Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Title: Sword Art Online: Aincrad
Japanese Title: ソードアート・オンライン: アインクラッド
(Sōdo Āto Onrain: Ainkuraddo)
Author: Kawahara Reki (川原 礫)
Translator: Stephen Paul
Illustrations: abec
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 248

Before I begin this review, I feel I should admit that I only made it through five episodes of the Sword Art Online animated series. The show involves an inordinate amount of yelling and boob grabbing, and watching it gave me a headache. Despite the fact that I am quickly becoming an old woman who has lost her patience with screaming teenagers and fan service, the show was fairly popular in both Japan, where more than 35,000 DVDs have been sold (in a market in which few titles break the ten thousand mark), and in America, where it was hailed as one of the smartest shows to come out in 2012. The Sword Art Online anime is based on a light novel series, which achieved bestseller status in the year the anime was televised. Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a translation of the first novel in the series, which is currently on its fourteenth volume.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad takes place in the fantasy world of Aincrad, an enormous castle with one hundred floors that serves as the setting of an immersive virtual reality MMORPG game called Sword Art Online (SAO). Released in 2022, SAO is the first game of its kind in that players are able to fully enter the virtual world through special hardware called NerveGear, which intercepts all brain activity and leaves the player’s physical body in a dormant state. As might be imagined, the game completely sells out on the day of its release.

As the new players orient themselves on the first floor of Aincrad, however, they receive a nasty surprise. Kayaba Akihiko, the game’s executive producer and head programmer, appears in the sky above the Town of Beginnings and announces that players will not be able to log out of the game until the final boss monster on the top floor of Aincrad is defeated. If someone from outside the game attempts to remove or unplug a player’s NerveGear helmet, the player will die. Even more troubling, if a player dies in the game, his NerveGear will send an electric shock to his brain that will result in death. It is thus in the best interests of the roughly ten thousand players trapped within Aincrad to master SAO and beat the game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to progress through the game, especially since its high stakes discourage risk taking, and the players have already been in Aincrad for two years when the main story begins.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of a teenager named Kirigaya Kazuto, who goes by the name Kirito in SAO. Kirito was one of the game’s one thousand beta players and, although he was only fourteen years old when he first entered Aincrad, he is already a veteran gamer. He is thus quite adept at the game mechanics and has managed to develop an ability called “Extra Skill Dual Blades,” which is unique to him as a player. Although Kirito wants to be able to return to the real world, he declines to work with the player guilds that have sprung up as collaborative efforts to progress through the game, instead fighting and gaining experience on his own. He gradually warms to a slightly older teenager named Yūki Asuna, who serves as a sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood guild and is popularly known as “Asuna the Flash” because of her high speed statistic. The trust and friendship between Kirito and Asuna gradually deepens over the first half of the novel, which is ultimately less sci-fi suspense or action adventure than it is a fantasy-themed love story.

Although there is plenty of action in Sword Art Online: Aincrad, world building is neglected in favor of establishing a romantic relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The reader is told that Algade, the city on the 50th floor of Aincrad, is reminiscent of Akihabara, and that Collinia, the city on the 75th floor, looks like ancient Roman city, but that’s about all there is in the way of description. What, specifically, does it mean that these cities “look like” other places – what are their styles of architecture, how are their streets laid out, do they any public monuments? How big are these cities? How big is each floor of the castle beyond the cities? What sort of trees and other plants grow on each floor? Are there pets or other domesticated animals? What sort of monsters do the players fight? What do the dungeons look like? We know the players can eat in the game, but what do they eat? We know there are healing potions, but what do they taste like? When magical crystals are used as items, what does it feel like? Can the players smell things? Can they feel temperature and humidity? Are certain textures pixelated or repetitive, and if so do the players notice? The reader is provided with few details that might serve to make the world of the novel more (or less) real.

