A Small Charred Face

A Small Charred FaceAuthor: Kazuki Sakuraba
Translator: Jocelyne Allen
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421595412
Released: September 2017
Original release: 2014

Kazuki Sakuraba is a fairly prolific author in Japan, having written numerous short stories, essays, and novels; sadly, only a small handful of those have been translated into English thus far. Although Sakuraba is probably best known as the creator of Gosick (which, I’ll admit, I still need to actually read), my introduction to her work was through Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuhchibas, an award-winning, multi-generational epic which I thoroughly enjoyed. When Haikasoru, Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint, announced that it would be releasing Sakuraba’s A Small Charred Face with a translation by Jocelyne Allen in 2017, I immediately took note. I was previously unaware of A Small Charred Face, originally published in Japan in 2014, and I’m not especially interested in vampire fiction, but with Sakuraba as the author, Haikasoru as the publisher and Allen as the translator–a winning combination with Red Girls–it instantly became something that I wanted to read.

The Japanese town in which Kyo lives is bathed in blood, a hotbed of organized crime, murder, and vice. With a population willing to avoid looking too closely at the surrounding bloodshed, resulting in a plentiful and readily accessible supply of food, it’s the perfect place for the Bamboo, vampiric creatures originating from the deep mountains of China, to secretly coexist with humans. Carnivorous grass monsters but human-like in appearance, the Bamboo are extremely powerful and resilient but vulnerable to sunlight, never age but are still mortal. Up until the point he meets one, Kyo was never quite sure if the stories he heard about the monstrous Bamboo were true or if they were just told to frighten children. Confronted with the immediacy of his own impending death while only ten years old, his mother and sister having already been killed by a group of hitmen, Kyo is unexpectedly rescued by a Bamboo. Mustah, impulsively acting in blatant disregard for the rules of his own kind by taking him in, saves Kyos’ life and in the process changes it forever. But even while Kyo, Mustah, and Mustah’s partner Bamboo Yoji form a peculiar, tightly-knit family, it will never be entirely safe from the dangers presented by humans or the Bamboo alike.

At its very core, A Small Charred Face is about the curious, complex, exhilarating, and often fraught relationships that evolve between Bamboo and humans. The novel is divided into three distinct parts–three tangentially related stories which can all be connected to Kyo and his personal experiences with the Bamboo. In some ways the stories are able to stand alone, but the references they contain make them more powerful when taken together as a whole. The first and longest section, “A Small Charred Face,” focuses on Kyo’s life with Mustah and Yoji. The two men are fascinated and enthralled by his humanity, at times treating him as something akin to a pet but also raising him as family while protecting him through his adolescence. To Kyo, Mustah and Yoji are his saviors, parents, and something even more which is difficult to define. The second part “I Came to Show You Real Flowers” serves as an epilogue of sorts to the first, following another Bamboo who becomes incredibly important to Kyo as well as a young woman who plays a crucial role late in his life. Finally there is “You Will Go to the Land of the Future,” a story which delves into the history of the Japanese Bamboo. Linking back to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it traces the tragic origins of the Bamboo’s strained relations with humans and the strict, harshly-enforced rules implemented to guard their society and existence.

A Small Charred Face opens with the brutal aftermath of the rape and murder of those close to Kyo with him facing a similar fate. It is a horrific, gut-wrenching scene, but the story that follows becomes surprisingly beautiful. Though still punctuated by moments of extraordinary violence and devastating heartbreak, A Small Charred Face is a relatively quiet and at times even contemplative work. The relationships shown are intensely intimate, with love, desire, and devotion taking on multiple, varied forms. The characters struggle and frequently fail to completely understand one another–the worldviews, life experiences, and fundamental natures of humans and Bamboo occasionally at odds–but the strength of the connections that they form regardless of and in some cases because of their differences is tremendously compelling and affecting. There’s also an inherent queerness to the stories that I loved. It’s perhaps most obvious through Yoji and Mustah’s partnership and the fact that Kyo spends a significant portion of his life presenting himself as a girl for his own safety, but many of the novel’s essential underlying themes explore found family, the need for acceptance, and what it is like in one way or another to be a hidden outsider within society. While A Small Charred Face resides firmly within the tradition of vampire fiction, Sakuraba’s contemporary take on the genre is still somewhat unusual and unexpected; I enjoyed the work immensely.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of A Small Charred Face for review.

Genocidal Organ

Genocidal OrganAuthor: Project Itoh
Translator: Edwin Hawkes
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421542720
Released: August 2012
Original release: 2007

Although Genocidal Organ was the third novel by Project Itoh to be translated and released in English, in Japan the book was actually his debut work as an author. My introduction to Itoh’s fiction was through the award-winning Harmony, his first novel to be translated into English, which I greatly enjoyed and found to be an intelligent, thought-provoking work of science fiction. I was also greatly impressed by his two short stories: “The Indifference Engine,” collected in The Future is Japanese, and “From Nothing, With Love,” found in Phantasm Japan. Thus, reading Genocidal Organ, released by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint in 2012 with a translation by Edwin Hawkes, was an obvious choice for me. The publication of Genocidal Organ in Japan in 2007 established Itoh as a talented author to watch out for. Sadly, he died two years later at the age of thirty-four from cancer. But Itoh and his work haven’t been forgotten. In 2014 it was announced that three of his novels, including Genocidal Organ, were to be adapted as feature-length animated films.

Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, American citizens have more or less willingly given up their privacy and freedoms in order to feel safer from perceived terrorist threats. Much of the world has followed suit and there are very few places left where a person isn’t closely monitored and recorded, the immense amounts of data and metadata collected being saved indefinitely, waiting to be complied at a moments notice. In order to maintain this life of extreme hyper-surveillance there are people who must deal in death. Clavis Shepherd is one such man, an assassin who is a part of the Special Operations of the United States Military. He has killed countless people in service of his country—men, women, even children—but his recent missions have all had one target in common, an American linguist by the name of John Paul. Time and again the man seems to manage to slip away just before Shepherd’s unit arrives, leaving behind one developing country after another devastated by civil war and genocide.

Genocidal Organ is a novel that is absolutely saturated with death. It’s something that Clavis cannot escape in either his personal or professional life, whether he’s asleep or awake. Killing other people is his job and aided by modern science and medicine he is largely able to accept that, but his work is still tremendously damaging psychologically. But it’s not until Clavis had to make the decision whether or not to remove his mother from life support after she was in an accident that mortality really became personal to him. From there, his mental stability begins to steadily unravel as he is haunted by all of the death that he has seen and the death for which he has been responsible. Genocidal Organ can be horrific and tragic, gruesome and visceral. Clavis has been both a participant in and a witness to some truly terrible things—war and genocide that lay waste to entire countries and populations and all that accompanies that devastation. And, as an assassin for the government, he knows that he’s not an innocent bystander in how events unfold.

First and foremost, Genocidal Organ is Shepherd’s own personal narrative as he struggles to come to terms with his role as an assassin, but his story is couched in a much larger one dealing with global policy and international politics. Itoh has successfully incorporated many different genre styles in order to create a compelling and cohesive novel. In addition to all of the action and espionage, there are also the mysteries surrounding Paul as the “King of Genocide,” and an exceptionally strong philosophical and intellectual bent to the story as Genocidal Organ examines the worth of life and cost of freedom. Itoh presents an incredibly insightful perspective of the Untied States as a world power. Although it is perhaps more critical and frank than most American authors would likely attempt, the perspective is one that still feels surprisingly authentic. (It’s also very clear that Itoh was particularly well-versed in Western literature and popular culture.) Ultimately, though at times heavy-handed, Genocidal Organ is a fascinating and engaging novel of the near future; I remain convinced that Itoh was an author of exceptional talent.

Gene Mapper

Gene MapperAuthor: Taiyo Fujii
Translator: Jim Hubbert
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421580272
Released: June 2015
Original release: 2013

Gene Mapper is Taiyo Fujii’s debut work as an author. Originally, he was employed in design and software development, a background that to some extent informs Gene Mapper. In 2012, he self-published the novel as an ebook and it became a bestseller, catching the attention of Hayakawa Publishing, a major Japanese publisher of science fiction. Fujii subsequently expanded and revised Gene Mapper for release by Hayakawa in 2013. It was this edition of Gene Mapper that became the basis for Jim Hubbert’s English translation of the novel released by Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru in 2015. In addition to being a bestseller, Gene Mapper has also been critically well-received. Although ultimately the novel didn’t win, Gene Mapper was nominated for both a Seiun Award and a Nihon SF Taisho Award (which Fujii would later earn for his second novel Orbital Cloud). I was thus very happy to have the opportunity to read an early review copy of Gene Mapper.

Mamoru Hayashida is a gene mapper specializing in style sheets for color expression and design. Although he works as a freelancer, many of his recent projects have been for L&B, one of the leaders in distilled crops, a science in which plants have been designed from their DNA up to produce bountiful harvests with high nutritional value that are resistant to disease and pests. The problem of world hunger has been solved because of distilled crops, but there continue to be people who are skeptical of these synthetic creations, believing them to be unnatural, unethical, and unsafe. When SR06, an advanced strain of Super Rice that Hayashida helped to design, begins to inexplicably mutate, it seems as though those criticisms may be justified. In order to investigate and hopefully put a stop to the impending crisis before the media and the rest of the world finds out about it, Hayashida is first sent to Ho Chi Minh City to hire Yagodo, an expert Internet salvager, and then to the SR06 fields in Cambodia along with his agent Kurokawa. It’s only after they are there that they discover just how dire, and dangerous, the situation really is.

Gene Mapper falls into the category of realistic near future science fiction and it is an excellent example of that subgenre. A few elements initially drew me to the novel, specifically the developments and applications of new agricultural and biotechnologies, but the more I read the more I found to capture my interest, such as the implications of the collapse of the Internet (an event that occurred before the beginning of the story proper) and the prevalent use of augmented realities of varying types. Some of those new technologies and systems are unnecessarily over-explained towards the beginning of the novel, bogging down the story, but soon the details become better integrated into the narrative and Gene Mapper begins moving along quite quickly. Although human society in Gene Mapper is still believably imperfect, Fujii’s vision of the future and the role of technology in it is largely a positive and optimistic one. While the potential for technological developments to be used for great harm is a recognized concern in the novel, those same advancements are also shown have the potential to be used to greatly benefit humanity. The tension between those two possibilities is one of the driving forces behind the novel.

What makes Gene Mapper such a thought-provoking and engaging work is the importance placed by Fujii on technology and science and how people interact with them. The novel’s exploration of the tremendous potential presented by new technologies as well as it’s examination of related concerns and fears is extremely relevant to issues being discussed even today. I grew up in a farming community and so am well aware of the debates and controversies surrounding the use of genetically modified crops and other advanced agricultural technologies. Gene Mapper presents one plausible future based on logical extensions of current genetic, agricultural, and information technologies without ignoring the dangers that they present or how they impact society in both positive and negative ways. Just as in reality, scientific advances in Gene Mapper don’t exist in a vacuum. There are personal and societal interests as well as business and commercial interests at work in the direction that the future will take. Missteps have been and will be made, but innovations will continue as long as humanity is able to survive them. Gene Mapper argues that in time solutions will be found to old problems and new challenges will arise as a result.

Thank you to Viz Media for providing a copy of Gene Mapper for review.

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.

Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark from and about Japan

Phantasm JapanEditor: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington
Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421571744
Released: September 2014

Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark from and about Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, is the second anthology of short fiction curated specifically for Haikasoru, the speculative fiction imprint of Viz Media. Phantasm Japan, published in 2014, is a followup of sorts to the 2012 anthology The Future is Japanese. A third anthology in the loosely-related series, Hanzai Japan, is currently being complied. I rather enjoyed The Future Is Japanese and so was looking forward to the release of Phantasm Japan. The anthology collects twenty-one pieces of short fiction, including an illustrated novella, from seventeen creators in addition to the two introductory essays written by the editors. Most of the stories are original to the collection, although a few of the translated works were previously published in Japan. Much like The Future Is Japanese, Phantasm Japan promised to be an intriguing collection.

With a title like Phantasm Japan I had anticipated an anthology inspired by yokai and Japanese folklore. And while the volume does include such tales—Zachary Mason’s “Five Tales of Japan” (tengu and various deities), James A. Moore’s “He Dreads the Cold” (yuki-onna), Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Ningyo” (mermaids and other mythological beings)—it incorporates a much broader variety of stories as well. The fiction found in Phantasm Japan is generally fairly serious in nature and tone and all of the stories tend to have at least a touch of horror to them, but they range from historical fiction to science fiction and from tales of fantasy to tales more firmly based in reality. Pasts, presents, and futures are all explored in Phantasm Japan. The authors of Phantasm Japan are as diverse as their stories. Some make their homes in Japan while some hail from the Americas, Europe, or other parts of Asia. Many are established, award-winning writers while others are newer voices. In fact, Lauren Naturale’s “Her Last Appearance,” inspired in part by the life of kabuki actor Kairakutei Black, marks her debut as a published author of fiction. I also personally appreciated the inclusion of both queer authors and queer characters in the anthology.

Sisyphean Other than being a collection of fantastical stories, there isn’t really an overarching theme to Phantasm Japan. However, some of the works do explore similar concepts, but use wildly different approaches and settings. In addition to the stories influenced by traditional lore, like “Inari Updates the Map of Rice Fields” by Alex Dally MacFarlane, there are those that reflect more contemporary concerns like Tim Pratt’s “Those Who Hunt Monsters” which mixes online dating, fetishism, and yokai. Ghost of various types make appearances throughout Phantasm Japan, from the supernatural haunting of Seia Tanabe’s “The Parrot Stone” to the biohazard-induced hallucinations of Sayuri Ueda’s “The Street of Fruiting Bodies.” Joseph Tomaras’ “Thirty-Eight Observations of the Self” is in part reminiscent of stories about living ghosts. Possessions are seen multiple times in the volume as well. In “Scissors or Claws, and Holes” by Yusaku Kitano, creatures are intentionally invited into a person’s body in order to exchange memories for visions of the future while in Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Kamigakari a consciousness is shared by a man and something that isn’t human as a result of an accident.

One of the recurring themes that I found particularly appealing in Phantasm Japan was the power of memories and stories to shape, create, define, and redefine reality. In Gary A. Braunbeck’s “Shikata Ga Nai: The Bag Lady’s Tale,” a tailor from a Japanese-American internment camp is responsible for passing on centuries worth of history. In “The Last Packet of Tea” by Quentin S. Crisp, an author struggles to write one last story. Project Itoh’s “From Nothing, With Love” (which re-convinced me that I need to read everything that he has written) is about a very specific cultural touchstone and the life that it has taken on. As with any short story collection, some of the stories are stronger than others and different stories will be enjoyed by different readers. Some contributions to Phantasm Japan are readily accessible to just about anyone, such as Nadia Bulkin’s “Girl, I Love You” and Miyuki Miyabe’s “Chiyoko,” but then there are more challenging works like Dempow Torishima’s exceptionally bizarre and grotesque novella Sisyphean. As for me, I enjoyed Phantasm Japan as an anthology. I liked the range and variety in the stories collected, and my reading list has certainly grown significantly because of it.