Posts Tagged ‘ Umisawa Kaimen ’

The Portrait of Legion 『レギオンの肖像』(Taconaguri Review)

『レギオンの肖像』
The Portrait of Legion
by Umisawa Kaimen (Vita Sexualice)

Review by Yuuki Ao.

Original article: [link(JP)]

There is a ton of kanji1. There are so few line breaks and so many words that the pages are more black than white. It is difficult to read. Not only are the sentences and words themselves difficult, many use characters that no normal person knows how to pronounce.

There are several words and phrases that hint at a deeper meaning, but no more insight is offered throughout the entirety of the book—if a deeper meaning is truly intended, I do not understand it. Frankly, it is gross. Grotesque depictions make up the better half of the novel, and the remainder consists of impossibly abstract musings that I cannot wrap my head around. The word choice is unique and stands out, but there is so little variation throughout the book that it quickly becomes a bore. You can tout with examples the beauty the word-smithery has distilled out of the Japanese language, but to the layman the language is overly decorated and needlessly verbose.

If I were to spend this article berating Umisawa Kaimen’s novels, the above should give you a fair hint of what that would look like. Not only is the above representative of some of the criticism leveled at Umisawa Kaimen’s works, it would be hard to argue that such criticism is not valid.

The target (or rather victim) of this review is Umisawa’s The Portrait of Legion (レギオンの肖像), released at Winter Comiket in 2013 (C85). Despite being a doujin novel, it was released as a hardcover-bound book—which on its own was enough do draw widespread attention. However (returning to our berating mode for a moment), what use is there to bind a doujin novel as a hardcover book, other than to serve to inflate the ego of its author? Do not most readers of doujin novels just want to read about their favorite characters doing this or that in a novel setting, without giving two cents about the outward appearance and design of a physical book?

I would say so. Other than a small subset of self-professed binding fanatics, most readers of doujin novels do not care about a books binding or how much it cost to produce—at the very least, such matters are secondary or tertiary to its contents. Moreover, you could say that a work whose contents is rubbish despite all the effort put into its binding is much more of an eyesore than great content barely patched together. Following that logic (and again excuse me for continuing this beratement), one might say that The Portrait of Legion is an egotistical production of value only to its author and a small subset of otaku who never learned to grow up, and that is that—but is it really?

The answer to that question is a resounding no. You cannot write off The Portrait of Legion as such.

It is true that this novel, as I have stated previously, is frustrating in a variety of ways, but even with that in mind, it has value.

One source of value may be found in the extreme nature of its contents: In The Portrait of Legion, Marisa (to center on one example), is subjected to a broad spectrum of sexual violence and dies ten times. She is raped and bleeds out. She has her internal organs ruptured. She has a glass bottle forced into her vagina and shattered. She has flies’ eggs implanted in her womb, whose hatched maggots eat and tear at her internal organs. It is…a lot.

And this abuse is not limited to Marisa. Every other cast member dies, and often in the most gruesome possible way. While of course, killing Touhou characters off does not itself make a masterpiece, when it is done this thoroughly, and this meticulously, it is only human to want to invite others to share in your reading experience. What I mean to say is: Such extremes get people talking about the book. It sparks conversation.

From my perspective at least, the ability of a work to become the topic of conversation is immensely important. Especially given the ability of such notoriety to breathe new life into the genre. Although fans of Touhou-derived doujin novels know that there are many interesting titles to be found, doujin novels as a whole are a rather minor subset of the doujin works more generally. There are multiple reasons for this, but for one, sales probably will never approach that of doujin manga.

When the publication of a work such as The Portrait of Legion, endued with such seeds of notoriety, sparks conversation of Touhou-derived doujin novels outside of the usual circles, I think it is fair to say that it contributes a considerable amount of life-force to the entire industry. Therefore, whether you are a fan of the actual content or not, I think you must admit that the direction of Umisawa’s works as a whole, has merit in and of itself.

A second source of value may be found in that “overly decorated and needlessly verbose” language I mentioned earlier, which is to say, the intrigue inherent in Umisawa’s writing style.

