Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
For my Honors Thesis this semester I'm translating a chunk of Nasu Kinoko's novel Kara no Kyoukai. Kara no Kyoukai -- hereafter abbreviated KnK -- is a strange (and very long) novel that divides its narration across a wide range of perspectives. I'm translating the second section of the novel, Satsujin Kousatsu, which is split evenly between the novel's two protagonists: Ryougi Shiki, the daughter of an eccentric-but-wealthy family, and Kokutou Mikiya, an aggressively normal guy who happens to see the world with a detective's eye. Shifting perspective is not itself a particularly unusual literary technique, and within Satsujin Kousatsu the perspective shifts are especially controlled -- the shifts are infrequent, with extended sections of the story told from the perspective of each character.
That said, the section's structural simplicity (relative to the rest of the novel) is itself misleading. A close read reveals inconsistencies within seemingly stable narrative passages in ways that serve to characterize the two narrators. As Shiki and Mikiya directly contrast each other, Shiki's narration contains inconsistencies in narrative place, while Mikiya's contain (less obvious) inconsistencies in narrative time.
I'll Be Back Sometime Last Night
Despite being the more subtle of the two, Mikiya's narrative inconsistencies are easier to parse, as they operate more in the realm of the literal. The first 20 pages or so of Satsujin Kousatsu are told from Shiki's perspective, and her unreliability is readily apparent (even if the exact mechanics involved are less clear). When the narrative switches to Mikiya's view, things seem to stabilize. Mikiya is presented as a logical, rational, level-headed individual, and it shows in his narration. Things follow clearly from one step to the next and his thoughts are presented more honestly to the reader than are Shiki's. Mikiya has little reason to hide his thinking and he has a firm grasp on who he is as a person. His narration is, in a word, straightforward.
For the most part.
Mikiya's narration is presented such that the events appear to follow in chronological order. If one scene follows another it is fairly safe to assume that the second scene takes place after the first. This is, of course, standard in writing in general, but Mikiya's narration contains frequent time cues to assure the reader that, yes, things are happening chronologically.
Except sometimes they aren't.
There's a sequence towards the end of Mikiya's narration that begins with a specific date: the first Sunday in February of 1996. This happens to be February 4th. Mikiya has a conversation with his cousin, a detective working on a serial homicide case, and the discussion leaves him resolved to take action to help Shiki through her personal issues. In the following scene, it's evening, and Mikiya is on his way to visit Shiki's home. Through the course of events, Mikiya stumbles upon of murder scene. He's taken in for questioning and eventually released. The sequence ends with the police report, which also includes a specific date: Saturday, February 3rd, 1996.
In other words, somewhere in the course of this seemingly continuous sequence of events, the narration jumps back in time 24 hours. These details are so incidental that most readers are likely to gloss over them -- I certainly did when reading through initially. Mikiya's narration does this elsewhere in KnK as well, though, presenting events as continuous and chronological when in fact they are disordered or have large time gaps scattered throughout. The sense of place in Mikiya's narration is entirely solid. The sense of time is discretely confused.
There are a number of possible reasons for this, the first being that while KnK is not a mystery, it is heavily influenced by detective fiction (and Edogawa Ranpo's works in particular), so the confused timeline adds a "mystery" for a detail-oriented reader to solve. The deliberate choices involved in what is portrayed and when lead the reader to jump to mistaken conclusions. If the events in Mikiya's narration are realigned, certain scenes take on new meaning and hint at eventual answers to the novel's questions. It's a nifty structural trick, if nothing else.
More importantly, though, I think the temporal confusion characterizes Mikiya himself, though I don't have one solid answer as to why that I can point to and say "this is definitely the purpose here." A friend of mine has suggested it relates to the ways Mikiya himself rationalizes the strange events that happen around him. This interpretation holds that Mikiya is so steeped in normalcy he truly cannot fully comprehend the things that happen around him, so he remembers things out of order, reorganized such that his behavior and the behavior of others makes more sense. His narration is consistently portrayed as reflective -- as Mikiya looking back on things he remembers -- so the disjointed temporal order is reminiscent of someone trying to process impossibly confusing sequences of events in hindsight. When relaying a story from the past, we often share things in the order they seem relevant rather than in the exact sequence in which they happened, and Mikiya's narration is structured in much the same way, albeit with a self-confidence that inhibits the reader from questioning Mikiya's memory. Mikiya is presented as a reliable narrator in contrast to Shiki's unreliable narration, but Mikiya is in fact every bit as unreliable as Shiki is, albeit in different ways.
