Author: Project Itoh
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421536439
Released: July 2010
Original release: 2008
Awards: Nihon SF Taisho Award, Seiun Award, Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation

Harmony, by Project Itoh, was originally published in Japan in 2008, winning both the 2009 Nihon SF Taisho Award and the 2009 Seiun Award. Although I was previously unfamiliar with Itoh’s work, I was very excited when the novel was picked up by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint and released in 2010 with a translation by Alexander O. Smith. Happily, Harmony has been very well received in English and was recently nominated for the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award. As far as I know, this is the first book in translation and the first Japanese novel to ever be nominated for this award. (The nomination is also particularly meaningful to Haikasoru as the imprint takes its name from Philip K. Dicks award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle.) Harmony is currently the only work by Itoh available in English although a fairly reliable rumor has it that Haikasoru has more Itoh plans in the works. I really hope that is true.

After an unprecedented, worldwide mass suicide, admedistrations across the globe are thrown into turmoil. In a society that views the human  body as a vital resource and a public good to be protected at all costs, suicide is an unthinkable crime. The Helix Inspection Agency, a part of the World Health Organization, is charged with the investigation into the incident. For Tuan Kirie, a Helix member playing an important role in the investigation, the event is very personal. She herself once attempted suicide in defiance of the admedistrative system of which she is now an integral part. She watched as one of her friends took her own life during the mass suicides. Her father was one of the original developers of the WatchMe nano- and biotechnologies that allow the admedistrations to function, but which may have also laid the groundwork that would make such a wide-spread tragedy possible.

The most unusual element of Itoh’s writing in Harmony is his use of EML, or Emotional-in-Text Markup Language (which looks very similar to other markup languages such as XML or HTML.) Even if a reader isn’t familiar with markup languages, it is soon obvious what is going on and the EML shouldn’t provide too much of a challenge. Some people might see it as a clever gimmick, but I found the use of EML to be quite effective and integral to the story. It emphasizes many aspects of admedistrative society in both subtle and direct ways: The EML is a constant reminder of the biotechnological advances that have been made; the perpetual recording and surveillance of individuals’ lives, health, and minds is made obvious; emotional states and human desire are shown to have been reduced to data points for clinical observation; the barrier between one person’s experiences and another’s is broken down. I believe EML is critical to Harmony and I doubt anyone will be able to convince me otherwise.

As with any fiction successfully exploring utopia and dystopia, Harmony is extremely thought-provoking in addition to being engaging. It is easy to see the obsessions and neuroses of today’s societies, particularly those regarding health, reflected and taken to the extreme in Harmony’s world. Occasionally, Itoh can be a bit heavy handed, but overall his world-building has taken a logical if not entirely realistic path. Even a near perfect world can’t make everyone happy and the methods used to get there can be terrible no matter how they are justified. The epilogue doesn’t mesh as nicely with the rest of the novel, but it does provide important information, clarifying specific plot elements while still leaving some ambiguity to the story. I enjoyed Harmony immensely—it’s smart, thought-provoking, and has stuck with me for quite some time after finishing it. I really hope to get a chance to read more of Itoh’s work in English.


Author: Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Translator: Anne Ishii
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421532332
Released: May 2010
Original release: 2001

I didn’t really intend on reading Natsuhiko Kyogoku’s novel Loups-Garous this soon although I did plan on getting around to it eventually. Basically, I will read anything and everything published by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint, which specializes in Japanese speculative fiction. Out of all of their offerings, Loups-Garous was not the one that interested me the most, which is why I was going to wait to read it. However, I found myself without reading material one day and it was the only Haikasoru book the store had in stock that I didn’t already own, so Loups-Garous it was. Kyogoku has been writing since the early ’90s, mostly mysteries with a special focus on yōkai and the supernatural, and Loups-Garous, originally written in 2001, is one of his few novels not associated with a series. Haikasoru’s edition, translated by Anne Ishii, was released in 2010. Currently, the only other work of his available in English that I know of is his debut novel The Summer of the Ubume, originally written in 1994 and released by Vertical in 2009.

After a string of serial killings, apparently targeting junior high girls, the police investigating initiate a unprecedented, and most likely illegal, move to acquire personal data on the local students collected by their counselors from their communication labs. These labs are designed to help facilitate and foster face-to-face interactions in a world that most people experience through their monitors. Shizue Fuwa, one of the counselors, is firmly against the police’s actions but is forced to comply. As more students die, her doubts and distrust continue to grow. Three of her students, Hazuki Makino, Mio Tsuzuki, and Ayumi Kono do some poking around on their own, only to find themselves in more danger than they bargained for with no one that they can trust. When reality is determined by what can be viewed on a screen, and when that information can be distorted, who is going to believe a group of delinquent minors?

