Hyoto no Kamen: Kurimoto Kaoru

I’ve been going back in time, trying to fill out my reading history in Japanese and not just pick up whatever’s on the new release shelf. With manga, that’s meant some classic shojo action. Which, it turns out, I cannot get enough of. I like modern shojo well enough, but something about the pacing and intense drama of the classic stuff hits the sweet spot for me. I’m discovering that this isn’t limited to shojo; translating Orochi is a whirlwind tour of the intense drama also present in older shonen manga. I love the constant escalation of these older titles, like the artist is almost daring their audience to underestimate the places they are willing to take their stories. From what I can tell, they will not hesitate to take those stories further than anything you could possibly imagine as a reader. 

With novels, my looking back to the past has been mostly focussed on SFF. Part of that is just that I like speculative fiction, but part of it is also that I’m interested in how gender is portrayed in fantastical worlds where authors are free from the gender shackles of the world they live in. After reading and loving Kurahashi Yumiko’s Otona no Tame no Zankoku Dowa, I was interested in checking out some of her other work and eventually picked up her classic Amanon Koku Oukanki, and wow, I sure do hate it so far. So I put it aside in favour of another classic of the genre, Hyoto no Kamen. Going in, I knew that this series was intended to be a hundred volumes long and in fact surpassed that goal, with the 130th volume half-finished at Kurimoto’s death in 2009. Other artists have picked up the torch since then with anthologies and side stories and continuations in the world, and the series has been continuously in print since its debut in 1979. Or so says Wikipedia and I don’t feel like fact checking. But given the fact that I ordered the first volume in 2021 and it shipped in a day, I’m inclined to believe that little bit of trivia. 

Knowing that the series spanned decades and a whole bunch of volumes, I naturally did not expect everything to be wrapped up and tied with a neat little bow at the end of the first volume. I did, however, expect the first volume to end. But instead, it basically just stopped without so much as a “to be continued”. I guess we’re supposed to know at this point that it was continued. Still, I’ve read a lot of SFF series, and even if the overarching story is ongoing, each volume generally has a distinct ending for the story arc of that volume, a tying-up of smaller loose ends while leaving the larger questions unanswered. Even Japanese light novels (that I’ve read anyway) have a smaller story arc for individual volumes in a series, even as the series continues on for far too many volumes.

We start with an ominous prologue, an introduction to a mysterious “it” that should not exist. Whatever it is, it’s a crime against nature. Spooky! Then we’re dropped into a forest in the hinterlands of this fantasy land we’re inhabiting, a forest full of ghosties and ghouls and all the things that go bump in the night. Rinda and Remus are twins and the heirs to the very recently fallen kingdom of Parros. We don’t know how they got here, but we know they are in big trouble and everyone they love is probably dead. 

They’re trying to make their way out of the forest of fright when an enormous man with a leopard head stumbles out of the bush and collapses. Rinda, the more headstrong of the twins, insists they have to help him even when her brother wants to run away, so she gives him water through a straw (since he’s got that leopard head curse thing going on). It turns out he doesn’t remember anything except his name (Guin) and the word “Aurra”. But that is about all the time for chatting they have. The black knights come for the little royals and he fights them off like he is truly a man-beast.

The novel after that is mostly fighting with some interludes of exposition where we learn about the politics of this land, the heathens that live in these hinterlands, and the mysterious duke that rules this particular part of those lands. Rinda is a seer as well as a princess, so we get some ominous moments of her proclaiming a thing or place is evil. But mostly it’s Guin just killing the shit out of everything that crosses his path. 

Like I said, though, it doesn’t actually end. Our heroes are in dire straits, still fighting, constantly fighting, and then the story stops for now. It’s pretty unsatisfying as a standalone novel, but nevertheless fun for what it is. Kurimoto’s writing is dense and evocative, but sometimes too dense, and you’re up against two pages about all the scary monsters lurking in the dark in the woods and if anyone drops their torch, oh no they’re all dead. And the battles tend to get a little tedious, especially the final battle (of this book anyway) in which a seemingly infinite number of enemies keep charging Guin and keep getting cut down, even though the leopard man has been fighting nonstop for two days at this point. I know he’s all super-powered, but he has to be getting tired. 

Gender-wise, this one is pretty disappointing. Almost all of the characters are guys being masculine stereotypes or mocked for not being them (with some “screams like a girl” added in even) and the girls in the story are basically one-dimensional, clutching the nearest guy in fear and squealing. To be fair, though, Guin is the only character who really gets any in-depth examination, and most of the discussion of him is how ripped he is, how weird it is that he has a leopard head, and how good he is at killing anything and everything. 

Kurimoto’s world-building is fantastic, though. In the first chapter, she’s already sketched out a world with different peoples and places so fully formed and in such detail that you can easily see why she anticipated telling a hundred volumes of stories in this place. I could see possibilities in practically every detail she mentioned, so it’s no surprise to me that the series has found writers and readers eager to continue living in this world. I don’t know if I’m willing to commit to a hundred plus volumes, but it looks like this particular arc ends in the fifth book (according to the English translation of those volumes published by Vertical), and five books seems like something I could fit into my reading schedule, if only to find out what happened to the haughty princess and her shy brother. I doubt that the story behind Guin’s leopard head will be resolved before volume one hundred, if ever. 

Also, Kurimoto has the best Bubble Era author photo in this volume, so please enjoy it with me here. 

2 thoughts on “Hyoto no Kamen: Kurimoto Kaoru

  1. Great read. Naive question–anything, err, gay here? I know Kurimoto Kaoru was one of the first major supporters and contributors to June…

    1. About the gayest thing in this book is the slightly thirsty descriptions of the all-mighty and powerful leopard-headed warrior.

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