Shiki, then, is a more complex case, and delving into her narration requires a bit of background info.
First off, Japanese prose is much looser with grammatical tense than English is. Generally when you read a novel or a short story in English, it's in either present tense or past tense. If a writer mixes the two, saying something like, "I will go to the store today. It was cold out when I got back," this seems amateurish, wrong. Japanese has no such compunctions -- or at least not so directly -- to the point where Japanese prose will regularly mix grammatical past and present tenses in the service of creating meaning. It's a normal thing, and it's not inherently significant when an author does this.
Japanese prose is, however, relatively consistent when it comes to what's called psychic distance, which essentially refers to where it feels like the narrator is located. For example, read the following sentences: First, "It was below freezing outside, and fresh snow was still accumulating atop the 3 inches that had already fallen." Second, "He stepped outside into the furious blizzard and trembled with displeasure at the thought of braving the storm." Third. "I hear the crunch of the snow beneath my feet as ice seeps through the gaps in my clothes and burns my skin."
These three sentences feel progressively "closer" to the mind of the central character. The first is very distant, indicating a sort of omniscient narrator providing a factual recounting of events. The second is in-between, giving us insight into the thoughts and feelings of the central character without putting us directly into his mind. The third is told through the character's eyes, giving us access to his senses and telling the story in the moment. Psychic distance exists on a spectrum, but it's almost always ideal to maintain a consistent level of distance in writing -- as with tenses in English, mixing up psychic distance can feel amateurish.
I ran up against this while trying to establish which tense to write in while translating Shiki's narration. Usually in Japanese translation the translator picks a tense and sticks with it, judging by the apparent "position" of the narrator. Is the narrator looking back on past events? Then stick with past tense in English, even where it's grammatically present in Japanese. Is the narrator observing things in the moment? Use the reverse. My struggle with Shiki's narration was that it shifts back and forth between the two. Sometimes she's experiencing things as they're happening, exhibiting surprise and shock, and sometimes there are semantic cues that indicate she's telling her story from a distance -- lines like, "Later I'd look back at this and think..."
The translation is still a work-in-progress and maybe I'll settle on one perspective, but it seems to me for now that the only way to faithfully render this into English is to meet Nasu where he stands and accept that KnK needs tense shifts in places. Where Mikiya is unstable with regards to time, Shiki is unstable with regards to place, and specifically psychic distance. She isn't sure whether she's in the moment or not, and one of the most striking scenes in Satsujin Kousatsu starts off thoroughly in the moment and gradually transitions until it's very clearly reflective by the end. This is something that the flexibility of Japanese prose enables in a way that English struggles with, and it may partially explain why, as the aforementioned friend of mine has observed, translated Nasu almost always feels like a patchwork attempt to plug the gaps where English simply can't retain the meaning created by the original text.
The "meaning" component is key here. If Shiki's narration shifted its narrative perspective just because it could, there would be no issue with picking a perspective in English and sticking to it. Fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it -- Nasu does this for a reason. Shiki struggles to define who she is, what she wants, what she thinks, and where she stands, and the shifting sense of psychic distance reflects this. There tends to be less psychic distance when Shiki is comfortable, and as unsettling things happen she distances herself more and more. Shiki's inconsistent psychic positioning reveals her inherent weaknesses and struggles in the same way Mikiya's lack of consistent chronology reveals his. In both cases, Nasu is revealing character through structure -- a tactic that is brilliant for its sheer strangeness.
Developing character through description, dialogue, and action is typical, and there are plenty of subtle and creative ways to accomplish this. Creating meaning on a metatextual level is also not rare. Combining these things, though -- developing character through unusual usage of structural elements -- is not normal, and the best example I can think of of another work that does this is actually William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the fairies have a different, more playful rhythmic meter than the rest of the cast does. To eliminate Nasu's bizarre structural tactics -- to try to "unravel" his writing in translation -- would be tantamount to removing the meter from Midsummer. Sure, it might make it more accessible to a modern English-language reader, but you'd be losing so much artistry and meaning in the process.
It can be hard to fully appreciate Nasu's writing, especially in translation, but the detail and craftsmanship that goes into his works -- and especially Kara no Kyoukai -- is nothing short of stunning. There's a reason he's as popular as he is in Japan. Sure, he has benefited from strong animated adaptations of his works, and sure, those adaptations have him more accessible, but he would not be where he is today if his writing wasn't really dang good to start with. Nasu is notoriously difficult to read in Japanese, and he's even harder to translate effectively -- and I love his writing all the more for it. He's an author who truly challenges his readers, on multiple levels. It's super fun.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition