Not to sound politically correct here, but as far as “representation” is concerned, I firmly believe that Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is the gold standard (ignoring the fact that it’s under the radar and not enough people care about it). If you read my review, you’ll see me fan-gush about how amazing it is. It’s a near-perfect first impression of Japanese culture that hits all the right notes, while being fun, engaging, and not political. It was only natural that I would be unfairly scrupulous to Misa Sugiura’s Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind, since I’m particularly passionate about Japanese folklore. As Yzma said with cucumbers in her eyes: “This had better be GOOD.”
By the way, Sugiura is a YA author who typically writes romances. This isn’t a bad omen whatsoever.
In Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of the Wind, the titular character lives alone with her mother. Momo is constantly caught seeing yokai, and is made fun of because ordinary people can’t see them. One of these yokai is a fox with sick drip, named Niko, who desperately wants to tell her something, and he gets that opportunity when Momo is attacked by a shikome. Turns out that her mom is Takiri-bime-no-mikoto, a kami who sealed away a secret portal to Yomi. Now she’s dying… great. Only one thing to do: go on adventures!
So, I’ve built up this book to be awful. As I waited for it to be available at my local library, I ran through countless drafts where I criticized every mistake Sugiura would make.
However, much to my surprise, Momo Arashima… actually kicks ass?! For clarification, my entire basis was on the description, more so than Sugiura’s lack of experience in urban fantasy. The description of the book implies that it sells out in every possible way, Westernizing the names of all Shinto terminology; yokai are “demons”, the shikome as a “death hag”, and whatnot. That description is BY NO MEANS true to the actual content within, where Sugiura thankfully retains the original names of all relevant entities (except for some occasions where she refers to yokai as demons anyway?). Sometimes, it pays off to go in blindly, because a bad description can blind-side you instead.
We’ll get back to the portrayal of Shinto mythology in a bit, because—well—regardless of how well that’s handled, Momo Arashima is not perfect by any means. It starts off the same generic way as pretty much every Western urban fantasy ever, from Percy Jackson and beyond: Momo is different and people make fun of her for it, and then she inevitably learns self-worth while out to save the world. It’s basic and cliché, but by nature, it gets more tolerable the further in you get.
First off… I hate it when someone blindsides me with something about Shinto I don’t know! I honestly didn’t think a ROMANCE author would’ve actually put in this much research. One of the main things that caught me off guard was this “other” portal to Yomi. The only one I know of is Yomotsu-Hirasaka, which is a real landmark in Izumo. The portal in this book, on the “Island of Mysteries?” I had no clue! It could be made up, which would be fine because Shinto basically NEEDS creative liberties, but I wish I knew whether or not it was.
Of course, the million dollar question is how well Sugiura handled the aspects that I DO know of, specifically that of yokai and kami involved with the story. I’d say that it’s… slightly above average? Don’t get me wrong, Sugiura does sell them pretty well; tengu are motorcycle gangsters, for instance. However, she’s not exactly Rick Riordan or Xiran Jay Zhao when it comes to raw creativity. However, that’s fine, mainly because it’s slim pickings with this particular theme when you don’t factor in manga at all (if only media from Japan actually counted as representation of Japanese culture). Sugiura’s depictions aren’t perfect, though, but we’ll get to that when I discuss characters. She also references a lot of characters and stories who don’t appear at all and have no relevance to the plot. Surplus info like that might be overwhelming. On top of that, there’s a chance that Ainu mythology will come up in future books, which is a creative risk that might not be worth it. Japanese mythology is absolutely crazy, and when introducing it to Western audiences who have no prior knowledge, simplicity is best. In any case, Momo Arashima should turn a normie American fifth grader into a budding weeb.
I also think that Sugiura should’ve made occasional anime references throughout the story. Now, you might be thinking “But Japan isn’t just ‘the anime place,’ you moron. It’s got a rich culture that’s been around for millennia and that’s the main focus of the book.” Yeah, I know. I used to be that Western guy who only saw Japan as “the anime place.” However, I’d still argue it’s better for a writer to use anime references in an urban fantasy based off of Shinto, especially for a Percy Jackson-like. Anime and Shinto have an important relationship with one another. Historically, franchises such as Gegege no Kitaro have been vital for preserving these most ancient traditions. However, the omission of anime is not the worst thing that could happen.