Some visual detail is provided by eight color illustrations at the beginning of the book and ten black-and-white illustrations interspersed unevenly throughout the chapters, but these illustrations have a strong emphasis on character design. The illustrator abec, whose special skill seems to be depicting the springy softness of braless breasts through school uniforms (the link to his blog is not work safe, by the way), seems to be especially enamored of Asuna, who gets a full two illustrations in nothing but her underwear, one of which is overlaid with text in which she asks Kirito/the reader not to look at her. Even without such illustrations, the novel feels more than a bit like an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. It goes out of its way to objectify Asuna, devoting an undue amount of text on when and how many times and under what circumstances its male protagonist is able to hook up with her. Although Asuna is supposed to be an exceptionally skilled player, her strength and abilities are only shown in relation to male characters, such as when she fights beside or cooks for Kirito. As Asuna is the only female character in the novel, Sword Art Online: Aincrad doesn’t even make it past the first portion of the Bechdel test (there are other female players in the game, but Kirito is not interested in them, stating simply that they’re unattractive and thus unworthy of attention).

Aside from its casual sexism, the narrative emphasis on Kirito’s pursuit of Asuna results in missed opportunities with other male characters as well. For example, the least utilized but perhaps most interesting character in the novel is Heathcliff, the leader of the Knights of the Blood. Why is this older man playing the game (which is something I wanted to know more about even after learning his real-life identity), and why does he act as he does? Where does his strength of character come from, and how does he honestly feel about the deaths of the players under his command? What are his motivations, and what is he escaping from in the world outside the game? Who is caring for his physical body? Unfortunately, all such questions are ignored in favor of Heathcliff acting as a vaguely defined father figure who prevents Kirito’s immediate access to Asuna.

Another potentially interesting male character is Kuradeel, a member of the Knights of the Blood who is eventually revealed to be a former member of a guild called Laughing Coffin, whose members specialize in killing other players. I am always interested in PvP (player versus player) mechanics in MMORPGs, and I’m doubly interested in what rationale might lie behind PvP conflicts in a game that can easily result in real-world death. About two-thirds of the way through the book Kuradeel snaps and allows the reader a fleeting glimpse into the depths exposed by his ebbing sanity, which would be an excellent chance to explore the negative psychological effects that would doubtlessly be engendered by the situation in which the players find themselves. But alas, Kuradeel’s role in the story is merely to act as a barrier to Asuna, and the section in which he traps Kirito and then delivers his limited exposition is only fourteen pages long. The male characters who don’t come between Kirito and Asuna, such as Kirito’s friend Klein and the shopkeeper Agil, have few speaking parts and no backstory at all.

My favorite part of Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a quiet twenty-page segment towards the end of the book that serves as a bridge into the power metal chorus of the finale. After Kirito and Asuna finally get together, they run away from the whole business of dungeons and guild politics to go on a honeymoon of sorts to the 22nd floor of Aincrad, a sparsely populated wilderness distinguished by its lakes. Between bouts of dialog that feels lifted from shōjo manga targeted at the elementary school crowd, the lovers encounter a middle-aged man named Nishida, a technician employed by Tohto Broadband, the network management company responsible for the internet access lines leading to SAO’s servers. While testing the game’s connections on its launch day, Nishida was trapped along with the players, and now he spends his time fishing. By chatting with Nishida, Kirito and Asuna are able to reflect on what their time in SAO has meant to them and why exactly they still want to leave. These conversations are also the only point in the novel at which the reader is able to pick up hints concerning what the lives of players not directly involved in Kirito’s personal drama might be like. This is as close as Sword Art Online: Aincrad gets to addressing what could have been its most interesting theme, namely, whether there is any quantifiable difference between lived experience in the real world and lived experience in a virtual world. As a sixteen-year-old boy and reader stand-in character, however, Kirito is not the least bit concerned with such matters, and the novel quickly makes an awkward leap back into fighting and yelling territory.

Although I can’t make any judgments about the anime, I can say with relative certainty that the first volume of the Sword Art Online novel series is little more than an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. In other words, if you’re a straight adolescent male and you want the girl of your dreams to fall in madly love with you because of how awesome you are at level grinding, then this book was written for you. Enjoy yourself!

