All The Animals Are Dead: ZOO by Otsuichi

I’ve had a couple of books from Viz’s new prose fiction line, Haikasoru, sitting on my bookshelf for months now. Given my history of commentary on the cutting edge of Japanese fiction in translation — and Mark’s Yukikaze review popping up on the blog backend — I figured it was about time I told you all what to think about Viz’s fine, not-at-all-light novel-related products.

So, what better place to start than an anthology of horror/suspense short stories written by a Faust contributor? I’m not really a huge fan of grim and gruesome horror stuff — heads flying off should be a joyful and light-hearted occasion, not something that makes me feel ill. Luckily for me, Otsuichi tries his hand at a number of genres and tones in ZOO, and a couple of the stories are really funny, something that doesn’t come across as much in Viz’s marketing for the “dark fantasy” book.

Well, okay, the “dark” part is right on the money. The only stories I can spin as generally positive are “Song of the Sunny Spot” and “SO-far,” and even that’s a stretch. After all, “Sunny Spot” is about the last two conscious individuals on Earth after a plague. Conveniently, this is an opportunity to get the worst out of the way first. “Sunny Spot” is manipulative, melodramatic and incredibly obvious, the worst sort of visual novel trash. You’ve read this story before, and it probably made you want to gag less the first time. “SO-far” fares better: the twist is a little hard to swallow, but it makes some sense in context of the bizarre kid logic powering the entire piece, and it’s not as completely destructive as some of Otsuichi’s endings.

“Words of God” deserves a special suck shout-out here: it’s got an angsty, unlikable teenage protagonist who discovers he has a superpower that lets him manipulate other people, which is good, because he’s got crushing self-esteem issues and spends most of the story agonizing over what a weak and wicked person he is on the inside. Total Faust bait. Otsuichi must’ve really liked the “narrator wryly observes they got exactly what they wanted” ending he used in “SO-far,” since it reappears promptly in “Words of God,” which Viz placed immediately afterward.

Speaking of bad stories, Viz’s English edition opens with the titular “ZOO,” which features beautifully grotesque imagery wasted on a monumentally shitty twist. A man receives a photograph of his girlfriend’s progressively decaying body every morning in his mailbox, assembles them into a time-lapse video of her decomposition, and then sets out to try and find her killer, reminding himself all along that he’s the murderer. He’s just miming it, retracing his steps every single day, finding the same clues and interrogating the same people, and doesn’t stop talking about that. This one is just weird: did Otsuichi think that admitting the “twist” to reader and protagonist on the first page would somehow make the tired “narrator was the one who did it and represses it” gimmick work any better? It’s either an experimental story that falls flat or a really sad attempt to salvage a by-the-numbers unreliable narrator mystery, and it sucks either way.

It’s actually a good thing that Viz screwed around with the orders of the stories in this edition — if “In A Falling Airplane” hadn’t been the second story in the list so I’d read it at my local library, I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. Sure, hijackings are played out as comic devices, but “Falling Airplane” makes it work by continually stacking the cheesy revenge plans one atop the other, as a young woman who suffered unprintable abuse haggles with a suicidal salesman over the price of the euthanasia drug he’s carrying while they wait for a ronin (in the Maison Ikkoku sense) to crash their plane into the university that cruelly rejected him five times. It’s funny enough that I’m even willing to overlook the one stupid, self-aware jab about short story collections!

The other comic highlight of the collection is “Find the Blood!,” a murder mystery where a rich old man has to figure out which of his gold-digging relatives stabbed him in the back with a kitchen knife before he bleeds to death from it. His only hope of making it to the ambulance is if said gold-digging relatives can find the emergency blood supply the half-senile family doctor brought along just in case — assuming they wouldn’t just rather let him drop dead right there. There are some great lines in here, and, between this story and “Falling Airplane,” I wonder if someone could convince Otsuichi to take more stabs (har, har) at comic fiction that doesn’t rely heavily on metatextual wankery and namedropping.

Finishing the English edition is “Seven Rooms,” the longest and bleakest story of the bunch. A young boy and his sister are kidnapped by persons unknown, locked in one of a series of windowless cells awaiting their turn to be gruesomely murdered, their severed limbs washed through the sewage channel travelling between the cells, which is just barely large enough for him to swim from room to room. It is an intensely unpleasant read, utterly dreadful, and totally effective.

I’ve just realized that I haven’t really talked about a few of the stories in the book, and shockingly enough, they’re the ones I find utterly mediocre. “The White House in the Cold Forest” can’t manage to be anywhere nearly as creepy or atmospheric as “Seven Rooms,” and the twist at the end would be a groaner if I could find it in myself to care at all. “Kazari and Yoko” is a fairly standard Cinderella story that telegraphs every plot development, but occasionally manages to amuse with the sheer over-the-top cruelty of the narrator’s situation (“If I make eye contact with Mom, she might throw a knife at me”). “Wardrobe” is a straight-up murder mystery that relies on a presentational gimmick to try and mislead the reader until the parlor-room scene at the end, and unfortunately forgets to bring along an entertaining character or two. None of these are particularly awful stories — not awful enough to make me put down the book, anyway — but they don’t do much more than pad out the compilation.

To close with a backhanded compliment: unlike most English-language light novel publishers, Viz actually spent the cash to get a copy-editor to check the book before it goes out. There are a few odd-sounding lines in the prose, but the English edition isn’t littered with grammatical/spelling errors or nonsensical conversations like some I’ve read. Overall, as weak-to-middling as the book can get, I had a good time with ZOO. Flip through a couple of the stories if you see it on a shelf sometime, you might dig it. No anthology is going to be satisfying the entire time, but, for all I know, you’ve got poor enough taste to appreciate the material I didn’t.

1 Comment

  1. “did Otsuichi think that admitting the “twist” to reader and protagonist on the first page would somehow make the tired “narrator was the one who did it and represses it” gimmick work any better?”

    Maybe he just assumed his readers had all seen Memento.

    “a murder mystery where a rich old man has to figure out which of his gold-digging relatives stabbed him in the back with a kitchen knife before he bleeds to death from it”

    This sounds like it was borrowed from another film noir, in this case the 1950 film D.O.A. (or its inferior 1988 remake). The comic take on the idea seems like fun though.

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