Loups-Garous is an odd book. For some reason, werewolves seem to have been played-up in its marketing, but there is not a single one in the story. Well, at least not literally—there are plenty of figurative monsters. Instead, I think Loups-Garous is more about the control and power over information, its creation and dissemination, and its potential for manipulation. Personally, that is something I am much more interested in than werewolves, anyway. On top of a bizarre but not entirely unbelievable future, Loups-Garous‘ story is couched as a mystery. There is a lot going on in the book and many, many layers—genre and otherwise—which made Kyogoku’s work absolutely fascinating to me. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I picked up Loups-Garous to read and didn’t really know what to expect even after I started it; there were certainly some intriguing surprises in store.

The plot of Loups-Garous is somewhat slow to begin with, most of the text being devoted to meticulous world-building until about halfway through. It’s then that things start to get really interesting fast and the finale is explosive. Kyogoku’s characters tend to have what initially seem to be long and involved tangential conversations but generally these tie back in somehow—there’s a lot of deep thinking and philosophizing going on, but important information is conveyed. The dialogue, especially towards the beginning, is rather awkward but I think this is appropriate given the setting of the story and the fact that people aren’t used to interacting directly. Kyogoku’s future is fully realized and complex and I found Loups-Garous to be a fascinating and absorbing novel.

Slum Online

Author: Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Translator: Joseph Reeder
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421534398
Released: April 2010
Original release: 2005

I picked up Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s Slum Online after reading and thoroughly enjoying his light novel All You Need Is Kill. Slum Online is the second of Sakurazaka’s works to be made available in English. Originally released in Japan in 2004, the book was published in 2010 by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint (which also published All You Need Is Kill). The Haikasoru edition, translated by Joseph Reeder, also contains the additional story Bonus Round that Sakurazaka wrote specifically for the English release. Bonus Round takes place immediately after the events of Slum Online and serves as a sort of epilogue. Considering how much I enjoyed All You Need Is Kill, I was looking forward to reading Slum Online a great deal. (Plus, toi8’s cover art is fantastic).

Etsuro Sakagami doesn’t have many close friends at his university and so spends most of his free time at home playing the online fighting game Versus Town. His character, the karateka Tetsuo, is quickly moving up in the ranks and has a good shot of winning the second season tournament. But a mysterious player known as Ganker Jack has been targeting the top characters and taking them down. Tetsuo joins a handful of others in trying to figure out just who this player is. In real life, Etsuro is faced with a challenge of a different kind. Fumiko, a girl he never expected to like, has roped him into searching all over Shinjuku for a blue cat rumored to grant wishes. They may just be chasing an urban legend, but Etsuro is surprised to discover how much he enjoys spending time with her and must figure out a way to balance Tokyo and Versus Town.

I am very glad that Bonus Round was included in the book. Although Slum Online has an established ending, Bonus Round rounds out the story in a very satisfying way and allows the reader to see things from another character’s perspective. Which isn’t to say being inside of Etsuro’s head isn’t interesting—I actually quite liked the guy. He tends to describe his real life experiences in terms of video games but he isn’t so far gone that he’s completely incompetent socially, though he does have his moments. One thing that I found rather clever were the in-game fight sequences, of which there are plenty. They are described in such a way that combines both the controls needed to execute the moves and the action occurring on the screen. The result is quite effective.

Although I wasn’t quite as taken with Slum Online as I was with All You Need Is Kill, I was still highly entertained by the book. The story is most likely going to appeal to readers who are already interested in video games to some extent, but Sakurazaka does have some interesting things to say about friendship and the differing and sometimes overlapping realities of online and offline personas. Slum Online is a very straightforward story with little actual plot beyond Etsuro working to become the best player in Versus Town while trying to maintain some semblance of a relationship with the people in his real life; it may not be particularly deep, but it is fun. I have no complaints with Reeder’s translations—it’s smooth and unobtrusive while bringing out Sakurazaka’s wonderful, not quite snarky, resigned sense of humor. Although not for everyone, I found Slum Online to be a fast and enjoyable light read. Personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up another of Sakurazaka’s works, so here’s hoping more become available in English.

Brave Story

Author: Miyuki Miyabe
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527734
Released: November 2009
Original run: 1999-2001 (various regional newspapers)
Awards: Batchelder Award

Miyuki Miyabe’s novel Brave Story was originally published in two volumes in Japan in 2003. The English edition, released by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint in 2007, is complete in one volume and received the Batchelder Award from the American Library Association for best English translation of a children’s book originally published in a foreign country. The translator in this case being Alexander O. Smith (who also did a great job with his translation of All You Need Is Kill). The story has undergone several adaptions, including a series of light novels for younger readers, a manga series, an anime, and appropriately enough even a few video games. I first encountered Brave Story through the manga, also written by Miyabe and illustrated by Yoichiro Ono. After reading the first volume I knew that I needed to read the source material. And so it was that Miyabe’s hefty novel, over eight hundred pages, made its way to the top of my reading list.

