The Memory Police

The Memory Police
Japanese Title: 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na kesshō)
Author: Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 274

The Memory Police is set on an island isolated from the rest of the world. The island is large enough to support a hospital, a university, and even a publishing company with a bustling lobby, but its community is small enough to be able to gather together for significant events. Like her parents before her, the narrator has lived on this island her entire life, and she takes its idiosyncrasies for granted.

The narrator’s island is cozy, with lovely bakeries and gardens. No one seems worried about money, and the narrator is able to live in a comfortable house despite the fact that the only work she does is writing novels that, by her own admission, no one reads. The novel focuses on the small details of everyday life, and it’s only gradually that the peacefulness and nostalgia of the narrative begin to unravel.

Every so often an object will “disappear.” Almost overnight, whatever has disappeared will not just vanish from the world, but from people’s memories as well. It’s never entirely clear how this works, but no one questions it. In some cases, such as perfume and photographs, the objects that disappear must be discarded, usually by means of being ritually thrown into a river or incinerated. In other cases, such as when the concept of “fruit” disappears, all the fruit on the island literally falls from the trees to the ground. Once something disappears, all perception of it disappears as well, and people aren’t able to recognize something that’s disappeared even if they’re looking at it. Even idiomatic expressions change, as in the case of “to hit two creatures with one stone” after birds disappear. The world of the narrator is limited, but her attention to detail is precise, so even small disappearances carry an emotional weight.

Some people don’t lose their memories, however, and this is where the eponymous memory police come in. This is also where the novel becomes dystopian, with midnight arrests, people suddenly going missing, families fleeing, and all records of these incidents buried deep within an impenetrable bureaucracy. The narrator’s mother, who worked as a sculptor and kept a variety of disappeared objects hidden in a cabinet, was an early casualty of the memory police, leaving the narrator an orphan.

The narrator gradually realizes that her editor is also immune to disappearances, and she resolves to keep him safe by hiding him in a sealed room in the basement of her house while his pregnant wife flees to a rural area north of the city, ostensibly for the sake for her health. As her editor continues to read and comment on her manuscript in secret, an intimacy develops between him and the narrator, which is reflected in the strange and surreal excerpts from her novel interspersed throughout the main story.

As the novel progresses, the rate of disappearances increases, an alarming trend that is exacerbated by environmental disaster. At the end of the story, the concept of “disappearances” is followed to its logical conclusion in an undeniably disturbing yet surprisingly soft and gentle manner.

The Memory Police is dystopian horror fiction reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s also a meditation on the ghosts that quietly follow us without ever attracting our notice. There may be no memory police in the real world, but we still forget things all the time, and we forget them so thoroughly that we don’t even realize we’ve forgotten them. The narrator is just as susceptible to these small disappearances as everyone else, but what sets her apart is that she understands the value of remembering and the importance of preservation. By maintaining a diversity of small narratives, the larger narrative represented by the memory police – namely, that which is not productive must be aggressively forgotten – can be resisted. The novel works on multiple levels as historical and political allegory, but it’s also universal and deeply personal.

The Memory Police was originally published in 1994, but it feels contemporary, fresh, and relevant. There are no specific cultural markers in the text, and most characters names are abbreviated as single letters, which confers an air of timelessness to the story. If any work of Japanese fiction might be recommended to a broad general audience with no knowledge of Japan, it would be this novel. The Memory Police is brilliant and extraordinary, and it refuses to be forgotten.

The Last Children of Tokyo

Title: The Last Children of Tokyo
Japanese Title: 献灯使 (Kentōshi)
Author: Yōko Tawada (多和田葉子)
Translator: Margaret Mitsutani
Publication Year: 2014 (Japan); 2018 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 138

In the future – but not long in the future – Japan has secluded itself from the rest of the world. The environment is saturated with toxic substances, it’s dangerous to go near the sea, and most animals have disappeared from the wild. Humans still live on the Japanese archipelago, but their society has changed. Adults born in our own time live long lives and continue working well past their hundredth birthdays, while children born in the present of the novel have trouble retaining nutrients from food and are often too weak for sustained physical activity. Young and healthy people in their sixties and seventies do everything in their power to immigrate to Okinawa or the north of Japan, where agriculture still thrives, while Tokyo suffers from depopulation.

