Reading Zaregoto is a little like watching someone doing one of those wild juggling acts where they swap clubs for flaming torches for bowling balls for chainsaws, all without dropping anything on the floor. It’s a slick, addictive Japanese pop-literary confection, an amalgam of mystery thriller, psychological suspense, philosophical pondering, and all-out weirdness. At first you’re reading it for the who-why-and-how-dunit aspects of the story, but by the end you’re seeing it as a portrait of the oddball mentality of the genius.
“Genius” is a word I now hate, no thanks to being bled dry of meaning after decades of unthinking abuse. When Apple has a “Genius Bar” in their stores (staffed, for the most part, by people who are not whole orders of magnitude smarter than the rest of us, just better trained in things Apple) and the word itself is used as a sit-com insult, there’s not much room left to sink, is there? Zaregoto, though, understands all this and uses it as a starting point. Those with genius express it narrowly — through one skill, one insight, one idea — and even the smartest of people can be undone by the simplest and most underhanded behaviors and motives.
Zaregoto (the title means “a joke”, or maybe in Ii-chan’s catchphrase, “a bunch of nonsense”) is told from the point of view of Ii-chan, a nineteen-year-old college kid who takes a fair amount of pride in the fact that he’s not involved in or committed to much of anything. He’s as neutral as Switzerland in all matters, a trait described most kindly as “easygoing” — but “indifferent” is closer to the truth. Reading about such a character would normally be about as interesting as chewing straw, but because the story’s delivered from his mouth, his POV and his narration are used (quite wisely) for a good deal of dry humor. He knows he’s absolutely nothing special, and the only problem he has is with other people who have a problem with that.
The closest thing Ii-chan has to a friend is Tomo Kunagisa, a computer genius who’s managed to rack up a startling record of achievements before even getting out of her teens. In an installment of Look Deeper here at AMN, my colleague Eric Fredericksen made a case for one of the main characters of Nodame Cantabile being a high-level autistic; a similar argument could be made for Kunagisa. She likes things “just so”, especially her trio of ultra-high-end computers — and the ministrations that Ii-chan provides for her. He’s the closest thing she has to a guardian; so wrapped up is she in her work that every so often he has to tie her up and throw her into the tub to get her to wash.
At the start of the book, the two of them have been invited to be the guests of the staggeringly wealthy Iria Akagami, now living in exile from the rest of her family on “Wet Crow’s Feather Island”. There, she holds court with the best and brightest minds of the world, which she brings from all around to keep her company. Kunagisa is one of several such guests, along with Maki Himena (a fortune-teller, said to have genuine ESP), Kanami Ibuki (a wheelchair-bound painter), Akane Sonoyama (member of an elite intellectual outfit known as the “Seven Fools”), Yayoi Sashirono (a master chef), and the triplet sisters who serve as Iria’s maids. Geniuses all, and as is the case with geniuses, full of their own self-importance; many of them quite simply hate each other on general principles. Iria doesn’t mind — one gets the impression one of the reasons she brought them all here was specifically to see sparks fly like that. Ii-chan, being neutral by nature, glides between all of them and finds himself an object of either bemusement or contempt.
Then one of the guests (I won’t say who) turns up dead with her head sliced clean off, and the isolation of the island — along with Iria’s stubborn determination not to get conventional authorities involved — compels Ii-chan by degrees to abandon his detachment, to take sides and use his own native genius, thus far unexpressed, to get to the bottom of what’s going on. This detective work takes up the majority of the book, but then (in fairly classic mystery-novel form) there’s a concluding chapter in which another character takes the stage and explains to him (and us) just how much Ii-chan got both right and wrong, and why.
Because the ending is constructed this way, I went back and re-read a good deal of the rest of the book to see how much of a change in perspective they provided. That reinforced my original idea all the more — that the real point of the book isn’t the thriller/mystery plotting, which is as absurdly overheated as any you’ll come across (even if that is part of the fun). The real story is Ii-chan himself — his attitude towards life, and how this event makes him realize that being neutral in all things isn’t so much a survival trait as it is a way to avoid the pain of making a decision and possibly being wrong. The problem is he’s now faced with a decision that might literally kill him if he doesn’t make it.
I had not previously heard of the author of Zaregoto, who goes by the palindromic alias of NISIOISIN (pronounced “neeshee-oh-eesheen”), but he’s apparently a one-man literary factory in Japan. Bookstores there have an entire shelf devoted to his output, much as they do with Osamu Tezuka. Apart from original novels like this, he’s also known for tie-ins with existing franchises; he wrote Death Note: Another Note, a companion novel to the blockbuster series of the same name, and (this one I especially want to get my hands on) ×××HOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC, a tie-in for a series that’s rapidly become a favorite of mine both in print and on TV. Based on what I see here, his fame’s pretty well-earned.
Translation: Greg Moore’s translation of Zaregoto easily ranks with or beats Kevin Leahy’s outstanding work for the Vampire Hunter D franchise. Those books were not written in such a way that there was anything that explicitly linked them back to Japan as a whole, but Zaregoto has a lot more of that sort of thing — honorifics, cultural references, and so on. That makes the translation all the more impressive: it includes all those things, keeps them intact with minimal editorializing, and most importantly makes it all a breeze and a pleasure to read. Also included are original illustrations bytake (“ta-ké”), who’s apparently supplied art for other NISIOISIN works in the past.
One thing that is not explained is the system of honorifics, which have been preserved in the dialogue and text; Del Rey has a boilerplate explanation of this sort of thing at the front of all their manga and it’s somewhat missed here. Maybe they felt anyone inclined to pick up this novel would already know such things, but I’d debate that: isn’t the point of making this stuff broadly available to not shut out everyone who isn’t already a “fan”?
The Bottom Line: Before anime and manga started becoming exportable commodities, they were created without any second-guessing about how successful they would be in other territories. Zaregoto has the same sort of flavor about it — it’s an quirky J-pop fantasia, and all the more fascinating for not being conceived with the West in mind.
And on that note, books like this are a big part of why I write about Japanese popular culture in the first place. Everyone knows about Bleach and Naruto; they don’t need me to tell them such things are worthwhile. But Zaregoto’s a bit of maverick wonder. Seek it out.