Roughly fifteen or ten years ago, an entire generation of youngsters discovered that cartoons and comics from Japan were the new thing to go crazy over, thanks to various TV networks running anime throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and the Pokémon boom in 1997 certainly didn’t hinder it any. I know. I was there.
That generation has now grown up, and with it, I suppose we can expect to see some of these super fans of anime and manga growing up into writers. We’re already seeing P2P fan-fiction, after all! (Mostly Twilight fan-fiction, but I’m sure some publisher somewhere is desperately poring through the anime/manga fan-fiction archives.)
Thankfully, Amanda Sun isn’t one of these, from what I can find. She cosplays and speaks Japanese, but she isn’t quite the out and out weeaboo you might expect to be writing the story of an American girl living in Japan who falls in love with a mysterious boy, with supernatural powers thrown in here and there. Mercifully, the premise for the novel comes from experience as opposed to an obsession with anime and manga – Amanda Sun lived and travelled in Japan for a while, so it’s hardly just some dumb teenage wish fulfilment written in-between washing down Pocky with some Ramune whilst waiting for the latest episode of BLEACH to finish buffering.
Unfortunately, this was a DNF for me, which I seem to be having a streak of lately. I’m sorry, but I can’t bring myself read a bad book anymore if there’s no signs of improvement. This book started off okay, and then just got dull and I couldn’t care about any of the characters. At all.
The story begins with Katie Greene, who has just lost her single mother and cannot stay with her grandparents any more due to their poor health. So, she is sent off to Japan with her next of kin, her Aunt Diane who moved to Shizuoka to ‘find herself.’
Katie finds living in Japan tough at first – she only had five months of rudimentary tuition in the language and yet her aunt insists on her going to a monolingual high school. While she does write about her improvement in reading kanji, and hiragana and katakana, it did confuse me at first how, since this novel is in first person narration, Katie was understanding entire conversations in the first few chapters. To put that in perspective, I’ve been studying French since I was six, and the last time I went to France, I could only understand 30% of people’s conversations because listening and speaking to someone in real life is nothing compared to learning words out of a dictionary or grammar workbook.
It’s not like the other students are saying easy things to comprehend, either. Plus, these conversations would be going by so quickly that you’d quickly get lost in the different expressions you’d have to untangle from Japanese into English to make sense of any of them. I mean, there’s a Japanese expression about ‘finding a rice cake on a shelf’, which means ‘getting something good from an unexpected place.’ We don’t really have an equivalent in English (not off the top of my head, anyway), and you’d have to be pretty fluent in Japanese to understand that your friend isn’t literally telling you they found a rice cake on a shelf, but that they were talking about finding fortune unexpectedly. It just baffled me.
I didn’t keep track of too many quotes from this book, but I’m quite sure that Katie shouldn’t be able to keep track of and provide translations for every conversation without any mistake. Need I remind you, this is in first person narration.
I know Katie is a blank slate and she doesn’t know much Japanese – the same way your average person could write what they knew about Japan on a postage stamp. However, I can’t help but feel that Katie’s unexplained fluency might have been described better simply by adding in somewhere that she took Japanese for a few years at high school, perhaps. I wouldn’t have built her up to be a complete stranger to Japanese language and customs when she seems to be getting along just fine.
Anyway, Katie is aided by her friend Yuki, a gossip who somehow understands more English than the rest of her class because she goes to cram school.
Yuki’s heard rumours about school bad boy Tomohiro, who has been going out with several girls from different high schools, one of whom is now pregnant and unable to bear the consequences. In fact, Katie first meets Tomohiro whilst he’s breaking up with his girlfriend at school, and he’s just completely nasty to both of them.
If I were in a YA novel, I’d take a guy’s rudeness to mean that he doesn’t like me very much and to probably stay away. Katie, however, continually follows him, and has to make a fool out of herself. She climbs up a tree in the park, forgets she’s wearing a skirt, and winds up flying the proud flag of Panties. That’s pretty much the set-up for a gag in a particularly painful high school anime. It also reminded me immediately of Fifty Shades of Grey, in which our heroine starts the story by doing a clumsy roly-poly into a high-ranking CEO’s office.
Clearly, when it comes to grabbing the attention of bad boys in YA, it’s either making yourself look like a complete idiot, or stalking him and rifling through his school records and/or performing online web searches to learn about him, or even the paranormal species you think he might belong to. Katie does the baka gaijin thing as well as feeling this urge to constantly follow Tomohiro, even though she knows he’s got an aura of danger about him. Hey, writers? Knock that last thing off, please. That former thing, too.
