Reading about pulling levers

The other day I finished reading Miyabe Miyuki’s novelization of Ico, the game everyone loves to use as a basis for poorly defined arguments about whether or not their hobby can be considered art. It was difficult to mentally justify wasting the amount of time it would take to read a 500-plus-page pulp novel based on a videogame about a boy pulling levers, but I somehow managed to do it for a couple reasons. First, I’ve had friends sincerely recommend Miyabe books to me. Granted, these particular friends are not people I would usually go to for literary advice, but nonetheless I thought it would be worthwhile to check out whys she’s so popular. Second, I’d never read anything this deliciously trashy in Japanese before outside of games and manga, and I thought it would be a worthwhile cultural experience to read a junk novel. Third, and most importantly, I freaking love Ico.

[[image:cg_icocover.jpg:The desire to have a version of this awesome cover art printed on fancy paper was also a motivating factor in getting this book.:center:0]]
While the book did not convert me into a raging Miyabe Miyuki fan, I must admit that it was, for the most part, not as terrible as I expected it to be. Miyabe used the game as the basis for an inoffensive and occasionally even enjoyable fantasy novel based on the setting of Ico. At the very least, it is clear that Miyabe sincerely likes the game. In the Afterward she notes that the book is more or less fan fiction, her own personal variation on the story of Ico. Knowing that it’s not official cannon makes the story easier to digest, and it is interesting to see an author flesh out her own imagined history of Ico’s fascinating game world. Part of the beauty of the game Ico is the minimalistic way it suggests a larger story, leaving it up to individual players to fill in the details, and this book is best read as one gamer’s taken on that story.

If anything, the sections where Miyabe is most faithful to the game without adding her own interpretation are the least successful parts of the book. It is simply not interesting to read about Ico pulling levers to open doors, pulling levers to lower cages, and pulling even more levers to move a cart down a track. Luckily, these segments are punctuated with intriguing glimpses into the past via a new interpretation of the game’s memorable handholding dynamic. In the novel, this physical contact causes Ico to see phantom visions of Yorda’s memories, hinting at the history of the castle and creating a bond between the two characters. The presence of overbearing cut scenes along these lines would have obviously been disastrously for the pace of the game, but in the book they keep the story moving and provide a refreshing break from reading about all that lever pulling.

Thankfully, the majority of the book is not composed of descriptions of Ico pulling levers. It opens with about 100 pages depicting Ico’s life before he is sent to the castle. Then, when Ico and Yorda first encounter the Queen, the retelling of the game’s events are interrupted for about 200 pages with an extended flashback to Yorda’s upbringing. These sections, where Miyabe is not just adapting video game puzzles to prose, are much more successful and make for enjoyable, albeit uninspired, light fantasy reading. For the most part, these takes on Ico and Yorda’s origins seem to fit in well with the game world, with the exception of one bizarre scene in Yorda’s flashback where she fights her dead father’s skull to retrieve a sacred MacGuffin.

On the whole, I don’t think non-Japanese speakers are missing out for not being able to read this, and I don’t think I could recommend it to even the biggest Ico fans, unless they are desperate to see their favorite minimalist puzzle game transformed into what is more or less an extended JRPG cut scene, full of all the standard genre conventions. For example, in a plot twist that should surprise no one who has played a JRPG in the last 10 years, it turns out the practice of sacrificing horned boys was started not by the Queen herself, but by the Holy Empire fighting the Queen in order to seal her in the castle. In typical JRPG fashion, this leads to a shallow and poorly thought out scene where Ico doubts himself and seriously considers the Queen’s hilariously Darth Vader-esque offer to rule the world together with him, despite Ico knowing she is serving a demon god bent on destroying the earth. While reading this, my main reaction was to hope that Ico was keeping multiple save files just in case he accidentally took the wrong fork in a dialogue tree and stumbled into the bad ending.

