07 Feb, 2008

The Otaku Bookshelf: Guin Saga, Now You’re One of Us, Shinjuku Shark, Welcome to the NHK

By: Katherine Dacey, Ken Haley and Erin Finnegan

This month, Erin, Ken and I take a look at four very different books: The Guin Saga (Vertical, Inc.), one of the best-selling fantasy series in Japanese history; Now You’re One of Us (Vertical, Inc.), a psychological thriller that gives new meaning to the phrase “monster-in-law”; Shinjuku Shark (Vertical, Inc.), a pulpy crime novel about Tokyo’s very own Dirty Harry; and Welcome to the NHK (Tokyopop), a novel about very dysfunctional young people trying to make sense of their twenties.

The Guin Saga, Book One: The Leopard Mask

By Kaoru Kurimoto, Translated by Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Vertical, Inc., 288 pp.

guinsaga1.jpgThe Guin Saga is absolute torture for the first 100 pages, but suddenly at page 105 it turns good, exactly here:

“Who could have known that Jarn Fat-Weaver, with his long beard, horse’s hooves, thrice-and-a-half-curled tail, and single eye that saw through to the end of time, had chosen that very moment to quietly begin turning the little wheel of his loom.”

Thrice-and-a-half-curled tail? That’s awesome! Suddenly the scope of the mythology snaps into place. The Guin Saga makes as dramatic a turnaround as any book I’ve ever read, as the abysmal early chapters give way to an intense ending.

I suffered through the first 100 pages primarily by skimming. Guin Saga is very repetitive, a mark serialization. Wikipedia (at the time of this writing) doesn’t say so, but the book was first published in Hayakawa Shobo’s Sci-Fi magazine, so there is lot of re-cap throughout.

Guin is a muscular human warrior of epic strength, cast into the Marshes with no memory of his past a leopard mask attached permanently to his head. Since the series is over 100 volumes long, I had no expectations about Guin regaining his memory or figuring out the whole mask thing in the first book. Instead, Guin meets the Royal Twins of Parros, Rinda and Remus, who are hiding in the dangerous swampland after seeing their parents killed and their kingdom destroyed. The twins are unnaturally beautiful, and one must endure many long, nauseating, repetitive paragraphs dedicated to their beauty. Insufferable at first, I came to like Rinda, who has “all the dignity of a queen.”

Guin makes fast friends with the kids after he fights a group of Black Riders, then fights them again undead. He fights ghosts and ghouls before he and the kids are taken prisoner at Stafolos Keep, where Guin fights a gorilla, and later, an invading horde of thousands of halfling creatures called the Sem.

Although cheesy at times (Guin actually says: “Orro of Torrus, don’t die on me!”) the fight scenes are all entertainingly well written. The book had a definite appeal to me as a Dungeons and Dragons player (2nd Ed., every Tuesday night) and I could see World of Warcraft players getting into it as well. How many hit points does a wraith have? Are they immune to bladed weapons?

The Guin Saga is conspicuously lacking a map on the opening cover. Doesn’t every fantasy novel open with a map? Fortunately towards the end the characters are at the top of a very tall tower and describe the lay of the land, perhaps encouraging you, the reader, to make your own map, as you would in D&D. I was dreading the second book, but now I’m looking forward to it.

–Reviewed by Erin F.


Now You’re One of Us

By Asa Nonami; Translated by Michael and Mitsuko Valek
Vertical, Inc., 239 pp.

nowyoureoneofus.jpgNoriko, the young heroine of Asa Nonami’s Now You’re One of Us, initially thinks she’s hit the marriage jackpot. Not only are her in-laws wealthy and well regarded by their neighbors, they’re also quick to embrace her as a member of the family. Her husband Kazuhito is handsome and utterly devoted; her mother-in-law Kimie, generous and uncritical; and her sister-in-law Ayano, solicitous to everyone in the household, including Kazuhito’s oddly child-like brother Takehami. Even the Shito matriarch, ninety-eight-year-old Ei, welcomes Noriko to the clan by declaring her the family’s “treasure” and “future.”

