The next book we’re going to read is a really intriguing Japanese historical novel, Kouichi Matsuoka’s The Demon Cat Sword (松岡弘一の“妖猫剣”). This author has no English language presence, and to my knowledge none of his books have ever been translated into English. This book was published in 2007, and it is the first book in a short series. I have the other book, the title of which can perhaps be translated The Ghostly Footprint. Maybe if this one is good, we’ll look at that book at a future time, however, they seem to be able to stand alone. This book can be purchased in the original Japanese here:
I love this cover art and find it very intriguing. This author has won numerous literary prizes, such as one called the Black Panther Novel Prize, but I can’t find much information on that specifically. I’m not sure if this particular book was among his works that won any prize because he has quite a large volume of books that he has written. I’m discovering it’s not so easy to just look up these obscure literary prizes in the region, just as sometimes I can hardly find anything on the authors when I google them, so that is why I’m not giving more detail on these points as we go through our book list for the year. I wonder if I need a web browser specifically based in the original language to do a good search for things like that, but I’ll have to experiment to figure it out.
The basic description of the book from the flyleaf is that it is about demon killers at the end of the Edo period, which would mean maybe the early 1800s in Tokyo. The story is described as including themes such as documents with blood seals, people changing into cats, blood-sucking beasts and so forth. Sounds like my kind of book, and it will be a nice change to go to something more light-hearted after our heavy literary pieces. Maybe if I can come up with a design and find some time, I can do a papercut or collage of this story for you guys, because the subject matter sounds fun.
For anyone in Japan or going to Japan who is interested in more of a close-up of the era, I highly recommend the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo, which is quite a little gem and one of my favorites in the world:
The book has four parts with interesting titles that will grace my post titles as well. I see no reason to write my own titles if the author does a really good job on their own. The book clearly has all of the right elements for a good samurai story with a supernatural twist, though I’m not sure whether that will mean it’s also fantasy or horror, but let’s get started and find out.
Part 1, “The Secret Message of Assassination,” has 14 subchapters. The main characters as far as I’ve read are as follows:
お駒 – (Okoma) – a human female pickpocket, though I’m not sure if that is by trade or circumstance
橘鏡四郎 – (Kyoushirou Tachibana) – a man who wields the demon sword and is the companion of Okoma
お鈴 – (Orin) a beautiful but sickly little girl who owns Shiro
シロ – (Shiro) a large white cat who happens to be the animal form of Kyoushirou Tachibana
The story starts with a brief chapter describing a pretty little girl named Orin looking for her white cat Shiro on an autumn evening in the Kanda section of Edo, which was Tokyo’s name at that time; note that in Japanese, shiro can also mean white. She spends some time petting him when she finds him then puts out some food for him. As he wanders off from her, he starts to reminisce about something that happened to him the year before. The emphasis in this section, and its primary appeal, is on how cute Shiro is as he reacts to Orin petting him and how sweet Orin’s interaction is with him.
This domestic scene is a strong contrast with what comes next in the lengthy second and third chapters, which shows our novel’s two main characters, Kyoushirou Tachibana and Okoma, hiding out in a building behind a fox shrine where they sense murder in the air. Attacking samurai interrupt them in a loudly amorous moment, and a swordfight starts. Kyoushirou has a demon blade that was forged from the remains of a meteorite and bears some curse from the House of Tokugawa. I didn’t see any details on that curse explained here other than the fact that this sword kills demons and that demons masquerading as humans dominate this era. This part comes off as rather violent, but one thing about reading in your non-native language is that the language barrier blunts a lot of the graphic stuff so it doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact. It also is a disadvantage, however, in that this book is like many novels in the region where dialogue isn’t tagged with speaker references all the time and there is very little description to be clear about what is happening or who is talking to whom, dropped subjects and the like.
Both Okoma and Kyoushirou are injured in the fight, and Okoma sets the house ablaze. They make their escape by turning into cats – I’m not sure where the demon sword went when Kyoushirou did that, but maybe we’ll see later. Their attackers note this transformation and attempt to pursue them. However, chapter 4 shows our protagonists at the Kanda River near Izumi Bridge in Tokyo with no attackers in sight. Kyoushirou is in the form of a big white cat, while Okoma is a black cat. While they wash and lick each other’s wounds, they discuss their concerns about the fire they left behind spreading as they hear the fire bell going off. We have a good four character saying here in the dialogue between them worth pointing out, 傾国傾城 (keikoku keisei), which means something like “a woman so beautiful she can bring ruin to a country” or “femme fatale.” This phrase comes up as Okoma is licking Kyoushirou’s wounded eyes and asks if he can see. He finds it so soothing he says this about her.
The fire bell keeps ringing, and they wonder who will stop the fire and worry about Orin. The cats consider the situation with the spirit world and humans: their demon ancestors once ruled the country’s forests but were killed with the forests when humans came along, thus sparking an eternal war between them. This is standard Shinto thinking that comes up a lot in popular entertainment in Japan, and we’ve seen this before in the Chinese novel Hidden Souls that we read earlier this year when its story reached a Japanese setting. Only in this story there’s the added effect that the demons can now transform into humans in order to blend in with humans and cope with the situation. So apparently any human in this world can actually be a demon in disguise.
Okoma gets a sealed letter she salvaged from the burning building before they fled. This letter was apparently what she pilfered from whomever she pickpocketed earlier. They open it and discover that it’s a map. Okoma notices that over 10 people affixed their name chops to the document in blood. They debate whether they should throw it out but finally decide to keep it in a safe place.
On a historical note, here is a good link about the history of the Kanda River and its bridges with some photos, paintings and diorama models worth looking over (Japanese only):
This will give more substance to the time period and setting as we continue reading even if you don’t read Japanese.
On another language note, the word kawaii, or “cute,” comes up quite a few times in this section, and the author certainly seems to be capitalizing on the popularity of animal cuteness in this story. The concept of kawaii is very important in modern Japan, and since we see this being woven into this samurai tale, so it deserves some comment. Obviously, the idea of bushido and the nature of samurai warriors are not something one would associate with cuteness, but here we have the connection developed in acceptable if strange ways. Let’s look at some really insightful discussion from anthropologist Christine Yano on why this kawaii connection could be made and what purpose it has in Japanese cultural discourse:
The 1970s in this way witnessed the rise of kyarakutā [cute cartoon characters -キャラクタ in Japanese], jumping beyond the bounds of children’s goods into gradually more and more of the general adult world. By the 1980s, many companies, institutions, and large-scale events felt need for their own kyarakutā mascot…This includes…banks with kyarakutā hypervisible on advertisements and other paraphernalia…governmental institutions using kyarakutā to convey public-service messages…large-scale events, such as Expo 2005….Kyarakutā refigure the material world into a personalized one, full of cute characters who beckon, soothe, and only gently admonish….
Branding a company or institution through particular kyarakutā makes them not only distinctive one from the other, but distinctively kawaii and thus appealing. On the other hand, the use of cute kyarakutā by governmental institutions ‘softens’ their image and message for the general populace. This is the affective labor of kawaii. Kyarakutā allow more typically distant, formal institutions, such as police departments, to seem congenial and approachable. Through kyarakutā, government may be imaged as friend rather than authority….[through] the disarming presence of kawaii, suggesting an ingénue mask of power. (p.61 – Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific, by Christine Yano)
So the rough, martial image of the samurai, the Edo period generally and whatever other bloodsucking evil we’ll encounter in this story is softened and made light by connecting our probably more marginal heroes to the domesticated cat and making at least one of them the pet of a child. This part is on total cuteness overload, but we’ll see if that continues next time!
Part one of a four part series.