A turning point in an emperor’s rules gives room for time to branch off into endless combinations in Shintaro Kago‘s Princess of the Never-Ending Castle, distributed by Italian publication Hollow Press. This book is a layered and tightly told story of branching timelines, inhumane torture, and the fabric of reality. It’s a book that makes you’re brain work, and what glorious work it is.
The story starts with a feud between warlord Oda Nobunaga and his trusted general Akechi Mitsude. When the two clash a rift is made and the castle, almost biologically, begins to grow in two separate directions and under two separate rules. The castle of Nobunaga feels strife as the crops struggle to grow and the expansion threatens their way of life. Mitsude’s rule is successful on his branch of the castle, but his ruthless defeat of Nobunaga has left some some bitter. In both of these castles resides Princess Nō, playing the role of the feudal lord’s wife in one reality and a seed for rebellion in the other.
As one Princess Nō lives a [more or less] happy life in a struggling empire the other works to free her castle from Mitsude’s strict rule with a few others who aren’t pleased with his regime. During their attempts to take back the castle Nō goes through the entirety of this towering building, which as time goes on has branch off into even more castles of varying sizes and structure, none of which would actually be able to support themselves. The way these structures work is known to the residents inside, providing unbreakable rules and punishments. Those who get sick live closer to the “forks” in the timelines, and any who dare venture over will either explode or double various appendages on their bodies.
Suffice it to say, this book is absurd. There is a certain way Kago plays with the concepts of alternate realities that is messy, but with that comes a sense of ingenuity as the panels and dialogue get laid out in ways that show a bit about what’s happening throughout the castle. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Shintaro Kago title without some of that absurdist gore. There are some disgusting, gut wrenching images in here that all have to do with the torture methods of Akechi Mitsude as well as some erotic acts that will make people think to use the word body horror, but it isn’t quite that.
As time goes on and the castle[s] continues to weave through the clouds, we see all of the turmoil Mitsude’s rule is causing this alternate Princess Nō. Her struggle to get to the top of the castle and avenge her dead husband is riddled with bizarre obstacles. Towers from timelines that didn’t fully form, rifts that cause deformities, soldiers and the mistreated ill all stand in the way of her goal but her perseverance is determined to fight through. She’s definitely the main character of an entirely nonlinear story, but only one iteration. I think it’s realistic to call her treks up and down the castle reminiscent of the journey in Snowpiercer (disclaimer: I’ve only seen the movie) in the way she travels through so many different aspects of life, typically with an obvious class/occupational division.
This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read. For some, the method of story telling used in The Princess of the Never Ending Castle will be a turn off. It isn’t easy to read (a few translation errors further feed that) and requires your attention the whole time to fully grasp the story. All that being said I think this is an unparalleled reading experience. The imagery of the interweaving yet always separate castles and the punishments for breaking the rules Kago has made up for these denizens provides an uneasy anticipation that continues throughout.
I’ve read all of Shintaro Kago’s English releases (Dementia 21 vol. 2 is on my nightstand) and while most of them are one shots (i.e. Super Dimensional Love Gun), vignettes (i.e. Day of the Flying Head #1-4), or disconnected illustrations but this was truly a one and done epic. This is fantasy (mixed with some historical fiction for good measure) that makes you think while also providing you with plenty to cringe at. Hollow Press has put out sequential rarities for a while now, and this is an excellent addition the their (and your) library. This book (and it’s art) are available for purchase here. Beware though! Hollow Press doesn’t do huge print runs.