Totsukuni no Shojo: Nagabe

Totsukuni no ShojoThis is one of those books that I spend half of my life in Japan for, something I would have never found if I was just ordering things online, a book that makes a good argument all by itself for the importance of actual physical bookstores. Because I’d never heard of Nagabe, never seen this title anywhere online before, but when I wandered into the bookstore near my house that is for some reason also a stationery store and a DVD store, I saw Totsukuni sitting there on the shelf, and I was simply intrigued. The horned black caped character, the little girl in white, the title in roman letters (which I thought was perhaps Icelandic, but which turns out to be the name of an Irish song), it was strangely appealing. And although I resisted at first (who is this Nagabe? I asked myself doubtfully), the possible Scandinavian influence won me over. (I think Scandinavia is on the verge of booming here? At any rate, there’s a sweets place called “Fika” now.)

And after this chance meeting, I am one hundred percent in love! I’m waiting far too eagerly for book two in this series, even though the splash page at the end of book one informs me that book two will not be available until September. But friends! I cannot wait that long! Totsukuni is beautiful and weird and like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s a fairytale, in the old school style, a scary and entertaining cautionary tale featuring an adorable child faced with evil and impending doom.

A little girl wakes up on a stump in the woods, one oversized rubber boot slipping from her feet to the floor of the forest around here. After realizing she fell asleep, she tells herself that she has to get back before “Sensei” notices she’s gone out by herself. But of course, Sensei has already noticed and come to find her. We slowly learn just how this enormous, horned whoever has come to be in charge of this little human-looking girl, and Nagabe really nails the pacing on this, offering the reader just enough information to keep you reading, but not so much that it ever feels pushy or like an info dump. I was actually impressed with how natural it feels. Everything comes at the time it should. Things reach an uncomfortable climax after we have gotten to know the girl and her guardian, so the tension feels earned in every way, and the stakes actually feel real.First meeting_Nagabe

I’m reluctant to give away any of the story, not because knowing the details would detract from the larger impact, but because, like so many stories before this one, I was so delighted and impressed by going into it knowing nothing that I don’t want to take that away from any other reader. A good story doesn’t rely on reveals to be good, but there is a certain magic in reading something for the first time.

The art is so perfect to accompany a would-be fairytale like this story. A little sketchy, a little wood-cut-y, a little undefined. Sensei’s face is mostly just a black beak with white eyes in it. And Shiva is identifiable as a little girl, but lacks any other real defining characteristics; she is an everygirl, the star of all the fairy tales. Nagabe’s only just started as a manga artist, but they already have a real understanding of their craft and visual storytelling. There are so many striking sequences that compliment and go beyond the text accompanying the pages. Like the wordless page of Shiva confronted with the threat of soldiers.Soldiers_Nagabe

And in true fairytale form, Totsukuni is trying to communicate something real and very this-worldly. Nagabe outlines the origins of othering essentially, in this tale of two countries, one in and one out, and tries to peel back the layers on what happens when a group of people is made out to be the bad guys based on stories and rumors and handed-down “wisdom”. The “in” people don’t know why the “out” people are bad exactly. The out people are cursed, though. No matter what they look like, what they say, what they do, we shouldn’t get too close to them. We have to keep them away, kill them to protect ourselves and our families. They’re not like us.

Tea party_NagabeBut of course, they are. They have tea parties and romp in the woods and chop firewood and all the other things we do. After reading Totsukuni, I wanted to run right out and buy everything by this strange manga artist I’d never heard of before, so I started digging around for their stuff. And so I learned they are also a BL artist. Of course. Honestly, I’m not trying to grump about anyone coming up in different genres of manga, but the openness of BL, the looseness of the genre seems to offer a place for all the manga artists who maybe don’t fit in anywhere else, the ones who are doing really weird or unique work. So many of the artists I love who work in mainstream manga now came up through BL.

But it seems that although Nagabe is also working in BL, they are still a baby artist in that genre as well. Their first tanko isn’t actually out until the end of this month, by which time I will be back in Canada, far away from the stationery/DVD/bookstore on the corner. And this is where the internet comes to the rescue! Now that I have had my chance encounter with an unknown artist, I can order online and have new books delivered to me in the icy tundras. Which I guess is a good argument for the existence of online bookstores? Uh, maybe just a good argument for all bookstores of all kinds. Yes. More bookstores, please. More books. More Nagabe. September is so far away.

