by Rebecca Silverman,

My Little Sister Can Read Kanji

Novel 1

My Little Sister Can Read Kanji Novel 1
In the 23rd century, Japan has fully embraced the moe life. What were once damned as fetish light novels are now held up as examples of the best Orthodox literature has to offer, the prime minister is a 2D middle school girl, and kanji has been largely rendered obsolete. In this world Gin Imose, a high school second year, dreams of becoming a great author in the Orthodox style, writing wonderful stories about sexy and soothing little sisters. But his own sister Kuroha looks down on his ambitions, and she's just weird enough to prefer novels that aren't full of panties…and she can read kanji. When a freak marshmallow accident sends them back to the 21st century, will Gin be able to understand his little sister any better?

The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms defines “parody” as a mocking imitation of the style of a literary work, noting that it is related to burlesque in its use of serious language for ridiculous subjects and to satire for its punishment of eccentricities. That's pretty much My Little Sister Can Read Kanji in a nutshell. The story and the style in which it is written are both deliberate send-ups of current light novel trends, the general “little sister” fetish, and the state of Japanese popular fiction, but don't worry – author Takashi Kajii doesn't take a preachy tone. Flirting with snide satire, the story instead puts us in the perspective of seventeen-year-old Gin Imose, a devote of what passes for literature in the 22nd century: what we today would call light novels.

In Kajii's world, the 2060 publication of a novel known as OniAka, short for “I Want to Have Onii-chan's Baby,” took the country by storm. Its popularity was so great that other authors began writing in the same style, which was devoid of kanji, and eventually little sister fetish novels became Literature and panty flashes became the highest form of literary symbolism. Now in the 23rd century, kanji is obsolete, what we'd call light novel schlock is “Orthodox” literature, and the two political parties are basically reduced to “blood-related little sister fetish” or “non-blood-related little sister fetish.” It is in this world that Gin Imose dreams of becoming a great author, and he jumps at the chance to meet bestselling Orthodox author Gai Odaira, who specializes in little sister novels.

Since the book is written in Gin's first-person perspective, we get a very firm grasp on what passes for high art and normal in the story's world. But it also gives the story a creepy edge in that Gin's ideas of what is acceptable to do, say, and write about is so far down the dark alley of ick that it can be very off-putting at times. This is where Kuroha comes in – Gin's younger (non-blood-related) sister by a year, Kuroha is clearly uncomfortable and disgusted with the little sister lit of her time, and therefore has mastered the art of reading Heisei-era Japanese, which naturally includes kanji, so that she can read earlier novels. Being a younger sister herself, she has a very different perspective on the subject of Orthodox literature, and she provides the voice of the reader in the novel. For example, when she accompanies Gin to meet Odaira, she quickly shuts him down when he becomes sexually excited over the idea that they have a third sibling, a ten-year-old sister named Miru. Gin sees nothing wrong with Odaira salivating over Miru and asking to meet her so that he can touch her; Kuroha recognizes that this definitely not okay. The juxtaposition of their attitudes towards Odaira is reassuring for the reader, but it can also be a source of humor, largely because Kuroha manages to shut down the creepiness before it takes physical form. Kajii is also good at escalating the levels of ludicrous to the point where it becomes, if not laugh-out-loud funny, then at least very obviously a joke and a satiric comment on the mainstreaming of fetish novels.

Of course, things can't stop there. Partway through the book, the group is transported back in time to 201X (fill in your number as you like), with entertaining results. They find themselves randomly standing in front of a large house occupied solely by Yuzu, a teen girl whose otaku brother recently died (and clearly had a creepy obsession with her, although she's oblivious) and who is happy to take the time travelers in. This is where we see the parody really shine as Gin is fully unable to readjust his thinking and bumbles around reinforcing Yuzu's warped view of her brother and declaring booby mousepads and hug pillows “high art.” He's not just a fish out of water, he's a whale on a mountain, and that goes about as well for the whale as you might expect.

While the story itself is amusing – and the higher your tolerance for inappropriate little sister and underwear jokes, the more you will like it – it's the way that the text is written that really makes this work. There are a few sections written as they would be in the 23rd century that feel like the Japanese equivalent of YOLO Juliet and its brethren – symbols and emojis dot text written as if it was composed for a messenger ap. That Gin waxes rhapsodic about it is both depressing and very funny; the added bonus that the story was “translated” from the 23rd century to ours somehow makes it better. Gin's utter cluelessness as to Odaira's (and his own) inappropriate behavior becomes funny as you wonder how he could be so out of it, but it also has that special disquieting edge satire brings, that somewhere, in some distant future, this could be a terrible possibility. The matter-of-fact way Gin narrates the story brings this home; it's almost like reading an old medical manual that recommends rubbing raw steak on your head to cure baldness in how firmly the opinions are stated.

My Little Sister Can Read Kanji is not going to appeal to everyone, perhaps more so than other books with similar titles. It can be off-putting at times, and Gin and Odaira are difficult characters to take when they really get going. But the satire is sharp, the parody well-done, and the whole premise is made to truly work. At this point the time travel aspect feels like the weakest device, but given the revelation at the end of the book, that should be smoothed out in the remaining novels in the series. Basically this is light novel burlesque, and if you're ready to see the Idol Incidents premise taken to its extreme, My Little Sister Can Read Kanji is worth checking out.

Overall : B
Story : B
Art : C

+ Great use of parody and satire, points out some of the issues in LNs in a humorous way, can be very funny
High creep factor in both Gin and Odaira, time travel conceit isn't handled particularly well, generic art

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Story: Takashi Kajii

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My Little Sister Can Read Kanji (light novel)

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