Zaregoto, the Debut Novel and the Nihilism of Failure

A review of Decapitation: Kubikiri Cycle (The Blue Savant and the Nonsense User)

There is a trendy phrase that tends to get thrown around a lot when you are a kid: “Everyone is special, you are valuable in your own unique way.” However, I think even the most accepting child is innately struck with scepticism and suspicion when they hear that. They immediately imagine that somewhere out there among the seven and half billion people that make up this wide world there must be someone who is just like them in every way: just as smart, just as kind, just as strong; but, they also imagine that this hypothetical doppelgänger can do at least one thing better than them. Maybe they can jump higher, maybe they solve equations in their head. And once you imagine that reality, you become convinced that you are wholly replaceable. Your whole life then only exists in the way it does as a matter of coincidence and circumstance.

Rather than being merely confronting, this idea once applied in full becomes ‘crippling.’ All the more so as you notice how much of your life is dominated by this cruel strain of relativism. Despite being the fastest in your family, in all likelihood you would only place near the top at the school marathon, and you would come dead last at the national competition. Score at the top of your class in math tests as much as you want, but that too will appear meaningless once you meet an even more masterful mathematics prodigy.

In other words, the gap in meaning between coming first and second is larger than that gap between second and last. Be anything less than the greatest, and it is natural to suddenly feel your own vulnerability, and how at risk you are of being replaced in any aspect of your life. In this sense, coming second can be worse than coming last. The curse of coming second is that in doing at least that well, you inevitably become aware of the massive difference between first and second, and of your own insufficiency.

That is the insurmountable problem in the case of Decapitation. The Blue Savant is someone who comes first; and as a result she stands far apart from the Nonsense Bearer, who can only come second—which might as well mean he came last.

“She likes everyone. Seriously, everyone. It’s not like she wants me in particular,” I blurted out.
“So that’s it,” Akane said. “You don’t want to be loved by her. You want to be chosen by her. As her one and only.”

Decapitation: Kubikiri Cycle (The Blue Savant and the Nonsense User)‘ was the debut novel of the Japanese mystery and young-adult fiction author Ishin Nishio. (This name is a pen name, and is usually stylised as ‘NisiOisiN‘ in order to appear palindromic.) In 2002, Decapitation was published after the manuscript was entered into, and won, the twenty-third issuing of a literary award called the Mephisto Prize. The novel was immediately noticed for its blending of youth-oriented pop culture sensibilities with a classical style detective fiction narrative structure. Ishin was only twenty-one years old at the time; and he went on to write eight sequels to Decapitation, as well as dozens of unrelated novels.

Decapitation and one of its immediate sequels were both translated into English from their native Japanese, and then published in English speaking markets in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Due to the poor market conditions faced in English markets by ‘Light Novels’ (an alternate term for Japanese YA novels) at the time, and general economic uncertainty in the midst of the Great Recession, the novels were not widely read or marketed, and no further plans were made for continued localisation at that time. However, the series was later renewed by a new publisher for English markets, with Decapitation being republished in English in 2017.

Decapitation features a murder mystery in an isolated mansion—located on a sparsely populated private island owned by an eccentric, affluent heiress to a prestigious family fortune. (As per ‘And Then There Were None‘ conventions so far.) The gimmick here is that the cast with filled with specialised ‘geniuses,’ each at the top of their respective field. In this case the island plays host to: the world’s greatest chef, academic, artist, psychic and greatest computer engineer.

Instead of any of these outlandish characters, the audience follows a nameless nineteen year old university student who serves as friend and assistant to Tomo Kunagisa. (Kunagisa is the aforementioned computer genius. The subtitle refers to the protagonist and his genius companion as the Nonsense Bearer and Blue Savant respectively.) And our protagonist does not stand as an equal among these geniuses; he is a simpleton by comparison. The traditional convention of the astute Holmes illuminating the hidden truth for an ignorant Watson, or the lofty genius of Hercule Poirot, are brazenly abandoned by Decapitation.

But otherwise, the plot largely follows the conventions of remote mansion murders as crystallised in And Then There Were None: people are murdered in seemingly impossible situations, the police are prevented from interfering for the convenience of the plot and there is a justified assumption that our heroes need to solve the murder themselves quickly before they become the next victims. There is also the looming possibility of a mysterious backstory to the mansion and its residents which introduces a new dynamic to the proceedings. All pretty standard mystery novel fare.

Being a mystery novel, there is little to be gained by recounting the plot in any additional detail. When reading Decapitation, what you are really there to chew on is the deft thematic work and impressively balanced writing. The real concern for our protagonist is not the lethal murders, but his equally lethal anxiety being on an island surrounded by true geniuses.

Decapitation is rooted in its thematic exploration of genius. Our protagonist is naturally concerned with notions of genius for two key reason: he was admitted to a high school academic program for exceptionally gifted children, and then dropped out before graduating. And that is precisely the kind of person Decapitation is most concerned with, the gifted dropout.

This is an obvious point of interest for Ishin, who himself fit that description when Decapitation was published. Ishin was admitted to the prestigious Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, and then dropped out. Throughout Decapitation it is nakedly obvious how devastating this was for Ishin. For such an obviously intelligent person to attend a high level university, in a nation and culture as obsessed with educational attainment as Japan, and then to drop out, is a catastrophic result.

Decapitation is thick with the nihilism of a failing overachiever. For our protagonist, his intelligence is not a gift, its only use is allowing him to realise his own insufficiency rather than living on in blissful ignorance.

Now, being incompetent—it’s better, really. If you can be completely oblivious… The world is harsh to the brilliant. The world is harsh to the competent.

Decapitation is a love letter to those who feel trapped by their own achievements, but are unable to go the whole way. In other words, half-arsed geniuses. For Ishin, there is a real argument to be made in favour of remaining a big fish in a small pond compared to the crushing reality of living as a mediocre fish in the endless ocean which success demands.

What lends the necessary credibility to this otherwise immature outlook is Decapitation‘s status as a debut novel. If a successful novelist waxed philosophical about the frustrations of being intelligent, it would drip with condescension and arrogance, but Ishin does so with remarkably light hands. Ishin is in the right situation to be able to accurately point out that being gifted is not enough if you can’t translate that into success, and if there is one thing that Decapitation does recognise, it is that success and genius are different things, and that this angst and frustration is largely alleviated by even modest success. These successful geniuses are represented by the various specialised intellectuals who are invited by the island’s owner.

There is plenty to be frustrated by when reading Decapitation. As a debut novel, it lacks the mastery over pacing, the ability to balance a large cast or the simple ability to be consistently appealing. Especially compared to Ishin’s later novels, Decapitation can be repetitive and lacks the emotional connectivity to really stick with the reader. The protagonist has a habit of sucking up all the oxygen in its dialogue, which is a remarkable mistake for a mystery with a cast of exceptional and unique people.

On the whole, while Decapitation is as amateurish as any novel written by a twenty-one year old would be, it is a substantive and unique read. It has a clear mastery of the conventions of the mystery genre; this mastery prevents its thematic and philosophical musings from becoming overbearing, which is a widespread challenge for debut novels. (For an immediate comparison, just look at how enjoyable and readable Decapitation is next to the similarly amateurish and wild structure of ‘Kara no Kyōkai: The Garden of Sinners‘, the debut novel series of Kinoko Nasu.) And by keeping its thematic work relatively focused, Decapitation becomes a novel that has something to say, and is successful in saying it, while still being a viscerally satisfying work of fiction.

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