Guest post: Zoe Marriott on her passion for Japanese culture

This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted here.
For more information about the week, head over here.


Today I am thrilled to welcome Zoe Marriott, author of the fantastic Shadows On the Moon, to Portrait of a Woman. She will be talking to us about her passion for Japanese culture and her favourite books.

I'm really not an expert on Japan. People think that I am because I wrote Shadows on the Moon, which is set in a faerytale version of Feudal Japan. I've been praised for the amount of historical detail included, and sometimes people assume I must have visited Japan many times. But the fact is that I've never been there even once, although it's my life's ambition to, one day. And I've barely scratched the surface of this fascinating culture. 

I actually kind of like it that way. It means I've got so much more to learn, and that's the best way to feel about anything you love the way I love Japan. Because I really do. If Japan were a person and not a country, I would totally be it's stalker (also, wouldn't he or she be *gorgeous*?). Japan's many years of conscious and careful isolation up to the nineteenth century have resulted in a wealth of music, art, folklore, shared images and dreams and history which literally have no counterpart in any other country. In Europe and the Americas, in Russia, even in the middle east, it's possible to trace a mythological figure from nation to nation, transforming as he goes, or find a hundred different versions of the same story. Even China shares some of this. All that stops when you hit Japan. The fairytales and under-the-bed monsters, the turns of phrase that the Japanese people take for granted are utterly new and alien and all the more breathtakingly lovely and terrifying for that! 

The only other country I can think of with this kind of unexplored culture is Australia. But the aboriginal peoples of Australia were slaughtered and oppressed by white settlers who tried their best to stamp out the history of the land they had taken by force. The surviving indigenous people resent appropriation fiercely (for good reason, since they are trying so hard to recover and conserve that culture themselves!). The Japanese, on the other hand, still have a dominant and evolving cultural identity within their own nation. This allows them to appropriate freely from the rest of the world in their own media, and so it seems fair to borrow a little of their culture in return, even as an outsider. 

The obsession started young for me. Really young. So young that I can't tell you how old I was, only that I was small enough to sit cross legged in front of the television set and not get yelled at because my head was in the way. It was a Sunday afternoon and I'm pretty sure it was raining, but that's pretty much the only stuff I can remember about that day because every other braincell I have is taken up with the glorious, amazing, life-changing thing I saw. Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Laputa - now known as Castle in the Sky.

It's the story of a little orphan girl who is abducted by ruthless and ambitious men who intend to force her to reveal the secrets of her ancestor's power - the power to command a mythical floating city filled with unimaginable treasures and weapons of unbelievable power. There's a sweet, innocent love story, and sky pirates, and a moment when this tiny, round faced child stands resolute before a man who shoots off both her braids because she refuses to give up her secret to someone who will abuse it.

I'm pretty sure I never recovered. I mean, Disney was all very well (and you'll have to pry my copies of Beauty and the Beast and Tangled out of my cold dead hands) but COME ON. I'd never seen anything like Laputa in my life before. Beautiful, funny, disturbing, tragic, terrifying, unique and bittersweet, it exposed me to emotions and images that stayed with me for life. The girl flinging herself from the plane in desperation. The pendant glowing with a beautiful and sinister glow and her featherlike floating process through the sky, peaceful and serene. The glowing crystals in the underground caverns. The strangely lovely and mournful robots and their bird-like mechanical voices. The great city fallen to ruins, all covered in giant trees the size of skyscrapers and thick, jewel-like moss. When my brother tracked down a copy of this on DVD for me for Christmas one year (back before it was widely released in the English speaking world) I cried all over him. Not the reception he was probably going for. But it meant that much to me.

I think I've spent the last twenty-odd years of my life searching to recapture that feeling - the feeling of diving headfirst into a magical and unexplored country - again. Once I figured out who'd made Laputa I tracked down every other film he'd ever made and devoured them. Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Nausicaa, My Neighbour Totoro, The Cat Returns. And when I ran out of Hayao Miyazaki I moved onto Paprika and Millenium Actress by Satoshi Kon. All these are a great place to start exploring this powerful artform and beginning to gain an inkling of how fascinating Japanese culture is.

But all these are, to a greater or lesser extent, fantasy. You can pick up a lot from fantasy, but let's say you'd like to start with something a little down to earth. How about trying one of of my ultimate all-time favourite mangas? The Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga. Readily available in English, it's a four volume 'slice of life' series about a diverse group of friends and acquaintances (and their teachers) in the first years at Japanese high school. It's a poignant, touching, hilarious and wonderful portrait of how it feels to be young, with the constant rush to grow up doing battle with a nostalgia for fragile innocence which is inevitably slipping away. It's also beautifully drawn, and a great introduction to manga conventions, like reading from right to left.

Or perhaps you're in the mood for a romance - with a paranormal twist? How about Fruits Basket? It's a long running (now complete) series about a family who bear an ancient curse: they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac when someone of the opposite sex hugs them. The story follows the misadventures of a young girl who gets mixed up with them by chance, grows to love several of them in different ways, and tries to help them overcome the curse. It starts out cute and fluffy and gets gradually darker, and is like a masterclass in subtle characterisation, presenting easy stereotypes to the reader and slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the contradictory, complex, real person beneath. Don't watch the anime though; it cuts off with a nonsensical ending nothing like the manga and left me very frustrated. 

Not keen on paranormal? Then how about just plain old hilarious? Ouran High School Host Club (again, a long running series that is now complete) is probably one of the the best mangas I've ever read. It freely mocks and subverts normal shojo (that's girl's manga) tropes while at the same time squeezing laughs out of them. Haruhi - a poor, out of place, genius scholarship student at a prestigious school full of the superrich - stumbles into the middle of a group of bored, privileged kids who run a 'host' club to amuse themselves. The tables turn constantly. One minute Haruhi is beliguered and bullied by the rich kids, the next they're scrambling to impress Haruhi. The anime for this is also superb, though it cuts off waaaay before the manga finished, so be prepared.

