by Miyuki Miyabe
Translated by Alexander O. Smith
Published 2003, Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. Ltd., Tokyo
and VIZ media, San Francisco.
Brave Story (Bureibu Stōrī or ブレイブ・ストーリー) is a well-known fantasy story from Japan; it was originally published as a serial in various Japanese newspapers, spanning from from November 11, 1999 to February 13, 2001. It was then published in a two-volume book set in 2003, and published as a set of 20 tankōbon comic books. In 2006 a manga film version was produced, and was reasonably well received, and it has also inspired three video games: Brave Story: New Traveler; Brave Story: My Dreams, and Brave Story: Wataru's Adventure. In Japan you can even buy different editions of the book edited for different age groups. This review, however, will deal only with the single-volume, full English translation of the novel.
The story follows Wataru Mitani, a young Japanese boy. It is a long, rambling, and dense book, and it is rather hard to categorize. It is a young adult novel, half childish fantasy and half dark drama. It is massive, over 800 pages, and takes about 200 hundred of those to get to the actual 'Brave Story'. Some of the oddness may be accounted for by the fact that it was originally written in Japanese; sadly I can only review the English version, and I suspect that it loses something in translation.
It would not be too far off to say that Brave Story is actually two different stories, one set in the real world and one set in a fantasy world. Although both stories have elements of fantasy, they are very different. For a good chunk of the book a major theme is simply being in middle school, and dealing with friends and classmates and crushes. While this aspect of the book is detailed to the point of being overwhelming (and quite boring), it is essentially background establishing that Wataru is normal and relatable. The centerpiece of this aspect of the novel is clearly the divorce of Wataru's parents, and the angst that accompanies this event. Fair warning, the drama escalates to a point that that I am somewhat uncomfortable with in a YA novel. I am not really a fan of drama, coming-of-age novels, or divorce in general, but as far as I can judge this is a pretty decent - if extreme - treatment of the experience of a young boy living through his parents' separation.
In contrast, the majority of the story is set in a magical and slightly cartoonish fantasy world, accessed through a secret gate on the grounds of an old temple. This world is somewhat akin to the ones we grew up with - the Oz stories, The NeverEnding Story, The Phantom Tollbooth - with silly-looking but often sinister beasts, humanoid and anthropomorphic animals, creative but not completely logical magical events, never-ending and largely unrelated sub-quests, and of course, a hapless maiden or two to rescue. This is a rather dark world, in which violence and intense racism are facts of life, and the quests often involve evil forces that stop at nothing. In contrast, the physical environment is a stereotypical fantasy world, with quests and settings that are openly stolen from computer games, characters that are prototypical children's fantasy (talking humanoid cats and lizards, for example), and a plot line that reads like any 13-year-old's idea of what you expect out of a fantasy novel. This is fleshed out with a good dose of intentionally blunt psychotherapy, as Wataru faces his fears, meets doppelgangers of his parents, and kills unfair authority figures.
The story alternates between serious and cheesy, mundane and surreal, overly predictable and spontaneous randomness. It is quite an experience... It starts out as a somewhat jumbled mass of text, full of maudlin reminiscing and quiet editorializations. Sometimes it comes across as a slightly senile ramblings, although the writing has a slightly amateurish style that may be intended to come across as childlike. We learn fractured bits of family history, school gossip, neighborhood history, and unclearly-attributed opinions constantly. It is written in a sort of detached third person; for example, when Wataru is frightened by a 'ghost', the author takes a break to give the back-story to the books on Wataru's bookshelf; as you might imagine, this is not relevant to the action. At all.
Things pick up a bit once Wataru enters the fantasy world full-time; there is more action, the story moves along in a more traditional way, and the author focuses in on Wataru a bit more. This is not entirely a good thing. Wataru is a bit of an anti-hero, incompetent and with low self-esteem. In the beginning this is okay - kids are not really supposed to be competent in handling parents going through a messy divorce. But once he becomes an adventuring hero (by his own choice), he does not shape up and start leading the action. To some extent this is probably a realistic response of a kid who finds himself in a strange and illogical fantasy world, and many fantasy stories are built around a hero growing into his role. Unfortunately, Brave Story isn't very clear on what Wataru's role is, or what lessen he is supposed to be learning. The moral of the story seems to be that everything is awful, but you have to keep on going and deal with it... which is okay, I guess, but I would rather not have this lesson dragged out over so very many pages.
As you may have guessed, I am not a big fan of this book; moreover, I can't think of anyone to whom I would recommend it. It just isn't that great, and it is VERY LONG. However, it is just interesting enough that I did finish it, and it is often entertaining. I suspect that it would be even more so if I had a better understanding of Japanese culture and literary tradition; surely some of the oddness in pacing and structure are due to cultural differences. I also believe that the translation was not so great - I don't know, of course, but I suspect that the original was a bit more regular in writing style and character voice. So, I suppose, if you can read it in the original Japanese and enjoy epic children's fantasy, it may be worth giving this book a shot.