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.
And it really is the end of the world in the titular “Shumatsu no Wakusei”, one of six stories collected here. A planetary body is drawing inexorably closer to the earth, messing with the tides and pretty much everything else, and making the entire population painfully aware of their upcoming demise. Except! The government has been doing that secret thing governments in SF stories do and has built a space craft to whisk away a select number of children for the most part to ensure the continuation of humanity. Arisa watches as families flee to underground shelters from her neighbourhood, which is basically constantly flooded thanks to the messed-up tides, while her scientist father tells her the shelters are useless. A planet crashes into the earth and you’re still dead, no matter how far underground you go. But even with the future of humanity at stake, Arisa can’t help seeing the beauty in this object from space that is coming to destroy her. It’s a weird and interesting meditation on endings and the beauty of destruction.
The rest of the stories are in a similar science-fiction vein. “Shumatsu no Ato” shows life after the end of the world when humanity live in an enormous space craft after the earth is taken over by sentient robots. The captain’s daughter sneaks out to watch the meteor shower from a small ship, but then her vessel crashes into the earth and she is forced to confront humanity’s past on the surface.
“Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni” is a clever blend of science fiction and Japanese mythology. What if Kaguya-hime was actually an alien sent to Earth to serve out a prison sentence? What if Momotaro was collateral damage from her return to her home planet? It’s a cool idea that’s well executed here and had me thinking about mythology from an entirely new angle.
“Bokura no Natsu to Hai” is perhaps the weakest link in this collection and also strays the furthest from the central SF conceit. A group of tweens play survival in the woods when they encounter a monster/yokai. But of course, all is not as it seems. Art-wise, this one is also the weakest. Although I did get into reading it because the storytelling is pretty strong, the art is distractingly unsettled, like Oya hasn’t quite figured out their style yet.
“Omoide Kiko” gets back on the SF track with a slob of a son who sponges off his mother and is approached by a memory buyer. A little Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind except in this tale, you are paid instead of paying to have memories removed. There are people who would like to have your memories, experience specific things without actually experiencing them, and the memory buyer is there to help.
“Sophie” takes place in a world at war. But this world has advanced, sentient robots to conscript. So it is the robots who fight, leaving the humans to write thinkpieces about the wrong-ness of the war and the conscription of robots. Elly is one such writer, only she has lost her memory. And there are strange empty spots in her photo albums and her closets. To close the collection, there is the briefest of epilogues, a prison guard who is there to witness the end of the world promised in “Shumatsu”, while the rest of the population cowers underground. Someone’s got to celebrate and bear witness, he says.
Thematically and story-wise, this is a great collection, one that engaged me far more than I expected when I reluctantly picked it up. Art-wise, I feel like Oya is still finding their footing. There’s a bit of this style I unconsciously associate with learning to draw digitally, a lack of solidly defined characters, wonky joint movements, and awkward backgrounds. But as an editor once told me, you can teach someone to draw better. The knack for telling a compelling story’s harder to pick up. So I will probably read whatever Oya does next, no matter how many likes or followers are noted on the obi.