Audio Book Review: “Kyoudan X” (教団 X)by Fuminori Nakamura (中村文則)

By | April 15, 2019

After coming across a video of author Fuminori Nakamori talk about literature and his writing process (details), I became interested in reading one his books.

In preparation for a recent trip to Japan with a lot of plane time, I decided to look for an audiobook on audiobook.jp (review). The selection on this site is still somewhat lacking, but Nakamura’s book “Kyoudan X” (教団 X) was available there (it was the only audio version of his works on the site). I had actually come across this book before on audiobook.jp when browsing around some time back and remembered the very distinctive cover (which I liked for how ‘scary’ it felt). So I couldn’t help but give it a try.

Being a big fan of Japanese roudoku (narration), in the last few years I have listened to a bunch short stories on Youtube, some narrated by professionals and some by amateurs, but most made with a low or zero budget.

The voice narration of “Kyoudan X” (whose title means “Cult X”), on the other hand, was clearly a high-budget, high-quality endeavor. On the whole the recording quality was very good (except for one part I noticed noise cutting in and out near the middle of the story), and the voice actors were generally quite skilled. I particularly enjoyed the performance by the main narrator played by Banjou Ginza (銀河万丈), a voice narrator with an impressively long career. Some of the younger roles in “Kyoudan X” seemed to be a little overacted (including one or two female characters that sounded like they were straight out of an anime), but it’s hard to say if a native Japanese person would feel the same way. The production was rounded off by appropriate sound effects and music that really helped set the mood.

It was a breath of fresh air to experience such a skillfully produced audio book; the extra production made this so much more than a simple textual novel or reading-out-loud of the text.

As to the book itself, which is (unsurprisingly) a story about a Cult, I must say it was a mixed bag of three different categories:

a) Though-provoking monologues (told by one of the main characters) on a variety of topics including science, biology, and religion. It’s clear the author did his research on these topics, for example on the history of Buddha.

b) Banal conversations between the characters

c) “Category X”

While a) was great, b) was unnecessary but tolerable. However, it was the final category of content––Category X––which I just couldn’t handle.

The reason I chose “X” for this category name is basically because the content is borderline X-rated: overly explicit sex scenes which are somewhat infrequent but nevertheless hard to miss. I’ve read books before where there was a sex scene that was unpleasant yet made sense in the context of the story, or I could at least say added something valuable to the story. However, in “Kyodan X”, these scenes are largely gratuitous and crude.

Ironically, it might be the exaggerated acting of some of the voice actors that made these parts even more vulgar (remember what I said about the anime-voiced character?). Had I read this book in normal text form I might have been more apt to forgive these sections, and feel less like I was indulging in some pornographic media.

There was one of these scenes early on the audiobook, and although I considered stopping I decided to brave it out a little longer. After a few more instances and an extra-explicit one (near halfway through) I just got fed up and decided to stop listening. As a result, this is one of the rare reviews I’ve written on a book that I didn’t finish.

Sure, I could have skipped those parts, but I was just so disturbed that an author would go through the effort to add such detail. This was even greater of a shock since I had such high ‘literary’ expectations for Nakamura. Even if I wanted to, it would have been pretty tedious to surgically skip the vulgar parts because sometimes those scenes were mixed with more relevant content in the same chapter. Reading paper media would have made it easier to jump around by skimming.

There was at least one other reason I wasn’t compelled to continue listening. While I appreciated the various philosophical/scientific monologues that made up a large part of the first half of the book, I felt they didn’t really make for good storytelling. They were interesting intellectual/historical ideas, but didn’t really make me care about any of the characters.

For those studying Japanese, I would only recommend this audiobook to advanced students because of the high level of vocabulary in some of the sections, especially the monologues, where you’ll find words like 素粒子 (soryuushi, “elementary particle”). I feel that looking up words when listening to an audiobook takes a little more effort than when reading a paper book since you have to stop the recording each time, though you can still do it if you like. On the other hand, if you do have the patience to look up the words you don’t know, this audiobook will probably give you a nice boost to your vocabulary. Also, listening to professional voice actors is always a good way to fine-tune your ear for pronunciation (especially intonation), and serves as great listening comprehension practice.

Despite my complaints, I still think that Nakamura is a promising author and will consider reading some of his other novels, in particular “The Thief” (掏摸), which won the prestigious Kenzaburō Ōe Prize in 2010. I’ve seen a tendency for authors to try becoming a little more ‘creative’ after they get famous, and this is definitely a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, I did enjoy Nakamura’s writing style in this book with its heavy use of metaphors. He said in his interview he’s very picky about word flow and choice at the sentence level and at least parts of this work seem to reflect that. I did feel that there were some expressions he overused, like 鼓動が早くなる ([my] heart speeds up) which I lost count of the number of times I heard.

Just because the sexual content of this book was (ironically) a turn off doesn’t mean that everyone will feel the same way. Surely, some people will enjoy this and authors have the right to write about (almost?) anything they want to––in fact, parts of this book reminded me of a certain ultra-famous Japanese author (you know who). I can understand about adding ‘sensitive’ content like this for shock value, but to be honest I’d be more impressed if Nakamura could convey the same nuances with less explicit description and more innuendo.

In any case, the next book I am reading is a bit more touchy-feeling emotion -laden, without all the graphic details. Hopefully I can finish that up soon and post a review.

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