Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria 2 by Eiji Mikage

Hakomari 2 can be read here.

A few months have passed since Hakomari Part 1, and Kazuki's life is approaching normal again. Except that Maria is still around. She knows that the mysterious 0 still has an interest in Kazuki, so she's not going to leave his side until they have a chance to defeat this enemy once and for all. Of course, sticking close to him creates all kinds of rumors that Kazuki would rather avoid, but what choice does he have?

His life suddenly deviates from normal again when both Maria and Kokone receive texts from him professing love. Maria quickly deduces that this is the work of 0 -- he's given someone a new Box and they're using it to take over Kazuki's body. Too bad Kokone didn't get the memo. This new User soon manages to alienate all of Kazuki's friends, and though Maria remains on his side, even she can't trust him when she doesn't know if she's speaking to the real Kazuki or the User.

This volume isn't nearly as claustrophobic as the first, which felt as though it was taking place entirely within a small room, even when characters were outside -- which makes perfect sense given the nature of the Rejecting Classroom. This time the world is more expansive as the characters aren't so constrained in their options. But that doesn't mean the story is any less creepy. But instead of Kazuki being trapped by the Box, this time the uncanny sensation comes from his body being possessed by an unknown force and used to destroy his life. There's one point when the User does ... something to Kazuki's sister and then sends a voicemail of her crying in an attempt to get Kazuki to cooperate.

My only complaint with this installment is that it falls prey to the Law of Conservation of Characters, which is odd in that it normally only applies to movies and TV shows where additional characters cost money. Here Mikage doesn't create enough new characters, so the number of suspects is limited; whereas the User in the first book was a surprise, I figured this one out before I even got a quarter of the way into the story. I'll admit that Maria's investigation was nothing short of brilliant -- the way she manipulates the User-possessed Kazuki is amazing -- but the way the story's structured made it redundant: the culprit can only be [SPOILER] or Sir Not Appearing In This Story; and, surprise, it turns out to be [SPOILER]. There's enough good stuff in this book to counterbalance this complaint, but the story would've worked better with a few more suspects.

Toradora! Series by Yuyuko Takemiya

(I've come to realize that reviewing all ten books of the Toradora! series would be way too much work, so I'm just going to do an overview of the entire series.)

First, note that these novels haven't been licensed in the US, so you have only two options for reading them -- (1) learn Japanese and import them from, or (2) read the bootleg translations from Baka Tsuki. I opted for the latter, and while the translations are kinda rough in places ("Where's the delinquent Takasu!? Come and help us.") they're entirely readable, to the point that I managed to devour volumes 5 and 6 in a single day (roughly equivalent to reading a 500 page book in one sitting).

The plot is a straight-forward rom-com set-up: Taiga and Ryuuji are high school students in love with the other's best friend. Upon figuring this out, they decide to help each other out, but in the process end up falling in love with each other. There are lots of incidents along the way, most of them standard tropes for a Japanese school series (summer vacation, the class trip, the school festival).

But what elevates this series is the characters. Upon first introduction, everyone seems to fit into standard archetypes that should be familiar to anyone who's watched even a little anime: Ryuuji is the Ordinary High School Student; Kitamura the Class Representative; Taiga the tsundere[1]; Ami the Libby; Minori the Cloudcuckoolander. But Yuyuko Takemiya isn't content to let her characters languish as stock figures, but instead uses the story as a psychological study to examine what such characters would be like in real life.

Take Taiga. We first encounter her when she decks Ryuuji for simply bumping into her in the hallway. A little later she nearly beats him to death in order to retrieve a love letter she stuck in his backpack by mistake. Even once they become friends, she continually refers to him as a "dog" and slaps him around if he gets out of line. All of which is typical tsundere behavior, and most authors would treat it as simply humorous. And as with a tsundere, Takemiya slowly reveals that this attitude is armor that shields Taiga's soft, gooey interior, but she then proceeds to ask the question that other authors ignore -- what sort of screwed up circumstances would lead a girl to act this way.

The answer is that Taiga has severe abandonment issues: her father kicked her out of the house for not getting along with her step-mom and set her up in a luxury condominium with a large monthly stipend, and her natural mother wants nothing to do with her. When we finally meet Taiga's father, he turns out to be one of the few totally despicable characters in the series. His explanation for why he abandoned Taiga is absolutely gut-wrenching -- she's blood, so she has to love him whatever he does, while his wife requires effort to keep around. Can you blame her for being a bitch?

Ryuuji has the inverse problem. His mother ran away from home when she became pregnant with him in high school. She now works as a hostess in a businessmen's bar (i.e., she's paid to flirt with customers and get them to buy lots of drinks), and comes home every morning so drunk she's lucky if she makes it to her bed before passing out. All the burdens of taking care of her and maintaining the household -- cooking, cleaning, shopping -- fall upon Ryuuji. And he does it gladly, because he's a good boy. And when he sees the state in which Taiga lives, he instinctively begins taking care of her as well, going to extraordinary lengths to make her life better. Because he's a good boy. When he finds out Ami has a stalker, he immediately offers to help her. Because he's a good boy. When his friend Kitamura faces a personal crisis, Ryuuji tries to help him. Because he's a good boy. As the story progresses, Ryuuji takes on more and more burdens to help others, often at the cost of his own goals, until in the final three books the weight becomes too much and he begins cracking under all the pressure.

