"Light" love stories all the rage

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2013/04/03 Column

"Light" love stories all the rage

by Saku Masui

As with other discretionary pleasures like alcohol and tobacco–though I suspect many book lovers will object to such a comparison–the hottest selling titles in fiction appear to indicate a strong preference for "lite" in reading matter as well. So-called "light novels," a distinctively Japanese category of fiction targeted primarily at teens that rose to prominence in the 1990s, have recently been gaining traction bit by bit among general readers too.

The Biburia Koshodo no jiken techo (The Biblia Antiquarian Bookstore Case Files) series continues its eye-popping success on the book market, with a fourth volume just released under the title Shioriko-san to futatsu no kao (Shioriko and the Two Faces) at the end of February 2013. The first three volumes in the all-paperback series have reached combined sales of over 4.7 million copies through February, easily topping the 2012 paperback fiction bestseller list complied by Tohan, Japan's largest book distributor. A prime-time TV adaptation of the work that began airing in January has spurred sales even further. As the series title suggests, the narrative centers on an antiquarian bookstore and the action often involves a specialized knowledge of old books to an extent that makes one wonder at the tremendous following it has gained. Who would have guessed there were so many people interested in the esoterica of antiquarian books?

"I love old books," declares the young owner of Biblia, Shioriko Shinokawa. "Besides the tale told between its covers, each book has its own unique story of how it was passed from one person to the next over time."

More than anything else, the success of the series can be attributed to the appeal of the Shioriko character (shiori means "bookmark" in Japanese). An attractive 25-year-old with long black hair, a light complexion, and dark eyes behind thick-framed glasses, she inherited the store her father established over 50 years earlier on the outskirts of the historic city of Kamakura, at one time the capital of Japan. Extremely shy among people, she often stammers when she speaks, but if talk comes around to old books, she surprises her listeners by suddenly turning articulate, going on at length about this author or that volume, how she determines the all-important question of authenticity and sets prices, the status of new editions or reprints, and so forth. Author En Mikami was first discovered through a horror-tale manuscript he submitted for a new writer contest and had been writing stories for teens mainly in that vein, until his publisher suggested trying something different to broaden his readership. He hit on the idea of a series that drew on his experience working in second-hand bookstores, and thus was born a Japanese John Dunning.

In classic mystery style, each story involves a puzzle about some old book that Shioriko solves with her brilliant reasoning. At the beginning of the first volume, Shioriko is attacked by a rogue book collector and lands in a hospital bed. Playing Watson to her Holmes and narrating the story is Daisuke Goura, a young man two years her junior who helps her with the store. The first three volumes contain several cases each, but the fourth is a full-length novel, set roughly eight months after Daisuke began working at the store in volume one. Shioriko and Daisuke are summoned to the mansion of a woman who has a large collection of first editions and magazines containing the works of Edogawa Rampo, considered the father of modern mystery fiction in Japan (his pen name is based on the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe). The woman says she will sell them her entire collection if they can open the safe without breaking it and solve the coded message inside . . .

Although there is no precise definition for what constitutes a "light novel," titles so designated are generally targeted at teen readers and typically have anime-like artwork on the cover and frontispiece. In Japan we have a saying that "You can't always catch loach under the willow," but in publishing circles this has been changed to "You can always catch three loaches under the willow"—implying that if you get on the bandwagon quickly, you can milk a bestseller's success for at least two additional hits in the same vein, even if they are virtually the same story. In fact, Takuma Okazaki's Kohi-ten Tareran no jikenbo (The Coffeeshop Tallyrand Casebook), which has sold over 500,000 copies through February 2013, bears a considerable resemblance to the Biblia series, beginning with the cartoonish cover art.

The story is again set in a historic capital, but this time the city is Kyoto. Mihoshi Kirima, 23, the beautiful barista of a coffeehouse tucked down a quiet lane on the edge of an entertainment district, puzzles over a variety of mysteries as she turns her hand-operated coffee mill. When she has arrived at an answer, she announces "I've reduced the mystery to a very fine grind," and reveals her conclusions. The volume contains seven linked stories, each solving a separate mystery—unraveling a person's identity and background with no more than a name card to go on; conjecturing the owner's circumstances from an umbrella deliberately left behind by a customer . . . The Watson-like narrator's role is played by Aoyama, 22, one of the regulars who has been coming back ever since he first tasted Mihoshi's coffee. The plot thickens when a man similarly smitten with Mihoshi and her brew, but who turned violent and attacked her when she rejected his advances four years before, becomes suspicious of their relationship and reappears at the shop . . . The work is filled with coffee trivia and lore, and gives the Coffeehouse Mysteries of Cleo Coyle, also popular in Japan, a run for their money.