For shounen - that's 'boy's manga' - my recommendation is Bleach (which is also a very decent anime, if you skip the filler arcs where they were waiting for the manga to catch up and just shoved any old nonsense in there). It's a great, action-packed manga about Shinigami, Japanese soul reapers, and a young human boy who ends up accidentally taking on some of their powers and - well - kicking monster ass with a huge-ass sword. Can you ask for more? Neither the manga or the anime are complete though. I'm personally freaking the heck out over current developments, so be warned.

Now for a few recommendations in one of my favourite manga and anime categories. Yaoi. That's gay romance featuring blokes. Hyouta Fujiyama is a brilliant mangaka in this field - her books are sweet, funny and feature some of my favourite art. Spell, Lover's Flat, Freefall Romance and Ordinary Crushvols. 1 and 2 are a good place to start, if you can get them. Fumi Yoshinaga, the author of The Flower of Life, that I mentioned above, also dabbles in this field. She wrote Moon and Sandals vols. 1 and 2 and The First Class is Civil Law vols. 1 and 2, brilliant works about learning to accept other people for what they are, if you wish to be loved the same way in return. Lily Hoshino is another mangaka whose art is breathtaking. I love My Flower Bride, My Flower Groom and Love Quest. Another favourite is Little Butterfly, by Hinako Takanaga, which is three volumes, but available in an omnibus edition - a truly epic, and yet completely down to earth story of the transformations caused by true love. For anime in this field? If you can find a copy of Winter Cicada - the story of two young Samurai on opposite sides in the Japanese civil war, who fall in love - you're in for a treat, although you should have tissues handy. LOTS of tissues.

Some of these are available on Amazon or even in your local bookshop. For others you might need to go to specialist manga and anime sellers, or buy secondhand. But I promise that you will be well rewarded! Exploring Japanese culture is a journey which I don't think I'll ever come to the end of, and the more people who are travelling with me, the more fun it will be.



Thanks Zoe for this post! I now have quite a few books (and anime) to track down on Amazon!

You can stalk Zoe:


  1. Oh wow! What a selection of manga books to look up. I didn't realise there were so many series. I don't remember Laputa at all. Now going to have to track it down.

  2. For most of the western world, Japan really is like an unexplored continent. It's as if we'd only just started to take an interest in, say, Europe NOW, and had thousands of years of culture and art and media to catch up on. It feels overwhelming, but it also means *you're never going to run out*. How cool is THAT?

  3. Fruits Basket and Ouran are amazing! I'll have to check out the other Manga recs too - though I think I've read more than my fair share of Yaoi (probably something I shouldn't be admitting on the internet, because boy can that stuff get smutty! God, I really need to shut up...) And Studio Ghibli must be the best animated film makers ever. Say what you want about them being the Japanese Disney - they're a million times better (and I love Disney). Yeah, awesome post!

  4. I agree you gotta love manga. Fruits basket was the first one I ever read but guys - you gotta check out The Wallflower by Tomoko Hayakawa. Its the best series ever! will totally have you laughing out loud!

  5. Cicely: Well, most forms of romance have a bit of smut, so it's not like it's a big deal! Us girls are allowed to like that stuff too.

    Whispering: Heh. I've already seen/read that one :) Excellent rec, though.

  6. Brilliant post! I've got to get requesting some of these titles from the library :D

  7. I didn't know you loved manga and anime! I'm even more of a fan now. I'm a huge lover of Japanese culture, especially anime and manga.

    I'll recommend some of my fave manga and anime titles to you.

    - Fullmetal Alchemist (science fantasy shounen, 52 episodes, deviates from manga from episode 3 onwards)
    - Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood (science fantasy shounen, 64 episodes, follows manga, no fillers)
    - Naruto (fantasy shounen with ninjas, lots of fillers like Bleach but skip them and you will love this series)
    - Naruto Shippuden (sequel, has a lot of filler so skip those)
    - Noein (24 episodes, sci-fi shounen adventure involving parallel worlds)
    - Inuyasha (Supernatural/fantasy shounen set in the Sengoku Era/Feudal Japan, 167 episodes, a lot of filler but follows manga)
    - Inuyasha The Final Act (sequel, 26 episodes, no fillers, follows manga)
    - Full Moon o Sagashite (Magical girl shoujo, 52 episodes, deviates from manga after the point of Mitsuki's first singing audition)
    - Fushigi Yuugi (Fantasy/comedy shoujo set in a fictional version of ancient China, 52 episodes, follows manga)
    - Cardcaptor Sakura (Magical girl shoujo, 70 episodes, follows manga)


    Inuyasha by Rumiko Takahashi (56 volumes)
    Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto (60 volumes so far)
    Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP (12 volumes)
    Full Moon o Sagashite by Arina Tanemura (7 volumes)
    Fushigi Yuugi by Yuu Watase (18 volumes)
    Fushigi Yuugi Genbu Kaiden (prequel, 10 volumes so far)
    Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa (27 volumes)
    Genju No Seiza by Matsuri Akino (Fantasy shounen, 14 volumes so far)
    Ceres Celestial Legend by Yuu Watase (Fantasy/action shoujo, 14 volumes)
    Absolute Boyfriend by Yuu Watase (Sci-fi comedy shoujo, 6 volumes)
    .hack//Legend of the Twilight (Sci-fi shounen, 3 volumes)
    Yu-gi-oh by Kazuki Takahashi (Fantasy/adventure shounen, 38 volumes)

  8. great post .thank you for posting it very awesome to read great centent all the time.
    keep going.