But by far the most fascinating character in the series is Ami, a famous teen model who's been forced to take a break from her career because of a stalker. Her genuine personality is acidic yet strangely likeable, but as a teenager working in a world of adults, she's cocooned herself with a fake persona, Ami-chan, a cute, sweet airhead. When she returns to the world of her peers, she no longer knows how to act, and for the first few books she's the closest thing the story has to an antagonist as she takes a dislike to Taiga and tries to get at her through Ryuuji (though it's never clear, even to her, whether she's doing it out of spite or if she has feelings for Ryuuji). But her real problem is, having spent so much time around adults, she understands nuances that the other characters are still discovering, giving her an uncanny ability to understand what's going on around her. Yet her attempts to warn Ryuuji are either ignored or end with someone getting hurt. The more she tries, the worse things get and the more she loathes herself.

Minori is an enigmatic character, seeming to be aloof and wacky, yet we get occasional glimpses of the depths she's hiding, such as in the fourth volume when Ryuuji finally gets up the nerve to ask if she has a boyfriend, and she replies with a seeming non-sequitur about ghosts and UFOs. But as she goes on for several pages on the subject, we begin to see that she's actually using a spectacularly extended metaphor to explain her feelings on love. But these revelations about Minori's inner mind are sporadic, and she remains a puzzle far longer than any other character. Even the ever-insightful Ami doesn't fully comprehend the extent of Minori's mask until the end of book 8, and when she finally figures it out she is astounded:

"Amin, why are you mentioning this?"

Hearing this question, Ami's response was: "Because you've always been playing dumb. I. Think. You. Are. Truly. Amazing. You can just pretend as though nothing has happened, say whatever suits you just to get through the occasion.... You really know how to act like a goody-goody."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I wonder, what was that supposed to mean?"

By contrast, Kitamura is a simple character. Although he too wears a mask (if you can't tell, the mask is a central theme to this series), it's more straightforward than the others -- at school, where he's the student council vice president, class representative, and captain of the softball team, he's serious and businesslike, but get him away and he becomes a wild-and-crazy guy with an penchant for exhibitionism. He does have a reason for this dichotomy, and once that reason is removed he relaxes his mask at school.

Honestly, these are some of my favorite characters in all literature. I would place Ryuuji, Minori and Kitamura at the same level as Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood, while Taiga and Ami come close to toppling Samwise Gamgee from the top spot.

The other thing I love about this series is that there are no significant villains. Sure, Ami's antagonistic when she first appears, but it's not because she's a bad person -- and in truth, it's Taiga who's the biggest obstacle to peace between them. There's also Ami's stalker, but he's little more than a plot device to bring the characters together. Even the one significant fight in the series, Taiga vs Kano Sumire, begins with Taiga thinking,

Was this the wrong thing to do? It could be the wrong thing to do, but Taiga didn't know.

She only knew that she wouldn't stop.

She was already unable to stop.

The only character who is an out-and-out bad guy is Taiga's father, and he only appears in a single book.

Hegel once observed that the truest form of tragedy is when two equally correct but mutually exclusive ideals come into conflict. Though this series isn't tragic, Takemiya takes a similar approach to create a situation where no matter what anyone does, someone will get hurt. What keeps the story going is that these characters are all good people, and when they're presented with the choice of hurting someone else or getting hurt, they choose to take the pain upon themselves. The whole series could've ended by book 7 if even one character decided to act selfishly.

But despite the lack of villains, Takemiya still finds a way to end each book with a cathartic climax (except #4, which is a quiet character study with an insignificant climax followed by a satisfying denouement). Most of these are major heart-breakers, such as the revelation of how big a jerk Taiga's father is in book 5, Taiga deciding to take down Kano Sumire in book 6...

...and her near-death experience in book 8. But the best of them is book 7, which is like getting kicked in the gut repeatedly by Malcolm McDowell. The anime adaptation is on a level with the dog episode of Futurama and that's heavily watered down compared to the novel.

And speaking of the anime, if you enjoyed it you should definitely read the books. The series did a good job of showing all the main points in the story, but there are lots of great details that had to be discarded, such as Minori teaching Ryuuji to ski, or the full extent of Taiga's plan to win the swimming contest. The worst is the treatment of Koigakubo-sensei -- in the novels, she's an unbelievably excellent teacher who just happens to have a horrible social life, while the anime turns her into a complete butt-monkey whose entire raison d'etre is to find a man and get married. Ami suffers to a lesser extent in the last third of the series as the last part of her character arc (in which she comes to hate Ryuuji and herself for the trouble they've caused) is abandoned in favor of making her another harem girl. (Although I do have to credit the anime writers for giving her the best line of the series: "Talking to you is like having my period.")

The anime does improve on one thing from the novels -- Taiga's delirious speech at the end of book 8 rambles on far too long after revealing the key piece of information, while the anime boils it down to the simple but effective declaration:

None of this should be taken as a slam against the anime -- it truly is one of the best series ever done, it just isn't as good as the novels, which deserve proper American releases with a good marketing department behind them so they're read by people besides geeks.

