Fujisan

Fujisan

Title: Fujisan
Japanese Title: 富士山 (Fujisan)
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口 ランディ)
Translator: Raj Mahtani
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 191

In her Foreword, Taguchi states that she “wrote this anthology of stories as an expression of my veneration and appreciation for this life-affirming mountain; it is my personal tribute to Fujisan.”

Although Mount Fuji is in the background of each of the four stories collected in this volume, the main theme of these stories is an affirmation of life in the face of fairly extreme social maladjustment and malaise. “The Blue Summit” is about a convenience store worker who begins reflecting on his past experiences as a member of a religious cult after he survives an attempted robbery. “The Sea of Trees” is about three high school students with an interest in the occult who go hiking in the Aokigahara forest and come across a failed suicide. “Jamila” is about a public servant who is tasked with dealing with an old woman who lives in a house overflowing with garbage. “Child of Light” is about a nurse at a small gynecological clinic who ponders a teenage abortion patient she recently cared for as she climbs Mount Fuji with a group of older women. The characters of these stories all face death and the more unpleasant aspects of continuing to live and somehow manage to come out okay on the other side.

I liked the opening story, “Blue Summit,” for its description of the appeal of sanitized and familiar spaces like convenience stores and family restaurants to the broken people who seek refuge there in the small hours of the night. As the narrator says of the convenience store where he works as a night shift manager:

I like it here. This convenience store is my sanctuary. There’s a stillness here that’s like the stillness you find in the snowy, bleak plains of Siberia. [...] The store’s open twenty-four hours and it’s menacingly bright. There’s no darkness. It’s all so gloriously digital. While intimacy and a sense of reality are effectively absent in the store, a minimum degree of comfort is always guaranteed. The convenience store is stabilized on a low-energy wavelength: it never betrays you. In a convenience store, you can silently snuggle up to the void. (3, 13)

In this story, the convenience store as a comforting space is juxtaposed against the nightmarish interior spaces of the people who enter it. The narrator is haunted by the memories of a friend he made when he was a member of a religious cult headquartered at the base of Mount Fuji who may have been killed by the group when he tried to defect. Kozue, one of the employees who works under the narrator, suffers from a fascination with dissection and enjoys watching herself bleed. As for the anonymous assailant who unsuccessfully attempts to rob the convenience store at the beginning of the story and later shows up with a baseball bat looking for revenge, the narrator suspects that what he’s ultimately after is a validation of his own existence, a concern that the narrator sympathizes with even as he is attacked.

My favorite story in Fujisan has to be “Jamila,” if only for its colorful descriptions of a gomi yashiki, or “garbage mansion,” in Susono City, a small municipality in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The narrator of the story, a native son who has left a corporate job in Tokyo to take a post at Susono’s Office of Environmental Quality, is tasked with dealing with a local hoarder’s residence. He hasn’t made much progress, partly because he is fascinated by the structure:

When I went to investigate the house of trash for the first time, a part of me was genuinely thrilled. I wanted to see for myself who the old garbage lady was, the one reputed to be a goblin, but when I arrived, the horror of it all simply defied imagination. It was a slice of nightmare lying exposed in the heart of a residential area lined with middle-class houses. What bothered me the most was the drabness of all the visible junk, especially in light of the fact that each and every one of the objects was at one time or another brand new. [...] The trash, estimated to be sixty tons’ worth, was spilling over from the premises into the public road, where it bore an uncanny resemblance to the entrails of a road-killed cat. (108)

I really don’t find all this trash-hoarding that objectionable. I find it more interesting than, say, staying inside city hall. As I stood there, gazing vacantly, my eyes registered an entire universe of things: wire hangers, torn umbrellas, broken TVs, antennas, vacuum cleaners, plastic bags, tattered clothes, tricycles, flowerpots, bedpans, bamboo blinds, futons… The trash went beyond trash to become works of fantastic, sculptural art. (100)

As in “Blue Summit,” physical spaces have a close relationship with psychic spaces, and the narrator’s meditation on an old woman’s gomi yashiki reveals the disorganization of his own (possibly deranged) mind and the sociological state of a nation that produces and throws away so much physical, cultural, and human garbage.

If I had to describe these stories in one word, it would be “intense.” There’s a bit of navel gazing going on in Fujisan, but it’s never too cumbersome, and the collection’s four stories move quickly and capitalize on topical issues for emotional impact.

If you’re wondering about the publication quality of Amazon’s new translation publisher, AmazonCrossing, it’s actually fairly decent. The front and back covers of the physical version of Fujisan look like printouts of a mid-resolution PDF document, but the inside text is crisp and clear, and the page layout is clean and uncluttered. During the short promotional period when Amazon was offering the book for about as much money as a cup of tea at Starbucks, I also downloaded the digital version of the book from the Kindle store, and it looked great as well.

