What to make of Nisioisin, the palindromically sobriquetted author whose work is as gimmicky and effect-ridden as his name? He's the David Mamet of light novels, in that his hyper-verbal, back-and-forth dialogue is the real star of the show, not his convoluted plotting or his casts of characters who are more tics and eccentricities than human beings. But he's got a cult following, both in Japan and here, the latter thanks mainly to the anime adaptations of his Monogatari series of novels. The problem with any cult following, though, is that if you're not in the cult, you're stuck on the outside nodding and smiling and wondering what all the fuss is about. Even for anime, manga, and light novel fans, his work is an acquired taste, and in this case I cannot say I have acquired it.
Such was my experience with Kizumonogatari ("Wound Tale"), now in English courtesy of Vertical, Inc. It is ostensibly the story of a young man made into the thrall of a centuries-old vampire, and tasked with returning her severed limbs as payment for being restored to humanity. I say "ostensibly" because while that's more or less what happens, it's not what the story is about. The real subject of the story is Nisioisin's way with words, and how much you enjoy this book — or any of his books — will be directly proportional to how much you savor watching an author make his sentences do handstands and jump through hoops.
It's not like I walked in with a vendetta against the man. I have watched, and greatly enjoyed, the anime version of Nisioisin's Katanagatari novel cycle, savoring the concepts and atmosphere while at the same time wincing at the author's compulsive mannerisms: his self-referential dialogue, his back-and-forth and return-to-zero banter. I suspect the undeniable thrill I got from watching Katanagatari made me hold out hope that the next thing with his name on it would feel less like it was only a step ahead of degenerating into mere flash and filigree. I liked his light novel contributions to the ×××HOLiC and Death Note universes, the former being a property that much more automatically attuned to his sensibilities, but I still felt both of those works were more style than substance.
After Kizumonogatari, though, I'm concluding the flash and filigree are the point — at least as far as this corner of Nisioisin's universe is concerned. An audience unquestionably exists for this kind of work; I've just concluded said audience doesn't include me.
Some of your blood
If you're wondering if it includes you, though, perhaps the best place to start is with a run-through of the storyline. Koyomi Araragi, the narrator, is a kid in school with no particular redeeming or distinguishing qualities, and no inclination to make friends, either. One night he happens across the mutilated body of a gorgeous woman — no, she's actually a vampire, despite having lost her arms and her legs. On the verge of death, she begs Araragi for some of his blood, the better to restore her to unlife. Araragi, fascinated and horrified in about equal measure, gives in to her siren's call and lets her drink.
The vampiress's arms and legs, as she later reveals, were stolen from her by a triumvirate of monster hunters. Even with Araragi's blood to restore her, she's only able to manifest a fraction of her original power, and so when she reconstitutes herself, she has the body of a sullen eight-year-old instead of a sultry adult. If Araragi can win back her arms and legs from the three hunters, she'll not only get her full-sized adult body back, she'll restore him to humanity.
Simple enough, except a number of things enter the picture and complicate it. The first is Mèmè Oshino, a devil-may-care sort who functions as a go-between for the vampiress and the hunters — a bringer of balance, as he bills himself, someone who smooths out improbable odds for a price. He claims not to have any real loyalties, just the need to keep as many things as possible on an even keel — meaning he may well be playing both sides for his own advantage.
Complication #2 is Tsubasa Hanekawa, Araragi's female classmate, a blithe spirit who professes an interest in the underworld Araragi is now a denizen of. In most any story about vampires, bringing a human bystander into the action means they become an automatic target for kidnapping or diabolization, and things are no different here. Ultimately, Araragi has to fight to protect both his existence and Hanekawa's, doubly so when he learns that going back to being human isn't as simple as snapping one's fingers.
The name(s) of the game
Described like that, Kizumonogatari works as a passable little thriller, a shade or two darker than the average light novel. But it's all of Nisioisin's rococo stylizations that make this story rough going for anyone coming in from outside his universe.
The first issue, and the one that lands with the biggest and most prominent thud, is his prose. Rarely does Nisioisin ever have his characters simply state something and move on. Most every discussion between any two characters in the story is framed as a verbal tug-of-war, where the subject in question is not so much talked about as worried to death. When Araragi bumps into Hanekawa in the opening of the book, this simple act is dragged out across seven pages, with a good two-thirds of a page or so being a riff on Hanekawa's panties. (Any doubts as to whether this story was aimed at a self-selecting subset of fandom are demolished by that passage alone.)
Second: the names. Here, I must tread lightly, because offbeat and exotic names seem as much a par for the course in light novels as color-coded hair is in anime — an in-universe stylistic choice that you either take or leave. But when the vampiress in the story is named "Kissshot Acerolaorion Heartunderblade", we're in territory that is likely to even have fans giggling.
