Friends, it has been a month! And there are still two more weeks of April to get through. I might not make it, to be honest. We’re over a year into this pandemic and the online-ification of all events, so really, I should have seen this coming. And yet much like I am taken off guard every normal year by the arrival of May and the season of the festival that is TCAF, I was caught unawares by April and the need to prep all things TCAF for release during the actual festival. So the past few weeks have been a flurry of emails and time zone calculations and recording sessions on top of my usual deadlines and translation work. And because the manga industry is booming these days, I have had more translation work coming across my desk (not a complaint!), so I am now basically a husk of the person I was once. Just picture a desiccated corpse Junji Ito-style somehow still alive enough to type these words.
So you can see how I would want some comfort reading to soothe my frazzled soul and keep my thoughts from straying back to all my deadlines and why did I take on so many projects for the month of April is this the end for me oh no oh no. Normally, I would dig into an old favourite like Itoshii no Nekokke, but Mount Bookstoberead grows ever taller, so I figured I should at least check if there was anything in there that could serve as a comfort read. Lucky for me, Hotai Shojo Kikan was near the top of the pile, and while the cover and title promised bandages and injury, it’s a yuri book, so I knew I was at least guaranteed some poignant moments of love to accompany whatever trauma lay in its pages. Plus, I really enjoyed Sudo’s more recent rewind of a love story, Yume no Hashibashi, and was ready to happily devour more of her work.
Like most people not of the porn world (well, I did write that column for a porn magazine, but I didn’t know it was a porn magazine until later, so I think that makes me a non-pro when it comes to porn), I came to know Mine Nayuka through her debut manga series Arasa-chan, a yonkoma about a thirty-ish woman who has a lot of sex as she navigates just who and what she is supposed to be as a woman transitioning out of young adulthood. I’ve only read bits and pieces of the manga, but it was made into an R-rated drama that is available on Netflix (Japan), and I enjoyed the hell out of that. The manga has basically zero backgrounds in any panels—the focus is entirely on the characters—and the way the drama maintained this artifice was to set all the action in very simplistic sets that would never be mistaken for a real place. Plus, they also feature funny and revealing discussions with Mine and Dan Mitsu, the actor who plays Arasa-chan, at the end of episodes. If you have access to Netflix Japan and don’t mind a little sexy with your silly, this is one to check out.
But before she was a manga artist, Mine was a porn (or adult video = AV) actress. And her new series AV Joyu-chan is the semi-autobiographical tale of her life in the world of porn. As the cover copy notes whether you wanted to know it or not, this book is going to tell you some things about porn. And yes, there are things in here you do not want to know. I have a pretty strong stomach (I’m usually the one bringing up the weird gross thing over dinner), but I happened to be reading a particular scene while eating, and the nausea was pretty immediate. I won’t spoil the surprise for you, though.
I have been rearranging my bookshelves because that is a thing I enjoy doing and also a thing that needs doing. I keep my books organized by genre, and I read more in some genres than others, so shelves were starting to buckle down under the weight of books piled on top, behind, and around the books that were there so neatly in the beginning. Plus I always have more books than my shelves have homes for, so it takes some real creative rearranging to keep my entire apartment from looking like a used bookstore in Jimbocho.
In the course of shuffling books from here to there back to here and then to way over there, I discovered some lost treasures including Funukedomo, an early novel from Motoya that I picked up in its paperback form at the Roppongi Hills Tsutaya back when it was still new and fresh. (And typing that makes me feel incredibly old, but yes, children, I was there when Roppongi Hills opened. I might turn to dust at any moment.) I know this because inside the book, I found a fancy Tsutaya bookmark complete with a little map of where to find the Tsutaya. I didn’t remember the book until this reshelving adventure, but I do remember the moment of buying it with startling clarity. Chatting with my friend about how I’d heard of this author, her encouraging me to pick it up then, both of us feeling somehow like the nouveau riche shopping at the fanciest Tsutaya I had ever been in until the one in Ginza Six opened up. And it’s not even that fancy, I was just used to going to the ancient grimy one in Shinjuku.
It happens sometimes. You make a connection with a book before you’ve even read it. But I figured I should at least read the thing to finish the memory-story. So I did, and wow! It’s like all my favourite classic shojo manga with the Extreme Drama, but polished into a beautiful prose gem. It might only be two hundred pages long, but Motoya packs a whole lot of emotion and ideas and story into this thing.
If you’re a fan of classic shojo artists like Hagio Moto or Takemiya Keiko, you have noticed the science fiction works that dot their oeuvre, books like 11 Nin Iru! or Terra e. If you have dived a little deeper into the Year 24 Group to read artists like Yamagishi Ryoko and Oshima Yumiko (sadly unpublished in English), you’ve come across a lot more speculative manga and maybe wondered to yourself just what was in the water back in the seventies that got all these ladies drawing space ships and spirits. Because I would like to add it back to the water now and get some hot new science fiction from someone like Anno Moyoco. (Can you even imagine what that would look like??)
