Fox Tales by Tomihiko Morimi, author of The Night is Short Walk On, Girl and The Tatami Galaxy, is more aptly a collection of vaguely interrelated short stories than a novel. The book consists of four roughly sixty-page stories all set in a more or less modern Kyoto. The tales are really only lightly interlinked; three of the four all mention the same curio shop, and similarly all four mention a mysterious creature that sounds vaguely like a human-faced red panda. Rather than meditations on a theme or an effort to show any one element, the stories simply seemed to be snapshots of the supernatural life of an ancient city and how a modern man interacts with them.
I say “man” in the gendered sense, and not just because all four of the narrators are in fact male. While Morimi is a beautiful writer who does an excellent job at setting up an atmosphere, he is not adept at writing female characters, and while the manic pixie dream girl trope does not rear her head here, all of the women come off as one-dimensional and vaguely cardboard. From the young woman who runs the curio shop to the girlfriend to the childhood friend to the wife and mother, none of the women exhibit any interiority or even a whole lot of motivation, and mostly seem to exist to further the male narrators’ experience. They function as story supports rather than characters in their own right, and that quickly becomes irritating. Natsuo in the third story, “Phantom,” comes the closest to being more than just a marker by the wayside, but she still is ultimately simply there for the four male protagonists to work around as they attempt to figure out the connection between a kendo dojo and the strange creature that appears to be attacking people at night. Natsume, the only female character to appear in more than one story, appears to be an attempt to recreate someone a bit like Yuko from xxxholic; this ultimately does not succeed, because she is stymied by the so-called feminine reticence that holds her back in almost every situation. This has the unfortunate result of making the attempts to link all four stories fall a bit flat, and it is perhaps better to read them as four completely separate tales that just so happen to be set in the same city.
The strongest of the four is the first piece, the eponymous “Fox Tales.” The nameless protagonist is a university student who has picked up a part-time job at the curio shop Hourendou. He more or less stumbled into the work, and throughout the story seems a bit baffled by his continued employment. In part this is because the shop itself is at least a little bit strange: it calls itself a curio shop, but there is a very real sense that the supposed junk cluttering its shelves is really just a front for a much more supernatural business. The nameless narrator begins to figure this out as he finds himself repeatedly becoming involved with a specific customer, a man living in a mysterious grand mansion within the city. Natsume warns him repeatedly not to give the man anything, no matter how harmless the request seems to be; as he is drawn further into the man’s world, the narrator finds it almost impossible to follow her advice. This story successfully blends a supernatural mystery with an air of being trapped in a dream that you know is false but can’t quite wake up from. While the final story, “The Water God,” attempts to recreate this atmosphere, it doesn’t quite pull off because of the way it keeps skipping around in time. There’s a sense that the story is trying to do too much and ends up unable to fulfill its obligations because of this.
Although “Phantom” is truly the weakest, the second story “The Dragon in the Fruit,” somehow manages not to hit as hard as it ought to. It most successfully links all of the other tales, and its overall theme of someone needing to tell stories in order to survive and be comfortable with their own life is the most easily grasped and solid of the collection. But Morimi fails to establish much more than atmosphere, and despite its striking use of imagery and the way it ties the works together, it fails to really make a lasting impression. The same could be said to a degree for the final story, and this makes the book overall feel a bit more uneven than is strictly necessary.
If you are a fan of Morimi as an author, this is still worth reading. There are plenty of little gems secreted away within the text that make it in many ways a beautiful read, and the suspicion that each story takes place slightly further back in time is an interesting one when it comes to analyzing the book as a whole. (The placing of “The Water God” at the end plays a little havoc with this theory.) But if Morimi’s writing, and particularly his struggles with female characters, haven’t worked for you in the past, Fox Tales is unlikely to change your mind. It’s an interesting book, and in many ways a fascinating one, but it is not without its persistent issues.
Disclosure: Kadokawa World Entertainment (KWE), a wholly owned subsidiary of Kadokawa Corporation, is the majority owner of Anime News Network, LLC. Yen Press, BookWalker Global, and J-Novel Club are subsidiaries of KWE.