The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purity and Power in Magic Knight Rayearth

This essay contains spoilers for the completed series.

Takeuchi Naoko’s shōjo manga Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, which began serialization in 1991 in Kōdansha’s shōjo magazine Nakayoshi, was a truly transformative work. Not only was it an incredible inspiration for other manga artists, but manga editors and anime studio executives also started aggressively mixing and matching the elements of Sailor Moon to create derivative works such as Wedding Peach and Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Meanwhile, popular anime franchises like Tenchi Muyō! quickly developed magical girl spin-off series. Unfortunately, many of these new magical girl series merely regurgitated different aspects of Sailor Moon in an endlessly looping cycle of character tropes and plot devices. Thankfully, Magic Knight Rayearth, one of the very few magical girl series from the nineties to survive without ever going out of print in Japan, effectively broke the cycle of narrative consumption and reproduction, both for its creators and for its audience.

In order to capitalize on the success of Sailor Moon, the editorial staff of Nakayoshi hired the fledgling creative team CLAMP, whose debut series RG Veda was enjoying a successful run in a monthly Shinshokan publication called Wings, which also targeted a shōjo audience. Like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth is a shōjo manga featuring many conventions of the mahō shōjo, or magical girl, genre. For example, its three heroines are equipped with fantastic weapons and garbed in middle school uniforms that undergo a series of transformations as the girls become more powerful. Also, like Sailor Moon and her friends, the heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth are able to attack their enemies and heal their injuries with flashy, elementally based magic spells.

Magic Knight Rayearth draws clear influences from other genres besides mahō shōjo, such as mecha action series for boys and video game style fantasy adventure. Over the course of their adventures in the fantasy world of Cephiro, the three protagonists of Magic Knight Rayearth must revive three giant robots called mashin, which will aid them in their final battle against the mashin of their enemies. The sword-and-sorcery elements of the title seem to be borrowed directly from adventure series such as Saint Seiya and Slayers, and the manner in which the weapons, armor, and magic of the three heroines “level up” through the accumulation of battle experience is a feature drawn from role-playing video games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Although Magic Knight Rayearth seems to have been shaped from a high concentration of elements drawn from genres targeted at boys, its ornate artistic style, narrative focus on the friendship between three adolescent girls, and guiding theme of romantic love place the work firmly in the realm of shōjo manga.

The character tropes represented by the three heroines of the series are also common to shōjo manga. Hikaru, the leader of the team of fourteen-year-old warriors, is extraordinarily innocent. She never hesitates to help her friends despite the danger to herself, and she trusts others implicitly. No matter what perilous circumstances the girls find themselves in, Hikaru’s hope, trust, and naivety are unflinchingly portrayed in a positive light. Umi, a long-haired beauty, is an ojōsan, or young lady, from a rich family. As such, she is used to getting her way and a bit more willing to question her circumstances and the motivations of others. Instead of being portrayed as experienced and savvy, however, Umi’s skepticism comes off as foolish and bratty; she endangers her two friends and must be gently put back into line by Hikaru’s emotional generosity. Fū is the meganekko, or “girl with glasses,” of the group. As such, she is demure in her interactions with other characters and speaks in an unusually formal and polite manner. Fū is enrolled in one of the most prestigious middle schools in Tokyo, and the other characters occasionally comment on how intelligent she is. Although Fū does indeed manage to solve a few of the riddles the three girls encounter in Cephiro, her common sense and deductive skills are no match for the pure heart and magical intuition of Hikaru. Like Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth valorizes girlish innocence, trust, and emotional openness. All obstacles may be overcome by the power of the friendship between a small group of teenage warriors, whose battle prowess derives not from training or innate skill but rather from the purity of their hearts.

