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Uehashi Nahoko

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

(1962-    ) Japanese author and anthropologist, professor of ethnology at Kawamura Gakuen Women's University whose work often explores scientific knowledge in pre-modern times. In her academic work, there is a strong strand of publications that interrogate the nature of story-telling in a tribal context. Her doctoral research investigated the Yamatji, an Australian tribe that formed the subject of her sole nonfiction academic book to date, Tonari no Aborigine ["The Backyard Aborigines"] (2000), a study of the degree to which Australia's natives are able to integrate with the society that has colonised them – tensions between colonists and subject peoples also forming a recognizable strand in her fiction.

Uehashi's early novel, Seirei no Ki ["The Sacred Tree"] (1996), was a First Contact story between human colonists who had believed themselves to be the sole intelligent life on the world of Niira, and the Roshnars, the telepathic natives long believed to have been extinct. Later works tended to discard the tropes of open sf in search of a more systematic creation of Alien societies with echoes of Earth cultures, such as Tsuki no Mori ni Kaki yo Nemure ["O God, Sleep Ye in the Forest of the Moon"] (1991), which sought to create a fictional mythology of ancient Central and East Asia in a manner akin to that which J R R Tolkien had fashioned for ancient Britain. Her later Koteki no Kanata ["Beyond the Fox Whistle"] (2003) similarly reimagined provincial intrigues in old-time Japan in science fictional terms, positing a Pseudoscience in which warlords employ "magicians" who are really Telepaths with the ability to access a Parallel World known as Awai.

Beginning with Seirei no Moribito (1996, trans Cathy Hirano as Guardian of the Spirit 2003), the Moribito series returns to Uehashi's fantastical reimagining of an quasi-Asian folklore, as well as an aboriginal-influenced concept of a visible human reality and an overlapping spirit world, that only the gifted access. Her protagonist, the spearwoman Balsa, becomes the saviour and initially unwilling bodyguard to a prince who has been possessed by a water-spirit, believed by some to be a great rain-making deity, and others to be a fearsome herald of apocalypse. Subsequent volumes follow Balsa into her ward's privileged life and political intrigues in a world where witchcraft is the basis of technology and human knowledge. The series was an immense success in Japan, adapted for radio, Manga, Anime and live-action Television, and generating multiple spin-offs, including Balsa no Shokutaku ["Balsa's Table"] (2009), a recipe book that seeks to forensically recreate the many dishes described in the novels.

Consistently, Uehashi's works display a respect for native traditions and pre-modern beliefs, not as rivals to science and Medicine, but as systems that similarly seek to make sense of the world, sometimes inefficiently, sometimes with a greater degree of success for incorporating spiritual (or in some fantasy settings, magical) elements outside the purview of modern understanding. Echoing the Pern series of Anne McCaffrey, the Kemono no Sōja novels, starting with Tōda ["Fighting Serpents"] (2006 trans Cathy Hirano as The Beast Player 2018) imagines a world where telepathic liaisons are required between humans and their military steeds, variously the dragon-like tōda and the wolf/griffin-like ōjū. Again, suggestions persist of a subject people with a greater affinity for skills and beliefs that their conquerors have lost. Bumped up from two novels to a quartet by reader interest, the series was also adapted into a Manga and Anime, Kemono no Sōja Erin (2009), which added the protagonist's name to the title.

Uehashi refined her obsessions still further in Shika no Ō: Ikinokotta Mono ["The Deer King: The Survivor"] (2014), a complex thriller in which the recurrence of a dormant plague is revealed to be an irredentist grab for power by the subjects of an imperial vassal state. The plot revolves around a fugitive believed to be immune from the mittsual disease, and attempts to track him down not only by imperial agents who want his blood to make a vaccine, but also by the local vassal king who needs to kill him to prevent this happening. The story-telling is thick with metaphors for conquest and hybridity – Zolian overlords are susceptible to the disease, which they only contracted in the first place by invading the kingdom of Aquafa, the inhabitants of which believe themselves to be immune to it. The latest outbreak, however, is a new and virulent strain that threatens to create an unstoppable Pandemic. The focus is not only on the fugitive, but on the scholar who is tracking him, a man struggling to make sense of a nascent, medieval understanding of epidemiology, disease prevention and hygiene. Greenlit for adaptation into an animated film in 2018, the story struck an oddly prescient and timely note on its release in 2021 amid the Covid-19 pandemic. [JonC]

see also: Imperialism; Anthropology; Pastoral.

Nahoko Uehashi

born Tokyo: 15 July 1962


Moribito ["Guardian"]

Kemono no Sōja ["The Beast Player"]

  • Tōda ["Fighting Serpents"] (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2006) [Kemono no Sōja: hb/]
    • The Beast Player (New York: Henry Holt, 2019) [translation by Cathy Hirano of the above: Kemono no Sōja: hb/]
  • Ōjū ["Royal Beasts"] (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2006) [Kemono no Sōja: hb/]
    • The Beast Warrior (New York: Henry Holt, 2020) [translation by Cathy Hirano of the above: Kemono no Sōja: hb/]
  • Tankyū ["The Quest"] (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2009) [Kemono no Sōja: hb/]
  • Kanketsu ["The Final Chapter"] (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2009) [Kemono no Sōja: hb/]

Shika no Ō ["The Deer King"]

  • Ikinokotta mono ["The Survivor"] (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2014) [Shika no Ō: hb/]
  • Kaette iku mono ["The Returner"] (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2014) [Shika no Ō: hb/]
  • Minasoko no Hashi ["The Bridge Beneath the Water"] (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2019) [Shika no Ō: hb/]

individual titles


  • Tonari no Aborigine ["The Backyard Aborigines"] (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 2000) [nonfiction: hb/]


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