Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hatakenaka Megumi: Shabake (2001)

If you've been paying attention to Japanese pop culture over the last dozen or so years you know there's been a real vogue for yōkai 妖怪, traditional Japanese monsters.  Part of this has been the elevation of my boy Mizuki Shigeru to the status of manga saint.  Part of this has simply been the '90s and beyond "Edo boom," wherein there has been wave after wave of popular interest in one aspect or another of Edo-period culture, everything from hand-towel designs to comic storytelling.

In any case, part of the boom has been a renewed presence of yōkai and/or traditional-flava horror in Japanese popular fiction.  Seemingly the biggest figure in this is Kyōgoku Natsuhiko 京極夏彦, who has written a series of doorstop-sized mystery-horror novels set in the twentieth century but with yōkai motifs.  The first of them has been translated recently;  I read it in the original years ago, but it was in my pre-blogging days, and I don't seem to have written any notes on it for myself.  (Meaning, I might as well have not read it at all, for all I remember of it.  My memory is a sieve.  A broken sieve.)

Hatakenaka Megumi 畠中恵 is part of this trend as well.  She writes a series known as Shabake しゃばけ, after the title of the first book in the series, published in 2001.  Shabake (the kanji would be 娑婆気) is an archaic term;  she provides a definition as an epigraph; basically, it refers to a state of mental captivity to worldly desires such as for honor, advancement, profit.  How exactly the concept relates to the story is for the reader to figure out.

Unlike Kyōgoku, Hatakenaka's approach to this genre is to set her stories in the Edo period.  Her main character is Ichitarō of the Nagasakiya, the scion of a wealthy merchant house - they run a shipping business, and an apothecary shop on the side.  Ichitarō, 17, is in charge of the apothecary, but really he's not in charge of anything in his life.  He's frail - constantly getting sick - and since as the heir he's the future of the family business, his family pampers him in every respect.  In addition, they set two strapping young shopboys in charge of him, to take care of his every need and make sure he doesn't overexert himself.

These shopboys happen to be yōkai:  one's a Doggod and one's a Whitemarsh.  They can and usually do shape-shift to disguise themselves as humans, but when they're angry the camouflage slips...

Ichitarō can see, and hear, and communicate with, yōkai.  He knows his companions' true identity.  Exactly how much the rest of the family knows is part of the mystery - Ichitarō's abilities seem to be unique, although he takes them for granted, and why he has them isn't explained until the end.

This novel can be thought of as combining a number of different genres.  First is the yōkai story;  it's not quite horror - it's not scary - but it involves some of the trappings of horror.  Second is the jidaigeki:  it makes use of a lot of the tropes of pop lit and TV shows set in the Edo period.  The way it depicts townsmen and samurai, the kinds of stock characters and situations, are part of the jidaigeki repertoire.  Third is the mystery:  halfway through, Ichitarō is forced to turn (armchair) detective, in order to save his life.  Someone starts killing apothecaries, searching for the right medicine;  Ichitarō has to figure out what the medicine is and why the killer wants it, before he becomes the next victim (dot dot dot)

All of this is fine and dandy, and the story is reasonably well constructed and entertaining.  But what mainly holds the book together is its cuteness.  Japanese Wikipedia says the series is mostly popular with young women, and I can see why (if I can engage that stereotype at face value):  Ichitarō is cute.  His yōkai minders are cute.  The other characters  - Ichitarō's parents and his best friend Eikichi are cute.

I don't mean visually cute.  That's part of it, of course;  the book includes some adorable illustrations by Shibata Yū 柴田ゆう.  But mainly it's that the ways Hatakenaka imagines these characters - the situations she puts them in and their reactions to them - tend to make you smile indulgently and affectionately at the character, or roll your eyes in mock exasperation.  Or just laugh.

Ichitarō himself:  he's both a stereotype and a reversal of a stereotype.  As a lazy scion of a wealthy Edo merchant, he's a centuries-old stock character;  the trick here is that his parents lovingly force him into laziness.  They don't want him to lift a finger.  His parents dote on him to a ridiculous degree, and since Ichitarō himself doesn't act like a spoiled brat, the whole situation becomes adorably comic.  Ichitarō chafes against his inactivity - but mildly, with a sort of wan grace that would make him a tragic figure if this were a more serious book.  But it's not, so he's just kind of a pale, wry figure at the center of his own story.

His best friend Eikichi:  he's also the scion of a merchant family, but his house is as poor as Ichitarō's is rich.  Eikichi's family are confectioners, and Eikichi's problem is that for all his best efforts he sucks as a candy-maker.  He burns the an.  His dango come out different sizes.  He's kind of a sad sack, but he's also a loyal friend.  So:  cute.

And then there are the yōkai.  Mizuki uses yōkai as a sort of exposé of Japan's collective unconscious, I think:  there are creepy-crawlies in there, and denying that will get us nowhere.  Kyōgoku, from what I can tell from one novel, uses them as motifs, metaphors, to explain contemporary human behavior.  Hatakenaka's yōkai are more down-to-earth;  in their haplessness, they have a lot in common with Mizuki's, but without the palpable aura of creepiness that his have even at their most comixy.  Hatakenaka's really are cute.  Even when they're capable of murder.

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