumably allow her to put her entire heart and soul into each and every meal.

What follows this initial setup is an episodic series of stories about Rinko’s customers and the dishes she prepares for them. Through her cooking, Rinko brings couples and families together while healing sick pets and sick relationships. All of these stories have happy endings, and Ogawa seems to delight in detailing the ingredients and preparation of the food that makes these happy endings possible. Behind the fluffy chick lit and food porn, though, is the story of the complicated relationship between Rinko and her mother, which, in the end, gives the novel the kind of satisfying narrative closure that cannot be provided by erotic descriptions of crème fraiche alone. This mother-daughter relationship is also the only hint of character complexity in The Restaurant of Love Regained, which is otherwise entirely one-dimensional. If you happen to like that one dimension, though, you will love the novel. Ogawa’s formulaic prose and story patterns are enjoyable and relaxing, and her novel is a testament to culinary creativity.

… At least until the last forty-five pages. The first thirty pages of the novel’s closing sequence are grisly and horrific. In these pages, Rinko butchers her pet pig Hermes for her mother’s wedding reception. This process is described in hideously disturbing language. Nothing in the rest of the book will have prepared you for these scenes. Reading them is viscerally upsetting – it’s like biting into a sweet tropical fruit only to find that a many-legged creature has died there while its sickly white larva feast on the flesh of their mother.

Besides an older man named Kuma, who helps Rinko set up her restaurant, Hermes is Rinko’s only friend. Rinko variously describes the pig as her sister, her child, her foster mother, and her grandmother. Rinko has fed Hermes, slept beside Hermes, and taken care of Hermes when the pig was sick. Rinko celebrated her birthday with Hermes, and Rinko rang in the new year with only Hermes to share her joy. Rinko cried to Hermes when she was sad and tried out new recipes on Hermes when she was excited. Throughout the novel, Hermes has proven capable of a wide range of human emotions; and, in many ways, the pig is a more sympathetic character than Rinko herself.

It is therefore not a little upsetting when Rinko acquiesces to her mother’s request that she kill Hermes.

The end of the novel is composed of a series of scenes depicting Rinko preparing Hermes for her mother’s wedding reception dinner. The author uses cruelly precise language to explain everything from the fear in Hermes’s eyes when the pig realizes she will be killed, to the way the pig struggles against being lead to the slaughterhouse, to the pig’s panic and anger when she is strung upside-down from the ceiling, to the pig’s anguished cries when Rinko slits her throat, to the pig’s futile struggles as she slowly bleeds to death. This goes on for pages. What follows is a loving description of the instruments Rinko uses to skin, gut, and carve Harmes, as well as how these instruments cut and slice into the pig’s body. There is a lot of ripping and tearing and blood, which is all the more disturbing when coupled with Rinko’s tender prostrations of how precious Hermes is to her, and how Hermes is just like a child/sister/mother.

This book takes the preparation of food very seriously. However, whereas these food preparation scenes used to be innocent and appetizing…

The rice was cooked a little too soft for my liking, but that didn’t stop me from munching down several mouthfuls and imagining their energy rising from the bottom of my stomach; the energy had come from Kuma’s mother as I’m sure she prepared them with her heart, her soul and kind thoughts for us. So I wasn’t just eating rice. I was taking in her love.

…now they are cruel and disgusting:

Next, I said a final farewell to Hermes’s face and placed it in the middle of the work bench. I took a knife and cut off both ears, planning to use them in a salad. Then I cracked the head in two. As my knife went through her head, it let out a sound like a groan. I was surprised to see that her brain was a lot smaller than I’d expected, and with a different, pearl-like colour to it too.

Pretty gross, right? And this paragraph isn’t even the worst. That particular honor goes to the paragraph in which Rinko muses that Hermes was like a grandmother to her as she pulls out the pig’s intestines.

