Sensei no Shiroi Uso: Akane Torikai

Shiroi_TorikaiAre we ready to talk about josei again? I promise not to rant (too much) about how work by and about women is consistently undervalued in our culture. But it’s honestly impossible to talk about josei manga without coming up against this wall. I’d love to see some hard numbers on this, but even without that kind of rigorous data, it’s pretty clear that compared with the flood of shonen and seinen manga—genres targeted at and (mostly) written by men (boys)—the amount of josei and shojo—genres for and by (mostly) women (girls)—published in English is a mere trickle. And you can step right off with the argument that josei and shojo stories just aren’t as good or as well produced. Josei and shojo manga consistently win big awards—Yuki Ozawa won the Kodansha award for her incredible Sanju Mariko just last year, while Misato Konari is shortlisted for the Tezuka Cultural Prize and also snagged an Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival this year, and we’ll probably never see either of these excellent titles in an English translation.

There are a gazillion reasons why we see so little josei and shojo in translation, and I promised I wasn’t going to rant, so I won’t go into every one of them. But a big reason, and something you see all over the place not just manga in translation, is that works created by and about women are seen as for women only, while works created by and about men are for “everyone.” Work about/by women is denigrated at pretty much every turn. Little boys are taught that this or that book is “for girls” and thus they should never pick them up (remembering that YA author who talked about how some schools excused boys from her school visits since she wrote books “for girls” so of course the boys wouldn’t be interested, but I can’t remember her name, so if you know who I’m talking about, please tell me so I can credit her) (Update: Thanks to Mecque for telling me that I was talking about Shannon Hale!), and even when a woman author is recognized with a prestigious award, her win is cast in the light of a man author who lost. (Yes, I am thinking of Jennifer Egan’s pulitzer win and how every other article about it had a headline with Franzen’s name in it, too.) So when you have publishers and society cutting out half of the population as a possible readership for women’s work, you are going to have a hard time selling that stuff.

And this isn’t just limited to the North American market. Although a ton more shojo and josei makes it onto the shelves in Japan, this is mostly because the publishing industry in Japan is more robust and simply has more readers buying books. Stories by and about women are still not taken as seriously as those by and about men, as evinced by the fact that while women are winning those manga awards, they’re winning them about a quarter as often as men do. For an artist who wants her work to be widely read by both women and men then, a series in a seinen or shonen magazine is really the way to go, even if she’s writing about women and the series could easily run in a magazine aimed at women.

Resto_TorikaiI feel like Torikai’s Sensei no Shiroi Uso is just such a title. Although it ran in the seinen magazine Morning, it takes as its protagonist a young woman grappling with her own womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a society that sees women as second class. And this is where I have to give you a chance to get out before things get too heavy. Torikai does not shy away from depictions of sexual assault and violence against women. If this is something you would rather not subject your eyes or your mind to, then this is not going to be the series for you. Go read the warm delight that is Witch Hat Atelier instead. It just came out in English and you will not be sorry you picked it up! Continue reading “Sensei no Shiroi Uso: Akane Torikai”

Bikacho Shinshi Kaikoroku: Moyoco Anno

Bikacho_Anno.jpgIt comes up every so often on the interwebs—or maybe only on Twitter which is where I spend most of my interwebs time—this idea of not starting a series until it’s finished because you want to read the whole thing at once. Or you worry that the publisher will drop it before it ends. And pretty much everyone involved in the making of series of books comes forward to say that this is the surest way to get a series cancelled. The terrible law of attrition means that sales of volume one are pretty much always the highest and it only goes downhill from there as some readers find they actually aren’t all that into the series or they move onto other books and forget about this one or they move to a shoebox apartment and can no longer buy books and keep them in their house the way they’d like to or they ran out of money and buying books is the last thing on their list. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for not continuing with a series, but anyone in the publishing industry will tell you that fear of the series ending prematurely is not one of them. When a reader doesn’t buy the first volumes in a series for this reason, they are basically signing the death certificate for the whole endeavour.

And as a person in the publishing industry, I am well aware of this fact! (I’m also well aware of the fact that pre-ordering a book is the best way to get it on shelves and boost sales in the crucial weeks after release, but I cannot be that together of a grown-up human being. To know what I will want to read in the future?! That is some kind of black magic and will probably end up with me roasting in the flames of hell.) But! I am also a deeply forgetful person. And the time between publication of between one volume and the next is basically enough for me to have forgotten the entire premise of the series. So reading books as they come out is basically an exercise in frustration and repetition. What is an absent-minded reader to do?? It’s simple, really. Just buy them all as they come out and then read them when the whole series is done. Continue reading “Bikacho Shinshi Kaikoroku: Moyoco Anno”

Amazoness Kiss: Natsuko Ishitsuyo

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The luggage situation on the Japan side of the ocean has been getting increasingly over the top the last few trips I’ve made. I’m there for months at a time, so it’s only natural that I would take these enormous suitcases and a whole life’s worth of stuff. And when I am packing up my Toronto life, I deliberately pack a lot of presents and Japanese books I am done with and consumable items (like the quinoa that I love but is too expensive on the Japan side and the spicy jalepeños that have historically been hard to find but are now pretty much everywhere so maybe I will stop bringing a jar or two over with me). But lately, when I am putting my Tokyo self into those same suitcases, it seems like I am always overstuffed and overweight. And you know what is causing that stuffed weight: books!