A novelist named Yoshiro still lives in Tokyo, where he cares for his great-grandson, Mumei. Mumei is fascinated by pictures of animals that have recently gone extinct, while Yoshiro similarly spends his time looking back on the gradual shifts and changes in Japanese society. Each of Yoshiro’s memories is a sustained flight of magical realism that often has very little to do with the conventions of science fiction or dystopian fantasy. The Last Children of Tokyo is not about social critique through the medium of apocalypse, nor does it have much of a plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of everyday life in contemporary Japan in a mirror that’s mostly accurate but has a few interesting distortions.

Some of these distortions offer a speculative interpretation of how daily life has changed as a result of Japan’s recent demographic shifts.

The names of some of the older holidays were changed: “Respect for the Aged Day” became “Encouragement for the Aged Day,” while “Children’s Day” was now “Apologize to Children Day”; “Sports Day” was changed to “Body Day” to avoid upsetting children who were not growing up big and strong; so as not to hurt the feelings of young people who wanted to work but simply weren’t strong enough, “Labor Day” became “Being Alive Is Enough Day.” (43-44)

Other distortions magnify current practices out of proportion, making them seem like harbingers of social collapse.

He heard the phrase “Baby Carriage Movement” from Marika for the first time. This was a movement to encourage mothers to push their baby carriages around town every day as long as the sun was shining. Mothers who woke up unbearably miserable every morning, feeling helpless, hungry, about to pee all over themselves with no one to help them, whether because of a moist, clammy dream they’d had the night before, or because being cooped up all day with a squalling infant stimulates memories of the mother’s own infancy, went out to push their baby carriages until they came to a coffee shop with a “baby carriage mark” in the window, where they would find books and magazines to read and other mothers to talk to. (67)

Nevertheless, Tokyo is still a center of population, and Yoshiro can’t bring himself to leave the city as social services crumble, public transportation breaks down, and people resort to eating weeds. Even in decline, it seems, Tokyo is still home to many vibrant communities.

Though Tokyo was now impoverished, new shops still bubbled up from the depths to open up like flowers; just sitting on a park bench, you never got tired of watching the people go by. Walking around the city made the gears in your brain start turning. People had begun to realize that these simple pleasures were the most delicious part of the fruit we call everyday life, which is why even though their houses were small and food was scarce, they still wanted to live in Tokyo. (60-61)

In The Last Children of Tokyo, the city of Tokyo is less of a physical location than it is a collection of people who, as a society, have developed a fascinating set of collective quirks. The novel has very little plot to speak of, allowing the reader to take in the sights as its narration slowly meanders between times and places. The last forty or so pages shift to Mumei’s perspective as he becomes involved in a secret plan to leave the Japan, but there’s no sense of urgency regarding the matter; and, like the rest of the novel, the ending is meant to be enjoyed for its atmosphere. Tawada’s writing is given form by its abstractions, most of which can be interpreted by the reader in multiple ways and pursued in multiple directions. As a result, The Last Children of Tokyo is neither a particularly hopeful nor a particularly grim novel. It’s an odd book and an entertaining thought experiment, and Tawada playfully invites her readers to join her on a journey through a Tokyo that doesn’t exist – at least, not yet.

Syndrome

Title: Syndrome
Japanese Title: シンドローム (Shindorōmu)
Author: Satō Tetsuya (佐藤 哲也)
Illustrator: Nishimura Tsuchika (西村ツチカ)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Fukuinkan Shoten
Pages: 315

This guest review is written by Max Rivera (@makkusutl on Twitter).

Thanks to a recommendation from a writer whose work I follow closely, I had the pleasure of reading this tiny monster of a book, whose story is comprised of elements widely regarded as “classic” or even “cliche” in Western science fiction films: a meteorite that crashes down onto a small town, a group of kids whose unquenchable curiosity leads them to a mysterious discovery, bicycle rides at night, and meta-references to prominent sci-fi cinematic works such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Super 8.

Syndrome‘s synopsis is as simple as it gets: a meteorite crashes down on an unnamed city, causing a lot of turmoil. As days pass, the city becomes ensnared in a spiral of surrealism, mystery, and suspicion. The unnamed protagonist is an average yet gloomy high school student who hates the fact that this happened, as his fragile peace of mind is disturbed by the clash of what is normal and what is not. At first glance, it would seem Syndrome is a rehash of a number of works its readers have seen or read in the past, but there are two unmistakable elements that place this book a cut above the rest: its technically accomplished prose and its depiction of the perspective of its protagonist.

Syndrome‘s story is divided into seven chapters that represent seven days. On Day One, when the meteorite lands, things are relatively calm, but the reader can already perceive a faint sense of eeriness stirring, as can the protagonist. The gradual transition from normal to bizarre is highlighted by the detached sentence structure used by the author. Descriptions of landscapes, occasional thoughts, and conversations often lack any human trait; they are intriguing but feel almost numb. The prose bears almost no emotion whatsoever, which lends it an addictive and breakneck pace.

As the protagonist and his ostensible friends Hiroiwa and Kuraishi investigate the crash site and attempt to unveil what’s going on, the characters become more self-aware of their situation. Kuraishi is particularly knowledgeable and also happens to be a die-hard cinephile. He doesn’t directly break the fourth wall, but he acknowledges that the meteorite scenario is a classic trope of Western science fiction movies. For example, Kuraishi mentions The Blob (1958) and its 1988 remake, discussing how it became Steve McQueen’s feature film debut. Later on, Kuraishi compares what’s happening in the town to H.G. Wells’s 1953 film The War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation. It’s amusing to the reader to watch Kuraishi ramble on about all this while the protagonist and Hiroiwa have no idea what he’s talking about, especially since he is stereotypically nerdy, which is perhaps a meta reference in itself. The author, a veteran at the renowned Hayakawa SF imprint, thus gives the reader a taste of his extensive cinematic knowledge.

All of these loose strands contextualize each other as days grow darker and reality begins to mirror fantasy. By then, the reader has already begun to tell that the protagonist’s state of mind is unique, to say the least. He becomes ever more suspicious of his surroundings, his so-called friends, and even his family. For him, anyone and anything outside what he considers “his mental zone,” namely, people who are outspoken and act based on their instincts, are “dangerous” people to be wary of. There’s a strong contrast between the protagonist’s standard narrative style and the narration that occurs when he gets lost in his obsessive thoughts, which are represented by longer sentences and textual stacks of repeated concepts. This type of prose achieves a dreamlike effect, and the two narrative styles intertwine in ways that portray a fascinating human dichotomy. As there is little recognizable emotion in the writing, which is close to a stream of consciousness, the impassive first-person perspective generates an illusion that the reader is being sucked into the black hole of the protagonist’s mind.

The ending of the novel is fitting, given how the story works: we don’t know what comes next, nor do we have a feeling that everything is over. In truth, Syndrome doesn’t have a beginning or an end, per se. Instead, it’s an epistolary account of a mentally-troubled teenager who watches everything around him fall apart.

Syndrome is a wormhole into the unknown. Once you start reading it, the book won’t let you go.

* * * * *

Max Rivera is a freelance writer from Mexico City. He is currently majoring in Translation & Interpretation and Literature. As a former resident of Japan and aficionado of Japanese fiction, the Japanese publishing world, and pop culture, he often publishes reviews and cutting-edge articles on these subjects through several outlets, such as his personal blog on Tumblr and the popular Japanese media blog Tanoshimi. He loves cold weather, books, and cats way too much.

