Emily

Emily

Title: Emily
Japanese Title: エミリー (Emirii)
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本 野ばら)
Translator: Misa Dikengil Lindberg
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Shueisha English Edition

There are two short stories and one novella included in Takemoto Novala’s collection Emily, which was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize (for popular established writers) in 2003. “Readymade,” which is only a few pages long, is written in the form of a confession of a young female office worker to an older male colleague who takes her on a date to an exhibition of French Cubist art at the Ueno Royal Museum. “Corset” is told from the perspective of a male illustrator in Kyoto who plans to indulge in a short romantic relationship with an engaged woman before committing suicide in honor of a deceased friend. The novella Emily is about two high school misfits devoted to street fashion.

The two short stories are wonderfully atmospheric and can be read as treatises on Lolita aesthetics. Both stories follow the pattern of an older and self-assured man aggressively offering instruction to a naïve younger woman characterized as a tabula rasa, and they’re less about suspense and development than they are about establishing a colorful and stylized worldview.

To give an example from “Corset”:

“Wouldn’t it have been great if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century?”

“Yes. Sometimes I really think so. But I also think that if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century, maybe we’d still be complaining, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d been born in the eighteenth century?’ Perhaps it’s not this era that we dislike, but the state of being in the present that doesn’t agree with us.”

“You mean no matter what era we were born in, we’d always long for the past and have nothing but despair for the present? Maybe you’re right. So there’s no way out except death.”

“Regardless of how the times change, as long as you are alive, you’ll be full of nothing but discord with the world around you.”

Such sentiments provide a fitting prelude to the novella Emily, in which the narrator truly is out of sync with the world in which she lives. This is not her personal failing, but rather a failing on the part of a society that refuses to accommodate diversity and always seeks a scapegoat. Emily‘s narrator, who enjoys visiting the Laforet shopping center in Harajuku and dressing in cute street fashions, has become a target for the other girls in her high school, who subject her to bizarrely cruel forms of bullying:

They sometimes made me stand in the middle of the court with my hands bound, as they spiked balls at me. I had to take the hits directly to my body as the seniors spiked and then ordered others to spike. There was no way I could run. If the balls had been coming from one direction, I could have escaped, but they came from all directions. Every ball hit me. It was a game to them. If a ball hit my body, they scored one point. If it hit my face, they scored five points. And if it knocked me over, they scored ten points.

The narrator isn’t subject to abuse just from her classmates and volleyball club teammates, but also from her mother, who is disappointed that she was unable to become a child television star, a path the narrator refused to follow after she suffered abuse of another kind. Instead of becoming bitter or resentful, however, the young woman finds joy in the self-expression she realizes through clothing that flies in the face of conformity and social expectations. In fact, it seems only natural to the reader that she would use street fashion to carve out a comfortable refuge for herself away from her school and family.

Through a shared interest in the Emily Temple Cute brand, the narrator becomes friends with a boy who also hangs out around Laforet. It turns out that he’s a student at her high school, and he’s also being bullied because he came out as gay to another male student. After one particularly frightening incidence of bullying that threatens the life of the narrator, her friend flies into a rage and attacks her tormentors before fleeing the school grounds. The narrator tracks him down in Shibuya, and they have a long heart-to-heart conversation that is both touching and extremely painful.

Although Emily addresses real social issues, like the two other stories in the collection, its themes are exaggerated, and the style in which it is written is clearly stylized. Readers searching for absolute mimetic realism probably won’t be impressed, but fans of young adult fiction – including young adults – will be moved and swept away by the entire collection.

Included at the end of Emily is a lengthy and illuminating interview with the author, Takemoto Novala.

Although the translation is only available as an e-book, its short length (probably fewer than 150 pages) would make it a perfect classroom text should it ever become available in a paperback edition.

So, you’re intrigued by Emily. You should be! The publisher, Shueisha English Edition, has put up a lovely website to help promote the book. But you’ve searched on Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, on Kobo, and on iBooks, and it’s nowhere to be found. What gives?

It turns out that Shueisha English Edition titles were only available through the Sony Reader digital storefront, which was shut down earlier this year (2014). When the Sony Reader store closed, an announcement was posted stating that all Sony Reader titles would be transferred to Kobo. An April 2 post on the Shueisha English Edition Facebook page reads as follows:

We’re very sorry but our move to Kobo won’t happen very soon. We’re still talking with our possible representative in the States.

On June 29, the following update appeared:

Ours is an editorial team only working for Shueisha English Edition, and has no connection to Shueisha’s other operations. We’ll restart our publication soon when we reach an agreement to our next retailer. Please don’t send any inquiries about Shueisha’s other publications and rights/licensing business. We simply cannot answer to any such questions and requests. Thank you for your patience and we’re working hard on our future titles. Please wait for some more for our official announcements and new titles.

Since then, nothing.

It seems as though the publisher has disappeared, which is a shame, since it was off to a fantastic start, regularly putting out lovely digital books with excellent bonus materials and carefully crafted promotional websites (such as those for Shimizu Yoshinori’s Labyrinth and Makime Manabu’s The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom). In an interview on the SCBWI Japan Translation Group’s webpage, the Shueisha English Edition editor in chief, Yoshio Kobayashi, outlines the care and attention put into the translation, editing, and presentation of each of the publisher’s titles. Although I don’t have access to any of these other titles, Emily is a cool little book, and I imagine that it would have been able to find a sizeable audience through the appropriate distribution channels.