So, that’s my two cents with the ideas that Sugiura had for Momo Arashima. However, ideas are only half the battle, and—well, like I said before—she’s no Riordan. After the initial high of realizing that the book doesn’t outright suck, it’s not exactly a masterpiece either. I did find it to be an engaging read and was reluctant to put it down at any given time, but the prose wasn’t the greatest thing in the world all the same. It gets the job done but the mental images I had when reading never quite felt complete. The humor is also hit-or-miss, and the chapter titles—which sound snarky and funny enough—lose their luster when you realize that they are just lines of dialogue from said chapter.
The characters are a case where one bad apple spoils the bunch. Momo herself isn’t the worst of the god-awful trope that I described before. However, she is very angry a lot of the time, and while that sounds bad I can’t exactly blame her… considering a certain someone she travels with.
Whenever I dislike a character, it’s generally because they feel like they have no soul. However, the male lead, Danny, is actually a rare time I’ve found a major protagonist to be detestable. First off, he’s of the “childhood friend who dumps the main character in order to get in with the snobby bad kids” trope that would normally be present in some middle school drama. He actively insults Momo just because she’s pegged as the village idiot. He ends up getting roped into her quest because he can magically see yokai, and contributes virtually nothing. In fact, he makes things worse. He doesn’t ever take anything seriously, no matter how urgent it gets; it’s all a game to him. Of course, there’s the part where he opens up and you’re supposed to sympathize with him. However, his backstory actually makes him worse; he’s pretty much a bunch of aged tropes from the 1960s. He’s also used as an allegory to racism… kind of? Sugiura doesn’t go in the same direction as Traci Chee’s We Are Not Free here, but in a way, the lack of committing makes the few mentions of race in the book seem like shock value. Ultimately, Danny’s case of being an Asian adopted by White parents doesn’t really affect his character arc at all.
Fortunately, the two kids have a hard-carrying friend in the fox, Niko. Unlike Danny, he does almost everything. If it wasn’t for him, Momo and Danny would’ve died twelve times over.
So… this is where it gets awkward. While I want to commend Sugiura for not completely selling out on Westernizing Shinto… Well, take note for me saying “completely” there. She doesn’t make the egregious mistake of referring to yokai as a whole as “evil”, but that word still exists in the book’s vocabulary. Specifically, it is used to describe the first main villain: Shuten-doji. He is the antagonist of Raiko’s story, which is one that I read only once in one of my research books, so this was a time where I really felt like I was experiencing a Shinto character for the first time. He’s… not great to say the least. He’s just a generic Saturday morning cartoon villain with no pizazz.
Sidebar: Experiencing Shuten-doji at least taught me that I mistakenly assumed that the leader of the oni who inhabited Onigashima in Momotaro’s story was the Oni King. Nope, I actually looked up Shuten-doji and it seems that he is the de facto and canonical leader of all the oni. To be honest, I feel like a classic White guy for making such a critical mistake.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if Sugiura is capable of or wants to make nuanced antagonists. In addition to Shuten-doji, Momo inevitably confronts her grandfather, Susano’o. While Sugiura’s portrayal of him is really great and iconic, it’s also very by-the-book; she consciously pulled only the bad parts about him (and omits Kushinada for some reason? Are readers expected to assume that he conceived Takiri by taking a shower like his dad did?). I don’t really like that at all. I always saw him as a misunderstood kid. He pulled pranks on his pompous twin siblings for attention. Also, he was banished simply for mourning his mother, who was already dead by the time he was born. You can relate to never being able to meet your mother, right? That’s just mean. Speaking of his mother, we get a sneak preview of the true villain of the series, who is—quite naturally—Izanami herself. There’s not much to go on, but based on what I’ve seen in this book, Sugiura will likely make the Western mistake of attributing her to Satan.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
It’s not perfect, but Momo Arashima Steals the Sword of Wind is a good enough series opener for me to tentatively want more. It kind of sucks that—as far as I know—this isn’t a New York Times Bestseller (considering the hot garbo that tops that chart all the time). Seriously, between this and Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, why can’t Shinto hit it big in the West outside the hardcore anime community? Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. I’d recommend Momo Arashima (and Oni) if you wanna get a crash course in Shinto (and don’t want to read manga for some reason).
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