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna)

shuna-no-tabi

Title: シュナの旅 (Shuna no tabi)
English Title: The Journey of Shuna
Author: Miyazaki Hayao (宮崎 駿)
Publication Year: 1983
Publisher: Animage Bunko
Pages: 149

This guest review is written by L.M. Zoller (@odorunara on Twitter).

Shuna no tabi (The Journey of Shuna) is a short watercolor manga by Studio Ghibli director Miyazaki Hayao. Shuna is not only the precursor to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, but also to Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä’s spiritual successor. It contains many of the themes that define Miyazaki’s oeuvre, such as the relationship between humans and nature, human rights, and pacifism.

Shuna is a prince from a small nation in a valley where food cannot grow easily and the people and animals are starving. One day, an injured old traveler wanders into his community. Before the man dies, he tells Shuna about a place where golden grain grows in abundance and gives him some seeds that a traveler gave him when he was a young man. Shuna decides to set off on a journey in search of the grain with Yakuul, his red antelope. Along the way, he fights slave traders and thieves and rescues a young woman, Thea, and her sister from slavery in the castle town of Dorei. They outrun the slave traders and eventually part ways. Thea and her sister go to a town in the north where they live with an old lady. Thea farms, raises animals, and weaves. Meanwhile, Shuna enters a forest full of giant green humanoids who become the forest when they die. The giants are people sold into slavery who are transformed into giants in an organic machine with the help of the Moon, who appears almost like a mask in the sky and appears to be a deity or other supernatural creature. Shuna finds the fabled golden grain in the forest, but his journey back to Thea and her sister is more difficult than anticipated.

Fans of Miyazaki’s work will be delighted to discover the prototypes for certain themes and scenes from both Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke in Shuna no tabi. While the story is certainly more simplistic than the works it inspired, there’s still a lot going on beneath the surface. What is the machine that turns people into forest giants? If the Moon is a god, are there other gods? What relationship do the slave traders have with the Moon?

Additionally, many illustrations from Shuna no tabi were later recalled in Miyazaki’s animation. A scene of Shuna eating while looking at some fox-squirrels in the forest is reused in Nausicaä, whose heroine eats with her pet fox-squirrel Teto in an identical pose. After Shuna leaves the city, he encounters and camps with an old man who tells him to go west to find the grain, a scene that is used again in Mononoke when Ashitaka camps with the monk Jiko, who tells him the iron bullet he found came from the west. The old man’s character design is reused for a priest in Nausicaä as well. The aesthetic elements of the Valley of the Wind also have their origins in Shuna no tabi, particularly the formal wear of the northern village and the murals in Shuna’s home. Some of the illustrations depicting the forest, especially the image of the flowers growing out of Shuna’s gun, were later reused in Mononoke.

From the perspective of gender representation, one thing I’ve noticed and admired in many of Miyazaki’s works is that he doesn’t use extreme sexual dimorphism – that is, his young adult male and female protagonists tend to be built alike. Shuna and Thea look nearly identical in body shape and facial features, and they both resemble Nausicaä and Ashitaka. While Miyazaki’s character designs for middle-aged characters feature more differences in height and build, the dimorphism is nowhere as extreme as it is in Disney and Pixar films (and for that, this genderqueer reviewer is grateful).

The biggest difference between Shuna no tabi and the works that followed it, however, is Miyazaki’s commitment to pacifism. Shuna spends a lot of time defending himself by shooting at people with his gun, and at the end of the story the village in the north still has to use guns to defend their land. In contrast, both Nausicaä and Ashitaka commit acts of violence in the beginning of their stories, mostly in self-defense. These experiences directly shape their commitment to pacifism as they both try to end the violence surrounding them; Nausicaä’s goal is to end a war between the kingdom of Tolkmekia and its colonies, while Ashitaka does his best to intervene in a conflict between Tataraba (Iron Town) and the deities of the forest. This is not to say that these characters refuse to commit violence, but that the narrative tone regarding violence shifts significantly as their stories develop.

