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Erin: How often do new volumes come out in Japan?
Yani: Very often. Like three or four per year. This isn’t the only thing she is writing, Kurimoto-san. It is amazing. The Guin Saga is only like maybe a third of her total output.
Serdar: What else does she write?
Yani: She also has another series called Makai Suikoden. Suikoden is one of the Chinese classics. So this is “Tales of the Water Margin” with a Cthulu background.
Serdar: I’m sold already. You’ve taken two of my fascinations right there. Go get this for us!
Yani: That’s fifteen volumes, I believe. There are side stories to The Guin Saga, too. She is also very well known, and well respected, awarded, as a mystery writer. She has a detective novel series. And well, Kurimoto-san being Kurimoto-san, she gives interesting slants in those. Like in one, there is a hermaphrodite character in an old Japanese family. You know, stuff like that.
And, of course, Kaoru Kurimoto is a pseudonym, a pen name. She has another pseudonym, Azusa Nakajima, which is her name when she writes as a critic. She actually made her debut as a literary critic. In other words this very young critic right out of school who was attracting a lot of attention from various quarters started writing The Guin Saga as Kaoru Kurimoto. She really is a success story. She has been on long-running television quiz shows, too. She is celebrated in Japan.
She was on one of my favorite quiz shows, Hinto de Pinto, as Azusa Nakajima. There were five guys and five ladies on separate teams competing every week. She was the captain of the ladies team. It wasn’t until after I came to the States that I realized they were the same people, Azusa and Kaoru.
Serdar: In my case, I had actually heard about The Guin Saga when I was doing research into science fiction and fantasy in Japan on my own. I had actually gotten into Japanese pop culture through Japanese high culture. I started with stuff like Kurosawa. Then my friend brings over this tape: “Hey, there is this movie Akira that you have to see.” It just spiraled from there.
I started to find out about the popular literary scene in Japan, not just the stuff they write in hopes that they win the Nobel Prize. I started seeing all these things, and getting very curious about it. There were all these books, which simply never showed up in English. During a discussion of a very long-running science fiction series, Perry Rhodan, which is like hundreds of books now, someone mentioned The Guin Saga. The name stuck in my head and sort of stayed there for a little bit, not really touching anything else for a while. Much later on I bumped into an anthology book of fantasy cover art. There was one of these, either Book One or Two. I can’t remember for the life of me which one. I was looking at it thinking, What is this? I had learned just enough Japanese at that point to sound out Guin. And I smacked my forehead and said, “All right, I have to find out what this is.” Again I hit a wall. Then, around 2003, when the hardcovers started coming out, I said, “All right, this is obviously something that needs to be a mission for me.”
This is the funny part: I went and grabbed the first volume in hardcover, used. It was actually an ex-library edition, courtesy of Amazon. Don’t kill me. It was very hard to find at that point. I got up to about halfway through it, and then I had to throw it in the trash. You see, the second half of the book was the same as the first.
Yani: Yeah. There was a printing mistake. About 3 percent of them got misprinted. There was one batch where that happened.
Serdar: I was just… I was just like… AHHHHH! I couldn’t stand it because I was just getting hooked. I went back to Amazon. This time I ordered all three of them from the same guy. Then they arrived, and I blasted through all three of them. Then I sat there and went, “Oh no, I ran out again!” Then, I found out they were coming out in softcover, and they were going to have the illustrations. I got through to the end of Book Five, and I’m going, “Oh, they got me so hooked.”
Yani: At least it sort of has a kind of resolution.
Serdar: Yeah, sort of, kind of. There is still so much stuff that is left open-ended. If I can digress for a bit, this is one of the things that sort of sets it apart from American-style fantasy.
The form factor is important. You have a 300 page book which ends on a cliff hanger. There is sort of a resolution. But you have a lot of stuff left up in the air. You still don’t know where Guin came from. We still don’t really know what a lot of the other things that have been dropped or hinted at in the background are about. So there is just enough of a resolution to make you feel satisfied for the time being. You are still hungry. You still want to go back for more. But with these other books like Eragon, it is just like everything is in one place, and that’s it. There is no mystery, no suspense, and no urgency, nothing to make you feel like you have to keep reading. And the form factor is part of that because when you’re writing a book, that’s it, you have to lay it.
Yani: I do admire Eragon, and not just because the guy is a teenager. This is a successful novel that follows a certain template. That template: it always has to start in a sleepy town; there are some shady guys about, and the protagonist gets involved, he has to run away. Then there are elves and dwarves. It’s like there have to be elves and dwarves.
I’m impressed on one level because he pulls it off, but on another I’m like, “You’re so young, why do you have to follow that traditional formula?”
Whereas the weird thing is, The Guin Saga is following older-than-Tolkien models—
Noah: Right. It is the H. R. Haggard model.
Serdar: And Robert E. Howard. I love that stuff.
Yani: Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner, and of course H. P. Lovecraft too. So, she, this Japanese woman, is harking back to an American tradition of fantasy. Whereas all these American fantasy writers, the bestselling ones, like Jordan’s Wheel of Time, they’re following a British model set up by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They’ve forgotten the American roots of fantasy. Kurimoto shows with this series that there is a lot there to build on.
Serdar: You pretty much took the words right out of my mouth. For her, for everyone over there, the whole European model, the Howard mode, the Cimmerian mode, it is alien to them. When you want to do something really striking and original, the first thing you want to do is get out of your comfort zone. You don’t want to do the things that come naturally. You want to stretch yourself a little bit and stick your neck out. One of the best ways to do that is to go to a culture you don’t know about and dive in. See what you come up with.
The problem is: it is very difficult to do that. In publishing, from what I can tell, that type of risk-taking is generally not rewarded. It is like the movies: they want what took off last year. That is what they deliver.
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