Hiro Arikawa has been called the queen of "love comedy," a distinctively Japanese genre more generally associated with manga and anime, and typically incorporating sitcom-like or slapstick elements not characteristic of traditional romantic comedies. She is without question one of entertainment fiction's brightest lights in Japan today, standing shoulder to shoulder with Keigo Higashino. In 2012 she garnered her first nomination for the Naoki Prize with her Sora tobu kohoshitsu (Public Affairs Office in the Sky). Although she did not win the award, the recognition has carried the author, initially known as a light novelist, closer to a place of prominence in the mainstream of entertainment fiction targeted at the general reader.

Ever since her maiden work, Shio no machi (City of Salt; 2004), Hirakawa has favored stories that involve either Japan's existing Self-Defense Forces or a similar military service envisioned in a Japan of the near future. This is another such work, with much of the action taking place in a PR office of the JASDF (Japan Air Self-Defense Force). Having suffered defeat in World War II, Japan's postwar constitution, adopted in 1947, renounces war and declares that "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained." Although the subsequent restoration of military capacity has all been done in the name of self-defense, the position of Japanese troops remains somewhat ambiguous, and as noted in Sora tobu kohoshitsu, substantial and deep-seated negative feelings toward them remain among the populace.

The story centers on two main characters. JASDF officer Daisuke Sorai, 29, has just been reassigned to the public affairs office following a traffic accident that ended his dream of a career as an SDF fighter pilot. The beautiful Rika is now in her fifth year at a major TV station, where she has been gaining experience in her dream job as an on-camera news reporter, only to suddenly be transferred into programming and assigned to produce a show about the SDF, which she has always viewed with distaste. The main story line follows their relationship as reporter and subject, offering details about fighter planes and other JASDF materiel, the JASDF's contributions to society, and Daisuke's responsibilities in an office tasked with informing the public about JASDF activities. The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred just as the book was going to press, and the author added a final chapter with vivid descriptions of relief and rescue activities conducted by JASDF members stationed at a nearby air base.

It is interesting to note that even though all three works feature male and female protagonists, in no case does the relationship between the pair grow closer. Far from any sex, we see not even a kiss, and it's hard to imagine that self-censorship on the part of the authors is the reason. It seems more likely that these "light" male-female relationships reflect the same social conditions that have led to a plummeting marriage rate among today's younger generation in Japan.

Biburia Koshodo no jiken techo: Shioriko-san to kimyo na kyakujin-tachi (The Biblia Antiquarian Bookstore Case Files: Shioriko and the Strange Customers)
by En Mikami
ASCII Media Works, 2011, 304 pp., ISBN 978-4048704694 (paper)

Biburia Koshodo no jiken techo 4: Shioriko-san to futatsu no kao (The Biblia Antiquarian Bookstore Case Files 4: Shioriko and the Two Faces)
by En Mikami
ASCII Media Works, 2013, 326 pp., ISBN 978-4048914277 (paper)

Kohi-ten Tareran no jikenbo: Mata aeta nara, anata no ireta kohi o (The Coffeeshop Tallyrand Casebook: If We Meet Again, I'll Look Forward to Your Coffee)
by Takuma Okazaki
Takarajima-sha, 2012, 360 pp., ISBN 978-4800200723 (paper)

Sora tobu kohoshitsu (Public Affairs Office in the Sky)
by Hiro Arikawa
Gentosha, 2012, 459 pp., ISBN 978-4344022171

Saku Masui (1967–) was born in Kobe and graduated from Kyoto University. In 1991 he joined The Nikkei, Japan's leading economic daily, where he reported on business and stock market developments for a time before transferring to the cultural pages to take charge of book reviews and editorial duty for the serialized novels published in the paper. He left in 2004 to work for a publisher, and has since gone independent as a freelance writer and editor. He also teaches creative writing classes.