Mikazuki: Mori Eto

Did you know I translated a sprawling historical saga this one time? Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas by Sakuraba Kazuki. The story spans the immediate post-war era until the right now, following three generations of a family through the dizzying changes that each period brought about. The rapid rebuilding of Japan after the war with psychic Manyo, the heady rise of the Bubble Era with her daughter punk manga artist Kemari, and the slump of the “lost generation” with granddaughter Toko. It’s a fascinating story about a country and a family all wrapped into one, the fate of the family dependent on which way the winds blow the country. 

I couldn’t help but think about Red Girls as I read Mikazuki. Although Mikazuki lacks the fantastical murder-mystery elements of Red Girls, both stories follow a family through the same time periods and use that family as a touchstone to examine larger trends in Japanese society, so maybe it was inevitable that I would draw a parallel between the two. (Also the original family name in Mikazuki is Akasaka, which like, what?) But unlike the supernatural thread that runs through the pages of Red Girls, the driving force of Mikazuki is the Japanese education system. Which seems…less engaging. If anyone had told me that I would cry at the end of a 600-page novel about cram school, I would have laughed in their face if only because I would never read a 600-page novel about cram school. And yet here we are. 

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Kakeochi Girl: Battan

When I first came across Battan’s work earlier this year, it was love at first sight. I fell hard and fast, and so, like a totally normal person and definitely not an art stalker, I immediately ordered all of their other work. It took a while to make its slow journey across the ocean, though, and then another little while for me to have some time in my reading schedule to dig into any of those books. I have basically double the reading to do for work this year now that I am teaching a translation course. (Did you know I am teaching a translation course? I am! If you are bilingual and looking for some exciting translation times, you can sign up for the next semester!) 

On top of all the books I have to read to translate into English all the manga and novels that you love, I’ve also been reading a whole schwack of translation theory and truly random articles about home renovation and neuroscience and so much more to find just the right texts to torture my students with. (I’m sorry, translation students! But you are doing great!) So the time I’ve had to devote to the pursuit of pure reading pleasure has shrunk dramatically, but I cannot live on purpose-based reading alone. And so after meeting a tight deadline and feeling relatively free since the next deadline is still far enough in the future that I don’t need to feel anxious about it yet, I wallowed in the beauty of Battan’s work finally. 

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Saihate Kara Toho 5-fun: Itoi Nozo

I didn’t mean to read another manga about a journey toward death with “the end” in the title, but here we are. Maybe it’s the pandemic? Although Saihate started serialization in June of last year, so maybe Itoi was already working on it with her editor when Covid turned the world upside down. Either way, it’s interesting that I would come across another book about choosing life or death toward the end of the second year of the pandemic. A disease ripping through a large chunk of the world’s population has a way of making you reassess your own mortality, and apparently, manga is here to help me do just that. 

This is where I should tell you that this book deals with death and suicide, and if that is not your jam, close this tab and come back next week. I’ll probably be back on my classic shojo trip by then. Or click around for other fun on this repository of my brain versus the many books. This post about girls loving girls is fun, or maybe this post about being a nerd and embracing the hell out of it. Take care of yourself with whatever manga you need to. 

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Dokusho de Rikon o Kangaeta.: Enjoe Toh + Tanabe Seia

It’s well established by now that I love reading books about reading books. And I don’t mean academic type stuff, theories on reading and mental processes (although that’s good, too). I just like reading people’s thoughts on what they’re reading. Which is maybe no surprise since I do write this blog of my thoughts on what I’m reading. People relate to books in so many different ways, and often reading a book on reading is like getting a little peek into someone else’s brain through this strange pastime of turning text on a page into meaningful ideas. 

And there are so many books about reading books in Japanese! I’ve had Rikon on Mount Bookstoread for a while now, ever since I spotted it on a shelf of books about reading in a Tokyo bookstore because readers on the other side of the ocean know the warm delight of books about reading books. I’m a big fan of both Enjoe and Tanabe (and have coincidentally translated both of them), but the fact that they are married has baffled me since I first learned it. She writes dreamy stories about general spookiness, while he is the author of sci-fi roundabouts like “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Galactic Empire”. So the idea of them considering divorce through their reading of books was extremely intriguing. And after recently reading Tanabe’s Osaka Kaidan, I remembered that this volume of essays was still waiting for me to dive in. And so I did. 