I am not pivoting away from my previous statements to say that Umisawa Kaimen’s writing is beautiful, or inspiring. However, it is clear that Umisawa fully indulges themselves in their writing style and that a significant number of fans praise the result. Such writing demands a closer look.

Umisawa Kaimen’s novels, generally speaking, do not contain much of what we might traditionally think of as a plot. They begin without providing the reader any sense of what is going on, present layer upon layer of bodily destruction in exorbitant detail and end without providing any clear answers, leaving the reader no less confused than they were at the beginning. The Portrait of Legion itself has some kind of arguably logical conclusion rushed at the end, but not in any sense that should count. It would be generous to call it more than an afterthought.

But Umisawa Kaimen’s readers do not read these novels for twists, hidden subplots, overall composition or the sense of catharsis that comes with a satisfying conclusion. The simple truth is, Umisawa Kaimen’s readers read these novels because they want to read the prose contained within the work.

To understand why that might be the case, let us put aside Umisawa Kaimen for a while and look more generally at two categories of novels.

Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, once separated authors into two distinct categories in one of his essays on James Joyce.

The first category of author, he wrote, strove to use language as a transparent tool, used only as a means to craft the worlds of their stories. On the other hand, to the second category of author, the words themselves were the object of their obsession.

This does not mean to say that all authors clearly fall into one category or the other, but for instance, one would not argue that J. K. Rowling or Sakaguchi Angō clearly fit in the former category, or that James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov or Anthony Burgess fit in latter. Umisawa Kaimen, without a doubt, also belongs in that latter category.

In Burgess’s essay, he referenced the opening lines to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and pointed out that it was not, in fact, the kind of flowing prose that ought to win awards. Instead, it was incredibly shaky, even clumsy — what normally would be offered up as an example of how not to write:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air.

The very first word ends abruptly with a comma, followed by a triple alliteration of the same vowel. To English speakers, reading these first four words feels like stumbling, and then hopping three times in an attempt to regain balance — according to Burgess.

After these first two lines, a confusing conversation immediately begins without any context, filled with omissions that might otherwise provide it. Only later does the reader finally get a sense of the scene.

Burgess proceeded to take these opening lines and rewrite them in ordinary style of the “type 1” author.

His rewrite began by setting the stage: a scene of morning light dawning upon Dublin, of women gossiping amongst themselves before his literary camera zooms into the tower where Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus make their entrance, quickly introducing the two. Their conversation is filled with context, and every aspect of the opening is made clear to the reader in easy to read prose.

After presenting his rewrite, Burgess says this: “If Ulysses were written like this, surely it would have no literary value.”

According to Burgess, Ulysses has value not because it has beautiful imagery or awe-inspiring prose. Nor does it have value thanks to a realistic depiction of its characters’ struggles or a critique of societal problems. It is certainly not due an exciting evolution of its plot. Ulysses has literary value only because it does not fit into the former category. It cannot be adequately described in pictures because its “poor” prose lacks the necessary clarity2.

Why though, should a lack of clarity be valued over the clear writing of the “type 1” author? Ultimately, a novelist who uses their words only as a transparent tool cannot win against other mediums, such as television or film. No matter how vividly detailed their depictions of scenes or people are, a visual will have more impact. In this sense, Burgess writes, novels have no future. From the perspective of a multimedia consumer, visual media will deliver more to them at a lower cost (of their investment in terms of time and energy) than the prose of a “type 1” author. In this day and age, we even have virtual reality. In terms of simply crafting a world, words are simply not as strong a tool (and so, the percentage of readers in the younger generations continues to decline).

However, what about “type 2” authors? What about those authors who write nonsensical sentences you can hardly wrap your head around, who trip you up and make you stumble as you read, who leave you feeling off? What about the puns, the sounds of the language, the rhymes, the play on words, the fetishes, the adherence or non-adherence to form? More than the surface level story, sometimes these elements are more important, at least in poetry and strange prose. It is in these elements, Burgess argues, that you can find value unique to the medium of the novel. Authors who lean into these elements accomplish what only writers can. Can film or television accurately portray the stumbling feeling inherent in the first four words of Ulysses? Surely not.