Despite this criticism, Miyabe’s Ico is serviceable light fantasy reading, and it would be a lie to say that I didn’t enjoy it. Sometimes, mindless fluff is exactly what you need. I was aware of the kind of ridiculousness I was subjecting myself to when I decided to read the novelization of a video game known for its sparse storytelling, and it definitely exceeded my extremely low expectations. Best of all, it motivated me to play Ico again. It’s a lot more fun to just pull those levers myself, honestly.

15 thoughts on “Reading about pulling levers

  1. Sans the goofy Sony logo and the even goofier Ico logo, I would totally frame a poster of the cover of this book and hang it in my living room.

  2. Neat! I’d forgotten that. It’s a kind of visual pun, the whole, the whole de Chirico thing.

  3. Good point alexb, I hadn’t made that connection before. Man, I forgot how great the art we didn’t get in the US was.

  4. Wow–massive erudition ITT! I was just about to say “the presence of overbearing cut scenes along these lines would have obviously been” Kojimaesque. So thank goodness those only come in novel form.

  5. alexb: The book goes into a lot of detail about events leading up the castle, but the ending is the same as the game, except that the Yorda who carries Ico out is a living Yorda and not a weird shadow Yorda, leaving less room for wackky theories than in the game. Basically, both of them are just alive drifted onto the beach in the book.

    gajderowhat: Oh, definitely.

  6. I actually got this when it first came out. I was able to make it through the first 100 pages, but when it caught up to the game and turned into long, detailed descriptions of Ico pulling levers I immediately got bored and quit. I’ve tried a whole bunch of Miyabe Miyuki’s novels and short story collections, but it always seems like the story peters out halfway through and I lose interest. The only one I made it through was Nagai Nagai Satsujin, and that was only because I sort of liked the silly gimmick in which each chapter is narrated by a character’s purse or wallet.

    Thanks for the review, so I don’t have to wonder about the rest of the book (or know what I’m getting into if I ever try it again). Do you have any recommended novels? I haven’t found a whole lot of quality Japanese reading material. Nakayama Kaho is good if you’re in the mood for tragic and overwrought lesbian romances, which is pretty much all she does. I also liked the first half of Kougyoku Izuki’s “Mimizuku to Yoru no Ou” for its pitch-perfect dark fantasy, which is why it annoyed me when the second half abruptly reverted to your basic maudlin light-novel crap.

  7. Shih Tzu: I have tons of recommended novels but worry that this is not the right place to blog about Japanese books. Question to anyone listening: Would anyone want to read about this?

    In terms of more modern stuff, have you ever read “Hebi o Fumu” by Kawakami Hiromi? It’s a fairly short novella that won the Akutagawa Prize a while back, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. The other two stories in that book aren’t as good, but it’s worth getting just for the title story considering how cheap Japanese books are. I don’t want to say too much about it, because the central premise of the plot is really fun to find out on your own.

    Recently I read Taiyou no Tou by Morimi Tomihiko and really liked it. The main character is sort of a self absorbed stalker who can’t get over an ex-girlfriend, but if you can appreciate the humor in that it’s an interseting read. The cover will tell you it won some sort of fantasy prize, but it’s much closer to magical realism than fantasy.

    How much have you gotten into classic authors in the last century or so? There’s a great collection of Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s stories for young people called “Kumo no Ito,” which is a great way to get into him if you haven’t yet. Dazai Osamu is great, and it’s basically a national tragedy that so many Japanese people think of him as a difficult, boring author. Suna no Onna by Abe Kobo is my favorite novel in any language. Nakagami Kenji is generally awesome, both in novels and short stories.

  8. I’d read heartfelt recommendations of Japanese books. I need to pick up Suna no Onna again – I was halfway through it when I moved back to the States and it got lost in the shuffle, and I unearthed it a few weeks back.

  9. christopher: Thanks, I’ll check those out! I haven’t read too much classic literature, although I think there were at least two college classes I took where we read Suna no Onna (in English). I also picked up some Miyazawa Kenji on a trip to Japan a couple months ago.

    I’d certainly be interested in articles on Japanese books, and it seems sort of peripherally related in a Japanese-culture way. I don’t know if anyone else would be interested, though. Maybe bring it up with the blog-lord?

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