Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Yasutaka Tsutsui - Triple Book Review

Tsutsui is an author I have wanted to read for a while. I was first tempted after watching the Japanese animated film Paprika which was based on his book of the same name. And then I was even more tempted when I found out that another anime, The Girl who Leapt Through Time was based on a manga he had written. Partly, I was intrigued due to the depth and darkness of Paprika, and then more so as The Girl who Leapt Through Time is the total opposite; a funny and moving story based around a school girl.

So I visited my local library and of course they had neither, but they did have three other books by Tsutsui. So I took them all out at once and read them back to back.

The first was The Maid, which I think was my favourite of the three. The basic story follows Nanase, an eighteen year old girl who is entering into the profession of a live-in maid. The twist is that Nanase has an unusual talent; that she can read minds. What emerges are insights into a number of different families. Not only does it reveal the peculiarities that emerge within any home, but also those most hidden secrets, held deep within peoples heads. My only criticism was how focused on sex most of these revelations were, I wouldn't say they were overly explicit, perhaps just slightly too regular. I think there are plenty of other things that could be a hidden inside a person's mind, so by the end of the book the theme of sex was wearing a bit thin. But overall the dynamics of different families were well realised and thoroughly believable, although as is to be expected, mostly unpleasant. I think if I had written the book I might have included more 'normal' people, not everyone is sleeping with their father's mistress, some are just worried about money and what they should wear tomorrow, although I guess that might not be such an interesting story.

The second I read was HELL. If you look at the covers for this and The Maid, at least the editions I read, you would barely even know it was by the same author. HELL is made to look like it is a horror book, so I was sceptical, but I found it to be more similar to The Maid than I had expected. As you would expect this is a story about Hell. It is about a group of individuals with connected lives who have ended up in hell, although it is not entirely obvious why they are there or what the alternatives might be. I think what was most interesting to me was that this was not a western idea of hell, I suppose it was more Japanese, although I don't really know enough about that to be sure. It was just a strange version of the world where no one seemed too happy, but at the same time there appear to be many upsides, for example characters who returned to full health in the afterlife. The main focus of the book is telling the history of each character, their memories and how they died. These snippets are intertwined well and although they can be confusing to follow due to their non-sequential nature it all seems to add to the feeling of the book. There isn't really a story to this book, much like The Maid it is more of a glimpse into people and events in their lives, so although interesting I did not find it all too gripping. Once again I feel that Tsutsui's characters are well rounded and believable, and it was this feeling that I will really take away, however I think The Maid was stronger due to Nanase's abilities framing the smaller stories.

The third book I read by Tsutsui was Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, which I must admit I was less excited about reading. This was because I do not like short stories, I'm not sure why, each time I try them it seems to be for a slightly different reason that I dislike them, but what I think it boils down to is just you can't get addicted to a short story because it's done before you have time, so it doesn't make the book as easy to want to return to. I think the best way I can describe this book is downright bizarre. Not that the previous weren't a bit weird in their own way, but Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is short insights into people lives as a unnatural occurrence happens to them. Some of them are highly enjoyable, for example the man who suddenly starts being followed by the press and every mundane moment of his life is turned into headline news, but others really failed to hold my attention, and it took a lot of effort for me to even finish this book. Like The Maid I felt that maybe there was a slightly over-usual focus on sex, but somehow in this setting it seemed less serious, so bizarre were the stories it was part of. Of the three books I think this was probably the funniest, but it is probably the one I would least recommend, however as I said I don't like short stories, so if you do you will probably like it!

Tsutsui is beyond a doubt an unusual writer, from what I can discover he is highly prolific, although very few of his novels seem to have made it to translation. Perhaps this is due to the bizarre elements to his stories, or that they seem very Japanese, but either way I want more and have already ordered Paprika from Amazon. I'm very interested to see how I go with it, partly because I know from having seen the anime that is more of a whole story than the three I have reviewed above. Of those above, The Maid was the one which I enjoyed the most, but I will get back to you on how it compares to Paprika.

On a side note - any recommendations of short stories that may change my mind are very welcome, I am willing to try to change my opinion on them!