Not that I mean to say that “type 2” novels are vastly superior. If there are people who like puns, there are people who do not. I am sure they exist out there, somewhere — the pun-haters. I would not bet my life that they do not exist, at least.

At the end of the day, it depends on what your preferences are. I am sure there are people out there who claim that those who do not grasp the value of Ulysses (or Jean Cocteau, if we want to lean back towards Umisawa’s writing) are idiots—but they are wrong. Different people respond differently to different aspects of any work.

However, a reader who responds only to “type 1” works will probably eventually stop reading novels, because for them, reading a novel must eventually feel illogical. It would be easier to watch a movie, or television, or an MMD video on Nico Nico Douga and obtain the same experience they sought from “type 1” novels.

Let us follow Anthony Burgess’s example and rewrite an excerpt from The Portrait of Legion.

The Portrait of Legion is split into separate sections with relatively distinct tones, but for the purposes of this demonstration, I settled upon a passage from the beginning of the first section, Higeki (Tragedy), where Marisa descends into the basement of the Scarlet Devil Mansion.

Original:

The stairwell leading to the basement, decorated in chains of bramble vines, conjured memories of peering deep into the depths of a witch’s cauldron. A faint light ignited with magic in the palm of her hand, the magician slowly lowered her foot upon the first step and shifted her weight onto it. The surface of the step made uneven by the bramble vines caused the stairwell, already steep by any measure, to appear as a trap laid before her very eyes for the purpose of dragging its unwilling victims into shadows reminiscent of the blackness of night, even as she traversed each subsequent step cautious, but allured by the path’s gold flowers, such that her deep in her throat she could not help but mutter voicelessly: This mansion has always been sealed shut in such a way that one could never expect to feel a breeze. That I know. However, there still used to be a clamor to the air… in stark contrast to the current stagnancy. In taking care to not trip over the undulating surface of the steps, she would have liked to reach for support from the wall, but there as well the brambles had spread, preventing her touch.

At the terminus of her laborious descent—ahead: she lifted her magic light to glow upon the doorway she knew almost too well. Countless times she had witnessed the flecks of rust about its metal frame and the ineffable deep red material constituting its doors, but in the midst of this familiarity, one object cast an uncanny shadow: the doorknob, whose purpose was to open the way forward. Upon it, something was hanging that hitherto had not existed. What first reached her eyes, reflected in the faint flicker in her hands, was… silver and gold. Gold chains without the faintest hint of tarnish wound in countless layers around the doorknob, creeping over the surface of the doors before becoming lost in the walls’ black brambles. Upon all this was a silver lock. With her free hand, she reached out and wrapped her fingers around the lock. The clear and cold rejection characteristic of metals bit into the skin of her fingertips. With a not insignificant proportion of her strength, she yanked upon the lock, but the firmly locked silver ring did not budge, not offering even a few millimeters of give.

“Damn it, what is going on here?” she spat in irritation. (p.12)

Before we continue, I want to make clear that I do not assert that the above excerpt is poorly written. Many, I am sure, would call this prose elegant and masterful. However, it is inarguably not the kind of easy to read prose expected by most readers. There is an inordinate amount of kanji3. Words like “hitherto” are used in place of simple alternatives4. I doubt most people can read the word “clamor”. Writing out many of the words in phonetic hiragana alone would would make a world of difference.

How would this passage read if it were written by a “type 1” author?

Rewrite:

The stairs, which led into the basement, were so overgrown with bramble vines, the stairwell was reminiscent of a witch’s cauldron. With a faint magic light held in her hand, Marisa slowly descended the steps.