[1] Tsundere is a Japanese term that can be roughly translated as "bitch bitch, lovey dovey" -- basically a character that behaves like Princess Leia does around Han Solo.


Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria 1 by Eiji Mikage

You know what's amazing? It's only been 18 years since the film Groundhog's Day popularized the infinite time-loop story [1]. Less than two decades, but the concept has become a staple of sci-fi television -- it's hard to think of any SF show that hasn't had a Groundhog's Day episode. And yet there are surprisingly few literary takes on the concept, and off the top of my head I'm not aware of any novels that use the concept.

(You! Yes, you. The guy who's about to say, "What about Ken Grimwood's Replay?" Don't. Being able to relive large portions of your life isn't the same as being forced to repeat a short time-span ad nauseum. A single day or a week doesn't allow much variety for your experiences, or time to see any effect from your actions.)

Utsuro no Hako to Zero no Maria (0's Maria and the Box of Oblivion) is the first lengthy prose work I've encountered that tackles this idea. And whereas most TV series that use the concept follow Groundhog's Day approach and treat it as comedy, Eiji Mikage chooses instead to focus on the horror of the situation [2]. It helps that the characters are all high school students, which greatly limits their freedom of movement. Just imagine being trapped not just in trigonometry forever, but having it be the same lesson. A show like Stargate can have Jack and Teal'c go through hundreds of repetitions and come out unfazed, but Mikage knows that anyone in this situation would be going crazy after the first thousand cycles.

Most Groundhog's Day stories go in one of two directions -- either everyone is ignorant of the looping at first, but then gradually begin to experience deja vu; or the protagonist is aware of it from the get-go and has to reconvince those around him in each iteration. However Mikage takes the story in a direction I've never seen before (though the "Endless Eight" story in Haruhi Suzumiya did something sorta similar): Kazuki Hoshino, the main POV character in this book, is actually one of the poor dumb bastards who doesn't know what's going on, and he's constantly perplexed by Maria, the only person aware of the loops (other than the person causing them).

But some of Kazuki's actions make Maria suspicious that he's the one causing the loop, which draws her attention across multiple repetitions. After a while, her constant attention starts to break down the barriers to his memories and he's able to retain some information across resets.

The book is really well structured. Because Kazuki's memories are imperfect -- even once he gains the ability to remember past iterations, the power is inconsistent -- Mikage can use anachronic order to withhold info from the reader without it feeling like a cheat. Every time the story starts to get comfortable, he slips in a revelation that changes everything. The first of these came as quite a shock as it seemed to give too much away -- only 20% into the book and he's already revealed who's responsible for the loops. But then the next revelation would come along and call into question what had gone before.

This pervasive uncertainty, combined with paranoia about who is causing the loop, gives the story a very creepy Phillip K. Dick feeling that suits the plot much better than Jack and Teal'c shooting golf balls through the Stargate.

[1] The concept itself dates at least to the 1973 short story 12:01 P.M. which was actually turned into a telefilm the same year as Groundhog's Day, however only anal-retentive geeks like me know of 12:01 P.M. while everyone's familiar with the Bill Murray movie.

[2] I understand that early drafts of Groundhog's Day actually did treat the subject seriously, even suggesting that Phil spent thousands, if not millions of years repeating that day.


Book Girl and the Famished Spirit by Mizuki Nomura

The Seijoh Academy Literary Club (which consists entirely of book-munching goblin Tohko Amano and the burned-out prodigy Inoue Kanoha) is back, and this time they're trying to catch a ghost that's been leaving creepy letters in their mailbox. Their investigation leads them to Hotaru Amemiya, a girl who seems to be possessed by the ghost of her dead mother and is apparently being abused by the uncle who's raising her. But the more Our Heroes investigate, the more complex the situation becomes.

Plot-wise this is a vast improvement upon the first volume, which had some serious pacing issues. And while the supernatural elements this time too turn out to be explicable through ordinary means, there aren't any of the abrupt tonal shifts that plagued the previous book -- once we find out the truth of what's going on, it doesn't get any less creepy.

Where this book lags behind The Suicidal Mime is the characters. Inoue and Tohko are still well drawn, but the guest stars aren't as interesting as Takeda and Kataoka, and the sections told from their point of view lack the power of the Dazai-inspired diary entries. I'm also disappointed in the handling of the secondary characters. Akutagawa is relegated to a walk-on role -- if this were a TV show, I'd think the studio had some contractual obligation to write him in -- and while Kotobuki gets some good moments early on (which confirm that even though her lips say, "tsun tsun," her heart says "dere dere") she's sidelined halfway through. OTOH, Maki, who was little more than a plot device in the first book, does get more screen time here, and the les-yay of the first book is cranked way up.

Taken as a whole, I'd place this book on a par with the first -- the improvements in one area match the problems in the others, so all told it's a wash. If you liked The Suicidal Mime you'll probably like this as well; if you didn't, you won't.


