Saturday, June 19, 2010

Return to Zaregoto

Thought I'd use the bunko cover, just for variety.
After wrapping up the Zerozaki novels in style, I thought I'd head back to where it all started and reassess.
I've often stated that I liked the first enough to buy the second, and the second enough to buy everything he'd written at the time.
A bad mood could have changed that story. Man, does the opening to this book drag. I'm not saying everything before the first murder is dire, but it is certainly a focus-free meander, vaguely trying to introduce his cast but none of them really managing to make of an impact. Except for Kunagisa, who...hasn't aged well. Treating a character with a litany of moe traits as if she were a legitimate character was relatively novel then; I'm not sure it's been all that widely imitated even now, but the louder moe traits have come to grate a lot more, and I wound up finding her a lot harder to like.
Nisio's explained at some length that this first book was the toughest novel he's ever completed; something like three page one revisions that dramatically changed the book, shifting it from a novel intended to launch a series of mystery novels with Kunagisa as the detective, to an oddball sort of fake mystery novel that accidentally reads more like a character study of Ii-chan. Every now and then they sit down and make charts of alibis or attempt to solve locked room puzzles. He has a few amusing stunts hidden here -- the three puzzles ascend through the dimensions from paint on the floor, to a high up window, to an incident that could not have happened at the time it happened -- but by and large these bits accomplish little, and are there to be skimmed till something more interesting happens.
Ii-chan initially presents himself as minimally as possible; he's almost a mute video game protagonist, he has so little personality, and so little involvement with anyone he talks to. The people around him are complete in themselves; they could have the same conversations with a stump, and be just as happy. Even the few bits of personality he does show off just encourage us to identify with him; he's befuddled by the crazier things people say, capable of making the odd self-deprecating joke, and resigned to letting himself be led around by everyone else.
It's a trap, of course. A disquieting flash of anger from him at dinner is the first sign that he might have been lying to us. With increasing frequency, the other cast members stop talking to stumps and start projecting themselves onto Ii-chan's careful blank slate. Each of them believes themselves to be describing his personality, and Ii-chan agrees -- or tells us he does -- with every scathing evaluation unleashed on him. That these descriptions contradict each other doesn't seem to bother him.
The climax to this reading of the novel comes well before the mystery is resolved and the killer caught; the emotional climax of the book comes in a scene where a berserk bodyguard triplet maid breaks her omnipresent silence, drags Ii-chan into a room, feeds him a pack of lies a mile high -- lies so ornate he can't even begin to work out if there's a kernel of truth to them anywhere -- and prompts Ii-chan to take what feels like the one moment of genuine emotional honesty he displays anywhere in the volume. He asks her a question -- a question phrased as a metaphor, the subject of the metaphor ambiguous, his meaning buried in a lie. The closest thing we get to peeling back the layers of what he tells us and seeing what he's trying so hard to keep from us, and it makes no damn sense at all.
Coming back to that scene after the whole series and it blew my mind again. There's something hidden at the center of this inexpertly presented, amateurish, awkward first novel that rewards rediscovery.


  1. I read this recently since I saw it had been released in English, with the second book coming out tomorrow. It was pretty great! Unfortunately I went in focusing on the murder mystery aspect of it and failed to appreciate the character stuff that was going on, and never really adjusted my expectations until I was finished. The mystery seemed pretty cleverly set up to me, but I do not read a lot of mystery novels so I do not know if this is really all that original. Nevertheless, I was pretty amazed by both Ii-chan's partial solution and the complete solution from the epilogue. Definitely going to get book 2 and to reread book 1 sometime while paying more attention to the character study portions (which are really the bulk of the story, as you pointed out).

    Also, I checked the translation credits mainly to see if you had done it, since you translated the Death Note novel, and only saw NISIOISIN. Did he actually do the translation himself, do you know? Or did the translator just not get credited properly?

  2. Greg Moore did the translation for the first novel.

  3. Is there a place that either you or Greg Moore post a time listing of when and which books will be published. I mean I loved the 1st one and preordered the 2nd in a heartbeat. but will I have to wait a year for the next one. And is the Zerozaki series going to be translated or is that going to wait until it's finished in Japan. I checked with DelRey website and they didn't tell me anything I was just wondering if you might know anything.

    Sorry if this turns out to be a hassle or just plain annoying

  4. Translators are often the last to know these things, I'm afraid. Greg Moore might know more than me, but odds are it depends on sales of the second one. I think the second one was actually canceled, and got published only after Nisio's stuff got popular. They're probably trying to capitalize on Bakemonogatari's popularity. But that's pure speculation on my part.

    1. Hellow Andrew.
      I badly know English, so I'll try a shorter. I'm from one of the largest social networking group of fans Nisio in Russia. And I have a question for you: Where can we read your translations Nisio.
      Thanks in advance

  5. Hey, Greg Moore here. I found this on a Google search. Yeah, they don't tell me anything about release dates, but Book 2 is out now. I finished the translation two years before it was released, and I'm not sure why.

  6. Hey,does anyone know a good translator to translate the novels from the downloadble files?