I think the point of these scenes is supposed to be that we should reflect on where our food comes from and respect the organisms that give their lives so that we may be nourished. In other words, I think the novel’s conclusion is supposed to be a joyous celebration of food and food cultures (oddly paired with a sense of sadness directed towards relationships that cannot last, such as Rinko’s relationship with her mother, who is dying of cancer). Unfortunately, the incestuous and cannibalistic overtones of the language used to describe this bloody and barbaric celebration cancel out any intended joy and thanksgiving. I am not a vegetarian, and I think pork bacon is delicious, but the slaughter and consumption of Hermes was too much even for me, especially since the one hundred and fifty pages proceeding it had lulled me into complacency with uncomplicated stories of delicious food and people being happy.

Such an ending could be interpreted in two ways. The first is that it is simply the incompetent icing on a cake of incompetent writing. The second is that Ogawa is a brilliant writer of subversive horror fiction who has been even more subtle in her project to shock and horrify her audience than director Miike Takashi was in a film like Audition. If we follow this second interpretation, Rinko’s one-dimensional personality takes on sinister overtones. In her mind, there is no distinction between food and family, and she finds just as much pleasure in the bloody butchering of flesh as she does in sipping imported hot chocolate. Such an interpretation, combined with the novel’s vaguely gothic setting, provides a chilling premonition of the grisly future of Rinko’s isolated restaurant in the mountains. Furthermore, what really happened to the lover who abandoned Rinko at the beginning of the novel?

Unfortunately, this second interpretation is somewhat improbable. What we have, then, is a novel about food that gets a little messy at the end. If you love food and can stomach an extended scene detailing the slaughter and butchering of a beloved pet for the sake of thematic closure, you can probably handle The Restaurant of Love Regained. You might even be glad you read it. If you’re looking for serious Literature-with-a-capital-L, an engaging plot, an interesting and multi-faceted cast of characters, and real human drama – or if you’re put out by the prospect of reading thirty pages of intense carnage – you should probably avoid this novel. Personally, I wish I could unread it.

The Lake

Title: The Lake
Japanese Title: みずうみ (Mizuumi)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Michael Emmerich
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Melville House
Pages:188

I have been waiting for this book to come out for months. When it finally did, I read it in one sitting. As with many of Yoshimoto’s novels, it was occasionally frustrating, but I liked it. I guess one could say that The Lake is typical Yoshimoto. Allow me to explain.

The novel’s protagonist and first-person narrator, Chihiro, comes from a non-traditional family, works in a non-traditional profession, never worries about material things like money or the future even though she’s almost thirty, and seems to float through life, although she has hidden depths:

It’s like when you decide to build a house: some people want to go and find the land first, then hire an architect to help them draw up plans, and then choose the materials for the walls and everything on their own. I’m not like that. I prefer to wander around until I stumble across something, then I do the best I can with it, scrutinizing this thing I’ve discovered, getting to know it for what it is.

The heroine meets her love interest in an offbeat and untraditional way – in this case, he lives across the street from her, and they wave to each other from their respective windows until he talks to her on the street and casually starts showing up in her apartment. This love interest, Nakajima, is a grad student (first warning sign) and a stereotypical herbivore male:

I got the sense that he wasn’t really into sex, and he was shockingly thin, and although there were days when he would consume an astonishing amount, ordinarily he ate almost nothing, so overall he didn’t seem very energetic.

Nakajima is a little weird. Besides not having any friends and never wanting to sleep with our protagonist, he also exhibits behavioral quirks, such as his insistence on keeping detailed tallies of the money he owes Chihiro for using water and electricity when he stays over at her place. But Chihiro is still in love with him:

Whenever Nakajima said my name, every single time, it sparkled like a treasure. I had no idea why. Wow – did you see how that flashed? Say it again for me, please!

Chihiro gradually comes to realize that there is something seriously wrong with Nakajima; but, since she’s become attached to him, she decides to take it slow. As she ever so articulately explains to a friend:

“Anyway, he’s not like other people at all, it’s like, I don’t know how to describe it, like he’s living in the clouds, maybe. Like when people talk about someone having transcended it all – he’s like that, I guess. So part of me thinks it’s just in his makeup, and he would have been this way even if nothing had happened. For the time being I’ll just keep watching, I won’t rush it.”

