Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

MOVIE REVIEW: Baby Blues

I don’t know how I manage it, but I seem to keep finding the most effed-up Asian horror movies on Netflix.  This time it was a Hong Kong horror flick known as Baby Blues, a title that is meant to not just the color of newborn eyes, but also postpartum depression.

Or in the case of the movie, postpartum psychotic break caused by a haunted doll.

babybluescover The movie starts with Hao and his wife, Tian Qing, moving to a new and gorgeous house, shown to them by a very enthusiastic real estate agent. During the showing, Tian Qing finds a creepy doll left behind by the previous owners, and she decides that she really wants to keep it for some reason. Because all a new house needs is he addition of a bleeding-eyes doll to make it complete. Tian Qing is a blogger, and Hao is a songwriter who, upon moving to this new and impossibly gorgeous house, starts getting a little obsessed with writing songs about death. Which might not be so bad, if the song he’s working on didn’t make his wife throw up, and end up influencing a singer to crash her car and die.

The movie flat-out mentions the song Gloomy Sunday, so it’s not like they’re trying to hide the similarities between that and the urban legend, so there’s that.

Anyway, as Hao continues his campaign to depress the music-loving world, Tian Qing finds that she’s pregnant. Not just pregnant, but pregnant with twin boys! Hao names them Adam and Jimmy by writing said names on Tian Qing’s belly, in a scene that’s legitimately a bit cute. Problems arise, though, when Jimmy is stillborn, and Tian Qing, in her grief and denial, decides to replace him with the creepy doll. Hao is understandably worried, but his songwriting demands much of his time, and doctors say that it’s likely just postpartum depression, and she’ll recover.

In the defense of the doctors, Hao never actually told them, “So, my wife thinks a random doll is our second son, and she’s starting to care about the doll more than the living child.” That might have raised so red flags.

The story continues to reveal that the doll is related to an accidental death between twins in that house. The doll seems to be possessed less by an actual spirit, and more by the grief and malice from previous residents that experienced grief and betrayal. Tian Qing is deep in its influence, now muttering darkly about how Jimmy-the-doll doesn’t like Adam, how Hao doesn’t like Jimmy, how Jimmy is the centre of her world, and in all honesty, the actress’s portrayal of a woman over the edge was actually pretty good. She was unhinged, half-possessed, and she showed it well, so I’m a fan of her performance. After the story comes out, Hao sets out to remove the doll from the house and to destroy it, to free his family from its influence.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

Haunted dolls instinctively understand the creepy uses of smartphones.

I can’t help but feel that this movie was having a bit of an identity crisis. On one hand, it used some beautiful imagery at times, bordering on an art-film feel at times, trying to convey complex emotions by, say, the appearance of water dripping from a man’s hand. At other times, it goes over the top into ridiculous jump scares with average-at-best CGI. At one point we’re treated to a scene of the doll moving on its own, trying to get a knife from a coffee table by nudging the table a lot to make the knife fall. Unfortunately, it just comes across like the doll is humping the table leg, completely ruining any of the scene’s tension by the way it made me burst out laughing. The plot of the movie was fairly average as far as supernatural thrillers go, but it was the special effects that just ruined it, because they came across so ridiculously.

That, plus the whole subplot with the song seems somewhat without purpose. There are hints that it’s all influenced by the curse on the house and the doll, especially given what happens to one of the initial singers who hears it, but the second singer seems to be unaffected. It seems to serve largely as a distraction. There’s a slight connection to the story of what happened with a previous owner of the house being cheated on and going round the twist, but even that reveal was only there to serve as flavour.

And if you’re curious as to what the lyrics are that keep making people ill and/or depressed and suicidal, you’re out of luck if you watch the same version I did. No subtitles for the long lyrics. Which effectively killed any interest I had in that subplot, since my understanding hit a brick wall and it felt incredibly unresolved.