It was very dark ahead, the shadows of the furthest depths shaded with the black of night. Although the stairs had always been steep, the unevenness of the brambles made them feel even more so, and it was very difficult to walk. The very passage felt like a trap meant to draw Marisa into its depths. Still, Marisa continued to follow along the same path of gold lilies she had followed from the entrance of the mansion, but deep in her throat she grumbled.

The mansion had always been kept shut, so there was never a breeze inside. However, even with that in mind, the air felt even more stagnant than before. While she took care to not trip over the bramble vines on the stairs, Marisa had reached for the wall, hoping to steady herself, but there were vines on the walls as well, so she was unable to use the walls for support.

After a lengthy descent, Marisa finally reached the end of the stairs. There was a deep red door, made of a material beyond her knowledge. The frame of the door was rusted.

Marisa had seen the door countless times before, but this time, something about it was off. Something was hanging from the door knob. Lifting her light to look closer, she saw gold chains wrapped around the doorknob, which extended from the doorknob over the surface of the door to wall beyond it, with the ends buried in the black brambles of the walls, out of sight.

Along with the gold chains, a silver lock hung from the doorknob. Using her free hand, Marisa touched the lock. It was cold, and gave off a metallic feeling of rejection as the difference in temperature bit her fingertips. Marisa tugged on the lock, but it would not budge—not even a few millimeters.

“Damn it, what is going on here?” she spat in irritation.

This is how I would expect an author who puts a stronger emphasis on clarity to write the scene. Which style is preferable is entirely up to the reader’s preferences, but I can say for certain that Umisawa Kaimen’s readers do not want to read something like what I have written. Umisawa’s fans are fans because they they respond well to the style of the original.

There was a doll—at least, it seemed fit to describe it as such.

However, this “doll” had no head. In its place, was only a birdcage. As she approached, she saw that there was a single chair placed opposite of it—facing it. Alice sat down in the chair, crossed her legs and crossed her arms. She then rested her jaw in the palm of her right hand and stared.

The lower half of the doll was not visible, for the area below the waist was covered with a crinoline frame—absent any external clothing. Yet the frame’s interior, wide as though the mesh was, held countless heads—crowded to the point of bursting. At first glance there was so spaces between them, such that the heads melded together in continuity, yet upon closer inspection, what small gaps were there were filled in with black brambles. Yet it was not that which bothered her. Each of the heads emanated an inharmonious air, for none of them had eyes. Where the eyes should have been were dissected columbines. They filled in each socket, without exception.

The doll’s abdomen was swollen, as if impregnated. Yet—from the upper ring of the crinoline frame, down across the navel, the abdomen was split vertically open, the fissure resembling an engorged vagina. From this opening it was clear that the doll was stuffed with countless eyes. Each adjacent eye’s iris was of a different color: accounting for slight variations in hue, not a single eye was the same, despite their number… From time to time, one of the eyes would tumble out of the opening and onto the ground, but Alice was confident the doll would never be emptied.

The doll’s arms were raised toward the ceiling. Upon the palm of its opened right hand lay an old hourglass, its crimson stand trickling down without interruption. Upon its opened left hand rested a severed head, from which draped long scarlet hair. Alice recognized the face, with its eyes closed. The head belonged to the familiar of the witch who resided in the mansion’s library. Although she had never once learned her name, she knew of her existence. (pp. 20-21)

Here is another somewhat graphic scene, where its obsessive level of imagery transcends into something beautiful: it exposes the reader to the vivid, grotesque and abnormal in such a way that they could never experience in a normal day-to-day life. Personally, I am a fan of this aesthetic, but let us take a look at another passage.

The poet once wrote, whilst sublimating the pain of a certain skin-devouring mold with the intoxicants of opium:

I ponder this mold.

They too must ponder me.

They who mask half of my face.

With every fetal movement, my consciousness is torn asunder. My blood has turned to ink. This I should have avoided, at all costs.

Then, the poet wondered:

We ponder God.

God ponders us.

Yet God surely does not do so for our sakes.

The witch removed her lips from the hookah’s mouthpiece, and exhaled slowly a bluish white plume of tobacco smoke. On and on the smoke lazily continued to flow. Upon the plate above the long and narrow body of the hookah rested a bowl shaped not unlike the body of an hourglass.