Although I understand that the collapse of the Sony Reader Store must have been a major blow, I can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on with Shueisha English Edition, especially since the publisher is working with such fantastic and high-profile authors and translators. I can only hope that good news is forthcoming from them soon.

Review copy provided by Shueisha English Edition.

From Five to Nine

From Five to Nine 1

Title: From Five to Nine
Japanese Title: 5時から9時まで (Goji kara kuji made)
Author: Aihara Miki (相原 実貴)
Publication Year: 2010 (ongoing)
Publisher: Shōgakukan
Pages (per volume): 190

From Five to Nine is the current project of Aihara Miki, whose manga Hot Gimmick and Honey Hunt have been published in English translation by Viz Media. Like Aihara’s earlier titles, From Five to Nine is a drama-filled exposé of the love lives of gorgeous young people going about their business in the trendy districts on the southwest side of Tokyo. From Five to Nine is serialized in Monthly Cheese!, an unfortunately named magazine that serves as a bridge between a shōjo readership of tweens captivated by stories of pure love and a josei readership of young women interested in the more physical aspects of romantic relationships. In accordance with the magazine’s house style, all of the characters in the manga are well dressed and ridiculously attractive, emotional and sexual tensions always run high, and chapters end on cliffhangers more often than not. In other words, From Five to Nine is highly entertaining, addictive reading. It’s designed to be.

What I think is interesting about this manga is the way it explores the conflicts between different gender roles and expectations of femininity through the love affairs of its main protagonist.

Sakuraba Junko, the leading lady, teaches during the evenings at an English language conversation school (Eikaiwa gakkō). Because of her friendly professionalism and almost native fluency, she’s considered to be one of the top instructors at her workplace, and her dream is to save up enough money to study abroad in America. Since Junko has passed through her early twenties without having settled down with a man, her grandmother has started to set her up on dates with potential marriage partners through a somewhat formalized process known as miai. To appease her grandmother, Junko spends her twenty-seventh birthday out on a miai date with a Buddhist monk named Hoshikawa Takane, who graduated from Tokyo University with a major in Indian philosophy. Junko is put off by what she sees as Hoshikawa’s snobbishness; but, thinking that their date is a one-time thing and that she’ll never see him again, Junko ends up sleeping with him on a lark. For Hoshikawa, however, that one night is the beginning of TRUE LOVE FOREVER.

Because this is a manga by Aihara Miki, Junko is fated to be the unfortunate object of nonconsensual manly persuasion concerning a relationship that she doesn’t particularly care for. Immediately after Junko gets back from her one night stand with Hoshikawa, she realizes that the deadline to move out of her apartment, whose building is slated for renewal, is fast approaching. When she goes to her grandmother for help, her grandmother suggests that she take temporary residence (geshuku) in a temple with connections to the family. Unfortunately, this temple is headed by Hoshikawa, who now wants to make Junko his temple wife (tera no yome). Being a temple wife is a full-time job, and a marriage to Hoshikawa would require Junko to give up her position at the English conversation school where she currently works, as well as her dream to study abroad. Essentially, if she were to marry Hoshikawa, Junko would have to give up the pleasures of her existence as an independent urbanite and spend her days cooking, cleaning, dressing herself in traditional clothing, setting out flower arrangements, and entertaining guests. Needless to say, she wants none of this. Hoshikawa won’t give up on her so easily, however, and he takes to stalking her, abducting her, and harassing her at both at home and at her workplace. One particularly unpleasant stunt Hoshikawa pulls is to lock Junko up in a small guesthouse separated from the main temple compound by an ornamental garden. In order to escape, Junko agrees to marry Hoshikawa; and, to keep him fooled regarding her true intentions, she makes a show of waking up early to devote herself to cleaning, all the while scheming of ways to get away from the temple.

Meanwhile, her college friend Mishima Satoshi, who has been assigned to his company’s branch office in America, shows up at Junko’s school in order to brush up on his English. Mishima has feelings for Junko and harbors a secret desire to take her to America with him; but, as Junko becomes more aware of Mishima’s intentions and her own reciprocal feelings for him, she surprises herself by becoming conflicted over leaving Hoshikawa and the life he’s offering her. Junko has also attracted the interest of one of her younger pupils, a wealthy student at an elite high school who cross dresses so effectively that only a small handful of his friends know that he’s actually male. This student, Satonaka Yuki, dislikes both Hoshikawa and Mishima and wants Junko to be able to stand on her own two feet outside of relationships with creepy stalker monks and alcoholic playboy salarymen.