Several reviewers on Amazon have complained about the translation, but I didn’t mind it so much. There were a few sentences that were awkward (they mostly involved slang), but overall I think Raj Mahtani did a great job conveying the voices of Taguchi’s characters. I have read (and produced) a great deal of clunky awkward translatorese, and I know just how terrible it is, but nothing of the sort appears in Mahtani’s translation of Fujisan. The vast majority of the translated prose in the collection is clear and serviceable. It’s never going to win any literary awards, but Taguchi herself isn’t exactly a “literary” writer; she writes popular fiction, and her writing reads like popular fiction.

In any case, the translated narrative voices of Fujisan are similar to the translated narrative voice of Taguchi’s previously translated work, Outlet, and readers who appreciated the exploration of hidden spaces and raunchiness of Outlet will definitely enjoy Fujisan.

By the way, the author has her own website, which includes an interview translated into English. If you can read Japanese, her blog is also well worth browsing.

Bødy

Bødy

Title: Bødy
Japanese Title: 躯 (Karada)
Author: Nonami Asa (乃波アサ)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2012 (America); 1999 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 192

If body horror makes you squeamish, you probably shouldn’t read this book.

If body horror fascinates you, you have come to the right place. Surgery, needles, public bathing, erectile dysfunction, heart attacks, concussions – Nonami Asa’s Bødy has it all.

Bødy collects five short stories, which are all about forty pages long. Each of these stories centers around the body-related neurosis of its protagonist. The short stories in Bødy remind me of the short stories of Patricia Highsmith (particularly those in The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder and Little Tales of Misogyny) in that they feature tongue-in-cheek accounts of terrible things happening to people who probably deserve them. In “Blood,” a man who gets off on injuring others learns that he can also get off on injuring himself. In “Whorl,” a man planning on dumping his girlfriend is dumped by her after some mishaps involving an experimental treatment for baldness. In “Jaw,” a man consumed by his training to become a boxer is ultimately defeated by his own physical regimen. The opening story, “Navel,” is about a mother and her two daughters who blow through their savings in order to undergo a series of cosmetic surgical procedures. The last laugh, however, is on the husband and father who doesn’t notice that they look any different until it’s too late.

Although the tone of Bødy is far from jovial, it never takes its subject matter too seriously. With an escalating series of bad things happening to weak-willed and pathetic people, the humor in Bødy is as black as it gets. As soon as the reader thinks that things can’t get any worse for the characters, things get worse in the worst possible way. As a result, these stories are horrifying and fascinating at the same time.

Humor usually works best when the butt of the joke is in a position of power or otherwise represents the status quo, and an element of discomfort tends to creep in when the character being ridiculed truly is a victim. For this reason, the story “Buttocks” stands out for me as the most disturbing story in the collection.

Hiroe, the former queen bee teenage protagonist of “Buttocks,” suffers severe culture shock after she leaves her home in the country to attend a high school in Tokyo. She lives in a dorm, where she has trouble physically and mentally adjusting to a communal lifestyle. She didn’t want to leave home in the first place, her friends from middle school won’t talk to her anymore, and she learns that the only reason she’s able to live in Tokyo is because her father made a large donation to her school. When one of the other girls living in the dorm calls her fat, Hiroe develops an eating disorder. The reader, who is given intimate knowledge of Hiroe’s mindset and methods, sympathizes with the bulimic Hiroe’s improved self-image and sense of renewed control over her life. It actually seems as if the story will have a happy ending before Hiroe collapses and is revealed to be terrifyingly unhealthy. As her parents carry her out of the dorm, Hiroe overhears the same girl who had mocked her for having hips like a duck whispering how creepy she is now that she looks like a skeleton.

Hiroe may have bullied another girl in middle school, but she didn’t deserve this, and the punch line of “Buttocks” is chilling. In this story, the narrative pattern that characterizes the stories in Bødy is less tragicomic and more genuinely upsetting. It’s easy to laugh at the chauvinist pigs of the first three stories in the collection, but the teenage protagonists of the last two stories are genuine victims of forces beyond their control who receive no sympathy from other characters and turn to desperate measures in an attempt to exert some small measure control over their lives. The emotional range Nonami achieves within these stories is remarkable, as is the skill with which she treads the line between amusement and discomfort.

Nonami Asa is a fantastic writer, and I’m happy that more of her work is appearing in translation. She’s primarily known for her detective fiction in Japan, and Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation of The Hunter is an good example of her gritty hardboiled style. Nonami’s other novel in translation, Now You’re One of Us, is creepy gothic horror that features the black humor and body horror of Bødy without the blunt, cringe-inducing needle-in-your-eye imagery. If you can handle literature with genuinely dark themes, it’s hard to go wrong with Nonami Asa, and Bødy is an excellent introduction to the writer’s work.

Speculative Japan 3

Title: Speculative Japan 3: “Silver Bullet” and Other Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editor: Edward Lipsett
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 270

In my review of Speculative Japan 2, I said that I loved the anthology and couldn’t wait until the next installment was released. Speculative Japan 3 is finally here, and it’s everything I hoped it would be: a diverse collection of intelligent and beautifully translated short stories.