Shortly after Noriko arrives at the Shitos’ Tokyo home, a strange, slightly disheveled neighbor approaches her while she works in the garden. Though Kimie is quick to dismiss him as a troubled tenant who’s fallen on hard times, Noriko can’t shake the feeling that the neighbor was about to divulge something damning—a feeling intensified by his mysterious death in a fire several days later. The Shitos’ oddly muted, impersonal response to his death further arouses Noriko’s suspicion, as do the family’s clandestine midnight meetings. Though the Shitos offer reasonable, measured responses to Noriko’s inquiries, she begins wondering if the Shitos run an illicit business… or worse.

Thanks to a fluid translation by Michael and Mitsuko Valek, Asa Nonami’s simple, unfussy prose draws the reader into Noriko’s insular world, showing us how a simple girl from a working class family is lured into the Shitos’ web. In this passage, for example, Nonami reveals Kazuhito to be a deft manipulator, appealing to Noriko’s vanity by suggesting that Ei’s endorsement carries special significance:

“Great Granny’s been watching people for ninety-eight years—she can see through them at a glance, so lots of people in the neighborhood come to ask her for advice.” He explained how delighted he was that Great Granny had taken a liking to her; it showed that he hadn’t been blinded by attraction. He felt like the luckiest man in the world for having found someone of whom his family approved.

Unfortunately, Nonami is never content to let a passage like this one stand alone; she feels compelled to explain how Kazuhito’s words swayed Noriko by telling us exactly what Noriko is thinking at the moment he gives this speech. The obviousness of Noriko’s interior monologues is especially frustrating; Nonami does a competent job of revealing her characters’ motivations and feelings through their actions (especially in the lurid denouement) without resorting to such editorial interventions.

The other drawback to Nonami’s storytelling is that she begins telegraphing the ending just a few chapters into the book. Savvier readers will quickly figure out what the Shitos’ secret is—and it’s a doozy—though they probably won’t mind wading through another hundred pages to have their ickiest suspicions confirmed, especially since Nonami manages a few surprises in the final pages.

The bottom line: Now You’re One of Us is an entertaining, atmospheric potboiler that’s probably best read in the privacy of one’s own home.

–Reviewed by Katherine Dacey


Shinjuku Shark

Written by Arimasa Osawa, Translated by Andrew Clare
Vertical Inc., 288 pp.

shinjuku.jpgThis award-winning crime thriller from the early 1990s is the first in a long running series of novels that is still being published. Samejima is a investigator in the Shinjuku Police Force and he’s a bit of a renegade cop. He sticks to his morals, clashes with his superiors, pisses off the yakuza and more. Now with a mysterious string of cop killings, Samejima finds himself torn between pursuing his own investigation into a former gunsmith and his orders to assist in the murder investigation.

One of the things about Shinjuku Shark that will immediately strike readers is the setting and the amount of detail put into it. Osawa takes lots of time fleshing out the ins and outs of Shinjuku, explaining the hierarchy of the police force, an unwritten code between the yakuza and the cops, and more. It’s odd though, because he’s not particularly descriptive in his writing. He’ll throw out the names and locations of stores and streets but he doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing the visuals of the setting. I’m assuming it’s due to the fact that it’s a Japanese novel and everyone over there is familiar with the area, but for someone who’s not really familiar with the geography it got a bit confusing at times. All the street names, which one heads in what direction, which canal connects to which or heads into which district just kind of flew over my head. I just couldn’t put them together in a coherent fashion. On the other hand I found the ins and outs of police and yakuza life in Shinjuku incredibly fascinating. The unwritten code, the hatred of the time for left wing organizations and the rampant fear of communism all did a nice job at adding a different flavor to the story.

