After a couple months of ridiculously idyllic country life up here on my mountain on cat island, it’s time for me to pack my bags and head back to the big city, in this case, Singapore, where I will creep on strangers and eavesdrop on some Singlish action on the metro for work. I’m not ashamed of my creeper style. It’s how I keep up with the kids and their wacky slang, both here in Japan and back on the Canada side of the ocean. People give me weird looks in Canada when I sit too close and tilt my head their way, but in Japan, I’m already a weirdo white woman, so my creeping is less obvious and more successful. From what I understand, Singapore’s a lot more accustomed to having ye olde white folks around, so who knows what kind of reaction my creeping will get?
Most of the stuff I translate doesn’t especially require me to creep on people in the metro, though. Not that the dialogue isn’t natural, just that it’s not hyperspecific of a particular group of people. Most manga throw in different dialects and speech patterns for flavor and to make obvious and easy distinctions between characters, but these styles of speaking are all pretty mainstream and easy to understand if you are a speaker of ye olde Japanese. But Inio Asano does not write such dialogue, a lesson that was painfully hammered home while I was recently translating his Umibe no Onna no Ko (Girl on the Shore). The way these teenagers speak is so authentic and real that I spent the entire translation worrying that it would turn out like how a forty-year-old woman thinks the kids these days talk. Needless to say, I was constantly bugging my sister, mother of teenagers, about the way said kids talk.
So obviously, it is no surprise that the high school girl protagonists of Dead Dead Demons speak in the most slangily realistic Japanese. The really fun part is the distinct voices that Asano gives to each of them. Kadode and Ouran have been friends since nursery school basically, later joining up with Kiho, Ai, and Rin, so that by the time they roll up to high school, they have been a tight group since the first days of junior high. Ouran is basically the weird one, using male pronouns and spouting off conspiracy theories and general craziness, performed with astoundingly energetic jumping and dancing and a generous amount of drooling and tears. Best friend Kadode tells her at every opportunity that she has no idea what Ouran is talking about. There’s friction between Kiho, who’s obsessed with having a boyfriend, and Ouran, who’s obsessed with overturning the system, but in general, the group get along like gangbusters.
And this could be another high school girl drama, complete with crush on teacher, except for the fact that the earth has been invaded by aliens and the mothership hovers over Tokyo twenty-four seven. It’s been three years since the aliens arrived, an event faithfully marked every year on August 31, and Kadode and her friends are in their final year of high school. And even though the country is technically at war with an alien civilisation, even though the parts of Tokyo evacuated in that initial attack have yet to be reopened to its citizens, even though smaller ships are dispatched from the mothership on a regular basis, not much has changed in terms of everyday life. The girls go to school, they study for tests, they read manga, play video games. It’s only the radio that Ouran has on nearly constantly that reminds us that Japan is in the middle of an alien invasion.
The focus is very much on Kadode and her little gang, with small reminders of the overall situation. Her mother wears a mask over her mouth and nose and goggles over her eyes all the time, frets about the contamination of produce from the Tokyo area. Announcements are made on train platforms that the train will be delayed because “intruders” have been found near a station on the line and the Self-Defense Force is currently dealing with it. Kadode herself even notes with disappointment that although the adults talk about how everything changed on August 31, nothing actually did. She still has to go to school, study for university exams, negotiate the world and her transition to adulthood.
But as much as the girls would like to believe that their world is cut off from the larger world of the invasion and the politics surrounding it, the fact is these aliens do intrude into their world, especially in volume three after Asano has laid all the groundwork in volumes one and two. Half of this last book made me weep like I was still sixteen and my heart had been broken, making me grateful that it is just me and the cats up here on my mountain.
The character development is nothing short of spectacular. We are watching these girls grow up, this world change. I know that Asano is no slouch in the character department, but it is really something to see him work his magic in such a familiarly weird story. And it’s not just text-wise that he works this magic. Even the smallest background character has a unique look. The main group of girls all have such distinct looks that they should be jarring when gathered together as a group, and yet they mesh so well. Asano walks a fine line sometimes between realistic and comic portrayals, and that’s maybe never more so than in this series, with Ouran’s exaggerated eyebrows and Rin’s fairly cartoonish face. But none of those more comic elements seem out of place, even the random background character winking and thumbs-upping for the camera in various panels.
And that is maybe the most surprising part of Dead Dead. Asano has always shown a sense of humour in his work, but he seems to be really enjoying himself here with sly background jokes, like the aforementioned winker. But also plays on names, like the tour guide named Niagara, or the many subtle puns he manages to insert into an otherwise serious-minded text. There’s some criticism of the current government that is obviously a comment on current issues like the anti-nuclear movement, the shift towards militarization, and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
This next year is going to be a banner year for English-speaking fans of Asano with translations of Umibe no Onna no Ko and Oyasumi Punpun, so if you’re monolingual and you haven’t had the chance to experience his work, you should definitely grab these. I really sincerely hope and have my fingers crossed that this translation of his work continues and we see Dead Dead in English sooner rather than later. It’s only on volume three, with book four expected next summer, but I have high hopes for where Asano is taking this story and I’d love to see it published in English as well. (I hope it goes without saying at this point that I would like whoever publishes it to hire me to translate it.)
EXTREMELY BELATED UPDATE: This one’s out in English! Get it! Watch the world be destroyed!