UPDATE: I keep forgetting to note that this is being published in English by the fine folks over at Seven Seas. Now you have no excuse not to pick it up, monolinguals!



  1. the first time i found this on the internet, i thought it gave yamazaki kore’s ‘the ancient magus’ bride’ kind of vibe, but reading your review makes me want to read it out of curiosity and interest. the drawings really drew me in (no pun intended); as for someone like me who doesn’t live in japan and only know about mainstream series, it seriously surprised me that such works are available even in japan (shame on me). i’m jealous that you are fluent in the language.

    1. I can see where you’d get Ancient Magus Bride from this one, but it’s very different stylistically. The art is much less manga and more graphic novel (to use broad stereotypes of both genres). There’s so much variety in manga in Japan, but most of it never gets translated since there isn’t the same (huge) market in North America. A lot more of the non-mainstream manga gets translated into French, though, if you read French. The publisher Lézard Noir puts out great stuff! At any rate, I’m glad I’m fluent in Japanese so I get to enjoy all the great stuff, whether it gets translated or not!

  2. I bought the ebook and got to read it last night. The art is eerie but very effective. The author really likes black and white contrast and they uses it like a weapon to convey the disturbing atmosphere. Shiva is light, white, pure while the cursed Sensei is dark and menacing although I imagine he would be soft spoken and gentle with the little girl.

    It’s good that Japan still produce non mainstream work like this even though most of them are low profile. I read an essay by Ursula K LeGuin the other day where she laments how corporate now dictates most of the published work just to make sales and try to get another instant hit like Harry Potter. She has been shading them (*cough* Amazon *cough*) for a while now. You should watch her speech during the National Book Award. She was eloquent, straightforward and merciless.

    1. Good point about the black/white contrast! It was something I noticed while reading, but forgot to mention while writing. It’s such a simple trick, but so effective in informing us that Shiva is “in” and Sensei is “out”, along with creating the eerie disturbing world they live in. I’m really excited for book two! It comes out tomorrow, so you know I will be stopping by a bookstore at some point to pick it up.

      I’ve read that essay by Le Guin you mention (is it this one?), but Japan’s publishing industry is just so different from North America in so many ways. Mostly this is a country with a huge population of readers. So there’s a lot more leeway in publishing niche titles. When you have so many readers, there’s bound to be someone who will want to read the weirdo books. There are the bestseller book types, but I think the industry as a whole is much less reliant on that model. Anyway, I haven’t seen Le Guin’s speech, so I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for pointing me in that direction!

  3. Aw, thanks for letting me know. I will keep a look out for it at Amazon JP for the second volume.

    Where do you buy Japanese books in Toronto? I have a cousin who is currently studying there (UoT), seems like a very vibrant place.

    No, not that one. It’s in one of her essays compilation. I think what she’s trying to say is there is a tendency that publishers now only want to sell something popular and don’t care about quality and depth of the story. Kind of like,’ Oh, Harry Potter is successful, so I am going to publish more magic related Young Adult books and don’t care about the rest, because profit is the most important.’ and Amazon is part of the conversation due to their size and their blatant focus on profit. To be honest, at the risk of sounding a little snobbish, I agree with her. The popularity of HP, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Maze Runner and their ilk kind of disappoints me. I am not exactly their target demographic, but seriously there are way better books for children and teens out there. Who knows if those books would endure the test of time like Lord of the Rings, who has changed fantasy forever.

    Btw, I would like to recommend 町田くんの世界. I just read the first volume and liked it a lot.

    1. Sadly, I don’t buy Japanese books in Toronto. I either order them online or I wait until I am back in Japan. You can borrow Japanese books from Robarts Library at the University of Toronto or at the Japan Foundation, but if you want to buy books, your choices are basically used books at the Japanese mall in the suburbs or at the Japanese grocery store on the west side. As you can imagine, the selection is not great in either place.

