Saturday, 26 April 2014

Two Minute Adventure

A boy who loves stories of knights fighting dragons is transported from his Japanese school life to another world where he must fight a dragon to save the kingdom. That probably sounds like the laziest fantasy fulfillment story you could write. I'm not sure why 二分間の冒険 (Nifunkan no bouken, Two Minute Adventure, 1985) by 岡田淳 (OKADA Jun) is so much better than you'd expect from that description; but it works very well.

The hero Satoru is on an errand across the school grounds, with instructions from the teacher to be back within two minutes, when he is summoned by a black cat, Dareka (Someone), whose voice he can hear in his head. Dareka gets Satoru to remove a thorn in his paw (or at least mime the action, as Satoru cannot see any thorn there). As a reward he grants Satoru one wish. When Satoru, pressed to decide, says "Give me time!", Dareka transports him to another world, where he can stay until he grows old, but still be back within the two minutes. And indeed Satoru  might have to stay, since Dareka now decides to play a game of hide and seek with him. The cat has transformed himself into something else, "the most certain thing in this world"; he will take Satoru back to his world when Satoru catches him and says "Got you!"

Alone in the middle of a forest, Satoru can think of nothing but to set off in some direction and hope he finds something. Night falls before he can find his way out of the forest. Fortunately after a while he spots light ahead in the darkness. He finds a group of children his age. In fact they all look like children he knows from school, but they have no memory of him. They have gathered to send off Kaori, a girl from their village. Every year the village sends two children to become victims to the dragon that rules the country, chosen by an arrow fired into the roof of their houses. This year however, both arrows had landed in Kaori's house; so the second victim is unclear. When Satoru appears, the other children think he might be the one meant; and Satoru agrees to go with Kaori, thinking that if the dragon's power is so absolute, he might be Dareka, so that catching him would solve his and Kaori's problem at once.

A world with yearly victims sacrificed to a monster sounds familiar; but this world is a little stranger than that.

"What you said, it sounds like you it's only children living in your village?" Satoru asked, tipping the last crumbs of bread into his mouth.

"Children?"

"I mean, people about our age ...." Satoru replied, surprised. "Do you understand the word 'adult'?" he tried asking back.

Kaori tilted her head.

"Who were you born from?"

"Born?"

This was no good, Satoru thought, and looked for a different line of question.

"Um, I mean, the people last night, they were living with you in the village, yes?"

Kaori nodded.

"Apart from them, who was living there?"

"No-one."

"No-one? Well, when did you all start living there?"

"When ....? Always."

"Always? There must have been someone looking after you?"

Kaori didn't seem to understand Satoru's question.

"I mean, the meat and bread we just ate - did you make it?"

No, Kaori shook her head.

"Who made it?"

"No-one made it. It just is."

"It just is? Even though no-one makes it? Does someone bring it for you?"

"I don't know. I've never thought about things like that."

...

"Well what did you do in the village from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night?"

"We played."

The story developes into a fight against the dragon; but it avoids some potential clichés, casting an ironic light on the idea of a chosen hero. In addition, the oppressive fear running through the group of children, who are each waiting for the moment when they must face the dragon, is conveyed more vividly than we might expect. In this and other ways what looks like an easy fantasy becomes a little more disturbing.

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