Every so often, a book mirrors my own existence to the extent where it freaks me out slightly. Maybe it’s the surface details, maybe it’s the protagonist’s inner life, maybe it’s the world she lives in, but there are books that send a bit of a shiver up my spine when I think about how much I relate to them. The first book I remember being wholeheartedly and unstintingly devoted to in this way was the Trixie Belden series. Her poverty, her tomboyishness, her love of animals, her admiration of Honey’s beautiful blond hair, I saw myself in all of it. (Not so much in the farm part of her existence, being a lifelong city girl, but we pick and choose what to identify with in our art.) Then there was She Came to Stay, the book that swallowed my identity when I was nineteen or so. Ever since, there have occasionally popped up these sorts of books which make me gasp and look around my apartment for the secret cameras reaping the minute details of my life.
I never expected to have that feeling with a Japanese novel, given the many differences in my life and upbringing, and the way things happen on this side of the ocean. And yet. Here we are. A book whose protagonist is a foreigner living in Japan who speaks the language fluently and studies theoretical mathematics in university. A book whose title in fact, derives from those very mathematics. Seriously. The first line of the book is “There is no i in this world,” and our heroine gasps. This reader also gasped. The “i” the speaker is referring to is the imaginary number i, the square root of -1, a number and a world view I have spent a large part of my life with. But it’s also the name of our stunned protagonist. Ai. Her parents gave her this name in katakana, rather than assigning the kanji normally associated with it, to leave room for all the possible interpretations. The most obvious of which would be the word “love”, which is often a name for girls. So we have a hero whose name is caught in a Schrodinger-style uncollapsed wave of “love”, “imaginary number”, “English first person”, and more. And she herself is caught in a similar uncollapsed wave. Continue reading
Hot off her win for the Naoki Prize, Nishi brings us a tale of a child unwilling to grow up in a small nowhere town surrounded by a bunch of weirdos. When I got to the bit about how everyone is in everyone else’s business, complete with widely known secret love affairs, I thought that maybe I was reading Gyokou no Nikuko-chan from the perspective of the child of the man the titular Nikuko has an affair with. I was honestly baffled by the very strong resemblance to the last novel I read by Nishi.
To be fair, she’s written five other books between that one and this one, including the previously mentioned Naoki Prize winner Saraba!, but it just happened that I read none of those in-between books, so the similarities between Makuko and Nikuko were perhaps more startling to me than many of her other readers. Although who knows, maybe her last five books also feature children growing up in small-town Japan as their protagonists, and Nishi is in a rut she might want to jump out of already.
Fortunately, those big picture details that make Makuko so similar to Nikuko are surface things for the most part, and a dozen or so pages in, I was engrossed in this story without constantly wondering if it was a new part of that story. There are still a lot of the same themes that came up in Nikuko: grown-ups are bullshit, but it’s okay because everyone is bullshit in a different way; childhood is a weird and difficult place where it’s hard to be who you are and still exist in the world in any capacity; Nishi is again using childhood as a stand-in for life in general. But she’s also reaching further in a different direction, pushing us to survive, to see the beauty in this world and ourselves, the beauty in the fleeting pain of our existence. This book is basically two hundred and fifty pages of sakura blossoms. Continue reading
I always come back from Japan in the middle of winter, which is maybe not the best time to come back. Because one day, I am basking in the mild winter temperatures of Tokyo and later that same day, I am plunged into the icy tempest of Toronto. Which just sends me scurrying into my apartment and vowing not to come back out until April. Fortunately, my apartment in Toronto is a lot bigger than my place in Tokyo, and I have all my books here. And hibernating is a piece of cake as long as I have something to read.
So I locked myself up in my tower and have been waiting for winter to end, checking the temperature in Tokyo every so often and sighing. And when you are hibernating, or at least when I am hibernating, comics don’t quite do it. I want to sit down with a novel—a long-ish one preferably—and fall away into another world where the view is not whited out with snow. The cosiness of curling up under a blanket on the sofa with some tea and a new novel can never be overstated. Hibernating at its best. Made impossibly better by Kanako Nishi. (I’ll save my bewildered rant wondering why she hasn’t yet been published in English, but you know I have one at the ready.) Continue reading
Humble bows of apology for my brain’s long absence from the ring! Books have been battled, just in the privacy of my own head. Because it turns out that I am not actually superpowered and can’t translate two full-length novels and eight or so volumes of manga in three months and hang out with all my friends in Tokyo and go to meetings/attend work events and take a week off to travel through the San’in region and publicly battle books on these pages. It’s physically impossible. Which is terrible because I have been reading so many great books that I have been dying to share!
As with pretty much every sojourn in Japan, these pages would have been all manga all the time for the last three months. So much great stuff was released while I was there! Three new est em titles alone! New Atsushi Kaneko! The final volume of my beloved Ekoda-chan! I was also playing catch up with some older titles, finally filling in the blanks of Aoi Hana by Takako Shimura, a series that I was following in the sadly defunct Erotics f. But not being able to get every issue of Erotics f because I am in Canada for the other nine months of the year, I missed some chapters, so I was at the bookstore this year, buying all the tankobon and putting those missing pieces into my brain. I also saw the end of IKKI, the great alternative manga magazine that was publishing Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto (which has moved to Monthly Spirits now. Don’t worry, you’ll get to read the end of it!), Golondrina by est em (which will be finished in tanko form. Don’t worry, you’ll get to read the end of it!), and Futagashira by Natsume Ono (which is apparently moving to the new magazine that will arise from the ashes of IKKI? We will get to read the end of it, right?). Basically, I read a butt-ton of manga over the last three months. Continue reading