The Night Parade is about Saki, a thirteen-year-old Tokyo brat who is mad at having to spend four days of her precious vacation visiting her grandmother in a remote village, instead of with her odious-sounding ‘friends’, including the venomous bully Hana.
Saki, her younger brother and their parents are at her grandmother’s village to celebrate the Obon festival, which is something like Qing Ming for the Chinese. Saki is glued to her mobile phone, more interested in getting a signal than bonding with her grandma.
She’s an average teenager, basically; a typical brat who doesn’t appreciate history, culture and traditions. She (probably) loves her family, but at this point in her life she considers them boring spoilers-of-fun. To her, the countryside is also boring – because it’s so far away from the city and malls and concerts.
However, while Saki is far from likeable, her flaws are familiar – not only do I have teenage kids, and one tween, which means I know all about children grumbling while on holiday, ignoring the beauty around them and focusing on how they miss their video games, and YouTube vlogs, but I also remember being that age and getting stupidly angry about going on trips if it meant missing my favourite telly programmes . So, sure Saki’s irritating, but she’s also believable and recognisable, and I understand that the person she is at 13 isn’t the person she’ll be forever. Also, I expected her experiences in the book to make her grow and change for the better, and so, become a more sympathetic character. Thankfully, she does become less bratty by the end of the book, although, in my opinion, no more likeable.
There are also other aspects of the story that serve as a enough of a distraction from Saki herself. I liked the countryside setting (the forest scenes are especially, deliciously atmospheric); the details about the Obon festival and the traditional practices associated with it; and the creatures Saki encounters on the ‘Night Parade’, an annual spirit pilgrimage that happens at the same time as Obon.
Saki has three nights to lift a death curse that she brings upon herself while trying to impress some village brats. On each night, a different spirit guide appears to help her reach the Midlight Prince, apparently the only one who can lift the curse.
The guides are a fox, a tengu and a raccoon dog. The fox, with four tails, is a kitsune, but is never referred to by its Japanese name, and yet the tengu is named thus throughout. As for the raccoon dogs, its shape-shifting abilities peg it as a tanuki (see Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko), but it’s never given its Japanese title. I’m not sure why Tanquary has chosen to be so random in identifying certain characters using Japanese names, and some not. I feel that this dilutes the setting and the mythological aspects of the tale, not to mention misses the opportunity to more clearly introduce Japanese mythological creatures to readers who tend to be more familiar with those from Celtic, Greek and Roman myths.
I wonder if this inconsistency has anything to do with the fact that Tanquary is a white American who has written a story with Japanese characters and a Japanese setting. The author has lived and continues to live in Japan, but no matter how familiar she is with life in her adopted country, she wouldn’t be able to think like a Japanese. I feel a Japanese would automatically think ‘kitsune’, ‘tanaki’ and so on, but Tanquary doesn’t because she’s also got the translations banging about in her head and it’s normal for her to think of these creatures as an outsider, which she basically is.
I also wonder why Tanquary chose to write the story from the POV of a Japanese teenager. Did she get it right? I’ve said that Saki is believable, but I meant as a teenage ‘every person’. I guess if Tanquary were a Japanese author, I would (rightly or wrongly) assume that her portrayal of a Japanese teen was accurate, but as she isn’t and I don’t know any Japanese teenagers, I have no idea. Then again, I’m certain there is not just one type of Japanese teenager so I think my real question is why didn’t Tanquary write about an American in Japan (what she is) instead? The obvious answer is that Tanquary wanted to write Saki’s story, and not the story of, say, an American student on an exchange programme or something similar. Some might also argue that this is one way to ensure that American kids get to read stories about Japanese teenagers, although, I think this goal would be better achieved through the translation of Japanese fiction, rather than by an American writer writing a Japanese story.
Another thing I should mention is that I’m not totally convinced of the story, which seems forced. Saki’s actions which lead to the curse follow on from her need to fit in with the popular crowd, so that wasn’t a problem, but the way the story then unfolds didn’t make a lot of sense (to me). Was there even a curse? I didn’t think this was clear or definite, and if it was just about Saki reacting disproportionately, this wasn’t worked through sufficiently for it to be meaningful within the storyline. Also, I didn’t like the way magic worked in the story – specifically how the marbles were used. I felt there should have been more rules to the way they functioned. Instead, the protection they offered seemed to be made up by the author to suit whatever obstacle she had created for her character.
I kept on reading because I enjoyed the experience of a different kind of folklore and mythology being used as a base for a story, but not because I really cared about Saki. I was also more interested in her grandmother’s life than hers – maybe my age is telling, or perhaps Tanquary just failed in creating a protagonist that readers would be drawn to.