Hikari, Umi, and Fū are summoned from Tokyo to the fantasy world of Cephiro by a fellow shōjo, Princess Emeraude. The opening page of the manga presents the reader with a single glowing flower suspended in space. At the heart of this flower is a young girl with long, flowing robes and hair. The following page reveals that she is crying. “Save us” (tasukete) are her first words; and, as she summons the Magic Knights, a beam of light emerges from a glowing jewel that ornaments the circlet she wears. In a two-page spread, this girl looks directly at the reader, still entreating someone to “save us.” This girl is Princess Emeraude, the “Pillar” (hashira) who supports the world of Cephiro. In Cephiro, one is able to magically transform the world according to the power of one’s will. Emeraude, who possesses the strongest will in Cephiro, maintains the peace and stability of the world through her prayers. Unfortunately, since she has become the captive of her high priest, an imposing man in black armor named Zagato, Emeraude is no longer able act as the pillar of Cephiro, and the world is crumbling. She thus summons the three Magic Knights to save her and, by extension, Cephiro.

Princess Emeraude is the quintessential shōjo. She is delicate, fragile, and beautiful, just like the flower in which she is imprisoned. She is gentle and kind, yet possesses a great strength of will. Her undulating robes and hair associate her with water, and it is suggested that she is imprisoned beneath the sea. Like water (which is often associated with femininity in anime and manga), Emeraude is outwardly weak and attempts to exert her will through nonviolent methods. Her wide eyes, which are often brimming with tears, reflect the open and unguarded state of her interior world, and she innocently trusts the Magic Knights while still attempting to see the goodness within the man who has supposedly imprisoned her. Princess Emeraude is similar in both appearance and disposition to Sailor Moon‘s Princess Serenity, who also embodies the shōjo ideal of gentle compassion.

In Beautiful Fighting Girl, Saitō Tamaki explains that “subcultural forms […] seduce and bewitch us with their uncompromising superficiality. They may not be able to portray ‘complex personalities,’ but they certainly do produce ‘fascinating types.’ The beautiful fighting girl, of course, is none other than one of those types.” Hiraku, Umi, and Fū are beautiful fighting girls (bishōjo), and Princess Emeraude is a classic damsel in distress. Yet another of the “fascinating types” common to anime and manga is the demonic older woman, the shadow cast by the unrelenting purity of the shōjo. As a psychoanalyst, Saitō identifies this character type as the phallic mother, an expression “used to describe a woman who behaves authoritatively. The phallic mother symbolizes a kind of omnipotence and perfection.” Words like “omnipotence” and “perfection” just as easily describe characters such as Hikaru (or Sailor Moon); but, in the realm of shōjo manga in particular, these qualities become extremely dangerous when applied to adult women. The concept of “phallic” is of course threatening (heavens forbid that a woman have the same sort of power and agency as a man), but so too is the concept of “mother.” In her discussion of shōjo horror manga, Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase notes a clear trend concerning the abjection of the mother, especially through the narrative eyes of daughters, who “have seen the struggle of their mothers and the tragedy that they endured in patriarchal domesticity.” For a teenage female audience, then, an adult woman is both a frightening and pathetic creature. Her mature adult body has already passed its prime, her anger and frustration can change nothing, and any power she wields is capricious and often misdirected. For such a woman, who has lost both her innocence and her emotional clarity, power is a dangerous thing that dooms her to the almost certain status of villainhood.

The three heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth must fight two such women in order to save Cephiro. The first of these women, Alcyone, is a twisted perversion of Princess Emeraude. Like Emeraude, Alcyone is associated with water. We first see her emerging from under a waterfall, and her long hair and cape cascade around her body as Emeraude’s do. Alcyone has a large, circular jewel ornamenting her forehead as Emeraude does; and, like Emeraude, she possesses and strong will and is skilled in the use of magic. Unlike Emeraude, however, Alcyone is evil and must be defeated by the Magic Knights. The primary difference between Alcyone and Emeraude is that, while Emeraude is portrayed as an innocent child, Alcyone radiates an adult sexuality, which is apparent in her revealing costume and condescendingly flirtatious dialog. Alcyone attacks the Magic Knights on the orders of Zagato; and, after she is finally vanquished, it is revealed that Alcyone is in love with him. This sexually and emotionally mature woman is characterized as evil, then, simply because she is in love with a man she cannot have. The long, jewel-tipped staff that Alcyone carries and the ornamentation on her armor mark the character as a phallic mother, or a powerful woman who is ultimately rendered pathetic because of her inability to successfully wield her power to attract the attention of the man she loves.

