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

Real World

real-world3

Tile: Real World
Japanese Title: リアル ワールド (Riaru wārudo
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 208

Having already reviewed Rebecca Copeland’s translation of Grotesque, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to go ahead and write an entry for Philip Gabriel’s new translation of Kirino Natsuo’s novel Real World. Real World is not as long or as grand of a story as Grotesque; and, as a result, it is much less intense. I would argue, however, that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Grotesque is extremely graphic and upsetting for hundreds of pages. Real World is about 250 pages shorter, less graphic, and less upsetting. That being said, it is an extraordinarily dark novel, and just as heartbreaking as Out and Grotesque.

Fans of fragmented narratives will appreciate the structure of Real World, which is divided into eight different chapters, each narrated by a different character. The characters in question are Worm, an underachieving student at an elite high school who “snaps” and murders his mother, and a group of four high school girls who help him run from the law. Of these five characters, Worm is the least interesting. Yuzan is a lesbian from the wrong side of the tracks who has tried to find love in Tokyo but failed, leaving her disillusioned with life. Kirarin is a perfect princess in school but leads a shady side life of compensated dating in Tokyo. Terauchi is smart kid with a bright future, but she has been deeply scarred by her mother’s extramarital affair. The “main” narrator, who narrates the first and last of the eight chapters, is Ninna Hori. Ninna is perhaps the most normal of the five, but she too is more than a little jaded with the social roles she is expected to fill, and her comments about herself and her friends are full of insight. She is also the only character left to pick up the pieces at the end of the novel.

I found Real World to be not only an engrossing read but also a refreshing look into Japanese youth culture, which is so often glimpsed through rose-tinted anime sunglasses in America. Being a high school student is no more glamorous in Japan than it is in America, and Japanese students have just as many problems as America students (and perhaps more). Moreover, Japan is not just a country of cherry blossoms and vermillion torii gates but also of ugly convenience stores and crappy train station cram schools. Kirino’s novel is superlatively anti-romantic. Please don’t let the topic of high school students allow you to think for a moment that Real World is a novel for kids; it doesn’t get much more “adult” than this. Each narrative voice is realistic, mature, and fully-realized, and, even though the subject matter is undeniably gloomy, the quality of Kirino’s writing (and Gabriel’s translation) makes this book and extremely interesting and enjoyable read.