The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

Since the recent Kaiki posting generated some interest, I thought I’d get out this Raw Feed while I worked on new material.

Raw Feed (1989): The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, eds. John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenberg, 1989.best-japanese-science-fiction-stories

“Foreword”, Grania Davis — An account by one of the consulting editors on the book’s genesis and the translation of the stories.

“Introduction”, John L. Apostolou — A brief overview of the genre in Japan (it started surprisingly early with, as in many other places, the translation of Jules Verne and progressed, not surprisingly — especially in Japan — with military/future war sf), its character there (surprisingly unconcerned with technology and the future — it is caught up in the present and future and social commentary), and its major practioneers.

The Flood”, Kobo Abe — It’s pretty clear this story of “workers and poor people” being turned into a strange, unruly, unpredictable liquid that travels en masse, diverges into individual forms, and threatens rich folk is an allegory for class struggle and, like most Japanese sf I’ve read (not very much at all — one story or two) concerned with individualism (a natural stance for an author) versus conformity. Abe seems to take swipes at the vagaries of Japanese media, the ineffectiveness and isolation of Japanese politicians, nuclear energy. I liked the humorous bit with Noah yelling at people (a swipe at capitalism given the socialistic/Marxist flavor of the story) to get off his boat.  This story can in no way be called sf despite some scientific jargon.

Cardboard Box”, Ryo Hanmura — One doesn’t even have to guess at the allegory of this story:  it’s spelled out in a one line introductory blurb (I want to know if the blurbs in front of all the stories in this story are written by the author — a Japanese tradition? — or the editors and/or translators). This tale of animate, talking cardboard boxes discussing their destiny, fate, and purpose/fulfillment is an allegory for working people.  Here the boxes are seemingly identical but begin to individuate (got to be a crit word).  They seem to be allegories of Japan’s consumer society — designed solely hold products.

Tansu”, Ryo Hanmura — This story, like Ryo Hanmura’s story above and many stories in this anthology, is not sf. It seems to be just a story of psychic possession/haunting by a chest. Perhaps there’s some social commentary on familial relationships but it seemed slight if dryly humorous.

Bokko-chan”, Shinichi Hoshi — A genuinely sf story with a dark ending. I liked this tale of a beautiful but stupid robot and her bartender creator. One is again tempted to read an allegory into this story  (Japanese sf seems quite allegorical): the creation of beautiful, uncaring, stupid women by Japanese society or, alternately, the role of women in Japanese society.

He-y, Come on Ou-t!“, Shinichi Hoshi — The allegorical concerns of this story seems to be the short-sightedness of Japanese environmental policy. The mysterious hole swallows all sorts of physical (including nuclear wastes — another swipe at nuclear power in this anthology), social, legal, and economic embarrassments. Hoshi also takes a shot at science by having his scientist utter facile statements, inspired by arrogance, about things he does not understand. Of course being a cautionary allegory the hole regurgitates its contents.

The Road to the Sea”, Takashi Ishikawa — A light story about a naïve boy fatally attracted to the notion of visiting the sea. Unfortunately, he’s on Mars, runs out of air, and dies. There may be a moral here to listen to your elders (a fairy tale as well as Japanese theme) since the boy is cryptically and ironically told he must go to heaven to see the sea.

The Empty Field”, Morio Kita — There’s no good reason for this story to exist. I have never read James Joyce (apart from Brian W. Aldiss’ interpretation in Barefoot in the Head) nor do I know anything of Kita’s readings, but it seems that he was trying to imitate Joyce’s style. That seems to be the story’s only reason for being (and a poor excuse it is) since the thematic message — that things must change or die — is trite and has received much better treatments elsewhere.

The Savage Mouth”, Sakyo Komatsu — The blurb for this story says Komatsu is Japan’s leading sf writer. I can see why from this story. First, he actually writes sf and writes in a straight forward way that is familiar and comfortable to my Western ear. I read this stomach-churning, quesy, gross story while eating lunch. (It is a reminiscent, but possibly predates, Stephen King’s story “Skeleton Crew” — a story about similar acts. I only know King’s story by reputation.) Its theme of self-cannibalism was graphically, effectively done with good sf detail from the first bite of thigh to the protagonist eating his own brain. Its theme of self-hatred and mutilation and existential (the story actually used the word so I’m not using a buzz word) boredom, triviality, and despair was well-presented. I liked this story. It had a simple theme — animal life being based on aggression some times turned inwardly — but was fresh.

Take Your Chance”, Sakyo Komatsu — First of, this story isn’t sf. If it was to be placed in any genre it would be crime genre dealing, as it does, with a con and con men. Perhaps it gets put in this anthology because, as Apostolou says in his introduction, sf is/was considered part of the mystery genre (not as silly as it sounds) in Japan. That being said, it’s an intriguing and enjoyable story with some of the same provocative things to say about self-destruction as Komatsu’s “The Savage Mouth”. There is a very Western sf rationale for the time travel con (a different explanation of parallel/alternate worlds than I’ve heard before but I’m not that experienced with the sub-genre). I liked the idea the the sure knowledge of apocalypse, the calmness it brings (no need to struggle to build a future you know won’t happen), the appetite to see the end of the world — and suffer it with little pain — would be so compelling. The sort of smug, silent, comforting knowledge of the impending day of destruction reminded me all too much of some of the motives at work in apocalyptic religions.

Triceratops,” Tensei Kono — I couldn’t find any overt allegories in this story. It was a simple sf about trans-temporal/dimensional story travel. It seemed to be, like so much Japanese sf I’ve read, another variation on the conflict between individualism and conformity, free thought and intellectual orthodoxy. The imagery of the triceratops dimly superimposed over Japanese houses reminded me of the lightness of Japanese art despite the story’s end carnage.

Fnifmum”, Taku Mayumura — A surrealistic tale told from the point of view of an alien whose body grows and exists in time (and there are hints he may appear as an ocean to us). It was strange, not unusually memorable or exciting (Japanese stories seldom seem to go for emotional effects), but like some western sf stories of strange aliens. The concept of an alien existing and growing in time (sending sensory organs back to time-points on his body) was kind of neat (I can’t think of any other sf stories I’ve read with a similar idea) and reminded me of Boethius’ concept of God.

Standing Woman“, Yasutaka Tsutsui — This is the second time I’ve read this story (the only Japanese sf I’d read previously). The first time I found it very weird and just remembered the basic idea of the story: people being turned into trees. This time I found that image — people being unwillingly reduced to the physical, mental, and emotional level of plants — quite disquieting. Especially poignant was the narrator talking to his wife who was slowly turning into a tree. Her words were of love, care, feeling but her emotions had a disturbing muteness about them. I suppose, especially given the specific references to Japanese culture and government, this is probably a social criticism (the narrator dares not write social criticism any more) about the  political orthodoxy of Japan and the sanctions against social criticism, an allegory for people hastening (as the manpillars do by eating) their vegetable state, their group passivity. There’s also something quintessentially Japanese in this story’s central idea. Japan is the land that gave us the art of the bonsai, twisting trees into an almost human shape. Here men are straightened into trees.  There also seems to be a swipe at urbanization too since the lack of greenery is justification for turning people into trees.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

  1. I’ve seen a few collections of Japanese sci-fi around, but never picked any of them up, because reviewers tend to say that all of them have very little actual SF. I wonder if this is generally true of Japanese SF writing, or just what the translating editors tend to prefer.

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