Finally, Nakajima asks Chihiro to go with him to visit two old acquaintances who live in a cottage by a lake. Chihiro has been worried that Nakajima will leave her, either physically (by suddenly disappearing from her apartment) or psychically (by entering a long-term catatonic trance). She’s also bothered by his plans to leave Japan and study in Paris, which don’t seem to include her at all. She thinks about her anxieties as she walks around the lake with a trembling and profusely sweating Nakajima, but she still supports him, because:

He was an adult, perhaps thirty-five or so, and yet he was extremely small, like a child. His face seemed kind of shrunken, giving him the look of a bulldog. His eyes were sparkling, though, and there was something noble in the way he carried himself.

Do you feel like you’re reading a shōjo manga yet?

The narrative is driven forward by a twinned pair of mysteries: who are the people who live on the lake, and what is Nakajima’s damage? Both mysteries are solved when Chihiro returns to the lake on her own around thirty pages before the book ends; and, to give the author credit, they are resolved quite nicely and sufficiently satisfied my morbid, look-at-the-car-wreck curiosity. Still, I wasn’t too terribly invested in figuring out what was going on (the blurb on the book jacket sort of spoils it with its overt mention of religious cults), and I didn’t really care about the relationship between Chihiro and Nakajima, which was more hurt/comfort than actual romance.

What was interesting to me were the descriptions of small-town politics. The majority of the story is set in Tokyo, but Chihiro comes from a small town where her father wasn’t allowed to marry her mother, who worked as the mama-san of a small bar. Chihiro’s assessment of her father’s family, the patrons of her mother’s bar, and the atmosphere of the town in general are acerbic and insightful. Also, Chihiro works as a muralist, and one of her friends commissions her to create a mural on one of the walls of a run-down community center in a small neighborhood in Tokyo in an effort to save the structure from being demolished. The interplay between Chihiro, the community center, the local government, and a potential sponsor of the project is dramatic in a quiet sort of way, and Chihiro’s explanations of her creative process as she interacts with the people who watch her work are also interesting.

If you like Banana Yoshimoto for her quirky characters, fragmented yet loving families, and universes almost like our own but one step closer to the supernatural, then you’ll like The Lake. If you dislike Banana Yoshimoto for the lack of adult judgment in her characters and her rambling, juvenile prose (which is tight like a handful of squirming hamsters), then you probably won’t like The Lake. For the record, I like the book, and I also think Michael Emmerich did an excellent job of translating it.

Ayako

Title: Ayako
Japanese Title: 奇子 (Ayako)
Artist: Tezuka Osamu (手塚 治虫)
Translator: Mari Morimoto
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1973 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 700

Every once in awhile I will play a game with myself in which I try to imagine the perfect setup for a Gothic novel. Family secrets! Incest! Murder! A madwoman locked in the basement! Sex! Revenge! I was thrilled, then, when I found that Tezuka Osamu’s mid-career manga Ayako hits all of the Gothic genre high points, one after the other. In 1949, a man named Jirō returns to Japan from an American POW camp to find his homeland significantly changed. The political situation in Tokyo is bad, but Jirō’s family situation in rural Japan is even worse, as the powerful Tenge clan has lost most of its holdings in the postwar land ownership restructuring movements. Through a convoluted series of events, Jirō ends up committing murder and has to flee the countryside. Through an equally convoluted series of events, Jirō’s four-year-old sister Ayako, who is made to bear the blame for the family’s misfortunes, is locked in a cellar for more than twenty years before finally being rescued by her older brother Shirō, who has been biding his time while witnessing the slow decay of his family. Ayako escapes her family and flees to Tokyo, where she is reunited with Jirō, whose rise to power reflects Japan’s economic ascent in the sixties. The Gothic elements of Ayako’s family drama are enhanced by the Gothic elements of postwar Japanese history, with its unsavory secrets and shady backroom deals and assassinated activists all swept under the historical carpet.

