Jordan Taylor

Out of this World
A translator reviews untranslated Japanese science fiction and fantasy books

Worldly Desires

しゃばけ (Shabake)



Ichitarō is the only son of a family who owns a successful apothecary in Edo, but his weak constitution often leaves him bedridden. As a child, his grandfather assigned two boys, Nikichi and Sasuke, to be Ichitarō's friends, attendants, and later workers of the apothecary, but these two are ayakashi, supernatural beings of all shapes and sizes, which doesn't bother Ichitarō as he tends to find himself surrounded by such mysterious spirits anyway. One night when Ichitarō is seventeen, he slips away from his family and attendants' overbearing, watchful eyes, only to find himself witness to a murder. With the help of his otherworldly friends, Ichitarō works to unravel the mysteries surrounding the murder, one of which is, why does everything seem to keep connecting back to him?

About the Author

Megumi Hatakenaka began working as a mangaka in 1988, though I'm having a hard time finding anything about any manga she worked on because she seems far too well known for her Shabake series for anything else to matter. The first installment, Shabake, was published in 2001 and won the Superior Award in the Japan Fantasy Novel Award that same year. The series reached its 25th installment in 2023, has had books nominated five times for a variety of awards, and won the first-ever Yoshikawa Eiji Award in 2016, an award for series with more than five installments. The series has also seen manga and adaptations and even an NHK Radio drama adaptation.


I have to be honest, I had a hard time getting everything about this book into that summary. We've got a period setting, mythical creatures, and mysteries, and it all comes together very nicely in the book. Nothing felt unnecessary or overstated, it all just works.

The mystery in the story isn't mindblowing by any means, but it is well crafted. I get the feeling this book is aimed at a younger audience so we don't have anything too difficult to follow and, while there is some fighting and violence, nothing is too graphic. Perhaps the hardest thing for a younger, non-Japanese audience would be following the characters since there are all different types of ayakashi that wouldn't be immediately known to the readers. The exact nature of most of these ayakashi isn't massively relevant to the story in most cases, but knowing the folklore behind them is interesting and would likely help readers keep things straight.

Ichitarō, our protagonist, makes a good detective despite his weak constitution, as he makes good use of his ayakashi companions. I enjoyed that the investigation felt generally believable because it was neither filled with coincidences nor incredibly short (in in-world time). No solutions appear out of midair really, which is nice, though I did find the one major “fight” scene to be a little hard to believe, especially considering our protagonist's limited physical capabilities, but it wasn't so much of a stretch that I didn't enjoy it.

Character-wise, I think we have some well-rounded if not complex characters. There's a nice relationship between Ichitarō and his closest friend, a boy from a slightly less affluent family who's working hard to become a good sweets maker so he can take over his father's sweet shop. Ichitarō's ayakashi companions are quite secretive so we don't learn much about them as people, and his parents don't make too much of an appearance, but we do get to see some of Ichitarō's internal struggles, which builds some depth to our main character.

Potential Translation Problems

Biggest thing is going to be the ayakashi and their names (it's always names). For example, we have Jakotsu Babā which literally means “snake bone old woman”, which is very descriptive of what she is, but you wouldn't really want to translate it. That makes it harder for English-speaking readers to understand what the ayakashi are, but I think that could be remedied with a small glossary of ayakashi that appear. Both fun and educational.

Oh, and a good translator would know that the ayakashi that appears in a later installment, Oshishi, should not be translated as “lion”, like shishi often is. Just saying. Not a lion.

Since Ichitarō's closest friend is working to be a sweets maker, we also see quite a few traditional Japanese sweets. Essentially, this whole book has quite a lot of things specific to Japanese culture that can't really be translated, and a heavy-handed approach to localization could end up with something worse than Brock's jelly-filled donuts. Personally, I think all these cultural references would be part of what would make translating this so worth it, for allowing English-speakers to encounter them in a fun story. I also feel children are pretty open to just moving past something they don't understand, so I think some translation glosses and a glossary might be enough.

Final Ratings

How many stars? 4.0
Would I want to translate it? I'd love to!

Recent Articles

All 24 Articles

Follow me on Twitter to get updates when I post new reviews.