Inside it, gelatinous brown clumps engulfed in blue-white flames were slowly stripped of their mass.

Droplets of smoke fall…

…down towards the base of the device, an almost spherical glass cistern.

Water resided in its depths, filled halfway, while its upper story was claimed full by blue-white smoke.

The room was vacant, but for a single bed, a single desk and a single rocking chair…

…in addition to a single small round table beside the hookah, upon which was a plate with two jujubes, three pieces of hard candy, and a single fig.

The witch returned the golden mouthpiece to her lips.

“The investigation into the actuality of the statement, ‘We exist,’ is a difficult one to be sure, but it is very much like the smoke of tobacco. For the soul is like a kind of gas escaping from an eudiometer. We continue to die. My arms, my abdomen, my legs, the tip of my tongue, my sex, my eyes, my hair… everything that constitutes who and what I am, every part of this material body of mine fated to be disintegrated cries, writhes and kneels, pitying the dying other, my material brothers and sisters. However, my soul, my still ever captive soul, upon witnessing those others disassembled on the occasion of their death, my soul is filled with envy—from the deepest depths of my being.”

An expectorated huff of smoke spun a snail’s spiral.

Such are leaps of life.

Dancing in a spiral, crossing the stage, in a leap somehow refreshing, the smoke left the witch’s lips to find its destination somewhere about the windowless room’s ceiling…

…to the ceiling but no further.

As tightly as the doors were shut it had nowhere to go, like the stagnant empty breath of a bird who missed its chance to hatch, bound by its egg’s unbroken shell. Children boiled alive have no other option than to desublimate.

Existence solidifies…

…not unlike ulceration.

“What are you talking about, Patchouli?”

“Death, Remilia.”

(pp. 134-135)

“What are you talking about?” indeed…

I doubt anyone would read that passage for the first time and respond with, “Exactly! That’s so on point! I was just thinking the same thing!” If they do, they’re either being sarcastic, or trying to play themselves off as some elite (idiotic) intelligentsia. Patchouli can say “Death” like it is some sort of answer all she wants, but I still do not get it. I don’t even know how to read the word that comes just before the end! (It’s “ulceration”, I looked it up.)

However, setting aside the subject of understanding, I am sure that quite a few people out there will think the passage is at least interesting, or intriguing—and it is not necessarily the meaning of the passage that makes it so, but the rhythm, the conjured up images, how those images are connected, the ambiance created by the unfamiliar words, the lack of a distinct singular meaning, how that lacking diversifies readings, and so many other experimental excursions that rely on words for words’ sake, that—like Burgess asserts—could not survive in another medium.

When evaluating Umisawa’s writing, these aspects must not be ignored.

To be clear:

Up until this point, the argument that I am trying to make is not that “bad” or “extreme” or “experimental” writing should be praised simply because it is experimental. I am only arguing that such an axis of value exists, and that, whether by intention or not, Umisawa Kaimen’s works lend themselves to an evaluation on that axis.

Because of how Umisawa’s works are read and perceived, one must consider whether that work succeeds or fails according to those metrics. As for The Portrait of Legion, I would like to leave that determination up to the reader.

However, simply offering my honest opinion, without praising or denigrating the work: as much as it feels Umisawa is only writing for themselves, I find the prose fascinating—although the more I read the more I feel my stomach turned upside down. But I would not pin that feeling down to “bad writing” or even to the obtuseness of it, but to that feeling of getting pummelled with meaning that almost, but not quite makes sense, similar to the murkiness of meaning found in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Still, as much as I keep saying “I do not understand,” at every twist and turn, I think it is time to touch on at least one thing I can say I understand: The characters of The Portrait of Legion, especially Patchouli, clearly are written with meta-self-awareness in mind.

“A happening must be realized, for that signifies nothing less than a cultivation of the void.”

“Which, in turn, is the most meaningless thing one can ever hope to accomplish.”

