Let’s Talk About Japanese Books: 砂糖菓子の弾丸は撃ちぬけない A Lollypop or A Bullet

Satougashi no Dangan ha Uchinukenai: A Lollypop or a Bullet
桜庭一樹 (Sakuraba Kazuki) | 201 pages | 角川文庫 (Kadokawa Bunko)

The great thing about the Japanese publishing industry is if you are a talented writer or can market yourself no matter who you are, you can get the attention of many mainstream readers. Such is the case of Sakuraba Kazuki, a writer who has quite the history before making it big.

The first thing Sakuraba wrote were scenarios for visual novels, one of them being a lambasted Eve sequel, under a male alias Yamada Sakumaru. Most Westerners would know her through her Kadokawa Beans Bunko light novel series Gosick which got adapted by Studio Bones.

But she made the jump into the mainstream with 砂糖菓子の弾丸は撃ちぬけない A Lollypop or A Bullet and caused a sensation with high schoolers. According to the afterword, she wrote A Lollypop or Bullet for a mystery light novel magazine without the intention of making it into a novel. But the magazines it was serialized under kept selling out and the staff decided to publish a light novel (the cover picture for this post is the LN cover by むー) and then a hardcover for real. Today, it is one of those titles that everyone recognizes just from how talked about this book is and is seen as her real starting point before she became a successful Naoki award-winning writer well loved by critics and readers alike. High school students, 40 year old businessmen, and teachers have asked Sakuraba to sign their book. To them, this book is their life.

So it is hard to not get excited reading a writer who seems well-loved by everyone interested in otaku stuff or literature. Especially since I am always looking for writers who can somehow teeter on the balance between the niche and the mainstream. It is a difficult feat to do and I am always impressed and interested in how a writer can do that.

Lollypop prefaces with a news piece detailing the death of Umino Mokuzu. This unfortunately named girl is the daughter of a famous singer Umino Masachika who has some strange lyrics about murdering fish.

When the novel properly begins, the narrator is revealed to be Yamada Nagisa. She is an asshole girl who has a hikikomori brother Yamada Tomihiko and wants to join the Japanese Self-Defense Force someday. Mokuzu enters the scene as a transfer student and everyone gets excited. Too bad she believes she is a mermaid princess and drinks like a million water bottles because she is so into the character. Nagisa is forced to be friends with Mokuzu and sees herself shooting some BB bullets onto Mokuzu’s face.

But they end up being friends. This hurts Nagisa because Mokuzu keeps lying in front of her face about how Mokuzu is a mermaid. Mokuzu affects her relationship with her crush, Kanajima Shouta, and she has no idea why Mokuzu is such an incorrigible liar.

It is an interesting premise, albeit plainer than the stuff I like to read. Lollypop has everything that could make a fun novel: nice writing and gay girls.

But my enthusiasm was short-lived. 60 pages through the book and I got tired of reading the book. It felt wordy and the writing voice started losing flavor. The plotting became boring to follow. 120 pages in and I feel like this book is too long. I just stopped picturing the scenes I was reading and instead just saw words. Many words. Fields, trees, facial descriptions. Nothing visual, just sentences. 160 pages: I want to give up. And when I finally finished the book, I felt like I have just read War and Peace written by an Asian parent who wanted to teach their kid a moral lesson.

A few days ago, I would have never thought a 201 paged book could feel like a waste of time — but Lollypop manages to do it. This book has to be one of the worst reading experiences I have ever had. I regretted being excited for this book for a year till I finally read it and I am left extremely confused how this book is popular in the Japanese literary world.

To actually like this book, Japanese readers would not only have to contend with the unnecessary purple prose but also Mokuzu as a character. For a “weirdo girl” type, she just drinks a lot of water and that’s her whole character. She is subservient to her father who has abused her in plain sight and pretends to be a mysterious mermaid princess with a kingdom in the seas. You are supposed to like her and empathize with her constant lying because she wants to make friends with Nagisa; she just doesn’t know how. But Mokuzu ends up being an annoying character and the description of GLUGGLUGGLUG whenever she drinks water becomes an eyesore much like the famous chair meme in the Tsukihime translation.

In fact, everything that has been used to criticize Nasu in translation can be applied to Sakuraba without modification. Her writing is repetitive, describing the same plains over and over again. She likes to force readers to read the same distinctive features of characters through the book as if she imagines they have the memory of a goldfish. This is why Mokuzu in any scene with a water bottle never appears without a GLUGGLUGGLUG description.

