It seems you’ve been living two lives, Miss Chiba. In one, you are Atsuko Chiba, an accomplished researcher and therapist working for the Institute for Psychiatric Research. You’re a hard worker, a dedicated scientist, and on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. In the other, you go by the alias “Paprika” and carry out illegitimate dream therapy with restricted-use dream-imaging devices borrowed from the Institute’s own labs. One of these lives has a future; the other does not.
Forgive the Matrix quote, but it’s a fitting way to kick off a discussion of Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s landmark novel. Tsutsui’s eclectic mixes of fantasy, SF, black comedy and other genres have been only sporadically presented in English; Paprika itself was only recently translated, and isn’t even directly available to readers in the United States yet. That’s a shame, because the book’s a broadly entertaining introduction to an author who hasn’t yet gotten his due domestically. He’s been superficially compared to Haruki Murakami or J.G. Ballard, although he’s more playful than the latter and more formally grounded in genre than the former. Read more
I struggle with myself. On the one hand I want to write a rave review of Grotesque, one that might verge on being fulsome in its praise. On the other hand, I want to red-pencil the book, to trim out the fat I know is there and expose the muscle and heart of a story that has about one hundred percent more, well, story, than it truly needs. But I got here late: I’m a reader and a critic, not an editor, and so I have to take Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque as it stands: a very good book that might well be a great one, barring my quibbles about its length.
Told in an amalgam of first-person confessional, third-party documentation, diary entries and letter-writings, Grotesque deals with a now-middle-aged Japanese woman — never referred to by her first name — who was one of two daughters in a mixed marriage. She is “half”, as they say in Japan. The unpleasant union of her Swiss/Polish father (himself “half”, it seems) and her Japanese mother produced herself and Yuriko — the “monster”, as the narrator calls her, a girl almost too beautiful to be believed. The rift that forms between them soon becomes unbridgeable, and before long the two sisters live entirely disparate lives. One settles into a life of respectable work, a veneer that barely conceals an ocean of rage; the other into prostitution and an early death at the hands of a client. Read more
Volume 3 of 20th Century Boys plays like a compendium of every paranoid nightmare you’ve ever had. You are in front of a hostile crowd, singled out for ridicule and aggression. You are dead certain something horrible is going to happen mere minutes from now, but you cannot get anyone to believe you. And you’re convinced there’s some tiny unremembered piece of your past which is crucially important to everything that’s going on, if you could just remember what the hell it was!
That’s been Kenji’s problem: the clues to the imminent apocalypse being unleashed by a former childhood friend are scattered far and wide through his life. What’s worse is now that he’s finally started to fit the pieces together, the one great discovery that comes to him is that he is the only one who can comprehend the full scope of what’s happening. The attacks taking place around the world are all based on the daydream scribbles he came up with all those years ago. Ergo, it’s a warning, a message aimed directly at him: Come get me. You know who I am, don’t you?Read more
Ever get the feeling you’d been cheated?
There’s a clutch of words that when uttered in the presence of fans can elicit near-homicidal reactions. One of them is censorship: if there’s even the suggestion that a title of theirs has been “cleaned up” (shilling for dumbed down) for its domestic release, they’ll blow out the windows. Case in point: the manga version of Tenjho Tenge, which tanked in sales once word got out it had been bowdlerized to keep it from going into “mature audiences” shrinkwrap. To be honest, the Comstockery in question wasn’t all that bad, but it was the principle of the thing that ticked people off, and rightly so. Why pay for what you know to be damaged goods?
But there’s another word also capable of unleashing whole hectares of fan-wrath, depending on the context and the circumstances. That word is remake, and in a way it’s even more problematic a word than censorship because it cuts both ways. It isn’t inherently evil. Sometimes a remake can revitalize a dated or flawed piece of material, and give it a whole new gloss. The current remake of Evangelion might fit into this category, depending on your level of attachment to the original (and that deserves to be an essay unto itself).
I could not have made this up if I wanted to. Read more
Two volumes back I noted that Black Lagoon is one volume setup and one volume payoff. Volume 7 is almost entirely setup with one big dollop of gunbunny lunacy in the opening chapters to whet the appetite. But it’s good setup — it’s not just plot cogs creaking, but further definition of character. In a series like Black Lagoon the characterization and plotting are joined at the hip anyway.
The end of the last volume kicked off a new plot arc: the return of the Lovelace family’s cadre of murderous maids. Maids, plural. As it turns out, the nutjob Roberta is indeed back in town and looking for revenge. She’s convinced the folks who killed the head of the Lovelace family with a well-placed bomb are squirreled away in Roanapur somewhere, and she doesn’t care how many dead bodies she leaves behind before she finds them. The gun-toting maid we met back at the end of the last volume, though, was Fabiola — another servant of the same ilk, and the one whom the “young master” of the Lovelace clan is currently depending on most for his protection. Fabiola’s nowhere nearly as unhinged as Roberta out of the gate, but she’s enough of a handful that Rock (and by extension Revy) are persuaded to lend them a hand looking for Roberta to keep the body count to a minimum.Read more
Is it possible to enjoy a book because of its limitations, as much as you might enjoy it despite them? I’m faced with this issue right now because after all four (or two) volumes of Pale Fallen Angel, I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed the story. I’m just not sure if that’s the result of the way it was written or an unintentional by-product.
The D stories don’t lend themselves to being epics. They’re called light novels for a reason: they’re compact, fast on their feet, and trimly written. Small wonder the longer D stories end up tilting under their own weight. The would-be epic two-part Journey to the North Sea was impressive, but caused Hideyuki Kikuchi’s storytelling framework to bulge at the seams. With the four-part Angel, the framework has ripped clean open. I didn’t like seeing the brevity I associated with the D series turning into the very same ponderous, bloated fantasy that I started reading the D books to get away from in the first place. But after both volumes of Angel, I found I’d done my best to enjoy the books for what they were and not for what I wanted them to be. Read more
How do you solve a problem like Haruhi?
— with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein II
There’s a lot about Kyon’s new school that he doesn’t like. The long walk all the way uphill to get to it, for instance. The fact that he doesn’t know anyone there isn’t a boon, either. But none of that comes near the level of flabbergast Kyon feels when he meets his infamous classmate Haruhi Suzumiya.
Infamous doesn’t begin to sum her up, as he quickly learns. Infamy-generating is more like it.
“I have no interest in ordinary humans,” she declares to her astonished homeroom class on the first day of school. “If there are any aliens, time travelers, sliders or espers here, come join me.” And with that Kyon’s sucked into the orbit of what proves not only to be the oddest girl in the school but the girl who’s going to turn his life inside out and repaint it in mighty garish colors.Read more
Tokyo, 1952. Out of the ashes of war, a new society has sprouted: democratically inclined, scientifically rigorous, and socially progressive (or so it likes to think). But like Rome, this modern Japan is built directly on top of the ruins of the old — both physically and psychically. The supernatural and all of its trappings still exude great gravity thanks to their centuries of accumulated weight, and so an exorcist in this world can find himself just as gainfully employed as any private detective.
The Summer of the Ubume gives us just such an exorcist — Akihiko Chuzenji, or “Kyogokudo” to his friends. Diviner, bookworm, jack-of-all-subjects, professional grouch, he’s a Shintoist Sherlock Holmes for an age split between skepticism and superstition. “There is nothing that is strange in this world,” he declares. “There is only that which should be, and only that which should happen does.” In short, there is no supernatural — just things we don’t yet understand in a systematic way. Scratch a mythos and you’ll find a sociological motive; crack open a demon and you’ll see the gears of plain old human fear and avarice grinding away inside.Read more