Sunday, 30 November 2014

Howl's Moving Castle

I wrote earlier about the Studio Ghibli adaptation of a classic of English children's literature, The Borrowers. It's not the only English book they have adapted. MIYAZAKI Hayao himself adapted the Diana Wynne Jones novel Howl's Moving Castle (1986) to make a film with the same title ハウルの動く城 (Hauru no ugoku shiro, Howl's Moving Castle, 2004). I never came across Diana Wynne Jones as a child, and only got to know her children's books as an adult. Better late than never, I've read almost all of them. She seems to have written an incredible number of very good books. Although all of them are fantasy, and all contain some humour, they do quite different things. Howl's Moving Castle is certainly likely to be somewhere  on any list of her best books, though there are quite a few that I like more: The Power of Three (1976) which starts with what seems to be a conventional fantasy with elf like figures, then develops into something else; Charmed Life (1977) an Edwardian world in which magic is part of everyday life; Drowned Ammet (1977) a conventional but well realised fantasy world, as backdrop for a story of political resistance turning to terrorism; The Magicians of Caprona (1980) a sequel to Charmed Life, set in an Italy modeled on the warring city states of the renaissance (and the Elizabethan dramatists' perceptions of them); The Time of the Ghost (1981) a horror story really, narrated by a disconnected and helpless ghost watching the approach of terrible events; Witch Week (1982) set in a world where witches are common but persecuted, mixing the comic adventure of fictional boarding schools with the fear of authority and social pressure of a real boarding school; Archer's Goon (1984) a science fiction flavoured comedy fantasy set in an English provincial town, secretly ruled by feuding wizards.

Howl's Moving Castle is another world in which magic is an only slightly uncanny part of everyday life. In this case, the land of Ingary is meant to resemble a world in which fairy tales like those of the Brothers Grimm are real. The technological level and character of society feels like the eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the time when such stories were first seriously collected. Sophie, the eldest daughter of a hat-maker, is convinced that she is destined for an uninteresting life (it is the youngest child that succeeds in fairy tales), resigned to working for ever in the hat shop. All this changes when a witch whose emnity she has somehow attracted turns her into an old woman. Unable to bear the thought of her family seeing her like this she secretly leaves home and sets out across the moors above the town.

There she ends up seeking shelter in the wandering castle of the wizard Howl, feared as a monster who eats girls' hearts. Howl turns out to be not quite as bad as his reputation, but with enough bad qualities (vain, irresponsible, evasive) to irritate Sophie. Sophie's transformation, though, has given her an opportunity to change her own character. Previously she had defined herself as a dull, shy and unconfident person. Now as an old women she feels quite ready to boss people around and is generally more free of the anxiety she had as a young woman.

The story is an adventure story of course: Sophie is trying to break Howl's contract with his fire demon Calcifer, who in exchange will restore her youth; Howl is trying to escape from the Witch of the Waste, the same witch who turned Sophie into an old woman. But it is a very domestic adventure: Sophie finds a new family in Howl's castle and secretly falls in love with Howl.

Miyazaki's version of the story departs from the original far more than The Borrowers or Kiki's Delivery Service. Like most adaptations, it starts close to the original, then gradually diverges. The major change of setting is that the feel of society is now somewhere around 1900. Instead of "what the fairy tale world would be like if it were a real working society" we have "what the Edwardian age would be like if it had magic". For the most part this means only the trivial loss of some whimsical humour, but it also means that we no longer have the idea that Sophie is trying to live down to her archetype, as she sees it. The change of setting is not so great that the film cannot take over most of what is in the book, even in odd little details. For instance:
At that moment two empty cake racks were pulled away at the other end of the room, and an apprentice stuck his head through from the back somewhere. "Thought I heard your voice, Lettie," he said, grinning in the most friendly and flirtatious way.
The other major innovation is that the country is at war in the film. In the book there are a couple of points where we see that Howl's services are wanted by the kingdom for essentially military purposes; but this is just background, and there is no war actually taking place. When the film was being prepared, the Iraq War started, and it unsurprisingly took a grip on Miyazaki's imagination. While the book Howl is avoiding serving the king chiefly for self preservation, film Howl becomes an antiwar figure. This, combined with the aesthetic of Japanese animation, seriously changes his character. Book Howl is selfish and self dramatising and tries to push those in his household around (generally without much success). Film Howl has excessively gentle looks, voice and manners.

