The Guin Saga: The Leopard Mask

The Guin Saga: The Leopard Mask
Kurimoto Kaoru

While looking for something else entirely, I came across a link for Vertical Press, purveyor of Japanese books and manga. I hadn’t heard of them before, generally relying on Haikasoru for my Japanese translations, but was happy to see that Vertical also offers a smattering of fantasy. Not just any fantasy it appears, but no less than The Lord of the Rings of Japan. I was mildly shocked that I, Japanophile and SFF dork, was completely unaware of such a work, but these things happen. I went straight to the library and reserved myself a copy of the first volume of The Guin Saga, knowing that I could remain ignorant no longer and am honor bound to spread the word to all Two Dudes readers.

A wee bit of background searching turns up scant detail, mostly coming from manga message boards, but it is clear that said saga was intended from the start to run 100 volumes and ended up somewhere around 130. Each appears to be insanely popular, or at least popular enough to justify continuing publication, though the author passed away in 2009. I can only hope that she finished what she started. If not, the vengeful ghost of Robert Jordan will no doubt torment her until a suitable replacement author is found. As I have read not even 1/100th of the series, I can’t pass final judgment, but I will certainly sink my teeth into Volume 1.

The Guin Saga evades my initial attempts at analysis because the “Japanese LOTR” comparison is a complete non-starter. There is little of Japan evident in the first volume and the story bears no resemblance to Tolkien, instead owing its soul to pulps and low fantasy. I say that Japan is little evident for two reasons. First, because the world is more clearly built on stock Western fantasy settings than medieval Japan. Second, because the character interactions seem to lack the natural hierarchy and group consciousness of Japanese society. It is entirely possible that later volumes are more obviously Asian, especially because there is a lot less talking and a lot more doing in The Leopard Mask. Further, my ignorance of Japanese fairy tales could be masking a connection that is painfully obvious to other readers, while remaining invisible to me. Even if this is so, the book felt like it would be right at home next to Burroughs, de Camp, or Howard, more so than Miyazaki, Shiro, or the Haiksasoru crew. (Compare to the Nagatama series or Studio Ghibli productions.)

The story itself moves quickly and is soon completed. (This was probably a wise move by Kurimoto; it’s much easier to write a hundred 200 page novels than a hundred Wheel of Time or Malazan volumes.) We join the action already in progress, as two lovely and precious twins are repeatedly saved from awful fates by a warrior, Guin, who has a leopard mask surgically or magically attached to his face. Basically the three are thrust from rapidly peril to peril, with occasional nods to back story and context. I hesitate to call it “epic fantasy” because, at this point, the action is constrained to a few people and a small piece of real estate. Everything is competently done, with suitable moustachio twirling by the bad guys, amazing feats of derring-do by Guin, and hints of a glorious future for the twins.

The first five volumes of The Guin Saga comprise a single story arc, meaning that The Leopard Mask has marginal resolution at the end and is difficult to assess on its own. I am hesitant to pass judgment without reading further, but there are a few talking points remaining. The action is brisk and entertaining, with Guin dispatching his foes and generally being heroic. One hopes that Kurimoto reveals a bit more about why he has a leopard head within the next few volumes. The twins are a bit annoying, but I would hardly expect stoicism from most young adolescents who have watched their home kingdom razed, everyone they know killed, and death (or worse) being held at bay only through the efforts of a random guy with a leopard head. Sympathy aside though, I look forward to the day that the two fulfill whatever destiny awaits them and stop whining. Finally, I’m not wordsmith enough to explain this well, but there is an acceptable way to say that a warrior is a well-muscled, fine specimen and the young adults are attractive in a way that will someday blossom into stunning beauty, and there is a creepy way to say it. Kurimoto (and the translation) are firmly in the creepy camp. That, at least, is in keeping with certain predilections common in Kurimoto’s homeland.

And now, a verdict. I am curious, so I will continue through the first story arc or until I get bored. Volume 1 didn’t wow me, but neither did it disgust. If nothing else, I feel like I ought to report on this or risk turning in my Japan Nerd card. Later volumes apparently transform themselves into gay fanfic, but I wasn’t really planning on reading into the 90s anyway, so no loss. (Nothing against gay lit, just not my bag.) Interested readers can expect a report on Vols. 2-5 sometime in the future, but it is somewhat lower priority than other things in my life. Said readers are advised to not hold their collective breath.

Rating: The early rounds of the Emperor’s Cup. This is the time with all the small squads in Japanese football – the college teams, company teams, and regional division members – play each other as a prelude to the higher stakes late rounds. This rating may be subject to change.

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