Speculative Japan 3 opens with several shorter pieces. These shorter pieces, which range in length from five to twenty pages, run the gamut from hard science fiction to magical realism to fantasy with a sci-fi twist to elegiac horror. Fujita Masaji’s “Angel French” is about the romance between two deep space robotic probes who began life as two college students hanging out in Mister Donut. “To the Blue Star,” written by Ogawa Issui (whose novels The Lord of the Sands of Time and The Next Continent are published in translation by Haikasoru), is another story about a self-aware technological entity. This entity, whose name is X, is a collective intelligence made up of a fleet of robotic star cruisers that represent the last remnants of human civilization. X tells its own story as it travels through the universe, watches civilizations rise and fall, fuses with other advanced life forms, and finally meets God. Matsuzaki Yuri’s “The Finish Line” is a thought experiment in the form of a short story and features a quiet but chilling scenario of the end of all life on earth. Kamon Nanami’s “A Piece of Butterfly’s Wing,” which is probably my favorite story in the collection, is a beautifully creepy ghost story in the literary tradition of writers like Kurahashi Yumiko and Kanai Mieko. Like the work of these masters of the poetics of horror, Kamon’s story is filled with beautiful, atmospheric imagery and resonant symbolism. It also features a delightfully disturbing twist at the end.

The longer stories of Speculative Japan 3 shine just as brightly as the shorter pieces. Even though none of these stories are more than thirty-five pages in length, they’re long enough to allow nuanced character development as they explore their premises in greater depth. Suga Hiroe’s “Five Sisters” is about a woman named Sonogawa Hanako who meets four clones of herself that have all been raised in different households. Each of these women has a different personality, and it’s fascinating to see how each has lived her life with the knowledge that she is a clone created to be harvested for organs. Ueda Sayuki’s “Fin and Claw” is a window into a future where humans have been genetically modified to be more adaptable to an environment covered in seawater. “Fin and Claw” is sort of like Jurassic Park with enormous sea creatures, and the moral of the story is the same. The last three pages of Ueda’s nightmarish vision are particularly terrifying in their visual imagery.

The title story, Yamada Masaki’s “Silver Bullet,” is a Japanese Cthulhu mythos story (more of which are collected in Kurodahan’s Night Voices, Night Journeys). In my experience, there are two main types of Cthulhu mythos stories: pseudo-Victorian and classy, and unabashedly pulpy. “Silver Bullet” belongs to the latter category. Its protagonist is sufficiently hard boiled, and the story contains more cheap sexuality than you can shake a flagella at. Still, all of the story’s thematic elements mesh together nicely, the ending is well earned, and the method used to summon Cthulhu is awesome (as is the instrument used to stop the summoner).

If there’s one story in the collection that feels out of place, it’s “Green Tea Ice Cream,” which is written by Mark Schultz. Perhaps it feels out of place because it’s merely good instead of excellent, but perhaps this is also because it bears the traces of awkwardness that often afflict stories written about Japan in English (a few of which have been recently collected in The Future Is Japanese). It’s difficult to pinpoint what the exact causes or sources of this awkwardness are, but it probably has to do with the writer feeling the need to explain certain “Japanese” things to the reader, as well as with the unstable balance between Japan as a real place and Japan as a fictional creation in these stories. “Green Tea Ice Cream” also revolves around a science fiction trope that I personally find silly and boring, namely, the unnecessary sexualization of a young woman who embodies fears concerning the changing relationship between human beings and technology. If the non-consensual impregnation and subsequent abduction of mindless machine girls is your cup of tea, though, knock yourself out. There are also some uncomfortably sexual father-daughter issues on display, if you’re into that sort of thing. That being said, the unsavory nature of the scenario and the characters of this story gives it greater depth and impact as a speculative commentary on contemporary bioethics.

To counter the sour taste of “Green Tea Ice Cream,” Mori Natsuko’s “It’s All Thanks to Saijō Hideaki” is made of pure sugar. To give a summary would be spoiling the fun, so let it suffice to say that this is one of those stories that you can’t believe you’re reading while you’re reading it and then can’t believe you’ve read once you’re finished. The experience of reading this story filled me with joy. If you’re a fan of yuri or bara stories (or brilliant parodies of such stories), then this is the story of the elegant, fabulous apocalypse you’ve been waiting for.

As in Speculative Japan 2, the translation is smooth and even throughout, with each story retaining the individual characteristics and quirks of its author. It’s a pleasure to read the stories in this anthology not just for the freshness and wonder of their ideas but also for the high quality of their writing and translation. As both an anthology of contemporary science fiction and an anthology of contemporary Japanese literature, Speculative Japan 3 succeeds brilliantly in collecting not the newest or the most popular, but rather the most interesting and the best written. Speculative Japan 3 is an excellent collection of short stories, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for intelligent and exciting new fiction, speculative or otherwise.