The two stories really go there separate ways once the war becomes a major element of the plot, crossing each other's path intermittently for the rest of the film. Occasionally whole scenes are taken over (the transfer of the castle to a new home, for instance), but more often little details are used in a new way. Making room for the war, most of the subplots are stripped out. Losing the subplots (mostly involving Sophie's sisters) is probably not such a bad thing. One gets the feeling that Jones was very fond of how the parts of a complicated plot worked together and enjoyed seeing all the elements working out more than most readers. None of these subplots are bad or unenjoyable, but their real value is more in showing us Sophie's character and its development, which Miyazaki handles in a different way. We also lose Howl's background in Wales. Probably many readers will not miss it. In the book it really only throws a little more light on Howl, as someone fleeing a dull, unhappy background who has decided to invent himself as a new character.

In contrast to the book, the film becomes less complex towards the end. That includes one horrible over-simplification in the final scene, where the war is done away with in a couple of sentences; but on the whole the increasing simplicity is a gain, especially since the war plot never seemed properly integrated. As often, a key scene is something not in the original, but takes its inspiration from a different episode. In the middle of the book, Sophie and Howl's apprentice Michael (a teenager in the book) are trying to catch a falling star in the marshes outside town. The episode starts as comedy, then takes a different tack.

Michael was stalking the star with soft steps, both arms out to catch it. Sophie could see him outlined against the star's light. The star was drifting level with Michael's hands and only a step or so beyond. It was looking back at him nervously. How odd! Sophie thought. It was made of light. It lit up a white ring of grass and reeds and black pools round Michael, and yet it had big, anxious eyes peering backward at Michael, and a small, pointed face. ...

Sophie tried to say to Michael, Do stop, it's terrified! But she had no breath left to speak with.

"I only want to catch you," Michael explained. "I won't hurt you."

"No! No!" the star crackled desperately. "That's wrong! I'm supposed to die!"

"But I could save you if you'd let me catch you," Michael told it gently.

"No!" cried the star. "I'd rather die!" It dived away from Michael's fingers. Michael plunged for it, but it was too quick for him. It swooped for the nearest marsh pool, and the black water leaped into a blaze of whiteness for just an instant. Then there was a small dying sizzle. When Sophie hobbled over, Michael was standing watching the last light fade out of a little round lump under the dark water.

"That was sad," Sophie said.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fruit sinking in a sea of wheat

If I really don't like a book, is there any point in reviewing it? So far I've only written about one book that I didn't like at all. If other people like a book and I don't, then the odds are that either I just haven't understood the book or that the rewards it offers are something for a different audience. In the future, I may just not write about a book I dislike, perhaps find something to put in place of a review. For now I hope that the descriptive parts of the review below will be enough to tell a reader if the book might interest them. It seems from the internet to be a popular book, so my own lack of enjoyment is doubtless just a personal reaction.

麦の海に沈む果実 (mugi no umi ni shizumu kajitsu, Fruit Sinking in a Sea of Wheat, 2000) is a novel by 恩田 陸 (ONDA Riku, born 1964). Fourteen year old Rise (理瀬) travels by train to her new school, a private boarding school for middle and high school students that stands on an isolated hill in the middle of uninhabited fen country. The book is written in the third person, but a prologue indicates that the narrator is actually Rise, whom we follow throughout the narrative. In form at least, the book is a mystery, but it might be better to call it a kind of horror story. (That said, I dislike reading about boarding schools so much, that the Jennings books would probably register with me as horror stories if I read them again.)

The school proves to be extremely unconventional, and full of mysteries. The headmaster dresses, very convincingly, as a woman. It is a school rule that home life effectively does not exist. Children must not ask about each others' backgrounds. All are assigned to new 'families' of fellow students. Another rule is that every student must enroll in March. This singles Rise out for unwanted attention, since she alone did not come to school in March, but on the last day of February. Two children in Rise's new family had gone missing last year; and the others debate how they could have disappeared and if they are alive or dead. In fact an unusual number of students disappear every year, which the headmaster explains as transfers to another school. Whatever happens in the school, the headmaster disposes of it as he chooses. Effectively it is his personal kingdom, and such things as an external police force might as well not exist.

