‘Kotoba no Kemono’ is a gripping modern variation on classic short novel

© Kujiraba
The cover of the volume 1 of “Kotoba no Kemono” by Kujiraba published by Leed Publishing Co.

Kotoba no Kemono(Beasts of Words) by Kujiraba (Leed Publishing Co.)

When I heard of a manga about a person transforming into a tiger, I was immediately reminded of Shotaro Ishinomori’s “Henshin Ninja Arashi” (1972). A period manga version of his classic, “Kamen Rider,” it is a dark and mature masterpiece. One of its characters is a ninja with a tragic fate who transforms into a tiger and loses his human heart.

I learned much later that this story was based on the short novel “Sangetsuki” (The Moon Over the Mountain) by writer Atsushi Nakajima (1909-42).

The manga that reminded me of “Henshin Ninja Arashi” was “Kotoba no Kemono” (Beasts of Words) by Kujiraba. The protagonist, who transforms into a tiger, is a high school girl named Yagen, who likes poetry. She becomes friends with Shinonome, a classmate who can visualize people’s spoken words as imaginative animals.

Yagen wants to be able to visualize words like Shinonome and suddenly finds herself in a strange forest. Yagen has transformed into a tiger, and there are various animals she has never seen before around her. Shinonome says the forest is a place where images of countless words are embodied, and each animal is a wild “beast of words” someone has uttered.

The two set out on a journey to find “the most beautiful word in the world” by observing various animals as they travel back and forth between the forest and reality.

This outlandish setting, quite different from mere fantasy, is puzzling at first. However, it is fun just to admire the designs of all the beasts of words that Shinonome creates so elaborately. Not all the beasts are gentle, and beasts of malice, such as the one representing the word “slander,” also roam about the same space. We vaguely come to realize that the forest is an allegory for public spaces created by Twitter and other social media, where an infinite number of words are crammed in together.

There is no doubt that the mangaka took a hint from “Sangetsuki” to turn Yagen into a tiger. In “Sangetsuki,” a talented but stubborn poet named Li Zheng chooses solitude over companionship and, as a result, he eventually loses his humanity and turns completely into a tiger. Apparently, tigers are also called the “beast of letters” because of their striped-pattern fur. In this short novel, the tiger can be interpreted as the doomed end of a person consumed by words (i.e., self-consciousness). “Sangetsuki,” which is based on a Chinese legend, is known as a masterpiece in which Nakajima added his own unique interpretation of the story.

Kujiraba first attracted attention for posting successive original poems on Twitter in 2014. “Kotoba no Kemono” is the first full-length work for Kujiraba, who debuted as a mangaka in 2018.

While Li Zheng in “Sangetsuki” turns into a ferocious beast, Yagen does not lose her rationality even when she turns into a tiger because she has become friends with Shinonome.

In our internet society, is it possible to connect with others through the medium of “words” without withdrawing into solitude?

I think it is brilliant that Kujiraba has updated the theme of “Sangetsuki” to be relevant today using the medium of manga.

And Atsushi Nakajima! What a discovery. Before writing this article, I reread some of his works and found them grippingly fascinating. His writing is simply beautiful. I also recommend “Mojika,” an even more cynical short novel covering a similar theme, as an excellent parallel reading to “Kotoba no Kemono.”