If you are not in the target demographic for the series, however, you might want to give the novel a pass. Although I am given to understand that more female characters are introduced as the series progresses, there is also a fair amount of damseling. In the second volume, for example, Asuna is apparently stripped of her powers, kidnapped by a male villain, and threatened with sexualized violence in order to provide Kirito with renewed narrative impetus. That sort of ridiculous bullshit aside, however, Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a fairly entertaining read that draws the reader in with a well-blended mixture of sci-fi and fantasy elements and a compelling series of crises. Chapters are short, about ten pages on average, and the translation is smooth and meets the high standard of quality one would expect from the team at Yen Press. Whether the admittedly enjoyable “lightness” of this light novel can counterbalance the nagging sexism is up to the individual reader, however.

A good distaff counterpart to the “virtual world romance” scenario presented in Sword Art Online: Aincrad is Vivian Vande Velde’s 2002 Heir Apparent. In this short young adult novel, a teenage girl finds herself trapped in a virtual reality game with strong RPG elements, which she must escape through her own cunning and the help of the handsome teenage game developer. Since the game resets every time its player-character dies, the reader is also able to enjoy a type of The Edge of Tomorrow scenario, only with fewer explosions and sexy pushups and more political maneuvering and backstabbing. Deadly Pink, Velde’s 2012 follow-up to Heir Apparent, focuses on the love between sisters instead of romance and manages to be smart and funny while treading carefully around some surprisingly dark themes. While much of the intended appeal of Sword Art Online: Aincrad may not be of interest outside of the novel’s target demographic, I can wholeheartedly recommend Heir Apparent and Deadly Pink to any reader interested in young adult fiction and themes relating to the pleasures and perils of virtual worlds.

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.

Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness

Title: Kieli: The Dead Sleep in the Wilderness
Japanese Title: キーリ ― 死者たちは荒野に眠る
(Kiiri: Shishatachi wa kōya ni nemuru)
Author: Kabei Yukako (壁井 ゆかこ)
Illustrator: Taue Shunsuke (田上 俊介)
Translator: Alethea Nibley and Athena Nibley
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 228

Kieli is one of those hauntingly pretty girls whose special blood and pure heart allow her to see things unnoticed by others. Harvey is one of those chiseled copper-haired boys who is seventeen and has been seventeen for a long time. When their paths cross seemingly at random, Harvey finds himself charmed by Kieli, and Kieli finds herself dazzled by Harvey… Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.

What’s special about this novel isn’t its love story, however, but rather its setting. In her “Afterword,” the author says, “Wasted planets, steampunk, old-fashioned radios, rusty machines, old oil. It would make me as happy as I could be if all of you who like dilapidated things and react to that kind of vocabulary like this book.” I hope the author is indeed as happy as she can be, since her book is perfect for anyone who enjoys the atmosphere conjured by such words. Kieli is set on a dying planet where society still functions to a certain degree as life crumbles to dust in stages. This decay pervades every corner of the novel:

The next morning, when Kieli opened her eyes she was lying on a sofa with broken springs in the waiting room, wrapped in her coat and a dusty old blanket.

The clinic had completely fallen to ruin. Yellow sand and dust had settled below the crisp, clear, cold morning air, and the once clean, white paint on the walls had faded to yellow and peeled off in places, showing the concrete wall underneath.

Kieli spent a while walking through the deserted house, looking for Harvey, the floor creaking with every step she made. When she went up to the second floor, the plants that decorated the balcony had withered to nothing, and only the cracked pots remained under the nebulous morning light.