Lollypop is also supposedly a mystery book, but the mysteries are nothing more than plot padding. They aren’t even used to explore the psychology of characters. They are just there to make the book deeper than it is. One of the mysteries involves Mokuzu hiding herself well via a simple trick and you could argue it can make her a more egregious liar. But Nagisa’s point of view at this point is frustrating to read and she goes from cool independent girl to freaked out paranoid girl. If anything, the mysteries show how Nagisa’s character becomes less important and, worse, less of a character while being more of a cardboard cutout.

The book is about the relationship between Mokuzu and Nagisa, but you cannot empathize with Mokuzu or Nagisa’s struggle in understanding her. It tries everything it knows to stop you from making a connection to them. All you can do is pity their demise and misery. I hate that in a book. It’s sappy and unbearable, especially when the book ends on a didactic note.

I would argue that Lollypop is in fact a textbook on how kids should grow up to be proper adults, similar to children’s books like Pollyanna. I shouldn’t be surprised when the most offensive part of the book is how it treats hikikomoris. Understandably, Japanese society is weirded out by them and it shows in the book as Nagisa’s teacher is concerned about her brother. However, the teacher is freaked out as if the brother is infectious and begins interrogating her, even asking to enter their house. Nagisa is upset, of course, because she sees her brother as a godly figure. He has the 神の視点 (literally God’s point of view) and loves reading mystery books. But when Nagisa needs his help and he has to get out of the house, he vomits the minute he steps out. This scene is a bizarrely stereotypical and dated view on recluses, but it also displays the worst aspect of this book: her brother is ill.

Her brother is ill because he depends on his little sister to take care of him. Their relationship parallels the abusive relationship between Mokuzu and her father. A recurring idea in the book is Stockholm syndrome and I say it is recurring because the narration likes to hammer the definition of the syndrome forever and ever. Mokuzu and her father can easily be seen as a textbook case of Stockholm: she defends her father’s actions by making up mermaid lore to describe the bruises (she calls them “infections”). But the more worrying version is the relationship between Nagisa and her brother. Nagisa defends her brother in a similar fashion to Mokuzu. She takes care of him by cooking food and doing the laundry. While Nagisa’s brother doesn’t abuse her at all, it is this relationship that is seen as “abnormal”. What is seen as a seemingly innocent relationship is actually another version of the Stockholm syndrome. This is what scares Nagisa in reality and why she doesn’t want to be friends with Mokuzu — they are too similar.

The ending rubs me off the wrong way when it shows Nagisa and her brother as normal functioning adults in society. Her brother is not a hikikomori and goes to school like any other person. Nagisa herself joins the JSDF and vows to never shoot a lollipop bullet (hence the title). All’s well that ends well. Moral of the story: Grow up to be adults who don’t have abusive relationship — a thing someone said near the end of the book.

What a happy, moral story. And a waste of time.

Growing up to be a good adult has to be the most extreme example of a platitude. What does that even say? You never really understand why Mokuzu’s father is abusive nor Mokuzu herself. It’s just a story between Nagisa and her brother as they go through a traumatic event together and learn to be proper adults in the end. There is nothing worth “learning” from the book’s didactic ending. How are readers supposed to respond to “be good adults”?

I am amazed that Sakuraba is seen as a genius for writing this book. It is disconcerting to see people say they are motivated to read more of her books after this piece of trash. If I read it when I was younger — say, twelve when I really began to read stuff — this would be the book that stopped me in my tracks to read more.

I do understand why people might like this book. The reasons why I dislike this book can be seen as positives for the book. Some people like these kind of didactic books and writing that is flowery. Books that play with layman psychology can intrigue people into reading more. And Lollypop has an inviting introduction that shows the scope of its world. It is the perfect concoction of the alchemy experiment of storytelling: it has all the popular elements and more to draw in many readers anywhere.

In that regard, Lollypop is one of the many successful books that follow this kind of formula. It has a hero’s journey and ends with a fable-like lesson. A textbook example of Joseph W. Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I usually don’t mind these books and tend to like them anyway, but the execution leaves me with a bitter aftertaste. The fact it ended on a moral lesson pisses me off as well. This is the type of popular storytelling that I hate and I feel duped buying this book. I understand the reasons why this book is a favorite for many, but I still don’t understand why. It’s that type of confusion that frustrates me and I don’t think I will ever be free from its curse. I will keep on questioning its popularity for life because I really don’t understand why people can like this book.

If anything, this book shows you don’t have to be a talented writer to be popular. You just need to market to the right folks. Getting this book to the right hands means they can spread the word to other people. Every book goes through this to be popular. It just so happens this book somehow has gone through the process without people wondering why.

Because its ending is like receiving a lecture on growing up from my parents when I was eight years old and it somehow makes 201 pages feel long, Lollypop has to be one of the worst things I have ever read in my life.

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