Finding time to read a book these days is something that I didn’t give much thought to when I was younger. I mean, bookshops had been around forever? They weren’t going anywhere. Then the Internet arrived. Bookshops shrugged. It’s the Internet, where people posted images on Geocities and browsed Usenets. Then the iPad arrived. Bookshops shuddered and when the Kindle arrived, things have never been the same since. So in the English speaking world, the power the big book chain shops had acquired was demolished, literally, brick by brick. Today I can find, maybe, five or ten bookshops in my city. Of them, I would trust three of them for recommendations. But in Japan, it’s different. The book publishing industry seems to be, er, booming? OK, that’s a lie. Japanese publishers are also feeling the pinch from eBooks and online reading services. But the used book shops do well. People always want to read the books they read when they were young. Or find that classic book they had put off but now want to read. Or even, the books that people have never heard of and that wait in the patient hope someone will read them. There must be people to read those books and they must have stories of their own, right?
Reading the synopsis for Kingyo Used Books, it sounds like a whimsical story. And it is, to be sure. But it’s not sappy. So what is it about? Hidden amongst the hustle and bustle of the big city, Kingyo Used Books sits quietly. Run by Natsuki Kaburagi on behalf of her grandfather, Seitaro, she has the aid of an avid manga reader named Shiba. Ostensibly the story revolves around their adventures but more often than not the chapters for each volume take in the customers who come in to the shop. As they buy or sell books at Kingyo, we see the threads of their lives interact with the shop and prove that more books can affect people in a human, honest, profound and emotional way.
I was once, in a former life, a video jockey at my local video rental place. Even before I started working there, I was a regular customer, I knew where each section was, knew which tapes were in good nick, knew all the staff and could recommend films to other customers. Every person had a story, a path or a purpose that brought them to my desk. More often than not, they knew what they wanted. But sometimes they were too stumped or too frazzled to pick something. So, I would chose something for them. Usually, it was a children’s film, a drama or a good action flick. The people who rented that last genre would be so drunk they wouldn’t even notice what I gave them. But they wanted an action film so I picked the one I thought they’d like. They would always come back to me. (Please note: not all my customers were drunk when they came in. The example given is a small cross section of my former customers). So when I began to read Kingyo, I found the manga equivalent of my video shop. So after I read each volume that’s been released so far, I would let out the same sigh I used to have when another satisfied customer would go out the door of the video shop. I felt good that a character had found contentment. It’s a wonderful feeling to have and it came from a book showing a world I knew nothing about.
Natsuki is technically in charge of Kingyo and when her grandfather announces he is going to go on a search for manga in Japan, she takes over the running of the shop. She is easily my favourite character simply because it isn’t that she’s a manga freak like Shiba is, it’s just that she gets a huge amount of joy from helping people. Shiba is a fantastic character. He reminds me of myself when I was in my teens. Always reading with my head in the clouds. I love the feisty, lively and, if exasperating at times, relationship he has with Natsuki. He clearly likes her but he’s too much of a dreamer to make the first move. I think Seitaro is a wonderful player on this stage. Sage-wise with a hint of self-deprecating humour about him. My discovery of the relationship that grows between Ayu and Tome, two Sedori (people who buy manga cheap and resell at higher prices to used books shops) who, on the surface, don’t have anything in common with each other is heartwarming. But Tome, while unsure of what to do or say around her, wants to get closer to her and gets pushed away in a nice way by Ayu. But he persists and we get to know them both them in a great way. Going back to Natsuki, her parents have a charm about them. They drive me crazy with their different personalities so I can only imagine how Natsuki has learned to live with them. With each volume, I learn more and more about the cast so it’s a win-win for me.
The background characters are equally impressive. They’ve all got their reasons for going to Kingyo. Sometimes they get an answer to whatever is bothering them at the shop. Sometimes it happens outside the shop. But always it is a surprise when we see the resolution of their arcs. In one story, a young lad stays with his friend rising the train late at night because the boy feels his friend can’t or won’t go home. The friend is inspired to stay on the on the train thanks to Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express 999. But in the end, the story is resolved with some thought and care, I’m happy to say. Reading a review of volume 3 by Manga Curmudgeon in relation to the Kazuo Umezu chapter and it being somewhat predictable, I agree with him about it being un-Umezu, however, I don’t think this detracts from the story. Far from it, the way the characters describe Umezu, his writing and art makes me want to read more of his work. The chapters that struck a chord with me the most were the chapters about Night on the Galactic Railroad and the one where Shiba drags an uppity kid all over town all because he wouldn’t simply pick up a manga to read, finally lets him take a look at Go Nagai’s Devilman. The Night on The Galactic Railroad story is a wonderful piece about a hostess girl who sort of adopts a small child whose mother abandoned her. The child wants her to read to her the Night on… book so the girl, despite not wanting to, finds herself reading night after night to the child. It’s sweet, sincere and utterly without any purpose. The Devilman chapter is superb because you see this child who is supposedly not fazed by anything get riled by Go Nagai’s titular characte.
You notice how I keep mentioning the “Devilman” chapter or the “Umezu” chapter? This is because Kingyo Used Books focuses on a different book, a real book, for some of it’s chapters. OK, nearly every chapter mentions different books but some actually focus on an author or book and the end of each volume of Kingyo, we get a real used book shop owner explaining the significance of each title. This is because while Japanese readers might be familiar with names like Hinako Sugiura, Kyoko Hikawa, Etsushi Haruki, Tochi Ueyama and Masako Watanabe, English speaking readers may not. This window into certain titles and authors allows us to glimpse into the cavernous world of manga and it made me realise how little I know about it. I find myself drawn to the notes about the titles from the 60’s and 70’s that we have no chance of reading. It grieves me that I’ll have to import them. Maybe, though, JManga might publish some of them. I can certainly hope so.
Another thing I like about the series is the idea of the impermanence of things, i.e. Mono no aware: the feeling of noticing things and being in the moment, for the moment is fleeting. The cast of Kingyo move in their arcs, all the while we are conscious that they too will one day be gone and the books they care for or read will one day be in the hands of someone else. Few things in anime or manga have taught me as valuable a lesson as this concept has. When I have read stories like this (or even any book/anime/film) I try and commit it to memory. It helps me to form a more complete map of my own internal workings. Because as the man said: “[time] goes with us on the journey, reminds to cherish every moment. Because they’ll never come again.” I applaud Ms. Yoshizaki for being to able to communicate this kind of concept and I wish I could read more of her works. It’s just another reason on my list to try and learn Japanese if only to expand my worldview.
Ultimately Kingyo Used Books is a story about used book sellers and readers enjoying their books while trying to make their way through life. There’s nothing else to it, no magic second or third act that the cast suddenly become intergalactic bounty hunters. Though, that would be interesting, I’m sure. If you have an inclination to read something that challenges you beyond the confines of typical manga. The series is ongoing in Japan but at this time VIZ under their SIGIkki line has put out the first four volumes so far at six month intervals. March this year will mark the end of the last six month cycle. Here’s hoping that people read this overview and give the series a try.
I encourage you to sample Kingyo Used Books on the SIGIkki website along with others in the line. If I could recommend some others, then please check out Saturn Apartments and I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow. If you would further indulge me, check out my podcast with Ed Sizemore where we discuss Kingyo Used Books in further detail.