Everything in Kieli’s world is slowly falling apart. Isolated cities are separated by vast stretches of desert, small villages that serve as way stations along the side of railway lines are slowly shrinking in population, and the wasteland outside habited areas is still littered with the detritus for a war over natural resources that petered out a hundred years ago. Kieli is strangely suited to life in this world, as she possess the unusual ability to see and interact with the ghosts of the dead, who are seemingly more numerous than actual living people. Through the mischief of her dead roommate, Kieli encounters Harvey, who used to be a soldier in the war. Harvey is a creation known an as Undying, a class of artificial beings powered by mechanical cores of pure energy. Aside from his bad attitude, Harvey seems mostly harmless until he unwittingly drags Kieli into a conspiracy concerning the Church that governs Kieli’s world. The two are accompanied by the ghost of an older man known as the Corporal, who resides in the shell of an old radio and provides both insight and comic relief. In an environment where everything is dead or dying, Kieli and Harvey shine brightly as they find adventure and new life in each other’s company.

Since Kieli is a light novel, it receives the full graphic treatment, with eight full-color anime-style illustrations at the front of the book and a number of black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the book’s chapters. The tropes of the novel are not specific to Japanese popular media, and they should appeal to a wider audience for young adult fiction. Kieli is an orphan who lives in a boarding school, where she is misunderstood and unappreciated by her peers. Harvey is an angsty, brooding badass who has a soft side that he keeps hidden in order to survive in a harsh world. The spirit of the Corporal residing in Harvey’s radio is a grumpy old man who cheerfully dispenses humorous complaints. The Church is mysterious and sinister, and its agents are genuinely frightening.

A shortcoming of many light novels published in translation is that their language is more manga-like than literature-like, by which I mean that its primary purpose is to shoot the reader forward as quickly as possible through a series of increasingly improbable events. Kieli occasionally suffers from this style of narration, but it usually allows the reader time to linger over events and absorb the story’s atmosphere. The translation of Kabei’s prose is lucid and engaging, inviting the reader to enter Kieli’s world without fussing over translation notes and awkwardly translated dialog. Occasionally a character will bow to another character, but the novel otherwise has very little “cultural odor.” Because of the quality of the translation, I found myself reading not just for the story but also for the pleasure of reading such straightforward and well edited language. I also feel the same way about the translation of the Spice and Wolf light novels, and I can’t help but offer my most profound thanks to the editorial staff at Yen Press for doing such an excellent job with their releases.

Kieli ends with a bit of a cliffhanger, but its sequels have already been published by Yen Press, which seems to be keeping up a steady release schedule. I don’t know why I waited so long to start reading this series, because it’s really quite good. I can’t wait to read the next volume!

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Title: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Japanese Title: 時をかける少女 (Toki o kakeru shōjo)
Author: Tsutsui Yasutaka (筒井 康隆)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (Britain); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 170

Three things are generally true of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s writing: it’s easy to read, it’s creative and fun, and it’s usually more about the concept than the characters. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is no exception. The story is short, it’s entertaining, and the idea of time travel is more fleshed out than the characters.

Junior high school student Kazuko hears a crash in her school’s science lab while helping her friends Goro and Kazuo clean up after class. When she enters the room to investigate, she smells lavender and passes out. The next morning, she and Goro are run down by a bus while rushing to school. Right before the bus strikes them, however, Kazuko opens her eyes and finds herself back in bed. She discovers that she has somehow jumped back in time to the morning of the previous day. Kazuko tells Kazuo and Goro about her strange experience, and they suggest that she talk to their science teacher, Mr. Fukushima, after school. Surprisingly enough, Mr. Fukushima listens sympathetically before explaining that Kazuko needs to jump back in time to the incident in the science lab in order to figure out what happened. She does so and meets Kazuo, who explains everything to her before erasing her memory and returning to where he originally came from.

And that is the story. Nothing else really happens. Kazuo’s debriefing is interesting, but there is no on-screen adventuring or experimentation on the part of Kazuko. There is no narrative tension, just a bit of simple mystery solving. None of the characters really stand out. Kazuko is frightened and dependent on the help of others, Goro is childish and petty, and Kazuo drifts along without contributing anything until the last three or four chapters. The two other named characters, Mr. Fukushima and Kazuko’s friend Mariko, barely have any lines at all. Director Hosoda Mamoru’s 2006 animated adaptation is much richer in terms of storytelling and character development. Still, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a quick and easy read that should appeal to a younger audience.