Toradora! Volume 2 by Yuyuko Takemiya

The story so far: Takasu Ryuuji and Aisaka Taiga are the most feared kids in their high school. In Taiga's case this is a well-earned rep, but Ryuuji is a good kid who had the misfortune to inherit his yakuza father's mean looks. Ryuuji and Taiga are both in love with the other's best friend (Kitamura Yuusaku and Kushieda Minori) and agree to help each other. Along the way Ryuuji ends up taking care of Taiga, who has been abandoned by her parents in a luxury apartment next door to the Takasu's tenement. By the end of the first book, Taiga was practically living in the Takasu place, only returning home for bed (when she didn't fall asleep in front of the TV). This causes problems when other students notice the situation and conclude Taiga and Ryuuji are a couple. Which, you know, kinda puts a damper on their romantic plans. Nonetheless, they'd developed enough of a codependent relationship by that point that they couldn't quit each other, so they had to settle for convincing Kitamura and Minori that nothing's going on.

Book 1 ended with the establishment of a status quo, which is death for romantic stories, so Book 2 begins with a complication. Raymond Chandler once said that if you can't think of what happens next, have a man come through the door brandishing a gun. The rom-com version is to have a beautiful woman come through the door in a sexy dress. And so the book opens with Ryuuji and Taiga having lunch at a restaurant when Taiga notices a beautiful woman enter. And not any beautiful woman -- this is Kawashima Ami, the famous fashion model. And she's accompanied by Kitamura! They join Taiga and Ryuuji, and Kitamura explains that Ami's an old friend of his family who's in town visiting.

Ami seems like a sweet girl if a bit of an airhead, but when Kitamura and Ryuuji go to the bathroom, she reveals her true, bitchy self to Taiga. They get into an argument that ends with Taiga slapping "the stupid chihuahua" ("Sorry, you had a mosquito on your cheek. Oh, you have a fly on the other one.") But the guys didn't really go to the bathroom -- Kitamura knows about Ami's mask, and he wants Ryuuji to see it as well.

We find out why the next day in class when the teacher introduces a new student, none other than Kawashima Ami. The situation quickly deteriorates as Ami decides to crush Taiga -- and unfortunately for Ryuuji, she picks him as the tool for doing it.

Ami makes a great addition to the cast. Takemiya does a wonderful job portraying her dual personalities -- and making her inner bitch more likable than the "stupid chihuahua" facade. Sure, she's mean, petty and mercenary, but no worse than Taiga. It's her "Ami-chan is so cute," act that makes her such a perturbing character. There's a scene where Ryuuji and Ami get caught in the rain and her mask slips, which is the first time they're able to have a real conversation instead of Ami manipulating him with smiles and gentle caresses, and for a moment, before she falls back into her act, it seems they could be friends.

As a foil for Taiga, Ami is perfect. Anyone else, Taiga could simply intimidate, but if she tries that on Ami, the other girls in class, who absolutely adore Ami-chan, would turn on her. All Taiga can do is wait for Ami to make a mistake and pounce, such as a moment when Ami tells the class that she's just naturally thin and doesn't need to diet, which of course pisses the hell out of all the girls who eat salads at lunch and spend hours at the gym.

The first book was essentially a prologue that established the set-up for the series. This volume is where the real story kicks in. While it contains a plot in its own right, with a beginning, middle and end, it also establishes an ongoing conflict between Ami and Taiga, of which this is merely the first installment.

(NOTE: Don't expect to find this book on Amazon or in your local bookshop. From what I've read, there's no interest from American publishers in the series (most of the companies that publish Japanese fiction focus on sci-fi and fantasy). Even the anime adaptation only got a half-hearted release -- the distributor didn't even spend money on a dub track, a sure sign that they weren't expecting it to be a mass success -- so it's unlikely that an official release will happen in the foreseeable future. However, all ten books have been translated by fans, and you can easily find them by googling "Toradora epub".)

Toradora! by Yuyuko Takemiya

Toradora! is just your typical romantic comedy. You know, boy meets girl, girl punches boy, girl breaks into boy's apartment and tries to murder him, girl makes boy her slave and forces him to clean her apartment and prepare her meals. Classic Tracy and Hepburn stuff.

Ryuuji is a nice boy. Really he is. You'll never find somebody as kind, even-tempered and clean as Ryuuji (seriously, this guy is OCD about mold). He takes care of his mom, a hostess at a businessman's bar who spends her life alternating between being drunk and hungover with no period of sobriety between. Unfortunately he inherited his looks from his deceased yakuza father, particularly a pair of eyes that make him look like he's going to murder anyone who pisses him off. It took him most of his freshman year in high school to convince his classmates that he's not a thug, and now that he's starting his sophomore year with a new class, he's afraid he'll have to start over.

On the first day of school he discovers that Kitamura Yusaku, one of his friends from the year before, will be in his class, which is good. Even better, Kushieda Minori, the girl Ryuuji has a crush on, is there as well. So maybe this won't be such a bad year after -- hey, what's this! As he's entering the classroom, Ryuuji bumps into (literally) the only person in school more intimidating than himself: Aisaka Taiga, more commonly called "the Palmtop Tiger" for her diminutive size and fierce nature. Students immediately gather round to witness a clash of the titans, only to be disappointed when Taiga delivers a first round TKO. Well, at least everyone's less inclined to believe Ryuuji's a hardass.

