Suspension: Kubitsuri High School – The Nonsense User’s Disciple

By NISIOISIN, illustrations by take. Released in Japan as “Kubitsuri Hai Sukūru: Zaregoto Tsukai no Deshi” by Kodansha. Released in North America by Vertical, Inc. Translated by Daniel Joseph.

(This review was based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

It’s been a long time coming, my friends. We got the first two books of Zaregoto back in the Del Rey days, and they did not sell well at all. But Nisio’s reputation grew, and the Monogatari novels did better, and then Zaregoto got an anime, not to mention the constant fan begging on Twitter, and here we are: the third in the Zaregoto series, a mere nine years later. Was it worth the wait? I think so. It’s not as good as the second book, but that’s a very high bar to clear. More to the point, while it’s still invested in lampooning the mystery genre, Nisioisin is not as concerned with the intricacies of the Whodunnit anymore. Which is good, as it’s pretty obvious early on who the killer is. Instead we get what the Zaregoto series does best, which is a book that looks at what it means to be a normal human told through the story of people who aren’t remotely normal.

Ii-chan is abducted… erm, invited by Jun Aikawa to help her with an escape. There’s a certain girls’ academy that has a student that would like to leave it. And so Ii-chan dons a girls’ school uniform and goes to meet this girl, Ichihime Yukariki. Of course, things do not go quite as easy as that, as Ii-chan quickly finds that the school seems to be training up assassins. Needing to get rescued from the rescue by Jun, the three of them try holing up in the office of the Director, only to find that there’s no escaping a pile of corpses that keeps getting larger. In the meantime, Ii-chan continues to entertain the reader by being his usual self, deflecting, prevaricating, omitting, and outright lying most of the time. The question is, how is he going to deal with it when he runs into someone who’s a little bit like him? No, not Zerozaki, someone else.

This is a slim book, the shortest in the series (there was apparently a contest, which Nisio used as an excuse to add an extra book to his contracted amount), and it’s also far more action-filled than the previous two. Which is to be expected given that Jun plays a much larger role here. It’s also got a lot more corpses than the previous two, though to be fair most of those are offscreen. The reason to get the book, though, is the dialogue and conversations between Ii-chan and the cast. He still avoids saying his name, but does give a few hints to one of the students which might help narrow it down for those who might know Japanese and also be good at math. And Ichihime is also a fascinating new addition to the cast. I’m not sure if she’ll show up again, but I suspect that Ii-chan inviting her to live in the apartment complex he currently does is some fairly unsubtle foreshadowing. I also really liked the other two students we met here, but sadly this is the last we’re going to see of them, unless Nisioisin does something weird like write them into a prequel in his Zerozaki side series. Lastly, Jun calls Ii-chan out on being a mystery protagonist – like Jessica Fletcher, wherever he goes, murders follow.

This does not have the psychological fascination of the second book, as I said earlier. It’s a quick hit-and-run. But it’s still a really good read, and I certainly hope that it does well enough that we get the 4th and 5th books (a 2-parter) before 2029.

Decapitation: Kubikiri Cycle

By NISIOISIN, illustrations by take. Released in Japan as “Kubikiri Cycle: Aoiro Savant to Zaregototsukai” by Kodansha. Released in North America by Vertical, Inc. Translated by Greg Moore.

I had thought that I had reviewed this volume when it first came out almost ten years ago from Del Rey books. But no, I hadn’t quite begun my blog yet, though I have reviewed the second (and sadly last) book in the series. But of course that was almost ten years ago. Since then I’ve gotten obsessed with Medaka Box, and I finally joined the herd in getting obsessed with the Monogatari series. So I was ready to revisit the first in Nisioisin’s Zaregoto series, which is finally getting an anime in Japan after so many years. (It also never had a manga, except for an original story spinoff.) If you’re familiar with Nisio’s later works, you’ll find much here that’s familiar, particularly the idea of what “geniuses” are. But those works lack the most important element of these books, and that’s the narrator, Ii-chan.

Nisio loves to take his main characters and have them disparaged, either by the narration himself or by other characters. But usually it’s the other characters that get all the attention. In Medaka Box Medaka is not remotely the most popular character with fans, and I doubt you’ll find many Monogatari fans saying Koyomi is “best girl” either. Zaregoto is all about Ii-chan, though. His seemingly deadpan narration, his seeming stoicism, his seeming need to not care about anything that happens to him or what anyone thinks of him. Seeming being the repeated word, because it’s pointed out repeatedly by the entire cast just how much nonsense his entire attitude is. Which is, of course, the point: he is the “nonsense user” of the subtitle, and at times he almost seems to utter it like a mantra, usually when it’s becoming too apparent that’s he’s slipping out of character.

