Is My Little Sister Can Read Kanji a Good Satire?
My Little Sister Can Read Kanji is a novel I’ve complained about before. In a post from two months ago, I said that Siskan had an entertaining premise but was not a well-told story overall. I still stand by these opinions, even after reading the second volume.
And yet I haven’t stopped reading the series, nor have I stopped thinking about its themes. It makes me question my beliefs about literature, not because it’s a good satire, but because it’s a bad one.
This must be getting confusing for you, so let me take a step back and explain what the satire in Siskan is all about.
Here’s the summary from J-Novel Club:
The year is 2202, and Japan has become the land of moe. Aspiring author Gin Imose and his little sister Kuroha are traveling to TOKYO to meet with the world famous author, Gai Odaira. Kuroha is uninterested in his orthodox literary style, and amazingly is able to read ancient modern Japanese books written in kanji! This fateful encounter sets off a chain of events that could change the course of literary history! Could it be that, long ago, books could be about more than little sisters showing their panties and getting in compromising situations with their non-blood- related older brothers? Impossible! It’s hard to even imagine a Japan where everyone could read kanji and the Prime Minister was a 3D human being…
Most of the commentary about this series is about this ridiculous premise, which is understandable because it’s ripe for satire when you think about it. It quite cleverly exploits the widespread concerns in Japanese society about the impact that visual media has on kanji literacy. People don’t read as many books these days, and when they do, they gravitate towards trashy light novels and manga. Whatever happened to the good old days when people read “proper” literature? As ridiculous as the premise of Siskan is, it taps into contemporary anxieties, like all good satires do.
The other good thing about Siskan is that it’s not actually a cautionary tale about degrading literary standards. It doesn’t go with the most obvious narrative structure. At its core, the novel has a heartwarming message about accepting all forms of literature without prejudice.
That message carries its own set of assumptions about literature, however. After all, if nobody can agree on standards, then how do we identify skilled writers or improve our writing techniques?
Siskan does not truly grapple with these questions, since it presents the opposing ideologies about literature as strawmen. Either the characters swear by the “orthodox” writing style of the 23rd century, or they decry it as trash. There is no in-between. Neither is Siskan interested in exploring the cultural differences between the 21st and 23rd centuries beyond a superficial level.
I wouldn’t have minded if Siskan had presented no answer at all to the time-old debate between high and low culture. But the answer the novel does present is a half-baked platitude, whether I agree with it or not.
My feelings about Siskan only get more complicated when I think about how poorly written it is in its own right. I’m not criticising the prose; it makes sense that it would be written in a simplistic manner because that’s consistent with the protagonist’s POV. But beyond that, the story is full of contradictions and light novel cliches that aren’t justified by the logic of its setting. For example, the little sister incest stories of the 23rd century are clearly presented as over-the-top and unrealistic to the reader, but there are also incestuous overtones in Gin’s own relationship with Kuroha, which undermines the satirical intent. It’s also never explained how the technology of the 23rd century could be so advanced when the education standards are so low, or why paper books are still in widespread use in an era with time machines and advanced A.I.
The setting is not thought out very well, in other words. The sci-fi writer Hiroshi Yamamoto (best known in English for his short story collection The Stories of Ibis) criticised Siskan on his blog, saying that anyone well-versed in sci-fi would find its shallow exploration of its setting frustrating. The part about the Prime Minister of the 23rd century being a 2D girl is good for a laugh, but that’s about it.
Of course, Siskan is not a sci-fi novel in spite of its time travel gimmicks; it’s really a screwball comedy. Unfortunately, it’s not a very amusing comedy either because the jokes quickly get repetitive after the novelty of the first chapter wears off. The novel uses template light novel gags like the tsundere sister or the oblivious harem lead with little to no variation on the formula. For a novel with such a creative premise, it’s surprising how uncreative the plot and characters can be.
I suspect that Siskan is more likely to reaffirm the reader’s existing opinions about light novels and literature instead of challenging them. If you think that light novels are trash, then Siskan probably won’t change your mind. Likewise, if you think that literary critics are unreasonably prejudiced against light novels, Siskan will validate that point of view too.
It is no surprise, then, that the orthodox style which reigns supreme within the narrative emphasises the reader’s interpretation above all else. As Odaira-sensei puts it:
Modern literature had many variety of terms used to describe foolish behavior, such as “idiot,” “fool,” “dimwit,” “dunce,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” among others. It was such a pity that we had so many words used to hurt other people, and the task of simply remembering them all was a struggle. But in current-day writing, we would simply write:
and be done with it. The people of our time have incredible reading ability, and with nothing more than those eight letters, an entire panorama opens up in their minds. Fine nuance doesn’t need to be written when it can be interpreted by the reader. That is why the Japanese people’s compassionate and sympathetic hearts enable such writing!
Some readers have compared the orthodox style of Siskan to the Newspeak of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but actually they couldn’t be more different. According to Odaira-sensei, simplified words don’t restrict thought – they free the language to open interpretation. The reader takes these fragmented words and character tropes and constructs a narrative in their minds. The world of Siskan is Azuma’s database taken to its ultimate conclusion.
That is why I think about Siskan, even though I disliked reading it. I want to like Siskan and am really compelled by the idea of it, but the actual story turns me off. I wonder if my thoughts on the novel betray how narrow-minded I am. Takashi Kajii deliberately hedged his bets with this novel, and it’s unclear how much of the “bad” writing is purposeful, but in the end, I can’t help but wish for the author to be more clear about his intentions.
If you’ve read My Little Sister Can Read Kanji, do you think it’s a good satire?