A few days later, Ryuuji's doing his homework when he finds a love note from Taiga to Kitamaru in his bag. Apparently she screwed up and put it in the wrong backpack. The problem is, she realizes her mistake and breaks into his apartment that night to retrieve the letter. When Ryuuji catches her, she tries to beat him to death with a kendo sword. He fends her off and placates her by fixing her dinner. Turns out she's living on her own (in the posh high-rise apartment across the street, no less) and though her parents give her plenty of money to survive on, she has no housekeeping skills and has been subsisting off convenience store food. This is the first genuine meal she's had in weeks.

Ryuuji tries to cheer her up by showing her the box full of poems, mix tapes (well, mini-discs) and letters he's made for Minori. Finally he offers to help her get with Kitamaru -- or at least that's what he thinks he offers, though Taiga thinks he's offering to become her "dog". And Ryuuji's intimidated enough to go along with her demands, cleaning her apartment, cooking her dinner, and concocting ways for her to talk to Kitamaru. But these plans fail because, under her tough exterior, Taiga is actually a shy girl who gets nervous as hell when she's around a boy she likes. And to make matters worse, rumors start circulating that she and Ryuuji are a couple ...

I was a little trepidatious about picking this up since a ten volume rom-com epic isn't normally my thing. (Ten books might sound like a lot, but they're all what the Japanese refer to as "light novels" of only ~200 pages apiece. 2000 pages is still a lot for a romantic comedy, though it's short by light novel standards.) However, after about ten pages I was flying through the story. Ryuuji and Taiga make an hilarious odd couple, with him as the beleaguered straight-man to her insane tsundere, but with a genuinely sweet friendship that develops as Ryuuji comes to realize that beneath her hellcat exterior, Taiga is broken and lonely, and that for all her talk of him being her slave, she genuinely needs him to keep her from falling apart.

As a side note, don't expect to find this book on Amazon or in your local bookshop. From what I've read, there's no interest from American publishers in the series (most of the companies that publish Japanese fiction focus on sci-fi and fantasy). Even the anime adaptation only got a halfhearted release -- the distributor didn't even spend money on a dub track, a sure sign that they weren't expecting it to be a mass success -- so it's unlikely that an official release will happen in the foreseeable future. However, all ten books have been translated by fans, and you can easily find them by googling "Toradora epub".


Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime

Konoha Inoue is a high school sophomore with a dark secret. Tohko Amano is a book scarfing goblin. Together, they fight crime.

No, that's not right. Together, they make up the entirety of the Seijoh Academy's literature club. Club activities consist almost exclusively of Konoha writing stories for Tohko to consume (great literature is yummy, but printed works just aren't as fresh as a handwritten story). However, Tohko's getting bored with things, so she's experimenting with ways to attract new people to the club.

Enter Chia Takeda, a first year who wants the Literature Club to help her write love notes to a boy she's fallen for. The boy in question is Shuji Kataoka, apparently the dreamiest member of the archery team. Konoha reluctantly agrees -- or, more accurately, Tohko agrees and Konoha doesn't feel like contradicting her, so he spends the next several days composing the best love note ever. Unfortunately, he tells Chia that it's just something he dashed out over lunch, so when the note goes over well she asks him to write one every day. This wouldn't be so bad if she didn't come to his class each morning to get the note. Given that she's barely pubescent, this leads Konoha's classmates to speculate that he might be into lolicon, particularly Nanase Kotobuki who becomes deeply antagonistic towards him. (This being the first volume in a series, I'm guessing she's going to turn tsundere soon enough.)

Eventually Konoha grows curious about Shuji, so he asks a classmate from the archery club about the guy -- but the classmate has never heard of him. Konoha and Tohko investigate and determine that there's no such person at Seijoh Academy. When they confront Chia, she gives them a note Shuji wrote to her, a very dark, disturbing letter that would send any sane woman running away in fear. But not Chia. Tohko recognizes several passages in the letter as being influenced by Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, which I gather is an existential novel similar to The Stranger or Notes from Underground.

Things get even more mysterious when Chia takes Konoha to an archery practice to meet Shuji. Some alumni from the team show up to watch as well, and they rush to Konoha when they see him. Turns out, he looks exactly like an old team mate of theirs who committed suicide ten years ago -- Shuji Kataoka! Dun-dun-dun!

This popped up on my Amazon recommended list after I bought the Haruhi Suzumiya books. The description -- book club, weird girl, magic -- sounded like a knock-off, but I decided to give it a try anyway. Despite some superficial similarities, the two are very different. Tanigawa's series is a sprawling, genre-bending parody of anime/manga tropes, whereas Nomura plays things pretty much straight. I was quite surprised by how dark the book was -- to me "suicidal mime" is a funny concept, but it turns out to be a metaphor Shuji uses (taken from Dazai?) to describe the mask he wears to hide his true sociopathic self. Although when I say, "dark," I don't want to give you the impression that this is a bleak tale about how the world is a giant crapsack. Rather, it's dark in the way Byron and Emily Bronte were dark -- a key moment near the end involves Tohko explaining how most of Dazai's books are actually fun, and anyone who judges him on No Longer Human alone is missing the point.

My biggest disappointment with the story comes two-thirds of the way through when we find out exactly what's going on, and it turns out to have a rational (if convoluted) explanation. Such a Radcliffian twist seems out of place in a story with a Goblin who eats books. Nonetheless, I pushed through to the end, partly due to the fact that the book's only 180 pages, and partly to see how Nomura would fill the remaining pages after the main mystery was resolved. I'm glad I did, for after a brief lull the story picks up again with a twist that makes up for the main plot fizzling out.


