Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas

Red Girls: The Legend of the AkakuchibasAuthor: Kazuki Sakuraba
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421578576
Released: April 2015
Original release: 2006
Awards: Mystery Writers of Japan Award

Kazuki Sakuraba is probably most well-known as the creator of Gosick, a series of light novels which would later be adapted as a manga series, an audio drama, and an anime series. Two of those novels were released in English by Tokyopop. After her success with Gosick, Sakuraba would go on to write and publish mainstream novels and essays as well, several of which would earn her awards and nominations for her work. Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas is one of those novels. Originally published in Japan in 2006, Red Girls won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 2007. That fact caught my attention as I have thoroughly enjoyed other novels that have won that particular award, as did the striking cover design of the English-language edition of Red Girls. The novel was released in English in 2015 by Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru with a translation by Jocelyne Allen. Although Red Girls is the third novel by Sakuraba to have been translated, it was actually the first one that I read and was my introduction to her work as a whole.

For a time, the village of Benimidori, found in the western reaches of Japan’s Tottori Prefecture, was largely controlled by two rival families: the Akakuchibas, known as “red above” and who operated a steelworks factory, and the Kurobishis, known as “black below” and who were prosperous shipbuilders. While the Kurobishis were nouveau riche, the Akakuchibas were an old, upstanding family, and so quite a stir was caused when a young mountain girl who had been abandoned in the village was selected to marry the family’s heir. That was Manyo, a clairvoyant whose ability to see the future would help guide the family through a number of crises, including the tragic death of her firstborn son. The responsibility to carry on the Akakuchiba name then fell to her daughter Kemari, a wild young woman who would also die young, leaving behind a daughter of her own. By all appearances, Toko, unlike her mother or grandmother, seems to be an ordinary girl, but she is the only person to whom Manyo confessed a closely kept secret—she once killed someone.

Red Girls is divided into three parts, each one respectively devoted to the retelling of the lives and legends of Manyo, Kemari, and Toko. Eventually it is revealed that Toko is the novel’s narrator, recording the stories that she has been told by and about her mother and grandmother in an attempt to identify the person whose death Manyo claims to be responsible for. People associated with the Akakuchibas have a tendency to die in unexpected or peculiar ways, and so Toko knows of several individuals who could have been potential victims. As with any family story passed on from one generation to the next, there is a certain amount of fiction and embellishment that is added to the retelling of events. As she investigates the unusual circumstances involved in the various deaths, Toko must also closely reevaluate everything that she has been told about her family, teasing apart the stories in order to determine what exactly is the truth, what has been exaggerated, and what details continue to remain hidden and unsaid.

In addition to providing an intriguing mystery that Toko feels compelled to unravel, the narrative found in Red Girls serves another, very important purpose. It is a way for Toko to come to terms with the history of the Akakuchiba family and her position within it, allowing her to take her place in a line of powerful matriarchs. It’s not something that she is initially prepared to do, feeling inadequate when compared to her grandmother and mother and their various accomplishments. Red Girls also situates the legend of the Akakuchibas—and a legend it is, full of peculiar and fantastical elements—within the greater context of Japan’s economic and social histories. As Japan changes over time, so must the Akakuchiba family and its members, and so must the way they think about themselves, their relationships, and their stories. Red Girls is a tremendous multi-generational epic, sometimes strange and sometimes mysterious, but always engaging and oddly compelling. I enjoyed the novel immensely.

Japan Sinks

Author: Sakyo Komatsu
Translator: Michael Gallagher
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9784770020390
Released: September 1995
Original release: 1973
Awards: Mystery Writers of Japan Award, Seiun Award

Sakyo Komatsu is considered to be one of Japan’s masters of science fiction and is highly regarded as an author. Probably his most well-known and influential work was Japan Sinks, an earthquake disaster novel that he wrote between 1964 and1973. Published in Japan in 1973, Japan Sinks earned Komatsu both a Mystery Writers of Japan Award and a Seiun Award. The novel has since inspired a sequel (which Komatsu coauthored with Kōshū Tani), two live-action films, a television series, and even a manga adaptation by Takao Saito. Michael Gallagher’s abridged English translation of the novel was first published by Harper & Row in 1976 and became the basis for translations in eleven more languages. Kodansha International brought the novel back into print in 1995 with an additional author’s note from Komatsu. Unfortunately, that edition has gone out of print as well and Japan Sinks is now somewhat difficult to find—a shame for such a notable work.

Earthquake and tsunamis are not unusual occurrences in Japan. They are something that the country has faced for centuries and has made preparations to deal with. But an increase in seismic and volcanic activity has many scientists concerned, especially when an entire island off the southern coast of Japan disappears over night. An investigation is subsequently launched into the incredible event. As hard as it is to believe, the island has sunk. What is even more terrifying is the discovery of unprecedented tectonic plate movements that will result in increasingly violent and destructive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It is theorized that within a few years the entire Japanese archipelago will be lost. The real question is what can be done about Japan’s impending doom. The geological event cannot be stopped, but no one wants to believe that it will actually happen, either.

