Black Box: Shiori Ito (trans. Allison Markin Powell)

When I first moved to Japan, my supervisor went on and on about the Japanese health care system and how it was free and wasn’t that great. This perplexed me because I already had free health care in Canada, and everyone in every country I had been to up to that point (Europe) also had free health care, so I figured it was a pretty normal thing to have. (Note: this was before the internet was much of a thing and way before social media popped onto the scene with the many heartbreaking posts out of the US for GoFundMes for medical care. I knew that people in the US paid for health care, but I had no idea how much.) But the health care I had in Canada was actually free for me, in that I paid absolutely nothing for the insurance I had. Until I moved to Japan, I had never paid to see a medical doctor. 

It turned out that the Japanese health care my supervisor bragged about wasn’t actually free. Some tens of thousands of yen were taken out of my every pay cheque for my national insurance, which was shocking in and of itself. But then when I fell ill and needed to go to the doctor, I was stunned when the nurse at the front desk told me how much the visit had cost and set out the little money tray for me to put my yens into. I wasn’t stunned at the cost—it was maybe a thousand yen, far from anything that would break my poor bank—I was simply floored by the fact that I was at a doctor and they wanted me to give them money, like some kind of hospital store. I had never experienced this strange phenomenon before. And I haven’t since I moved back to Canada either. I just go to the doctor and get fixed up. The only thing they want from me at the front desk is my health care card. 

I always think about this when I hear people talk about what a “safe” country Japan is, how low the crime rate is. Because the question really becomes in comparison to what and just how they are figuring out this crime rate. I guess if you’re talking American-style mass murders with assault rifles, then sure, yes, Japan is pretty safe. But if you’re looking at sexual assault, domestic abuse, and other crimes that predominantly target women, then no, Japan is very much not a safe place. I don’t know a single woman (and that includes my own self) who doesn’t have at least one story about being assaulted or targeted in some fashion. Sometimes, it’s “only” being groped on the train on your way to work or school. Or maybe an ex stalked you for a while, but never escalated beyond creepy letters in your postbox and waiting outside of your office at lunch. And you count yourself lucky because you see how much worse it could have been. You could have been that British hostess who was murdered and dismembered. 

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Ichigo Monogatari: Oshima Yumiko

I think I’m on record as not particularly loving the bunko format for manga, but especially classic manga, which is generally a whole lot busier than the modern stuff. And by busy, I mean visually dense. Twenty different bits of dialogue or narration or sound effects versus ten in a more recent book. (I count bits of text for a living as a translator, so yes, this spills over into my reading habits. I can’t help but notice the number of panels on a page even if it’s not a book I’m translating.) This is a lot to take in on the standard manga page, but it starts to put serious strain on ye olde eyeballs when it is reduced to an even smaller page size. If I had my way, all classic manga would be published in beautiful oversized perfect versions, like Yamagishi’s Arabesque

But alas! I do not control the publishing industry on either side of the ocean, and so if I want to read the older shojo that my heart cries out for, I am generally forced to pick up the bunko version. Unless I can get on Yahoo Auctions and find the volumes from back in the day when the book was first published. (These are more available than you would think! I’ve read half of Ichijo Yukari’s catalogue by picking up old copies on Yahoo.) But being trapped outside of Japan (and staring down another Toronto winter) (*shudder*), auctions are a bit tricky since most sellers won’t ship outside of Japan. And so I turn to what is available in (online) stores currently. Which is, of course, the bunko version. 

But maybe my new glasses are doing the trick? Ichigo was an easier read than other recent bunkos with far less squinting and bringing the page to a centimetre away from my nose. Or maybe it is just that Oshima is such a powerful storyteller that she surpasses the bunko format. Her words cannot be contained by its tiny pages! This is the person who made me appreciate anthropomorphic cats in manga, a real feat since I am pretty against animal-people in my reading material. (So many interesting BL plots ruined by a guy with cat ears or a wolf tail.)

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Hyoto no Kamen: Kurimoto Kaoru

I’ve been going back in time, trying to fill out my reading history in Japanese and not just pick up whatever’s on the new release shelf. With manga, that’s meant some classic shojo action. Which, it turns out, I cannot get enough of. I like modern shojo well enough, but something about the pacing and intense drama of the classic stuff hits the sweet spot for me. I’m discovering that this isn’t limited to shojo; translating Orochi is a whirlwind tour of the intense drama also present in older shonen manga. I love the constant escalation of these older titles, like the artist is almost daring their audience to underestimate the places they are willing to take their stories. From what I can tell, they will not hesitate to take those stories further than anything you could possibly imagine as a reader. 