The various deaths and disappearances are handled a little like classical detective story puzzles; many of the conventions of the genre crop up. But it is clear enough that this is not meant to be treated as a classical detective story, and anyone doing so will only be disappointed. Unfortunately for me, it wasn't really clear how else to approach the story. A world full of things that don't make sense might be interesting enough if there was a reasonable expectation that they would make sense when we got to the end. I somehow didn't have that confidence, which perhaps saved me some disappointment, but made the 490 pages tedious work. It didn't help that none of the characters made sense to me either. Rise's role looks like an invitation to identification for young readers (she is bullied by the mean girls, admired by the popular boys while apparently unaware of her affect on them); but it is almost as if the book is an exercise in presenting a character as the heroine without giving them any actual personality.

From the appreciation at the end of the book, I gather that it is connected, in some kind of 'story within a story' game, to another book by Onda, 三月は深き紅の淵を (sangatsu ha fukaki kurenai no fuchi o, 1997), which I haven't read.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Boy Science Detective: The Scarlet Diamond

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

Here, as promised, is the short story by KOSAKAI Fuboku (小酒井 不木, 1890-1929), the first of his 少年科学探偵 (shounen kagaku tantei, Boy Science Detective ) stories, 紅色ダイヤ (beniiro daiya, ‘The Scarlet Diamond’), which you can read on Aozora Bunko here. It was first serialised in 子供の科学 (kodomo no kagaku, Children's Science) between December 1924 and February 1925, then collected in book form in 1926. Kosakai’s works are in the public domain almost everywhere, but if you prefer a book, there is an edition of the stories in print. You can see the earlier post for a general introduction.

I’ve put most of the explanations of subject matter in notes at the end this time, partly because some of them would give away the solution to a puzzle if I wrote them at the beginning. I’ll explain one point in advance, as it might help you if you want to play along with the mystery. The story involves code breaking in Japanese, so the Japanese writing system comes into play. Japanese writing has two kinds of characters, the kana, the Japanese syllable alphabet, and the kanji, the symbol set borrowed from China. The relevant kana for this story are the hiragana, which encode the syllables like this:
あいうえお a i u e o
かきくけこ ka ki ku ke ko
さしすせそ sa shi su se so
たちつてと ta chi tsu te to
なにぬねの na ni nu ne no
はひふへほ ha hi fu he ho
まみむめも ma mi mu me mo
やゆよ ya yu yo
らりるれろ ra ri ru re ro
わ wa, ん n, を o.
As you can see, these look quite like western handwriting, made up of few strokes, mostly curved and flowing. The kanji (used for most nouns, verbs and adjectives) are generally more complicated and more angular looking. For instance, the book title 少年科学探偵 that I quoted above is all kanji.

Story and footnotes come after the break. The footnotes look like this[1] and you'll have to scroll down for them I'm afraid, as I can't work out how to make internal page references inside the blogging editor. I realise this is not ideal, especially since you run some risk of spoiling the story for yourself, if you don't scroll fast (using the find function to get to "Footnotes" would get you past the story, I suppose).

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Boy Science Detective

I’ve not been posting much this year. That was due to pressure of work, which may let up a little soon. At any rate I hope to get back to posting at least once a week. For the moment, let me just try and get your interest for a coming translation, which I mean to put up shortly. The short story I’ve translated is a juvenile detective story by KOSAKAI Fuboku (小酒井 不木, 1890-1929), the first of his 少年科学探偵 (shounen kagaku tantei, Boy Science Detective ) stories. Here is Kosakai’s foreword to the stories (translated from the Japanese on Aozora Bunko): 

