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“At a time of crisis, loneliness is not good” @TeamRedCircle

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One love Chigusa by Soji Shimada
Translated by David Warren

Back in July 2019, I made the acquaintance of the Red Circle Minis. A new initiative from Red Circle Authors, who describe themselves as a home for authors from, or living in, Japan, the Minis are short works that are first being published in English. As they’re usually bite-sizes books, this makes them a wonderful way to explore authors who you might not have come across before. More titles have been released, and the most recent is the longest so far; at 115 pages it really deserves the title novella. And a fascinating piece of writing it is!

The book is “One Love Chigusa” and the author is Soji Shimada. Apparently something of a legend in Japan, he’s probably best known in the UK for his crime fiction (both Murder in the Crooked House and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders are published by the Pushkin Vertigo imprint). However, “One Love…” is a very different kind of book, exploring potential futures and how technology may affect our perceptions…

“One Love” is set in Beijing in the late 21st century; a man called Xie, the story’s protagonist, suffers terrible injuries in an accident. However, technology has reached a point where he can be very much rebuilt (shades of the old TV series “The Bionic Man”, for those with long enough memories). And talking of memories, Xie’s is also rebuilt and he’s given some kind of Quantum memory drive. He returns to his former life and job; but things are looking a little different…

Of course, that’s why the indicator was needed. Perhaps the effects of speech and action were being measured as cash values. People without religion, ideology or faith, only trust money as the measure of worth and value.

Xie suddenly finds that his fellow humans have changed almost beyond recognition. The women have angry red demonic faces; men have indicators on their chests with ever changing numbers. Xie is frightened by the changes and unclear as to what’s going on, becoming driven to thoughts of suicide; until one day he spots one woman, Chigusa, who not only is normal but is also the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. His pursuit of her will consume him (and much of the rest of the book) – but is even she what she seems?

I shan’t say too much more about the plot; but it’s obvious that “One Love…” has many sci fi tropes with the futuristic technologies, the modernistic settings described in Beijing and the AI elements built into Xie. However, underlying these trappings is a story of obsession; Xie becomes convinced that Chigusa is the only person who can save him in his current state; however, there is so much more to the world than he sees and understands, and this is gradually played out through the narrative.

The world was deteriorating rapidly. The news on the Internet was full of terrible incidents… He didn’t know when all this had started to happen. Morality seemed to have disappeared from the world. Making money, winning and losing, dog eat dog – these were the principles of survival. And they were being sharpened up. This was all that mattered now.

“One Love Chigusa” is actually an unexpectedly gripping read; as the tale progresses, the mysteries surrounding Xie’s skewed perceptions and gradual revelations add levels of intrigue to the plot, and there are plenty of twists. One I perhaps had an inkling of, but much I didn’t foresee – which is always satisfying. I did enjoy the book and Shimada’s writing very much, though I do have to say that I felt slightly uneasy with the portrayal of women, particularly Chigusa, who is extremely objectified to a point where it’s really uncomfortable; and when you add that to the fact that Xie basically stalks her it becomes very unsettling. It may be that this was deliberate so as to emphasise Xie’s distress at his changed perceptions and then extreme reaction when he meets someone he sees as beautiful. However, I don’t think it necessarily added anything to the narrative and could definitely have been toned down a bit.

The Minis!

Putting that aside, “One Love Chigusa” is a really fascinating work, full of all sorts of ideas about the effects of technology on we humans, and many intriguing layers. Shimada captures the strangeness of the events and emotions Xie is living through brilliantly, reminding us how many aspects of the world that we use and take for granted every day are actually not really understood by us. The Red Circle Minis are a really wonderful initiative; every one I’ve read has been so different and so good; and “One Love Chigusa” is an excellent addition to the series! 😀

I wrote about the Red Circle Minis for Shiny New Books here, and also reviewed the first three in the series on SNB here. I also covered the second batch here on the blog!

“Words possess the power to change reality” @TeamRedCircle

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Earlier on in the year, I spent some happy reading time discovering a new publisher with a very novel method of bringing translated Japanese literature to Anglophone readers. The venture is Red Circle Authors, and I wrote about their ethos and their first three books for Shiny New Books, as well as for the Ramblings.

The works they issue are called the Red Circle Minis; bite-size pieces of new writing by a variety of esteemed Japanese authors, these stories are being published for the first time in English, which is really innovative. I found the first three Minis fascinating; and now RCA have issue two more titles, both of which provide much food for thought, as well as being entertaining reading.