The original curse seems to have come from one twin accidentally killing the other in some weird game, only the twin dies from being pointed at and killed in-game, which I guess made him die because the doll was involved. Except the doll wasn’t cursed then. Or was it? And if so, how? That never really gets explained that well, and each answer just leads to more questions until you’re ready to just throw up your hands and say, “Fine, the doll’s haunted, and that’s all I need to know.”

Maybe it was a limitation of what the subtitles conveyed, I don’t know. Maybe if I didn’t need to rely on them, the whole thing would be much clearer and make more sense. As it was, this was a movie that lacked coherent origin or direction, had laughable special effects, ended ambiguously and predictably, and ultimately was more of a laugh than a scare. Not one I’d watch again, and honestly, not one I really enjoyed watching in the first place.

MOVIE REVIEW: Gomen nasai/Ring of Curse

I’m a fan of J-horror. I couldn’t exactly tell you why. Maybe it’s that I often find the visuals in J-horror to be really creepy. Maybe it’s that so far I’ve been lucky enough to mostly watch good ones. Maybe it’s because they’re a nice break from the zombies and serial killers that take feature roles in many North American horror flicks.

Whatever the reason, when I saw that Netflix had a new J-horror movie in its offerings, I decided to sit down and see what it was all about.

ringofcursegomennasai

It’s worth taking a moment, before we even get into discussions of the plot, to point out the unfortunate English title. Ring of Curse. If you read that and are reminded of the hit movie, The Ring, you’re not alone. The very title starts you off with what will quickly be revealed to be a rather derivative movie, taking elements from half a dozen other successful J-horror franchises, and those are just the ones that I could spot at a glance.

For my part, the original title, Gomen nasai (generally translated as, “I’m sorry,”) is a much for fitting title when you see what the story actually is.

The movie opens with Japanese pop group Buono talking about how the idea for the movie came from a story on a cell phone novel site. Which also consists of an apology for how certain scenes may not make sense, but they wanted to portray them as close to the story as possible. It’s never a good sign when a movie starts by apologizing for the fact that it might not make any sense.

The movie then cuts to a screen filled with words of death and despair, before launching into the story. Yuka is a high school student with an interest in writing. Despite that, when it comes time to organize the school play, the task of writing the script is given to Kurohane, a very unpopular and creepy girl who only is assigned that task so that more popular students can mock and torment her about it. Kurohane knows this, but throws herself into the work anyway. However, students who read even unfinished pieces of the manuscript start to die, and Yuka seems to be the only one who believes Kurohane has cursed them through her writing.

Yuke confronts Kurohane about this, and is told that yes, the writing is cursed, but Kurohane doesn’t worry about being brought to justice because she’s dying of cancer, and her death will only make the curse stronger. Before she dies, she sends a text message to Yuka’s phone, which Yuka refuses to read as she fears the curse will kill her the way it has killed others. Each cursed victim dies by asphyxiation.

Possibly the creepiest image in this entire movie.

Possibly the creepiest image in this entire movie.

So Kurohane dies, the message goes unread, and time passes. Months later, Yuka’s friends get ahold of the cell phone and see the message, and as they begin to die off, Yuka realises the curse has lost none of its power. Nor do they know how to defeat it. All they know is that you don’t have to read the message to be curse, only to see it. People are killed one by one, and the order in which they’re killed is random.

Then comes Yuka’s “Aha!” moment when she realises that she’s being targeted because she’s the only one left. If she shows the message to others, there’s a chance Kurohane’s curse will come after them instead, since the order is random. The more people cursed, the greater her chances of survival. So she does the only thing she can think of to spread the curse far and wide.

She uploads the text message to a cell phone novel site. And begins to tell her story.

I hope that cell phone novel site had a contest with a good cash prize, Yuka, since you'll need to pay for therapy to get this image out of your head.

I hope that cell phone novel site had a contest with a good cash prize, Yuka, since you’ll need to pay for therapy to get this image out of your head.

