Everyone’s got a kink — mine, embarrassingly enough, happens to be bad Japanese prose fiction for young adults and nerds. For some reason, I just can’t get enough antisocial, angsty, depressed and occasionally homicidal teenagers, living miserably normal lives in the wasteland of modern Japan and, sometimes, meeting sexy witches. Luckily for me, Kodansha’s #1 American Bro, Del-Rey Manga, kicked reason to the curb and brought out a second volume of their pop-literary/Salinger fan-fiction journal, Faust, so I’ve got something to beat my meat to for the weekend. Can it possibly match the unrivaled brilliance of the first issue without the aid of the Japanese Garth Merenghi, Kinoko Nasu? Stay tuned!
Apparently the forefront of the Japanese literary scene is an insular place, since most of the authors with pieces in Faust #1 have pieces in #2, and two of the major stories are direct follow-ups (“sequel” isn’t quite right). But let’s start off with the weakest material so I don’t have to waste anyone’s time on it, least of all my own.
Like volume #1, there are several regular “columns” featured in Faust. “Yabai De Show” is back, and it’s just as stunningly unfunny as last time. Kozy Watanabe’s “H People: An Evolving World” also makes a return, this time with a story entitled “A Convenient Woman.” The introductory text explains that it’s a story about “a mind-set deeply shaped by anime — and the difficulty and strangeness of making a connection with another human being, especially a woman.” Congratulations, guys, you’ve conveniently summed up the entire book, no, the entire sub-genre of otaku-oriented fiction as you describe a story about a psychopath who, armed with chloroform and bindings, forces his way into the apartment of an young girl and begins a creepy sexual relationship with her. That’s a really hard act to follow, so I guess we can all go home now.
Right after I take care of this raging erection.
As with the previous volume, there’s an essay addressing some area of otaku culture, and this time we’re looking at “Otaku vs. Otaku Business,” by Kaichiro Morikawa. It covers what is, I imagine, not terribly new territory for our audience, describing where the real money from the cartoon is made, and brings in a couple of case studies on a related “new” trend (as of 2004, when this article was written) — otaku-oriented products not based on a pre-existing character or series. There’s a bit of a curious word choice here: the translator has chosen to use the terms “unlicensed” and “uncopyrighted” to refer to these sorts of “original” merchandise, which doesn’t sound right to my ears. You better believe the “Shuukan watashi no oniichan” figure sets the author mentions will be of copyrighted characters, just not ones from a pre-existing series. Perhaps the point of the article was more relevant when it was new, or if the audience is more unfamiliar with the nature of the business and the scourge of moé merchandise, but as with the “education” essay last issue, it just kind of falls flat.
Other returning features include the “Counseling Session” columns by Yuuya Satoh (who actually has a piece of fiction this time!) and Welcome to the N.H.K.! author Tatsuhiko Takimoto. As before, the pieces are rambling and vaguely incoherent meditations on what miserable sacks of shit the authors portray themselves as, and their utter lack of qualifications to provide advice to anyone, glorifying a sort of ideally-pathetic shut-in lifestyle. Both of them also seem to have an obsession with the phrase “Go to a Soapland!,” so I suppose that’s some sort of Japanese cultural reference that we gaijin dogs will miss.
Japanese cultural references which we gaijin dogs miss really dragged down Otsuichi’s piece in the first Faust, a snarky piece of Doraemon fan-fiction. But “Where the Wind Blows,” his follow-up in this year’s edition, elects to use the sci-fi elements that turned the original story into a comic farce for much more serious purposes. What starts as a quest to get the theme song from Battles Without Honour or Humanity as a ringtone gets complicated when the heroine runs into an old friend, torn between her obvious feelings for him and the foreknowledge that on August 18th, 2010, five years in the future, he’ll kill her. Man, newspapers and shit traveling through time and landing on your windowsill with the news of your death is a total buzz-kill. So they try to find a way to change the future, gettin’ into all those usual time-travel story questions of causality and stuff… and then the ending totally cops out with an internally inconsistent but heartstring-pulling resolution to the entire situation. And, when I stop to think about it, the conclusion they came to is not only nonsensical, but doesn’t even necessarily solve the central crisis, so it’s just a total pisser.
These are the things that keep me up at night, dear readers.
The other continuation in Faust #2 is Boogiepop
Phantom writer Kouhei Kadono’s piece “Jagdtiger (Porschelaufwerk),” covering essentially the same time period as “Outlandos D’Amour” but centering on a different character — the moé moé wife of the main character, who is secretly a “combat synthetic human” sent by the mysterious organization responsible for handling freaks like her and her husband to keep an eye on him. She’s repeatedly compared to the WWII-era German tank of the title: she’s superbly armored and has a massive “cannon,” but absolutely no mobility, so unstably constructed that she gets potentially fatal motion sickness from pretty much anything more taxing than riding a bicycle on a straight road. A meek little girl, barely capable of human interaction and certainly not of expressing herself, physically weak on the outside and hilariously useless in combat. Hell, after her love-at-first-sight encounter with her future husband, her heart actually stops from the shock, and her handler has to pour stimulant down her throat and punch her chest until she comes back to life. That’s so moé, I just want to drop-kick her.