A bit more interesting than the main novella is the shorter work “The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of,” which is also included in the book. In this story, junior high school student Masako tries to get to the bottom of her fear of heights, which is somehow connected to the discomfort she feels around Prajna masks. Masako’s close friend Bunichi passes along what his therapist uncle tells him about the psychology of fear, and Masako uses this information to help not only herself but also her five-year-old brother Yoshio, who suffers from night terrors. The relationship between Masako and Yoshio is charming and sweet, as is the budding romance between Masako and Bunichi.

If I had to guess, I would say that the two stories in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are meant for kids who are a bit younger than their protagonists, despite the adult woman adorning the book’s cover. They’re both entertaining, simple stories for the age seven to twelve crowd. If you’re an adult reader in North America who can’t seem to find a copy of this British publication, though, you’re not missing much. The movie is definitely better.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime

Title: Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime
Japanese Title: “文学少女”と死にたがりの道化 (“Bungaku Shōjo” to shinitagari no piero)
Author: Nomura Mizuki (野村 美月)
Illustrator: Takeoka Miho (竹岡 美穂)
Translator: Karen McGillicuddy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 183

Oh, Yen Press. Oh, how I love you; oh, how I hate you.

I love the money and effort you put into publishing your books. I love that you took a chance on titles like Black Butler and succeeded remarkably. I love that you turned garbage like Maximum Ride and Cirque du Freak into readable and artistically beautiful graphic novels. I love that you found room in your capitalistic heart for series like Bunny Drop and One Fine Day. I love how you don’t put Japanese manga-ka on a pedestal but instead give equal attention to Korean and American artists. I hate that you stopped publishing the paper-and-ink version of your monthly magazine. I hate that I can only access the digital version from your website even after I pay for it. I hate that you sent cease-and-desist orders to scanlation sites but then decided to launch your digital titles exclusively on the most expensive e-reader on the market.

I am similarly conflicted about the light novels Yen Press has released. I enjoyed Spice & Wolf, even if it was a bit bland (the most interesting bits were the watered-down speculations on preindustrial economies, if that gives you any idea how clumsy the characterization was). Kieli had an intriguing premise and was set in a fun dystopic fantasy world but was riddled with stereotypes and awkward dialog. Worst of all, the nails-on-a-chalkboard banality of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya made me despite not only Tanigawa Nagaru but the entire genre of light novels. So, when Nomura Mizuki’s Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime was released last July, I decided to give it a pass. I felt justified in my decision after reading the opening epigraph:

Mine has been a life of shame. I’m like the one black sheep born into a pure white flock. Unable to enjoy the things my peers enjoyed, unable to grieve the things they grieved, unable to eat the things they ate – being born an ignoble black sheep, I didn’t understand the things my friends found pleasant, such as love, kindness, and

Actually, let’s just leave it at that. There’s no need to copy the full paragraph. Glistening tears leaving black ebony trails of eyeliner down a tragic alabaster face – you get the picture. Maybe I would be more patient with such things if I were seventeen; but I’m ten years past seventeen and not quite as intrigued by alienated narcissism as perhaps I once was, regardless if said narcissism is a deliberate homage to Dazai Osamu. And so it was that Book Girl fell off my radar.

What made me leave my desk and walk straight to Borders to pick up a copy was Erica Friedman’s glowing review of the second book in the series, Book Girl and the Famished Spirit, over on Okazu. If the series is that good, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? And so I did. Suicidal Mime was short and engaging enough for me to read from cover to cover the very evening I bought it, and I did indeed enjoy the experience.

The “book girl” of the title is Amano Tohko, who seems to be an ordinary high school student save for the fact that, instead of food, she consumes the written word. She is the president of her prestigious high school’s book club, the only other member being Inoue Konoha, whom Tohko has drafted to write short, impromptu snacks for her. Tohko’s secret is that she quite literally eats paper with stories written on it, and Konoha’s secret is that he once wrote a bestselling novel under the name of his former girlfriend, who had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of her middle school in front of him. Konoha is taciturn but good-natured, and Tohko is brash but unflaggingly cheerful. The dynamic between these two characters is typical (one might almost say stereotypical) of the genre of Japanese high school comedy, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.