With novels, my looking back to the past has been mostly focussed on SFF. Part of that is just that I like speculative fiction, but part of it is also that I’m interested in how gender is portrayed in fantastical worlds where authors are free from the gender shackles of the world they live in. After reading and loving Kurahashi Yumiko’s Otona no Tame no Zankoku Dowa, I was interested in checking out some of her other work and eventually picked up her classic Amanon Koku Oukanki, and wow, I sure do hate it so far. So I put it aside in favour of another classic of the genre, Hyoto no Kamen. Going in, I knew that this series was intended to be a hundred volumes long and in fact surpassed that goal, with the 130th volume half-finished at Kurimoto’s death in 2009. Other artists have picked up the torch since then with anthologies and side stories and continuations in the world, and the series has been continuously in print since its debut in 1979. Or so says Wikipedia and I don’t feel like fact checking. But given the fact that I ordered the first volume in 2021 and it shipped in a day, I’m inclined to believe that little bit of trivia. 

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Miyako Bijin Yawa: Sudo Yumi

You may know by now that I am a bit obsessive when it comes to artists I like. I will read one book, love it, and promptly buy every single other thing that artist has done. I’m not sure this is a particularly healthy approach to art, but it has made my book collection extremely complete for specific artists. (Yes, I have every single est em book in French, English, and Japanese, including both the original Mellow Mellow and the IKKI reprint of Orokamono wa Aka o Kirau. I do not need two copies of what is essentially the same book, but that beautiful cover on the IKKI reprint… I could not resist it.) I’ve got recent fave battan’s entirely catalogue on order, although it will take a while to get to me thanks to the ocean that separates me from my beloved Japanese bookstores, and I look forward to obsessing over each of those volumes with you here. 

But in previous shipments via my postal pal in Tokyo, I received some of the earlier work of Sudo Yumi, whose Yume no Hashibashi charmed me with its backward time-travelling narrative of lost love. Hotai Shojo Kikan was another yuri volume, a collection of short stories of various relationships between girls, but Miyako Bijin Yawa is a josei collection of stories originally published in Feel Young, the best josei magazine and no, I will not be taking any questions about that at this time. As is often the case with one-shot and first volumes, this feels like it started out as a short story that the artist was asked to keep going with after the editor saw the finished pages or when the story got good reader feedback. Which means that sometimes things can feel tacked on or shoehorned in later on, as is the case here. 

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Mabataki: Battan

Since they launched a few years ago, Torch has consistently put out the strangest manga, the stuff that more mainstream publishers with their print magazines generally wouldn’t touch. I think part of this is that Torch is entirely online, which definitely allows for more experimentation. They don’t have the added cost of putting out a print magazine every month, and they’re not obligated to put out a book of every series they run on the site. Plus I think readers expect very different things from manga online versus manga in traditional print magazines. Weird things come from weird corners of the internet, and readers of online manga maybe not only know this but actively seek it out. Torch might be tapping into that group of readers that has felt underserved by the usual manga outlets, and so they welcome the wild and weird to their (web) pages. 

Whatever the reason, I will always at least pick up a Torch book and judge it by its cover. They brought me personal faves like Magician A (available in English now! /shameless plug) and Kashikokute Yuki Aru Kodomo (please hire me to translate this into English! /shameless plea), and while not all their books meet these admittedly high standards, I’ve at least enjoyed everything I’ve read from them enough to check out their latest releases. Which is why I can’t understand how I missed Battan’s first release and am only discovering their sensuous lines and cat-eyed girls in their second book, this collection of five short stories. Rest assured, I am working to rectify this situation and have ordered everything else they’ve released, including a new series running in Kiss, which looks very yuri and I’m going to be disappointed if those hot girls on the cover do not make out at some point. 

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Kakkou no Yume: Tamekou

And so in this the second Year of Plague, we come again to our most high of all days, 801, a celebration of the truest and most pure love: hot guys getting busy. I had definitely hoped to be lustily perusing the BL shelves of all my favourite Tokyo bookstores to commemorate this year’s schmexy holiday, but alas! Japan is still determined to keep my fully-vaccinated self outside its borders. A true fujoshi, however, does not flinch in the face of such an obstacle to obtaining her one true love: manga of hot guys getting busy. And fortunately for me, I have a man on the inside popping boxes of smut in the post to me two kilos at a time. (EMS post may never again resume, but small packet air mail mysteriously continues.) 

What arrived for me in one of those carefully packed boxes was Kakkou no Yume, a two-volume story from tamekou, who heals my translator soul with My Androgynous Boyfriend. I love their clean art and cute style, and my previous dip into their BL work made me love them in a new and different (schmexy) way, so I was eager to check out anything else they’d done. I’ve seen the covers of these two volumes any number of times, these two incredibly beautiful boys with their shining, parted lips staring back at me from BL displays, but I’ve always resisted picking them up. (Much like Young Bad Education, which I’m sure I will eventually cave to at some point.) For some reason, it felt like the book shelves, PR people, and BL gods were insisting I read this book, and I am nothing if not contrary. The more popular something is, the more I want to run in the opposite direction from it. (This is not a good or healthy trait, but it is there in me, a cursed stubbornness that I work to overcome.)