At first glance, the two books seem very dissimilar; one is the tale of a warlord from the past, based on a real historical figure; the other looks to future society and the ravages inflicted on our poor planet and much of its population by those in control. The differing subject matter of these two books really does show the range and variety of Japanese literature, and the admirable willingness of Red Circle Authors to embrace that.

First up, “The Refugees’ Daughter” by Takuji Ichikawa, translated by Emily Balistrieiri (Mini 4). The author is a high-flier in the world of Japanese literature, although his work doesn’t seem readily available in English. “The Refugees’ Daughter” is set in a future time, where society has collapsed, climate change has wrecked the ecosystems, and groups of refugees try to avoid the warring factions and find some place of sanctuary. The daughter of the title, Aimi, is gifted with a way to communicate with those who might help them escape their dystopian landscape; and when she receives a communication which may guide them to a mythical gate, Aimi and her family plus another group must try to escape the soldiers and make their way to safety.

We took such a beautiful planet of water and, in a matter of a hundred years, we turned it into a grimy mud ball.

My somewhat simplistic description belies the depth and compexity of “Refugee…”; tense as it is, this is not just an adventure story. As the group travel, it becomes clear that humanity is almost split into two types: there are the aggressors, those in charge who just want to destroy and control; and those who resist, almost hippie-like and pacifist in tendency, who want a peaceful and fair world. The group discuss their fears, beliefs and ideals as they travel, and it’s hard not to see parallels with our own world; it did seem that the time portrayed in the book is a look forward at what may be the inevitable result of our current state. I sensed threads of criticism of the patriarchal system and celebration of a matriarchal alternative, which was fascinating. There are elements of magic realism in the book, which sit naturally in the story, and it’s actually a very uplifting read.

Hateful words are just like bullets. The media has been at the beck and call of The Complex for ages now. The more hate speech spreads, the more hate grows in people’s hearts. It’s like a zombie virus.

In complete contrast, “The Chronicles of Lord Asunaro” by Kanji Hanawa, translated by Meredith McKinney (Mini 5) looks back to a time when Japan was ruled by powerful warlords. However, the story captures the country in a time of change; although the titular lord inherits a kingdom, he’s as unlike his powerful father as it’s possible to be. He prefers a life of luxury amongst concubines to a samurai-style life; and instead of fighting battles and extending his kingdom, his main achievement seems to be the production of a prodigious amount of children! The story gently critiques not only the heroic tales of warlords of old; it also questions how many of us, if placed in a situation of power like Lord Asunaro, would simply enjoy excess and the luxuries riches and power bring. It’s very entertaining on the surface, yet thought-provoking underneath.

…. this had been a moment when the earth chose to assert itself a little and remind everyone that it is a living being.

I found the two new minis an excellent and contrasting pairing; both authors obviously deserve their high status in the world of Japanese literature, and the stories made excellent, enjoyable and intriguing reading; I kept thinking about both books long after finishing them. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Japanese authors over the years, though fewer modern ones, and it’s a country which has produced some of my favourites; and it’s reassuring to see, from the Red Circle Minis, that Japan is still producing most wonderful writing!

NB I always try to credit the translator in my posts, as I certainly wouldn’t have the breadth of reading I enjoy without them. D’oh – I forget this time, so post amended and thanks to Simon for nudging me by asking who was responsible! 😀

Exploring modern Japanese literature with the Red Circle Minis @shinynewbooks @TeamRedCircle

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You might recall that amongst the images of piles of books I shared recently on the Ramblings, there was one featuring three attractive and slim volumes of Japanese literature. These are the Red Circle Minis, and they’re the result of a fascinating new initiative from Red Circle Authors. The latter is a venture which refuses to be categorised – website, publisher, agent, promoter, general cheerleader for Japanese writing; all of these could be used to describe Red Circle!

The Red Circle Minis

Co-founded by Richard Nathan and Koji Chikatan, Red Circle Authors has an impressive website with all manner of resources for anyone wanting to explore Japanese literature. The Minis are the first three editions in a planned series – bite-sized, beautifully produced pieces of fiction ideal for a quick literary fix. The range of subject matter covered is already wide, taking in AI issues, the psychology of searching for missing children and the curse of TV celebrity.

I’ve written more extensively about the Red Circle venture for Shiny New Books here; and I cover the first three Minis in more detail here. The Red Circle Minis were a joy and delight to read, so do have a look at my Shiny New Books pieces and check out Red Circle – I’m very much looking forward to seeing what titles appear next! 😀

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