The Girl Who Is Getting Married

Title: The Girl Who Is Getting Married
Japanese Title: もうすく結婚する女 (Mō sugu kekkon suru onna)
Author: Aoko Matsuda (松田 青子)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Publication Year: 2010 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Strangers Press
Pages: 36

Aoko Matsuda’s The Girl Who Is Getting Married, published as a stand-alone chapbook by Strangers Press in the same series as Mikumari, is a lovely puzzle box of a short story. The unnamed narrator is going to visit “the girl who is getting married,” but who is the narrator, and what is her relationship with the girl who is getting married? Instead of revealing its answer, the question twists and turns in on itself as the possible answers fracture and multiply.

According to the “About the Author” section on the inside of the chapbook’s front flap, Aoko Matsuda has “translated into Japanese Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” There are many similarities in the tongue-in-cheek yet still unsettling weirdness that characterizes the short fiction of both authors, and it’s appropriate that Russell has written a short foreword to The Girl Who Is Getting Married. She aptly summarizes the uncertainty that lingers between the narrator and the girl who is getting married by explaining, “Each new paragraph shifts our understanding of their relationship. At some points they seem to merge into one girl, amoeba-like; at other moments, it’s tough to believe that they have ever shared a word” (9). Are they childhood friends? College roommates? Cousins? Sisters? A mother and her daughter? Casual acquaintances? Complete strangers? The exact same person?

The mystery of the narrator’s identity is ultimately less compelling than the odd rhythm and tempo of her narrative voice, however. As she gradually climbs the stairs to a fifth-floor apartment, she takes the reader along with her, step by step by step, with the expression “the girl who is getting married” repeated like a talismanic refrain. Just as the relationship between the two women shifts and changes, so too does the architecture of the building, which gradually begins to take on its own character. For example…

Special mention must be made of the stone staircase that rises up in the centre. It is a very large staircase, with a smooth, pale sheen. Even if it were the case that some other stone was used, I would like to assert quite definitely that this is marble. Although the staircase is flanked by rooms on both sides, its presence is so powerful that there would seem no exaggeration in suggesting that it is the reason for the building’s existence. Followed up and up by an obedient black hand-rail, the staircase is an unobtrusive white, a little grey in places, brining to mind the bones of a dinosaur. I do not know a great deal about dinosaurs so I cannot identify the exact type, but I am thinking of one with a very long neck. One that looks as though it would eat vegetation rather than meat a comparatively gentle one.

This is a dinosaur that, stretching out its elegant neck, will take me to the room where the girl who is getting married will be. (11-12)

Just as it’s difficult to grasp the identity of the narrator, it’s also impossible to visualize the building whose staircase she climbs, which is described in terms of the sensations it evokes. The girl who is getting married could be anyone, but the ascent to her apartment is like a description of a surrealist painting.

Matsuda plays with words to create and reshape concrete images and abstract illusions; and, in many ways, this short story feels like an extended prose poem. That being said, it doesn’t demand any unnecessary work from the reader, who is invited to explore the evocative emotional chiaroscuro of its dreamspace along with the narrator. The story is carefully translated and delightfully easy to read, and it’s a lot of fun to get lost in its labyrinth.

The Girl Who Is Getting Married can be ordered directly from Strangers Press, which ships internationally.

Heaven’s Wind

Title: Heaven’s Wind: A Dual-Language Anthology of Contemporary Japanese Writing
Editor and Translator: Angus Turvill
Publication Year: 2018
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 200

Heaven’s Wind is a collection of five Japanese short stories published in parallel text, with the original Japanese on the left and the English translation on the right. Each of the stories selected by the editor and translator, Angus Turvill, has won an award in a translation competition, and the authors have all been critically recognized as well. Some of these stories are mimetic fiction, while others fall squarely into the mode of magical realism. The thread that ties these stories together is that each of them presents multiple case studies in the methods and challenges of Japanese-to-English translation.

The stories in Heaven’s Wind are followed by a 23-page essay in which Turvill identifies ten key areas where differences commonly arise between a Japanese text and its English translation. Without resorting to theory or philosophical abstractions, Turvill provides concrete examples from the preceding stories, which are explained in simple and commonsense terms. To given an example, whereas the tense of verbs can shift from sentence to sentence in Japanese, in English it usually makes more sense to pick one tense (often the past tense) and stick with it. Whether you agree or disagree with Turvill’s decisions, it’s easy to understand exactly why he’s made them. If you’re an aspiring translator, you’ll more than likely find this list of strategies to be immediately applicable to your own work. Even if you have no knowledge of Japanese, however, Turvill’s concise guide is a fascinating examination of some the nuts and bolts of how language operates in translation.