This is not to say that no manga artist is doing SFF these days. But the particular combination of shojo artist and speculative fiction seems to have fallen out of favour, to the detriment of both genres. The grand ideas and fantastic vistas of SFF seem tailor made for the drama, romance, and introspection that mark shojo manga. And indeed, we saw this perfect marriage in the explosion of popularity of SFF shojo in those long-ago decades. Takemiya’s Bright no Yuutsu, for instance, is a glorious mashup of everything great about these two genres. And I want more, dammit. (If you know of any shojo SFF that I should be reading, you should get down to the comments right now and tell me.)
So I am clearly the target audience for a book about science fiction in shojo manga in the seventies and eighties. And let me take this moment to appreciate the glory of the Japanese publishing industry, producing such a niche book not as an absurdly expensive text from an academic press, but as something that can sit on the shojo shelves at your local bookstore. Less than two thousand yen for an extremely in-depth history!
A whole year since I’ve wandered the narrow aisles of my favourite Tokyo bookstores! Twelve whole months since I’ve picked up a book I’ve never heard of because it had a cool cover! Three hundred and sixty-five days since I took a brand-new read to a bar for happy hour! I know we’re all sad and I am so fortunate in so many ways, but let me throw this pity party. After all, it’s my brain duking it out on these pages for your entertainment. I think we can all let the poor thing have a moment for all the books it has missed over this past Year of Plague.
There is a tiny silver lining to one corner of this dark cloud, however. Being trapped on this side of the ocean means I don’t have to struggle with overstuffed suitcases. I can order those books straight to my house! Of course, as I have mentioned before, with the postal disruptions, this has been a bit tricky, but I’ve more or less worked it out, allowing me to have the back catalogues of artists I love brought right to my front door, books I have avoided buying in the past because there were so many new things on the shelves and my suitcases can only hold so many books before exploding (okay, that’s unlikely) or being subjected to overweight charges at the airport (this happens all the time).
Ever since I encountered her work a few years back, I’ve been a huge fan of Torikai’s intense and very feminist explorations of relationships, society, and trauma. She holds a candle to some of the uglier parts of the world we live in, and she doesn’t shy away from revealing it in all of its terrible horror. Which means her work can be difficult to read, and I always have Thoughts after finishing anything by her. And not a little sadness. So Jigoku was actually a refreshing change and made me want to dig further back into Torikai’s archives. She’s still looking at women and the positions they are forced into in society, giving the stink eye to the patriarchy whenever she can, but the story is much more light-hearted than something like Sensei no Shiroi Uso, to the point where it was even made into a drama, the ultimate proof of its non-traumatic nature.
There’s been a lot of talk about cults lately, mostly one cult in particular. And I keep seeing the name Aum Shinrikyo tossed around in that context, people talking about how similar current cult action is to Aum and what we can learn from that. Which got me to wondering about Aum again. Which then led to me remembering Murakami’s book on the subject and the fact that I had the English translation on my shelf. Those of you who have been reading since my death slog through Murakami’s 1Q84 will know that I found that novel so repellent that it retroactively poisoned the Murakami well for me, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to read any of his smug prose ever since, even books that I once loved like A Wild Sheep Chase. I can see his future in his past now, and I do not need to re-examine the origin of his ear fetish.
But Underground is non-fiction and one of the few (only?) books that lets the people who lived through the 1995 sarin gas attack tell their tale in their own words. So the chances of encountering loving descriptions of a woman’s ear were unlikely. Not zero, but close to it. And I’m pleased to report that nary an ear is mentioned in these pages. But we do get a Studs Terkel-style look at many lives and in the process gain some insight into what happened and how it affected the people involved.
I translate a lot of books. A. Lot. This is partly because I love my job—I literally get paid to read books all day! As a child who was actually reprimanded at school (seriously) for reading “too much” (not possible), this was the impossible dream for adulthood. Day after day of immersing myself in one text after the other, losing myself in stories and thinking about words, words, words. But the reality of adulthood is also ever present—those bills aren’t paying themselves, another reason I translate a lot of books. If you are inclined to think that us professional fiction translators are in it for the money or to ruin your beautiful fandom with our notions of what constitutes English, please disabuse yourself of these ideas now. I could’ve been making more money for less work if I’d stayed in commercial translation, working on engineering papers and human resources presentations. But I love the life of books and so I just work extra hard to translate enough to allow me to live this dream life of mine.
