Braving the Young Adult Ghetto: Faust, Volume 1
by Jeff - December 31 2008


No, not that Faust. Hoping to capitalize on the success of Japanese comic books with teenagers and the mentally teenaged, Del-Rey Manga, along with several other publishers, has moved into the exciting arena of translating Japanese “light novels,” the often-serialized young adult fictions that have spawned Japanimation hits like Slayers, Boogiepop Phantom, and various awful moé shows with character designs by Noizi Ito. Faust, in this context, is a Japanese so-called “literary journal” published by Kodansha featuring prose fiction and comics by apparently popular young writers and artists, most of whom have ongoing series published by — guess who! — Kodansha. The English version seems to be a trojan horse for many of these authors — several of the pieces in this volume are chapters from books Del-Rey Manga and Kodansha will be publishing in English early next year.

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OK, I’m not gonna lie. I bought this because I glanced at the back and discovered that one of these writers is TYPE-MOON’s Kinoko Nasu, the brilliantly talented author of the visual novels Tsukihime and Fate/stay night, wordsmith beyond reproach, and total hack. And based on the interview in this volume with Nasu and his longtime artistic collaborator Takashi Takeuchi, Faust’s editor thinks these guys are a genius team taking the world of Japanese youth fiction by storm. This is telling!

(By the way, did you know that the Japanese edition of Faust published a translated excerpt from that Megatokyo? That’s possibly just as telling!)

Starting off the collection is an excerpt from the official xxxHolic fanfiction, “Anotherholic,” written by the other supposedly great talent who is repeatedly namedropped throughout the volume, NISIOISIN. Coincidentally, Del-Rey recently published the full novel (in hardback, even). The story in this volume stays comfortably within the franchise’s standard format: spiritually attuned high-school student Watanuki works at the shop of the elegant and aloof witch Yuko, providing all sorts of karma-appropriate resolutions to the problems of her customers. It’s been quite some time since I read the any of the original comic series — also released by Del-Rey — but the characters seem to have benefited from the transition to prose, particularly Watanuki. He seems far less shrill and irritating than I remember him being in the comic.

There are a few points during the explanatory monologue near the end where the style gets odd. Periodically, the narration stops to restate what the dialog has just said, or to fill in large gaps in the dialog’s explanations. I kinda wonder if it was an addition (or modification) made by the translator to try and break up the back-and-forth paragraphs of dialog in the section. That, or it’s a convention of whatever school of Japanese fiction writing NISIOISIN and Kinoko Nasu are cribbing from, since both of them do it fairly often (and not just in this collection).

NISIOISIN actually has two pieces in Faust. He collaborated with Gundam 00 character designer and BL comic artist Yun Kouga on the volume’s only comic story longer than four pages, “After School: 7th Class.” This story seems like more traditional turf for NISIOISIN based on available English materials, featuring trademarks like completely ludicrous names ("Snowdrop Buck Pinpointmind"), ludicrously talented youths (in this case a teenage girl who became the world’s premier weapons designer at age five), and a lot of existential musing about “geniuses” and one’s place in the world. Given the heavy reliance on narration (and in some cases, panels that literally illustrate the narration), I’m not sure that the story actually benefited much from this collaboration.

The other three comics included in the volume are all short, maxing out at seven pages. The only one that did much for me was Moheji Yamasaki’s “Maple Tree Viewing,” the introduction to which proudly features text “drawn from classic Japanese poetry” instead of dialog. The story is just a pretty stock “warrior finds monster disguised as beautiful girl, kills her” tale, but the color art looks pretty nice. Too bad my copy of the book has an improperly cut (and apparently crushed!) color page in the middle of it. The comics are all reprinted in black and white as well, but they lose a lot in the transition.

Back to prose! The excerpt from Kinoko Nasu’s The Garden Of Sinners is exactly what I expected: some OK ideas expressed incredibly awkward. Most of the problems with Nasu’s writing I encountered in the fan translations of his later works like Tsukihime are still here in force, so I can’t blame it all entirely on the translators. The dude has a really nasty habit of repeating himself — it’s not uncommon to have a lengthy set of paragraphs explaining a concept in the universe’s mythology (the bulk of the text, naturally) followed by several paragraphs of the narrator restating whatever was just said. In this chapter of the story, Nasu keeps switching between several different characters as narrator without much warning, which can be pretty disorienting. And let’s not overlook brilliant dialog exchanges like:

“Suicide by jumping. Does that count as an accident, Mikiya?”

My mumbled, bored-sounding words jolted Mikiya out of his silence and back to his senses. With that, he thought seriously about the question. His answer was naively straightforward.

“Yeah, I’d definitely say that’s an accident … but … it’s … I don’t really know how to put it … If a person commits suicide, they’re dead and gone, right? They do it of their own free will. The responsibility is theirs alone. But if you jump from a high place, the responsibility doesn’t completely belong to that person. Hard to distinguish it from falling. That’s more like an accident.”

To be fair, this was Nasu’s first novel, and he’s gotten better. Just a little.