This is high melodrama, of course, but what is interesting about Junko’s love life is how aptly it represents the push and pull between traditional and contemporary women’s roles. Should Junko give into social and sexual pressure and relinquish her independence and her dreams, or should she take advantage of a potential romantic partner’s kindness in order to break free of the constraints of living in Japan? Is it possible for her to somehow fend for herself without a social and economic safety net? Because of the romantic drama, the reader is able to experience the emotional attraction and anxiety of all of these possibilities. For example, when Hoshikawa does something ridiculous in order to (sometimes literally) lock Junko into a traditional gender role, the denial of agency that Junko suffers is viscerally upsetting to the reader. As it gradually becomes clear that Hoshikawa genuinely cares for Junko, however, it also becomes clear that Junko’s spirited resistance might be able change the way he sees the responsibilities and aspirations of the women of his generation. In this way, Hoshikawa serves as a representative of a society that is still primarily dominated by phallocentric interests. He’s scary, and his behavior is obviously psychologically unhealthy, but he can be persuaded to change by a woman smart enough and tough enough to take him on, even if she’s coming from a position of relative disadvantage. The sort of “he can change” mentality Junko comes to embrace is presented as being just as dangerous in the fictional world of the manga as it is in real life, but the alternative – “he will never change” – would be a bleak prognosis on the sort of patriarchal mentality Hoshikawa represents. The possibility that Hoshikawa can change himself as he learns that women are people too (gasp!) is an element of social optimism that serves as an emollient to the seemingly misogynistic sexual drama of the manga.

Two other female employees at Junko’s workplace, Yamabuchi Momoe and Mōri Masako, act as counterpoints to Junko’s situation by providing different attitudes towards employment, love, and marriage.

Along with Junko, Momoe is one of the most professional and sought after instructors at the conversation school, but she has a reputation for being standoffish and emotionally chilly. Although she’s all business in the office, she secretly loves yaoi manga. When Arthur Lange, a blond-haired foreign instructor from Britain, discovers Momoe’s hidden interests, he uses the threat of revealing her identity as a fujoshi to her boss to blackmail her into a relationship. Although Momoe enjoys fantasies of attractive, foreign-looking men being sexually aggressive and emotionally manipulative, the enactment of her fantasy is much more unpleasant in real life than it is in the pages of yaoi manga. Momoe is older than Arthur, but she has never had any romantic experience, and she constantly second-guesses her reactions to his teasing and bullying. She therefore often finds herself in the position of wondering how a woman her age should behave towards men, even though she wants nothing to do with them.

Masako, a receptionist at the English conversation school where Junko and Momoe teach, is a recent college graduate who, more than anything, wants to settle down with a boyfriend and become a housewife. Her coworkers tease her by calling her “Zexy,” a nickname taken from the title of a wedding and bridal magazine. Since Masako is attractive and intelligent, her standards for a partner are high, and she can’t find anyone her own age who meets them. Unfortunately, having cultivated an attitude of flirtatious approachability, she finds herself the constant target of unwanted male attention, especially in the form of sexual harassment from middle-aged men.

Junko’s English conversation school is thus a microcosm of Japanese society staffed by different women with different expectations, goals, and challenges concerning their futures. Although the manga focuses on its three main female characters, the male characters are also allowed enough interiority for the reader to see them working, talking to each other, and thinking about their own dreams and romantic problems. All of these characters work at cross purposes because of the artificial drama created by the manga artist, but their attitudes and emotional conflicts ring true to real social expectations and gender roles.

From Five to Nine is a fascinating exploration of contemporary Japan with enough intersecting plot lines, character development, and thematic subtlety to keep even the most demanding readers engaged. The obi bands around the manga covers tout the series as “a Tokyo version of Sex and the City,” and that should be recommendation enough for anyone seeking a fast-paced, hormone-fueled examination of gender roles in the twenty-first century.

From Five to Nine 2

Tokyo on Foot

Title: Tokyo on Foot
Author/Artist: Florent Chavouet
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 206

While I was in New York City for the New York Comic Con last weekend, I met a friend of mine for lunch. Accompanying her was her new fiancé, a really cool guy who’s lived and traveled all over Asia. All over Asia except for Japan, that is. He said that, based on the Japanese movies he’s seen, he’s a bit afraid of Tokyo. It seems too big, and too modern, and too noisy – hyperkinetic and almost like science fiction. I asked him what Japanese movies he’s seen. Akira and Lost in Translation, he told me.

I think that, for a lot of people who are familiar with Japan but haven’t actually been there, Japan exists not as a real place where real people live but rather as some sort of strange and exotic fantasy land called “Japan.” For some people, “Japan” consists of towering skyscrapers and flashing lights and all-night karaoke rooms, while for some people “Japan” is all about green mountains and cherry blossoms and Zen temples and tea houses. There is a touch of good old fashioned Orientalism at play here; but, then again, Japan actively markets itself in such a way as to encourage these assumptions, even domestically. Furthermore, the fantasy of “Japan” is perhaps not so fantastical – places like the 109 Building in Shibuya and the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto really do exist.

In the end, though, Japan is a real place where real people live, and it’s not any more beautiful or ugly or modern or rural than, say, New Jersey. What I love about Florent Chavouet’s Tokyo on Foot is that it visually depicts Tokyo as a real city with many, many faces. Yes, there are huge buildings and busy intersections in West Shinjuku, but there are also tiny restaurants and old houses on the verge of falling apart in West Ikebukuro. And then there’s everything in between, from architectural oddities in Ueno to cute little bars in Daikanyama to Shintō shrines nestled between skyscrapers in Takadanobaba. Chavouet draws them all beautifully.