The six detective stories collected in this book were first published in Science for Children. They were written for boys from the fifth or sixth year of elementary school [10-12 years old] to the second or third year of middle school [13-15 years old].
We are living in a world of science now, and without science a person cannot pass one day with enjoyment; but since, to gain scientific knowledge, the most important thing is to know first of all that science is interesting, I have written these stories to get children to know just how interesting science is.
Next, scientific knowledge is something gained by reading books and at the same time properly ‘thinking’ about them. For this reason, as the German proverb has it, ‘A person can profit much from what they read, but they can profit more from what they think.’
Still, the detective story is a story you read and a story you think about while you are reading it. That is why I wrote these stories, thinking that I would like to get my young readers to develop the habit of thinking about things.
 This is not the end of the stories in which Boy Science Detective Toshio Tsukahara makes an appearance. In the future I hope to add more stories bit by bit. So I hope you will make it part of your favourite reading for a long time.
 Let me finish by expressing my profound gratitude to Kanda bookshop owner and friend Shigeru Fukano, who assisted me in many ways in publishing the book, and also to the artist Hisashi Morita, who provided illustrations back when the stories were serialized and also contibuted his beautiful artwork to the book. December Taishou Year 15 (1926)
This seems like a great idea for a series to me. Nowadays, it would probably be Girl Science Detective, and actually that would be pretty cool too. I was really hoping that the stories would be good. The first one at least seems pretty good to me (the second is so so and I haven't yet finished the third)

The main characters are genius boy detective TSUKAHARA Toshio (塚原俊夫) and the narrator, his bodyguard OONO (大野), a young judo expert. Twelve year old Toshio comes from a very wealthy background and his parents have set him up with his own little laboratory and hired Oono to protect him from criminals that might threaten him because of his investigations. Once you get to know Toshio a little better it may occur to you that this is not the only reason he might need a bodyguard. While Toshio's position in the world is distinctly unrealistic (adults constantly defer to his recognised detective genius), his character has a realistic childishness to it too. When you think about it, the great detective of the Sherlock Holmes mould often has a distinctly childish side to their character, pointlessly mystifying and misleading those around them. Toshio takes this kind of misbehaviour a little further than most.

Since the English Wikipedia doesn't have a page on Kosakai, I'll put a couple of notes about him here, mostly from the Japanese Wikipedia page. He was born in the Ama distict of Aichi prefecture in 1890, studied Medicine at the Imperial University in Tokyo from 1911, taught hygiene at Touhoku University from 1917, travelled for research to America, Britain and France. Returning to Japan in 1920, he started writing essays, translations and short stories. At first he did this along side his university work, but in 1922 he gave up his post at Touhoku University to devote himself to writing. Several times throughout his adult life he suffered from pneumonia, from which he died in 1929. Both his own stories and his criticism were very influential in the detective story world and beyond.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

After School With Mystery

放課後はミステリーとともに (houkago ha misuterii to tomo ni, After School Comes with a Mystery, 2011) is a series of linked short stories by 東川篤哉 (HIGASHIGAWA Tokuya, born 1968). According to the appreciation which is added at the end of the book (a common feature of bunko format books), the stories were first published in a magazine over several years, starting in 2003. As the title suggests, the stories have a school setting. Apparently they are part of a larger series with the same setting (which might explain some things I didn't understand while reading them).

The school is a Japanese high school and the narrator is 霧ケ峰淳 (KIRIGAMINE Ryou), the vice president of the school's Detection Club. The club is devoted not to detective fiction, but to actual detection; and Ryou has business cards printed with "Kirigamine Ryou, Great Detective" on them. (Great Detective is a recognised profession in the world of Japanese detective stories.) In case it's not already obvious, these are youth oriented, comic mysteries. The youth oriented part means that I don't get some of the comedy, which often runs on stereotypes that I'm not familiar with. It may also be the reason that none of the mysteries actually involve murder. They are not "puzzles of everyday life", the Japanese genre of mysteries without a major crime. Almost all the stories involve a serious crime, often attempted murder; but no-one actually dies. This makes it easier for the comedy too.

The balance of comedy and mystery probably comes down more on the mystery side than the Japanese TV drama series "Trick", which is the other Japanese comedy mystery that I'm familiar with (though I've only seen part of it). The parts of the comedy that I got are generally a very old style of joke, including some things that probably go back to the nineteenth century; but I thought they were pretty well handled. Failed jokes can be almost painful for me; and reading Higashigawa, if I never actually laughed aloud, I never felt that a joke fell completely flat.

The mysteries are also very competently managed, without ever quite reaching the point where you would call them brilliant. All of them involve apparent impossibilities: a thief disappearing from a building whose only exit was watched; a victim pushed from an empty rooftop, which could only be accessed by a staircase where a boy was playing a computer game at the time; a strangling in a field with no footprints but the victim's; and so on.

