Wendy Uchimura on the New Edition of The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom by Manabu Makime, translated by Wendy Uchimura, is a humorous YA novel that is also action-packed, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and full of tantalizing food. Set in the vicinity of a large and ancient lake northeast of Kyoto, it features two families with mysterious powers somehow connected to the lake, which have propelled them to prominent social status but also obliged them to deal with a generations-old conflict. The novel’s main character, a 15-year-old boy in one of the families, who comes to stay with his lordly cousin the same age—on the grounds of the clan’s main branch, essentially a castle—struggles to comprehend this situation while fitting in at a new school. I got to ask the translator, Wendy Uchimura, about her experience translating The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom, which came out for the Sony Reader in 2014 but got reborn in Kindle format in 2022.

Wendy Uchimura

Avery: Hi Wendy! What led to The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom getting launched in the Kindle format? Do I understand correctly that you got to do another editing pass to refresh it?

Wendy: It’s been on the cards for a long time from what I can tell. It’s just there are a lot of excellent books getting relaunched from the Shueisha English Edition series, so it had to wait its turn! And I did get to look at it again. It was strange delving into the story once more after eight or so years and quite daunting – I’m one of these translators who once I’m completely satisfied with how I’ve translated a work, I’ll release it into the world and let it make its own way. There will undoubtedly be a few flaws, but at least I can say I did my best.

So, I was nervous going back in, but it was like meeting an old friend that had just improved with time. Looking at it with more experienced translator and editor eyes gave me a new appreciation for what a great story it is.

Avery: If I’m not mistaken, all the lineages and powers and myths that come up in this book are made-up—but am I off there? Does Japan have real-life myths to do with Lake People who turned into powerful clans? Has the water at Lake Biwa been considered divine, and/or the lake associated with a dragon??

Wendy: Makime is amazing at building realistic worlds that are steeped in history, culture, and fantasy. It means that as you’re reading you can imagine these things happening as they’re not that far removed from reality and yet they go a step beyond. More than once while I was translating, I found myself checking the maps and topography of the area around Lake Biwa because I thought I could pinpoint exactly where the Hinode Castle was. Maybe I did! It made me realise too that there is a huge amount of mythology tied to water in Japan. It has the power to purify, provide life, and give rise to legends.

I didn’t know before translating this book that lakes have lifespans. Most of the lakes we know now are less than 18,000 years old. Lake Biwa is estimated at being more than four million years old! That’s a lot of history and you can’t help feeling that something that ancient must have mystical powers. It’s a fact that its shores have been inhabited since around 9,000 BCE and a great number of shrines dot the area. Who knows what type of people gathered there and what they did.

The island located on Lake Biwa and featured in the story is Chikubushima and there have been several water goddesses enshrined there. Originally the main deity was Azaihime-no-Mikoto, who protected wayfarers across the lake and later on, from the Heian Period, Benzaiten took her place, who is both a Buddhist and a Shinto deity, as well as being both a goddess of water and of knowledge. Although more associated with the island of Enoshima, legend says that Benzaiten married a dragon king with her residing atop the island and the dragon below. As the story unfolds, you can see how these myths are drawn on and flow into a more modern setting.

Readers might be excited to know you can go to that island and see the clay cups that play a small yet important role, as well as write a wish on them and throw them down into the waters of the lake, just like Ryosuke and Patter-ko did.

 

Avery: I relish how the book serves up humor alongside its drama. The Hinodes’ menu selections alone make for endless comic relief, from the abalone packed for lunch (and mistaken as a mushroom) to the French toast served (and stolen) in the Castle dining room near the climax.

Wendy: The mentions of food are wonderful, aren’t they? This again is an example of how Makime balances that line between fantasy and reality. There are almost urban myth-like stories in Japan of children appearing at school with their lunchboxes stuffed full of lobster and other delicacies, either by parents wanting to establish some kind of status for their child or just very overenthusiastic and doting grandparents. But here this comic effect is very much in matching with Tanjuro and building up the impression that he is indeed a lord. I love the contrast between his huge lunches and Hiromi’s paltry rice balls. The scenes in the castle dining room just get more and more extravagant too, especially the serving of noodles!

Avery: Under the surface, this novel touches on a range of social issues from shut-ins (via Kiyoko’s character) to environmental pollution (the litter in the lakebed) to the effects of social stratification (the Castle versus its depressed rural area; the Hinode ancestor’s entitled and tragic intervention in Old Gen’s life). Did you feel as you worked with the novel that it managed to bring up these difficult-to-approach issues precisely because of the author’s deft use of humor and drama? Were there ever moments when it was challenging to reconcile the gravity of the issues raised with the book’s rollicking comedy and excitement?

Wendy: I didn’t find any particular difficulty with the issues introduced and I think that is because the nature of the story and the humor carries across the messages without bordering on lecturing. I felt where it involved the characters, like Kiyoko’s social withdrawal and the treatment of Old Gen, there was sympathy and understanding for their situations. There’s a subtle use of the town as a representation of the separation between the different social levels and both the landscape and characters reflect the natural changes in thinking that occur across generations. The environmental issues are well addressed too and make us think. Water is a precious resource and needs respecting. Going back to my earlier point about the lifespan of lakes, it’s actually a scary thought that some lakes only exist for 1,000 years or even less, 100. That such bodies of water can be lost even within our lifetime should make us respect them all the more.

Avery: What is one scene or section that you felt particularly pleased about translating, and could you please walk us through why it stands out for you, and what challenges you faced when putting it into English?

Wendy: I have a constant reminder in my living room of exactly what scene stands out for me – a Carrom board. Just like Ryosuke, I had never even heard of Carrom until the scene where Kiyoko suggests playing it to take their minds off their impending fate. The scene has the four main young characters sitting around this mystery board with the game pieces being called specific names and moved across the board with particular hand movements. There are instructions available in English, but of course if you’re not familiar with a game, it’s really difficult to explain it using the correct terms and actions. I could really feel Ryosuke’s confusion because I was feeling it too! So I actually imported a Carrom board. It’s mentioned in the story, but it really is true that although Carrom used to be played across Japan, particularly among the upper classes of society, it is now confined to a small area of Shiga prefecture, so it wasn’t like I could just go to a toy shop or local Carrom club to look at one. My board isn’t lacquered or red though!

Wendy even has a dragon as her business logo.

Avery: I understand that your own family has some shared name-characters, like those that come up in the book. Would you be interested in talking about what your family’s shared characters are and what role they play?

Wendy: Yes. The characters in the book use shared kanji characters and elements related to water in their names within their families to signify certain meanings. It’s interesting how names can be used to convey connections. It does make it an extra challenge when translating, especially in this case where it’s an integral part of the story, but it’s also fun.

And in a strange coincidence, as you mention, my immediate family members have a shared kanji too – the character for dragon! Not me, of course, but my husband and two sons all have dragon in their names, so I like to think of myself as a dragon tamer!

Avery: Who would you most like to hand this book to in the English-reading world, and why?

Wendy: I think anyone who wants a glimpse into Japanese life and culture would enjoy this. It has something for everyone – fantasy, history, humor, cuisine, social issues, school life. It kind of covers all the bases for what you’d come across spending some time in Japan. OK, maybe not the bright red uniforms, horse-riding through the town, or something coming up out of the lake at you, but you never know!

And as always when talking about this book, I’d like to finish by giving a shout out to Keiichiro Ito, the designer of the cover for the English version, because where would a book be without its cover.

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