Tokyo on Foot is divided into neighborhoods, with each section opening with a drawing of the local kōban (police station) and a highly detailed annotated map. What follows this map are several pages of drawings of buildings, street corners, storefronts, landmarks, and occasionally people that the artist observed in the neighborhood. Most of these drawings occupy a full page, and all of them are in high-contrast full color. Chavouet’s drawings of people are caricatured, and his drawings of buildings and objects are almost photorealistic, but all of his subjects receive the same careful attention to detail. Chavouet’s medium of choice is colored pencils, and his pencil work really brings out the colors and textures of everything he draws. Really, it’s gorgeous.

Chavouet often accompanies his sketches with annotations. He’ll make small notes concerning the weather, how he got to a certain location, and what interactions he had with the people who watched him drawing. He’ll also include small cultural details, like the fact the Mr. Donuts offers free coffee refills. In each section, there is usually at least a page or two of smaller sketches illustrating concepts like the vast insect population of Tokyo or how to make a disco lamp using cheap materials from Tokyu Hands (“like Target, only better”). There is occasionally political commentary as well, such as when the artist draws the heads of conservative male politicians attached to the bodies of young women in bikinis or mocks the nonsense spewed by the right wing campaign trucks that tour the streets of Tokyo (“Down with kisses and TLC, long live war and mean people”). In a scattered and roundabout manner, Chavouet also turns a satirical eye on the police officers who repeatedly harassed him for parking his bike in the wrong place and/or loitering (in other words, staying in one place long enough to draw it).

What Chavouet draws is a Tokyo that isn’t some futuristic (or idyllic) alien city but rather a city where people live, work, drink, smoke, have trouble finding parking, chill out in coffee shops to get out of the rain, hang out with their friends, sometimes act like assholes or creeps in public, take lunch breaks in the park, and all the other things people do in a huge urban area filled with millions of people. Through his pencil work, Chavouet depicts the beauty of the monumental, the grimy, the quaint, and the pedestrian. Rows of potted plants outside of someone’s house in a small back alley just behind a major train station can be just as calming and peaceful as a painstakingly manicured Zen garden, and telephone poles covered in posters can be just as awe-inspiring as Corinthian columns.

I can’t wrap my head around how much I love this book. Get this book for yourself. Get this book for your hipster art school friends. Get this book for your mom who doesn’t understand why you care about Japan in the first place. And get this book for your friend’s fiancé who thinks Japan is exactly like Akira. At least, that’s what I plan on doing.

A Treasure Hunter’s Guide to Dōjinshi

Or, how to find dōjinshi in Tokyo. Here is what you need to know before you set out:

First, stores specializing in dōjinshi tend to fall into two categories, dansei-muke (for men) and josei-muke (for women). Dansei-muke dōjinshi are usually highly pornographic, and it is far from uncommon for them to feature the graphic rape of minors (or characters drawn to look like minors). The term josei-muke refers to the genre of boys love (BL), but the majority of the dōjinshi found in josei-muke stores aren’t BL at all but rather humor, parody, drama, or light heterosexual romance. You can usually tell what you’re getting from the cover, but every dōjinshi is enclosed in a plastic slipcase that you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) open until you actually buy the thing. Most general-audience dōjinshi are ¥210, and a good rule of thumb is that, the more expensive the dōjinshi, the more pornographic its content. There are exceptions to this – the dōjinshi in question may be particularly rare, or particularly good, or by a particularly well-known artist – but again, you can usually make an educated guess on the content based on the cover.

Second, you need to know how to read Japanese. It goes without saying that all dōjinshi are written in Japanese (regardless of whether English is used on the cover). More importantly, no English is used in any of the stores. Dōjinshi are organized in kana order by the title of whatever work they’re based on and grouped according to genre (ie, video games, shōnen manga, Western television shows, Korean boy bands, etc). Dōjinshi based on more popular series (such as Hetalia or Final Fantasy VII) are further organized by pairing or dōjin circle. You’re therefore going to need to be able to read Japanese in order to navigate the stores. The staff at these stores is generally happy to help you find what you’re looking for, but you need to tell them the title of the gensaku (original work on which the dōjinshi is based) in Japanese before they can help you. If you’re not confident about your Japanese, it might be useful to bring a friend to help you navigate and to visit the stores as soon as they open (so they won’t be crowded).

With that in mind, here we go!

Ikebukuro

Ikebukuro, and more specifically Otome Road, is the mecca for fujoshi. It should be the first and last place that any female dōjinshi hunter visits. If you’ve never been here before, let me promise you that it’s anything beyond your wildest dreams. Bring lots of money.

Ikebukuro Station is absolute chaos, and it’s very easy to get lost. In general, though, you want to head towards the Seibu side of the station. There are several exits out of the JR portions of the station; but, if you follow the yellow signs for “Sunshine” (which are referring to Sunshine City), you should be headed in the right direction. The specific exit you want to take out of the station is Exit 35.