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Marunouchi Maho Shojo Miracle Rina: Murata Sayaka

I love Murata Sayaka’s work, but after reading enough of it, I’ve developed a certain wariness when I approach a new release. After all, this is the author that has dropped in some surprise cannibalism and envisioned a world where you can murder people as long as you have some babies first. Even something as innocuous as a magical girl can lead straight to trauma town in Murata’s world. 

So despite the fact that the obi boasts a blurb from none other than Moto Hagio (can you imagine getting a blurb from Moto Hagio?? And then tacking on “manga artist” in brackets after her name, like there is a single potential Murata reader who doesn’t know who this shojo master is), this book of four short stories has been sitting on my shelf since it arrived in a box from my man on the inside, waiting for its time to shine, a time when I would be ready for a charming tale about a group date to swerve into a meditation on how eating kittens has become normalized and to not eat kittens is just weird now. And that time came quietly, unexpectedly, when I needed a book that would lie flat while I ate a burrito and thus would not have the extra hands to hold the pages down. If you are looking for something to read with minimal hands, this is the volume for you!

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Hiraesu wa Tabiji no Hate: Kamatani Yuhki

I came late to the Kamatani Yuhki party. I’d never heard of them until I was flipping through the excellent and sadly short-lived manga magazine Hibana in my temporary home on top of a mountain in the south of Japan, a band of temperamental cats my only companions, and discovered the first chapter of Shimanami Tasogare. I had just agreed to join the production of the excellent documentary Queer Japan as interpreter and translator, so all things queer were very much on my mind (more than usual, I mean). Meaning that a new series about a bunch of queer people was very much my jam. But beyond the queerness of it all, I was struck by the incredible art and storytelling, and I wondered how Kamatani had never slipped onto my radar before. It was a surprise and an honour when I was asked to translate the series into English a couple years later. Wild the way things come together. 

So I was delighted when I stumbled upon Kamatani’s latest series essentially by accident. I try to keep an eye out for work by artists I like, but there are a lot of artists I like, and sometimes work slips through the cracks. By the time I discovered the first chapter online, the first volume had already come out. But if there’s anything that longtime readers here know, it’s that I am not timely in any book I read. I will never be the person urging you to preorder anything, although I know that preorders are important, and as a person who actually works in the publishing industry, I really should be more proactive on the preorder thing. But honestly, I can barely keep track of what came out two years ago, much less what’s coming out in the future. 

Before we go any further, I should note that this volume deals with death as its basic subject matter and mentions suicide, so if you are not in a place for reading about that, skip this one. Maybe go check out Witch Hat Atelier or Nozaki-kun, timeless treasures that will never hurt you. (And if you need more than manga, it’s okay to ask for help. Please do. We need you in this world.)

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Karasu Hyakka—Shirayuri no Sho: Abe Chisato

If you’ve been following along these last few years, you’ll know that I am utterly and completely smitten with Abe Chisato’s Yatagarasu fantasy series, and I was sure my heart would crumble to dust when I finished the sixth and final book. What is left for me in this world now that there are no more new Yamauchi adventures to read, I lamented. And while there is indeed the pleasure of reading all the books again and falling even deeper into this detailed, rich world, that’s not quite the same as having your breath taken away by an unexpected twist in an entirely unfamiliar story. And there have been so many unexpected twists in this series! Murderous monkey people! Imperial intrigue! Secret romance! 

Just when I was truly about to breathe my last, despairing of a life without Yatagarasu, I stumbled upon a volume of side stories browsing the shelves at my favourite bookstore in Shinjuku. I gasped audibly and earned the stinky side-eye from a couple of my fellow book browsers, but I did not care. I could hardly believe my eyes, and I had to double and triple check that it was not a different version of a book I already had and loved. But no, the internet informed me that this was in fact new, full of stories I had not read. So I bought it and loved it and was briefly sated. But then the despair started to claw at me once more. It is a hard thing to love a series so passionately. 

