suki no Kage, Kage no Umi introduces Youko Nakajima as the principal character in the first of two novels from Fuyumi Ono's epic series, The Twelve Kingdoms, that together form the foundation of the subsequent narratives. It is also where the NHK anime series begins.
However, the anime conflates several plot elements and invents others. Sugimoto, for example, does not accompany Youko to the Twelve Kingdoms. Asano is completely made up (they attend an all-girl's school, after all), and he quickly disappears from the stage. Including these characters as convenient dramatic foils unfortunately adulterates an otherwise compelling account of wrenching personal growth. In the book, Youko faces her demons very much alone.
The starkness of her plight deepens the desperation of her actions and heightens the substance of her resolve. The moral evolution of her character, symbolized by her encounters with the harassing id of a monkey spirit, extends over the first volume of the book and builds towards a more profound and satisfactory resolve.
Ono's novels are wildly successful in Japan, which makes it all the more difficult to understand, given the popularity of anime and manga, why no U.S. publisher has picked up the series. One obstacle might be that the Swords & Sorcery genre, from King Arthur to Lord of the Rings and even Star Wars, has long reflected presumptions about the European history and culture, even when the story happened "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."
Fuyumi Ono is also reaching back for a historical context, but to China. Her "Middle Earth" is suspended between modern Japan and ancient China. The fall of the Han Dynasty in the third century A.D. was followed by a period of political upheaval commonly known as the "Three Kingdoms." The era also produced China's most important literary work, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The title of Ono's series undoubtedly echoes this historical reality.
The philosophical counterpart to Christianity (Tolkien was a devout Catholic) would, of course, be Confucianism. The second half of the novel, especially chapter 59, serves as a primer on the practical application of Confucian metaphysics, with the Royal En quoting almost verbatim from Chapter 13 of The Analects of Confucius: "How can he who cannot rule himself rule others?" (Compare Proverbs 16:31-33.)
This could be said to constitute the theme of the book as a whole.
Rest assured, though. Just as you need not be a medievalist to read J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, Ono's narrative stands well enough on its own. The historical precedent Ono is drawing upon does present certain challenges to the translator, however. As noted above, she has created in the Twelve Kingdoms a uniquely complex geopolitical landscape, detailing a hierarchy of governance that includes even the structure of the education system.
The problem is, she often creates her own compound words (think of descriptive terms such as "nation-state" and "city-state," and then extend that to a made-up term like "county-state"). The map that accompanies the novel clearly identifies kingdom, province and city/town/village. But then Ono include three additional geopolitical divisions between city/town and province.
The first of these is a county or shire. The second resembles a Japanese prefecture and has a governor. If the European Union were a kingdom, then Great Britain would be a province, and Scotland a prefecture. The division above the prefecture is a "district." As Yoshie Omura defines it, "Nobody actually lives in a district; it is for administrative purposes only" (similar to a federal appeals court district).
Ultimately, the most convenient reference point is the political divisions of China: province, prefecture, county, township, and village/hamlet.
In one instance, though, Ono's vocabulary resists translation: the title. The translation I have used, "Shadow of the Moon, a Sea of Shadows," is a literal one, applying the more common meaning to kage. However, kage can be also be translated as "reflection," as in "reflected light" or "reflected image." This usage is found in a haiku from the Kokinshu (10th century, author unknown):
The phrase tsuki no kage here means "reflection of the moon," or "moonlight." In the novel, Ono specifically uses the phrase to describe the reflection of the full moon off the surface of the ocean. In other words, in English, the opposite of "shadow."
In another instance, Youko is standing on a cliff looking down at the Sea of Emptiness (Kyokai), and sees the stars of the Milky Way shining up from the dark, translucent depths. In this case, kage refers to the shadow-like surface of a sea that "even in the light of dawn looked like night" and the glowing starlight scattered through it "like grains of sand."
This dual meaning shows up in the Kurosawa film Kagemusha, or "Shadow Warrior." The title comes from kage (shadow/reflection) + musha (warrior). The movie concerns a lowly samurai who is discovered to be a doppelganger for his commanding general. When the general is killed in battle, the samurai is installed in his place to deceive their enemies. But he is a reflection of his dead lord, doomed to be nothing more than the man's empty silhouette.
A more accurate translation of Tsuki no Kage, Kage no Umi might be, "The Moon's Reflection on a Sea of Stars." But that is a bit too pretty, and lacks that sense of "otherness" that the original Japanese creates. Even as a somewhat strained transliteration, Shadow of the Moon, a Sea of Shadows works well enough that I am loath to give it up.
For those interested in reading more of Fuyumi Ono's work, Retrooo's translations of "Sea of the Wind, Shore of the Labyrinth" and "The Demon Child" are posted here. Otyaku has also been translating the Twelve Kingdoms series. A French translation based on this English translation can be found here. The original Japanese novels can be purchased at BK1 (Book 1) and Amazon-Japan, and Sasuga Books and Yes Asia. (The latter two websites are in English.)
For more information about The Twelve Kingdoms, see this Wikipedia article.
Translation, as opposed to reading, really does focus the mind on what the author actually means, as opposed to simply propelling you along the narrative track. So the real credit goes to Fuyumi Ono for writing some of the most fascinating and creative novels in the high fantasy genre--in any language--and that only gets more interesting and morally complex as you go along.
Turning what began as an exercise in studying Japanese into readable prose was not a solo effort. I leaned heavily on Yoshie Omura's collection of Juuni Kokki resources. Yuko generously answered my questions about Japanese syntax and semantics. I'm indebted to Wiebe for pointing out typos and inconsistencies in the translation along the way, and to immi for slogging through the hard and too often thankless work of copyediting the entire novel. He has also compiled the chapters I've posted into PDF files which can be found here.
I write initial drafts using JWPce. My primary references are Eijirou and Yahoo's Daijisen Japanese Dictionary, running under separate tabs in Firefox. The OS is XP Pro SP2 with the East Asian languages module loaded. I dump the text into WordPerfect 12 and then run macros to turn it into HTML, and do the final edit in Homesite 1.0.