“Landscapes don’t stay the same” laments a young woman in Daihachi Yoshida’s slick corporate drama, Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction (騙し絵の牙, Damashie No Kiba), though the more things change the more they stay the same and the push and pull of traditionalists and modernisers seems set to be an unending battle. If someone were brave enough to think of it, there may be a third way, but one thing is clear – it’s adapt or die for the printed word and the real war is over who makes it onto the page and how they do it.
When the CEO of a major family-owned publishing house dies of a heart attack while walking his dog, it throws the entire industry into disarray and even makes it onto the national news where pundits discuss who might be most likely to succeed while pointing out that publishing is already in crisis seeing as most novels are serialised in literary journals and magazine readership is on its way out. Earnest editor Megumi (Mayu Matsuoka) is forever told that old and new is a false dichotomy and in some ways it may be, but century-old literary journal Kunpu Review is quite clearly mired in a traditionalist past woefully out of touch with contemporary society.
This Megumi learns to her cost when pulled straight from the CEO’s funeral to a 40th anniversary event marking the debut of their best-selling author Daisaku Nikaido (Jun Kunimura). Encouraged by rival editor Hayami (Yo Oizumi), she gives her honest opinion on Nikaido’s work pulling him up on the latent sexism in his novels by suggesting his sexual politics are at best old-fashioned. This is of course a huge faux pas and a moment of minor embarrassment for all concerned, though it will also become a repeated motif Megumi again trying to bring up a younger author on his subpar portrayal of women but finding her concerns falling on deaf ears.
Part of the problem is that authors, and particularly well-established ones, rarely undergo a rigorous editing process such as they might outside of Japan. Kunpu is so desperate to keep Nikaido on side that they treat him as a mini god, wasting vast amounts of their budget expensing him for “research” holidays and a healthy interest in fine wines. They simply wouldn’t have the courage to tell him that his drafts are improvable or that elements of his writing may cause offence.
Hayami, the tricky editor of rival culture mag Trinity, is by contrast deliberately looking for the modern but in other ways is not so different from Kunpu. Poaching an up and coming author Megumi had pitched but was rejected, Hayami embarks on an elaborate PR campaign casting the young and handsome Yajiro (Hio Miyazawa) as a literary idol star. But Yajiro seems to be uncomfortable with the attention, unprepared to deal with demands of being a prominent writer and resenting Hayami’s attempts to manipulate his image by forcing him into photoshoots dressed in outfits he would never wear. Hayami also engineers a publicity stunt implying Yajiro is in a relationship with his other protege, a young model and unexpected firearms enthusiast (Elaiza Ikeda) who is later arrested after shooting a stalker with a homemade pistol.
What happens to Saki Jojima is either an unintended consequence or direct result of Hayami’s inability to fully control the situation, but it also creates both crisis and opportunity for Trininty when Hayami breaks protocol and decides to run Saki’s issue rather than pulling it entirely with an apology as is usual in Japan when a celebrity is the subject of scandal. This places him in direct opposition to the traditionalist Kunpu, horrified and insistent that his decision stains the integrity of the publishing house. Like Hayami, however, new CEO Tomatsu (Koichi Sato) is determined to do things differently and prepared to take a gamble, secretly working on his own plan to streamline the business and build their own production/distribution facility in Yokohama.
Everyone is so absorbed in their own plotting that they fail to notice others plotting around them. Megumi, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the survival of her father’s old-fashioned book shop which itself badly needs another literary hit because half the customers are kids who come in to browse the manga and then download the good ones when they get home. One young woman looking for a particular novel even explains that she only wants to read it because there’s no movie or drama adaptation. With all this finagling, it’s easy to think everyone’s forgotten about the books while Megumi desperately tries to get someone to let her do some actual editing because they’re all too busy mollycoddling their authors. Nevertheless there’s more to the Kunpu vs Trinity battle than it first seems as they vie for the future of Japan’s publishing industry little suspecting that there may be another contender with a less acrimonious solution. “If something could be updated it should be” Megumi insists, a sentiment which apparently goes both for dinosaur writers unwilling to reckon with their latent misogyny and the book business itself.
Once again adapting a literary source, Yoshida’s gentle farce quietly builds the tension with courtly intrigue as the wider society remains rapt over the succession crisis at a publishing firm while its ambitious courtiers plot amongst themselves in order to steal the throne. Casting Yo Oizumi in the role he apparently inspired in the book is another masterstroke of meta commentary as his thrill-seeking manipulator plays the long game but even if the prognosis for Japan’s publishing industry may be bleak there is unexpected glee to be had in the eventual triumph of a righteous underdog over a thoroughbred plotter.
Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction screens on Aug. 26 and 28 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.
Original trailer (English subtitles)