If you’re still seeing similarities to The Ring, it’s because they’re all so very obvious. A curse that spreads by people seeing a specific thing. The progenitor of that curse dying and making the curse more powerful. And the only way to save yourself is to show it to other people. It also had shades of Ju-On, some visuals that reminded me of scenes from Fatal Frame games, the whole “killing people one by one” bit seemed right out of Another, and was largely a mish-mash of J-horror tropes all rolled into one. It had 1 scene of physical violence, a few creepy images, but for the most part, had little to make it original and to stand out. It was a decent teen horror movie, but nothing spectacular.

Until you get to the meta aspect of the movie, that turns this from a “meh” movie into an amusing display of viral marketing. Again, it’s not unlike the viral marketing campaign that accompanied The Ring, where unmarked VHS tapes were left in random locations, all with the recording of the cursed video. At the end, when Yuka decides to save herself by uploading everything to a cell phone novel site, it ties back to the movie’s introduction, in which viewers were told that this movie is based on something read on a similar site. And the screen full of creepy words at the beginning were the words of Kurohane’s curse. You don’t have to read Japanese to be cursed. You just have to see the words. This was Buono’s attempt to save themselves after stumbling across Yuka’s attempt to save herself. So it’s a sly little play on viral marketing, albeit not a very original one.

This also brings me back to the issue of the movie’s title. I have to really stretch my brain to figure out how Ring of Curse can actually relate to the movie at all. Curse, sure, but Ring? Best I can come up with is that it’s a reference to how the curse works in groups, killing people one by one, so it seems almost like it’s gone in a circle by the time it comes back to you. But that is a damn stretch, and more likely the title was devised by people who wanted to cash it on the fact that The Ring is a well-known J-horror title in North America even today. Gomen nasai, however, works well not just because it’s one of Kurohane’s lines in the movie as she hands over the first version of her cursed writing, but also as an apology to the viewer. “Sorry, but by watching this, you’re now cursed.” It’s a meaning that goes beyond just trying to sound creepy.

Kurohane is a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist. Always having been unpopular and with a rather typical yurei appearance, she was made fun of a lot, until she decided to strike back by writing the word noroi (“curse”) all over a bullying classmate’s notebook. In her own blood. Hey, I never claimed she wasn’t creepy as hell. But it was from that moment on that her parents changed, neglecting her in favour of her younger sister, isolating her and generally treating her poorly, even after her cancer diagnosis. Kurohane grew up in a terrible situation, and so she turned inward until her bitterness had to have an outlet, until she stopped trying to convince herself that there was something she could do to win back her family’s love. Her vengeance against those who wronged her was brutal and out of proportion to some of the wrongs done to her, but when her background is revealed, you really can’t help but feel sorry for her.

It’s worth mentioning that if anyone else wants to watch this movie and has to rely on English subtitles… don’t expect much in the way of quality from the subtitles. Their timing is pretty decent, but there were frequent odd turns of phrase that probably came from weird translations, punctuation and capital letters went missing, and Kurohane’s name was either subtitled properly or as “Kuroha,” which made me think that there were only 2 subtitlers working on this movie and they never once spoke to each other or compared notes. The subtitles are good enough to get you through the movie and properly convey the plot, but they’re far from what I’d call good.

Is it worth watching? Eh, well, it’s an okay movie to kill an afternoon. It’s nothing special, its inspirations are blatant and many, and most of the value lies in the implications of the plot rather than the plot itself. If you’re a fan of J-horror, it’s probably worth taking a look at, though with the caveat that it’s not worth taking seriously. If J-horror isn’t something that particularly interests you, well really, you’re not going to miss anything by passing this one over.

Offscreen bonus! While watching a movie about a curse that kills people by asphyxiation, my asthma was acting up due to pollen and multiple people cutting their lawns in the area. It probably says something about me that I actually found this more ironically funny than ironically creepy.