The watercolor images are gorgeously rendered, and all the pages are in full color. My only complaint with the publication quality of the book is that the text, which is often printed directly onto the images instead of in word bubbles, can sometimes be hard to read, especially when the text is printed in white or blue ink. Adding the standard border and background to set off the text from the surrounding image would have eliminated this difficulty, albeit at the expense of preserving the full glory of the paintings.

I recommend Shuna no tabi primarily for fans of Miyazaki’s films who want to explore his earlier work. Shuna no tabi has not been translated into English, but it is written at a middle school level of language and should be accessible to readers with a high intermediate proficiency in Japanese. I would evaluate the Japanese at an N2 level, more so for the vocabulary than for the grammar. There isn’t a lot of violence in Shuna no tabi, but its depictions of slavery and starvation may be uncomfortable for some readers.

* * * * *

L.M. Zoller is a former JET CIR with an MA in Japan Studies. Ze wrote zir senior thesis on moral development theory in Miyazaki’s films and has probably seen Princess Mononoke 100 times (no joke). L.M. blogs about media and gender at The Lobster Dance (@odorunara) and food, sexuality, and gender at I’ll Make It Myself! (@illmakeitmyself).

shuna-no-tabi-page-93

Biogenesis

Biogenesis

Title: Biogenesis
Author: Ishiguro Tatsuaki (石黒 達昌)
Translators: Brian Watson and James Balzer
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 1994, 2000, and 2006 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 240

Biogenesis collects four stories by Ishiguro Tatsuaki, who is both a practicing medical doctor and an acclaimed writer of horror-themed science fiction.

The book is dominated by the first story, “It is with the Deepest Sincerity that I Offer Prayers…” which takes the form of a scientific report (tables and endnotes and all) on a species of winged mice that have suddenly disappeared from their habitat in Hokkaido. The report focuses on the activities of Dr. Akedera Nobuhiko, an AIDS researcher employed under somewhat shady circumstances to “preserve the cellular and genetic information” of the vanishing species. Akedera was apparently so fascinated by what he found in the process that he insisted on undertaking ecological research as well, recording accounts of sightings and deaths.

Akedera was able to draw a number of unsettling conclusions from this data. First, the winged mice seem to die in waves. Second, there are unusual patterns regarding their movements and seasonal behavior. Third, many of the people who have documented and captured winged mice attest to a strange glow either emanating from their bodies or otherwise present when and where they gather. Finally, live mice are most often found and photographed by or in the prescence of human children.

Akedera is sent back to Tokyo, but he continues to involve himself with research and preservation efforts, which result in the discovery that cultures of winged mice cells exhibit startling tendencies and may even possibly be immortal. What exactly is going on with this species – and what exactly drove Akedera’s intense interest?

The dry tone of the story’s scientific prose forms a gorgeous ironic contrast to the fantastic nature of what it relates, and the reader is encouraged to employ her own analytical acumen to excavate a number of details from between the lines. The typeface used for this story, which lends it the air of an unpublished manuscript, is a nice metadiegetic touch.

The second story in the collection, “Snow Woman,” begins with a clinical description of hypothermia. The narrative quickly moves to a discussion of a medical condition called “idiopathic hypothermia,” in which an individual’s stable body temperature is about 15°F lower than normal, which suggests “the possibility of an extended lifespan due to lower metabolism.” This information serves as an introduction to a scholarly account of the discovery of the condition and the mysterious death of the army doctor who published the first paper about it in the 1920s. This doctor, Koho Yuhki (which is the name he published under in German), had been stationed at a mountain clinic in Hokkaido, where he had been instructed to investigate cures for frostbite.

At a certain point during his studies, Yuhki was presented with a woman who had entered a coma after falling asleep in her woodshed in subzero conditions. Although she regained consciousness, her body temperature never rose above 86°F, and any attempts to return it to normal were met by a dangerous drop in her blood pressure. The scientific community considered Yuhki’s published findings a hoax; but, in 1997, a number of army documents were declassified, revealing that his case study was even stranger than it seemed.

“Snow Woman” is written almost exactly like a scholarly essay, so much so that Ishiguro almost managed to convince me that “idiopathic hypothermia” is real. Seriously, I had to google it.

