Hey, it is a new year. I bet you are already sick of saying “Happy new year” to people. So let me distract you from your holiday greeting woes with a book! Yes, the number on your calendar may change, but my brain will always be here doing what it does best: battling books.
Many a book was battled last year, and many more will be battled this year. But I am glad to start off with an artist I had never heard of before whose work I have totally fallen in love with, a sure sign that this year will be full of delightful discoveries. And like so many of the other times I have fallen in love, this discovery is courtesy of a recommendation from someone who knows better than me. In this case, a licensing manager at Kodansha. Kodansha, you are so good to me.
Although it was Ichikawa’s new book 25 Ji No Vacances she pushed across the meeting room table at me when I eagerly asked for recommendations, said manager told me that the book I should really read was her debut work, Mushi to Uta. The cover for 25 Ji was enough to convince me that I should at least give Ichikawa a chance, and fortunately the Kodansha bookstore on the main floor had both books in stock. They were also running a Moomin promotion, which induced me to buy more books for my already full suitcase so that I could get the free Moomin stamp. The only regret I have is not buying Ichikawa’s latest book too.
Mushi to Uta is so beautiful and weird. The characters are lean and long, reminding me a bit of Asumiko Nakamura, especially in the second story in the collection, “Violight” where the two main characters are dead ringers for Sajo and Kusakabe from Doukyusei. So much so, I wondered if it didn’t start out as some kind of fan fiction. But Ichikawa’s stories are much, much stranger than Nakamura’s work. In “Violight”, Mirai is helped out after a plane crash by Sumire, who is some kind of creature of electricity, although Mirai assumes he’s just another boy from his school who went down with him in the plane. The disintegration of Sumire’s body as he pulls Mirai along to some semblance of safety is gorgeous and disturbing at the same time.
Also in the gorgeous/disturbing category is the arm of Kusaka as it is opened up all at once right in front of him. You see sinews, muscles, bones, tendons, flying out from his shoulder and elbow. I still can’t stop turning back to that page to just marvel at the image.
The story that goes with it is just as compelling. “Kusaka Kyodai” starts with the titular Kusaka pitching in a baseball game and dislocating his shoulder. After finding out he has destroyed the cartilage in his shoulder and needs an operation to prevent his shoulder from dislocating anytime he does anything, he heads home and lolls around the antique shop his aunt runs. He opens drawers at random and out of one flies a little thing that looks like a rubber washer. When he goes to pick it up, it jumps away and begins changing shape, growing larger and larger until it is the size and relative shape of a little girl. Although with no face, so that’s creepy. The girl creature kind of moves in with Kusaka, cooking, reading, hanging out, and Kusaka treats her like a little sister. And then things get really weird, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
The stories all tend to deal with metamorphoses of one kind or another. In “Hoshi no Koibito”, the young girl Tsutsuji turns out to be what grew up from the fingertip Satsuki cut off by accident when he was four. And of course, Satsuki turns out to be something other than what he seems too. In the title story, the older brother of the family is a bioengineer of sorts, designing beetles and other bugs that can camouflage themselves as humans, in preparation for the eventual day when they won’t be able to survive otherwise. But then, yes, things aren’t what they seem.
Although the stories all tend to the weird, the characters are solid and normal feeling, easy to sympathize with. Weird for the sake of weird gets boring pretty quickly, but weird with interesting characters who have real relationships with each other and influence each other in real and emotional ways is the kind of thing you want to read more than once. In “Mushi to Uta” in particular, I was moved by the bond Uta develops with Shiro. (I also cracked up at the way Shiro responds to everything Uta says with a questioning “kii”. Because you know, he’s a beetle that just happens to look human.) Coincidentally, this is also the longest story in the book, which makes me want her to write a standalone book or a longer series. I’d love to see her get the chance to dig more deeply into her metamorphoses.