Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: The “Japan for Younger Readers” Edition…


We’re off to Japan today to explore some titles ostensibly for those younger than I, with three books for middle grade and young adult readers.  Let’s get amongst it!

First up we have a tome that I bought to satisfy my own curiosity about an emerging juggernaut of popular culture (emerging in the West, at least), the Studio Ghibli creation, Totoro.  Of course, being a Bookshelf Gargoyle, I turned first to see if I could experience the story in the printed word before I resorted to DVDs, and behold, there was a beautifully presented, illustrated novelised version of the film for young readers. Oh look, here it is!

My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, novelised by Tsugiko Kubo)

Two Sentence Synopsis:

my neighbour totoro

Satsuki and Mei move to a “haunted house” in the country to be closer to their mother, who is residing in the hospital with an illness. After Mei discovers a forest guardian spirit named Totoro, in the nearby woods, Satsuki is desperate to meet him as well.

Muster up the motivation because…

…Not having seen the film, I can’t say whether or not this is a faithful retelling of the film, but on its own it is a delightful story about two sisters and their move to a new, rural village.  As I was reading I was reminded strongly of the innocence and gentle rhythm of an Enid Blyton story, but without the ginger beers.  I was somewhat disappointed that more of the characters from the fandom didn’t appear in the story – only Totoro himself and the Catbus – but the story focused more on Satsuki and Mei than on the magical creatures.  Similarly, many of the illustrations only featured the girls doing reasonably ordinary things.  Overall, I really loved reading the book but in case you are in a similar position as I, the story covers Satsuki and Mei’s growth in their new home, with only the wispiest wisps of foray into the magical forest world of Totoro.

Brand it with:

forest guardians, weeding and planting, bus stops, getting to know your neighbours

Next up is a darkly comic YA offering….

Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse (Otsuichi, translated by Nathan Collins)

summer fireworks and my corpse

Two Sentence Synopsis:

Satsuki is playing in a tree with her friend, when she is pushed off the branch, falls and dies.  She then narrates the tale of how her murderous friend and the friend’s brother attempt to hide her body so as not to get into trouble.

Muster up the motivation for…

…an absolutely ripper quirky little gem of a tale.  Given that this is a translation, I’m not entirely sure if the translation is a bit clunky or the original voice of the story is simply cold and detached.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short tale, in which Satsuki wryly narrates her experience as a corpse, being dragged (quite literally) from pillar to post by her young friends as they try to escape detection.  The older brother character, Ken, is quite nonchalant about the whole situation, and calmly solves problems as one well-meaning sticky-beak after another threatens to ruin the charade.  The events in the book occur in short enough a time so that things don’t become utterly ridiculous and unbelievable, yet there is still a subtle sense of “Weekend at Bernie’s” that underlies the whole ordeal.  The ending is an absolute cracker that I did not see coming at all and threw the rest of the story into a new light.
As an added bonus, the book includes a second, shorter story featuring dolls, ghosts and a young girl working as a housekeeper in the home of a rich widower.  This story actually had my mind working far more than the main one, with a much more ambiguous, but equally satisfying, ending.

Brand it with:

What’s a little murder between friends?, hide and seek, thanks for the memories

Finally, we have a YA historical fiction with a touch of the ole’ swordplay.

Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale (David Kudler)


Two Sentence Synopsis:

Risuko, “Squirrel”, wants nothing more than to climb, to escape her home life of poverty.  When she is sold to a travelling noblewoman, her life changes beyond anything she could have imagined, and her father’s legacy will place her in danger.

Muster up the motivation because…

…being a historical novel for young adults set in sixteenth century Japan, this is different enough from the typical YA offering to warrant some attention.  It didn’t turn out to be quite what I expected, and the writing felt too American in voice to be really authentic, but there was enough going on here to hold my interest.  Throughout the book there is the mystery to solve of why Risuko has been taken and what it is she is being trained for, and with most of the characters keeping their cards close to their respective chests, the reader is never exactly sure who is trustworthy.  The Korean chef character was my favourite as he is the only one who seems to be exactly who he seems, although his dialogue is burdened with a weirdly Scottish sounding brogue.  The ending, in an enormous departure from the rest of the novel,  is action-packed and laced with emotion.  Overall, this felt a bit unfinished to me, with pacing issues and an oddly detached narrative voice, but will certainly be of interested to those who are prepared to invest themselves in the character and setting from the get-go.

Brand it with:

living by the sword, onward and upward, born to climb

So there you have it.  I hope there’s something in there for you to get your teeth into.  I will hopefully continue the trend of reading more Japanese books this year – I’ve spotted some very enticing little tomes coming out in the next few months, and I have also ordered the picture book rendering of the My Neighbour Totoro films, so I will be able to report back on whether I have learned anything more of this intriguing pop culture phenomenon.

Until next time,








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