The science fiction subgenre of providing rational explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena is not new, but Ishiguro handles the “science” elements more deftly than any other writer I’ve encountered. The metadiegetic elements he incorporates into each story imbue the experience of reading them with an extra touch of thrill and wonder, as if you yourself have stumbled onto a rare and bizarre scientific breakthrough, perhaps by having slipped ever so slightly into a parallel universe in which such things were truly possible.

The third and fourth stories in Biogenesis are equally intriguing, but I’ll leave you the pleasure of discovering them for yourself. Ishiguro’s fiction is as much about the art of science as it is about the pleasures and potential of the unexplainable, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more of his work finds its way into English soon.

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights

Title: 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights
Japanese Title: 百億の昼と千億の夜 (Hyakuoku no hiru to senoku no yoru)
Author: Mitsuse Ryū (光瀬 龍)
Translators: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 1967 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 284

According to a 2006 poll published in Hayakawa SF Magazine, 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights ranked at the top of the list of science fiction novels originally published in Japanese. I can’t say for certain whether 10 Billion Days is the “greatest” Japanese science fiction novel of all time (or what that would even mean), but it certainly is epic. The writing (and translation) are beautiful, and there are some interesting ideas floating around as well.

Also, 10 Billion Days has an entire chapter devoted to a cyborg deathmatch between Buddha and Jesus. It’s awesome.

This review will contain spoilers. The concept of “spoilers” doesn’t really apply to this novel, as its narrative tension is generated more by speculation and atmosphere than it is by plot, but be warned. If you’d like the point of the review here at the beginning, here you go: I love this book and you should totally read it. It’s not perfect, and it will try (and reward!) your patience, but it will stay in your memory for years. The short commentary by Oshii Mamoru (the director of the landmark animated sci-fi film Ghost in the Shell) is of interest as well, especially to fans of Japanese pop culture.

The premise of 10 Billion Days is that all life on earth has been painstakingly curated by an extraterrestrial (and possibly extradimensional) entity that may not be benevolent. Some characters are aiding it, some characters are opposing it, and some characters are merely trying to understand it. What is clear is that our world is very small and unimportant on the sort of cosmic scale suggested by the novel’s title.

After a prologue that sets the tone by emphasizing the eternal passage of time across aeons, the novel opens with a dramatic description of the struggles of the first fish to walk on land. At the end of the chapter, it is revealed that this creature is being monitored and gradually enhanced by highly advanced technology.

The next chapter skips to Plato, who is seeking the mysteries of Atlantis. What he finds is that the gods are real, and frighteningly so. The next chapter focuses on Siddhārtha, and the next on Jesus of Nazareth. Both God and the Buddha realms are real, but these early seekers of truth can only see a fraction of the picture and describe it in terms they can understand.

The first half of the book is dedicated to creating an air of mystery and adventure. For example, when Plato arrives at the village where the last descendants of the people who fled Atlantis live, this is how Mitsuse sets the scene:

Far across the sea of burnt yellow sand, the fading sun had set halfway, sending its rays upward to paint the high clouds blood red. Crimson spread out across the darkening sky even as night seeped from the eastern horizon toward the vault of heaven, reddish-gray melding with crimson blue. The wind was completely still, and the twilight pooled like heavy oil upon the sand. There was not a sound. Plato wondered what the people who lived inside the stone houses of the village must be doing for such silence to reign – not a single spoken word, no faint echo of evening song. All was filled with the barren quiet of the sand sea and the silence that comes with the death of something long forgotten, unchanged for thousands of years. (49)

This passage is interesting not only for its lovely imagery but also because of its treatment of one of the main themes of the novel, which is that all civilizations will eventually fade into shadows of their former selves. This theme is visually translated at key points in the story, in which the spotlessly clean metal of a future space city is just as desolate as an ancient desert.