Review copy provided by Kurodahan Press

Speculative Japan 2

Title: Speculative Japan 2
Editor: Edward Lipsett
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 269

Speculative Japanese 2 (subtitled “‘The Man Who Watched the Sea’ and Other Tales of Science Fiction and Fantasy”) is a collection of thirteen stories ranging in length from four to forty-eight pages. Half of the stories are from the late seventies and eighties, and the other half are from the past decade, with the most recent being published in 2007. These stories, which were selected for translation based on a Japanese SF magazine reader survey and the editor’s own taste, range from fantasy to magical realism to hardcore science fiction. In fact, the stories are so varied in genre that “speculative fiction” does indeed seem to the only label capable of describing them.

Speculative Japan 2 is an excellent anthology without even a single dull story. The premise or idea behind each story in the book is uniquely fantastic. In Enjoe Toh’s “Freud,” a family gathers at the house of the narrator’s recently deceased grandmother only to find twenty clones of Sigmund Freud hidden under the tatami mats and beneath the floorboards. In Issui Ogawa’s “Old Vohl’s Planet,” the inorganic life forms inhabiting a planet with an extremely volatile atmosphere are threatened with annihilation and must rely on the vast reserves of their hereditary memory to send a distress signal to the stars. Kajio Shinji’s “Emanon: A Reminiscence” tells of a man’s brief encounters with separate incarnations of a woman who is able to remember all of her former lives. Kobayashi Yasumi’s “The Man Who Watched the Sea” describes a world in which time flows differently at different altitudes from the perspective of two time-crossed lovers. Nakai Norio’s “Mountaintop Symphony” chronicles the tribulations and victories of an orchestra tasked with the performance of a piece of music that spans dozens of years and requires instruments that haven’t been invented yet.

The longest story in the collection, Tani Kōshū’s “Q-Cruiser Basilisk,” is told from the perspective of a petty officer on a spacecraft with a five-man crew. In the dead of space, the narrator’s ship encounters a much larger craft that seems to be a remnant of a war that ended two hundred years ago. The vessel is, as the narrator puts it, a “ghost ship,” and, despite his trepidation, the narrator finds himself recalling classic adventure tales by the likes of C.S. Forester and Robert Louis Stevenson. Despite the narrative static generated by detailed descriptions of naval battle maneuvers executed in space, the story is genuinely creepy as the narrator and his fellow crew members board the empty ship. As the narrator reads the captain’s log, the reader is drawn into an even stranger tale of uncertain fates and eerie distortions in space. Along with its echoes of the adventure tales alluded to by the narrator, “Q-Cruiser Basilisk” resonates with the plots and themes of postwar American space fiction, as well as with classic existential speculative fiction such as Nelson S. Bond’s “And Lo! The Bird.” The story is satisfyingly old school but fresh enough to feel like a plot from a contemporary animated short film.

My two favorite stories in the collection were more fantasy flavored. In Ōhara Mariko’s “The Whale that Sang on the Milky Way Network,” a young man on a backwater agricultural planet waits eagerly for a circus that visits a certain seaside town once every four years. When the circus finally comes again, the young man befriends one of its performers, a whale who can supposedly fly through space. He confesses his love for a local politician’s pop star daughter to his new friend, and he and the whale hatch a plan to leave the planet and become famous together, which succeeds spectacularly. Takagi Nobuko’s “Melk’s Golden Acres” at first seems like a normal work of realist fiction, as it opens with a Japanese traveler’s impressions of the Austrian countryside and the abbey above the town of Melk. The narrator recounts the history and treasures of the abbey, especially those of its library. After touring the library himself, the narrator is addressed by an old man who had been gazing at one of the room’s stained glass windows. The old man claims that his wife is in the window, and the narrator, intrigued, follows him to a nearby restaurant where he learns more about the old man’s life. The story then takes a slow turn towards the surreal before closing in an entirely unexpected fashion. Whereas I enjoyed “The Whale that Sang on the Milky Way Network” because of its whimsy and sense of adventure, I loved “Melk’s Golden Acres” for its grounded yet beautifully descriptive language and the way it toes the line between realism and fantasy, leaving a multitude of possibilities open to the reader.

Each of the stories in Speculative Japan 2 is worth reading, and each writer represented in the collection has a unique and engaging style of storytelling. The quality of the translation is uniformly excellent, and the goofiness and genre allusions and creative language of each respective writer comes through in sharp focus. The efforts of the editor have ensured that the overall readability of the translations maintains a high standard, so even the more interesting linguistic experiments of the original authors are conveyed in solid English that is fully aware of the idioms of Anglophone speculative fiction. As a result, a reader of Speculative Japan 2 can effortlessly jump from one world into another, and the experience is thoroughly enjoyable.

Speculative Japan 3 is slated for publication at the end of the year, and I’m already looking forward to it!

Review copy provided by Kurodahan Press.