The narrative in Japan Sinks is a bit disjointed, particularly early on in the novel. I assume this is at least in part due to the abridgement, but I’m not entirely sure how much or even what was cut from the original Japanese edition of Japan Sinks. The beginning of the novel seems like a sequence of scenes that aren’t directly related, but most are eventually revealed to be needed for the story as a whole. It’s as if the connecting material is missing, though. However, as the novel progresses, the disparate story elements are tied together. By the end of Japan Sinks the only things that seemed tacked on and largely unnecessary were the romantic subplots; I can only imagine that these were more thoroughly developed in the original, but once again I’m not certain. For the most part, the unconnected nature of the storytelling was only a minor annoyance.

Although the narrative is somewhat fragmented, there is one thing that Komatsu excels at in Japan Sinks—he takes into consideration all aspects of the impending crisis in a very realistic way. The story is solidly based in real science, which makes it all the more terrifying. Komatsu explores the political maneuverings, both national and international, that are involved in dealing with the disaster as well as its economic implications. The scope of Japan Sinks is both global and personal, but I found the novel to be most engaging when it focused on the experiences of individuals. Granted, these sections were so effective because they took place within a greater context. Widespread death and destruction takes on more significance when it is known what it means for a single person as well as for a country as a whole. Japan Sinks addresses all of these issues and as a result the novel is a chilling account.


Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Kerim Yasar
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781932234077
Released: August 2004
Original release: 1998
Awards: Mystery Writers of Japan Award

In 1998, Keigo Higashino wrote Himitsu, or The Secret. The novel won him the 1999 Mystery Writers of Japan Award. In 2004, the English translation by Kerim Yasar was published by Vertical under the title Naoko, making it the first major work by Higashino to be made available in English. Relatively recently, I read and thoroughly enjoyed one of his other award-winning novels, The Devotion of Suspect X. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to read more of Higashino’s work. There is a reason that he is so well loved as an author in Japan—his stories are not only entertaining, but have some depth to them as well. Since only two of Higashino’s works are currently available in English, obviously Naoko would be the next one for me to read. I truly hope more of his works are translated because I still haven’t gotten my fill of Higashino.

Since he regularly works night shifts at the factory, Heisuke Sugita doesn’t always get to spend as much time with his wife Naoko and their eleven-year-old daughter Monami as he would like but they make a happy family. And then tragedy strikes. While Heisuke stayed home to work, the bus in which Naoko and Monami were travelling to visit relatives was driven off a cliff. Naoko’s body dies, but somehow her personality lives on in the body of Monami and Monami’s mind no longer seems to exist. Heisuke and Naoko begin a strange new life together, keeping the personality switch a secret from everyone else. Naoko takes the opportunity to relive her life for and as Monami, making up for past regrets. Heisuke, on the other hand, is more conflicted; Naoko is now in some way both his wife and his daughter. People believe he is grieving over the death of Naoko, but really his loss is much more complicated than that.

I actually think I liked Naoko even better than I did The Devotion of Suspect X. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike in The Devotion of Suspect X, the reader has the opportunity to really get to know the heart and mind of one of the characters. In this case, since the novel is told completely from his perspective, it is Heisuke Sugita, a very normal and potentially boring husband and father. However, he finds himself in some extraordinary and unusual circumstances with little guidance on how to deal with them. It is fascinating to watch this admittedly average guy work through things to the best of his ability and see how the odd situation changes him over time. Heisuke is not perfect, in fact he can be an utter asshole at times, but when it gets right down to it, he’s a good person. He doesn’t handle everything well by any means, but that’s what makes him feel real as a character. The situation he finds himself in is certainly strange and bizarre but his characterization is so strong I can’t imagine him behaving any differently.

The back cover describes Naoko as “black comedy.” While the setup does cause some humorous and amusing encounters, I had a hard time approaching the novel as a comedy. Instead, it felt to me more like a meditation on love, loss, longing, and letting go. Higashino is often considered to be primarily a mystery author, winning many awards in the genre in addition to the one he received for Naoko. However, Naoko is different from the sort of mystery novels most typically seen in the United States—at least in my experience. Heisuke isn’t some brilliant investigator (Higashino even calls him “altogether lame” in an interview); he’s just a normal person who wants to figure out what’s going on and why. Eventually, he must learn to accept his circumstances. There is both humor and mystery in Naoko, but first and foremost it is simply a well told and engaging story. At times tragic and heartbreaking, it is a very satisfying novel and I’m very glad to have read it.