The book is plot-driven instead of character-driven, though, and the plot is set in motion with the introduction of Takeda Chia, who asks Konoha to write a series of love letters for her. The recipient of these letters is Kataoka Shuji, an upperclassman on the archery team. As Konoha soon discovers, however, Shuji doesn’t exist. Or, at least, not anymore – he supposedly committed suicide ten years ago, but a letter found inside an old copy of Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human hints that there might have been more to his death than suicide. The story is thus propelled by three intertwined mysteries. Who was Kataoka Shuji? How did he die? What stake does Chia have in the matter? Playing the role of Sherlock, Tohko knows more than she lets on but sends Konoha on several fetch quests to discover concrete clues.

These clues seem unconnected at first; and, unfortunately, they tend to remain unconnected towards the end of the book, when everything wraps up so quickly that I was left wondering what had just happened. It turns out that Dazai Osamu is not the only sociopath in the story; literally everyone is a black sheep who has lived a life of shame. This sudden plot development boggled my mind, and I ended up not really caring about any of the inexplicably psychologically damaged characters. Perhaps this makes me a sociopath, but, in my defense, the characterization is rather weak. For example, Tohko is introduced to the reader in this way:

Tohko was perched on a metal folding chair, her knees pulled up to her chest. It wasn’t a very modest way for her to sit. Her pleated skirt was almost wide open – but not quite. If she moved her legs even slightly she would be flashing me.

This is how Chia is introduced:

A girl was splayed out on the floor, her skirt flipped up in her fall, exposing her bear-print underwear for all to see. It occurred to me that my little sister had the exact same pair of underwear, but she was only just starting elementary school.

In other words, the characterization depends fairly heavily on anime tropes, which are emphasized and reinforced by the illustrations:

To make a short story even shorter, then, Book Girl and the Suicidal Meme is a plot-driven novel with a ridiculous and poorly paced plot populated by characters that are little more than amalgamations of tropes culled from the otaku database. Despite this (or perhaps because of this), the book is a fun read. It’s short, and it moves quickly. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I imagine how it would be perfect for a younger audience. If nothing else, Tohko’s synaesthetic responses to literature are kind of cute:

“Mmmm, so good. Fitzgerald has a really snazzy flavor. I feel as if flamboyance, glory, and passion are dancing a waltz in my mouth, like I’m eating glittering caviar with champagne at a party. When I bite into it, its delicate skin pops, and a fragment of liquid spills into my mouth.”

As you can probably tell from the above passage, the touch of the translator is feather-light, so reading Book Girl feels really no different than reading “normal” (ie, contemporary American) young adult fiction, save for the eight full-color pages of illustration at the beginning. At $8.99, the book is priced like normal young adult fiction as well, so it’s well worth picking up and breezing through for anyone interested in light novels, young adult fiction, or anime and manga in general. I’m definitely going to order the second volume of the series before my next plane ride. The Famished Spirit is about sixty pages longer than The Suicidal Mime, so hopefully there will be more room for plot and character development.

Another mystery-flavored light novel I read recently was the first volume of Sakuraba Kazuki’s Gosick series, which is published by Tokyopop and still (as of this writing) available at a discount through Right Stuf. Like Book Girl (and many of Doyle’s original stories), Gosick employs a Todorovian element of fantasy in that the reader never quite knows if the cause of the story’s improbable events is supernatural in origin. The innocence of the beautiful young female Holmes-equivalent can be grating at times (as is that of Tohko), and there were times I suspected that her “astronomical genius” was only given to her by the author to make her a more desirable prize for the male reader-stand-in protagonist; but, if you can get around that, the first volume of Gosick is an enjoyable mystery novel. The Gosick anime series is currently streaming on Crunchyroll, and it’s worth briefly checking out if only for its gorgeous Mucha-inspired art nouveau opening sequence.

