Her name was Kaoru Kurimoto and she wrote a 120-volume-plus fantasy epic named Guin Saga that became a cornerstone in Japanese (and now possibly world) popular culture. A record most anyone would envy; for me, it was absolute proof no goal need be unattainable. And in her case, maybe a goal unfinished, but not unfulfilled. All it took was discipline, devotion, work — love, under it all, love for something that didn’t exist yet and which you had to bring into existence. Surely no greater love exists than for something that is impossible to others only because they can’t see what you see.
I wanted to meet her, as I want to meet so many people who’ve touched lives through their vision. I only knew her through her work, and only her work in translation, at that. “To translate is to betray”, say the Italians, but what middling sense I had of written Japanese told me Alex O. Smith hadn’t betrayed her. And on hearing she’d died with Guin Saga still ongoing I am ashamed to admit the first thing that came to mind was: Dammit, I hope we’re not left in suspense.
Maybe it isn’t possible to talk about the death of another without thinking of yourself first. Certainly not so soon after. Someone else dies, you mourn those left behind, all those things they left unfinished. Only by degrees does your attention turn back to all that was complete. I talk about the woman’s work and not the woman herself, if only because that’s what I know.
It was strange to read the first few volumes of Guin Saga, knowing that the series was still ongoing in Japan and that native Japanese readers had an unfair advantage over the rest of us. I touched on that peculiar feeling back when I looked at a recent manga adaptation of the first few installments (designed to be released in conjunction with the animated TV series). It was a little like pressing your ear to a wall and listening to the heated discussion raging on the other side: you could hear everything going on, but there were hints, nuances, subtle drops of meaning that you knew revolved around the fact that manga artist Hajime Sawada (or the crew that produced the TV series) had seen so much more of it than the rest of us had. They were acting out of that knowledge. The rest of us, stuck behind a language barrier, had to wait and wonder.
But under and above and despite all of that, there are the books themselves. Or, rather, the stories. A book’s an artifact; a story is a living thing not bound to any one piece of paper. So goes the theory, anyway. I remember buying a remaindered hardback copy of the first volume and throwing it in the trash in frustration because a good third of the book was a repeat of another third of the book due to a printing error. Imagine you’ve snuck into Star Wars, and right after the Star Destroyer roars overhead the film catches fire inside the projector.
But once I had clean copies in hand, and once Vertical, Inc. did Kurimoto the justice of issuing the self-contained cycle of the first five books in paperback, the whole Vision Thing she had established with her Japanese readers started to become clear to the rest of us. Director Werner Herzog once said that mankind is hungry for images, for transcendent visions, and without them he will starve. Kurimoto threw cap-V Visions on the page like she was bailing water out of the canoe of our collective psyche. A desert swept by amoebalike monsters; an army on a plain sweeping out in all four directions like a flowering monster; a city of crystal towers gone to sack; a giant rock in the middle of a desert of bones; a man with the head of a leopard.
But behind (and under, and above, and slightly to the left of) the vision, there’s the story. All the best stories are about somebody you care about. Kurimoto didn’t waste any time giving us someone who tugged at our heart even if we didn’t realize it at first. “The body of a gladiator, the head of a leopard, the heart of a hero” — I came up with that tagline after reading the first book and wondering when the hell we were going to see it on a movie poster. Kurimoto just threw him at us and let him land on his feet: right on the first place he’s face-down in a marsh with no memory, no history, no allegiances, no allies. And out of nothing but the force of sheer will and an underdog’s compassion he earns the label of Hero with a cap H. He sticks his leopard-spotted neck out all the way, every time, all the time. This, I told myself, is a hero — not, say, the whiny, self-important likes of Rand al’Thor from The Wheel of Time (which accomplished less in its elephantine dozen volumes than Guin did in the first five).
If there is a key difference between Japanese genre authors and their Western counterparts, apart from language, it appears to be this: Japanese writers are passionately unafraid of allowing you to empathize with and even weep for the people they create. Heart and soul: what awful words, beaten into pulpy shapelessness and threadbare meaninglessness by so much misuse. What a thing it is to open a book and see heart and soul leap back to life, to see someone putting heft and flesh on those stupid words again, to give you a hero that actually lived up to the label from the inside out.
Maybe that wasn’t even how the whole mission started. Yanni at Vertical once put it this way (I’m paraphrasing): she wanted to take every fantasy trope she could think of, mash it up, and make it work. She was telling, as he put it, a history for a world that didn’t exist a place with its own geography and biology and religion and culture and warfare and commerce and, yes, heroes. Guin was the linchpin around which all of it revolved: pull him out and the whole thing just flies off in all different directions. You need a hero at the center of something that big to give it heft and depth. That didn’t stop her from shifting her attention away from Guin for whole volumes. But that was always done in the context of the lives he’d touched; even the books where he isn’t there, even the scenes where he’s not present, a Guin-like spirit can be felt. It’s always been his story.
I could not tell you what, if any, plans have been assembled for Guin and his kingdom now that the queen has descended from the throne. I do know, though, that there are a hundred and fifteen more volumes of his story that aren’t in English yet, and the best tribute to her memory would be to continue to translate them however we can afford to do so. Publish-on-demand, digital download, whatever’s possible; knowing that the rest of her work is out there somewhere and yet unreadable is like only seeing one Kurosawa movie, reading one chapter of The Lord of the Rings, watching one episode of The Prisoner and knowing there was oh so much more just out of your reach. And I’m sick of living like that. And I hope a bunch more of you reading this get just as sickntired of it, if not more so, because that’s about the only way that stupid wall is ever gonna get knocked down.
I know now, I think, what I would have done if I had met her — that is, short of becoming a complete genuflecting nitwit fanboy, something I’ve had to sternly school myself out of time and again when other luminaries stepped into the room and took a seat. I would have thanked her, and I would have asked her this question: was Mr. Herzog right? Without some wild leap into the fantastic unknown, we starve and don’t even realize it — and she’s been keeping us fed all this time. Is that what she wanted? But in lieu of a definitive answer, I will believe she said Yes. Because, god knows, we’re not much of anything without a dream or three.
The last word I’ll leave to another man from another land in another language, but who seems to have been thinking the same thing.
My silken heart,
it’s filled with light;
with long-lost bells,
with lilies and bees.
I’ll go so very far,
past all those hills,
past all the seas,
near to the stars
and beg of Christ
the Lord give back
the soul I once had
when I was a child,
ripe with legends,
with a plumed cap
and a wooden sword.
— Federico Garcia Lorca