Yes, Tomohiro is basically Edward Cullen. He has a mysterious backstory – check, he has strange powers – check, he pushes people away from him in order to keep them safe – check. The list goes on and on.
Tomohiro doesn’t suck blood, though. He has a special power for ink and paper, in particular, making his drawings come to life. Tomohiro used to be in a calligraphy club, but had to quit after his masterpiece (the 10 stroke kanji for ‘sword’) was ruined by a huge squirt of blood. He passes it off as getting a cut from a staple in the canvas, but of course, it remains a mystery until we learn about this rumour of him stabbing his childhood friend Koji multiple times in the eye and the arm. Since Tomohiro has these powers with ink and what have you, the logical answer is that both of their injuries were something to do with these special powers Tomohiro has.
Of course, he never quite comes out and tells Katie about his powers, he just avoids the question and tells her to stay away from him. Oh, the very same way a certain vampire did to his plain Jane love interest?
There’s another boy in Katie’s life, though! Oh, woe is me. I’m a stranger in a strange land and all the boys like me!! What do I do?? Anyway, this other guy is called Jun, and he and Tomohiro look damn similar. Both of them have the blond highlights in their hair, and the same mysterious attitude. I was expecting some kind of shocking twist – maybe Jun is actually Koji, or he knows about the incident at the calligraphy club. But nope, he’s barely around, almost as if he’s constantly being forgotten about by the writer.
I don’t quite understand why Katie’s character metamorphosed from headstrong and capable in the first chapter (even if she did make a prat of herself), to the simpering little thing she becomes towards the 50 page mark. Oh yeah, I forgot. Omnia vincit amor. Especially the brains of naïve teenage girls.
When Katie and Tomohiro finally get together and do the whole Bella and Edward: “What are you?” “I can’t tell you,” “How old are you?” “Seventeen.” “How long have you been seventeen?” “…A while.”, they’re hanging out in an old archaeological dig. Tomohiro tells Katie that he lost his mother as well, and because they have that in common, Katie sinks to her knees and is rendered speechless. (Page 66-7 or so.) Yeah, I think I’ll do that the next time I meet somebody with whom I share a dead relative. It’d go down a treat.
115 pages in, Katie translates an old Japanese news article about the incident between Tomohiro and Koji: ‘My Tomohiro would never do that.’ No, seriously. In the next chapter, Tomohiro has to go to his uncle’s funeral, and Katie goes:
I felt his absence more strongly than I’d expected. I felt off balance when he wasn’t there, and while Eto-sensei droned on about world history, I thought about Tomohiro. (Page 117)
But it was frightening to fight with Tomohiro. When he shouted and brought the shinai toward me, all I could think about was Koji, even though I’d mostly figured out the truth. It still frightened me, what Tomohiro might be capable of. (Page 118)
Girls – attracted to dangerous guys like a moth to a flame. Isn’t that right? Said nobody, ever.
I don’t care if Katie is even slightly self-aware that she’s falling head over heels and ‘against all common sense’, it’s still perpetuating this crap that girls will automatically go for men who are ‘dangerous’ and ‘beguiling’ because they’re too flighty and emotional to step back and rationalise that being with their ideal bad boy is a terrible idea.
Anyway. Some time after this, Katie decides to join the kendo club. I used to do kendo, so my interest was piqued by how it would be handled.
Tomohiro and his friend (who has a tattoo, thus he’s in the yakuza – no, actually, Katie, you should probably check to see if he’s had part of a finger chopped off) attend this kendo club, so naturally Katie sort of blabs her way into the club. Katie doesn’t like contact sports, however, telling us she chickened out of karate because she doesn’t want to hurt people. Her aunt even reacts as if Katie has joined an illegal boxing ring when Katie tells her she’s started doing kendo. “It’s dangerous! You’ll get hurt!”
Excuse me while I get my shinai.
Now, imagine I just reached out of the computer screen and thwacked you over the head with it.
If you aren’t feeling any pain, that’s because shinai are so light and hollow that you can have a direct blow to the cranium and not feel much pain at all. The majority of the shock is absorbed through the hollow chamber in the ‘blade’, so to speak. When you are hit on top of the helmet (the ‘men’), it’s just like a little bop on the head. It’s more distracting than it is painful. In fact, you aren’t allowed to learn any dangerous swordplay (like ‘tsuki’ – a strike to the throat) until you’re at least fifth or sixth dan.