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970″ section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. [...] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

The Fox’s Window

Title: The Fox’s Window: And Other Stories
Japanese Title: きつねの窓 (Kitsune no mado)
Author: Awa Naoko (安房 直子)
Translator: Toshiya Kamei
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of New Orleans Press
Pages: 232

I found out about this book due to the happy accident of stumbling upon the website of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Tokyo Translation Group. It’s a fantastic site that has taught me a great deal about Japanese children’s literature, and I’m grateful that it’s so well organized and contains so many interesting and well written essays.

Before I discovered the website, however, I had never heard of “the revered Japanese author” Awa Naoko. Thankfully, her translator’s short introduction does a fine job of sketching out her background for the reader:

Naoko Awa (1943-1993) was an award-winning writer of modern fairy tales. She was born in Tokyo, and while growing up, lived in different parts of Japan. As a child, Awa read fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Wilhelm Hauff, as well as The Arabian Nights, which later influenced her writings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Japanese literature from Japan Women’s University, where she studied under Shizuka Yamamuro (1906-2000), who translated Nordic children’s literature into Japanese. While still in college, Awa made her literary debut in the magazine Mejiro jidō bungaku (Mejiro Children’s Literature).

The themes of Awa’s work collected in The Fox’s Window are nature, transformation, and bittersweet pain of fondly remembered past. Like Western fairy tales, Awa’s stories are filled with animals who possess anthropomorphic attributes, such as the ability to talk. Like Classical mythology, Awa’s stories operate on at the edges of a constantly shifting boundary between plant, animal, and human; flowers can easily turn into girls, and rabbits and can easily turn into boys. In the worlds Awa creates in her writing, charming and innocuous trickster spirits abound and good deeds are always rewarded. This childhood realm is seldom presented without nostalgia, and characters often remember the past as being more vibrant than the present.

The story collection opens with “The Sky-colored Chair.” In this story, a blind girl’s father wants to paint a rocking chair he’s built for her the color of the sky so that she will be able to see the sky by sitting in the chair. On a windy hilltop, the father meets a young boy who helps him create the color of the sky for his daughter. The chair is such a success that the father begins to seek out other colors, such as those of the sea and the sunset. The boy, in an effort to help the father achieve these colors, disappears and then reappears as a young man who asks that the girl’s father take him on as an apprentice chair maker. The blind girl is never really able to see any other colors, but her story still ends happily:

After a short while, the blind girl married the young man. She became a happy wife who knew the true color of the sky better than anyone else. Even after her hair turned white, she enjoyed watching the sky in her rocking chair.

In the collection’s title story, “The Fox’s Window,” an archetypal hunter enters an archetypal forest in order to hunt an archetypal fox. After chasing and losing the fox, the hunter emerges into a clearing, in the middle of which is a house he has never seen before. Out of the house emerges the fox, now in the form of a boy, who offers to paint the hunter’s hands blue in an act of magic that will allow the hunter to see into the past. The story has no plot, per se, but the visions that the hunter sees in the window that he forms with his fox-painted hands are lovely:

In my mother’s vegetable garden, a patch of shiso plants was getting soaked by the drizzle. I wondered if she would come out into the yard to pick the leaves. A soft light seeped from the house. From time to time I heard children’s laughter mixed with the music from the radio. The voices belonged to me and my sister, who was now dead. I gave a deep sigh and dropped my hands. The house I grew up in burned down, and that yard doesn’t exist anymore.

Although many of the stories in the collection are harmlessly beautiful, a few, such as “Forest of Voices,” contain touches of genuine fairy-tale horror:

The Forest of Voices returned to silence and waited for its next prey. It was a terrifying place. Countless animals had lost their way in the forest. Like someone scared of his own reflection in the mirror, every animal going astray among the trees was surprised by its own echo and ran in circles until it collapsed and died. Sometimes humans wandered into the forest – hunters pursuing their game and woodcutters following the wrong path in the fog. They all ended up nourishing the oaks.

Such stories always end well, though. The pure of heart always prevail and no one is ever really punished. The only characters who die or get hurt are animals, and even then it’s usually just an instance of the “dead mother” trope.

Unfortunately, this lack of darkness made the stories seem shallow to me. With no true shadows or bursts of light, the separate stories began to blur together into a sepia-toned slurry of adorable children, talking animals, and nature imagery. These stories are completely harmless and thus, in my opinion, mostly forgettable.

Perhaps The Fox’s Window would appeal to parents of young children for whom the stories of Beatrix Potter and Jill Barklem are deemed too scary. The stories might also appeal to the children themselves, as younger readers have an astonishing ability to make up details to fill in the gaps of minimalist narratives. Since the visual imagery of Awa Naoko’s writing is so strong, her stories might also appeal to artists and illustrators looking for inspiration. In fact, I felt that each of the individual pieces in The Fox’s Window was highly impressionistic, like a pencil sketch of a scene onto which a single layer of watercolors has been quickly applied. Although this type of writing doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for someone like me, who finds beauty and meaning in words and narratives, I imagine that Awa’s short fairy tales could be much more interesting to someone better able to think in pictures and images.

