Fox Tales

By Tomihiko Morimi. Released in Japan as “Kitsune no Hanashi” by Shincho Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Winifred Bird.

After getting a couple of books in the previous few years, this is definitely the year of Tomihiko Morimi in North America. The Tatami Galaxy, one of their most famous works, in finally getting a translation into English next month. Tower of the Sun, their debut work, came out in August (though I did not review it as I read the first 20 pages or so and decided that I hated the protagonist so much I wanted to burn the book). And now we have Fox Tales, a short story collection that came out the same year as The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. But while that book was mostly whimsical fantasy with the occasional bout of melancholy, Fox Tales is straight up here to be scary and unnerving. It’s basically a yokai book, with four stories interconnected by a curio shop and also a mysterious fox/dragon creature that seems to act as a harbinger of bad things. The stories vary in quality, but the book is definitely worth a read.

In the first story, which is also the title story, a young man works part-time at a curio shop run by a middle-aged woman who falls under the dictionary definition of “mysterious”. Unfortunately, in an effort to protect her, the man gets involved with a nasty person who engages in trades, and has a way of making you REALLY want to make the trade. In the second story, our narrator falls in with a man who can’t stop telling stories of his past. The third story has a tutor of a high school boy run afoul of a mystery person who is going around beating people up, possibly due to something the family of his student did years ago. And in the final story, a young man (it’s always a different nameless young man, by the way) goes to his grandfather’s wake and ends up nearly drowning in family obligations and past sins.

One of the stories has a “twist” ending, but the twist is fairly easuy to figure out almost immediately, so I’d argue it’s not really meant to be a mystery. Mostly the stories set a mood, and succeed admirably. They have a lot of Morimi’s quirks, such as characters walking around back alleys, used bookstores, and how people actually feel buried in the things that they don’t quite say. It can also be scary – the first story is almost straight up horror, and the third story ends so abruptly I wondered if there were pages missing – it’s as if once we figure out the “why” there’s no reason to type any more. The final story was probably my favorite, digging deep into family history, the oppressiveness of funerals, and (as with all of these stories) the supernatural. The only story that didn’t work for me was the second one, which went for “melancholy” rather than “eerie” and didn’t seem to fit.

If you enjoy Morimi, this is a must buy. It’s also a good addition if you like spooky stuff.

Alya Sometimes Hides Her Feelings in Russian, Vol. 1

By Sunsunsun and Momoco. Released in Japan as “Tokidoki Bosotto Russia-go de Dereru Tonari no Alya-san” by Kadokawa Sneaker Bunko. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Matthew Rutsohn.

High school romcoms have made a big comeback in recent days. Technically, they never really went away in Japan, but like sports manga in the 2000s, non-supernatural tinged light novels in the 2010s were forbidden. The gateway has now burst open, though, helped by the breakout hits such as My Youth Romantic Comedy Is Wrong As I Expected, Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki and Chitose Is in the Ramune Bottle. And we have the “sweet” subgenre, characterized by minimal conflict and a lot of “awwwww” moments. Now there’s a good chance that when a new series hits big numbers in Japan, and makes the end of year lists, it’s likely to get a license. And this year’s golden girl is Alya Sometimes Hides Her Feelings in Russian. If you are asking “apart from the Russian, what’s so new about this variation?”, the answer is not much, though it does have an interesting twist I won’t spoil. But the main goal of this genre of books, being sweet and relaxing, works just fine.

Alisa Mikhailovna Kujou, aka Alya, is our heroine. She’s half-Russian, and is a transfer student into a school known for academic excellence who nevertheless ends up at the top of the grade charts. She’s known as the “solitary princess” for her general attitude, which is standoffish. Sitting next to her is Masachika Kuze, who is… look, just read any of the other books in this genre and you’ll know exactly what he’s like. Seemingly lazy and shiftless, secretly plagued by backstory and works hard when no one else can find out. That kind of guy. In class, Alya treats him harshly, scolding him, reminding him of the school rules, and calling him an idiot. That said, in reality she has a crush on him, and occasionally says things to herself in Russian to blow off steam about it. Unfortunately… Masachika knows Russian.