The whole thing weighs in at exactly seven hundred pages, making it a book to be reckoned with. It is in fact a Book, beautiful and well-published (but probably too big to carry around casually; an e-reader edition would have been awesome, but alas). Perhaps because of the way it has been published, in a tasteful, hardcover, single-volume edition, its ad copy attempts to market it as a Novel, stating, “Ayako looms as a pinnacle of Naturalist literature in Japan with few peers even in prose, the striking heroine a potent emblem of things left unseen by the war.” I read the publicity for the graphic novel, got excited, and had Amazon ship it to me on the day it came out. If people were comparing Ayako to Faulkner and Tolstoy, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? Unfortunately, although Ayako is certainly a major accomplishment in the field of graphic novels, I am going to have to put my foot down and declare that it is not in fact on par with the best of Japanese prose. Far from it. As literature, Ayako is riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the storytelling. The plot is highly improbable from beginning to end, and its developments often don’t make much sense if the reader begins to question them. The ending, which reeks of poetic justice, feels especially heavy handed. If one simply accepts the story as it unfolds, it’s not so far-fetched that it’s ridiculous, but “a pinnacle of Naturalist literature” it is not. The pacing is also highly uneven. I am not referring to the beautiful drawings of city- and country-scapes that Tezuka often inserts under blocks of third-person, scene-setting narration, but rather to certain key plot points that happen way too quickly. This refusal to let the reader slow down and figure out what’s happening is especially bad at the beginning and end of the book. Perhaps this why the plot at these points feels so contrived, or perhaps Tezuka himself wishes to rush across his plot holes. In any case, I didn’t feel that I was in the hands of a professional at the top of his game.

Another thing I expect from the “literary” novels I read is a cast of deep, multi-faceted characters, but the dramatis personae of Ayako are all one-dimensional. The Tenge patriarch and his oldest son Ichirō, for example, do what they do simply because they’re evil people. The two most complex characters, Jirō and Shirō, merely flip between “good” and “bad” like cutout paper puppets. Perhaps the female characters possess a greater depth of personality, but the narrative doesn’t really seem to care about them. Of Ichirō’s second wife, Tezuka says only that she is “so bland and devoid of a role in this tale that she is not worth mentioning.” Why is this woman driven to marry a man who obviously murdered his first wife, and how does she deal with his moodiness, alcoholism, and deranged family? It’s not worth mentioning, I guess. Ayako, who has the potential to be the most interesting character, is the most disappointing. The image of her on the cover of the book says everything you need to know about her. She is young, beautiful, and mysterious, and she very much wants to have sex with you. We see her breasts, butt, thighs, and panties more than we hear her speak. (I am exaggerating, but only a bit.) Of course she is seriously psychologically damaged, but Tezuka doesn’t give this the narrative weight it deserves, choosing instead to have us view her through the eyes of his male characters, who regard her as both pitiful and sexually irresistible. A “striking heroine” and a “potent emblem,” indeed.

Other minor characters are so cartoonish and caricatured that they don’t add much of anything to the story. In fact, one might say they detract from it. Clones of Popeye, Olive Oil, and Dick Tracy don’t really help the story construct itself as “serious literature,” and Tezuka’s brief attempts at humor feel inane and misplaced. On that note, the art quality in Ayako can sometimes be shockingly bad. For example, I don’t think Tezuka was even trying in this panel:

There are many examples that are far worse, but it would be cruel to beat such an ugly dead horse. Furthermore, some scenes that should be highly dramatic, like Jirō murdering one of his subordinates, come off as silly because the artwork is so immature. The cartoon character designs and the rushed artwork are much better, however, than Tezuka’s occasional attempts at realism. Such drawings are, quite honestly, unlovely, and their effect on the flow of the story is akin to someone jumping onto the train tracks. I’m sure that someone at some point will write a paper on Tezuka’s changes in artistic style in Ayako, but I came away with the feeling that his excursions into realism were randomly placed and artistically useless. They strike the reader forcefully – not in the way that an amazing photograph on the cover of a news magazine does, but rather in the way that someone suddenly vomiting in a crowded train does.