I’d like to thank University of New Orleans Press for making The Fox’s Window available on the Kindle Store. I’ve been noticing a baffling dearth of children’s literature in digital format, and I think it’s wonderful that this collection is helping to remedy the situation.

March Was Made of Yarn

Title: March Was Made of Yarn: Reflections on
the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown
Editors: Elmer Luke and David Karashima
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Vintage
Pages: 216

As the March 11 anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami draws closer, Japanese bookstores have begun to promote retrospective magazine-books. These publications are filled with huge glossy photographs of destruction, and the number of people killed is printed in bold characters across their covers. Although such disaster porn is disturbing, it helps to illustrate a definite aspect of the reality of what happened a year ago in Japan.

March Was Made of Yarn helps to illustrate another aspect of the reality of the earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear crisis. If pictures and body counts inform the physical reality, then this collection of fiction and nonfiction offers insight into the emotional reality. Thankfully, March Was Made of Yarn is infinitely more gentle and subtle than sensationalist reporting and sentimental recollections of heroism and despair.

Even though all of the short pieces brought together by this collection address the events of last year in some fashion, many do so obliquely, and the themes of the pieces are universal. What is it like to live through a crisis? What is it like to know that other people are living through a crisis? What does it feel like to worry about the future? What does it feel like when science fiction becomes reality? What happens when you’re so sick with worry that you can’t fall asleep at night? What happens when words can no longer express truth or meaning?

March Was Made of Yarn features the work of internationally renowned Japanese writers such as Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kakuta Mitsuyo, Furukawa Hideo, and Tawada Yōko. These writers don’t cut corners in their craft simply because they happen to be responding to a topical issue; and, although none of them are writing “happy” stories or essays, their work is a pleasure to read. Kawakami Hiromi, who rewrote her debut story “Kami-sama” (translated as “God Bless You”) to address the incidents at the Fukushima reactor, reminds us that, even though we live in a world shadowed by the fear of radiation and environmental poisoning, we still need to eat, and we still want to go outside. The title story, Kawakami Mieko’s “March Yarn,” deals with the strange ways in which people process their memories and their understanding of their relationships with each other. Tanikawa Shuntarō’s poem “Words,” which opens the book, poses the question of how we can even write about things for which there are no words (yet still “Words put forth buds / From the earth beneath the rubble”). The translators who contributed to this volume are among the best in the field, and their skill illuminates the entirety of the collection.

March Was Made of Yarn isn’t just an excellent anthology of work related to the Tōhoku disasters; it’s an excellent Japanese literary anthology period. The range of authors represented by the book has the most even distribution of gender, generation, and genre I’ve ever encountered, and the English-language contributors, such as David Peace and John Burnham Schwartz, bring an added level of flavor and diversity. This collection is also accessible to casual readers, as few of the stories are any longer than twenty pages, and it has been beautifully published by Vintage. I don’t know how so many good things were able to come together to create this amazing book, but I am extraordinarily grateful that it exits.

March Was Made of Yarn should be available at all major bookstores in North America, Britain, Australia, and Japan, and it’s available on the Kindle Store as well.

If you don’t mind reading entirely in PDF digital format, please consider checking out Waseda University’s Japan Earthquake Charity Literature Project, which has some overlap with March Was Made of Yarn. It’s free to download and read the PDF versions of the stories and essays on the website, and the reader is encouraged to make a donation to disaster relief efforts afterwards.

Speculative Japan

Title: Speculative Japan: Outstanding Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy
Editors: Gene van Troyer and Grania Davis
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Pages: 290

As a short story collection, Speculative Japan is a strange book. 200 of its 290 pages are comprised of short stories, and the other 90 pages are mainly short non-fiction essays about the book itself. These essays involve topics such as how the stories appearing in Speculative Japan came to be selected, edited, and translated. 20 of these 90 pages are author and translator biographies, and another 20 pages are filled by a translated essay by Shibano Takumi, the editor of the Japanese sci-fi magazine Uchūjin. For a reader who starts the book at the front cover and progresses in a linear fashion, Speculative Japan gets off to a somewhat rocky start with pages and pages of metatextual material.

Gene Von Troyer’s introduction jumps from topic to topic before finally summarizing Yamano Kōichi’s “three phases of Japanese science fiction” and settling into speculation concerning what makes Japanese science fiction “Japanese”:

We can’t say definitively, but can only point to trends and tendencies. Viewed through one facet of the jewel, we can say, as Tatsumi [Takayuki] does, that “what with the imperative of American democratization and the effect of indigenous adaptability, the postwar Japanese had simultaneously to transform and naturalize themselves as a new tribe of cyborgs” as reflected in the images from manga and anime. Japanese SF leans (or has leaned) more on robots and cyborgs than on stars and planets.

