A virus, I imagine, feels no sense of animosity; it's just trying to fulfill its biological mission, as recent events would attest. A white blood cell feels no patriotism to the body it defends, either — well, Cells At Work! argued otherwise, but you get the idea. Each only arises because the other exists, and outside of that they are selfless. In the words of William S. Burroughs's Nova Police, "We do our work and go." Nothing personal. The best way I can describe the Boogiepop franchise is that it's the adventures of such an emergent phenomenon. If the karmic forces of the universe had a face and a voice, what would they look and sound like? And would they ever come to think of the rest of us as anything worth bothering with?
If you say his name ...
Urban legend has it the being known as Boogiepop arises when things go terribly out of balance in this world. Boogie as in bogey, or will-o'-the-wisp; pop as in like a bubble: here for a moment, then gone in the next. It (it?) fixes the problem, then dissolves back into the ether from which it was summoned by the pressures of happenstance. Boogiepop may save you from something unimaginable and terrible, but it's not your "friend" any more than the antibodies in your plasma are your "friends".
This is a fascinating premise for a story, especially one that embodies the fragmented, centerless, dehumanized nature of the very thing it's about. Kouhei Kadono's novels, which began to appear in 1998, were the starting point for what has become a franchise of multiple written and animated properties, and so with the books now finally available for English-speaking audiences I decided to begin there.
Each of the books follows a roughly similar pattern. We are introduced, in succession, to several circles of characters, all overlapping with each other in relation to some inexplicable mystery that has touched all their lives. How they relate is left to us to puzzle out over the course of each book. They may be written with the short paragraphs, fast-moving prose, and minimal description that characterize most light novels, but there's little to no handholding. Fractured narratives and multiple points of view may have been mainstream storytelling devices for some time now, but it's jolting to encounter such a resolute example of it here.
One net result of this no-prelude-or-jollying-up approach is how even the first book feels like it's starting in the middle of something. We get no clear pointers at first as to what the center of the story is, or with whom we're meant to place our sympathies. At first this was annoying — why can't they just tell the story and be done with it? — but then I realized this web and all that emerged from the interactions in it was the story. That's how Boogiepop came to be in the first place, so it makes sense for the structures of the books to reflect that. By the time I got to the third book, it was less something to frown at or cringe from, and more something to associate specifically with this material and this set of ideas.
The stories themselves, if I have to make a comparison, hew closest to the kinds of weirdness that The X-Files explored at its best: not the Grand UFO Conspiracy Theory stuff, but the individual, isolated weirdnesses that made up most of the threads in the Mulder & Scully World Tapestry. Kadono's books started coming out a good four or five years after X-Files hit the airwaves, so it's plausible the former drew on the latter. Especially since the first of the novels is about aliens, anyway: A creature that takes human form appears on earth, unable to do more than repeat back what's been said to it (it's dubbed "Echoes"), and is captured by a sinister corporation, Towa, that makes an evil clone of the being. Said clone ("Manticore") escapes from its lab and partners with a high school student to provide it with a supply of victims under the guise of providing them with a drug it secretes. All this chaos triggers the appearance of Boogiepop to sort things out.
As played out on the page, though, it all unfolds entirely differently — it opens with the mystery of the missing students, with Boogiepop and Echoes making an appearance in the first few pages (although at the time we have no idea who they are), and then skips and switches between the various parties to fill in the blanks and plaster over the cracks. Boogiepop, we learn, manifests through the body and voice of one of the students — someone close to the problem, as it were — although that person's point of view never shows up as one of the first-person POVs employed in the story. Stories like this work better after the first read, once you know how all the pieces snap together, and one big point in Boogiepop's favor is that the books are short enough and move fast enough to re-read efficiently.
The second book has the same triple-thread structure, but expands on the way Boogiepop itself is a mythos of sorts. A kid falls into a relationship with a strange, distant girl who incites him to dress as Boogiepop and engage in vigilantism against the local drug dealers. A young guidance counselor at a cram school discovers he has the ability to see into the hearts of others, and is tempted into using that power for terrible things by another being that calls itself "Imaginator". And intertwined with all of the above is a malevolent synthetic human created by Towa, but when the real Boogiepop shows up, it's mostly concerned with getting rid of Imaginator, not with any of the other messes that have emerged. The karmic forces of the universe may clean up after us, but they don't clean us up. That's our job, and one of the points of the series is that we are pretty bad at it. We like the idea of someone or something else, whether a phenomenon like Boogiepop or a tough-talking, stun-gun-wielding woman, to come in and fix our mistakes.
Book three is essentially an immediate sequel to book two, continuing many of the same storylines and following many of the same characters further — mostly the bad guys, inasmuch as there are "bad guys" in a story this deliberately multifaceted and gray. It brings the Towa Organization and Imaginator on a collision course, with the latter deciding the former is a perfect vector for its own work. I like this sort of thing better than the usual easy polarity, where a certain amount of front-loading tells us who the Good People and Bad People are. Here, there are no completely clean hands, and so everyone has to be seen in their full measure to be fully understood.
Most light novels of late haven't captured my attention, if only because the vast majority of them are essentially minor variations on whatever trending storyline has become profitable (In Another World With My Fill-In-The-Blank). Every now and then, though, something pops out that has distinct flavor to it — the Katanagatari novels, for instance, about which I'll have plenty to say once they've been completely released, not least of all because they're far superior to anything else by the same author. Boogiepop stands out as well, in big part because it's from two decades back: since it's out of its original moment in time, its concerns are refreshingly off-center.