Brain Diving Thrown for a Loup
by Brian Ruh, Feb 8th 2011
I don't sing karaoke very often. I've learned, though, that it's generally a good idea to have a couple songs in your repertoire that you can pull off reasonably well and that are going to be found on most major song lists. Personally, I have one bedrock song, and that's Duran Duran's “Hungry Like the Wolf.”
I know what you may be thinking – cheesy ‘80s pop. But hold on a sec, there. Duran Duran were so much more than that. They combined crafted pop stylings with a visual flair and a great knowledge of art and fashion. I mean, their song and video for “Wild Boys” was based on iconoclastic Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs’ novel The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead. I don't think any other pop band would have take on the challenge of adapting Burroughs’ work in such a way. Similarly, “Hungry Like the Wolf” is a great song because behind its catchy veneer it's actually kind of disturbing. Reportedly influenced by the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the singer exudes the hunting instincts of an animal in pursuing his female prey. It's a very sensual song and it brings the listener along for the thrill of the hunt.
The song works because the boundary between humans and animals can sometimes be a fuzzy (furry?) one. We humans often like to think of ourselves as being apart from the other animals on the earth, when in fact we are all part of the same food chain and ecosystem. People around the world have seen humans and animals as being connected in other ways as well; there are many myths and legends from across the globe of animals assuming human form as well as humans turning into animals. Probably the most famous example of this in our current culture is the werewolf (loups garous in French, or “werewoof” in toddlerspeak). The standard werewolf myth goes that if you are bitten by a werewolf, you will turn into one when there is a full moon out.
It's interesting that Japan really doesn't have much in the way of shape-shifting mythology related to wolves. There are certainly tales of creatures turning into humans such as the kitsune (fox) or the tanuki (raccoon, or raccoon-dog), but the wolf, while highly respected, isn't usually thought of in this way. However, this isn't to say that wolves and werewolves don't appear in Japanese popular culture. My Read This! pick for this week is a great article by Antonia Levi from the first volume of Mechademia called “The Werewolf in the Crested Kimono: The Wolf-Human Dynamic in Anime and Manga.” (Since the article is in a journal, you'll probably need to access it through a library. Or pick up a copy of the dead tree version.) Rather than the usual conceptions of the werewolf, Levi opens up the definition a bit more to include “any fictional wolf-human (and/or sometimes dog-human) dynamic.” This allows her to discuss titles like Wolf's Rain, InuYasha, Princess Mononoke, and Phoenix, even though none of them really fit the mold of the werewolf story as we commonly think of it. The article goes on to discuss how these titles use the wolf motif in order to say something relevant about the relation between humans and nature, society, and gender roles. It's definitely an overview of these topics, but this also means that for an academic article it's pretty accessible.
Another example of the werewolf in Japanese media is as the titular creature in Natsuhiko Kyogoku's novel Loups-Garous, which has been translated and published in English by Haikasoru. In addition to the novel, the story has been told in manga and anime forms as well; in fact, I first became aware of the story through the manga, illustrated by Akihiko Higuchi and serialized in Comic Ryu. I must admit that I only caught the manga in bits and pieces as I picked up occasional issues of the magazine, but I quite liked the character designs. However, I've heard that the actual story leaves something to be desired. I've only read a handful of chapters, but there seem to be quite significant changes from the original novel. Similarly, a Loups-Garous anime film came out last year, directed by Junichi Fujisaku and produced by Production I.G Like the manga, I've only been able to see bits and pieces of the anime, but from what I've seen it looks like there are other big differences from the novel. (And I must admit, I'm really not a fan of the character designs by Chizu Hashii. There's just something vaguely creepy and off-putting about them, although perhaps that's the point.)
Loups-Garous by Natsuhiko Kyogoku
After all this talk of wolves and werewolves, you might be surprised to find out that you can't actually find either between the covers of this novel. I'll just come right out and say it – the wolves/werewolves in this story are entirely metaphorical. However, you wouldn't think so if you read the synopsis on the back of the book, which says that the protagonists are after a killer “who might just be a werewolf.” While this certainly makes for enticing copy, it's completely not true. Instead, the concept of the wild wolf is used in the story to contrast the remarkably “tamed” humans that appear throughout. (In this regard it's remarkably similar to the Jin-Roh anime that came out a decade ago.) Since there aren't any actual werewolves, Loups-Garous falls squarely into the genre of science fiction, not fantasy; there is nothing that happens in the novel that requires a supernatural explanation. (Well, okay, there's a goth girl character who is into divination and whose vague predictions do sometimes come true. However, there are people like this in real life, and I'm not about to say that we live in some fantasy world just because their guesses are occasionally right.)