This is a good book. Likeable characters, fast and breezy writing, some amusing lines. Alya is a kuudere who does not really take much poking to get rid of the ‘kuu’ part, and honestly the main surprise was that they did not end up together at the end of the book – I suspect this was written with a longer series in mind, rather than as a “contest winner” one-shot. Masachika’s “tragic” backstory is rather mundane, but that ends up working well here, and reminds us that most teens don’t really need much to get derailed from their dreams. A divorce, a childhood friend disappearing, a realization that being a winner means there’s a loser… it’s standard stuff, but fits well here. And there’s also a lot of cute romcom scenes, helped out by Yuki, a fun character who appears to be the “other woman” in this book but ends up nothing of the sort.

Basically, I get why this is popular. If you like the genre, read it. If you want fast progress or more compelling drama, don’t read it.

Dahlia in Bloom: Crafting a Fresh Start with Magical Tools, Vol. 5

By Hisaya Amagishi and Kei. Released in Japan as “Madougushi Dahlia wa Utsumukanai” by MF Books. Released in North America by J-Novel Heart. Translated by Osman Wong.

The fact that I still greatly enjoy this series despite it moving at a pace that would make a snail speed past it is testament to the good writing and strong characterization of the two leads. Last time I said that I didn’t feel Dahlia was quite mature enough to enter into a relationship, and that’s still true, but it has to be said that the exact same thing can be said about Volf. Plus, let’s face it, they’re essentially already married in how they act around each other every day. It just lacks the acknowledgement of attraction and desire. But boy, we’d really like to see that attraction and desire, huh? Volf is one slight step ahead of Dahlia in that he occasionally can admit his feelings (see his reaction when he hears Oswald has recommended Dahlia get a “large black-haired dog” to guard her at night. (Dahlia, of course, does not pick up on this at all, and starts asking about actual dogs.) Slow burn isn’t the word. Slow heating pad.

It’s a new volume, so we must be getting a new person who’s challenging Dahlia to verify that she’s not after Volf’s status or wealth and that she really is who she says she is. This time it’s Volf’s brother Guido, who tries to bribe Dahlia with a pile of cash, which works about as well as you’d expect. After this misunderstanding is cleared up (and Volf, who arrived late, expresses his displeasure at the whole thing), she bonds with Guido pretty quickly, as well as his bodyguard Jonas. She’s also becoming fast friends with her mentor Oswald, who is teaching her the proper, safe way to make tools (as opposed to the various not safe things she’s been doing to date), and giving her a protection bracelet made from precious materials. This triggers Volf’s jealousy… not that he’ll admit it. And she doesn’t notice it anyway.

Probably the most interesting part of the book is when Dahlia is convinced to actually outsource things so that she’ll have time to come up with new ideas. The problem with this is that the best company to outsource to is Orlando & Co., home of her ex. It is rather fitting how the company has fallen on hard times. At times you might think it’s a bit too much, and if you do I urge you to go back and read the first volume and see what Tobias did. Dahlia, of course, goes nowhere near the place, which is just as well, as she might be tempted to be too nice – indeed, she’s being too nice just subcontracting to them at all. Ivano’s scene with Ireneo is dark and chilling, both for his attitude towards the company and also for his ability to see that Tobias’ mother (who blames herself for everything that happens) is suicidal, and pauses things to make Ireneo stop her. This is a long way from “Dahlia and Volf drink and drink and drink some more”.

That said, rest assured we have that as well. (Also, have we even seen Tobias’ wife since she arrived to be the other woman? I will be 100% unsurprised if she did not bail as soon as the world turned against him.) Dahlia in Bloom remains a top-tier Heart title.