Boogiepop writer Kouhei Kadono’s contribution, “Outlandos D’Amour", reads like a pilot for a longer series. The copy describing the stories on the back of Faust is pretty bad, but I think it unintentionally hit on the heart of this story: despite being in his mid-20s for the majority of the story, our hero super-powered hero Koryo is “a boy,” just like the socially stunted teenagers that populate much YA fiction, Japanese or otherwise. He doesn’t really know how to relate to anyone, he’s unwilling or unable to talk to anyone about it, cultivating thoughts that his comically meek and sickly wife might be happier if he just died and she received his death benefits. And ultimately, like those angsty teens, he makes an attempt at suicide that he knows from the outset won’t work. Koryo is more likable than some of his fellow disturbed boys, but that’s most likely because the story isn’t told in snarky first-person narration.

Speaking of snarky first-person narration, horror writer Otsuichi’s decidedly light-hearted Doraemon fanfic piece, “F-sensei’s Pocket,” features a rather annoying variation: the self-aware snarky first-person narrator. Our heroine is quite aware that she’s the main character of a short-story filled with genre tropes, and particularly draws attention to her sidekick, the girl who’s secretly a beauty behind the massive coke-bottle glasses she always wears. This kind of comedy is hard to balance out properly; it’s far too easy to use it as a crutch to “excuse” bad writing or flagrant pandering (see The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya). I’m going to let it slide this time, it is somewhat appropriate for a goofy story where the main characters accidentally get their hands on the gadgets from “that famous comic,” making it already one long pop-culture reference. Oh, yeah, and there are a couple of token illustrations by Takeshi “Death Note” Obata.

The only long fiction piece in this book I can legitimately recommend is “The Drill Hole In My Brain,” by Otaro Maijo. The introduction proudly proclaims that it’s “an emblematic Faust story,” which leads me to believe that whoever wrote the introduction has absolutely no idea what “emblematic” means. It’s nothing like the other stories in the volume, other than the fact that it’s about a fucked-up teenager. It starts with the protagonist getting a screwdriver shoved into his head by his mother’s murderous boyfriend, and before long the narrator is in the “world inside his head,” sharing the consciousness and identity of another boy, a world-saving superhero with a huge hole in his head. Said superhero boy likes to have “head-sex” with his girlfriend, who has a huge horn on her head, but he’s dreadfully worried that she’s going to leave him for another guy since he refuses to put his penis in her vagina. And then at some point, superhero boy grows a giant flower where his penis used to be and spends about six pages rolling on the train platform rubbing his newfound “clitoris", spewing bubbles out of his mouth while the narrator tries to regain control of the situation.

You know, Maijo’s probably the only author in this book who doesn’t have another novel listed as coming out in English in the near future to my knowledge. Shame, that. Even if it’s probably just cribbing from much better magical realism/po-mo writers, “Drill Hole” is the most entertaining thing in this entire book, and I un-ironically want to see more of what Maijo’s done.

The shorter pieces in the book almost universally fall flat. “Yabai de Show” painfully proves the comedy truism that if you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny. “Yuya Sato’s Counseling Session,” by the titular author, is a rambling meditation on being an hikkikomori, talking about how counseling “isn’t something to be proud of” and how he’s never actually discussed his concerns or feelings with anyone. (My goodness, I think I’m sensing a trend!) In other words it’s a dumb blog post, and since to my knowledge none of the author’s other work has been translated, the piece is devoid of any sort of context. Welcome to the NHK author Tatsuhiko Takimoto also takes a whack at a “Counseling Session” essay, but it feels like a retread of that novel’s characters, with the author-surrogate protagonist replaced by the author and, like the other “Counseling Session” piece, it boils down to self-indulgent rambling. The piece concludes, paraphrasing: “if you find someone to love, then all the issues that made you a hikkikomori can be resolved!”

“Approaching Twenty Years of Otaku” just baffles me. It’s supposed to be a survey of how the term “otaku” has been used over the past two decades, but the author quickly gets sidetracked. He makes a series of curious statements, describing an obsession with moé products and porn games as “from a woman’s perspective […] only a step away from an unhealthy interest in adult videos.” His thesis seems to be that the interest of the “otaku” in Japanese cartoons, videogames and moé are actually interests in the “incorrect,” and not interests in said nerd hobbies for their own sake. He adds that these interests may be a “deeply rooted undercurrent of Japanese society.” The essay never provides support for any of its statements–it’s only three pages long and in a Japanese young adult literary journal, after all.

Oh, I almost forgot about the other hikkikomori piece, “H People: An Evolving World” by Kozy Watanabe. The ever-helpful introduction tells us that the story “vividly describes the emotional state of a hikkikomori” — we’ll have to ask Colony Drop’s Chris for confirmation of this later. Apparently, the hikkikomori like to stay in their rooms and play videogames because there’s nothing unnecessary there — in videogames, all the objects (or people) of a given type look the same because it’s most important just to tell what they are, unlike the scary real world. But luckily, our hero has an amazing one of those head-mounted displays that can use GPS to track his position and “paint over” his vision with CG, making “unimportant people” all look the same — or entirely nonexistent — and making buildings that have no purpose for him appear as white silhouettes. Now there’s a use for augmented reality systems that you don’t see put forward very often!

