Salmonella Men on Planet Porno

Salmonella Men on Planet Porno
Tsutsui Yasutaka

I’m going to disappoint with this review. Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is neither gloriously pulpy nor titillating, despite the promise of the title. Certain bits of it are not for children, but those bits are not lascivious. Mostly they are just weird. This collection of short stories offers more of a window into modern Japanese surrealism than science fiction, but hopefully people will find it interesting enough to forgive the meatier discussion that follows.

Tsutsui Yasutaka occupies roughly the same place in the Japanese SF pantheon that Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov does in ours. There are some crucial differences, however, beyond the fact that Tsutsui is not a Russian Jew, neither has he received civic honors from the government of Sri Lanka. To begin with, Clarke and Asimov both failed to publish a book entitled Salmonella Men on Planet Porno. Beyond that, Tsutsui has found renown outside of SF, winning mainstream awards in Japan and Europe. His The Girl Who Leapt Across Time (Toki wo Kakeru Shojo) has been adapted a number of times as a mini-series, anime, and live action movie and has become part of the shared Japanese consciousness. Indeed, the short stories collected in Salmonella Men, which I will abbreviate to SMOPP, are much more mainstream than one might expect from a giant of the speculative field.

I would cautiously describe most of the SMOPP as “surreal dark comedy,” rather than SF. A couple of the stories are more or less SF (alien planets, futuristic cities, etc.), while a couple others are more sardonic horror. Some are just plain weird, while others are laugh out loud hilarious. (The contents of the ballast in a floating city for one, or the fondleweeds and collapsing cows of the title story.) Throughout, Tsutsui maintains a dim view of human institutions and their degrading effect on people. He’s often none too positive of people either; I found myself cheering for more than one protagonist to just keel over and die. Any yet, hope shines through occasionally. Behind (almost) every stupid person is a plea for sanity and/or decency.

One target in particular is the government, especially in stories I suspect were written in the 1970s and 80s. Moving between disciplines and reading their differing views of Japanese elites is starting to give me whiplash. When I lived in Japan, I assumed (like most people around me) that the government types were corrupt, out of touch, and running the country into he ground for their own short-sighted benefit. Then I got into grad school, where political scientists and economists fall all over themselves to praise Japan’s miraculous post-WWII growth. Now I’m reading Japanese fiction, where the very people who supposedly benefited from this growth depict the toll it has taken on the Japanese people. The damage comes in many guises, from the dehumanizing effects of slaving thanklessly for large and uncaring companies, the materialism that modern capitalism has engendered, and frantic race to keep up with both the Joneses and inflation in bubble era Japan. Not all of the stories are about this, of course. The title story is a side-angled attack on prudery and repression, while several others highlight one aspect or another of human banality. Big ideas and exploding spaceships have taken a backseat to The Human Condition. (And by “backseat,” I mean the very last row of a passenger van.)

I think that part of this is attributable to the strain of humanism which seems to run through Japanese SF much more than in the West. This is not to say that Japanese SF is all character-driven, emotional narrative, or lacking in action and big ideas, but I notice that, in general, more care is given to the feelings and thoughts of the characters than in SF coming out of the Western tradition. Even Giant Fighting Robot Anime, a subgenre one would naturally assume to be at least as brainless and hedonistic as a Michael Bay production, can spend extensive time buried in the heads of emo youngsters. (Hello Gundam!) This is a topic somewhat beyond the scope of this review, but is something that keeps coming up when I review Japanese SF. (For even more fun, compare and contrast Asian and Western views of the individual and its importance while harping on the differences between SF worldviews.)

Considering the title of the book under review, this is kind of a heavy bit of writing. That probably means I’ve been thinking too much, rather than simply reporting that Tsutsui crashes merrily through madness and reality, dragging along a motley cast of strange and disturbed people as they self destruct in hilarious fashion. People less plugged into Japan might come away with wildly different interpretations of the stories. They may even be offended by his less than family friendly topics or casual, but not gratuitous, violence. (With characters this crazy, death and degradation are by necessity close by.) I thought it was good fun.

Rating: The football match in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, if all of the animals were somehow perverted by an obscene Salvador Dali.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Salmonella Men on Planet Porno

  1. A most interesting review, coupled with insightful commentary about capitalism, Japan style. I was reminded of the one-sided soccer “matches” in various Monty Python skits: One side runs about madly, weaving its elegant dribbling and careful passing against a bunch of stationary pirates or the like who, unable to move in the slightest, are reduced to emitting the occasional “Aaarrrrrrrgh” as their only defense. Real Madrid versus “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”
    Game on, matey.

  2. Pingback: The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories « Two Dudes in an Attic
  3. Pingback: Jali.net « Two Dudes in an Attic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s