The Wavering of Haruhi Suzumiya by

The sixth volume in the saga of Haruhi Suzumiya turns out to be yet another short story collection, this one focusing on events from November through January.

Live A Live is essentially an epilogue to the second book, picking up exactly where Sigh left off. It's the day of the Cultural Festival and Kyon has just delivered the final cut of The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00 to the film club. Not having any breasts, he's not part of Haruhi's marketing strategy for the movie, and his class only conducted a lame survey for the festival, so he's free to enjoy the rest of the day. He grabs Taniguchi and Kunikida and they head for lunch at the cafe Mikuru's class is running.

Afterwards, Kyon, who stayed up all night editing the film, decides to rest in the auditorium where various student bands are performing. Just as he's dozing off, he sees Haruhi and Nagato take the stage as part of an all-girl rock band. As though that's not a big enough shock, the band turns out to be really good.

On Monday Kyon learns the whole story from Haruhi -- the band's lead singer/guitarist broke her wrist that morning and couldn't play. Haruhi overheard the band members trying to figure out what to do, and on the spur of the moment she volunteered her services as a singer; she also figured that Nagato would know how to play guitar and dragged her into the band. But the experience has weirded Haruhi out -- she's used to being the oddball, and having people appreciate her for her talent is a foreign experience. The story ends with a touching moment between Haruhi and Kyon.

The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00 is a summary of the infamous film produced by Ultra Director Haruhi Suzumiya. It's hard for me to judge this story because by the time I read it I'd watched the anime version, which is just so perfect that the short story is like reading a Wikipedia summary.

Charmed at First Sight LOVER, despite the awful Engrish title, is the best story in the book. It begins just a few days after the end of Disappearance with Kyon resting at home when he receives a phone call from Nakagawa, a classmate from middle school -- not a friend, just a guy Kyon sorta knew. A few months back Nakagawa saw Kyon walking with a girl and immediately fell in love. Kyon naturally assumes he means Haruhi or Mikuru and is going to warn him off when he receives a shock -- Nakagawa's fallen for Nagato.

After some cajoling, Kyon agrees to copy out a message to deliver to Yuki, though he instantly regrets it when he hears the drivel Nakagawa spouts -- the guy feels he is in no position to take out the goddess Nagato at the moment, so he asks that she wait ten years so he can go to college, get a job and start his own business, at which point he'll be rich enough to treat Yuki as she deserves.

When Kyon delivers the message the next day, Yuki's reaction is as expected -- no. Unfortunately for Kyon, he doesn't dispose of the letter properly and Haruhi discovers it. She immediately leaps to the wrong conclusion and tries to strangle him. When he finally explains what's going on, the other Brigade members agree that Nakagawa's request is ridiculous, but they are nonetheless interested in him -- even Yuki admits that, though she can't wait a decade for him, she would like to meet him. So that night Kyon calls Nakagawa and arranges for the Brigade to attend a football game he'll be playing the next day.

But this is the Haruhiverse, so there's more going on here than a simple date.

Where Did the Cat Go? is a sequel to both "Remote Island Syndrome" and "Snow Mountain Syndrome." It's New Years Eve and the gang is still at Tsuruya-chan's ski chalet, recovering from the encounter at the mysterious mansion from SMS. Koizumi had promised to put on a new murder mystery for Haruhi -- but this time everyone knows from the start that it's all a game.

The whole cast from the island returns -- Mori, Arakawa and both Tamaru brothers, though all Keiichi does is lie in bed pretending to be dead while Yutaka ... well, honestly I don't remember him doing anything. And that's the problem. For this grand mystery that Koizumi's supposedly been working on since summer, it turns out to be too simple. He gets his cohorts from the Agency to reprise their roles from the previous mystery, but they don't do anything, except for Arakawa and Mori answering a few questions while serving food. I know Tanigawa can write a decent mystery because he did it with RIS, and he can make a game interesting as he did with "Boredom" and "Day of Sagittarius III," but here he fails on all levels. It feels as though he's mentioned this party enough that he has to show it, but he doesn't have his heart in it.

The Melancholy of Mikuru Asahina is a much needed remedy to the flanderization poor Mikuru's gone through. In the first book she was the most intriguing Brigade member after Kyon and Haruhi -- a time traveling secret agent who becomes infatuated with Kyon despite not being allowed to have a relationship in the past, who must subject herself to Haruhi's bizarre whims as part of her mission, and whose boss is her future (badass) self. But as the series has progressed, she's become little more than a giant doll for Haruhi to dress up on whim. She exhibits no agency of her own and acts like she's stepped out of The Perils of Pauline. This is of course why Haruhi chose her -- the brigade needs a moe character to attract new members. But even when the Ultra Leader isn't present, Mikuru isn't that useful. Nagato and Koizumi and even Kyon figure out what's going on long before Mikuru, and when an actual danger appears, such as in "The Mysterique Sign," she doesn't do anything.

At this point in the series, she's starting to fade into the background as nothing more than a piece of eye-candy that Haruhi drags everywhere. This story largely fixes that by examining why Mikuru acts the way she does.