The Stories of Ibis

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Japanese Title: アイの物語 (Ai no monogatari)
Author: Yamamoto Hiroshi (山本 弘)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 423

After reading Melinda Beasi’s essay Twilight and the Plight of the Female Fan, I reached a strange epiphany. It’s okay if I don’t like Twilight! It’s okay if I don’t like Black Bird! It’s okay that I am never, ever going to enjoy reading manga like DearS and My-HiME! I am simply not the intended audience – and that’s okay. The point of Beasi’s essay is that fans should not judge other fans for being fans, even if they don’t personally enjoy the work that has inspired fannish behavior. Beasi has made this argument elsewhere, concerning shōjo manga and again concerning the Twilight fandom, and I agree with her. My own personal problem, however, is exactly the opposite. I do not get upset when people denigrate my interests; what upsets me is when I’m derided for not liking something that someone else feels I should.

One of my weak points in this regard is young adult fiction. I used to love it, but I’m almost ten years past sixteen and am beginning to find myself growing impatient with the tropes of both American and Japanese novels written for teenagers. Certainly, not every book written for a younger audience can be The Golden Compass or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but I still hold everything else to the same standard. This applies to Japanese light novels as well. Books like Nishizaki Megumi’s adaptation of Hot Gimmick and Coda Gakuto’s Missing series make me grind my teeth in frustration. Thankfully, there are young adult novels in Japan that are every bit as good as anything found in the West, and The Stories of Ibis is one of them.

The Stories of Ibis is pure science fiction directed at a presumably teenage audience, and it can boast everything that is fun about young adult fiction. The prose is clear and concise while still being creative. The narrative is very forward-driven without neglecting character development. Stereotypes are clearly referenced but then played with and expanded upon. Finally, the overall mood of the book is refreshingly positive. As science fiction goes, The Stories of Ibis is overwhelmingly utopian, but there are still lots of quests and uncertainties to keep the reader engaged.

As the title suggests, The Stories of Ibis is a collection of six short stories and two longer stories connected both by theme and by a frame narrative. The theme is the reality of virtual reality and, by extension, the power of fiction. Ibis, a humanoid robot blessed with artificial intelligence, tells these stories to the narrator of the frame story, one of the last human beings on earth. In the narrator’s world, humans fear and distrust robots, and the narrator travels from outpost to outpost, spreading tales of humanity’s glory before the rise of artificial intelligence. The narrator is wounded in an encounter with Ibis, who had been searching for him, so she reads him fiction as he recovers. In between stories (in short segments marked as “Intermission”), Ibis and the narrator discuss the stories, and their relationship gradually changes and deepens.

The first six stories are short, with each barely thirty pages in length. Only one of them is hard science fiction, and only one is strongly anime-flavored. The other four are set in more or less the present day and the present reality. All six deal with artificial intelligence or the reality of a virtual, fantasy world in some way. They’re all enjoyable; but, in my mind, the standout is the first story, in which people who only know each other through a Star Trek themed role playing site try to save one of their online friends from committing suicide in real life. The seventh and eighth stories are considerably longer than the first six, spanning one hundred pages each. I read a short review in Neo magazine that claimed that the two final stories made the book feel unbalanced, but I have to disagree. The final two stories are like a main course after an appetizer, and they are both excellent. Yamamoto reels his readers in with the first six stories and then lands us with the final two.

“The Day Shion Came” is about a nursing robot that whose programming has been implanted with a kernel of artificial intelligence. The robot is given over to a young human nurse to train as the two go through their rounds at a senior care facility. Certain A.I. clichés apply to this story, but they are not the ones you would suspect, and they are challenged and reworked in surprising ways. If there is a literary genre of magical realism, then “The Day Shion Came” might be termed science fictional realism, as everything about it is simultaneously fantastic and mundane. The final story is the story of Ibis herself, who draws together all of the “Intermission” segments by explaining the history of the frame narrator’s world. A remarkable feature of this story is the language that the A.I. entities use to communicate with each other. It’s both interesting and intelligent, but never overused or explicated at length. I won’t attempt to describe it here, but let it suffice to say that I have no idea how the translator was able to handle it so successfully. I tip my hat in admiration of her efforts.