This name is not a transliteration, by the way. That is the actual name, as spoken phonetically by the characters in the story. For further proof of this, check out the trailer for the forthcoming anime adaptation of the novel, in which that tongue-buster of a name is not only spoken aloud but subtited as such for your convenience. I suspect this is one of those things that was doomed to remain on the far shore of the cultural river: what sounds acceptably exotic to Japanese ears just sounds ridiculous to ours, because we know too much. (Kissshot's would-be killers fare no better; one of them is named "Dramaturgy".)
Here we have a genuinely difficult aesthetic problem: is it unfair to feel turned off or alienated by these choices because we're not the target audience? Part of the whole premise of being a Western fan of Japanese popular culture is to expect that you'll have to work a little harder — that the most rewarding experiences with the material come from meeting it halfway, that the fact it comes from a totally different cultural point of view is precisely what makes it interesting. I'm not dinging the book because it's different; I'm saying that even by the standards I just outlined, Kizumonogatari is still a tough nugget to swallow.
Those two aren't the only reasons why, either. The third issue I have with the story is, well, the story. If you read Nisioisin's afterword, it's made clear how this is a prequel designed to show us the origins of two characters he has revisited in other novels, none of which have yet shown up in English. Without the context provided by those other works, it's tough to tell how satisfying this production really is if all it amounts to being setup for things that happen elsewhere.
A calculated risk
What's curious, and sad, is how in theory I should be applauding all this. Isn't it a good thing that a work of popular art can be a playground for some fun experimentation with the language? And isn't it even better that a publisher has chosen to take what I imagine is a fairly sizable commercial risk in bringing this material to an audience in another language? The level of ambition at work here has more to do with experimental fiction of the sort Vertical has published in other venues (see: Sayonara Gangsters) than anything in the light-novel vein, and that's worthy of applause. So how come I wasn't applauding?
One easy answer comes by way of historian and sometime art critic Jacques Barzun. In his lecture series The Use and Abuse of Art, he pointed out that one of the pitfalls with calling something "experimental" is that you have to concede sometimes the experiment in question is a failure. "Experimental" is an attribute that describes how something was created, not an automatic accolade. Thing is, Nisioisin probably doesn't think of his style as "experimental"; it's likely he just thinks of it as his way of doing things, take it or leave it — and given that he has a solid following, he likely has no reason to believe his approach is fraught with the risks inherent in an experiment. In fact, all the best things in the book are not what could be called the experiments — the wordplay, the cyclical banter — but the straightforward zing-you-with-an-image moments, as when Araragi doesn't say that a character is tall, but "had to be careful not to hit his head on the moon." A wonderful line.
But all that style, whether in miniature or in max-, has to be in support of a story worth telling. There, I think, is the biggest issue I have with the book: it's not the style per se, but the fact that once you look behind it, once you clear away the welter of dialogue and inner rumination (and Araragi's rumination is downright Proustian), very little worth recounting actually happens. The mechanics of the plot are just that — mechanics, ways to take things that otherwise wouldn't be all that complex and make them complex to generate the illusion of movement. And again, if that's because of the fact that this is a prequel/setup for larger goings-on, that only limits its appeal all the more. (Given how fickle the publishing industry is, what are the odds we'll even see any of the rest of that material, save perhaps in its anime incarnations by way of Crunchyroll?)
One of the other comparisons with Mamet that comes to mind is the way his stories and characters almost always involve convoluted masterplans of some kind, and Kizumonogatari's own version of that revolves around Kissshot's reasons for making Araragi into her thrall. When we found out what it is, it's clever, but in the way an Agatha Christie story is clever: all the cleverness is purely mechanical, not organic. Without giving anything away, the final twist is in this vein; it involves Araragi making a decision that could be construed as making him even less human than if he were simply to play the role of vampire all the way. But by the time I reached that final segment, it constituted an "oh", not an "Oh!". I understand that it connects back into the greater part of the Monogatari series, but again, that just means its full impact is predicated on being familiar with a part of the story that is only available to English speakers by way of its animated adaptations. And the way we get to that final twist is through a contrivance found in many stories of these kind, where things that could have been accomplished in two seconds require ridiculous amounts of setup and timing to be executed, because it's all part of The Plan — but then without The Plan, we wouldn't have a story, I guess.
Let none of this mean I think any the less of Vertical for gambling on releasing this domestically, or of Ko Ransom's translation job (I can only imagine how tough a job this must have been). Nor does it mean I think any the less of Nisioisin's fandom, domestic or foreign. There's a lot about his work to admire and enjoy, and I plan on circling back to Katanagatari eventually and talking about that — its good and bad, alike. With Kizumonogatari, though, I may have to cede the Monogatari universe to others who are more inclined to wax rhapsodic about its charms. For me, Kizumonogatari was too much noise, and not enough signal.