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.

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

Title: Digitial Geishas and Talking Frogs:
The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
Editor: Helen Mitsios
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Cheng & Tsui
Pages: 240

Digitial Geishas starts off slow. Pico Iyer’s introduction to the collection is breezy (“When guidance comes in this anthology, it comes only from a six-foot tall frog; many characters in these tales are weirdly passive, just killing time until a tsunami, a pregnancy or two dangerously seductive girls appear on the horizon to shake them out of their stupor”) and even more disconnected and fragmented than the travel writer’s usual style. The opening piece, “The Floating Forest,” is boring, even though it’s written by Kirino Natsuo, a writer of psychological thrillers whose work is usually anything but boring. I suppose Kirino’s story about a daughter of a famous writer is meant to establish a theme of breaking away from the past and emerging into a new century, but it’s still rambling and tedious. The next story, Toshiyuki Horie’s “The Bonfire,” is like one last look back over our shoulders at “old Japan” and the remnants of its traditions of “pure” literature.

And then things start to get interesting.

“Ikebukuro West Gate Park” is a selection from Ishida Ira’s series of novels by the same name (which have been translated into French), and it’s awesome. The story is reminiscent of the anime series Durarara!! in its colorful urban setting, its cast of interesting and multifaceted characters, and its use of social networking and bizarre crime as plot devices. This story has everything – youth culture, counter-culture, underground culture, and literary culture – and its English translation is worth the price of the entire book just by itself.

The stories that follow it are equally fascinating. Murakami Haruki’s “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is a perfect example of the author’s trademark magical realism, Shimada Masahiko’s “The Diary of a Mummy” chronicles suicide through starvation from a first-person perspective, Ogawa Yōko’s “The Sea” is all sorts of strange and creepy and touching and brilliant, and Tsujihara Noboru’s “My Slightly Crooked Brooch,” in which a woman consents to her husband’s affair, is a lovely tale of obsession with the perfect twist ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the stories in Digital Geishas, which showcases a fairly wide range of authors, who are all (with the possible exception of Kirino) flattered by the editor’s choice of their work. Although the subject matter of the stories contained within this volume is broad, the general tone of the anthology is far more literary than its title suggests. Finally, Helen Mitsios has done an excellent job not only with the selection of stories but also with the way they flow from one to another, and the individual translations have been edited to maintain a cohesive yet unobtrusive “house style” that still manages to show off the individual writing style of each author. In short, Digital Geishas contains a good batch of stories that have benefited from solid editing. This book is a wonderful follow-up to Mitsio’s earlier compilation, New Japanese Voices.

Review copy provided by Cheng & Tsui.

The Stories of Ibis

Title: The Stories of Ibis
Japanese Title: アイの物語 (Ai no monogatari)
Author: Yamamoto Hiroshi (山本 弘)
Translator: Takami Nieda
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 423

After reading Melinda Beasi’s essay Twilight and the Plight of the Female Fan, I reached a strange epiphany. It’s okay if I don’t like Twilight! It’s okay if I don’t like Black Bird! It’s okay that I am never, ever going to enjoy reading manga like DearS and My-HiME! I am simply not the intended audience – and that’s okay. The point of Beasi’s essay is that fans should not judge other fans for being fans, even if they don’t personally enjoy the work that has inspired fannish behavior. Beasi has made this argument elsewhere, concerning shōjo manga and again concerning the Twilight fandom, and I agree with her. My own personal problem, however, is exactly the opposite. I do not get upset when people denigrate my interests; what upsets me is when I’m derided for not liking something that someone else feels I should.

One of my weak points in this regard is young adult fiction. I used to love it, but I’m almost ten years past sixteen and am beginning to find myself growing impatient with the tropes of both American and Japanese novels written for teenagers. Certainly, not every book written for a younger audience can be The Golden Compass or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but I still hold everything else to the same standard. This applies to Japanese light novels as well. Books like Nishizaki Megumi’s adaptation of Hot Gimmick and Coda Gakuto’s Missing series make me grind my teeth in frustration. Thankfully, there are young adult novels in Japan that are every bit as good as anything found in the West, and The Stories of Ibis is one of them.

The Stories of Ibis is pure science fiction directed at a presumably teenage audience, and it can boast everything that is fun about young adult fiction. The prose is clear and concise while still being creative. The narrative is very forward-driven without neglecting character development. Stereotypes are clearly referenced but then played with and expanded upon. Finally, the overall mood of the book is refreshingly positive. As science fiction goes, The Stories of Ibis is overwhelmingly utopian, but there are still lots of quests and uncertainties to keep the reader engaged.

As the title suggests, The Stories of Ibis is a collection of six short stories and two longer stories connected both by theme and by a frame narrative. The theme is the reality of virtual reality and, by extension, the power of fiction. Ibis, a humanoid robot blessed with artificial intelligence, tells these stories to the narrator of the frame story, one of the last human beings on earth. In the narrator’s world, humans fear and distrust robots, and the narrator travels from outpost to outpost, spreading tales of humanity’s glory before the rise of artificial intelligence. The narrator is wounded in an encounter with Ibis, who had been searching for him, so she reads him fiction as he recovers. In between stories (in short segments marked as “Intermission”), Ibis and the narrator discuss the stories, and their relationship gradually changes and deepens.

The first six stories are short, with each barely thirty pages in length. Only one of them is hard science fiction, and only one is strongly anime-flavored. The other four are set in more or less the present day and the present reality. All six deal with artificial intelligence or the reality of a virtual, fantasy world in some way. They’re all enjoyable; but, in my mind, the standout is the first story, in which people who only know each other through a Star Trek themed role playing site try to save one of their online friends from committing suicide in real life. The seventh and eighth stories are considerably longer than the first six, spanning one hundred pages each. I read a short review in Neo magazine that claimed that the two final stories made the book feel unbalanced, but I have to disagree. The final two stories are like a main course after an appetizer, and they are both excellent. Yamamoto reels his readers in with the first six stories and then lands us with the final two.