Wataru Mitani is a typical fifth grader—he’s an average student, enjoys playing video games (the Eldritch Stone Saga is his favorite fantasy series), and gets along well with most of his schoolmates, especially his best friend Katchan (even though his mother doesn’t approve). At least that is until the aloof Mitsuru Ashikawa arrives as a transfer student. Wataru would be more than happy to be friends, but Mitsuru doesn’t seem to care about anyone. Suddenly, everything starts to fall apart in Wataru’s life when his father unexpectedly decides to leave him and his mother. But then he stumbles upon the world of Vision which seems like something out of one of his video games. Mitsuru, whose family situation is even more tragic than Wataru’s, has also found Vision. The two of them become rival Travelers in the fantasy world, given the opportunity to complete a dangerous quest and by doing so change their and their family’s destinies in the real world.

Brave Story is surprisingly dark and deals with some heavy issues such as divorce, death, and suicide. As if problems in the real world weren’t enough, Vision faces religious war and genocide. But even so, Brave Story has a very positive message even if it is hard to accept—realizing that hate and anger are very important parts of being human and shouldn’t be pushed away and hidden but embraced. Yes, things are bad but you have to learn to accept all of who you are in order to change anything. Reality hurts, and Miyabe doesn’t pull her punches. Wataru’s experiences are authentically heartbreaking and he has to deal with circumstances that no one should have to. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of Mitsuru’s story, but ultimately Brave Story is Wataru’s tale.

The book almost seems to have a split personality—the real world is emotionally wrenching while the fantasy world is almost comforting in comparison. But, it works. Wataru’s reality slowly starts to intrude upon his fantasy until it can’t be ignored. Personally, I found the real world elements more compelling than the fantasy elements, but everything is pulled together nicely by the end. The majority of Brave Story takes place in Vision and while important the section felt a bit long to me and lacking in urgency until close to the end. But overall, Brave Story is quite good and is a story that adults and mature younger readers can both enjoy alike. I, for one, am very glad that it’s available in English.

All You Need Is Kill

Author: Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421527611
Released: July 2009
Original release: 2004

I really don’t remember exactly when and where I first heard about Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill but after I did it seemed to keep popping up everywhere I looked. It was even picked up by Warner Brothers to make into a live-action film. All You Need Is Kill was originally published in Japan as a light novel in 2004. The English edition, translated by Alexander O. Smith, was one of the very first books to be released by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint in 2009. I haven’ read much military science fiction but All You Need Is Kill certainly is that, complete with alien intelligence and battle suits. What particularly caught my interest in the novel was that the main character, Keiji Kiriya, dies during his first battle only to wake up in his bunk thirty hours before over and over again.

The battle on Kotoiushi Island would be pivotal in humanity’s war with the Mimics. If lost, the rest of Japan would follow, along with the technology that made it possible to fight against the constantly evolving invading force. Keiji is a Jacket jockey in the United Defense Force’s 301st Armored Infantry Division which was sent to reinforce the island. He doesn’t even make it through his first battle. Or his second. Or his third. Somehow stuck in a time-loop he is forced to live and die in the same battle again and again. The only thing he can do is learn to fight a little better and hope to survive a little longer each time. Rita Vrataski, member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, has killed more Mimics than any other person in the world. Known as the Full Metal Bitch, not that anyone would call her that to her face, she is formidable, efficient, and scary as hell on the battlefield. She is also one of the last hopes remaining to end the war and may be the only person who can help Keiji escape his fate.

Although All You Need Is Kill is primarily entertainment and not overly serious, Sakurazaka still works in some environmental, technological, and social commentary. At least for me, the story also had a convincing emotional impact. Repeatedly living through the horrors of war, your own death, and the death of your friends and those around you changes a person and Sakurazaka captures this quite well. I like Keiji a lot and was most interested in his story, told in the first person. The third quarter of the book, written in the third person, focuses on Rita and the background of the war with the Mimics. While interesting and certainly important, especially in understanding Rita and her history, I still looked forward to getting back to Keiji. Which is not to say that I didn’t like Rita, because I did. I liked most of the secondary characters as well; Keiji’s bunk-mate and veteran Yonabaru in particular amused me as much as he tended to annoy others in his platoon. I also appreciated the fact that not everyone was assumed to be straight (although pretty much all of them were.)

The translation Smith has done for All You Need Is Kill is great—it’s straightforward with a good flow that hits hard and fast. There is also a nice use of repeated phrases to emphasize the time-loop that Keiji’s stuck in. The original light novel was illustrated by Yoshitoshi ABe and it’s a pity that none of his art was included in the Haikasoru edition beyond the cover—I really would have liked to have seen more of his work. I enjoyed All You Need Is Kill even more than I was expecting to and was impressed by how much action and story Sakurazaka was able to fit into such a relatively short work (it comes in at just under 200 pages.) I’m really looking forward to picking up his only other work currently available in English, also released through Haikasoru, Slum Online.