Such an awkward analogy brings me to my final point of contention: the translation. Again, the ad copy bills Mari Morimoto as an veteran translator, but I’m afraid that her extensive resume gave her a sense of artistic entitlement that she then used to absolutely no one’s advantage. If you think that this is a mean, nasty thing to say, I encourage you to read a page of Ayako (click on the image for a larger version):

I believe that dialect is something that is much more natural and naturalized in written Japanese than it is in written English. In written English, one needs merely to say of a character that he has a French accent; there is no need to write his every line of dialog as something like, “Je would like zee wat-ere with mon caf-ey.” The translation of Ōoku, which employs a vaguely Shakespearean idiom to give a sense of all the de gozaru period speech patterns going on in the original Japanese, succeeds brilliantly because the touch of dialect is so light. It is suggested to the reader, not shoved into his face and down his throat. The translation of Ayako, however, not only draws unnecessary attention to itself but also robs the Tenge family of any power, dignity, tragedy, or pathos they might have possibly had by making them sound like a Family Guy parody of the Beverly Hillbillies. There are also strange aberrations in the speech of certain characters, like when Jirō suddenly and without warning starts calling people “Guv’nor” in the last quarter of the book. And then there are the occasional lines of dialog that make no sense, such as when a character who otherwise uses unmarked speech says something like, “Boss! Our lads will think you’ve prostrated yourself to the [rival gangster organization]! They’ll be all a-seethe!” They’ll be all a-seethe? Seriously?

Any of these problem areas – narrative structure, pacing, characterization, art, translation – would potentially be a deal-breaker by itself, but together they make Ayako awkward and almost unreadable at times. Ayako is a deeply flawed work, and its flaws are of the type that are simply annoying without adding any depth to the story. I am posting an abbreviated version of this review on Amazon, and I am giving Ayako four out of five stars, because, despite everything, it is an excellent graphic novel. If you come to it expecting a literary masterpiece on par with The Makioka Sisters or The Sound and the Fury, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ayako is not high literature. It is a comic book: an engaging and thought-provoking comic book that was ahead of its time, but a comic book nonetheless.

I wholeheartedly recommend Ayako to librarians building a manga collection as well as to people who study manga, and I somewhat reservedly recommend it to people who are either Tezuka fans or otherwise used to reading manga published before the nineties. However, Ayako is not for literary types seeking an introduction to manga, and it is not for casual manga fans seeking an introduction to Tezuka. Unless you’re really sure that you want to read Ayako, warts and all, you’re better off trying a Tezuka title like Buddha or Phoenix. Better yet, skip the history lesson and go straight to Urasawa Naoki, who achieves the beauty of art and novelistic scope and density of character that perhaps Tezuka could have aimed for had he not been working on a dozen projects all at once.

In conclusion, I’m happy that Vertical has released Ayako in translation, but I find the ad copy misleading and counter-productive. It’s like talking about some entertaining yet vacuous commercial garbage like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and saying, “Look! This is literature! It references mythology!” in an attempt to get people to take young adult fiction seriously. There are plenty of literary manga out there, but Ayako feels like a relatively minor work in the canon, no matter how much money its publisher put into its release. If Vertical insists on producing deluxe editions, I wish they would pick up classics like Rose of Versailles or The Heart of Thomas, which have aged remarkably well. Otherwise, it is my hope that, in their ongoing battle against scanlations, they publish more affordable editions (like digital ones!) that might appeal to poor students such as myself, who sometimes get upset when their shiny new $30 investment isn’t everything it was promised to be.

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…