It looks like Kadono’s trying to set up something like the original Boogiepop book, where the focus shifts from character to character, showing their involvement with and perspective on the central incident of the story, but one fifty-page chapter a year doesn’t do much for pacing. Plus, since “Jagdtiger” implies that it’s a Boogiepop side-story, I wonder if later stories (should they make it out in English) will end up getting bogged down with references to novels not yet available in English. But all of that involves there being future English Faust or Boogiepop releases, neither of which seem particularly likely!
Now we’re going to get into the most Faust-y stories in the volume, starting with the other major returning writer, NISIOISIN. If that name rings a bell, it’s probably because he’s the writer of the original novels that inspired Ghostory, SHAFT’s ongoing TV series about cool chats with a milquetoast virgin and his self-aware virgin moé-character girlfriend. (They solve spiritual mysteries!— and sometimes molest grade-schoolers.) Or perhaps on an ill-advised journey into your local chain bookstore’s Japanese comics section, as you stepped over chunky teenagers reading wispy vampire comics, you noticed the first Zaregoto book, one of Del-Rey’s few ventures into English light novel publication — the story of a milquetoast college student and his not-my-girlfriend, the teenage “genius engineer” and cyberterrorist with adorably moé neuroses. (They solve murder mysteries!— and sometimes consider forcing themselves on their romantic interests again.)
So what I’m saying is, I’m sensing a pattern here. “Magical Girl Risuka,” is, oddly enough, about a magical girl — a nigh-invulnerable ten-year-old prodigy of time magic who doesn’t quite have a grasp on the local dialect — and her would-be handler, the narrator, a smarmy brat who spends his days lamenting the idiocy of his peers and society while seeking out valuable “pawns” for future, presumably nefarious, purposes. But Risuka’s got more in common with Hellsing‘s Alcard than Sailor Moon, since her “transformation sequence” involves being reduced to a gory mess, and generally eating her opposition. Or perhaps I should say she’s more like a TYPE-MOON heroine — the lengthy discussions of the “rules” of the world’s magic (and how the main characters circumvent them via technicalities) and fight-comic-esque resolution of the plot are very reminiscent of Mr. Nasu’s work, if he were capable of writing a childish jerk narrator rather than a psychotic yet inexplicably attractive Gary Stu.
NISIOISIN’s would-be overlord narrator is a more childish variation on the crawling-in-their-skin heroes of many of Faust‘s other features. Entering the half of the book not translated by Andrew Cunningham — a man mad enough to read this stuff even if he wasn’t being paid to translate it — I find myself knee-deep in protagonists who cry “phony”. In the featured excerpt from the novel Grey-Colored Diet Coke, by Yuuya Satoh, “a representative author of Japan’s ‘lost generation’ — youth who have become so immersed in virtual reality that true reality becomes too terrifying,” the latent Salinger influences that seem to infest Japanese literature like lice crawl to the surface. Diet Coke‘s protagonist might not ever call anyone a “phony” — though stupid, hopeless, and loser are all on the table — but his pathetic misery and inability to cope in society — not to mention his tone — is quite reminiscent of a certain Mr. Caulfield. Rather uncommonly, he also shares with Holden Caulfield the lingering sorrow of the death of a loved one (though he doesn’t seem to have an adorable little sister to pull him back from the brink, another Japanese favorite). But, in this case, it’s the narrator’s best friend, immolating himself in a gruesome “fireworks display” as he pathetically lashes out at being “normal” and having “normal desires” like wanting to commit horrific murders and falling in love with another guy.
Honestly, the excerpt from Diet Coke‘s main claim-to-fame would be how violently disturbed it is. The narrator’s meditations in front of the altar in his home turn into a three-and-a-half-page lecture from his dead grandfather about how to become “a true human” by beating people to death with rocks and drowning their girlfriends in the river. I wonder how much I should read into Satoh’s remarks in his “Counseling Center” columns about how embarrassing and shameful seeking help with your problems is. The narrator could certainly use some — he’s not the confused and lost sort of self-destructive of Holden Caulfield, but more of a “possibly chemically imbalanced and homicidal” sort of self-destructive. Perhaps that’s why Diet Coke‘s narrator is so darn much harder to sympathize with.
But if we really want to talk about protagonists lashing out at how “fake” society really is, look no further than “ECCO”, this year’s contribution from Welcome to the N.H.K.! author Tatsuhiko Takimoto. “A happy high-school life is always a LIE!,” proclaims the title spread, as Takimoto launches into a story apparently involving some sort of spirit awakening in the body of a young girl, literally screaming to the heavens that she won’t be taken in by the fake emotions and sensations cultivated by the Earth Code Control Organization. No, she’ll find another soldier to share The Truth with, and continue her rebellion! It turns out this “soldier” is a particularly self-righteous high-school student, who (in his head) mocks his peers for allowing themselves to have hope, to try and feel much of anything at all, willfully removing himself from a society he repeatedly claims is worthless and fake. He’s totally shaken when the most natural girl in the world transfers into his class, achieving such levels of natural adorability and good-nature that he snaps — after all, the story explains, if someone so ordinary could have a good life, what was the point in his self-imposed isolation?
