Otsuichi, Zoo (Haikasoru, 1993)
I first encountered the work of Hirotaka Adachi, who writes under the pen name Otsuichi (I have no idea if this is what he meant choosing it, but amusingly, one of the possible translations of his pen name is “first second”), when I saw the screen adaptation of his novel Goth a couple of years ago. While the movie was problematic, it was interesting, and I decided I’d try to hunt down some of his writing. The first thing I picked up was Zoo. And boy, can this guy write. (And boy, can that other guy translate.)
While Otsuichi sprinkles this book with tales in different genres—mystery, horror, drama, thriller, and a little sci-fi for good measure—it’s the themes, not the plots, that are going to tell you where to go. Not that I’d call any story in this book bad, really, but Otsuichi has his strengths, and the book’s best moments are when he’s playing to them. In his case, he has a thing for child protagonists, especially child protagonists who are hopelessly damaged. (Anyone who’s seen Goth already knows this; I’m just saying it’s not an anomaly.) They don’t necessarily have to be the main characters (e.g., the child who appears about halfway through “The White House in the Cold Forest” is a major player, but not the story’s main character), but you’ll soon notice that it’s the kids where Otsuichi lavishes most of his attention. And as a result, when the kids do take center stage, the stories blast off into the stratosphere. “Kazari and Yoko”, about identical-twim high school sisters, is the big winner here. It is a bitter, cruel drama that could easily be the outcome of some sort of unchecked social experiment; a single mother has lavished attention and praise on one sister, while the other has been beaten and neglected. Kazari’s life begins to change when she discovers a stray dog in the park and befriends its owner, but Otsuichi’s never going to make things easy. This is an extremely good story, maybe a great one, but be warned: it should come packaged with razor blades. “Seven Rooms”, the runner-up here, is another kid story, this revolving around an abducted brother and sister in a strange complex containing the titular seven rooms (think a smaller version of Cube or Fu-rai).
The other eight stories? Yeah, they’re good. Not as good as those two, but the least fantastic Otsuichi story you read today will still be better than 90% of the other stories you read this year. Otsuichi isn’t quite Karen Russell-level awesome, but he’s no more than one tier down. *** ½
Addendum: Wikipedia just informed me, and IMDB confirmed, that the Japanese anthology film Zoo (2005) is based on five of the stories here. Obviously it’s been far too long since I’ve seen the movie, because I totally didn’t remember any connection between the two. Now I have to go back and re-watch it.