The plot begins with Mikuru asking Kyon to accompany her to the tea-shop on Sunday, which he interprets as a date. Alas, it turns out she's doing this under orders from the future, and her mission is to bring Kyon to a certain street corner at a certain time where he must perform a certain action that will be important to the future. Mikuru doesn't even know what that action is until after it happens, at which point she's shocked to discover how important her mission was. Yet she wasn't allowed to perform the action herself -- seems the time travelers don't want to interfere with the past directly, though their definition of "interfere" strikes me as mighty strange.

Overall this is one of the weaker installments in the series. It suffers from an inverse Star Trek syndrome -- the odd numbered stories are good ("Charmed" is more than good) while the even ones are weak. That's still 60% good, but it's a letdown after the previous two volumes.


The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

The story so far: On the surface Haruhi Suzumiya seems to be an ordinary if hyperactive Japanese schoolgirl, but in reality she is a being of immense power, possibly even God herself. Luckily for the rest of the us, she doesn't realize any of this. She's surrounded by the SOS Brigade, a club she started for the purpose of discovering aliens, espers, sliders, and time travelers. Ironically, the Brigade is filled with exactly the kind of people she's seeking, though none of them have any intention of telling her. Yuki Nagato is an android created by the alien Data Overmind; Itsuki Koizumi is an esper with highly specialized powers for dealing with Haruhi's reality-warping; and Mikuru Asahina is a time traveler. The only normal Brigade member is Kyon, the guy who had the misfortune to sit in front of Haruhi in class.

Disappearance begins a week before Christmas. The SOS Brigade has been in service for about seven months, and the stress of keeping Haruhi in check is starting to take its toll on Kyon and one of the other Brigade members -- though not who'd you expect. After listening to Haruhi's grand plans for a Christmas party (plans that violate a number of school rules and the fire code), Kyon returns home and falls into bed.

The next day begins normally enough, but on his way to school he notices a number of oddities, most notably that his entire school seems to've come down with the flu overnight -- except his classmates insist that that the epidemic started a week ago. Even Haruhi is absent.

Or so he thinks.

At lunch, SHE arrives. The girl who sits behind him in class. Except SHE isn't Haruhi. SHE is someone who should not be here -- cannot be here. Yet no one else notices anything wrong. They think SHE has been here all along. When he asks about Haruhi, no one knows what he's talking about. He rushes from class to find the other Brigade members, only to discover that Koizumi's whole class -- the classroom included -- has disappeared. When he approaches Mikuru, she doesn't know who he is and his attempt to convince her he knows her by revealing personal information -- yeah, going up to a girl and telling her you know she has a mole on her breast, not a good idea. Even Nagato seems to be an ordinary school girl now, sitting quietly in the Literature Club room reading, exactly as she used to before Haruhi took over the room.

Kyon faces a tough decision -- this is the ordinary world he's been craving since Haruhi forced herself into his life, yet it's not his world. This is what he's wanted for the last three books, but now that he has it, he has doubts. And so he sets out to restore the world to the way it was, and he must do it without the help of the other Brigade members.

This book is amazing. Up until this point, I've found the Haruhi Suzumiya series amusing but fluffy. The first volume was an origin story, so it got away with being a bit plotless since the focus was on establishing the world and characters. The second novel was an old-fashioned, "Let's put on a show!" story right out of the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney Musicals, with the added spice of Haruhi's reality-bending powers blurring the line between film and reality. It succeeded primarily because the characters were so much fun to be around, but by the end I was doubting how far these sorts of stories could carry the series before it would become nothing but inconsequential incidents more fitting for a daily comic strip than a novel series.

I have no more doubts. Put it this way, the anime series adapts four of the first five books. This is the one they skipped. Why? Because they were saving it for the movie. That's not to say this is some grand epic -- it's actually the shortest volume so far, at a mere 180 pages, and the only major fight happens off stage. There's a lot crammed into the story, but it's almost entirely introspective as Kyon comes to terms with the altered reality.

The most memorable moments are Kyon's interactions with the alt-Nagato. With the real Yuki's alieness removed, what remains is a sad, shy girl so lonely that one act of halfhearted kindness will make her fall in love.

Haruhi chose the wrong moe girl.

Just as with the real Yuki, this Nagato hardly ever speaks, but unlike the real version she's able to convey her feelings with small gestures that reveal the depths of her misery -- tugging at Kyon's sleeves, handing him an application for the Literature Club in the hope that he'd come back and see her even though any sane woman would be filing a restraining order.

This one image is the most emotion Nagato has ever shown.

The revelation about what this alt-Yuki is and what Kyon must do to her to restore the world is absolutely heartbreaking to the point that I'm not sure he made the right choice, though he does make up for it somewhat in the penultimate scene when he discusses events with the real Nagato and reveals how far he'd go to save her.

(As a side note, the movie version hasn't received an official US release yet, but it is -- ahem -- available. The TV show was a pretty good adaptation of the books, but ultimately just light entertainment. As such, I was completely shocked by how powerful the film is. They completely nail it. Howard Hawks once defined a great film as having three great scenes and no bad ones, and this certainly meets his criteria and more.)


