The Magic of Shuji Kataoka

 “I read a letter by someone very much like me. It was like seeing myself. My heart was filled with it, and tears streamed from my eyes. Finally I’d met someone with the same spirit as me. I was sure he would have understood my suffering and misery. He inspired me to begin this letter. I feel that as I write this letter, I grow closer to him.”

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If asked the question of, “why do you like reading light novels?” I’m not sure I could give a super definitive answer. It probably came about from a combination of my interest in stories, and my deep love for anime and its associated media. Reading the source material for the shows that I cared about was the natural next step for me and somewhere along the way this became a medium of storytelling that I really liked. I’m sure that this is the case for western novels as well but I find it incredibly easy to slide into the worlds within the words, losing myself in the fantasy and surrealism of the story and its characters. And this most certainly the case for stories more grounded in reality as well. I find parts of myself in the characters, and parts of my life in their worlds. However small and insignificant the links, they keep me attached, interested, and looking for more bits and pieces of myself somewhere between the lines.

As you might expect, this too was the case when I read through the first volume of Mizuki Nomura’s Book Girl series titled, “Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime”.

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Book Girl is at its core a mystery novel set in high school. I’d say that it falls into the same genre space as things like Hyouka, Nisho Ishin’s Boukayku Tantei series, and Beautiful Bones. A seemingly average boy meets an eccentric girl and the two solve mysteries that they come across throughout their daily lives together. The twist in this iteration being that Tohko, our main female lead is a self-proclaimed “book girl” – that is, a person who literally consumes literature for its gastronomic value. Our main character Konoha in his not-so-average past was a breakout author, immediately becoming successful from his first novel. He however lost his will to write soon afterwards due to his anxiety about his sudden, supposedly undeserved success. The two meet one faithful day and Tohko strong arms Konoha into joining their school’s book club, unbeknownst to his past trauma and gives him an avenue to write once again.

This whole genre falls squarely into the strike zone of my interests so I was captivated throughout its introduction but what kept me reading was the strangely strong feeling of relation with the main character, Konoha. Very little of his personality, decisions, or past experiences related very much to the way I see myself or the things that I’ve been through. But instead, his general social anxiety, his internal commentary about the way people acted, and his passing thoughts on irrelevant details of his life resonated with me strongly, much more than anything else that was said about him. These little things were enough for me to think to myself, “Yeah! That guy’s just like me!”, forty pages in.

So what does this all have to do with Book Girl? Well the idea of the power of narratives to captivate through relatability is a recurring theme throughout the book. We’re introduced to a certain Shuji Kataoka, a boy who’s been entranced by the works of Ozamu Dazai. He saw a lot of himself in Dazai’s last story, No Longer Human, and looked to it for guidance and direction in his life. His letter of which was interspersed throughout the novel showed off exactly how much he was influenced by Dazai’s writing and his feelings behind that writing. As Book Girl often emphasized, Dazai’s work had a tendency towards the doom and gloom (save for some notable exceptions), so Shuji’s story ended in a way that was appropriate to this tone. In his case, he took onto himself the ideas of the narrative and directed his life accordingly to an abrupt and lonely end. His story later becomes a guidebook for another, further perpetuating the feelings of solitude and loneliness forward. There’s power in putting these feelings to words and latching onto that verbalization becomes all too easy in a narrative.

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This theme of the power of relation in stories is a pretty interesting one, especially in the context of medium of the novel. Many light novels feature main characters that have perspectives on the world and society that match the prevailing views of their audience. And this audience is often one that is ready and willing to dive into a world outside their own to enter a place where their ideas are validated and celebrated. An example that immediately comes to mind is Oregairu and the fan reaction to the first season of the anime. Hikigaya Hachiman is explicitly described as a person with a twisted world view – his cynicism and bitterness towards the world is all but a cry for help, but for some his character echoes the feelings and painful experiences that they’ve felt before. And so scenes of which were meant to be displays of Hikigaya’s destructive decision-making are interpreted as a show of his brilliance in problem solving. The sad monologue about his view on nice girls becomes an anthem for those that were hurt in the past. Even outside the author’s potential intentions, these aspects of the story twist inwards to match the feelings of the readers who consume the story.

And all of this comes from how easy it is to slip into the shoes of a person in a narrative. Perhaps Book Girl is telling us to be weary of the magic words of Dazai to the Shujis and the Shuji’s to others. But if nothing else, it’s a reminder of how novels and stories are immensely influential on us and our experience with the story and the world.

If this sounded at all interesting to you, you should give Book Girl a try, it might give you something to think about.

Thanks for reading,

Carriage.

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