The stories themselves are fascinating as well. Kuniko Mukoda’s “The Otter” (1980) is about a man whose playful and charming wife doesn’t quite have his best interests at heart. Natsuko Kuroda’s “Ball” (1963) is about a young girl who steals a handball and, by doing so, opens her heart to the darkness of deceit. Kaori Ekuni’s “Summer Blanket” (2002) is about an heiress who is happy to live alone by the ocean until she is befriended by two beach bum college students. Each story offers an intimate portrait of human psychology that is firmly grounded in the rich details of its setting.

Mitsuyo Kakuta’s “The Child Over There” (2011) is a surreal story of a newlywed mother who recently lost a child to a miscarriage. She has moved to the village of her husband’s family, who tell her stories about a child-eating demon that inhabits a house she’s warned to stay away from. Even though she becomes pregnant again, she continues to visit the grave of the daughter she lost, who still visits her in dreams. One day she happens to overhear a rumor about Kukedo, the place where lost children go. Kukedo turns out to be an actual place, so the woman takes train there on a journey that is both mundane and deeply strange. Although she never fully comes to terms with the relationship between the demon and her miscarriage, the young woman is able to achieve something of a catharsis when she joins her daughter “over there.”

The last story in the collection, Aoko Matsuda’s “Planting” (2012), is an anthem to millennial disillusionment. A young woman who calls herself “Marguerite” is looking for the perfect job, ideally one that doesn’t require her to interact with other human beings. She eventually manages to find a position where boxes containing various materials are delivered to her apartment. She pleats whatever the box contains, repacks it, and then exchanges it for the next box. Some of these boxes contain loose fabric and pre-sewn garments, while others contain more disturbing contents, such as garbage, dead animals, and disembodied clumps of hair. Marguerite feels tired all the time, and she doesn’t understand the purpose of anything she does, but she has resolved to take all the negative feelings in her heart and plant them in the dirt outside, hoping that they will eventually grow into something beautiful.

Heaven’s Wind reminds me of the collections of contemporary Japanese literary fiction that used to be published a decade or two ago. The stories included in these collections were often edgy and avant-garde, and it wasn’t uncommon for their editors to focus on female authors. I’ve missed these short story collections, and Heaven’s Wind is a welcome contribution to the body of Japanese fiction available in English, regardless of whether you happen to be interested in its emphasis on the craft of translation. Because furigana pronunciation glosses are included in the Japanese text, it would be practical and easy to use Heaven’s Wind as a textbook for a translation seminar or as a guide to self-study. You can order a copy on the Japan Society online store or at Waterstones.

A review copy of Heaven’s Wind was kindly provided by The Japan Society.

Record of a Night Too Brief

Title: Record of a Night Too Brief
Japanese Title: 蛇を踏む (Hebi o fumu)
Author: Kawakami Hiromi (川上 弘美)
Translator: Lucy North
Publication Year: 2017 (United Kingdom); 1996 (Japan)
Press: Pushkin Press
Pages: 158

Record of a Night Too Brief collects three short stories that the book’s cover copy describes as “haunting” and “lyrical” in their depiction of young women experiencing “loss, loneliness and extraordinary romance.” This is a lovely sentiment, but it in no way describes the actual stories in question, which are less “haunting” than they are grotesque and less “lyrical” than they are unapologetically strange. Instead of trying to treat them as romance, I believe it’s much more fulfilling to approach their absurdity in the spirit of intellectual play.

The title story, “Record of a Night Too Brief,” is a sequence of nineteen of the unnamed narrator’s dreams. Each of these dreams is two or three pages long, and they are linked only in that every other scenario features a young woman whom the narrator is either pursuing or in the process of merging with. If there is a unifying theme or plot, it is lost on me, but the power of these dreams comes from their vivid imagery. To give an example (from page 11):

Several dozen ticket collectors stood in a row, and once we passed through, showing our tickets, the tall object came into view.

It was a singer, who stood as tall as a three-storey building. From where I was, I had a clear view of the beauty spot under her jaw, and the rise and fall of her breasts.