The characters are interesting and engaging though no one quite jumps out as much as Samejima does. His unwillingness to compromise with the yakuza, bend the rules against leftist groups and supporters, and strict adherence to his own code of ethics often place him on the wrong side of his own colleagues, never mind the criminals on the street. Yet despite this maverick attitude and his flippant disregard for his superiors he’s a remarkable well rounded take on the renegade cop archetype. His relationship with a young singer, Sho, allows for some interesting insight into the softer part of his being. When confronted with life or death moments he doesn’t shrug them off with a flippant remark, but reacts with fear for his own life and the life of others. Afterwards he tries to shrug them off, but opens up when alone with Sho.

Initially main plot line follows Samejima’s investigation into an illegal gunsmith, Kazuo, who was recently paroled. Samejima busted him years ago but never located his workshop, and since Kazuo’s been released Samejima’s been attempting to track him down in order to catch him at his work shop in order to destroy his entire business. Meanwhile a serial killer begins to target police officers. At first Samejima is reluctant to get involved with the massive investigation into the killings, this stems from his single minded drive to bust Kazuo before he looses the scent complete, but eventually events result in the two storylines dovetailing together. Arimasa Osawa also shows that he was already thinking sequel though, as he sets the seeds for several reoccurring plot threads that are probably revisited again and again in sequels. The mystery of one of his superiors suicide and the knowledge that Samejima holds regarding the man places him firmly in the middle of a internal power struggle within the department. An encounter with a yakuza member who even unnerved the Samejima, and more. All seem like the kind of things that will be picked up upon in subsequent volumes.

All in all Shinjuku Shark is a good and interesting crime novel with a nice pulpy feel to it. I wasn’t quite blown away by it in the end, but at the same time I did enjoy it and it definitely has me curious about future installments of the series.

–Reviewed by Ken Haley


Welcome to the NHK

By Tatsuhiko Takimoto
Tokyopop, 192 pp.

welcomenhk.JPGThe original Welcome to the NHK novel has been adapted into both manga and anime series. I watched the anime series first, read three volumes of the manga, and then read then the novel. I terrifically enjoyed the anime series, but the book is better.

I recommend watching an episode of the anime first, and if you don’t like it, skip straight to the novel. If you do like the anime, watch the series all the way through because one-third of the way into the book there are huge spoilers. The anime is a longer story—several characters and story arcs do not appear in the novel.

Welcome to the NHK is the story of Satou, a hikikomori. Just short of being agoraphobic, hikikomori remove themselves from the pressure of Japanese society by becoming shut-ins. Satou declares himself a veteran hikikomori of four years. He is a college dropout living alone in a studio apartment off an allowance from his parents. Eighteen-year-old Misaki takes on Satou as her “project,” meeting with him once a week in the local park in an effort to cure him. Satou befriends his neighbor, an otaku named Yamazaki. Yamazaki warps Satou into becoming a pervert as they try to create an erotic PC game. Although the anime series dwells heavily on the erogame story, it takes up very little time in the novel.

Nearly every chapter opens with Satou wishing for his own death. Somehow, this makes for some compelling reading. Even though Satou declares himself a waste of life over and over again, the book is not depressing at all. There is an urgency to each chapter—it’s a thrilling page turner about a total loser.

“In short… in short I shut myself in because I’m lonely. Because I don’t want to face any more loneliness, I shut myself away.”

People are the cause of loneliness, so if one avoids people, one can avoid the pain of loneliness, right? This is not a light novel, it’s a real novel! A novel-novel.

Kudos to the translators, who have managed to capture the spirit of the novel. A helpful section of footnotes explains the NHK-puns and Japanese terms.

The author laments in the second afterword that the success of the book has enabled him into a hikkikimori lifestyle. Although he wrote the book to cash in on the hikkikimori media craze, in five years he has not written a second novel. I hope Takimoto is joking and he’s not really crazy. Please write more books sensei!

–Reviewed by Erin F.

1 Response to "The Otaku Bookshelf: Guin Saga, Now You’re One of Us, Shinjuku Shark, Welcome to the NHK"

1 | ed

February 9th, 2008 at 12:10 am

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Please write more books sensei!

Actually sensei has been writing for FAUST and Kodansha BOX lately…Just mainly short stories though.

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