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Black Box: Shiori Ito (trans. Allison Markin Powell)

When I first moved to Japan, my supervisor went on and on about the Japanese health care system and how it was free and wasn’t that great. This perplexed me because I already had free health care in Canada, and everyone in every country I had been to up to that point (Europe) also had free health care, so I figured it was a pretty normal thing to have. (Note: this was before the internet was much of a thing and way before social media popped onto the scene with the many heartbreaking posts out of the US for GoFundMes for medical care. I knew that people in the US paid for health care, but I had no idea how much.) But the health care I had in Canada was actually free for me, in that I paid absolutely nothing for the insurance I had. Until I moved to Japan, I had never paid to see a medical doctor. 

It turned out that the Japanese health care my supervisor bragged about wasn’t actually free. Some tens of thousands of yen were taken out of my every pay cheque for my national insurance, which was shocking in and of itself. But then when I fell ill and needed to go to the doctor, I was stunned when the nurse at the front desk told me how much the visit had cost and set out the little money tray for me to put my yens into. I wasn’t stunned at the cost—it was maybe a thousand yen, far from anything that would break my poor bank—I was simply floored by the fact that I was at a doctor and they wanted me to give them money, like some kind of hospital store. I had never experienced this strange phenomenon before. And I haven’t since I moved back to Canada either. I just go to the doctor and get fixed up. The only thing they want from me at the front desk is my health care card. 

I always think about this when I hear people talk about what a “safe” country Japan is, how low the crime rate is. Because the question really becomes in comparison to what and just how they are figuring out this crime rate. I guess if you’re talking American-style mass murders with assault rifles, then sure, yes, Japan is pretty safe. But if you’re looking at sexual assault, domestic abuse, and other crimes that predominantly target women, then no, Japan is very much not a safe place. I don’t know a single woman (and that includes my own self) who doesn’t have at least one story about being assaulted or targeted in some fashion. Sometimes, it’s “only” being groped on the train on your way to work or school. Or maybe an ex stalked you for a while, but never escalated beyond creepy letters in your postbox and waiting outside of your office at lunch. And you count yourself lucky because you see how much worse it could have been. You could have been that British hostess who was murdered and dismembered. 

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Ichigo Monogatari: Oshima Yumiko

I think I’m on record as not particularly loving the bunko format for manga, but especially classic manga, which is generally a whole lot busier than the modern stuff. And by busy, I mean visually dense. Twenty different bits of dialogue or narration or sound effects versus ten in a more recent book. (I count bits of text for a living as a translator, so yes, this spills over into my reading habits. I can’t help but notice the number of panels on a page even if it’s not a book I’m translating.) This is a lot to take in on the standard manga page, but it starts to put serious strain on ye olde eyeballs when it is reduced to an even smaller page size. If I had my way, all classic manga would be published in beautiful oversized perfect versions, like Yamagishi’s Arabesque

But alas! I do not control the publishing industry on either side of the ocean, and so if I want to read the older shojo that my heart cries out for, I am generally forced to pick up the bunko version. Unless I can get on Yahoo Auctions and find the volumes from back in the day when the book was first published. (These are more available than you would think! I’ve read half of Ichijo Yukari’s catalogue by picking up old copies on Yahoo.) But being trapped outside of Japan (and staring down another Toronto winter) (*shudder*), auctions are a bit tricky since most sellers won’t ship outside of Japan. And so I turn to what is available in (online) stores currently. Which is, of course, the bunko version. 

But maybe my new glasses are doing the trick? Ichigo was an easier read than other recent bunkos with far less squinting and bringing the page to a centimetre away from my nose. Or maybe it is just that Oshima is such a powerful storyteller that she surpasses the bunko format. Her words cannot be contained by its tiny pages! This is the person who made me appreciate anthropomorphic cats in manga, a real feat since I am pretty against animal-people in my reading material. (So many interesting BL plots ruined by a guy with cat ears or a wolf tail.)

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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. 

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