The connection to wolves in made even stronger by the cover art used in the Haikasoru translation, which features the eyes of a wolf on the top half and a trio of girls on the bottom. The overall design and layout of this image would lead me to believe that this could be some “urban fantasy” about wolves running amok in a contemporary city. There's even a rather cheesy tagline right by the title that says “Got Bite?” On the one hand, I can completely understand why Haikasoru would want to go with a cover like this, since the supernatural / teen girl combination has been such a commercial success for the Twilight series of books. It seems only natural that they might want to grab a section of this market if they could. However, because of the teen-lit connotations the cover evokes, I think it could also alienate potential readers who would otherwise pick up a book that focuses on how people communicate with one another in a futuristic society.
So if Loups-Garous isn't really about the werewolves of the title, what is the novel really about? The book is set in an unnamed city decades in the future. Technology has advanced to such a degree that people don't need to talk with one another face to face any more. In fact, there has been a shift to written electronic communication in which direct, unambiguous words are preferred so nobody misunderstands what is being said. However, sometimes human interaction is still necessary, so some students attend communication sessions led by a counselor in order to give them opportunities to work on their social skills. The protagonists of the novel are three teenage women – Hazuki, Ayumi, and Mio – who regularly attend such sessions, study, and go about their routine lives. However, when the book begins, four local teenagers have already been murdered and they learn that a fifth murder has occurred. Although the murders don't seem to involve the girls at first, they are slowly brought into the fold and are soon working to try to solve the case before more people are killed. (As I've mentioned in a previous column, the roots of Japanese science fiction can be found in detective fiction, and the mystery solving in Loups-Garous is another example of this.) The chapters of the book alternate between the story of the girls and the story of their counselor Fuwa, who is pulled into the murder investigation on the administrative side of things but who ends up working alongside a police detective.
The ferocity of the murders that take place in Loups-Garous is contracted with the sterility of daily life. Not only is their world a generally safe one, but this also means that it's relatively devoid of emotion as well. Concepts like love and family don't really enter into the world of Loups-Garous. There are negative emotions, but the common response is to escape – to get away from the people around you and find your own hermetic world where nobody can affect you. Appropriately, there is even a subplot in the novel involving a group of anime-obsessed fans than the lengths they will go through to keep the object of their devotion pure.
As I was reading through the book, I couldn't help but make comparisons to the Fractale anime that has been airing this season. Both stories are about worlds where sophisticated computer systems control many of the functions of society and where people have given in to the seduction of having things decided for you. It's an odd kind of freedom where the omnipresent system frees you from the mundane concerns of basic human necessities like food and shelter. These are also worlds where people generally live physically apart from other human beings. In fact, in Loups-Garous this is developed to such a degree that a number of characters seem autistic, to a degree. For example, it is noted quite a few times that the character Ayumi doesn't ever look anyone in the eye when speaking to them, and Hazuki mentions that she often has trouble gauging what people are feeling during face-to-face interactions. I don't think Kyogoku is trying to suggest that technological communication specifically causes autism, but that physical and mental isolation from other people can mimic symptoms along an autism spectrum. Additionally, both Kyogoku and Fractale story author Hiroki Azuma make comparisons between people and animals, highlighting the changes that advances in technology have brought to our behavior. Throughout the book, Kyogoku seems to be saying that the unquestioning use of technology is taking away from our animal nature, making us into sanitized beings that live out the same mundane existence from day to day and generation to generation.
To be honest, the reason why I've foregrounded how Loups-Garous constructs its world and the technological issues it entails is that they're really the most interesting thing about the book. Unfortunately the characters come off as rather flat, as there isn't a whole lot to them for the most part. In some ways they seem like archetypes of other characters; in fact, the demeanors and dynamics among the three leads seemed right out of Evangelion. Basically, Mio is Asuka, Ayumi is Rei, and Hazuki is Shinji (if you give him a sex change). Also, the book has a tendency to put explanatory dialogue in the mouths of characters, and they engage in oddly informative tete-a-tetes during what should be critical moments. Kyogoku gives himself an out with this point, though, since, as described above, the nature of communication and conversation between people has changed drastically between our time and then the book takes place. They way the characters talk may indeed be “natural” for their highly mediated environment. Along the same lines, quite a bit of dialogue in the book is given to whether it is ever right to kill someone and the motives for murder. In spite of, or perhaps because of these high-minded concepts the eventual reveal of the killer's identity and why the murders have been taking place seemed rather laughable. Not to give too much away, but I was honestly expecting something a bit more groundbreaking than the reason presented in the novel.
I'd definitely recommend Loups-Garous for anyone interested in the changes that technology and communication can bring about in a society. Kyogoku certainly seems to take a dim view of the direction in which we are headed. It goes without saying for a novel like this that there are major flaws to be found in the vaunted computer system that arranges everyone's lives. However, in the end there is no “fight the system” call to arms against the repressive regime of technology. Perhaps this is more realistic than those stories where the good guys topple the evil enemies and everything turns out rosy in the end. This isn't to say that the ending isn't satisfactory. Just that, perhaps as in life, even though we may strive as hard as we can, we often end up making merely small changes to the world around us. And perhaps that is enough.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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