Zaregoto and the Role of the Unreliable Narrator

“Come to think of it, I was on my way to deliver the contents to Kunagisa. But this lady really figured that out just from this bag? She was like . . . like one of those famous books of yore. Like . . .

Like a detective.”

-“I,” The Kubikiri Cycle (the first novel in the Zaregoto series by Nisio Isin)

In storytelling there are three basic beings responsible for the dispensation of the story: the author, the audience, and the narrator, with the latter often serving to bridge the gap between the author and the audience. When this occurs with a first-person narrator, they become our window or entry point into the story. This means that, especially in mysteries, the narrator is someone easily identifiable; someone who one can see themselves as in order to insert themselves into the thick of solving the mystery; a viewpoint character.

At first blush, our narrator for Nisio Isin’s Zaregoto series, who refers to himself only as “ぼく” or “I,” appears to be the perfect viewpoint narrator. Surrounded by geniuses of all types, he constantly reaffirms the fact that (although intelligent) he is not a genius like his peers, especially his best friend Tomo Kunagisa. He is not a detective. He is not a genius. He is not a complex or complicated man.

Or at least, that’s what he says.

The first novel in the Zaregoto series, The Kubikiri Cycle, establishes “I” as the narrator. He becomes our viewpoint into a closed circle of geniuses where the murder mystery is taking place. Establishing “I” as the Doctor Watson of the story is natural and seamless. When “I” does show a flash of deductive prowess at the end, he is shortly brought down several pegs by “private contractor” Jun Aikawa who re-solves the mystery for him. “I” is the textbook viewpoint by the end of this book; prodding the intellectually superior characters into spilling out exposition so that we, the audience, can better grasp the mystery.

This is crucial for his characterization going into the second novel, The Kubishime Romanticist, when “I” is thrust into a rash of serial killings in the more familiar environment of Kyoto. Opening with the most humdrum of meetings in a university cafeteria, the book establishes a backdrop of normalcy before one of the murders hits closely to “I” in proximity. Running parallel to this is the secondary plot of “I” coming into a shaky friendship with the serial killer himself, Hitoshiki Zerozaki. Shedding his role as an insert for the audience, “I” takes an active step in elevating his intelligence while affirming a disassociation with typical emotional responses and bonds.

In other words, he crosses the line between the Doctor Watson viewpoint into the dispassionate, arrogant demeanor of Sherlock Holmes.

By casting “I’s” previous perpective into doubt, The Kubishime Romanticist changes the narrative fabric of both novels. “I” is now an unreliable narrator. In an expositive passage, much like the one in the previous novel, “I” reveals the mystery, this time through a discussion with Zerozaki. Zerozaki prods “I” for information, acting as a momentary viewpoint character for us, the deceived audience. In the following scene, Jun Aikawa shows up to once again fit the final pieces of the story together, only this time she speaks with “I” on much more familiar and equal terms.

“The details of this string of incidents,” she eventually said.

“You mean you’re not satisfied with my reasoning again?”

“No, I’ve got no problem with your reasoning. It’s you I’m not satisfied with. At all.”

-An exchange between Jun Aikawa and “I” in the closing chapter of The Kubishime Romanticist.

Following the first two novels in this series of nine, it would be fascinating to chronicle “I’s” role as a narrator throughout the series. Does he return to being a viewpoint for the audience? Could he possibly, after what we learn in The Kubishime Romanticist? Or does he elevate his status to the genius level, in spite of his assertions to the contrary, leaving the audience in his doubtful wake? Unfortunately, I am ill-equipped to answer these questions, as only the first two novels of this series have been released in English.

Further Reading: Who Murdered Detective Fictions?– Yi takes a look at the simplicity of mystery stories within the Gosick anime series.


Filed under Editorials, Zaregoto

15 responses to “Zaregoto and the Role of the Unreliable Narrator

  1. Ah, I love it when authors play with viewpoint. I actually have book 1 of Zaregoto on my shelf, waiting to be read one day. (I have a couple other light novels I’m in the middle of at the moment though.) I look forward to seeing how the mystery plays out, through the eyes of this unnamed narrator.

    • I think I owned the novels for a while before I actually got around to cracking the books open (bored on a long plane ride), and burned through both of them fairly quickly. The second one, especially, was interesting.

      Hope you enjoy it! Definitely let me know either way.

  2. Wow I remember reading this when Digibrony stayed over my place last year and I HATED IT. Without animation to give variety to the experience it was just awful stuff… harping on what genius is within the dynamics of standard harem/otaku fetish constructs.

    • Although I’ll politely disagree with your assertion that it’s awful stuff, I’ll certainly admit that there are a lot of stereotypical harem/otaku constructs in these books that sometimes make them hard to get through. (I can already see unflattering parallels to Nisemonogatari and what the_patches had to say about it, especially when re-reading them for this post). As I mentioned to Cholisose (and in this post) the reason why I ended up liking both books so much was that developments in the second novel cast suspicions on events in the first.

      As for the remainder of the series, who knows? Since I liked the novels, I’d certainly like to see where the story ended up going. ^ ^

  3. I have both books. I think I prefer them to Bakemonogatari in terms of taste (more mystery, less harem), but anyway.

    Book 1 read like a weird Ii-chan character study. Kunagisa grated on me because she was utterly otaku-bait, yet I did enjoy the twists near the end. Book 2 was a lot better, because the characters that Ii-chan met in school were utterly screwed up. Zerozaki provided a great contrast, too.

    While I like the books, they’re rather, uh, painful to read? Ii-chan’s passive POV makes me want to break things, but there’s really more to him than meets the eye.

    I wish Del-Rey didn’t go under. I looked up on characters in later books and they’re named in typical Nisioisin crazy fashion, like Nanananami Nanami. (!)