It seems to me like the kendo was researched via YouTube videos rather than personal experience of the sport, because there’s quite a few mistakes here and there. For instance, at one point Tomohiro just slips the men helmet on his head. There’s no mention at all of anybody wearing a tenugui, a small towel used as a bandanna and as padding so hits to the helmet don’t affect you as much, and also so the helmet doesn’t shift about. Tomohiro’s friend is referred to as ‘flattening his mop of hair underneath a headband’ (page 118) and again as a ‘headband’ on page 121, but that’s not really the right choice of word. That’s just basic stuff! As is knowing that a kendo helmet does not have ‘screen mesh’ like a fencing mask. Ahem.
There’s also a lot of ritual etiquette involved in kendo. To begin with, you bow when entering and exiting the dojo, whether it’s an actual dojo or just a rented gymnasium. After changing into your gi and hakama, you position your ‘armour’ (bogu) neatly around you, and sit down on your knees (‘seiza’). Your sensei will then lead a call to meditate (‘mokuso’) for a minute or two. You then bow down to your sensei and the dojo, and slowly get up, holding your shinai in a very specific way. After warming up and putting on their bogu, kendo practitioners who are sparring against each other will bow, turn and step back ten paces, then turn again and walk back those ten paces until they are arm’s length from each other. Again, basic stuff that just wasn’t covered at all. Research, people! Research!
The author goes into great detail about sparring within kendo, describing it as like a ‘dance between old samurai’ and the description is rather filmic, but it’s pretty much gone in an instant. Katie is just there to gawp at Tomohiro and his friend fighting, and that’s it.
Sure, Sun gets a lot of details right about kendo, like the correct striking places on the body and some of the technical terms, but overall it just comes across as sloppy.
In fact, the writing is very sloppy from time to time. I mean, sure, it’s a YA novel so we aren’t expecting it to be groundbreaking prose, but… come on.
He had a black wristband around his wrist. (Page 113)
Thank you for that, I would have never known.
It came up, finally, a single old article about the incident. Of course, it was also written using hundreds of kanji I was still learning. It might as well have been in hieroglyphic. (Page 115)
Ah yes, that well known pictorial language, ‘Hieroglyphic’.
The wagtails’ songs turned erratic and I looked up, trying to figure out what happened. They jumped around and chirped high-pitched warnings to each other. Were they that worried about me?
No. They’re birds.
Oh, and of course Katie gets to compete in the school district tournament even though she’s only been practicing kendo for a month. Of course. No, I don’t care for her sensei’s explanation that they need another girl on the team (out of 40 students), or that a completely inexperienced gaijin being on their team would be great PR.
Okay, enough about kendo and bad writing choices. Tomohiro’s friend who appears to be in the Yakuza sneers at Katie and tells her Tomohiro will never truly care for her, that he’s got a destiny to fulfil, and that she would be much better off without Tomohiro. Katie rushes home in the rain, and feels like passing out on the bus home. Because Tomohiro isn’t there and can’t prop her up when she’s feeling insecure. Good. Grief. It reminded me of a scene in Alexandra Adornetto’s book Halo, in which the super special Mary Sue angel Bethany has this reaction to her one true love no longer being by her side:
When I realized Xavier was absent from school the following day, my eyes burned and I felt hot and dizzy. I wanted to crumple to the ground and just wait for someone to carry me away. I couldn’t make it through another day without him; I could hardly make it through another minute. Where was he? What was he trying to do to me? (Page 184 of Halo)
In all, this wasn’t a very good book, and I had to bail out early on. I’m sure it’s okay if you’re 14 and heavily into anime and manga, and want to read some prose rather than comic panels, but I just found the story so trite and poorly done. Like I said earlier, it follows the Twilight formula to a T, and the characters are just bland.
Tomohiro has all this mystery surrounding him, but there’s no intrigue at all. I don’t find him that interesting enough to be invested in solving the puzzle. In fact, he just keeps refusing to tell Katie what the deal is with his powers and why she seems to be able to see these powers and why drawings are coming to life… That’s not intrigue. That’s just a lazy carrot and stick device. I certainly don’t care to find out about Tomohiro’s powers, or the mystery surrounding him. Or even Katie’s connection to him.