“The Day Shion Came” is about a nursing robot that whose programming has been implanted with a kernel of artificial intelligence. The robot is given over to a young human nurse to train as the two go through their rounds at a senior care facility. Certain A.I. clichés apply to this story, but they are not the ones you would suspect, and they are challenged and reworked in surprising ways. If there is a literary genre of magical realism, then “The Day Shion Came” might be termed science fictional realism, as everything about it is simultaneously fantastic and mundane. The final story is the story of Ibis herself, who draws together all of the “Intermission” segments by explaining the history of the frame narrator’s world. A remarkable feature of this story is the language that the A.I. entities use to communicate with each other. It’s both interesting and intelligent, but never overused or explicated at length. I won’t attempt to describe it here, but let it suffice to say that I have no idea how the translator was able to handle it so successfully. I tip my hat in admiration of her efforts.

In the final evaluation, The Stories of Ibis is a wonderful book for both young adult readers and adult readers who enjoy good young adult fiction. It’s neither too sci-fi nor too “Japanese” to put off people who aren’t fans of either “genre,” but I think it will still appeal to fans who are familiar with the tropes presented. In other words, like any good young adult novel, The Stories of Ibis attains the perfect balance of intelligence, accessibility, and creativity – and you don’t even have to feel embarrassed for enjoying it.

Lala Pipo

Title: Lala Pipo
Japanese Title: ララピポ
Author: Okuda Hideo (奥田英郎)
Translator: Marc Adler
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 284

Lala Pipo is absolutely and utterly tasteless. If banality could have a nadir, Lala Pipo would be hovering somewhere just above it. Never have I read such a book that delights so much in its own complete lack of decency.

This is a good thing, obviously.

This collection of six stories starts off with the tale of a social dropout who stands on a chair to listen through the ceiling to his upstairs neighbor having sex. His biggest problem, namely, how to clean up the come that invariably winds up on his bedroom floor, is soon eclipsed by his overwhelming desire for bugging equipment from Akihabara. Everything goes downhill from there into even greater depths of depravity. I have no idea how the author manages it. I bow in awe before his mastery of the literary art form.

All levity aside, though, Lala Pipo is actually quite brilliant. As the back cover of the book tells us, its six stories are loosely connected. What it does not tell us is how. Sure, they’re all set in the same location – in the swollen and festering underbelly of Shibuya. Sure, they all end in the same way – with abrupt and heartbreaking and hilarious tragedy. And sure, they all share the same theme – laziness and poor judgment leading to bad things happening to not-so-good people. But the main connection between the stories is that an extremely minor character of one story always becomes the protagonist of the next. Although this may sound like a cheesy gimmick, it’s remarkably well played. In fact, it’s so well played that I hesitate to spoil it by describing the stories in any detail.

I must make an exception for the third story, “Light My Fire,” which stars an aging housewife whose boredom has lead her to a career in milf-themed pornography. This woman lives in a house of amazing filth and decrepitude, which she deals with by dusting cockroaches under the bedding and spraying cleaning solution up the stairs towards the second floor. Since she has grown tired of picking up after her husband, she has him sleep on the kitchen floor, where he can easily pick up after himself – or not. When she’s not forcing herself on her agent in a love hotel or idly masturbating on the sofa in front of the television, she amuses herself by reading her neighbor’s mail, which she surreptitiously opens using the steam from a tea kettle. Her neighbor starts to receive anonymous hate mail from someone who is annoyed by her dog, so she decides to play a prank on her neighbor by signing the name of her best friend to the letters. As the letters become progressively more deranged, however, even our resourceful heroine begins to harbor worries. Underneath the sordidness of stringy mucus and crusty vibrators runs a strong narrative propelled forward by several mysteries. Who is sending the letters? How long will the housewife be able to continue her career in pornography? Why is her house so filthy? What has she got up there on the second floor? Like all of the stories in this collection, “Light My Fire” is skillfully set up to draw the reader into the narrative despite the disgusting characters who people it.

Some people might dismiss Okuda’s work, filled as it is with engorged members and spoiled schoolgirls, as being blatantly misogynistic. To those people I give a gold star and a pat on the back, because yes, Okuda is openly misogynistic. He is also openly misanthropic in general, but that’s no reason to not read and enjoy Lala Pipo. Even now, almost two decades after the economic bubble burst, an outdated public discourse regarding home, family, and work is still going strong. People like sociologist Mary Brinton are still analyzing how ideas like “women need to be housewives and mothers” and “men need to find full-time employment at a company” are created and perpetuated through the education system and in the labor market. Buzzwords like “equality” and “flexibility” often emerge in organizational mission statements, but the underlying structures have yet to undergo the necessary evolution. Lala Pipo takes all of that cultural garbage and swiftly trashes it. The men in these stories are not productive and industrious. The women in these stories are not nurturing and self-sacrificing. Authority lies in the hands of the people who absolutely should not wield it, and society as a whole is portrayed as rotting solipsistically away. Okuda Hideo is a popular writer, and he’s a fun writer, but he’s dealing with some pretty heavy stuff here. If nothing else, Lala Pipo is a welcome break from the home drama and flower imagery of more “literary” Japanese writers.

To those of you who read In the Pool (translated by Giles Murray and released by Stone Bridge Press in 2006) and weren’t impressed – I wasn’t impressed either, but Lala Pipo is much, much better. To those of you who read In the Pool and thought it was awesome, Lala Pipo is more of the same but much, much better. Just so you know.