by Benjamin Martin
Although he knows absolutely nothing about Japan, thirteen-year old David Matthews impulsively signs up for an exchange student program. Soon after he arrives, David regrets the decision. He has never felt so lonely in his life. His family is thousands of miles away. He cannot speak Japanese, and his host mother is the only person fluent enough in English to carry on a conversation with him. David is failing at pretty much every aspect of life. However, after he bravely attempts to protect a member of his host family from a tiger, he becomes possessed by a Japanese god. David has been chosen to become the Jitsugen Samurai, the protector of Japan. Suddenly, David can speak Japanese as if he's studied the language all his life. He heals almost instantly from wounds, and every day he grows stronger and more athletic. As his host family – famous sword-makers and keepers of the secret of the Jitsugen Samurai – trains David to fulfill his role, he embraces his new Japanese life even as he yearns for the good old days back in the United States.
Disclaimer: I could not finish this book – so if it gets absolutely amazing in the second half, I must confess that I didn't stick around that long. I made it to page 150 and just couldn't stomach anymore.
This book asks for a lot of suspension of disbelief, and I'm not talking about the Japanese god possession. So David signs up for this exchange student program, right? He can neither read nor speak Japanese, and there's no indication that he had any particular interest in the culture. Yet he's approved for this program, which seems to consist of dumping a kid on a host family and....that's it. The powers governing this exchange program offer no other services. David isn't taking special English-language classes until he gets up to speed on his Japanese; he's just dropped directly into a Japanese junior high. He doesn't have anyone from America monitoring his academic progress; nothing resembling an orientation or regular “check ups” with a program administrator is mentioned. I'm horrified by the lack of resources available to this kid who, were it not for supernatural intervention, would be failing at life.
I also thought it very odd that when the Matsumoto family, guardians of the secret of the Jitsugen Samurai, learned that David had been chosen to fulfill that role, they accepted it without batting an eye. Every ethnography I've read about the Japanese has always confirmed that they are a very ethnocentric people, so I found it hard to swallow when nobody was like, “Wait a minute, he's not Japanese! How can he be the savior of Japan?” But no, everyone just accepts it and the Mighty Whitey trope rears its ugly head again.
It doesn't help that the characters are so bland and forgettable. At first, this is understandable – David can't understand Japanese, so of course he catch on to the subtle nuances of his host siblings' personalities. Even after he's magically fluent and can ask questions, Rie and Takumi remain flat and uninteresting. The b*tchy classmate remains just as nasty, although the author forcefully drags her, kicking and screaming, into the main narrative to try and force an awkward love triangle. Love rectangle? Whatever, that's not important, so let's move on.
What about David, the American hero? I saw a reviewer refer to him as a “marshmallow”, and in truth I can't think of a better description. Until the Kami invades his body, he's out of shape and physically weak, but its his personality that I think of as soft and somewhat squishy. I don't think he ever shows any personal interests or hobbies. Does he like video games? Reading? Surely David likes to do things besides sleep, but that's the only activity for which he ever shows enthusiasm.
The book is written in paragraphs and dialogue overloaded with descriptions and information-dumping. Perhaps the author thought that this was necessary for readers who had never read anything about Japan before, but it makes the book crawl at a glacial pace. Worse, there are consistent grammar problems – little things like commas accidentally replacing periods or possessive names with the 's' dropped. It adds up to several instances per chapter. I was surprised – I've read several books published by Tuttle before, and I've never encountered a book this sloppy.
I thought this book was awful. It was badly written with shallow characters and a weak plot. I do think the story could have been told more effectively in a graphic novel format, but as a novel I wouldn't recommend it at all.
.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: News: A Self-Published Author's $2-Million Cinderella Story
2011: Closing down for end of the year Festivus...
2010: Sticklers, Sideburns & Bikinis bY Graeme Donald
2009: Discussion Question: Buying Textbooks