One thing I really love about living part of my life in Japan is being able to go to the bookstore, something I noted in a reply to a recent comment on this very blog. Obviously, I always have a list of things I want to pick up, but these are things I have heard about one way or another, usually because I already like that author’s work (as in the case of my recent purchase of Deathco by Atsushi Kaneko, who I have raved about here a couple times) or because a trusted source (very often someone at the Beguiling) recommends it to me (like No Matter How You Look at it).
Ordering books means you have to know what you want. You don’t really have the leeway to happen upon something, especially if you shun Amazon and its rec system. (To be clear, I don’t shun Amazon because of its rec system. I just don’t trust that system. I don’t buy books from Amazon because I am not so in love with their atrocious labour practices and their determination to drive all other booksellers off the face of the planet.) So when I am in Canada and the land of English (and occasionally French) books, I head out to the bookstore to see what there is to see, in the hopes of finding something unexpected and wonderful. And when I am in Japan, I devote far too much of my time to browsing any shelf I come across, annoying all of my non-book nerd friends in the process, who just want to go for a drink already.
But it’s good to noodle about in bookstores because then you find things like Yume Kara Sameta. Or rather, in this case, you have the chance for the fabled “multiple impressions”, the many encounters you need with a book before you actually think of buying it, something drilled into me when I first started doing book shows with my own book and every other book industry person I talked to was all “multiple impressions”. But it really is true. Sometimes, you’re on the fence about something. Or you’re not really noticing it the first seven times you see it. Or you’re interested but you don’t have the cash the first time you see it and you keep forgetting the title. In any case, seeing a thing more than once can tip into you buying that thing.
I kept seeing this other title of Miyazaki’s, Henshin no Nyusu. And I liked the style of art on the cover, but I was turned off by the fact that it featured a school girl in a short skirt and thought that maybe it would be all fan service inside, something which I have little interest in plunking down my hard-earned yen for. And then I happened across Yume and I was intrigued enough by the title, which roughly translated means “You definitely won’t be able to have a real conversation with that kid who’s just woken up from the dream”, and by the art again, that I took the chance. And if Miyazaki’s publisher is reading this, seriously, change the cover of Henshin. Because I’m sure it contains nothing resembling fan service, if Yume is anything to go by.
Rather than one long story about a weird kid in a dream, like the title might lead you to expect, this is a collection of short stories that grows progressively stranger with the common thread of questioning society and social roles, plus a dash of searching for one’s own identity and a tiny bit of the supernatural thrown in for good measure. And you know I love that sort of thing. And I love it in this book.
I didn’t realize at first that this was a collection of short stories rather than a book-length work, so I was expecting the first story about a boy whose mother is a plastic surgery addict and whose father is dead to keep going. And to be honest, I would read any sequels. There’s a lot of story in this story. The protagonist is in high school, dealing with the fallout of his father’s death when he finds a video tape of his father telling him that his mother did not, in fact, die when he was a child, but that she was obsessed with plastic surgery and a horrible person and that he should never try to find her. And he doesn’t. Until one day, he hears his last name called in a department store, attached to a woman’s first name. And his last name being pretty rare, he goes to check it out and discovers a woman whose head appears to be shaped like a star. Is the star-headed woman his mother? He becomes obsessed with the question.
Questioning who people are and yourself in relation to them is something that comes up over and over in this book. In “Living De”, a woman is suddenly faced with a husband who is completely convinced he is a dog, and it is her young son who forces her to face the truth of how she has completely denied how unhappy her husband has been with his salaryman life. In “Goran J-kumi no Yosu wo”, a self-appointed morals committee member informs the anime-obsessed J class at his school of all the ways the other students at the school are annoyed with them, but it is just how he is annoyed with them, a fact that he is forced to face when the only other member of the morals committee quits on him.
Every single one of the stories in here is so perfect, a tiny world encapsulated in an incident, a relationship, a thought. The man who falls in love with a woman and her homemade lunches only to discover that she uses pre-packaged food and is crashingly disappointed. The woman who used to be a total badass until she met her fiance and found god, but still does not regret a single one of the terrible things she did in her youth. The older brother who tries to hard to show his family a good time and fails miserably. There is nothing epic about this book, just a series of moments, of people trying and failing and still trying to deal with each other somehow. So I am definitely predisposed to love it. Stories about moments are basically my crack cocaine.
What makes it all even better is the slightly loopy art. Big glasses, round faces that are slightly alien-looking at times. Little tone and lots of lines. And great dynamic movement when the scene needs it, but total stillness at other times. There’s a weird looseness that is always trying to pull itself together that I found entirely compelling.
I am clearly going to now go out and buy everything else Miyazaki’s ever done, including the not-so-great-covered Henshin. And maybe this will teach me to stop being such a snob about book covers.