It’s also long been a habit of mine to send a box or two of things to myself so that I can have a little surprise come in the mail once I am back in Canada and gloomy about the terrible winter. Even if you’re not coming back to cold Canada, I highly recommend sending treats to yourself when you travel. It’s such a happy thing to get a box full of things you love that you forgot you sent yourself. (I always remember that I sent myself a box, but never what’s actually inside the box, so it’s like I am Santa to my own self.) But the number of boxes has been increasing and they too are getting heavier. Because: books! I don’t want the takeaway here to be that I buy too many books because that is clearly not the case since you can never buy too many books. But I do feel like I could stand to spread my book purchases out more and maybe do more buying in Canada where I do not have a strict weight limit on how many things I can carry to my home. Continue reading “Amazoness Kiss: Natsuko Ishitsuyo”

Karasu ni Hitoe wa Niawanai: Chisato Abe

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After several months of flying around the world because I am apparently a jetsetter now—but only an economy class one, so it’s all very uncomfortable and cramped—I have returned to my home and native land (have we not changed the lyrics to that song yet? That is some seriously settler style stuff there) only to discover that it is cold and unpleasant here. A discovery I make upon my return every winter. A discovery which makes me reconsider my life choices and ponder a permanent move across the ocean to Tokyo where we simply play pretend at winter. All those Canada Goose jackets! For temperatures that almost never go below zero! How charming!

Happily, however, this freelance life means I can do my job anywhere as long as I have my trusty computer, and anywhere includes never leaving my apartment because it is too cold and gross outside. And never leaving my house means all that time I save on actually going places and seeing people, I can devote to reading all those books I keep buying to trap myself in a pleasant circular hell of never being able to read all the books I buy. But not all of those books are bought! Knowing that I have certain proclivities, pretty much anyone and everyone in my life gives me books when faced with the challenge of what to get me for some special occasion or no occasion at all.

Which is how I came into the possession of the six books of Chisato Abe’s Yatagarasu series. I’ve been wanting to dig deeper into science fiction and fantasy by women authors in Japan both because there is a dearth of these very books in translation into English and because I just really love SFF and want to find new stuff to tease my eyeballs with. And wow, if you want something new in your SFF reading diet, you are probably going to want to check out Hitoe. Here’s the elevator pitch: Heian era bird people. Game of Thrones meets Tale of Genji. With crows. Who are people.

The gifter of these books suggested that I start with volume three since the first two books are basically dressing the windows, mostly world building and not much action. But personally, I especially want my fantasy to be heavy on the world building; I want to dig deep into my new fictional universe! So of course I started with volume one, Hitoe. And while it is indeed heavy on the world building, it does not lack for action.

Surveying the great mountain range, the god of the mountains decreed that there would be four families ruling over them—north, west, south, and east—along with one family to rule over all of them—Souke. We enter this world long after the god has made this declaration, and all five families are well established in their own ways. Tradition has it that each of the four directional families sends a daughter when the time comes to serve at court so that the imperial prince may choose a wife from among them. And the time has indeed come.

But the eastern house’s eldest daughter, the one who has been groomed since birth to be the future emperor’s bride, is stricken with smallpox and scarred only a few months before she is to go to the imperial palace. So it is the second princess who goes in her place, a naïve girl who was raised apart from the main palace in the east and knows little of the ways of the world. Including the fact that she could technically turn into a giant bird whenever she wanted. She’s basically the tutorial character in an RPG. Since she knows nothing about anything, everyone is forced to explain things to her. This could have been annoying in the hands of a less capable writer, but Abe is surprisingly skilled (this is her debut work), and the second princess is deeply sympathetic as the reader learns with her about the three other princesses there to compete for the prince’s affections and the court system they are a part of.

Since no men are allowed in the Sakura Palace where the four women have their own palatial lodgings, the story revolves almost entirely around the princesses and their many lady attendants. And while the idea of competing for a prince’s affections sounds pretty backwards, the women all have their own agency and political motivations, making this less a love story and more a political thriller with romance having zero to do with any of it. And indeed, in the book’s climax, the story is more murder mystery than fantasy. We learn all the secret machinations that pushed the different bits of the story forward and characters that seemed despicable at first become sympathetic in a constant upturning of everything the reader is invested in.

From a language nerd perspective, I love how Abe constantly shifts between names for the characters in a way that is easy to follow and yet still deeply meaningful. When we meet our ostensible protagonist (all the princesses get their time in the sun), she is known only as the second princess. It’s not until she gets to court that she receives what we would consider a name. And all the princess names are merely pseudonyms, placeholders until they marry and can reveal their true names. A revelation that is powerful in many ways in the case of one princess later on in the book. It’s like Abe’s toying with that old fantasy trope that names have power, but combining it with the Japanese tradition of different names for different aspects of your life.

