When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. — Hunter S. Thompson
You’re not really friends with someone unless you and the other guy can slag each other’s tastes with full-bore venom and still pal around with each other the next day. The other week I had the quote unquote pleasure of having one such friend drill into me for liking Witchblade. I saw a show about motherhood and the pain and joy thereof; he saw a bunch of top-heavy chicks powering up DBZ-style and clobbering the tartar sauce out of each other. But we agree to disagree there, and that’s that — and we both loved the hell out of Casshern, so it isn’t like we’re always at each other’s throats.
I’m expecting a metric truckload of the same kind of “you, sir, are an idiot” missives sent my way after I recommend ×××HOLiC: ANOTHERHOLiC: Landolt-Ring Aerosol (best title ever, by the way). I read it and I see an attempt to create a set of tie-in stories for the ×××HOLiC anime/manga universe, faithful to it in spirit and form, with as distinctive a voice and a set of literary tropes as the ones the author brought to his own original works earlier this year. You, on the other hand, will read it and think I am a complete pud. Fine. I still haven’t found a flaming gunblade on my front lawn for the way I savaged Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, so pud I am and pud I remain. I’d like to think I at least have a justification for my pud-dom.
ANOTHERHOLiC (no, I’m not typing that whole name again, sorry) is something of a cousin to NISIOISIN’s other big-name tie-in novel, Death Note: Another Note, which Viz has not seen fit to send me but which I’ll probably end up reading anyway. That one was a side story / prequel to the main Death Note continuum, wherein L trekked out to Los Angeles and helped figure out a mystery there. ANOTHERHOLiC spins out three entirely new stories in the same mold as the ‘HOLiC series, and uses a mannered and insistently strange style to make the goings-on all the more oddball. You read it, and you might well feel about as annoyed as poor old Watanuki himself.
But … maybe that’s the point. To get us to share the frustrated state of mind of the ‘HOLiC hero, he who was born on April 1st and blessed / cursed with the ability to see spirits. Watanuki has ever reason to feel frustrated, since he’s entered into a contract of sorts with the mysterious Yuko. After working for her in her curio shop (where desires are granted for a price), he’ll eventually be given the chance to trade in his power for a stab at a normal life.
The gap between the theory and the practice for that little plan forms most of the drama in the manga and anime, as Watanuki deals with one bizarre corner of the spirit world after another under Yuko’s tutelage — and where his two major reactions to all that unfolds are confusion and annoyance. He doesn’t hate the spirit world because it’s scary; he hates it because it’s a pain in the ass, and all he wants to do is graduate and go into business and maybe marry that cute girl Himawari he’s had his eye on this whole time. But everything comes with a cost, and Yuko’s costs are downright extortionistic.
The first segment, “OUTERHOLiC”, was a featured excerpt in Del Rey’s outstanding anthology Faust. At the onset, Watanuki’s sent by Yuko on one of his perennially strange little missions — in this case, to obtain a pair of fake eyeglasses that don’t seem to be worth anything. Just like this perpetual runaround he keeps getting from her, he grouses, but her response is classically Yukoesque: “Nothing in this world is devoid of meaning. Not even games.”
The glasses aren’t for him, though. They’re to help a woman named Nurie Kushimura, who stepped out in front of traffic right in front of him and ended up in the hospital. (Ever notice how stepping into traffic and car accidents in general seem to be the preferred method for anime and manga characters to meet their makers?) Kushimura’s life is ruled by bizarre compulsions like this: as she puts it, she’s always been tempted to push the button that reads “DON’T PUSH”. When Watanuki brings flowers to her in her hospital bed, she clobbers him with them. Why? Same reason: the impulse to transgress. Clearly, she’s going to get killed if she keeps allowing that voice to override her behavior — even if she’s managed to make it through a couple of decades of life without getting killed. What she needs is someone to call her bluff, and Yuko is that someone.
Part two, “UNDERHOLiC” (no, my Shift key is not broken) has Watanuki hearing, through fourth-hand sources, about a girl who allegedly received a message on her cellphone from her dead friend. She blames herself, compulsively, for what happened — but when Watanuki takes her to Yuko for a “consultation”, his employer tears the woman’s story to shreds and supplies Watanuki with a far less strained explanation. It’s a ploy for attention, and the girl pulling it off is shamelessly self-absorbed. The way her narcissism is set up and revealed is like a verbal sleight-of-hand trick. It’s a routine NISOISIN accomplished on a much larger scale in his previous novel Zaregoto, where he’d throw tons of evidence in your lap and then subvert the meaning of all of it by forcing you to look at it again, just a few degrees to the left.
The last story, “AFTERHOLiC” (couldn’t see that coming, could you?) is the most daring, and by that same token also the one that will have most of the prospective audience throwing fits and writing hate mail. In it, Watanuki finds himself stuck in what might be best described as a parallel existence to the one he led before. Most everyone he knew — Yuko, Himawari, and all the rest — are gone. In their place is a pushy, nasty fellow who calls himself a scientist but could be anyone, and who lectures Watanuki at length about his “Eye World Theory”. Read a little more closely and you’ll realize the whole thing is essentially an allegory for Watanuki’s own ambivalence about what he’s doing with his life while under Yuko’s wing. (Heavily-censored snatches from the scientist’s writings about the same subject are interspersed with the text of the story, which you’ll either find cute or enraging.)
Only after it’s all finished does each piece snap into place. ANOTHERHOLiC’s about perceptions — what you see in yourself, what you see in others, and how you do both of those things. The whole literary tapdance that NISIOISIN uses, the rhythm of the words and the staccato of his vocabulary, is all part of that. It’s akin to David Mamet and his odd, mannered, literary-without-being-exactly-literary dialogue — and as with Mamet, it ought to spawn at least as much resistance as it does fascination. But — surprise, surprise — that’s precisely why I liked it.
Translation: Translator Andrew Cunningham must have sweated blood over this. He is not the same man who did the translation of Zaregoto (that was Greg Moore), but Mr. Cunningham was probably faced with many of the same challenges. NISIOISIN spatters his writing with a farrago of pop-culture references, untranslatable puns and all those other wonderful things that make translators cry. Fortunately, the translation job doesn’t try to dance around this issue, but embraces it. Everything that doesn’t render directly into English has been footnoted and explained in detail, and the rest of the translation job itself is spot-on.
The Bottom Line: I won’t lie: ANOTHERHOLiC is a tricky sell, but that’s exactly why I’m stumping for it. There’s a whole bunch of other books out this season that are a lot more dependable a purchase, but also that much less daring. If you want to meet me halfway, go check out Faust and think of it as a sampler for this book along with a ton of bonus material. If you like it, snap this up, and maybe NISIOISIN’s equally offbeat Zaregoto, too. Send hate mail to the address linked above.