It should probably concern me more that at least three of the short essays and several of the longer stories all concern young men unwilling and/or unable to confront reality or their own emotions, and certainly not to seek any sort of counseling, preferring to wallow in their misery, but it doesn’t. Guess I’m too cynical already.

The best of the short rambling works is the essay “From Japan to the World, From the World to Japan.” It’s written by blogger Yukari Shiina, a translator and agent who works to try and introduce foreign comics to the Japanese market, notably what’s sometimes called “world manga” — comics that are styled after popular Japanese comics, and the bulk of TOKYOPOP’s catalog. It’s interesting to see a Japanese perspective on the current fad(?) of Japanese comic books and popular fiction that companies like Del-Rey are happily exploiting. She’s interested in getting the various comics cultures to explore each others’ work and interact to see what sorts of work comes from the influence of foreign artists on Nipponese comics, and the influence of literary greats like Kinoko Nasu on foreign writers.

The book ends with the Japanese edition’s editor interviewing TYPE-MOON. What insights await the reader within?

TYPE-MOON Artist, Takashi Takeuchi: And isn’t the Japanese author Haruki Murakami being ranked as the literary successor to such American writers as Fitzgerald and Salinger? So maybe — in, say, ten or twenty years’ time — people will be talking about how Kinoko Nasu’s literary successor was an American writer. I, for one, hope that’s the case.

I give up. I’m going home.

8 comments

Comment from: sean [Member]

This sounds like basically the worst thing ever.

01/01/09 @ 06:27

Comment from: piyo [Visitor] · http://piyokun.googlepages.com

I enjoyed this review. “Braving…” and failing? Are you hoping Volume 2 will bring out the better artists/writers? ;-)

Sounds like this trojan horse is like throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. Perhaps the success of this book or the J-literary journal commodity will encourage other Japanese publishers, which will hopefully increase the signal to noise ratio. (Why do I hear heckling from you? :-)

Actually I’m unclear as to what light novels resemble in English. Are they Young Adult novels? Do they reach the levels of Terry Pratchett?

Your example of Kinoko Nasu and Sub’s extended follies into Fate/Stay Night (in another blog) give me pause. More mines than field, I suppose.

01/01/09 @ 06:31

Comment from: mechazoidal [Visitor] · http://www.kurokoproject.com

Does anyone in Japan even know that much about Megatokyo, or is it a case of “these crazy foreigners seem to have a nerd following, their words must be meaningful"?

01/01/09 @ 14:47

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

A Japanese friend of mine who’s read Nasu’s work in the original Japanese says that the problem of the perspective jumping around with no regard for coherence is a basic flaw of his work and he puts it down to the move from visual novels (where you can illustrate whose POV it is with a picture or the voiceover) to paper ones (where you can’t).

As for the English equivalent of light novels, I don’t think there particularly is one. It’s just a marketing term that (I think) Kodansha invented to sell books that couldn’t hack it when up against real writers and I suppose any kind of pulp, genre fiction could fall under the category. What seems to have happened is that, once the label stuck, rules seem to have coalesced around the term, which doesn’t happen in the West where different genres of pulp fiction don’t share an audience.

>His thesis seems to be that the interest of the “otaku” in Japanese cartoons, videogames and moé are actually interests in the “incorrect,” and not interests in said nerd hobbies for their own sake.

Like much of what otaku say about themselves, this is probably partly true and partly self-justifying, self-reinforcing cognitive dissonance. Even in good stuff like “Eve no Jikan” the underlying message seems to have a lot of “they don’t understand us, they just think we’re freaks, but only we self-loathing elite really see things are they truly are” about it.

01/02/09 @ 11:56

Comment from: sean [Member]

I guess one of the problems when dealing with works like this, is the uncertainty of if the original work is poorly written or if it just suffers from a bad translator.

01/02/09 @ 13:13

Comment from: botagel [Member]

dotdash, the problem with that theory is that this particular story was written before Nasu hit it big with the visual novels. Though I might say that the move to a format where he can make up for gaps in the text with visuals (which certainly helps show who’s speaking what lines) somewhat masks his flaws.

01/03/09 @ 13:59

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

>Jeff
Perhaps then it’s just the more general thing about the way light novels crib from visual media so much. If that’s a writer’s only input, he/she misses out on the literary author’s skill at creating images with words and relies too much on the audience’s ability to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge of manga and anime.

01/04/09 @ 10:41

Comment from: Ben Reed [Visitor]

I have said it before, but it bears public statement in the prestigious venue that is CD comments – Nasu and Takeuchi are officially Japan’s Garth Marenghi and Dean Learner.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garth_Marenghi
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Learner
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNfQ0ORwSDM

01/15/09 @ 08:50

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