Most of those books are manga, which take much less time and mental energy to translate than novels. And I love the manga! But novels are a translation treat in their own way, and I get to do way fewer of those books. Because the market for novels in translation is…not great. I’m not going to lie to you here. Don’t get into translation to translate novels. Or if you do, at least get a side hustle that pays the bills. So I’m always excited when I get to take on a new novel project, and I’m particularly excited about one that comes out this summer. Let me get out my own horn and toot it for a second. Colorful is a classic by Mori Eto and has sold about a bajillion copies in Japanese. It was made into a movie and an anime and a bunch of other things. It is a Big Deal, and rightly so. A really lovely story about finding what’s beautiful in this world and discovering your own self. So you know I was excited to translate it for Counterpoint Press! It’s coming out in July! Buy it, nerds!
Thank you for bearing with me in that moment of self-promotion.
It’s kind of wild to me that Takeuchi Sachiko has basically made a career of being a queer fangirl. Her work is generally either about fandoms or life as/with a queer person or a combination of the two. Which is pretty incredible in Japan, when you think about it, since while fandom is more or less accepted at a mainstream level, queerness is still one of those things that’s better left untalked about with the ladies who lunch and the old dudes who still run pretty much everything. But Takeuchi is out here talking about her partner transitioning, her own coming out as a lesbian, and casually incorporating her queerness into her other manga, not as some big statement, but as one part of who she is. Like when she and editor M-ta are at a public bath and she comments on how people always ask her if she gets turned on by all the ladies at the baths. She asks M-ta if she would be turned on by men walking around naked in a bath, and M-ta has to concede that no, it would be pretty boring.
Akachan Honbucho might be the exception to the queerness/fandom focus of her work, given that it’s about a middle-aged straight man who turns into a baby. But with the other main characters being gay, in a fandom, or living an unconventional life, I think the queerness is just more subversive here, more subtle, like a subliminal message for the straights. I am still sad this series ended after only three books. It is so good, and I wanted to learn more about the private lives of those other characters. And knowing Takeuchi, she would undoubtedly have managed to queer up some of the other people in the office.
I’m sure I’m not the only one mentally time travelling to this time last year lately as the anniversary of WHO’s declaration of a pandemic approaches, bringing the end of normal as we then knew it. I’m prone to this habit at the best of times, like “On this day last month, I was on a plane to Taiwan” or “It’s been a year to the day since I bought these shelves.” I’m not generally much for looking into the past—I’m usually more about the present moment and my ever looming deadlines—but for some reason, a glance at the calendar will occasionally send me to a very specific moment in the past and often a very trivial one that could do without being remembered. (See above re: shelf purchase.)
But of course, having been trapped in my Toronto apartment for nearly a year now, the time travel feels much more real. This time last year, I was still noodling around in Nakano, concerned about the growing threat of the corona virus, but more because it was getting impossible to find any masks in any of the shops because people were stockpiling them than through any real fear of contracting the disease. Although the threat did grow more real after the taxi driver corona virus boat party. (Yes, I avoided taxis after that.) But I was still doing my usual rounds of the bookstores, looking for the newest volumes in favourite series and enticing new releases that I’d never heard of before, picking up novels and manga to weigh down my suitcases upon my return to Canada.
I’m still working out how to get my fix of J-books on this side of the ocean. I had a good system going over the summer with the help of honto.jp and EMS shipping, but then they shut down all EMS deliveries to Canada at the end of November. So the struggle to get the books from over there to over here began again. Fortunately, I have friends who love me and one of them kindly sends me a trickle of small packages to keep the books flowing. Sudo Yumi’s latest arrived in just such a small box, happily packaged with some butter peanuts from Family Mart because those are the best peanuts in the entire world and I would die without them. Weirdly, a mere day after the two books that make up this story arrived, a kind reader commented on another post here to recommend Yume no Hashibashi to me. Serendipity! (Thank you, Sigurðr!)
I have been waiting so long! I was beginning to think that Ikebe Aoi had hung up her manga hat and gone into a more lucrative, less punishing industry. After all, the last volume of Princess Maison came out in early 2019, which as we all know is approximately thirty-six years ago if you count the Year of Plague. So you can imagine my delight when I saw the announcement of her new series in Feel Young this spring, back when North America was still busy ignoring the fact that a pandemic was on the way because it was only happening in Asia and as we all know, Asia is separated from the rest of the world by an impenetrable barrier so there was no concern of a contagious virus landing on this side of the ocean. (Yes, I am mad at how Canada had at least two months of warning that this was coming and still managed to be caught totally off-guard by the plague.)
The cover of the issue of Feel Young with the first chapter of Branch Line does announce that it is Ikebe’s “comeback series”, so maybe she did step away from the manga grind for a while. Either way, I’m so very glad she’s back. I’ve missed her understated tellings of deeply emotionally resonant stories. And of course, she hits that mark so hard in the first volume of Branch Line. I mean, look at that cover. Those eyes practically guarantee that you are going to have some feels while you read this one.