Dang. This year’s already got me on the run and it’s barely just begun. I’ve been chained to my desk the last three weeks, translating one book after another and just barely keeping up with my deadlines. I have this terrible habit of taking way too much time with novels in particular because there are so many more words and I want them to be the most perfect translation babies of all but perfection is impossible so I just keep picking at them and polishing since there will always be some new flaw to fix. And then I look up at my calendar with a gasp and realize I really need to get to work on all the other books in my schedule. After all, they are all my precious translation babies, equally deserving of my tender translation affections. However, devoting my attentions to my future children means no extra attentions for my bastard child aka this blog. But maybe I’ve dug myself out of that hole and can actually come and ramble here about books again?? Fingers crossed!
But before the rambling begins, I have to say thank you to all of you who made the Kickstarter Magician A a success! Not only did we reach our target, we also made it to all of our stretch goals! So everyone wins with fancy French flaps and super nice paper when the book eventually makes it to bookstores sometime later this year. And all the Kickstarter backers double win since they get the beautiful book plus an exclusive interview zine in which I talk with creator Natsuko Ishitsuyo about her career and her work, and we take a little side trip into spirituality and mythology. I’m hoping to post some of the interview here at some point, as a little teaser taste of what you can expect to find in the pages of Magician A, so once again, fingers crossed!
Now to the rambling! Most of the manga I’ve been reading since I got back to Tokyo has been the next volume in an ongoing series I’m devouring (Witch Hat Atelier, 1122, Sanju Mariko, Nagi no Oitoma, Kageki Shojo, etc., etc.), which while gratifying and entertaining, doesn’t exactly scratch that desire to read something totally new and unfamiliar. So as I do at times like this, I went noodling around the bookstores, dragging my fingers across spines in the hopes of something jumping out at me. I confined my noodling to the shojo area because I’m really trying to read more shojo. I feel like it’s the one genre I tend to neglect or overlook for some reason. Maybe because so many of the covers are some combination of girl with guy(s) looking coy/flustered/excited/angry and that just honestly bores the hell out of me.
And then I saw this book with an androgynous person in luxe kimono pulling a sword out of a sheath behind their back and I stopped in my tracks. Plus, the title was Kaguyaden and I am a sucker for retellings of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. (My personal favourite might just be Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The scene where she flees her own banquet into the snowy woods, shedding kimono as she goes, never fails to make me gasp at the sheer beauty of it.) I picked it up and stared long and hard. I loved the concept and the title, but I am not a huge fan of this art style, when everyone has a head like a giant triangle, their chins sharp enough to cut glass. But then I reminded myself that the whole point of me being in the shojo section that day was to find something new. I was still hesitant, however, so I only bought the first volume to test the waters. Maybe the story wouldn’t be enough to overcome my distaste for triangle heads.
Given that I’m writing about it here, I’m sure you can see where this is going. I went back to the bookstore the next day and grabbed the next two volumes, and just when I was running out of book, volume four came out, so I went and got that one, too. And now I’m sitting here wishing it was summer already, so that I could be reading volume five. The glass-cutting chins didn’t really grow on me, but the rest of the art and the story were more than enough to make me forget all about their potential to slit throats.
Tsukuyomi is the sole survivor of a massacre on the night of the full moon, and after some serious training with an ex-warrior in the countryside, she heads back to the capital to seek out the truth about the brother she lost then. She pretends to be a man to join the emperor’s personal guard, the Takiguchi, and is taken under the wing of Okami and Susano, with Okami being the only one of any of the warriors who knows that Tsukuyomi is actually a woman. And naturally, this comes to colour how he looks at her.
Meanwhile, the town is all abuzz with tales of the beautiful princess Kaguya. Here, we get some of the plot points that are a part of the original Bamboo Cutter story. Every man in the land wishes to marry her, and she tasks her would-be suitors with impossible tasks. But her story quickly diverges from that ancient tale. She does still come from the moon, sure, but she’s a lot more involved in worldly affairs. When she and Tsukuyomi finally come face to face toward the end of the first volume, they resonate in a way that neither expected, and Tsukuyomi’s mysterious past gets even murkier.
Saito deftly sets up all kinds of intrigue and scheming in the first volume and then lets it all play out, taking readers to unexpected places with every twist and turn. She seems to be letting go a bit as the story goes on; while there is not so much obvious magic going on in that first volume, things are getting pretty otherworldly by the end of volume four. And her art tells that otherworldly tale very nicely. Even with the triangle heads, there are lots of pretty things to distract me, and her attention to period detail is commendable. She even includes a tutorial on hats in the Heian era in the afterword of volume four. And she doesn’t skimp on the kimono—the ladies are definitely wearing all twelve layers or even more, plus their own head pieces and hair that flows on down forever.
There’s a lot of eye candy in these four books, pretty people looking pretty in pretty clothes, and this parade is punctuated with occasional swordfighting and intrigue, so the pretty people can show how brave they also are. What I’m saying is that the series has basically everything you could want in a shojo manga, and I wish there were more fantasy books like this on the market. (Please feel free to tell me all your favourite fantasy shojo manga and add new treats to my reading list.)