“The beauty spot is artificial,” the girl informed me, gazing up at the singer, enraptured.

The singer was producing notes at different pitches, as if she were warming up. When she sang high notes, flocks of birds took flight from the branches of the ginko trees. When she sang low notes, the earth heaved, and small furry creatures emerged from underground and crawled about.

…and so on. It’s all very random, but one can’t help but become swept up in the ebb and flow of the constantly shifting parade of surreal images.

The next story, “Missing,” is set in an apartment complex that functions according to its own arbitrary and bizarre set of customs and rituals. One of the rules of this community is that each household can only have five members. If a sixth member is added for any reason, then someone has to disappear. This recently happened to the narrator’s family after her older brother was engaged to be married. Because his fiancée would have become the sixth person, he disappeared, and the narrator’s other older brother stepped in to fill his position. His fiancée, Hiroko, has no idea that this has happened, as the rules are different in her own apartment complex, where certain members of certain families literally shrink. Meanwhile, the narrator continues to hear the voice of the older brother as he (or his spirit) skulks around the apartment. No explanation is given for any of this, as everyone takes these occurrences for granted.

The final story, which provides the title of the original Japanese publication, is “A Snake Stepped On.” This story is about a young woman who one day finds herself living with a snake. This snake takes the form of an older woman who insists that she is the narrator’s mother. As she accustoms herself to life with a snake, the narrator begins to realize that many of the people around her are also living with snakes, including the local Buddhist priest whom she thought of turning to for an exorcism. Following the conventions of magical realism, the tone of this story is mundane, with the possibility of being devoured by a snake – or becoming a snake oneself – treated as merely another everyday occurrence.

Record of a Night Too Brief is a short collection of curiosities that are fascinating in their novelty. The fantastical qualities of each story allow for various interpretations, and they will no doubt intrigue different readers for different reasons. As contemporary fairy tales, the stories in this collection spark and inspire the imagination.

Tokyo Decadence

Tokyo Decadence

Title: Tokyo Decadence: 15 Stories by Ryu Murakami
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上 龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publisher: Kurodahan Press
Publication Year: 2016
Pages: 280

Tokyo Decadence contains fifteen stories drawn from five of Murakami Ryū’s collections published between 1986 and 2003. As translator Ralph McCarthy explains in his acknowledgments, he has been translating his favorite Murakami stories since the late 1980s, and now he’s finally able to publish them thanks to the blessing of the author and the encouragement of Edward Lipsett of Kurodahan Press.

The first story in Tokyo Decadence, “Whenever I Sit at a Bar Drinking Like This,” has a passage at the beginning that reads as follows:

It’s probably safe to say that everyone sitting here is looking for some sort of sin tonight. The circumstances are different for each, of course, but everyone has the same general destination in mind. No one gets drunk in order to raise their moral standards.

It’s probably safe to say that no one opens a collection of Murakami Ryū’s short fiction in order to raise their moral standards. If you’re looking for some sort of sin, you’ve found yourself the right book. All of the stories in Tokyo Decadence are surprising and unique, but they all move toward the same general destination – sex and drugs and blood and tears.

This first story takes the form of an elaborate fetch quest across the seedy underbelly of Shinjuku in which the protagonist must exchange promises for favors. His goal is to get one of his former lovers to testify in court that they were sleeping together so that another of his former lovers doesn’t claim common law marriage and sue him for divorce. The point seems to be that people are terrible and selfish creatures, but it’s a lot more fun arriving at this conclusion than you’d expect.

The second story, “I Am a Novelist,” involves another strange situation in which a man posing as a bestselling writer gets a girl at a hostess club pregnant. When her manager insists that he meet the young woman, she quickly admits he’s not the person she slept with, but the writer still takes her out to dinner. She tells the writer that she’s a fan of his work, so he tries to get her to fall in love with him instead of his impersonator. It doesn’t work (obviously), and the novelist ends up finding out that he was just a minor character in someone else’s story.

In other stories, a trucker loses his wife and his job and becomes a host at a gay club, a guy with no self-esteem invades a woman’s home and smashes her television, and a young prostitute buys herself a topaz ring to remind herself of a musician whose world she can never enter. In “Penlight,” a call girl with serious issues talks about her imaginary friend to a guy she meets at a bar, who is interested in her body, but in the way you think (unless you happen to be thinking of horrific murder and cannibalism). A few of these stories are drawn from Murakami’s 1988 collection Topaz, which became the basis for the 1992 film Tokyo Decadence, which was directed by the author and banned in a handful of countries precisely because it’s the sort of movie you’d expect to have been directed by the author.