The second half of the novel tessellates to the year 3905, in which the entire planet has become a wasteland. Just as the cyborg fish of the first chapter cautiously made its way onto land, cyborg Siddhārtha (yes, really!) emerges from the ocean into the ruins of Tokyo, where cyborg Plato (who is now calling himself Orionae) fills him in on the situation. As the two are talking, they are accosted by Jesus, who also turns out to be a cyborg – a dirty cyborg with rotting teeth a gross clothes. So a cyborg zombie, then. And then they fight! I promise this is just as ridiculous as it sounds. There are some great lines during this section, such as…

Siddhārtha gingerly extended his tri-D antenna from the crack in the wall, searching for his foe. (181)

…and…

Glumly, Jesus admitted to himself that his attack had probably failed to destroy his enemy. (194)

Just roll with it, okay?

Siddhārtha and Orionae (in other words, Buddha and Plato) are joined by a non-organic lifeform in the shape of an adolescent girl, who is called “Asura” after the eternally warring god-kings of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Asura had earlier revealed herself to Siddhārtha, claiming she is fighting the entity that Jesus understands to be God, and at the end of the novel she takes him and Orionae on a journey through space to meet and hopefully defeat this being. What follows is a series of battles and revelations that progressively mount in scope and impact throughout the last eighty pages of the book. Like the beginning of the universe itself, this novel is a massive explosion.

10 Billion Days is not a perfect book, and at times it moves through complicated and nuanced religious and philosophical topics quickly and with an absolute minimum of narrative grounding. I will also admit that I find the actual story unsatisfying. However, the strength of 10 Billion Days lies in the questions it raises in the mind of the reader. These questions are almost classically existential. In an uncaring and absurd universe, how can an individual find meaning and hope?

The weekly speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons will be hosting a roundtable discussion of 10 Billion Days in October, and I’m honored to be one of the participants. I have strong feelings and opinions about this novel, and I’m looking forward to learning what the other discussants think. There’s a lot going on in this book; and, if nothing else, it’s a fantastic conversation starter.

All You Need Is Kill

All You Need Is Kill

Title: All You Need Is Kill
Japanese Title: オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (Ōru yū nīdo izu kiru)
Author: Sakurazaka Hiroshi (桜坂 洋)
Translator: Joseph Reeder with Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 200

Although I read and very much enjoyed Sakurazaka Hiroshi’s virtual reality gaming novel Slum Online, I was not interested in All You Need Is Kill, even after watching Emily Blunt do endless sexy pushups in Edge of Tomorrow. I have trouble with prison stories, and army stories are like prison stories except worse.

After hearing Akiko Hirao give a paper titled “All You Need Is Kill: Deciphering the Game Elements in the Novel and Film” at the Japanese and Korean Mediascapes conference at the University of Oregon this summer, however, I knew I had to give the book a shot. Drawing on Henry Jenkins’s essay Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Hirao outlined how the structure of the novel’s narrative evokes the experience of playing a video game but ultimately bows to the demands of fiction as a storytelling medium.

The main protagonist of All You Need Is Kill is Kiriya Keiji, a recent high school graduate who enrolled in the United Defense Force after he was romantically rejected by an older woman. Since he has no other ambitions, he decides to prove himself by joining humanity’s fight against alien invaders called Mimics. After spending six months training to fight in a special armored exoskeleton called a Jacket, Keiji is deployed to the Flower Line Base at the southern tip of the Bōsō peninsula (in Chiba Prefecture, on the east side of Tokyo Bay). The novel opens with Keiji’s swift death in his first battle and continues when he wakes up alive and unharmed – but with all of his memories – that same morning. After falling in battle three more times, Keiji realizes that he is caught in a time loop that is reset by his death. He decides that the only way out is to not die, but that’s easier said than done.