      I’ll have to check out that essay book. I love that she’s written more about this particular topic. I don’t have a real issue with the books you mentioned themselves (although, like you, I am not their target demographic), because I am a big believer in “just read.” I don’t care about what people read, as long as they are actually reading. I read garbage when I was a kid, but I was led to bigger and better books and authors as I grew as a reader. My fear, which seems to be shared by Le Guin, is that because of the focus on profit, the step-up books are disappearing. The road I followed from Trixie Belden to philosophy and French plays and Japanese novels about convenience store clerks will disappear with them. That mid-range book between indie and bestseller is so, so important in helping readers dig into the world of books and find their own place in it. And a culture entirely shaped by bestsellers is a culture that squashes independent thinking.

      Anyway! Thanks for the rec. I haven’t come across this one yet, so I will make a point of seeking it out!

  4. And a culture entirely shaped by bestsellers is a culture that squashes independent thinking. — THIS. I agree with this so much. I also think that the massive popularity of YA books is actually not really a good thing. There are so many adults who don’t want to bother with more ‘difficult’ books, they’re comfortable with reading YA because it’s easy. Of course people can read what they want, but I just don’t understand the mindset, don’t you want to grow as a reader? Don’t you want to see bigger horizons by reading higher quality literature? Also, most bestsellers are lower common denominator type of products, so I don’t think it’s good for the publishing industry if they only focus on those type of work. The marketing is also so cringe worthy nowadays. Non-sensical blurbs like ‘The love child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Albert Camus’ confuse me so much. Not that it’s a real blurb but you know what I mean.

    1. I totally get where you’re coming from with the YA books. And part of me agrees. I want people to “level up”, go onto more challenging literature that changes their perspective and maybe their life. But for the most part, I’m honestly just happy that people are reading at all. I think reading is so important in fostering new ways of thinking and teaching us empathy for all kinds of people that I mostly just want people to read something. And reading is a joyful experience. If YA bestsellers are what bring you that joy, then I can’t argue too much. Of course, I will totally recommend those readers books that tap into that YA experience but have a different depth to them. I do one hundred percent agree with you about the capitalist bent of the publishing industry these days, though! The bestseller culture is depressing as hell, and those blurbs you’re talking about, I’ve seen them! Such nonsensical garbage! I love your example. It could be real, even if it’s not. “The love child of Marquez and Camus”!

  5. I was happy to stumble across this today, in my local half-corporate bookstore that doesn’t seem to have space on their shelves for ageless classics like “Mushishi”, “Ping Pong”, or “Otoyomegatari”. “March Comes in Like a Lion” is all the rage these days, so that was lying around…along with this, which looks rather as though John Bauer and Edward Gorey collaborated on a fairy tale and somehow managed to write it down in Japanese. At first blush, I was slightly concerned that it was a spinoff of “Mahoutsukai no Yome” (an interpretation which the publishers seem to be actively encouraging), but the art style won me over. Best purchase I’ve made since I first came upon Mushishi years and years ago. By the way, what is a BL artist, though? I don’t know anything about Nagabe and assumed this is his/her first work.

    1. Oh! I like your description of this looking like a Bauer/Gorey collaboration! That definitely fits in a surprising sort of way. The publishers are definitely trying to ride the coattails of Mahoutsukai, and I get that. I mean, they’re trying to sell the book, after all. But I hope it doesn’t end up turning people like you off in the end. It’s just such a great book. I want more people reading it. And a BL artist is someone who draws Boys’ Love manga, those books where the central focus is a man-man relationship. As far as I can tell, this is Nagabe’s third work. There’s the BL work I mentioned, and then this seinen work that I read a couple months ago. It’s…not good. So much so that I am still wondering how it was written by the same person as Totsukuni.

      1. To be fair, I doubt the story in Totsukuni will turn out to be very good either. So far the best parts are the slice-of-life moments between Shiva and the Doctor. But those and the art are enough to carry it so far.

  6. I just happened to notice this gem while I was browsing Books-A-Million and skimming through a mediocre shoujo romance manga series. Usually with a lot of manga I skim through it and read it if I’m not too interested in buying it, but with this, just from looking at the title I knew that it would be a good manga. I only looked at a few pages and I was sold. I didn’t skim through this because I didn’t want to spoil a good story for myself. And I’m glad I held out! I can’t wait for future volumes!

    1. You made the right choice! Volume two is just as good, and my hopes are high for volume three, which just came out, I think. Such a beautiful book!

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