This generalization is certainly interesting, but I wonder if it’s really true. For example, the advertisements in the back of the book for Mayumura Taku’s Administrator (a collection of four short novels about “Terran colonies far from Earth”) and Night Voices, Night Journeys (the first of a series of collections of “Tales in the Cthulu Mythos from Japan”) seem oriented more towards “stars and planets” stories, and I can’t help but think of the “spaceships and galaxies” imagery of popular 1970s series such as Takemiya Keiko’s To Terra and Matsumoto Leiji’s Space Battleship Yamato, but perhaps it might simply be better to read Troyer’s introduction as an initial attempt to sketch a map of a huge and understudied body of literature.

In any case, the stories contained in Speculative Japan have less to do with either cyborgs or space than they do with hypothetical concepts. Toyota Artisune’s “Another Prince of Wales” concerns the question, “What if, in the future, war were a popular sport played on an international stage?” Yamano Kōichi’s “Where do the Birds Fly Now?” is an expansion of the question, “What if birds could fly between dimensions and take people with them?” Very few of these stories have serious, in-depth plots; but, then again, very few of these stories are more than twenty pages long. A reader familiar with the type of tightly plotted sci-fi stories published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is in for a surprise with Speculative Japan, which – as its title suggests – is more about “speculative fiction” than “science fiction.”

Five of the stories in the collection are recycled from the out-of-print The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories. Of these five, Tsutsui Yasutaka’s Orwellian fable “Standing Woman” and Yano Tetsu’s “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship,” a lyric tale of a woman deep in the Japanese mountains who may or may not be an alien, are excellent and definitely worthy of republication. Making an appearance from the out-of-print Monkey Brain Sushi anthology is Ōhara Mariko’s “Girl,” a sex-saturated story of love and body modification in a decaying city on the eve of an apocalypse.

Three stories that have appeared for the first time in book form in Speculative Japan that really jumped out at me were Kajio Shinji’s “Reiko’s Universe Box,” Kawakami Hiromi’s “Mogera Wogura,” and Yoshimasu Gōzō’s “Adrenalin.” In “Reiko’s Universe Box,” a young woman copes with her negligent husband and failing marriage by becoming absorbed in a box containing an entire galaxy in miniature form. Like many of the stories in this collection, “Reiko’s Universe Box” is driven by strong elements of allegory, but its concept is delivered with cleverness, darkness, vivid description, and humor. When compared to the other stories in the collection, Kawakami’s “Mogera Wogura,” a description of a day in the life of a mole-like creature who lives among humans in contemporary Japan, is in a class of its own in terms of its gentle magical realism, its playfulness, and its removal from the themes and narrative style of more traditional science fiction and fantasy. “Adrenalin” is not a story but rather an abstract poem filled with evocative imagery conveyed through variations of a handful of short and catchy refrains, such as “To you, children of spirits, I send an immediate telegram / To drink milk / To memorize the names of flowers / Some day, I will return / That day, I will start fire.” I’m usually not a fan of Japanese poetry in translation, but I found myself captured and moved by Marilyn Mei-Ling Chin’s translation of Yoshimasu Gōzō’s verse. Each of these three selections stands on its own not simply as an illustration of a speculative concept but as a piece of writing that is fun to read, thought-provoking, and capable of multiple interpretations.

Of the collection’s fifteen stories, four were written in the sixties, eight were written in the seventies, and another was written in 1981. These thirteen stories, written during the period between 1962 and 1981, are all by men. The two more recent stories (published in 1985 and 2002) were written by female authors, but one can still say that this collection is mostly representative of science fiction written by men in the sixties and seventies. In the author biography section at the end of the book, the editors attempt to canonize many of the male authors (“without a doubt a Grand Master of Japanese science fiction and fantasy,” “one of the three pillars of Japanese SF,” “often referred to as ‘The King of Japanese SF,’” and so on), but I wonder if perhaps there wasn’t a hint of personal politics at play in the selection of authors. This suspicion seems to be corroborated by the collection’s metatextual essays, which detail the personal relationships between the authors and their translators.

Speculative Japan sometimes reads like a sci-fi literary fanzine in which the editors and regular contributors are just as concerned about themselves and their relationships with each other as they are with the fiction itself, and the essays in Speculative Japan demonstrate a certain geeky fixation on metatextual marginalia. If you happen to be outside of the small circle of authors, translators, and editors who all know each other and worked together on this collection, you might find these essays confusing and off-putting. If you’re already used to the style of the front (and back) material included in SF-themed literary magazines and fanzines, though, you’ll more than likely be able to see past (or even appreciate) the many pages of essays included in Speculative Japan.

The actual stories in the collection are interesting and well worth reading, and a few of them are truly excellent. Still, I want more work that doesn’t belong to a set clique of authors, more contemporary work, and more work by women. To be honest, I found Speculative Japan somewhat disappointing as a compilation. That being said, I am intrigued enough by the stories themselves to consider giving Speculative Japan 2 a shot in the near future.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Title: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Japanese Title: 時をかける少女 (Toki o kakeru shōjo)
Author: Tsutsui Yasutaka (筒井 康隆)
Translator: David Karashima
Publication Year: 2011 (Britain); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 170

Three things are generally true of Tsutsui Yasutaka’s writing: it’s easy to read, it’s creative and fun, and it’s usually more about the concept than the characters. The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is no exception. The story is short, it’s entertaining, and the idea of time travel is more fleshed out than the characters.