“Even so the man continues to fantasize, of girls dying blissfully. Yes, only for that purpose—for that itself is a happening. A happening must be realized, for that signifies nothing less than a cultivation of the void.”

“We exist. However, that existence is nothing more than a cycle locked in a loop of us all. By repeating our acts we give those acts meaning. By creating in a mutual environment we exist not as one but as an aggregation.”

“This story.”

“I am legion, for we are inflated self-consciousness. I am legion, for we are many.”

All of these lines and phrases level self-referential criticism not only at the novel as a whole, but at the entire ecosystem of Touhou derivative works, and they repeat and carry on throughout the novel as an undercurrent, not unlike a pedal tone, serving as one of the story’s few cohesive elements.

Therefore, it is possible to read the work with that in mind, and possible to write a view centered on that aspect alone. However, I was unable to do so. It did not feel like the main point to emphasize, at least not in comparison to Umisawa’s writing itself.

That is why I focused on Umisawa’s writing style for this review, but I am not sure how it has turned out in the end. The review ended up longer than I expected and am frankly not confident anyone will make it to the end. I claim it to be a review of The Portrait of Legion, but I have hardly (if at all) touched on its contents, and do not feel that I can call myself a “good reader” when it comes to Umisawa’s works. I’ve only read three or four after all.

Furthermore, I get the feeling that Umisawa’s readers look for something more poetic than prosaic in a novel such as this… Therefore, from the perspective of Umisawa’s fans, this review come off as unsophisticated and unrefined.


  1. Chinese characters↩︎

  2. Vladimir Nabokov, among other readers, might disagree. He famously made students of his lectures on Ulysses track the progress of the characters on a map, and argued for an attention to concrete details.↩︎

  3. The kanji usage in this excerpt is reflected by the usage of less common word choices.↩︎

  4. I translated this sentence into an analog which matches the translation, but specifically the reviewer is talking about using kanji for words such as “this” and “that”, which is exceedingly rare in modern texts.↩︎

The Gymnopédies Never End (Gymnopedie ga Owaranai)

Download the e-book (PDF:JIS-B6) [here] for free!

(Use this link for a more updated version with some typos fixed: [link])

Support Us!

If you would like to support the author, please buy the original story (if you haven’t already) in Japanese [here] for 100 JPY. (Booth allows for an extra “boost” to be sent as well).

If you would like to support me, please use this [link] to donate. (If you include “Gymnopedie” in the donation message I will send half of the amount received to Umisawa.)

If you happen to be in Kyoto, the full text of Gymnopedie ga Owaranai is being re-released in print as part of ジムノペディが終わらない-Re:Medianoid- at the Cafe Terrace event today (11/17) at 部-27 for 800 JPY.

Blurb:

Secret Sealing Club members Usami Renko and Maribel Hearn visit an abandoned amusement park, seemingly as part of their usual activities, but Renko cannot shake the feeling that something is controlling her. When a strange girl—or thing—invites them on a ride she calls “The Circus” Renko is forced to confront the forces that drive us all mad.

Vita Sexualice’s seminal 2011 short story, The Gymnopédies Never End, will be sure to turn your mind and your stomach as you search for answers, even after you are done, to the parasitic nature of life.

Content Warning:
(Mild) Depictions of non/dubiously-consensual sex, suicide (aftermath only) and murder, with a touch of cannibalism and body horror.

Image Song:

Don’t forget to check out RD-Sounds’ tribute to the story!
“捧げられたイメージ/Sasagerareta Image” [lyrics]

In lieu of an afterword:

First of all, I would like to thank Umisawa Kaimen for their support. When I got the green-light to go ahead and translate Vita-Sexualice’s doujin novels I was ecstatic. It took a while to get to this point, but I’m happy to share the un-healing. I probably would never have translated this story (and others) if not for a minor stroke, seizures and considerable other brain wreckage, but deep dives into the stories and hacking away at the translations really helped me, so it’s weird these things work out sometimes.

Jane Does is still in the works! Expect it!