The worst sort of crime, it could be argued, is that which is committed thoughtlessly. It’s intent that makes a true criminal, which is why we have both manslaughter and murder. Such is the theory anyway, but I imagine those words add up to little more than cold comfort in the mind of a victim. The victim wants justice, not rationalizations about the nature of the criminal. All he knows is that he’s been wronged, and that things must be set a-right.
Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects gives us a character that embodies this dilemma: a woman who, at least at first, ostensibly doesn’t understand her criminal nature. Stealing, lying and betraying are not acts of evil, but simply the way she plays the game — the same game everyone else around her seems to be playing, and sometimes far more cruelly and efficiently than she herself plays it. If she doesn’t do this, she’s simply going to have her throat cut all the faster. It’s nothing personal, you see. It’s just business. Read more
In William Finn’s March of the Falsettos, young chess prodigy Jason laments “I’m too smart for my own good / And I’m too good for my sorry little life.” This short, sharp, sad little novella is those two verses stretched to book length, albeit a book of barely ninety pages.
Written in 1939 and never translated into English until now, Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl (Joseito, 女生徒) is immensely simple in construction but packs more into individual sentences and paragraphs than many other novels do, even ones ten times this size, thanks to Dazai’s peculiar and powerful language. Read more
Natsume Sōseki’s classic sits in something of the same part of the shelf as Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye, but its fame and warm reception often overshadows that it’s deeply atypical of Sōseki’s work. He dashed it off more or less as a lark, a lighthearted bit of contrast to his other, more serious novels, and was somewhat taken aback when it became a steady best-seller. It’s since been adapted into multiple media, predictably — in fact, Lupin III creator Monkey Punch oversaw a hilarious, delightfully stylized one-hour animated TV version that regrettably hasn’t been seen outside of Japan (I found a DVD copy at Book-Off). Read more
I’m faintly surprised that a franchise as enduring (and endearing) as Oh My Goddess! has never until now received the light-novel treatment, but here we are (well, copyright 2006). What’s most interesting about this spinoff is the pedigree: author Yumi Tohma is none other than the Japanese-language voice actress for the character Urd in the original series. That made me tempted to write this off as a quasi-vanity project, but it’s well-written and suffused with enough love and respect for the series to make me rethink that viewpoint. Read more
Donald Keene is translator of, among others, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human, but during WWII he was in the employ of the U.S. Navy, translating diaries of captured Japanese soldiers and even providing an on-the-spot interpretation of the Emperor’s capitulation speech (delivered, as it turned out, in language so archaic and format that not only Keene but many native Japanese had trouble understanding it). With this work Keene plumbs the diaries of writers — some famous, some less so — for their introspections and musings before, during and after the war that left Japan devastated and forever altered. Read more
Ryū Murakami’s 1994 novel gives us a young man obsessed with the idea of stabbing his infant daughter — revenge for his own mistreatment at the hands of his disturbed mother. Despite being happily married and gainfully employed, his urges are overwhelming him, and he hatches a plan to stab a suitable victim that has no connection to him. He settles on a girl sent over from an S&M call service who turns out to be at least as disturbed as he is and has a self-destructive streak that might well perfectly complement his own impulses.
Their encounter, over the course of one long, blood-spattered night, sports Murakami’s trademark precision of description and sensory immersion: for such a short book (barely 180 pages, large type) it’s remarkably good at evoking the narrow scopes of the inner lives of these two human wrecks. In the end the novel works best as a straight-up thriller rather than a penetrating psychological study: most of the insights we get into their conditions are Abnormal Psych 102. That said, Murakami makes a brave attempt to see this abnormality from inside, the opposite of his outsider-sees-outsider approach used in In the Miso Soup. And as per the thriller veneer of the story, there’s a genuine and skillfully-evoked sense of unease about how this will end which lasts right up to the very last sentence.