You’ll emerge from chaos into chaos. There will be a huge Bic Camera to your left and an enormous throng of people directly in front of you. Follow the throng straight ahead and then to the left to a street crossing. On the other side of the street will be a Lotteria on the left and a Café Spazio on the right. Cross the street and pass in between these two restaurants to enter an enormous shopping street called Sunshine Plaza. Walk all the way down the street until you reach a highway overpass. Cross the road under the overpass on the right side and then turn right in front of the Toyota Auto Salon. Walk until you reach a Family Mart, and then take a hard left all the way around the corner building. You should see an Animate in front of you. Congratulations! You’ve reached Otome Road.

Otome Road begins at the Animate and ends at the three-story K-Books Dōjin-kan. This K-Books is probably the single best dōjinshi store in all of Tokyo. They have dōjinshi for every conceivable fandom, and they usually have the same dōjinshi for less money (¥210 as opposed to ¥420) than at the Mandarake you passed on the way. They also have tons of original dōjinshi and dōjinshi sets (all of the dōjinshi in a series, or a dōjinshi packaged with extras like fans or postcards). Keep in mind that all of the dōjinshi on the second floor are new and can usually be found for a fraction of the price on the third floor, where they sell used dōjinshi. What I like about this particular store is that they have a lot of general interest dōjinshi that have nothing to do with yaoi. The previously mentioned Mandarake has a much stronger focus on BL dōjinshi, and it’s a good place to find original dōjin artbooks as well.

There are two different branches of Café Swallowtail (a famous butler café) on Otome Road, one next to the Mandarake and one next to the K-Books. If you’d like to visit, make sure that you’re familiar with the process of attaining a reservation before you go. The two locations have two different reservation procedures, and you can only make a reservation for a thirty-minute time slot. Don’t be afraid of trying one out, even if your Japanese isn’t perfect, but it’s way more fun to go with a friend (especially since the cafés are geared towards parties of two).

On your way through Sunshine Plaza from the station to the highway overpass, you can turn right at any point to enter a maze of manga stores, maid cafés, and cat cafés. Also, if you’re really into Japanese youth culture and fashion, try entering Sunshine City (you’ll know it when you see it), which is the size of a small city – a small city filled with clothing and accessories for teenagers (and an aquarium). Finally, the cinemas lining Sunshine Plaza are the best places to go to see an animated movie, whether it’s the new Ghibli film or the latest feature-length spin-off of a popular franchise like K-ON. They’re also good places to pick up all the guidebooks and merchandise that accompany these movies. If you need to chill out and kill time before a show, you can always take advantage of one of the many many many kitschy love hotels (which are cheap and clean and more than likely have a nicer shower than your apartment or hotel) right off the main street.

Akihabara

Akihabara is where you go to get porn. The end.

Okay, seriously. Akihabara specializes in dansei-muke dōjinshi. There are tons of small dōjinshi stores located several floors up or several floors down from the narrow side streets that twist through the main electronics district. Many of these smaller stores cater to specific fetishes, and some of these fetishes might be extremely disturbing to some people. I will therefore leave the true exploration of this area to the truly adventurous. Thankfully, the Akihabara branches of K-Books and Mandarake are fairly mainstream (although still filled with porn).

Take the Akihabara Electric Town exit out of the JR station. Straight ahead you’ll be looking at several columns and a storefront, so head to your left to exit. Once outside the building, turn to your right. A few dozen feet down the left side of the street you’ll see the Radio Kaikan. There are several entrances into this building, but you want to take the escalator that goes directly from the storefront up to the second floor. (It’s right next to the display of electronic dictionaries. Incidentally, this is the single best place in Japan to get an electronic dictionary, as it has all the latest models at 40-60% off the list price.) Once off the escalator, go up the stairs to the third floor and then turn to your right to enter the K-Books dōjinshi store. Whatever fandom you’re interested in, from Evangelion to Azumanga Daioh, they have porn of it. They also have tons of fresh dōjinshi from the latest comic markets at reasonable prices, as well as other dōjin goods such as Vocaloid albums and body pillow covers.

[ETA: As of July 1, 2011, the Akihabara branch of K-Books has relocated to the “Akiba Cultures Zone” (AKIBAカルチャーズZONE). To get there, use the directions for Mandarake but turn to your left before the Sumitomo Fudōsan instead of after it. In other words, turn left at the Daikokuya electronics store (you should see the K-Books storefront reflected in the glass windows of the Sumitomo building). The first floor houses used manga, and the dōjinshi are on the second floor.]

The other big dōjinshi store in Akihabara is the Mandarake complex, which has separate floors for dansei-muke dōjinshi and josei-muke dōjinshi (as well as other floors for other things, like used manga and cosplay supplies). To get there, go straight past the Radio Kaikan until you reach a large street. This road is Chūō-dōri. Cross over to the other side of the street and turn to your right. Walk for about two blocks until you read the Sumitomo Fudōsan Building. Turn to your left after this building onto a small street, and you should see the Mandarake complex ahead on the right. The fourth floor has josei-muke dōjinshi, and the third floor had dansei-muke dōjinshi. The selection on both floors isn’t the best, but you can sometimes find stuff here that you can’t find anywhere else, such as the dōjinshi of a popular circle called CRIMSON, which publishes print versions of its dōjin visual novel games.