The book is basically three hundred and seventy pages of court drama and intrigue in flowing kimono with incense recipes and hanabi parties and origami, against a backdrop of steep cliffs and rocky mountains navigated by people who can turn into birds, who are birds. It feels both familiar and utterly, surprisingly new at the same time. Don’t let anyone tell you to read the third book first. Start with volume one and get deep into all the twists and turns of this strange world of crow people. 

Random Anniversary 5: My Brain

Brain5.jpgIt is a weird thing to finish a journal and realize that these pages contain a fixed period of your life, the parts that you decided were worth talking about for whatever reason. Weirder still to finish a journal and wonder how many more of these dang notebooks you will get to fill up. A bit like looking at all the amazing books being published and knowing there’s no way you’ll ever get to read all of them. Mortality! The grim reaper comes for us all and doesn’t care how many books you just have to read before they do.

But my time’s not up yet! My brain and I may have been absent from these pages recently, but only because we have been so busy living life, experiencing experiences, and enjoying oh so many enjoyments. If you follow me on Twitter (and I wouldn’t recommend that unless you enjoy noodle-y thoughts on translation and decisive opinions on vaccinations [you should get them!]), you’ll know that over the course of the last month, I packed up my house in Tokyo, popped in at my apartment in Toronto to drop my bags off, and then jetted off to London where I was asked to speak about manga translation at Japan Now, a lovely festival celebrating Japanese literature and culture. I was even on the BBC! That was not a thing I ever expected to do in this lifetime, which is basically the theme of this journal.

The last sixteen months have been full of things I never saw coming. A partial list of such things: skyping with my best friend’s mom while rowing a boat through Takachiho Gorge, getting hugs from longtime heroes Gaspard and Lisa at a shopping centre in Tokyo (they were warm and soft like marshmallows and I felt entirely thrilled and comforted simultaneously), interpreting for a cadre of authors in the United Arab Emirates and riding a camel in the desert with a certain best-selling mystery author, getting banned from Twitter for livetweeting Kohaku Utagassen, and watching Hiroshi Tanahashi wrestle from amazing ringside seats with one of my favourite authors and then meeting him after the show. Continue reading “Random Anniversary 5: My Brain”

Shumatsu no Wakusei: Oya

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A thing happening in the marketing of books lately is to note the number of followers or likes the artist has on Twitter—most often, but occasionally, it will be Instagram or Pixiv—on the obi, and talk about how this popular web thing is at long last a book. It’s like Japanese publishers recognize the power of the internet, but still aren’t that sure how to harness it. So they slap some numbers on the cover and hope that people will worry about being left out of the group and pick up a copy. And in Japan, that is not the worst strategy since one of the greatest compliments you can pay a restaurant here is that it always has a line-up. I have with my own eyes seen people join a line simply because it was there and whatever was at the end of it must be good if there was a line. Given this kind of consumerist mindset, it’s not actually a bad strategy to count on Twitter followers to get new readers to pick up a book.

My issue with the “find something on the internet and publish it with follower count info” is that publishers are snapping up web manga and comic essays in hope of grabbing the next My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, but more than a few of these books are boring or bad or could have used some extra time with an editor. So I’ve grown a bit wary of those internet numbers on the obi, a sign of something possibly half-baked in the pages of the book it adorns. Which is why I passed over Shumatsu no Wakusei the first few times I saw it in the bookstore. Although I was intrigued by the cover and the title, that Twitter likes count on the obi made me pull my hand back every time I saw it.

But push a good cover on me enough times, and I will break eventually. (Hard stare in the direction of Color Recipe in particular here) I always judge books by their covers, and my curiosity about what’s inside inevitably gets the best of me. And so it was with Shumatsu and the girl staring forlornly at me from space and the end of the world. Continue reading “Shumatsu no Wakusei: Oya”

Sanju Mariko: Yuki Ozawa

sanjumariko_ozawaStill on the josei train, apparently. Maybe I will never get off it? Is this where I live now? All josei all the time? I wonder if the train will stop in Shojo Town or Seinen Village. Because I do like that stuff, too, but it seems my brain is particularly concerned with women and whatever the heck they’re writing about these days. Life circumstances? The man-hating feminist deep in my heart feeling free to finally stand in the sun? Who can say!

Whether it’s man-hating feminism or plain curiosity about books I haven’t read, I’ve had my eye on Sanju Mariko for some time now. Not just because it’s been on all the lists of amazing manga since it started running in Be Love a few years ago—although when a manga is on everyone’s list, it does make you curious—but because the protagonist of this series is an 80-year-old woman and when was the last time you saw that happen? Not the protagonist’s mom or the lady at the grocery store yelling at the cashier for messing up her order or the elderly woman the doctor just couldn’t save dammit who becomes the jumping off point for the doctor’s new life as a unicyclist, but the hero of the story, the one we care about and follow eagerly through the many events and obstacles. Seriously. If you know of a manga or movie or TV show from recent years that stars an elderly lady, please tell me about it, because I am entirely here for this. Continue reading “Sanju Mariko: Yuki Ozawa”