In the final evaluation, The Stories of Ibis is a wonderful book for both young adult readers and adult readers who enjoy good young adult fiction. It’s neither too sci-fi nor too “Japanese” to put off people who aren’t fans of either “genre,” but I think it will still appeal to fans who are familiar with the tropes presented. In other words, like any good young adult novel, The Stories of Ibis attains the perfect balance of intelligence, accessibility, and creativity – and you don’t even have to feel embarrassed for enjoying it.

Slum Online

Title: Slum Online
Japanese Title: スラムオンライン
Author: Sakurazawa Hiroshi (桜沢洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 210

Slum Online is a short novel about MMORPG gaming. I was skeptical of this concept at first, as I wondered how level grinding, ammunition collection, and/or interpersonal dialog along the lines of “omg n00b pwned” could be any less tedious in fiction than in real life (so to speak). Thankfully, the fictional game in question is a fighting game, and its setup and mechanics are both simple enough to be understood by a non-gamer and complex enough to not lose their freshness after two hundred pages.

I was also worried that, since the novel’s cover (which is a mirror of the original Japanese cover) sports a manga-style illustration, Slum Online would be nothing more than a light novelized plot worthy of an anime (whose plots and dialog tend to not work so well without the animation). Again, my worries were unfounded, since the story more or less eschews anime tropes and works fairly well as fiction that can be read by someone not familiar with the quirkiness of characters like Suzumiya Haruhi and Lina Inverse.

Slum Online follows an older teenager named Etsuro through his real and virtual life. In real life, he is a college student pursued by a classmate named Fumiko who is pursuing a blue cat through the streets of Shinjuku. In his virtual life, he is a karate fighter named Tetsuo who is pursuing a mysterious player known as Ganker Jack while being pursued by a ninja character named Hashimoto. The novel’s chapters alternate between Tetsuo’s real life and his virtual life, but there is little disconnect between the two; and, in the end, they come together quite nicely. It’s equally amusing for the reader to follow Etsuro through the backstreets and arcades of Shinjuku as it is to follow Tetsuo and Hashimoto through the alleyways and watering holes of the gaming world. Moreover, the cast of characters in either world is equally interesting, especially as they interact with each other across both worlds.

I wouldn’t call Slum Online science fiction, necessarily, and it doesn’t quite belong in the realm of cyberpunk, either. I found it quite realistic in its depiction of gaming technologies, their applications, and the cultures that surround them. Nobody is downloading anything directly into their brains or raving about the awesome theoretical potential of cyberspace. The characters go to school and go to work like anyone else, and the only men in black suits are the salary men on the commuter trains. Everyone knows what Google and Wikipedia and Playstation are. I personally found it refreshing to read a story about real kids playing video games. No one is a hacker, and there aren’t any cyber police; it’s just a kid and his game console and his online network.

There’s no nonsense in the book about not being able to tell the difference between the real world and the cyber world either, although Etsuro’s language occasionally betrays how his awareness of the real world is influenced by gaming. He describes hearing things in terms of “sound FX” and perceiving people’s faces in terms of polygons or anime-inspired designs. As he walks around Shinjuku, he remarks how convenient it is to not have to worry about running into invisible walls, and how in real life one can’t just approach someone and start a conversation as if he or she were an NPC. Despite (or more likely because of) his mild geekiness, Etsuro is an amusing and sympathetic narrator.

Slum Online should be a fun read for gamers, and I think it should even be a fun read for non-gamers, who won’t be alienated by any specialist vocabulary. The translation is smooth and readable, the narrative flows quickly and seamlessly, and the layout is professional and engaging. The only bad thing I might have to say about this book is that it tends to come off as male-dominated, but whatever – I enjoyed it anyway.