I found Keiji to be a bit generic. Even though I just finished reading All You Need Is Kill, I couldn’t tell you exactly how old Keiji is, or where he grew up, or what his relationship with his parents was like, or whether he had any friends, or what his interests and hobbies are. For the first one hundred pages of the novel, all the reader gets is Keiji the soldier in a time loop. He is bitter, introverted, and fairly introspective, but he seems to act as more of a substitute for the reader than as a character in his own right. Keiji is a video game protagonist, and his musings are the musings of a video game character on the game world he occupies:

At the end of the day, every man has to wipe his own ass. There’s no one to make your decisions for you, either. And whatever situation you’re in, that’s just another factor in your decision. Which isn’t to say that everyone gets the same range of choices as everyone else. If there’s no one guy out there with an ace in the hole, there’s sure to be another who’s been dealt a handful of shit. Sometimes you run into a dead end. But you walked each step of the road that led you there on your own. (54)

As the passage above illustrates, the language used by Keiji and his fellow soldiers is rough; but, as far as military diction goes, it’s fairly tame. There’s “fucking” but no “cunting” or “cock-sucking,” for example. I feel like an especially good opportunity was missed in the author’s failure to assign a creative and obscene nickname for the Mimics. The banter between the soldiers is stale, and Keiji doesn’t take advantage of his consecutive time loops to come up with good one-liners to use against his superior officers or the jerks who try to pick fights with him in the cafeteria, which for some reason is actually referred to as a “cafeteria” instead of a “mess hall,” “cookhouse,” “DFAC,” or any number of other military slang terms. The blandness of the language is indicative of how uninterested the novel is in building a world beyond Keiji’s limited range of experience.

This all changes in the novel’s third chapter, which takes the American Major Rita Vrataski as its point-of-view character. The nineteen-year-old Rita became the Mimic-destroying “Full Metal Bitch” after being caught in a time loop of her own; and, unlike Keiji, she actually has a personality. Rita verbally spars with a war photographer named Ralph Murdoch, lets down her guard down around an engineer named Shasta Rayelle, and remembers her childhood in Pittsfield, Illinois, offering glimpses not just into her inner world but out onto the wider world as well. In her paper, Hirao referred to Rita as an NPC (“non-player character” in a game), and this description is apt, as it is through Rita that the player/reader learns more about the nature of the conflict that drives the novel. What are the Mimics? Where do they come from? How can they best be fought? What’s up with this time loop business anyway? Rita doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s got some pretty good guesses.

Rita also has some cool passages in her section, such as when Shasta says…

“America’s at war, and we still find the time to turn out terrible movies.”

Rita couldn’t argue with that. The UDF existed to protect a world obsessed with creating worthless piles of crap, Rita thought. (130)

Preach it, sisters.

The fourth and final section of the novel switches back to Keiji’s perspective, which is a shame, because at the end of the story he becomes the video game hero he was meant to be, which is to say that he is awarded his own tragic backstory. If you’ve ever played any video game ever, you can probably guess how this happens: A woman has to get fridged, and it has to be the woman Keiji falls in love with despite the fact that she doesn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. It’s a really stupid ending. To make matters worse, the author is too lazy to expand on any of the implications of this ending beyond the fact that Keiji becomes the warrior he never wanted to be. He is a troubled teenager, hear his angst.

In his Afterword, the author explains how is inspiration for All You Need Is Kill did indeed come from a life spent playing video games, writing,

I’m just an ordinary guy, and I’m proud of it. I’m here because I put in the time. I have the blisters on my fingers to prove it. It had nothing to do with coincidence, luck, or the activation of my […] powers. I reset the game hundreds of times until my special attack finally went off perfectly. Victory was inevitable. (199)

The Afterword contains one of the more interesting passages in the entire book, as Sakurazaka is fairly negative both towards video games and the people who play them. Okay buddy, whatever.

If you’re curious about what a video game with all of its gameplay mechanics intact would look like in novel form, look no farther. I thought Slum Online was much more entertaining and skillfully constructed in its representation of what it means to be a video game protagonist, but All You Need Is Kill has the advantage of being short and fast-paced. Also, it’s got forty gorgeous pages full of Rita Vrataski, which is not enough but better than nothing.

I want to give a big thanks to Akiko Hirao for her wonderful and insightful paper on this novel, and I hope to encounter more of her work soon!