If you’ve read Murakami’s work before, you know what to expect. Since all of these stories are twenty pages or less, however, there’s no slow buildup to the carnage. That being said, the violence is tempered with irony, black humor, and intriguing characterizations that elevate the stories above simple splatterfests.

In contrast, the three stories drawn from the 1995 collection Ryu’s Cinematheque are vaguely autobiographical.

In “The Last Picture Show,” the 18-year-old narrator is living in Kichijōji and trying to make it big with his blues band. His upstairs neighbor, who is obviously a yakuza, wants to pay him to pick hydrangea leaves in Inokashira Park to dry and then sell as marijuana to American soldiers. In “The Wild Angels,” the 18-year-old narrator has started a relationship with a woman who works as a hostess, which makes him feel like less of a man, so he starts shooting heroin. In “La Dolce Vita,” the college student narrator hooks up with an older woman who lives in Yokosuka and gets her drugs from the American army base, which doesn’t end well.

To me, these coming-of-age stories were nowhere near as interesting or amusing as the murder stories, but they provide an interesting picture of the 1970s that serves as a counterpoint to the stories of the other Murakami; these stories forgo nostalgia in favor of an emphasis on the grittiness and despair and self-indulgent navel gazing of fringe counterculture.

The last third of Tokyo Decadence eases up on the drug use but maintains its focus on sex and emotional violence. Some of the stories reference each, and I got the sense that I was only being glimpses into a larger narrative. I dearly wish we lived in a world in which Ralph McCarthy was able to publish his translations of entire Murakami collections instead of selected stories, but each piece included in Tokyo Decadence shines brightly enough on its own merits that the reader is not disappointed by the relative lack of context.

I thoroughly enjoyed Tokyo Decadence. The collection portrays the Japan of the bubble and postbubble decades as a place where anything in your wildest dreams and darkest nightmares could happen. Murakami’s fiction is a love letter to the infinite possibilities of urban life delivered with style and panache. Just be warned – Tokyo Decadence is not for the faint of heart.

Tokyo Decadence will be released on March 15, 2016. A complete table of contents can be found on its page on the Kurodahan Press website.

Review copy provided by the noble and selfless people at Kurodahan Press.

Death and the Flower

Death and the Flower

Title: Death and the Flower
Japanese Title: 死と生の幻想 (Sei to shi no gensō)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 1995 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 222

Death and the Flower is beautifully printed. Its paper is deliciously creamy, and its gorgeously designed book cover and dust jacket complement each other perfectly. Veritcal’s hardcover edition is one of those books that makes me happy that publishers still put time and effort into putting out physical books that you can hold in your hands and admire on your bookshelf.

But the stories themselves? They’re not really all that great.

In his Afterword, Suzuki writes:

I tried collecting six works with a common theme – a theme represented by the words “diapers and a race replica.” The softness and warmth of diapers, the speed and power of a racer’s motorbike – I wished to express a balance of the maternal and the paternal by placing symbols of femininity and masculinity side by side.

What this essentially means is that each story is about a father who undergoes various hardships for the direct or indirect benefit of his wife and/or daughter(s), who are nothing more than empty symbols vaguely characterized by emotional damage and blind need. In other words, men are capable of embodying “a balance of the maternal and the paternal,” and girls and women exist merely for the sake of helping men undergo character development in order to realize their full potential. These female characters don’t need to have names, or thoughts, or feelings, or any sort of identities save for their relation to the male heroes.

This in and of itself is not necessarily bad. However, if everything in piece of fiction is going to be diegetically subservient to the ego of the protagonist, then I would prefer for the protagonist to be interesting. Unfortunately, none of Suzuki’s characters really grabbed my attention or sympathy. Instead, just as the female characters of this collection are almost platonic embodiments of Object, each male character isn’t a great deal more than a Subject with a few shallow personality traits pathetically attached like a handful of cheap ornaments haphazardly stuck onto an otherwise bare Christmas tree.

The first story in the collection, “Disposable Diapers and a Race Replica,” can serve to illustrate my point.

