Monday, December 27, 2010

The Devil Asks 100 Questions

Virtually all of Kadono Kouhei's books have had a healthy dose of philosophical meandering buried somewhere between the supernatural stuff. It was only natural he'd eventually find the time to explore that side of his writing in a little more depth, but I'm a little bit shocked how well the book turned out.
Kuzuha Momiji becomes internet famous for basically no reason -- her corrupt businesswoman mother is being hounded by the press after a particularly splashy failure, and Momiji happens to snap at the reports on live television. Shortly after, her mother comes to her with an offer -- they've got the best fixer in the business ready to bail her out, but only if Momiji agrees to talk to him. A man they all call The Devil -- Shaman Simpleheart. Who never once speaks to Momiji, or even seems aware that she is there. All interactions she has with The Devil are through a marionette named Hazure-kun -- a marionette who it is increasingly hard to believe is really being controlled by the man.
Hazure-kun insists he doesn't want to talk to her at all. He's being forced to do so by his masters. He doesn't expect much out of her, really; he just wants her to be stupid, to be the kind of useful idiot who can ask a simple question that inadvertently leads a genius like him to a breakthrough that can change the course of human history. For the rest of the book, he peppers her with questions -- one hundred in all, helpfully laid out for us in the table of contents -- and she tries to answer some of them, is utterly baffled by others, and angrily ignores even more. Sure, occasionally buildings catch fire, drug dealers are beaten half to death, and Momiji accidentally stops a madman from turning a wedding into a bloodbath, catapulting herself from internet famous to actually appearing on TV regularly, and a few guest characters from other Kadono series pop in to make the ending totally batshit for anyone who read this book first, but the core of the book is two people attempting to discuss the nature of the universe, and more often than not failing to understand a thing the other says. Yet this is somehow fascinating.
It's easy to talk about the slightly off-kilter sensibilities that make Kadono such a unique writer; occasionally it's nice to be reminded that there's quite a bit of craft supporting that.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Guardian of a God/Nekomonogatari

Double volume double review time.
The fifth and sixth volumes in the Moribito series, Kami no Moribito sort of flips the first novel, with Balsa looking after a girl possessed by a spirit that actually is evil, and pursued by people who want to kill the kid for it. While the Balsa bits were as gripping as ever, the cut-aways to the court brought the novel to a screeching halt and it wound up not really justifying the double length...and she never quite conquered the been there, done that feeling revisiting her earlier storyline brought. This isn't to say the books aren't pretty damn good anyway; they're only disappointing in light of what she'd accomplished before this.
Nekomonogatari may be more of a test of Nisio Isin's powers than additional volumes prompted by the blinding success of the anime really should have been; Nisemonogatari, while fun, was significantly less substantial than the first three books, and the more he insisted he was just having fun with them the more they felt like a cheap cash in. Nekomonogatari Black, like Kizumonogatari, is a prequel, revealing the events of Hanekawa's first encounter with the cat over Golden Week -- which have been hinted at from like, page five of the original novel. So you'd think he'd have had more of a plan.
Nekomonogatari Black is sort of a trainwreck, though; the entire first third of the book is wacky comedy hijinks with Araragi and his sister discussing the pros and cons of different underwear colors; it has its moments, and Araragi's attempts to figure out if he was actually in love with Hanekawa were the one moment in this volume that felt genuine. Once Hanekawa herself shows up things just fall apart completely. Nisio clearly decided he'd run out of things to say about her, and decided to get meta and explode the doormat archetype. This leads to a somewhat unconvincing series of tiresome speeches about how her perfect niceness is actually deeply terrifying, instead of merely really dull. The spectacular ending, where Araragi wins by hiding a fucking sword inside his own body so she cuts herself when she chops him in half, almost redeems it, but it's objectively the weakest book in the series.
So I started Nekomonogatari White with fear in my heart, but the first damn line proved singularly reassuring -- Hanekawa narrates. By moving things away from Araragi's increasingly cartoonish point of view, he manages to make Hanekawa into a real character again, and actually SHOW us all the things he was vainly trying to tell us in Black. He very smoothly fleshes out her character in ways we haven't seen, and then makes the plot of the book hang on her finally coming to terms with her own fractured personality. Having this narrative happen at the same time as the next few books in the series while cheerily omitting several dozen chapter numbers that cover events from those books is a neat conceit; hopefully he hasn't written himself into a corner. Having a decent chunk of the book narrated by the fucking cat was definitely on the painful side (meow) and Hanekawa's baffling decision to write a twenty page letter of rambling exposition right when the story seems ready to take off was definitely him showing the weaker side of his style, but for making me like the least interesting character in the series again, and for totally nailing the ending, I wound up really happy with White, and extremely hopeful for the remaining five books.