Monday, January 5, 2009

Zoo 01: Kazari and Youko

"When my mother kills me, how will she do it?"
Among the more gripping first lines I have encountered.
Zoo is a short story collection by Otsu Ichi that slipped out as the first book from Viz's new novel imprint. Naturally, this popped it right to the top of my to read pile. As soon as I got over being jealous. Otsu Ichi is extremely satisfying to translate; his better stories fit together with a mathematical precision you only really notice when inching through them at a snail's pace.
Youko and Kazari are twins; their mother is not a nice person...but her abuse is entirely directed at Youko. She dotes on Kazari. While clobbering Youko over the head with an ashtray for an imagined infraction.
Bullying is obviously a big issue in Japan, and's become a bit overdone. Hell, I bailed on the otherwise fascinating Mitchko and Hatchin largely because of the bullying in the first episode. I'm just bored with it. You'd think it would have taken some measure of trust to get through this story - because I've read Otsu Ichi before, I'm willing to take the time and see where he's going with it.
But no - that first line grabbed me, and what he followed it up with was so intensely inside the character's head that I didn't even stop to think "Oh, bullying motif, hrm," until after the story had moved on. Much like the chillingly amoral narrator in Goth, Youko's way of seeing the world is so convincing that you don't question her choices, and you don't wonder why she doesn't just tell someone. (Also, her mother stuck her hand in the blender and threatened to turn her arm to juice if she didn't keep it secret. Persuasive.)
The second act involves Youko's friendship with a lonely old woman - the first person she's ever been able to trust. They grow closer, the old woman loans Youko books, and gives her a key to her house. A potential path of escape. Then Youko's mother finds the books and takes them away - the key pressed between the pages of one. Youko sneaks into her room to get the key back, and Kazari comes home unexpectedly. Youko hides, and Kazari manages to spell a vase of water on their mother's laptop. And shows her true colors - she takes the books from the room, framing Youko. Youko flees...only to find out the old woman died that morning.
This sort of thing really makes me want to analyze the plot - so many points of tension and suspense built up that we don't see the old woman's death coming, even though it was telegraphed as clearly as Kazari's betrayal. (She had a cough.) And even if we did see it coming before we got wrapped up in that drama, we're too caught up in it to see what's coming next.
In a fit of desperation, and taking advantage of Kazari's own panic, Youko manages to persuade Kazari that mom already knows who really broke the laptop, and the only way to spare Kazari a beating is to switch places with her. They can pretend to be each other - they're identical twins, after all. Just for the night. Then she stands outside and chats happily with a neighbor while Kazari's body splats off the pavement next to them. Exactly as she had predicted her mother would murder her.
Of course, there's no forced happy ending here - Youko knows she can't fool her mother forever, and slips out of the house that night, clutching the key for comfort.


  1. I was wondering if this was related to the Zoo movie I remember seeing around before - looks like.

    So when's Viz supposed to be releasing it. Amazon lists a hardcover for September 09, sadly.

    And speaking of which, I really think you need to do a quick run-down review of the Japanese novels (and prose) that have been translated into English in the past few years.

  2. The movie is based on five of the stories, apparently. I've heard it loses a lot, despite some good casting.
    September seems to be the date, yeah; instant gratification is not a big thing in the world of novels.
    Summer of the Ubume - the novel that came before Moryo no Hako in that series - is out from Vertical in August.