The narrator, an obvious author stand-in character, quits his job to devote himself to his writing and the care of his infant daughter. To help his wife make ends meet, he moonlights as a private tutor. His current client is a delinquent high school student who has begun to skip out on tutoring sessions after the school system fails to reward him for his increased efforts, so the narrator tracks him down on his motorcycle and is driven off the road and nearly killed by the kid’s friends. The next day, the narrator shows up unexpectedly at the kid’s house and beats the crap out of him in order to figure out where the driver who almost killed him lives. He then proceeds to go to the other kid’s house and, finding him not at home, beats the crap out of the kid’s car. After he’s satisfied himself, the narrator encounters the driver and condescends to not beat the crap out of him because he, the narrator, is actually a good guy deep down inside. The only thing that saved him from dying when his bike crashed was the huge bag of diapers he had tethered to the back of the bike, you see, and this is some kind of message about how he needs to stop jumping headfirst into fights, even though he could totally win them if he did get into them, because of course he could – he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the narrator interacts with the other male characters by yelling and punching, his character development is guided by his interactions with the story’s two female characters, his student’s mother and his wife. The narrator tries to be kind to his student’s mother, even though privately he thinks she’s a weak and ineffectual parent. This must be because, being a woman, she isn’t clever enough to know that you need to threaten to beat the crap out of boys to make them respect you. As a mentor and role model, the narrator is thus defined by what he is not – female, and thus “stupid.” Meanwhile, the narrator’s wife is a delicate flower who must not be upset or disturbed under any circumstances, as she has some sort of nervous disorder. This disorder is typified by the anxiety she demonstrated when he effectively abandoned her during their engagement to go live on a tuna fishing boat for a year. Why was she so upset about this, and why is she concerned about his level of commitment to their relationship? It must be because of her nervous disorder, obviously. Women and their unreasonable hysteria, amirite? Anyway, as a father and caregiver, the narrator is again defined by what he is not – female, and thus “crazy.”

Character development through negative contrast does not make for good storytelling, especially when the primary conflicts of a story hinges on an internal crisis of its protagonist. In Death and the Flower, each such crisis is resolved by a realization of something along the lines of “I am a burly hairy dangerous manly alpha male, but I need to embrace my more ‘feminine’ side so that I can better protect the utterly helpless women in my life.” Maybe this is just me, but I don’t find that sort of resolution too terribly compelling. For a such a revelation to be truly interesting, there need to be more 1980s seinen manga style swords and/or psychic power attacks demonstrating how a small compromise in an otherwise unadulterated beefcake masculine identity can constitute a genuine sacrifice.

What Suzuki excels at in Death and the Flower are his descriptions of urban and natural landscapes. I was particularly impressed by the third story in the collection, “Key West,” in which a father leaves his young daughter in a rental car by the side of a highway in Florida to walk out to a small offshore island connected to the coast by a sandbar. On the island, the father encounters an abandoned settlement overgrown with jungle. Although his parenting skills leave much to be desired, the father’s accounts of the greenery and derelict buildings, the comparisons he makes to his home in Tokyo, and his detailed examination of the complicated feelings the island evokes in him are all magnificent. The simultaneously intense yet hazy quality of the fever dreams he experiences after being bitten by a sea snake is also expertly conveyed by the author. That being said, the father’s grief for his dead wife as expressed by his half-hearted desire to protect his daughter is largely undeveloped and feels out of place within the larger themes of the story, which mainly seem to involve the narrator’s fear of his own encroaching middle age.

To return to the collection’s Afterword, Suzuki writes:

“Only a peaceful and safe world is worth living in” – far too many people seem to think so.

Putting aside the tastelessness of such a statement, I think the author’s writing is indeed at its best when his characters have a worthy antagonist to battle. The major draw of Ring, for instance, is Sadako, the evil girl who spews her curses out into the world from inside a well. The longest story in Death and the Flower, “Beyond the Darkness,” is perhaps the strongest, as its father protagonist character is provided with a creepy stalker to serve as an acceptable outlet for his anger and tendency toward physical violence. As introspection-driven character pieces, however, the rest of the stories in the collection fall flat.

If you’re a Suzuki completionist, Death and the Flower is of interest for its prototypes of the author’s major themes and character archetypes. If you’re looking for good horror fiction or just some good short stories, though, it’s probably best to ignore the pretty cover and take a pass on this collection.

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.