Despite the "Great Detective" business card, Kirigamine is only rarely the detective, sometimes failing, sometimes not even trying to deduce the culprit, being happy to play Watson to various other characters. One expectation I had reading the stories was that the Detection Club would play some role in the book: it seems pointless to make so much of it in the introduction of the narrator and never use it. In fact, Kirigamine is the only character from the club in the book. Presumably, this should be seen as a spin off to other stories which feature more characters and club activity.

If you're looking for fairly modern, light reading mysteries to practise Japanese with, I imagine these would do very well.  Ho-Ling has a lot of posts on Higashikawa, which can give you an idea of his range and point you to other popular books of his. (One warning: if you're thinking of reading this book, you might prefer to read the first mystery in it before reading Ho-Ling's posts on the book.) I certainly expect that I'll try another of his books in due course.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Grick's Adventure

I wrote about The Adventurers (冒険者たち, 1972) by  斎藤惇夫 (SAITOU Atsuo) a while back. グリックの冒険 (Gurikku no bouken, Grick's Adventure,  1970) was the first book written in the series; but The Adventurers was written as a prequel as an origin story for a minor character in Grick's Adventure, the rat Ganba. The hero of Grick's Adventure is a chipmunk, Grick. According to Saitou's afterword, the name is meant to recall the sound of a chipmunk eating a nut and the German word Glück (fortune, happiness).

As the story starts Grick is one of two pet chipmunks in a city house. He and his elder sister Frack are kept in a cage most of the day, but let out for an hour to play in a room of their owner's house. For Frack her present state is a relief after the cramped pet shop she had known before; but the more energetic Grick has no memories of the pet shop and feels confined. From time to time the chipmunks get out into other parts of the house, and on one such occasion Grick meets a pigeon, Pippō, who tells him that he doesn't belong in the house, he should be outside; Grick's real home is a forest Pippō had visited in the north, filled with chipmunks. In the days that follow, Grick cannot stop thinking of this forest.
In a voice just short of crying, he interrupted Pippō. 'I want to go there too,' he shouted.
'Eh? To the forest?' Pippō stared astonished at Grick. 
'Yes. I want to go. To the forest. To where I there are other chipmunks like me.' ...
Pippō looked at Grick for a while, then said, 'Well, if you had wings, you know? I reckon walking all that way would be incredibly difficult. It's a huge distance. Just flying there and back leaves me quite exhausted. It's hopeless.  Firstly, you can't even get out of his town ... And suppose for the sake of argument (that's just supposing, mind you), suppose you manage to get out of the town, there's fields going on for ever, after them a hill. I call it a hill, but it's pretty high. Then more fields, then there's a big river flowing. Mmm, that river, right, it's fed by all the small rivers. That river goes down to the sea. Then the coast keeps going northward and there's a mountain. Cross that mountain and you come to your home. It's hopeless. Really it's hopeless.'
'But didn't you tell me to leave here?' Grick said, his eyes filled with tears.
'I did. But I meant you should find some garden near here.' Pippō answered, looking apologetically at Grick.
'I'm not going out to live in a garden. How much different is that to the parlour? Where I want to go is my real home. If I can't, I .....
For the most part, Grick's adventure is a kind of animal odyssey. The first part of the journey, however, has a different character. Grick meets the brown rat Ganba, who with his companions is helping in a war against the black rats. Frankly, this makes uncomfortable reading. At best, you could say it resembles a turf war. But when the leader of the town's brown rats is making demagogic speeches against the black rats, and the brown rats are hunting through the town to find where the black rats are hiding from them, to kill them or drive them out of town, it basically reads like a story of ethnic cleansing. The episode ends inconclusively (it is not after all Grick's story); and, Saitou does make it clear enough that the black rats would have a different view of the story to the one that we get following Ganba. Still you have to wonder what children are supposed to make of it all.

After this, the narrative is more straightforward. The various stages that Pippō describes in the quotation above make up the stages of the book. First however, Grick acquires a companion, Nonnon, a female squirrel with a wounded leg who follows him from a zoo on the outskirts of town where he stays for a while. At first, Grick resents her, but he comes to recognise that he might never have left the zoo without her prompting. 

The story is mostly episodic, with various dangers from predators or hunger  appearing at intervals. Running through the various adventures is awareness of the passing year and the approach of winter, making any delay a new kind of danger. 

  As I mentioned in my earlier post, the book was made into an anime film with the same title in 1981, released in English as Enchanted Journey.