Naturally, she turns out to be the phoniest phony of them all when he finally manages to bust through her facade with an especially juvenile prank. Hell, as our hero discovers after she shows her violent and psychotic side by beating the shit out of him and taking pictures of his junk, she follows a room-sized How To Live flowchart, which she rehearses for hours every day! Obviously he falls for her as she collapses into a miserable wreck, but he’s pulled back from the brink of accepting this manufactured world of feelings! by the spirit from the prologue, who was in Miss Perfect’s body all along, and together they can take on the world ‘n’ stuff, because apparently that sort of love or devotion isn’t manufactured by ECCO like the rest of it. “I won’t find meaning in any of this! I’ll take Sophia’s hand and we’ll fight the infinite battle against ECCO! We might not win, but we’ll never give up! As long as Sophia’s by my side, I won’t ever think about anything!”
Man, Takimoto sure loves psychopathic girls and pathetic love-will-save-you-from-your-crippling-social-anxiety endings. There’s probably an entire post in exploring the “moéfication” of mental illnesses — maybe another time.
Oh, right, there’s also a comics section in Faust #2! Like last time, there’s not really that much to talk about. I’m not particularly interested in the “artsier” short subjects, most of which are hampered by a total lack of color pages this time around, and by the completely lazy typesetting. All of the text in each story is rendered in the same font, and usually the same size, as all of the other text be it narration or story title or those goofy comments about the author and/or contents that Japanese magazines like to put on the title page for some unfathomable reason.
The problem’s particularly pronounced in Taiwanese artist (and original Ghostory character designer) VOFAN’s story, “Shadow Dance Party” which features a number of black boxes in the art which clearly enclosed the vertically oriented text in the original Japanese version, while the horizontally oriented English text is crudely shoved off to the side. Now, I’ve done s’lations, and I understand that you have to make compromises in order to adjust for the differences between English and Japanese text styles, but this is just plain lazy and sloppy.
Somewhat depressingly, the highlight of this section isn’t a comic at all, but instead a collection of sketches from cool illustrators Katsuhiro Otomo (who you may have heard of) and Katsuya Terada. The subject? “Old Dudes.” And you get exactly what’s promised. Apparently on some sort of trip to Rome, the two were dispatched to make sketches of the coolest old dudes they saw, and they even wrote a bit about each of their picks. “When I looked at that old dude’s back, I thought he must have raised children. But I was so preoccupied with looking at his back, I tripped and fell. Be careful of that. ” You tell ’em, Mr. Terada!
Like last time, there’s one longer comic story, brought to you this time by Ueda Hajime, who did the baffling comic adaptation of FLCL and some other, probably equally incomprehensible series called Q-Ko-chan, The Earth Invader Girl, at least one of which was brought to you by… Del-Rey! Ah, incestuous business practices. “Iron Man Military Unit” combines Hajime’s two major trademarks: his attractively rough art style and impossible-to-follow plotting. Broad elements of the story and its odd, psuedo-World War II setting are clear enough, but the story keeps giving me the feeling that I’m missing some important information, or some key nuance that would make the characters’ interactions and goals clear. I’m honestly not sure if this one’s entirely Hajime’s fault: certainly, his panel layouts tend toward the bizarre, and few of his word balloons offer any clarification as to who’s speaking, but I can’t help but wonder if translator confusion isn’t a contributing factor. Of course, maybe the translator being utterly baffled is just the natural result of trying to work with this guy’s writing.
And that’s Faust #2! Goodness, gracious. Like last time, I think it’s appropriate to end with a quote or two from the interviews with the authors in the back of the book:
Tatsuhiko Takimoto: The value of novels has nothing to do with the magazine; you can just read the novels. So what value does the magazine have? That comes from the context, from which novels you package together. In Japanese, some novels are given the impressive name “literature” and function less as something for young people than as an impressive bit of décor for people whose thoughts have already calcified. With novels placed in such an absurd position, novels written for people who just want to read novels are dismissed as pulp fiction, or, if they’re targeted at younger readers, as light novels — both treated as worthless, not worth thinking about seriously. I think referring to novels reverentially as literature is strange enough, but it is equally weird to lump other novels under the term “light novel” and to treat them with contempt, as if they have no value. I think Faust was the first publication to present a package to young readers that didn’t puff itself up as literature and didn’t settle for being dismissed as something for otaku.
Funny, then, how the English edition is described as a “literary journal” and stocked exclusively in the Japanese comics section of the bookstore. Maybe next time, guys.