Welcome to the first instalment of a new feature for Kuriousity – Showcase! I’ve been wanting to start something like this for a long time and hopefully it’s the start of many interesting things to come. In these columns, which will have no discernible frequency or scheduling (like everything else here – always a surprise!), I’ll be taking a look at some different independent projects that I think readers here at Kuriousity would enjoy. It might be a comic, it might be a novel, it might be a web comic – who knows! I’m a huge fan of self-published creators and hope to introduce great stories to new fans, promote a creator’s work and have a chance to rave about some favourites.
The first title I’m writing about has not only rekindled the fiction lover in me – who has been buried far too long – but is also well-timed as one of the flagship titles for the newly announced, Chromatic Press – Tokyo Demons.
Tokyo Demons is a prose story that has been serialized online since May 2011. Inspired by Japanese light novels, Tokyo Demons has manga style illustrations, a Tokyo setting, and a cast of teenagers facing supernatural elements amidst a platter of sexual tension, violent gang wars and drug abuse. There’s a lot in this story that can appeal to readers of manga, young adult fantasy and sci-fiction alike. Perhaps most impressive in its appeal to today’s fiction-hungry audience, however, is the format – a free, chapter-by-chapter posting that allows for reader commentary and feedback every step of the way, creating an engaged and supportive community rallying around it.
It took me a couple chapters to really get into Tokyo Demons. The first part is all character introduction as it takes us through a typical first-day-of-school scenario for the main teenage leads, Jo and Ayase. This part of the story goes slowly, focusing on mundane details and a lot of introspection that aims to tell us who these people are. The set-up comes with some exhausting clichés – transfer students, orphans, social outcasts – the leads of this story fall into very familiar molds. Going into a story with these overdone back-stories proved off-putting at first. Fortunately, when things do pick up, you’re suddenly given a lot more to focus on, and despite some lingering triteness, it’s all really good.
Ayase’s strange ability is the first clear sign that Tokyo Demons is more than just urban drama. It turns out she can transform her entire body, or pieces at a time if she wishes, into a swarm of individually-controlled killer insects. Yet this isn’t actually what sends the plot shooting forward. Sachi, a very friendly yet rather pushy classmate, is insistent that Ayase join him for a night of fun on the town, along with two others – Jo, a well-kept chain smoker with a pick-pocketing skill to support his habit, and his roommate, ex-archery champ and woefully heartbroken, Kiyoshi. The four are mostly strangers to one another but after they become inadvertently tangled up in a drug transaction at a popular hangout spot, that all changes.
Yet these four don’t instantly become chums. They do however get drawn into a world of heavily armed organizations, supernatural abilities, deadly physically enhancing drugs and over-zealous gangs of teenagers looking to leave their mark on anything that looks at them funny. The main location that ties them together – at least after school becomes a comparatively pointless endeavour – is a strange church. Here Ayase, Jo, Kiyoshi and Sachi all become involved with members of a team trying to take down an organization that uses a highly addictive drug called Pitch to control and enhance individuals (whether they want to be pumped up or not). It varies how each gets involved, and so far to what depth they participate, but some ways are significantly more disturbing than others.
Jo and Ayase are the two the story follows the most. It frequently shifts back and forth from their perspectives. The story approaches these two very differently in the way they’re transitioned from being loner transfer students to reluctant agents in a strange group. Ayase is always thinking about the dangers and potential threats around her. The majority of problems she faces early in the story seem entirely of her own making. And yet, when things do go ‘bad’, it’s because she willingly walked into a situation to confront what up until then was only potentially an issue. It seemed like a really unsmart move that was hard to understand. While I don’t dislike her, I didn’t actively like her either. While she does begin to open up overtime, much of what we’ve seen of Ayase is a jaded, self-involved young woman who mentally creates more problems than currently exist while simultaneously deciding everyone else is an annoyance.
Jo, on the other hand, always seems to be right in the middle of some mess. In only a book and a half, this guy’s been beaten half a dozen times, and has had pretty much every good intention rewarded with another sock to the jaw or a knee to the gut. This is a pretty boy who takes his punches, and it’s definitely not because he wants to. Jo is a reluctant player almost the entire time (and who can blame him?) but because he just can’t turn tail and run when someone needs help, no matter how much of a stoic too-cool-for-you guy he tries to be, he always gets dragged in. His pick-pocketing, fickleness over his appearance and casual comfort and knowledge of things such as gangs and basic teenage drama, also felt very fleshed out. He’s not always Mr. nice guy but he definitely feels like Mr. real guy, and he earns a lot more sympathy than Ayase.
Jo was quick to become my favourite in the story, however several other characters began to win my heart as well. Sachi, an actual Mr. nice guy, is sweet and earnest. His eagerness to help everyone, for seemingly no reason aside from naiveté and ignorance, is at first deterring but in time the story gives you reason to completely re-evaluate his motives, while simultaneously making you feel bad for him like a recently kicked puppy. Then there’s Jo’s roommate Kiyoshi. He’s not as well established a character as the others, but the sheer intensity of the situations he’s thrust into makes his presence a bundle of emotions and tension that somehow makes up for it.