On the way to Mandarake, you will have seen the main branch of Tora no Ana on the other side of Shōwa-dōri. Tora no Ana publishes its own art books and dōjinshi (and a few mainstream manga like Fuku-Yomo), but its third floor is a fujoshi paradise of BL manga, manga magazines, and dōjinshi. Even if you’re not into porn, it’s worth visiting the Tora no Ana in Akihabara just to check out the culture.

Shibuya

The main attraction of Shibuya is the Mandarake, which specializes in used pornographic manga and figurines but has a sizeable josei-muke dōjinshi section with a unique selection. Since this Mandarake is somewhat removed from Otome Road, the dōjinshi in stock here aren’t the newest or the freshest that you can get your hands on, but this can work to your advantage if you’re looking for dōjinshi based on older titles like Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Nodame Cantible, Hellsing, Wild Arms, Final Fantasy IV, or the next-to-latest incarnation of the Pokémon franchise. Also, if you’re looking for dōjinshi based on manga by CLAMP or the films of Studio Ghibli, this is the place to go. If you’re looking for original dōjinshi drawn by an artist like Ono Natsume or Yoshinaga Fumi, this is also the place to go. This particular store also has the friendliest and most helpful staff I’ve yet encountered.

To get there, take the Hachikō exit out of the JR station and orient yourself so that you’re facing the Tsutaya building with the Starbucks café. Head down the left side of the big road passing to the right of this building (the 109 Men building will be on the other side of the road). In about a block the Seibu department store will be on your left. Turn left to pass in between the two Seibu buildings (there will be bridges above you). Go straight on that street until it splits at a kōban (police box) and take the right fork. The Mandarake will be a block down on the left side of the street, directly across from a Choco Cro café. You’ll need to go down several flights of stairs to reach the actual store. (For the record, there is another entrance into the store, but this is the one that leads directly to its dōjinshi section.)

While we’re on the topic of Shibuya, I should also mention the Tsutaya I referred to in the directions. In my opinion, this particular branch of the chain is the single best place to buy new manga in Japan. They have multiple copies of all the volumes of all of the latest manga in stock, and they have really cute displays created by the staff to highlight interesting and notable titles. This is the place to go to find out what is popular in Japan right now, and you can take to elevator down to the basement to do the same trick with video games before progressively working your way up through music, movies, and literature.

If you find yourself spending a lot of money, go ahead and apply for a T-Point card, which also works at Book-Off (and Family Mart convenience stores and Excelsior coffee shops, for what it’s worth). Book-Off is a chain of used book stores known for its ridiculously low prices and the excellent condition of its used merchandise. In essence, after using your point card for the first two or three volumes of a manga at Tsutaya, you can get enough points to get a used copy of the next volume for free at Book-Off. And speaking of Book-Off, the one across the street from the Shibuya Tokyu Hands is a manga lover’s paradise. They also have tons of used light novels, art books, and video game strategy guides that you won’t even find in Akihabara.

Nakano

Nakano is a bustling, working-class shopping area a few stops out of the Yamanote loop on the JR Chuo line. The area is a bit out of the way of just about everything, but it’s home to Nakano Broadway, a rundown warren of manga stores and hobby shops. The top three stories of this indoor shopping complex are a hive of Mandarakes. If you have any sort of hobby related to anime or manga or video games, whether it’s cel collecting (fourth floor), cosplay (third floor), or researching Taishō-era children’s magazines (second floor), Nakano Broadway is where you go to spend all of your money. There are also tiny stores specializing in Ninja Turtles action figures from the nineties, old Japanese coins, and prayer beads and power crystals. There is even a Mandarake store called Hen-ya that, as its name implies, is a treasure hoard of the weird, baffling arcana of postwar Japanese pop culture.

From the JR Nakano station, take the north exit for Sun Plaza. Head around to your right past the turnstiles to exit the station, where you’ll see an open-air bus station in front of you. Beyond the bus station and to the right is the entrance to a shopping arcade called the Nakano Sun Mall, which is marked by yellow arches. Enter the shopping arcade and walk straight back all the way to the end to reach Nakano Broadway.

There’s nothing to see on the first floor, but you can take the escalator up to the third floor to reach the most awesome used manga store ever (run by Mandarake, of course). Whether you’re looking for editions of manga like Rose of Versailles from the eighties or the whole back catalog of a manga magazine like Monthly Cheese, they’ve more than likely got it stashed away somewhere. If you want to go straight to the dōjinshi stores, skip the escalator and take the stairs to the right of the escalator up to the second floor. Turn left from the stairs and then left again around the corner, and you should reach a dansei-muke store and a josei-muke store right across from each other a bit down the corridor.

Since Nakano is so out of the way, and since Mandarake keeps a lot of its excess stock up on the fourth floor, you can find old dōjinshi at these stores that have disappeared from just about everywhere else (such as those based on Harry Potter). The josei-muke store in particular specializes in anthologies, and you can strike real gold here if you don’t mind paying significantly more than the usual ¥210 – dōjinshi anthologies are huge and beautiful but can cost up to ¥5,000 (although ¥1,050 is more common). It takes a bit of work to get out to Nakano, and you’ll probably get seriously lost in Nakano Broadway, but it’s definitely worth the trip for a true treasure hunter.

***

All of the directions I have given take it for granted that you’re using one of the JR lines (such as the Yamanote-sen). Be aware that these directions may not apply if you’re using one of the Tokyo Metro lines (or another private line like the Keio-sen).

K-Books, Tora no Ana, and Animate all have point cards. These cards are free and allow you to accumulate points with each purchase. You can use these points to either take a discount off future purchases or to get limited edition goods that can only be bought with points. If you’re going to be spending a long time in Japan or are planning on spending a lot of money during a short visit, it might be worth your while to ask for one of these cards. (In the case of K-Books, you might want to just get one anyway, since they give you a choice of really cute, collectible cards.) You can just ask your cashier for a card at K-Books and Tora no Ana, but you’ll need to fill out an application form with your address in Japan at Animate.

All of the stores I have mentioned by name accept Visa and Mastercard. The only caveat about using a credit or debit card is that you may not be able to get points on your point card for that purchase. The policy on accumulating points for credit purchases differs from store to store (especially in Akihabara), but you shouldn’t have a problem anywhere in Ikebukuro.

Finally, if this guide has made you giddy with excitement, please consider investing in the book Cruising the Anime City. It’s a bit dated (just as this guide is probably going to be in a year or two), and it betrays a strong masculine bias, but it’s still awesome.

Lala Pipo

Title: Lala Pipo
Japanese Title: ララピポ
Author: Okuda Hideo (奥田英郎)
Translator: Marc Adler
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 284

Lala Pipo is absolutely and utterly tasteless. If banality could have a nadir, Lala Pipo would be hovering somewhere just above it. Never have I read such a book that delights so much in its own complete lack of decency.

This is a good thing, obviously.

This collection of six stories starts off with the tale of a social dropout who stands on a chair to listen through the ceiling to his upstairs neighbor having sex. His biggest problem, namely, how to clean up the come that invariably winds up on his bedroom floor, is soon eclipsed by his overwhelming desire for bugging equipment from Akihabara. Everything goes downhill from there into even greater depths of depravity. I have no idea how the author manages it. I bow in awe before his mastery of the literary art form.

All levity aside, though, Lala Pipo is actually quite brilliant. As the back cover of the book tells us, its six stories are loosely connected. What it does not tell us is how. Sure, they’re all set in the same location – in the swollen and festering underbelly of Shibuya. Sure, they all end in the same way – with abrupt and heartbreaking and hilarious tragedy. And sure, they all share the same theme – laziness and poor judgment leading to bad things happening to not-so-good people. But the main connection between the stories is that an extremely minor character of one story always becomes the protagonist of the next. Although this may sound like a cheesy gimmick, it’s remarkably well played. In fact, it’s so well played that I hesitate to spoil it by describing the stories in any detail.

I must make an exception for the third story, “Light My Fire,” which stars an aging housewife whose boredom has lead her to a career in milf-themed pornography. This woman lives in a house of amazing filth and decrepitude, which she deals with by dusting cockroaches under the bedding and spraying cleaning solution up the stairs towards the second floor. Since she has grown tired of picking up after her husband, she has him sleep on the kitchen floor, where he can easily pick up after himself – or not. When she’s not forcing herself on her agent in a love hotel or idly masturbating on the sofa in front of the television, she amuses herself by reading her neighbor’s mail, which she surreptitiously opens using the steam from a tea kettle. Her neighbor starts to receive anonymous hate mail from someone who is annoyed by her dog, so she decides to play a prank on her neighbor by signing the name of her best friend to the letters. As the letters become progressively more deranged, however, even our resourceful heroine begins to harbor worries. Underneath the sordidness of stringy mucus and crusty vibrators runs a strong narrative propelled forward by several mysteries. Who is sending the letters? How long will the housewife be able to continue her career in pornography? Why is her house so filthy? What has she got up there on the second floor? Like all of the stories in this collection, “Light My Fire” is skillfully set up to draw the reader into the narrative despite the disgusting characters who people it.

Some people might dismiss Okuda’s work, filled as it is with engorged members and spoiled schoolgirls, as being blatantly misogynistic. To those people I give a gold star and a pat on the back, because yes, Okuda is openly misogynistic. He is also openly misanthropic in general, but that’s no reason to not read and enjoy Lala Pipo. Even now, almost two decades after the economic bubble burst, an outdated public discourse regarding home, family, and work is still going strong. People like sociologist Mary Brinton are still analyzing how ideas like “women need to be housewives and mothers” and “men need to find full-time employment at a company” are created and perpetuated through the education system and in the labor market. Buzzwords like “equality” and “flexibility” often emerge in organizational mission statements, but the underlying structures have yet to undergo the necessary evolution. Lala Pipo takes all of that cultural garbage and swiftly trashes it. The men in these stories are not productive and industrious. The women in these stories are not nurturing and self-sacrificing. Authority lies in the hands of the people who absolutely should not wield it, and society as a whole is portrayed as rotting solipsistically away. Okuda Hideo is a popular writer, and he’s a fun writer, but he’s dealing with some pretty heavy stuff here. If nothing else, Lala Pipo is a welcome break from the home drama and flower imagery of more “literary” Japanese writers.

To those of you who read In the Pool (translated by Giles Murray and released by Stone Bridge Press in 2006) and weren’t impressed – I wasn’t impressed either, but Lala Pipo is much, much better. To those of you who read In the Pool and thought it was awesome, Lala Pipo is more of the same but much, much better. Just so you know.