Gods in Alabama

Talk about misleading cover blurbs. To read the marketing description, you'd think this book was a white trash version of a Tyler Perry movie -- white chick leaves her redneck little Alabama town, promising God that she'll never again lie, fornicate, or return. Ten years later her black boyfriend wants to get married, but he won't do it if he can't meet her family first. So they head down south for what's sure to be a wacky encounter with wacky relatives, full of wacky culture shot. Hoo-hoo-hoo. This is sure to be a laff riot.

Yeah. Not so much. There are some laughs, but the plot turns on the reason Our Heroine left town -- mainly she killed the high school's star QB and hid the body in some kudzu. Those promises she made -- they were in return for God keeping the murder a secret. All the humor in the book comes in scenes set in the present, which play out in a manner reminiscent of My Cousin Vinny, but the flashbacks to the murder, which account for about half the content, are pure Southern Gothic, and while no one's going to mistake Jackson for Faulkner or O'Connor, the book's certainly better than Charlaine Harris.


The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya

The third volume of the Haruhi Suzumiya series turns out to be a collection of short stories set between the first two novels. This is a bit confusing as the events of some of these stories were referenced in Sigh, so really you should read this first -- except that Kyon is telling these tales retrospectively sometime after the Cultural Festival, and makes reference to the events of Sigh. So, yeah, anachronic order is a bitch.

Anyway, the stories:

The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya: Haruhi decides to enroll the SOS Brigade in a local baseball tournament. There are, of course, two problems here. First, no one in the Brigade has any real experience at baseball except Haruhi, who, if you'll recall from the first book, is a master of all sports but finds sports teams as boring as any other school club. Secondly, the Brigade only has five members. That last obstacle is solved by recruiting outside the club -- Mikuru gets her friend Tsuruya (who is, unbelievably, an even bigger Genki Girl than Haruhi) to join, while Kyon drafts his friends Taniguchi and Kunikida, and his little sister.

Why would he ask his little sister to participate in a tournament against adult baseball players? Well, he really wants the SOS Brigade to get elliminated in the first round. He sees the whole tournament as a huge chore, and the sooner they get out of it the better.

Unfortunately Haruhi doesn't share his perspective, and once their team starts losing she goes into a funk -- and when Haruhi's in a funk, the whole world trembles.

Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody: Mikuru takes Kyon back in time three years where he helps a younger Suzumiya perform a certain act of vandalism that was mentioned at the start of the first book. There are a few complications, but really, that's all there is to the story. Why Mikuru does this is never fully explained, though it's clear that in doing so she creates a big timey-wimey ball in which Kyon's actions are what start the whole series in motion.

The Mysterique Sign: The SOS Brigade finally gets a client. A girl named Kimidori comes to the literary room to ask the Brigade to find her missing boyfriend -- who just happens to be the President of the Computer Society. Haruhi delights at the chance to play at Scooby-Doo but quickly grows annoyed when there's no obvious solution. Which is ironic, because it turns out something supernatural is going on. But then, the last thing the other Brigade members want is for Haruhi to find out that the supernatural exists, so they're more than happy when she leaves in frustration and they can solve the mystery without her.

Remote Island Syndrome: Summer vacation is here, and Koizumi invites the Brigade to visit his uncle's villa on a remote island. Haruhi's read enough books to recognize the setting of a cozy mystery and leaps at the offer. And sure enough, the day after arriving, an unexpected typhoon hits the island, and then Koizumi's uncle turns up dead...

The stories in this volume are entertaining, but they have a certain filler quality about them. There's certainly some good character development, particularly for Nagato in the middle two stories and Koizumi in the last, but by the end of the book it's starting to feel like The Famous Five Go out for Icecream. The only story here that feels consequential is "Bamboo Leaf Rhapsody," which does in fact turn out to be integral to the plot of the next book -- and that book is so awesome that you absolutely have to read this one, flaws and all.


The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya

So, the SOS Brigade is back, and this time Haruhi decides they should make a film for the school's cultural festival. The fact that she knows nothing about film-making doesn't deter her in the least -- that's what her favorite buttmonkey, Kyon, is for. She tells him what to shoot, and he damn well better shoot it, or else. As for what he shoots -- no surprise, it involves Mikuru in a variety of absurd costumes.

The film's plot (to the extent it has one, which it doesn't really) centers on a battle waitress from the future named Mikuru (played by Mikuru, naturally) sent back to protect an esper named Itsuki Koizumi (played by Koizumi) from an evil alien witch named Yuki Nagato (played by, yes, Yuki). The fact that Haruhi has somehow assigned everyone roles nearly identical to their real selves, despite the fact that she's not supposed to know about them, disturbs the SOSers. To make matters worse, as they film the movie, aspects of the story begin to take on reality. Now the Brigade must find a way to stop Haruhi from using her powers -- but if they just outright refuse to participate, she might destroy the world! (Dun-dun-dun!)

If there's an overall plot to the series, we really don't get much of it here. We get some insights into Yuki, Mikuru and especially Koizumi's views of Haruhi's powers and some hints about how their superiors differ in their goals, but there's no real advancement plotwise. The next book is a series of short stories, so I don't expect much more from that, but the fourth volume sounds like it gets deeper into how the universe works.