Ii-chan (real name never given throughout the series, much like Kyon) is the friend and minder of a technological genius, Tomo Kunagisa, who’s been invited to a remote island by an eccentric ex-heiress who likes surrounding herself with these sorts of types. Of course, if the words “remote island” seem suspicious to you, you’ve probably guessed that someone is murdered while they’re there. Now Ii-chan, who is merely a normal boy among all these geniuses, must solve the crime. And that’s a lie as well, as we’re told that Ii-chan himself went to an exclusive school in America just for geniuses, though he maintains that it doesn’t count because he dropped out. Also, despite professing a bad memory and ignorance of many basic principles, he’s quoting obscure philosophy and literature throughout. He is a lying liar who lies, and by the end of the book you can see why many in the story are disgusted with him. He won’t try. He refuses to strive. He goes with the flow. Except of course that is not completely true either. He just wishes it was.

There is a lot of backstory given here, some of which comes up again later in the series and some of which does not. Ii-chan talks about a child who was not allowed to have any contact with the outside world for the first ten years of their life, but it’s unclear if he means Kunagisa or himself. Certainly Kunagisa seems to suffer from a case of arrested development – she’s supposedly the same age as Ii-chan, who’s about to start college, but looks and acts about eleven years old. She’s also the head of a former cyber-terrorist group that terrified the world while also advancing its tech beyond most people’s wildest dreams. And she and Ii-chan are clearly used to corpses and investigating – one of the funniest parts of the book is their blank disbelief at why Yayoi is so upset and edgy – after all, it’s just a murder.

Honestly, the murder mystery is possibly the least interesting part of the book – again, not uncommon with this author, where frequently you read things for the dialogue or narrative tone rather than what’s actually happening. I’d actually say it’s overly complex, with two too many twists and turns at the very end – I think Nisio agreed with me, as around the 3rd book in the series he simply stopped making the books mysteries at all. That said, I still love and highly recommend the book, if only for its fascinating and frustrating narrator. And I’m hoping it does well enough that Vertical might put out the second in the series, which is even better.

Zaregoto Book 2: The Kubishime Romanticist

By NISIOISIN. Released in Japan by Kodansha. Released in North America by Del Rey.

The concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’ has been around for ages. Arabian Knights uses it, and Agatha Christie made it famous. But NISIOISIN, the author of the Zaregoto series, really does try to take it to a whole new level. Usually the author sets rules when using such a thing, such as never actually lying to the reader, but merely omitting things that would make the deceit too obvious. Not here. Ii-chan, the narrator of this series of ‘mysteries’, outright lies to us several times throughout the book.

I put the word mysteries in quotes because not only are the mysteries in this book fairly easy to solve, they’re never the point. You’re not trying to figure out who the murderer of the cute girl here is – it’s fairly obvious early on. Likewise, the serial killer going around at the same time is introduced on Page 1. And unlike the first book in this series, The Kubikiri Cycle, Ii-chan himself is not the entire mystery – we already think we know what to expect from him.

We get it, to a certain degree. Once again, whenever talking with Ii-chan, every other character spends pages and pages talking about what a horrible person he is. Since the narrator is compared throughout the book to a mirror, the deeper thematic meaning is clear, but his willingness to accept any insult, analysis, and one-liner thrown back at him can get very annoying. Ii-chan is meant to be frustrating, and I suspect the point of the entire series is getting him to actually be proactive, but I wouldn’t blame people who can’t stand listening to monotonous philosophy and dialogues to get there.

There is a certain ponderous nature to the book, partly because Ii-chan is that kind of person, but it extends to everyone else. There’s no urgency anywhere in the book, with two exceptions which I’ll get to in a minute. The narrator walks around a lot, has conversations with people (that go on and on, usually about what humanity is and why Ii-chan is so far away from the ideal of it), and tries to exist on the periphery. There are several people (including Aikawa Jun, from the first book) who are noted as being far more interesting and ‘lead character-ish’, but we barely get glimpses of what they’re doing. Indeed, Ii-chan notes that he’s not even a sidekick, just the comic relief. He said similar things in the first book.

This is total garbage, of course. The star of these books is definitely him, something that Aikawa points out when they have their ‘if I could just clarify one more thing’ conversation at the end of the book. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene at the ‘prison-themed’ restaurant with Mikoko, and in Muimi’s apartment. Ii-chan, in his narration, tries to make the reader think he is the ultimate in ambivalence (sometimes it works – he can be very boring). But here he can’t keep up the pretense. Seeing his anger in these two scenes is startling – he’s almost completely out of control, even though he’s speaking the same as he always does. They’re the best two scenes in the book, as you really sit up and take notice of just what kind of person Ii-chan is. Or at least you think you’ve gotten closer to finding it out.

This book is hard to recommend. It consists almost entirely of characters talking at each other, it’s filled with ponderous philosophizing, and the narrator can make a man want to throw the book against the wall at times. But I still found it very difficult to put down, and some of the sequences were simply brilliant. The first book was put out by Del Rey two years ago (I may have to go re-read it now), and there’s no sign of the 3rd – Japanese novels have tremendous difficulty selling here. Still, I’m pleased that Del Rey took a chance with this series. As an unreliable narrator, Ii-chan leaves Kyon in the dust.