Junior high school student Kazuko hears a crash in her school’s science lab while helping her friends Goro and Kazuo clean up after class. When she enters the room to investigate, she smells lavender and passes out. The next morning, she and Goro are run down by a bus while rushing to school. Right before the bus strikes them, however, Kazuko opens her eyes and finds herself back in bed. She discovers that she has somehow jumped back in time to the morning of the previous day. Kazuko tells Kazuo and Goro about her strange experience, and they suggest that she talk to their science teacher, Mr. Fukushima, after school. Surprisingly enough, Mr. Fukushima listens sympathetically before explaining that Kazuko needs to jump back in time to the incident in the science lab in order to figure out what happened. She does so and meets Kazuo, who explains everything to her before erasing her memory and returning to where he originally came from.

And that is the story. Nothing else really happens. Kazuo’s debriefing is interesting, but there is no on-screen adventuring or experimentation on the part of Kazuko. There is no narrative tension, just a bit of simple mystery solving. None of the characters really stand out. Kazuko is frightened and dependent on the help of others, Goro is childish and petty, and Kazuo drifts along without contributing anything until the last three or four chapters. The two other named characters, Mr. Fukushima and Kazuko’s friend Mariko, barely have any lines at all. Director Hosoda Mamoru’s 2006 animated adaptation is much richer in terms of storytelling and character development. Still, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a quick and easy read that should appeal to a younger audience.

A bit more interesting than the main novella is the shorter work “The Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of,” which is also included in the book. In this story, junior high school student Masako tries to get to the bottom of her fear of heights, which is somehow connected to the discomfort she feels around Prajna masks. Masako’s close friend Bunichi passes along what his therapist uncle tells him about the psychology of fear, and Masako uses this information to help not only herself but also her five-year-old brother Yoshio, who suffers from night terrors. The relationship between Masako and Yoshio is charming and sweet, as is the budding romance between Masako and Bunichi.

If I had to guess, I would say that the two stories in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are meant for kids who are a bit younger than their protagonists, despite the adult woman adorning the book’s cover. They’re both entertaining, simple stories for the age seven to twelve crowd. If you’re an adult reader in North America who can’t seem to find a copy of this British publication, though, you’re not missing much. The movie is definitely better.

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Title: The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories
Editors: John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenburg
Publication Year: 1997
Publisher: Barricade Books
Pages: 176

In the introduction of The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, editor John Apostolou informs the reader that, prior to the publication of this collection, it was very difficult to find Japanese science fiction in English translation. Translations of a few Abe Kōbō novels (such as The Ark Sakura and Inter Ice Age 4) had been published by Knopf, but the majority of translations of science fiction stories (such Arai Motoko’s A Ship to the Stars and Takachiho Haruka’s The Adventures of Dirty Pair) were only available from the Kodansha English Library, which was (and still is) virtually impossible to find outside of Japan. The purpose of The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, then, was to collect translations of short stories by major Japanese sci-fi authors such as Hoshi Shinichi, Hanmura Ryō, and Komatsu Sakyō.

Most of the thirteen stories in this collection are less than ten pages long. Some (like Abe Kōbō’s “The Flood” and Komatsu Sakyō’s “The Savage Mouth”) read like modern parables of the nastier aspects of human nature, while some (like Hanmura Ryō’s “Tansu” and Kōno Tensei’s “Triceratops”) are more dark fantasy than science fiction. Others, however, are examples of speculative fiction at its best. One of my favorite stories in the collection is Tsutsui Yasutaka’s “Standing Woman,” which is a window into a dystopian future in which anyone caught grumbling about the wrong thing – whether it’s high prices at the supermarket or too much overtime at work – is punished by being “vegetized” and planted next to a sidewalk or park bench. The story that closes the collection, Yano Tetsu’s “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship,” comes as close as a twenty-page short story can get to being a masterpiece of science fiction. It features a mysterious woman, a psychic son, an isolated village in the country, and strange legends that all come together to suggest secrets and cosmic mythologies that are illuminated just enough to capture the reader’s imagination.

Although the translation is a bit wonky in places (particularly in Kita Morio’s “The Empty Field”), I really enjoyed reading all of the stories in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, and the foreword and introduction provided interesting glimpses into the process of how these stories were translated. If I am allowed one complaint, however, it would be that there are no female writers represented by this collection. I would recommend that anyone looking for an overview of the many female sci-fi writers in Japan should check out Kotani Mari’s essay “Alien Spaces and Alien Bodies in Japanese Women’s Science Fiction” in the essay collection Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams. (If you can read Japanese, Kotani’s monograph Technogynesis is also fun and informative.) In any case, The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories served its purpose by making me want to read more Japanese science fiction short stories, and from here I’m planning on moving on to Speculative Japan and Speculative Japan 2.