Thursday, June 14, 2007


An Appointment with The Red Thread of Destiny or A Cell Phone Novel

A wise translator once told me that if I really wanted to learn to read Japanese (aka master kanji), I should spend an hour translating some text every day. He said that over time, I would simply learn the kanji. It didn't matter what I read as long as I was consistent.

I haven't been very disciplined. It's too easy for me to pick up meanings in context, which means that I can read a gossip book or some silly little fashion article and get the gist of what is going on. But I've been thinking that in my current interim non-creative period, I really should do as the wise translator suggested.

So, what to read? What I'd like is something easily digestible. Something in bits and pieces so I can feel that there is a natural cut-off to my daily translation work, but with an overall story arc so I want to get up the next morning to find out "what happens next."

A cell phone novel is the perfect thing.

I read recently that the mobile phone boom in Japan is alive and well. In fact, a number of the top selling works of "fiction" include hardcover versions of these mobile phone stories. Once completed, the novels are assembled as actual books and sold to the public.

This sounded like the perfect thing to discipline my unruly brain. So off I went to Kinokuniya this weekend to pick up part 1 of the 2 part "Akai Ito" series.

What does the title mean? Well, it refers to the "red thread" "red thread" of destiny that binds all lovers. According to the lore, which originated in China, all lovers have an invisible red thread (yeah, it's invisible, but it's red ) tied to their pinkies. You can't see the thread, can't see where it leads, but invariably, you will find the person you are connected to and therefore destined to love.

Here is my first attempt at translation. Voila, the opening lines (with some adjustments to make the English sound reasonable).
According to the gods, there is a red thread tied from my pinky finger to yours.

This thread of destiny isn't visible.

Nor is it a map to you.

I must love you to meet you.

So, our cell phone novel is a love story. A tortured romance, from page 1. The packaging is pretty brilliant. You can see the cover above. Know that the entire book is written in red ink. In the ensuing pages I've learned that the narrator is sure she already knows her "red thread fated lover," but he is too busy being in love with her sister to notice her. Ah! Angst! From the first installment!

So why don't we have cell phone novels in the West? Is it a technology gap type thing? Well, in the battle of who has a better cell phone, the US or Japan, the latter most definitely wins (in addition to having all around better manners when using mobile phones in public places). However, I think this isn't entirely the right question to ask. I think in part that this "mobile phone boom" comes less from a superior understanding of technology than from a shameless love of stories. A real addiction to a constant flow of narrative, a jones for the next fictional fix.

Consider for example, the world of the Japanese drama. Four times a year, each TV station launches a new set of "dramas," which are essentially "telenovelas." All have a beginning, middle and end, and producers and directors are constantly under the process of finding new stories to adapt, cast and produce. Stories are always evolving in Japan, unlike our own network models where the audience watches and wonders when a show might "jump the shark." In this model, serious "literature" is kept separate from television, though of course plenty of movies to try to adapt books. Fans go on message boards trying to figure out spoilers for the ending of the drama, and searching for gossip on what will develop in the future. Dramas adapted from books or manga are analyzed for accuracy. Fans, in other words, are fed a steady stream of stories from a variety of sources, many of which overlap.

The drama "Train Man" (Densha Otoko) which the Mockett household loved and enjoyed a couple years back started as a series of message board posts, before it became a book, then a move and then a TV show.

In the case of the first successful mobile phone book, the author created a website at the same time that he was sending out installments of his book. He read the feedback.

Readers e-mailed him with their feedback, and he incorporated some of their ideas into the story while it was in progress, so that new plot twists were constantly being added. This work was truly a collaboration between Yoshi and his readers.

(I should also note that this article points out that due to space restrictions, these cell phone novels tend to be "simple." That's fine. I don't mind starting a translation project on something simple. I'm usually considered way too cerebral in my ther life.)

Anyway, the cell phone novel boom strikes me as something quite unusual--a collaborative effort. Now, it's not that we don't have this kind of fandom in the States. Very generally speaking, I'd say that the science fiction and fantasy communities are far better at putting readers and writers together. They are also much better at being open to exploring a world or a story through different mediums. I remember, for example, how fan groups dissected the novelizations of the Star Wars prequels to try to figure out exactly why Padme died, after supposedly being stubborn and tough to have given birth to the resourceful Princess Leia.

Like a lot of people who play games (I'm really not sophisticated enough to consider myself a full fledged gamer), I have been patiently waiting (and waiting and waiting and waiting) for Bioware to release its almost finished game Mass Effect . In the meantime, if I want, I can go and pick up the novel which acts as a precursor to the actual game story. I can also participate in the message boards where I can analyze every single interview or screen cap of anything that Bioware has released so far in an effort to figure out what my gaming experience will be, and if I will be emotionally satisfied.

In other words, I'm trying to say that we in the west do have this kind of blending of narrative devices in our own culture . . . but it lives in the world of genre.

I went to an interesting talk a number of months ago which feature Patrick Nielsen Hayden of Tor Books. He's very smart and very blunt and made the point that science fiction has been around for long enough to have penetrated the collective skulls of entertainment consumers so that we are no longer surprised by leaps in time, by warps in space, or strange memory lapses, even in films that tend to defy categorization . In other words, we've all been conditioned and caught up with the SF and Fantasy fans who were all over time travel and reality bending a half a century ago.

How long until literary types catch up with these fans who now investigate stories through mediums other than the novel?

I don't know. I don't like the idea that book readers are essentially conservative people who don't want to be open to other mediums for storytelling. I don't like the idea that a true writer limits herself to words on a page (or that a book real reviewer doesn't blog). I find this insulting.

I always hear that one reason why the cell phone is more popular in Japan than in the US is because we are addicted to our computers over here. In Japan, people don't necessarily have the kind of space to devote to a laptop.

More than that, though, I wonder just how starved my own country really is for stories, especially with the reality shows we've been bombarded with in the past number of years. It seems to me that there is a reason why we, in this country, exhaust a show in one medium (ie many years of Friends), before moving on to something else, while in Japan, stories appear on TV with each season. Does it have something to do with the appeal of disappearing into a fictional world? Is that a stronger wish or expectation outside of the US?

First posted over at Japundit .

I've heard a theory that the Japanese commute has a lot to do with cell phone and portable game popularity as well. The majority of US workers drive, rather than taking a train, so all that time that could have been spent playing with a handheld is instead focused on getting to and from work.

I agree, though, that there does seem to be a real drive to tell stories in Japan. I think this partially explains my infatuation--I absolutely adore stories, especially well-told ones. That's why I was so thrilled to discover anime and manga, and why I've started trying out dramas, and why that cell phone novel thing sounds so cool.

(By the way, have you heard of the webcomic Red String? It's actually done by an American named Gina Biggs, and it's set in Japan and deals with issues and themes from Japanese culture. I find all this very interesting...but I also like the fact that the story is quite good.)
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