The scenes where Kiyoshi is put through the wringer are the most gut wrenching of the book, and the amount of times I white-knuckled gripped my iPad while reading these uncomfortable scenes were testament enough how engaged I’d become in the story by then. Trigger (and spoiler) warning for some readers though – there are some moments of forceful drug use and subsequent withdrawal that may be hard to take. They’re also reasons why I haven’t checked out Tokyo Demons’ audio book version, another interesting part of this multimedia story. Honestly, I’m too much of a wuss to stomach hearing the strangled cries of a sobbing teenager having needles forced into his arm for the purpose of training him to murder people through a combination of addiction and affect. Eep!
There are lots of other characters in the story as well, but the writer does a good job introducing them at a pace that’s easy to follow without feeling too linear. There’s great diversity to the cast with different ethnicities, backgrounds and motives that all somehow come together organically with only a few unnatural feeling blips (like a certain long lost sister suddenly back on the scene). I did have issues with people’s names now and again though, because I’m not accustomed to reading prose with Japanese names. The switch between first and last names depending on who is talking about who, and to whom, really left me scratching my head sometimes as I tried to remember who they were talking about. It’s much easier in a visual medium like manga where I can simply look at the character on the page and recognize a design It took some mental adjusting for Tokyo Demons but became easier the more familiar I became with everyone.
Fortunately this is one of very issues the writing itself poses, and even that isn’t a flaw of the writing as it is just a foreign element. The writing itself is consistently solid. It’s simple and easy to read – there’s more focus on telling the story and making it interesting than trying to be too robust or high minded about its style. This is the reason I typically find books targeted at young adults more interesting than those for adults, not only due to the more adventurous and fantasy-based subject matter you can find, but because of the more streamlined writing that doesn’t require me to reread the same sentence over and over just to tell what the heck the author is trying to tell me happened.
There was a little disconnect reading a story written about Japanese schools and gangs in Tokyo by a North American writer, yet to the story’s benefit it never sensationalizes these elements. A lot of times I’d forget the broader setting until certain cultural nuances come into play, but it still felt well-grounded in the locale. Tokyo Demons doesn’t put on a gloss of ‘look at how Japanese and manga and anime and otaku we are!’ – there are no descriptions of sweatdrops, ‘kawaii!’ and cries for senpai. This is the real world, and while I can’t speak for accuracy, but I can say that nothing stood out feeling especially fake or forced.
Knowing that Rem was commissioned to do the art for Tokyo Demon was a definite selling point to me. Her work on Yen Press’ adaptation of Soulless has been phenomenal. Because this is a light novel and not a comic series, the images are few and far, which can admittedly be a big disappointment when you’re drawn to the series by the eye-catching images. Never knowing when they’re going to show up does at least make it a great surprise when they do. The illustrations are black and white, and look great. They depict random scenes from the story so they’re much more interesting than a simple posed individual. I was bothered with the lack of variety in the character designs however. It was nearly impossible to distinguish one from one another in many cases. I only knew who was who in most pictures because of what they were doing, since I had just read it. The only exception to this was Ayase, since she’s female, and Sachi for his distinct hairstyle, though both didn’t seem to come up as often in illustrations despite their relevance. Jo, Kiyoshi and two other important characters, Kadoyuki and Touya, are easily confused.
There are a number of ways to experience Tokyo Demons. It’s the first novel I’ve read entirely in a digital format. I read book one via their collected eBook which you can purchase through their website. The PDF worked great on my iPad. Book two, which is still in progress, is currently only available to read chapter by chapter on their website. I ran into some problems reading this way based on the site’s navigation however. Each chapter is broken down into multiple pages that you navigate via little numbers at the bottom of that page. However at the bottom of these portions is a much larger link leading to the next chapter. Without evening realizing it, and thinking that for some story purpose I was missing large chunks of time within the plot, I had read page one of multiple chapters, never realizing there were different pages making up each chapter. Once I learned this, I could navigate the pages but I think it’s a flaw of the set-up that the next chapter is more prominently displayed than a link to what is actually the next page chronologically. This quip isn’t detrimental to the reading experience, but it’s something they need to adjust for easier use. In the meantime I’d definitely recommend their collected edition over reading online to avoid the confusion.
Shortly after finishing my read of book one, I got a copy of its physical print. The book is a nice large trim size, which is especially pleasant for a better look at Rem’s artwork. The cover design is also really slick. As for the printing though, I found the font a little too large and the lack of spacing between paragraphs – which is something also present in the collected digital editions – makes it a big hard on the eyes. This is at least more a personal preference, and the quality of the print itself is perfectly serviceable. It’s fantastic for collectors like me who love having a physical object to put on their shelves of things they really enjoy.
Tokyo Demons really took me by surprise. At the time of this article, I’ve read all of what is currently released, up to book two, chapter three (out of the scheduled three final books), and I’ll definitely be in for the rest of the ride. The light novel format made me wary at first, and I was a little sad to be pulled in by Rem’s art and then not get a comic, but I’m really happy I read it. It’s been regrettably long since I’ve sat down with prose and Tokyo Demons reminded me why I love it so much. A well written story can make you care so much about what’s going to happen to its characters and completely engross you in every word – you don’t realize time has passed until you come to that bitter-sweet final page. I laughed, I sighed, I cringed and I gasped, and ultimately was really entertained by this story that still has a lot of big secrets left to share. My biggest issue with the story is now simply that I’m left waiting for new updates to come.
Tokyo Demons is a unique reading experience that I’m glad to see is doing well. You can read it as a printed paper back, collected eBook, free online serial, or even listen via a fully produced audio drama. Whichever you chose, you have my vote of confidence it’ll be worth it.