Kon Kon Kokon, vol.1 by Koge-Donbo

Read: 20 May, 2015

A friend was moving some time ago (an embarrassingly long time ago) and offloaded a bunch of books – including a rather large collection of manga. Of course, this all sat in a closet until my recent major purge effort. I’ve gotten rid of several dozens of books in the last few days, but there are some that I wanted to read quickly before giving them away. The manga, which only takes 20 minutes or so per book, seemed like something I could at least skim through before the collection passed on to its next owners.

I should probably preface this review by saying that I don’t generally read manga. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever read manga before. So I’m sure that a lot of the conventions went right over my head, or maybe I just didn’t get it, I don’t know.

The description on the back of the book tells us that this is a story of a young man, Ren, who very desperately wants to be the Cool Guy in school. He is met by a fox-girl, Kokon, who claims that he saved her many years previously and she has now come to repay him.

So that’s the synopsis, and it’s perfectly fine. It has the potential to be interesting (which is why I picked the book out of the box to begin with). The problem is that these two plot points – Ren’s desire to be cool and Kokon’s desire to repay him – are mentioned over and over again on almost every page. With every new thing that happens, Ren freaks out that this will make him uncool, Kokon repeats her desire to repay him, things work out, Ren is gratified to learn that the awkward situation actually made him look cooler. Over and over again.

The story telling is far too hyperactive for my tastes. Every emotion is presented as extreme. Meeting someone new leads to an inner monologue of questions: “Who is she?? Where does she come from?? Will she find out that I’m secretly a total nerd?? Will meeting her make me look uncool??”

I can accept that some of this might be due to poor translation, but I suspect that it’s just bad storytelling.

The artwork is fine. It doesn’t stand out, but it isn’t terrible, either. The main problem I had was keeping the characters straight, since they all rather look alike.

I was intrigued by the concept of mythological creatures coming into a “real world” setting, but Kon Kon Kokon just fell flat for me.

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Kwaidan by Lefcadio Hearn

Read: 27 October, 2008

This is a small, thin book with seventeen short stories (some barely more than a page or two, others a little longer) and three “insect studies.” Most of the stories are old supernatural tales, but the author writes from his own experiences sometimes (one short story and two of the insect studies, if memory serves).

It’s a short read and an interesting one. Far from an in-depth look at the Japanese supernatural, these are rather short vignettes that provide a beginner’s taste. Overall, I found them interesting and thought-provoking.

The insect studies are very different. The Butterfly chapter does still discuss Japanese (and Chinese) mythology, but these are mostly put aside for the chapters on Ants and Mosquitoes. For this reason, these studies may be disappointing for readers who are interested solely in mythology and don’t have a taste for idle musings. For my own part, I found them just as interesting as the stories of strange things found in most of the book.

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Sano Ichiro #4: The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

Read: 18 January, 2008

Emperor Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s concubine has died while carving a tattoo onto her body. The emperor’s lead investigator, Sano Ichiro, must solve the mystery of her death while navigating the delicate balance of the court, the conflicted allegiances of his right-hand-man, and his new wife’s feminist ideals.

The Concubine’s Tattoois genre-fiction; there’s no mistaking it. It makes the unfortunate poor writing choices that most detective mysteries seem to make. If characters are developed at all, it is only in “character blurbs” that are given on introduction and that are supposed to explain all future actions of that character. For example, a few paragraphs are devoted to Lady Uechi Reiko’s (Sano’s wife) upbringing and how, as an only child, she was raised as a male and that’s why she’s such a feminist. Unfortunately for what could have been a very good story, Rowland has never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.”

This is a recurrent issue in the novel, and not only when characters are first introduced. Whenever a character feels anything, we are told explicitly what it is they feel, regardless of which side of the investigation they are on. In a mystery, this does a great deal to ruin the story because it takes a lot of the guess-work out of the equation. And, of course, since the reader knows what the protagonists can’t know, it forces Rowland to give the detectives “sudden insight” that defies logic.

The novel also offended my sensibilities in many ways. Nearly every “bad” character is either gay or a sexual pervert. It wouldn’t bother me so much if only one antagonist were gay or if some of the good characters were too, but the one-sidedness suggests to me that Rowland equates being gay with a deficiency of character (whether it be outright evil like Lord Yanagisawa or plain effeminate impotence like the emperor). And while I certainly agree with some of the narrator’s ideas about the caste system and the role of women, seeing the author break through into the writing to get on her soapbox and lecture about these topics becomes wearisome after a while.

For my last negative comment of the day, I found the mystery itself to be lacking. There were red-herrings and femme-fatales and all the other staples of the genre, but the total lack of originality, interesting characters, and a compelling plot made the whole novel drag. The big twist ending might have been all right if the characters didn’t go on at length about how unexpected a twist it was. Rowland doesn’t seem to understand that her readers can identify surprising conclusions without being told to be surprised (and then lectured at about how anti-feminist we all are for not anticipating it).

That being said, I loved the setting. Rowland does a great job of exposing the world of her mystery – it’s just a shame that such an interesting world is populated by such cardboard people.

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Stupeur et Tremblement [Fear and Trembling] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 6 November, 2007

The story is fairly simple. A Belgian woman was born in Japan and returns in her early twenties to work in a large shipping company. Once there, she discovers a rigid code of conduct that demands she suppress her individuality and intelligence for the company. The autobiographical story is a fairly short and simple read. It is alternately thought-provoking and comical.

The story’s greatest strength lies in its characterisations. The narrator and her boss, Mori Fubuki, receive the most attention in this respect, but the pictures Nothomb paints of the other characters are equally enchanting and, at times, frightening.

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Nightwork by Anne Allison

Read: 7 August, 2007

This book explores how the hostess club fits into Japanese culture. It is divided into three parts: the first describes the hostessing business. The second describes Japanese corporate culture (with a strong focus on male workers). In the third section, Allison explains how she believes these two are inextricably tied together. Eventually, the practice of going to a hostess club is compared to the fraternity practice of gang rape – an odd comparison that makes some sense within the context of the book.

On the positive side, this book practices a good amount of cultural relativity. Allison frequently mentions what the Western world may be disgusted by or find weird (and often admits that she may be biased because of this), but maintains an admirable objectivity given the subject matter. No previous understanding of Japanese culture is needed as ample explanations are provided.

On the negative side, I found an over-reliance on anecdotal evidence that was rarely supported by statistics. Because of this, I would recommend it for an introductory or casual reading rather than for serious study.

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