Yotsubato!

Title: よつばと!(Yotsuba to)
Artist: あずまきよひこ (Azuma Kiyohiko)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 9)
Publisher: 電撃コミックス (Dengeki Comics)
Pages: 225 (per volume)

Let me get this out of the way first: Yotsubato! has no story. It is not “about” anything. There is no point. It does not go anywhere. The manga could be classified as falling within the genre of comedy, but it doesn’t really try to be funny. The reader never really learns anything about the characters, and the relationships between the characters show almost no development. Nothing important or exciting happens.

Let me also get this out of the way: Yotsubato! is one of my favorite manga in the whole wide world.

I have been fond of Azuma Kiyohiko’s four-panel manga Azumanga Daioh ever since the translation was released in America in 2002. I also enjoyed the anime based on said manga. When defunct American manga publisher ADV Manga started releasing translations of Yotsubato!, Azuma’s new project following the completion of Azumanga Daioh, I picked up the first volume immediately. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed. It wasn’t a fun manga to read. I didn’t get it. The dialog was translated in a way that was supposed to be wacky and zany, but I didn’t think the manga itself was that funny. The art was a little weird, too. A year later, in 2007, I went to Japan to find Yotsubato! featured prominently at almost every major bookstore in Tokyo and Yokohama – most memorably at the Tsutaya in Shibuya, which had an entire wall devoted to Yotsuba paraphernalia. The cover of the Japanese publication of the manga was approximately five hundred times more appealing than the cover of the translation, so I picked up a copy. While reading it on the train home, I fell in love.

Yotsubato! follows the daily life of a five-year-old girl named Yotsuba. Having been orphaned on an island somewhere outside of Japan (the circumstances are never made clear to the reader), Yotsuba has been taken in by a man named Koiwai, who seems to be in his late twenties or early thirties and makes his living as a translator. At the beginning of the first volume of the manga, Yotsuba and her adopted father move into a new house in the suburbs of a city assisted by Koiwai’s friend Jumbo, a florist with a preference for Hawaiian shirts whose name reflects his comically enormous stature. After moving in, Yotsuba and Koiwai (and Jumbo, who visits from time to time) become friends with the family living next door, which consists of a mother, a daughter in college, a daughter in high school, and a daughter a year or two older than Yotsuba (the father of the family never makes an appearance). Although other friends of Koiwai and the next-door neighbors are occasionally introduced, Yotsubato! mainly revolves around this core set of characters and their interactions. The manga moves slowly from day to day. Over the course of nine volumes, its leisurely pace has taken it from the middle of summer to the very beginning of fall.

What I love about this manga is this very slowness. I wouldn’t describe this work as “contemplative,” however; Yotsuba herself is very curious and energetic, and her adopted father is something of a character as well. There is nothing boring about the manga, but its focus on the mundane allows the reader to take a step back from his or her own presumably hectic life and enjoy an endless summer full of daytrip adventures and small discoveries. This is not to say that Yotsubato! somehow resembles something like My Neighbor Totoro. The manga is written from an adult perspective, and the reader is constantly encouraged to identify with the people who surround Yotsuba rather than with the girl herself. The occasional jokes that the manga makes are sophisticated, and the adult speech and relationships are not sanitized or downplayed.

The attention to detail expressed in every aspect of the manga finds its most visible outlet in its gorgeous artwork. As I noticed when I first read the manga in America, it takes Azuma several chapters to settle on his character designs, which are drawn in his unique style. The rest of the visual realm, however, is drawn in an almost photorealistic way, from the tiniest detail of the interior architecture of Yotsuba’s house to the products lining the shelves of a neighborhood convenience store. Aside from the shade of Yotsuba’s unique hair, there is almost no screen tone used in the manga; everything is conveyed in understated ink work, which miraculously never clutters the page or busies the panels. The slightly cartoonish characters provide a pleasing contrast to this sort of detailed background. I feel like the background art in this manga captures the essence of a Japanese suburb far away from Tokyo; so, even while I was reading this manga in Yokohama, it made me feel nostalgic for living in Japan.

I suppose you could say that I enjoy this manga because of its pace, its narrative tone, and its art. I’m not really sure, though, what makes Yotsubato! different from any other “slice of life” manga, but it is different. I have said before that I think manga can be considered literature, but Yotsubato! is not literature. It is a masterwork of an entirely different medium of artistic expression. Really, I think Yotsubato! stands alongside the works of Urasawa Naoki and Asano Inio as an exemplar of what manga is capable of.

Although I am a great believer in translation, I feel that Yotsubato! is much more enjoyable in the original Japanese. Thankfully, even beginning students of Japanese should not find the dialog in the manga to be prohibitively difficult. For those readers who have no Japanese language background, however, a new English translation of the manga is currently being published under the title of “Yotsuba&!” by Yen Press.

I think the following two pages demonstrate the style of the manga. In the middle of a late summer typhoon, Yotsuba runs into the storm to warn her next door neighbors to be careful. In her haste, she forgets her umbrella, so her adopted father runs after her to give it to her. Upon catching up with her, he finds her already drenched, so….

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