There is something very intimidating in the way we have seen more of Japan’s own literary pop culture appear in English in the last few years alone than across almost all the previous years. “Literary pop culture” means the things written in Japan, for Japanese audiences, and not necessarily written to bolster that country’s literary prestige in the eyes of the world. That’s everything from the Vampire Hunter D and Dirty Pair light novels to NISIOISIN, from Miyuki Miyabe’s Crossfire and Brave Story (which are two incredibly dissimilar books for the same author) to the Guin Saga, from Edogawa Rampo’s Black Lizard to Kōji Suzuki’s Ring cycle.
It’s intimidating, because where’s someone supposed to start reading with such a trove of riches now at hand? It’s the same problem I had with the Gundam franchise: there’s just so much of it and in so many incarnations, just picking a starting point has me going in circles. (I’ll probably just give up and start with Gundam SEED. Send hate mail to the email address above.)
For those reasons I’m all the more grateful to Del Rey for hooking up with Kodansha, their perpetual partner in cultural cross-pollination, to bring out a domestic edition of the first volume of Faust. Billed as “fiction and manga from the cutting edge of Japanese pop culture”, it more than lives up to the label. For seventeen bucks you get a nearly four-hundred page anthology of current pop-literary movers, shakers, creators and illustrators — a bentō box of goodies designed to appeal to both existing manga/anime/”visual culture” fans and people from outside that circle looking for a fresh set of cultural diversions. Just the sheer variety of the material sandwiched into this volume would be reason enough to recommend it.
The original Faust anthologies in Japan have been coming out since 2003, so this is something of a flashback to the J-pop-lit scene as it was five years ago. Right from the start we’re treated to “OuterHolic”, the opening bit of NISIOISIN’s ×××HOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC (got to love that CREATiVE CAPiTALiZATiON), an original novel by Japan’s hot new literary thing with the palindromic pen name. Del Rey will have the full novel coming out here later this year, but the taster here is tantalizing. I wasn’t sure if the sometimes-comic-sometimes-foreboding atmosphere of ×××HOLiC would translate well into mere words. But NISIOISIN’s creative use of multiple points of view and rhythmic, almost tidal use of language (something that must have given the translator fits) give the story the same curious, sometimes deliberately difficult flavor as the manga and anime itself.
Kouhei Kadono’s “Outlandos D’Amour” (no relation to the Police album of the same name) moves a little further out on the beam, but employs an array of tropes that should be familiar to manga and anime fans. A young man with a peculiar power — one that brings to mind the “Death Vision” from Lunar Legend Tsukihime — tries to live a normal life despite it, or rather what he thinks a normal life is. The emotional detachment of the main character reminded me of the equally alienated protagonist from NISIOISIN’s Zaregoto: of all the things in the world that are strange, he’s the strangest of the bunch.
Strange as “Outerholic” might be, it’s at least based on characters and situations that we might have some existing connection with — or might be able to care out, for that matter. No such safeties exist for Otaro Maijo’s story “Drill Hole In My Brain”, an endurance test of sex, violence, sexual violence and just plain weirdness — it’s likeTetsuo: the Iron Man crossed with Heartbeat in the Brain, that infamous underground movie of a woman trepanning herself. No plot synopsis would suffice, either. It purports to be the adventures of a young man who’s assaulted and has a screwdriver driven into head — and that’s just the beginning of his problems. He later meets a girl with a horn growing out of her head, which leads to a sex scene that is best left to the imagination, and finds himself turning into a mixture of headcase and sentai-style superhero. There is a great deal more, most of it deeply unpleasant and incoherent, all served up in a verbal assault that becomes downright wearying after thirty pages. I give Maijo credit for trying something unrepentantly outré, but that doesn’t mean I have to approve of the results.
Far more palatable is “F-Sensei’s Pocket” by Otsuichi, with illustrations by Takeshi (Death Note, Hikaru no Go) Obata. All manner of strange trash blows up against the window of teenager Matsuda’s room, everything from foreign currency to the underwear of strangers. One day various artifacts from the Doraemon continuum begin to show up, and disrupt the lives of Matsuda and her friend — who as it turns out is a good deal less meek and harmless than originally believed. It’s a breezy and cute story that is, in its own way, a work of fanfiction, a tribute to a fandom whose impact in Japan is still hard for those of us on the other side of the Pacific to comprehend.
Kinoku Nasu’s “The Garden of Sinners” is another extract from a longer work due to be published by Del Rey in ’09. Those of you familiar with Nasu will know he also wroteFate/stay night and Tsukihime, and “Sinners” fits into roughly the same category: school-age kids coming up against something huge and horrible and otherworldly. In this case, it’s young girls flinging themselves off the roofs of tall buildings (shades of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club). The story switches between the POVs of the two protagonists — the reticent Shiki, survivor of a car accident that damaged her emotions but not her memories; and the more ordinary Mikiya. Fans of Tsukihime will probably pick right up on this one; it has the same languorous, uneasy tone as that story, but its chosen storytelling methodology makes it tougher sledding than it might normally have been.
The rest of the volume is filled with shorter pieces, all interesting in some form. Kozy Watanabe’s “H People: An Evolving World” takes a few pages to give us the mind-set of a hikokimori, one of Japan’s generation of young compulsive shut-ins (as also delineated in the both-funny-and-horrible Welcome to the NHK). Ryusui Seiryōin’s “Yabai De Show” explores the outer limits of what you can do with a translation that’s littered with wordplay; it’s not wholly successful and I suspect a good deal of the story’s point is obscured in the process, but it’s fun to see them try. “Yūya Satō’s Counseling Session” and “Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s Guru Guru Counseling Session” (the latter by the author of NHK) poke fun at the concept of advice columns for the hapless. “Approaching Twenty Years Of Otaku” by Kaichirō Morikawa, a short essay, is a brief but insightful musing into how otaku-dom is working its way into the mainstream, both here and in Japan.
There’s a great deal more: four manga in the back (in color and back and white, and presented in right-to-left order), interviews with Nasu and Takeuchi, and explanatory blurbs for each segment as well.
Translation: Paul Johnson and Andrew Cunningham were the two translators for the material in this volume of Faust, and between them they have tackled some of the most potentially thorny and difficult material this side of postmodern stuff like, say, Genichiro Takahashi’s Sayonara, Gangsters. It’s extremely difficult to tell how accurate they are — I’ve not picked up the original and done my own homework as per Black Lagoon — but all of the translations in Faust #1 are top-notch in the sense that they read without difficulty or inelegance.
My only major nitpicks are not with the translation itself but with some of the annotations. Certain things are explained in detail, but others — which seem just as important — are glossed over. On page 308 we’re told in a footnote that a “Soapland” is “similar to a Turkish bath but basically a brothel”, but we’re not told who Kenzō Kitakata is. (He’s Japan’s version of Ed McBain, loosly speaking.) I suspect the translators were forced to choose what to note and what to skip for the sake of not cluttering up the pages too heavily, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel some of their choices were mistaken.
The Bottom Line: In the last couple of years we’ve seen a whole third slice added to the manga/anime pie in English-speaking countries: literary fiction and light novels.Faust Vol. 1 — and its forthcoming volumes — are a terrific way to taste all that. Go get it and savor something genuinely new and different.