Teenage drama morphs into the surreal and the horrific (3/5)
Having read science fiction heavily for seven years and having run the gamut of all the genre has had to offer, I’ve finally decided to concentrate on one particular focus: translated science fiction. This focus has been slowly developing for the last two years while reading Stanislaw Lem, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and some Japanese short fiction. Then, after I read Sakurazaka’s now popular All You Need is Kill (2004), I decided to become proactive in procuring more translated science fiction, specifically Japanese science fiction. Thus, I put the word out and received positive feedback from a couple of publishers: Haikasoru (of the USA) and Kurodahan (of Japan).
Eager to delve into the fiction which has been out of my reach for so long, I opted to start with something modern, something glossy (as glossy as a PDF can be) and new… so new, in fact, that it’s not even available yet (November 18, 2014)—thanks to Haikasoru for providing me with a pre-release of Asura Girl, as translated by Stephen Snyder. Regardless of receiving the book for free, it has been agreed that the review be honest rather than favored by bias.
Asura Girl was originally published in Japan in 2003 under the title Ashura Garu. The author, Otaro Maijo, won the Yukio Mishima award in 2003 for this novel. He has had only one other story translated into English—“Drill Hole in My Brain” (2003)—and this was included in the collection Faust Vol. 1 (2003), which highlights “fiction and manga from the cutting edge of Japanese pop culture”.
Book’s own synopsis:
“Seventeen-year-old Aiko lives a life of casual sex and casual violence, though at heart she remains a schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on her old classmate Yoji Kaneko. Life is about to get harder for Aiko, as a recent fling, Sano, has been kidnapped, and the serial killer Guru-Guri Majin (Round-and-Round Devil) has begun slaughtering children. The youth are rioting in the streets, egged on by the underground Internet bulletin board known as Ten-no Koe, the Voice from Heaven. Expecting that Yoji will come and save her from the madness, Aiko posts a demand for her own murder on Ten-no-Koe, but will she be left waiting... or worse?”
Kendo and tennis may be Aiko’s passions, but her girlish admiration is saved for Yoji; however, Yoji’s attention isn’t paid to her good looks or her cute matching set of bra and panties, a situation which frustrates Aiko’s libidinous attempts. There are been other boys, for sure—including that creep Sano and his attempted facial—but those are merely transient phases while Yoji is the foundation of her being. In the background of her own character lies the idle sub-persona of Kerstein, an invention of her mind—“a Swedish exchange student who has come to American for high school” (16). Kerstein is Aiko’s better half but Aiko sometimes loses herself in the sub-persona’s dreamt-up personal history.
Mildly ashamed of her nocturnal fling with the famous Sano—now infamous to her mind—Aiko arrives at school with a self-defense planned, but she isn’t prepared to be cornered by a group of peers and slapped in the face by Maki. Though Maki may be beautiful and powerful, Aiko springs into violent action and beats the pulp out of the alpha female, shocking the onlookers. After blood has been spilled, only then does Aiko learn of their interrogation of her: Sano has been kidnapped and his little toe sent to this parents’ house. Suddenly, Yoji arrives and takes her away from the scene, so much like the hero she wants him to be… but she also wants him to the same reckless boy she used to know, willing to try anything once and damn the consequences. Sadly, this rebel attitude doesn’t extend to his sex life, much to Aiko’s dismay.
With a distinct online presence yet nebulously existing in her reality, the Voice of Heaven (VoH) is a loose organization of upper teenagers who are bent on catching the infamous killer named the Round-and-Round Devil, whom they believe to be a middle school child. The Devil had kidnapped and mutilated the triplets of a local couple but had never been caught, so with the mindlessly synergetic postings on the VoH’s web board, the mindless teenagers set out to maim, if not kill, all middle-schoolers so as to send a message to the killer: we’re after you.
Aiko entertains her own theories about Sano’s kidnapping—mainly that he has faked his own kidnapping and cut off his own toe for want of the ransom, but VoH or the Devil might also have something to do with it; the realities of his kidnapping at endless. However, Yoji spots a few flaws in her theory and, being the rugged guy he is, sets off to find Sano. At the same time, Aiko’s brother also leaves her at home in order to mount a counter-attack to the brutal tactics of the members of the VoH, leaving Aiko at home alone and worried about her safety as the VoH’s campaign begins to manifest itself in the city: fires burn, children are ran over, blood is spilled, and the din of violence grows closer to her home. Yet, the violence that does meet her at her own doorstep isn’t the violence she was expecting.
The above four paragraphs only outline the initial 102 pages of the 224 page novel, which isn’t quite a majority of the novel but it is the most linear and relatable… yet also the least inventive and penetrating.
With a copious amount of swearing, sexuality, and minor drama, the book immediately smacks of being geared towards teenagers. I felt out of my reading comfort zone (a broad expanse including literature, sci-fi, the bizarre, and travelogues… but definitely not teenage novels). When the minor drama shifted into the dramatic horror of the city, I began to invest myself more so into the novel.
The novel is divided into three parts: (1) Armageddon, (2) The Gate, and (3) Jump-Start My Heart. The linear yet—at times eye-rolling-ly—dramatic episode of the novel entirely takes place in Part One. This plot involving Aiko and VoH is revived again in Part Three after an extensive interlude in Part Two.
Part Two—entitled The Gate—is more like a passageway or a tunnel which the reader must traverse rather than simply step through, to which there are two equal sections: (1) surrealism in “The Cliff” and (2) horror in “The Forest”.
(1) The surrealism in “The Cliff” is a slippery slope which only becomes steeper and steeper as the reader pushes on; it starts somewhat realistically but soon becomes detached, bizarre, ironic, impossible, and altogether nonsensical. The tentative bridge which links it to Part One is gossamer-thin and relies on Aiko’s unreliable memory about previous incidences. Compound her fractured memory with surrealistic imagery and the result, itself, is fractured and blurred. The 32 pages of detachment have curious veins of either telepathy into Aiko’s dream-state or unconscious inclusion into the lucid circumstances of her escape and rescue.
(2) Another 32-page foray follows the odd, detached surrealism; the scenes of horror have an even more tenuous connection with Armageddon but, if taken by itself, provides an excellent read. Going beyond Aiko’s tenuous grasp of reality and her connections to fragments of her imagination in “The Cliff”, the horror in “The Forest” slides even deeper into her intricately warped mind. Here, Aiko’s alter ego Kerstein is the protagonist. Amputated limbs speed off through the forest towards tree of children’s limbs that stands erect amid the lush vertical growth. Not only is an unnervingly eerie, but it also has symbolism more apparent than “The Cliff” and introduces the book’s third and final part, Jump-Start My Heart.
There’s no one facet of Asura Girl which would draw the mainstream SF crowd, unless you’re a teenaged reader with a palette for the bizarre. The initial so-called dystopia of the book is mildly drawing, the surrealism of the semi-conscious Aiko is bizarre, the horror of Aiko’s sub-persona is definitely creepy, and the return to normality in the conclusion has cursors of intrigue which point back toward some previous revelations.
Posted simultaneously at SF Potpourri and Tongues of Speculation