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Onna Tomodachi: Saimon Fumi

I talk a lot about the lack of josei translated into English, manga about and largely by women. I don’t have any hard numbers, but just going by licensing announcements and what I see on the bookstore shelves, josei is probably the least published genre of manga in English. As Ed Chavez noted in the excellent Comic Con Manga Publishing Industry Roundtable, josei is a hard sell. (But thank you, Ed, for continuing to try and spread the josei gospel!) And while we’ve gotten some stealth josei recently (like Kodansha licensing Sensei no Shiroi Uso by Akane Torikai), straight-up josei is still a unicorn in the English publishing world. 

And if that’s the case for modern josei, then how much worse must the situation be for anything published in the last century? Has any classic josei been published in English? Is Paradise Kiss about as classic as it gets in English? It’s not just the English publishing industry, sadly. Older josei artists don’t really get the royal treatment in Japan either, with most books from before 2000 out of print and next to impossible to get a copy of. Of course, the history of josei is shorter than that of shojo or shonen, so there’s less of a base to build on and it’s easier for these artists to slip through the cracks. Or so it would seem. I am no manga scholar. (Feel free to school me on the history of josei manga, actual manga scholars.)

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Osaka Kaidan: Tanabe Seia

I’ve long known that Tanabe Seia hosts regular scary story sessions, but in the Before Times, these were held in Osaka, which is a bit of a trek from my usual residence in Tokyo, and while, like everyone else, she’s shifted to online events during the Plague Times, Toronto and Japan are not exactly in the same time zone. Three in the afternoon might be a nice time for spooky stories in Japan, but I am not getting up at two in the morning to listen to them. Also, I am an Old and cannot stay up past midnight or I will turn to dust, and then who will translate all those books sitting on my desk? 

So I’ve been curious about what exactly happens at these sessions, and then Osaka Kaidan popped up on the new release list to offer me the chance to find out. I really like Tanabe’s fiction and the detached style of her authorial voice, which adds to the dream-like quality of her subject matter. She doesn’t so much write horror as the odd, the mystical, the world on the fringes, places and characters where lines blur. Her work to me is more about atmosphere than story, giving readers a feeling or an impression, like moody abstraction. Basically, she’s the perfect person to be writing about ghosties and other things that go bump in the night. Osaka is a collection of such tales, gathered through her regular story sessions, but also through random conversations with people in and around Osaka. 

As the title suggests, these are spooky stories about Osaka, around fifty of them in total. Each story gets its own chapter, and most chapters are quite short, two or three pages, although some are only a single page long and there are a few that go on for six or seven pages. But for the most part, this is one of those bite-sized books that you can dip in and out of for a very satisfying reading experience. You can also get a big dose of Kansai dialect to mess up your own Japanese for a while, and then you have to be careful in video meetings that you don’t accidentally say “ちゃうねん” because you are not a speaker of Kansai dialect normally, and it might get weird if you were to start suddenly while discussing a translation project with a Japanese publisher. 

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Watashi ni Dekiru Subete no Koto: Ikebe Aoi

The truly great thing about manga is the sheer variety. You can get manga about pretty much any topic you can think of. The number of different genres under the cat manga umbrella alone is astounding. Want to read about New York cops? Sure, we got you covered. Looking to delve into traditional arts? No problem. What about the experience of being a foreigner in Japan? Oh yeah. Pancreatic cancer? You bet. Alternate universe Anne Frank? Ballet? Sex cult mini golf? Coming up! Sometimes I wonder how the market can even support some of these books. But then I remind myself that even as the publishing industry is also shrinking in Japan, the population of that country is like five times that of Canada and it is a nation of readers. There are lots of people out there to buy all the weird books. 

So it is no surprise that there would be a book on artificial intelligence in human form. But it is a surprise to see such a book coming from Brain favourite Ikebe Aoi, known for quiet portrayals of human relationships. The moment I heard about this one, though, I couldn’t wait to get it in my hands and start reading. Because I could immediately see the possibilities for such a premise in Ikebe’s skilled hands. Plus that title! It makes me swoon somehow. It feels so full of possibilities and heartbreak, especially combined with the cover, that girl looking straight into your soul. 

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Chijo Lesson: Noa/Mine Nayuka

I feel like we’re seeing more and more manga dealing with sex not as some titillating fan service, but as an aspect of life and the world we live in. Or maybe that kind of manga is just on my radar. Because I do appreciate the smut in its many forms. I honestly love that people are willing and able to write more openly about a part of our lives that tends to be relegated to the shadows because we are not supposed to talk about getting off in polite society. It feels like maybe we’re slowly moving past all this body-shaming, slut-shaming stuff and opening ourselves up to all the possibilities of being human and having a body. Bodies are great and fascinating! And weird and terrible, but that is a different conversation. 

Mine Nayuka has been happily writing about bodies and sex and people for a while now since she came onto the manga scene with her Arasa-chan, a NSFW look at sexuality and dating and relationships between men and women, way back in 2011. And now she’s doing a series about how her time as a porn actor, which is great so far, but that first volume was released at the same time as this how-to-sex book Chijo Lesson. In a departure from the usual manga way of writer and artist being one and the same person, Chijo has Mine as the artist and her friend and fellow porn star Noa handling writing duties. 

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