    • You mention Zerozaki, and I was especially curious as to what was to happen between him and “I” in the other seven books. The closing of their conversation in the second implies that they do cross paths again. In their last conversation, they seemed to be playing the “we’re not so different, you and I” card with Zerozaki as a possibly Moriarty-type figure. In spite of his style being opposite of the typical manipulative Moriarty portrayal that one usually sees (actually “I” fits this archetype much better than Zerozaki) they do bring up the idea of love being the thing that separates the two. Sadly, I won’t be able to see how/if their relationship developed.

      I think that Kodansha (who assimilated most Del Rey properties and published Zaregoto in Japan) may still own the rights to it; however, I doubt either book sold well enough to continue releasing the series in English.

  4. As I was reading the Kubishime Romanticist I considered taking notes for a possible future visit to Kyoto. It might be fun to retrace some of Ii-chan’s steps. Unreliable narrator aside, the details and the places seemed complete enough to try it. Like Schneider, Ii-chan’s passivity bothered me, and his acceptance of his serial-killer acquaintance/”friend” nearly horrified me. Still, I found the first two books immensely satisfying reads, and would like to have the chance to read more.

    I also like the artist take’s illustrations. I was pleased to see that a collection of take’s art has been published.

    • Take’s illustrations are simple (almost becoming icons) but amazing. (Also, very hard to duplicate. I think the eyes are what stumped me. ^ ^)

      2-DT wrote a great little post on the Kyoto influences in that book. Of all of the places to visit in Japan, that city tops my wish-list.

      The fascinating thing about our protagonist (and there wasn’t enough space to delve into it in this article) is that, even for a viewpoint character, he isn’t very relateable (at least to me, personally). His apathy and laissez-faire attitude make him distant from most, including most audience members/readers. He still manages to be effective because, out of the characters we are presented with, he’s still the most relateable.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. While I have not read this series, I do find the role of the unreliable narrator thought provoking. You mentioned the characters switch from a Watson-like role to one similar to Holmes role. Recently I was re-reading the final Sherlock Holmes short story collection and the story that stood out to me was the one in which Holmes was the only narrator. Of course Holmes has to undertake the role of the unreliable narrator. This coupled with my recent viewing of the first season of A Nero Wolfe Mystery has made me wonder what it would be like to have a detective duo that trades places as the narrator. The Nero Wolfe series is interesting because neither character is a dunce or a patsy instilled for the sake of revealing the mystery. Each character has important skills and talents that are crucial to solving each case. Imagine a series that had a detective duo, in which each member was not any more important than the other, that was told by trading off the role of the narrator between these two characters. Neither of the characters would play the role of the unreliable narrator because each character wouldn’t know exactly what the other was thinking during the mystery. Anyway that was kind of off topic but your post reminded me of this idea of mine(if one can claim ideas is another discussion entirely).

    • It would certainly be interesting, and I wonder if it has been done. (Anyone else reading this comment, feel free to post examples!)

      If I had to hazard a guess as to why it isn’t done more frequently (if at all) is that, most of the time, the creators of a series feel as if they have to create an insert character that the audience can identify with. Case in point, although “I” is a viewpoint character, he’s not necessarily relateable, as two previous comments noted. Both of these people considered dropping the series because of “I’s” attitude. Most mystery novels and/or series, will probably want to stick with the tried and true method of one character being an insert-type and the other being the mystery-solving genius. (See Gosick for an example of how this can fail miserably by dumbing down the insert character.)

      Hardly off-topic. Thanks for the comment!

  6. Pingback: Aniblog Stuff Day 12

  7. I remember I disliked the unreliable narration because it cheapened the ending but I hadn’t thought of it in relation to the first book (probably because there were ~2 years between them for me). Good point. Honestly, Zaregoto seems to be more of a postmodern “let’s mess with the genre and see what comes out” exploration than a serious mystery series so I think this approach would work in the long run. Unreliable narration is a useful technique in pretty much every genre; you just have to make sure your audience isn’t expecting a real mystery first. (Umineko seemed to struggle with this).

    • I only saw the first episode of Umineko and I didn’t like it, so I didn’t continue. ^ ^

      On the contrary, the unreliable narration was what I liked the most about these two books. To piggyback on what others have said, “I” is a bit of an annoying character if taken at face value. Throwing a wrench into things by making him unreliable helped pique my interest exponentially.

      I think what you said in regards to Isin’s writing for Zaregoto can be taken a step further and applied to nearly everything he writes. As an author, he seems far more concerned with the act of writing and messing around with word composition or genres, than he does putting together a cohesive story sometimes. Probably why he pisses a lot of people off. ^ ^

      Thanks for the comment!

  8. Yi

    I wish I had read Zaregoto, but just from this post, it seems so super fascinating. The shifting perspectives and the development of the narrator does make him unreliable. It reminds me a lot of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, where the unreliable narrator poses the question of whether the madman knows he’s mad. This sort of narration instantly creates a really cool liar’s paradox. This situation’s more complicated, but the parallel is there. He claims to be average, but his actions suggest differently. But if we were to believe his actions, then that implies he’s deceiving us, thus making us cast doubt on his perspective. And if we were to doubt his perspective, does that mean he’s not a genius as he originally claims? Does the genius know he’s a genius?

    • Sorry it took me this long to respond to you. I had actually typed out a great comment response and then it was eaten by WordPress; this response is not as great. ^ ^

      It’s interesting that you bring up The Tell-Tale Heart and the madman. Madness and genius are often, like hate and love, presented as two sides of the same coin, with the arbitrary deciding factor being the opinion that you bring to the situation (with all of the bias that that entails).

      I honestly just wish that I had more material to work with. I’d love to see the different perspectives that Nisio Isin decides to present “I’s” narration with.

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