Yasunari Kawabata’s novel thinly fictionalizes a famous 1938 go match which lasted several months and proved to be a final decisive loss for its grand master player. Kawabata had already shucked off the expressionistic, surreal mode he’d used for books like The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa and was well on his way towards, as he put it, writing only elegies for Japan. He might have only declared as much after the devastation of WWII, but Master shows him already bending in that direction. This is not a book about a game, but an attitude towards life.
The story was originally serialized for the Mainichi Shinbun, and some flavor of its serial nature is felt here in its short chapters, each evoking some round of the game or some parallel goings-on. There are no secrets that this is the master’s last game or that he will lose: it begins after the game has already ended, with the master’s death (the author photographing the body is given its own chapter), and only then do we jump back into the game itself. We quickly see the clash is one of character, not caricature: the go master’s younger opponent, Ōtaké, is not some smirking rake with pomaded hair, but a family man with a stubborn streak of his own that mirrors, rather than opposes, the master’s.
It’s not hard to see how Kawabata is pitting two Japans against each other: the older Japan that is organically connected to its traditions and obsessed with maintaining its dignity; and the newer, more “Westernized” Japan of commercial opportunity and modernism. The book is illustrated with detailed diagrams of the game in progress, and some understanding of go is useful to help interpret that part of the goings-on. But none is required to understand the way Kawabata wanted to evoke a sense of utter loss, of the passing of the old without anything necessarily to replace it in the new. Ōtaké might have been the technically superior player, but not the better one, and Kawabata leaves it to us to decide who is the better man as well.
Hideyuki Kikuchi is best known for the Vampire Hunter D novels on this side of the Pacific, but a few of his other franchises are seeing translation as well. Wicked City (yes, it was the inspiration for the anime and live-action Hong Kong film of the same name) pits the human world against the demon world, with only the “Black Guard” — an elite composed of entities from both sides — protecting the tenuous peace that exists between them. Human Black Guard Taki and demonic guard Makie join up to protect a human diplomat crucial to the forging of a new treaty, only to discover they’ve been dragooned into a much larger and more complex series of events.
Those familiar with the D books will find all of Kikuchi’s trademark elements in force: creative (bordering on cheerfully ridiculous) uses of supernatural and fantastic elements, cinematographic violence — and now kinky sex as well, so much so that you might think you wandered into an Anita Blake book by mistake. But Kikuchi has, amazingly enough, an explanation for even that part of the story, one he drops on the readers in the last couple of pages. It’s not as much wide-gauge fun as the D books, which were at least as much about their outlandish setting as their inscrutable main character, but it’s a good way to get an idea about what else Kikuchi can do. Note: If this sounds like Nightwatch, bear in mind Kikuchi wrote this in 1985, so your guess as to who influenced whom is as good as mine.
Hans Fallada’s self-lacerating, autobiographical novel gives us a German businessman who discovers an affinity for alcohol in the wake of a minor family mishap. Soon drink comes to rule his life, and he gives himself over to it eagerly — so eagerly he finds himself sliding quickly into crime, embezzling from his own family, and ends up in prison for a near-assault on his wife (this was what befell Fallada in real life). He finds even worse things awaiting him after that: confinement in a mental asylum, where even the minimal dignities he found in prison are gone.
The book’s unevenly paced and sometimes meandering, but some of that might be due to the circumstances of its creation: Fallada wrote it while in a Nazi-run insane asylum, under the pretext of writing a propaganda novel for Goebbels. Given that, it’s amazing anything coherent emerged at all, let alone this sardonic and grim story of a man eyeing the world around him and seeing nothing but one good reason after another to give into his baser nature.
A reworking / remix / reimagining / reboot of the first few chapters in the saga of the all-but-unkillable swordsman Manji and his female sidekick Rin. Rather than simply retell the story we already know from the manga — which is among the very best in print right now, if you need a recommendation — author Junichi Ohsako uses some of the events from those opening chapters (and most of the same characters) as window-dressing for his own workmanlike but minimal plot about Manji and Rin going head-to-head with a bad guy of Ohsako’s own creation. Read more