In the final pages of Magic Knight Rayearth, Hikau, Umi, and Fū must fight Emeraude herself, for Emeraude is also in love with Zagato. Because she has fallen in love, Emeraude’s purity of heart and strength of will are compromised, and she can no longer act as the Pillar of Cephiro. Since no one in Cephiro can kill her, and since she cannot kill herself, she has imprisoned herself and summoned the Magic Knights so that they may save Cephiro by destroying her and thereby releasing her from her responsibilities, for it is only with her death that a new Pillar can support Cephiro. By falling in love with a man, Emeraude has renounced her pure shōjo status. When the Magic Knights finally find her, the princess no longer appears as a child but has instead taken on the body of an adult woman. Emeraude’s adult body represents both her selfishness – her wish to devote herself just as much to her personal desires as to the welfare of the wider world – and her willingness to use her immense power in order to achieve her “selfish” goals. The two-page spread in which the reader first encounters Emeraude as an adult mirrors the pages in which Emeraude first appears as a child. Emeraude still floats in a watery space, and she completes her first phrase, “Please save us” with the target of her plea, “Magic Knights.” Instead of appearing metaphorically as a flower, however, Emeraude’s full body is displayed, and her white robes are accented with black armor. Emeraude has thus been transformed into a phallic mother like Alcyone, and the tears in her eyes represent her anger, an impure emotion that is entirely ineffectual against the combined powers of the Magic Knights, who are doomed to succeed in carrying out their mission.

The demonic older woman is thus defeated by the pure-hearted shōjo, an outcome that was never in doubt. Based on the gendered character tropes and story patterns of shōjo manga and the various genres for boys that CLAMP’s manga emulates, this is simply how things work. In Magic Knight Rayearth, however, a happy ending is not forthcoming. Hikaru, Umi, and Fū are shocked by what they have done, and the manga ends abruptly with their realization. On the third-to-last page, Princess Emeraude dissolves into light, and, in the final two pages, the three Magic Knight are suddenly back in Tokyo, crying in each other’s’ arms. The manga closes with Hikaru screaming, “It can’t end like this!” – and yet it does end like this. Youth and innocence has defeated maturity and adult understanding, as per the conventions of shōjo romance and mahō shōjo fantasy, but no one is happy. In fact, this outcome is traumatic not just for the Magic Knights but also for the reader. By upsetting the reader, CLAMP also upsets the narrative cycle in which character tropes and story patterns are endlessly recycled. In its antagonistic and confrontational dynamic between virginal shōjo and sexually mature women, Magic Knight Rayearth mimics the shōjo romance and mahō shōjo fantasy that has come before it. However, by representing this character dynamic as tragic, CLAMP critiques the misogynistic tendency in anime and manga to villainize older women who possess both sexual maturity and political power.

Just as female fans of Sailor Moon are able to find messages of feminist empowerment in the series instead of polymorphously perverse possibilities for sexual titillation, female creators like CLAMP are able to stage feminist critiques of real-world sexual economies of desire within their application of gendered narrative tropes. Therefore, when cultural theorists such as Saitō Tamaki discuss otaku immersing themselves in fantasies that have nothing to do with the real world, they acknowledge shōjo series like Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth but completely fail to take into account the female viewers, readers, and creators for whom fictional female characters are not entirely removed from reality. Within the communities of women who consume and produce popular narratives, however, the female gaze is alive and well. This female gaze not only allows female readers to see celebrations of empowered female homosociality in works that would otherwise be dismissed as misogynistic (such as Sailor Moon) but also serves as a critical tool for female creators like CLAMP, who seek to overturn clichéd tropes and narrative patterns both as a means of telling stories that will appeal to an audience of women and as a means of feminist critique.

For more about CLAMP, please check out the CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Manga Bookshelf.

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