Imagine walking up a high, steep hill on a hot summer’s day to reach a bar or restaurant: the journey’s long, dry and arduous but if what’s on the menu is your thing, the hard slog is worth it in the end. Reading Loups-Garous is a lot like that. I’m reluctant to recommend it despite how effective it is in depicting the themes and ideas it addresses, because in all honesty it’s a book that’s easy to admire but perhaps hard to like.
I foolishly chose to read it in a crowded room full of other people talking, which gave me that annoying experience of repeatedly losing your place and reading the same line(s) over and over. The problem with Loups-Garous is that it isn’t very accommodating towards the reader in terms of making its food-for-thought easy to digest so that was probably the worst way for me to approach it.
I actually have a fair amount of respect for Natsuhiko Kyogoku and have done ever since I watched the anime adaptation of Mouryou no Hako: he clearly has a lot of affection for the traditional murder-mystery type of novel but as well as paying homage to the usual tropes and plot devices, he’s damned good at recurring metaphors, unexpected twists and weaving together supposedly unrelated plot points.
Loups-Garous combines the murder-mystery element with the police state dystopia, which is another commonly-used scenario, albeit in the SF genre which isn’t usually a place where you’d expect youkai or other supernatural phenomena as plot devices. It does make for a refreshingly different atmosphere but the peculiar way in which Kyogoku uses folklore to drive the story isn’t something we western readers are likely to be familiar with.
You could be forgiven for wondering why it’s called Loups-Garous in the first place when werewolves don’t make any obvious appearances (I don’t even feel like I’m spoiling much for you in pointing this out either). This is I think a fair warning that it’s the kind of story that you need to think over on several levels – a crime thriller, a piece of social commentary and/or a philosophical head-scratcher. It’s certainly not just a tale of murdered schoolgirls in a near-future borderline-cyberpunk setting. I daresay anyone who does approach it from that angle would feel cheated and more than a little bemused.
Reading up on Kyogoku’s biography he’s a fascinating guy: it seems he exerts a lot of creative control over the physical presentation of his novels and goes to great lengths to make the peculiarities of his prose readable. I’m sorry to say that carrying this over into an English language edition is well nigh impossible no matter how hard your try, which may explain why my experience of this novel was such an uphill struggle.
This is a shame because as both a morality study and a futuristic fable, it works very well; Kyogoku finds plenty of ways to tie these two aspects together and make them complement one another. What I found particularly fascinating is how the characters’ reliance on technology (specifically their handheld electronic ‘monitors’) shapes interactions with one another and the world around them. I personally felt he’s saying something about our addiction to multi-purpose mobile/cell phone technology (I ought to point out that the novel was written before the arrival of the current generation of smartphones…well predicted sir!) in that the flow of conversation and understanding between characters is so awkward and stilted.
Although it’s a convincing portrayal of the way our society could be heading from a social and technological standpoint, the trade-off is that it’s quite an alien worldview: because the characters are socially maladjusted, they come across as aloof and difficult to relate to and their topics of conversation feel ill-suited to how we expect people of their ages and backgrounds to speak. It’s a similar experience to watching a Mamoru Oshii movie in that the characters appear to be merely vessels for conveying the writer’s own philosophies rather than voicing their own thoughts.
The end result is a novel that apparently wants to be studied rather than enjoyed in order to be a appreciated…which I’m personally okay with but I can imagine a few people picked this up with the expectation of a pulpy mash-up of supernatural horror and SF. I detected a significant number of common themes and plot devices between this and Mouryou no Hako too and really liked how they played out, so I suppose I can now call myself a fan of Kyogoku’s style now. I’m glad I bought it and I’m also glad it was translated and published, but I suspect it was marketed in a very different way to that of its Japanese edition. It may be a bit of a hard sell to international audiences in any case, since it’s quite different from even other futuristic SF pieces, so I don’t really have any suggestions to remedy that. I just hope Ubume doesn’t disappoint.
Speaking of disappointments, my piece on the Loups-Garous anime will probably be up next. Trust me on this: if you plan to watch that, do yourself a favour and read the book first.