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.

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.

Speculative Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

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

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

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

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