Espy is a clever bilingual title (ESP + Spy) that is thwarted by the ESPN Sports Awards of the same name. Komatsu did it first, so we can’t hold this against him, but it is much easier for me to think of it with a Japanese pronunciation than visualize the English. This despite the fact that it sounds a bit like someone with a fake Mexican accent discussing espionage. (“Where eez dis espy, senor?”) Setting aside (bad) language jokes, this review is going to be something a bit different. Espy has never been translated, as far as I know, so rather than writing a proper review, I will try to introduce the book to readers who will probably never have a chance to read it otherwise. While a short summary is no substitute for the real thing, I hope that a selection of these introductions will build a useful foundation to discuss Japanese SF. I may, if I find something really amazing, even start a translation project. Going forward, I will be happy to accept requests and recommendations for this.
First, some disclaimers. Most importantly, I am assuming that nobody else will ever read this, so spoilers abound. If any readers think that someday, somewhere, they are going to pick up a copy of this minor work in the original Japanese, stop after the first post. If not, then press on to part two and enjoy the chaos. Second is a word about my Japanese ability. In English, I read about one page per minute. This amounts to 150 pages or so during a normal workday commute. By the end of Espy, I had pushed my Japanese speed up to almost 40 pages per day. Painfully slow. A Japanese novel takes me between two and three weeks, usually with a break halfway for something written in English. Further, on any given page, I probably don’t understand ten or fifteen characters. I am far too lazy to actually look things up, so I gauge meaning from context and hope I don’t miss anything crucial. Sometimes I do, but the misunderstandings generally even out over time. “Hey,” comes the voice from the peanut gallery, “I thought you said you were fluent!” I pretty much am, but in my defense, how many people reading a second language understand the sentence, “The Lieutenant ordered the second officer to engage the anti-grav repulsor lifts and fire a battery of laser cannons at the approaching rebel dreadnought?” The end result of all of these is that, first, I am usually off-base on a plot point or two, and second, I am far too impatient by the end to care. If there are holes or weirdness, my apologies, but please consider the source material before launching verbal broadsides.
For today’s post, the spoiler-free summary, just in case somebody wants to go out and read this. A more detailed look will follow later this week. Espy is a strange hybrid. At heart, the story is a typical superspy romp from the depths of the Cold War. Not just any spy, though, but an espy! Our hero, Tamura Yoshio, belongs to a secret worldwide group of ESP enabled spies dedicated to maintaining peace, order, and happiness in the world. The plot is pretty straightforward for this sort of thing, but then there are little dashes of SF tossed here and there. “Aircars” are everywhere (but undescribed), there are hints of sundry advanced technologies, and a laser rifle makes an appearance. These are all unrelated to the main plotline until the end, when things very suddenly turn philosophical and futuristic. More on that later. For the most part though, this is a quirky book in the James Bond vein.
Komatsu seems to be having a great time with the tropes of the genre. The good guys are a super secret band of super spies. The bad guys are also a super secret band of super spies, but they want to take over the world instead of protecting it. The bad guys have a needlessly convoluted plot in motion and have a tendency to talk too much. (The notorious “Well, now that I’m about to kill you, I guess it’s alright if I spill the beans” cliché.) The action moves quickly through exotic and/or seedy locations, except for a brief moment in Long Island. Maybe that’s exotic to Japanese people. All of the women are seductive. There are a number of snazzy vehicles, various guns, fights, and occasional explosions. The book is also dripping with Cold War atmosphere, gently seasoned with organized crime and clandestine refugees of Hitler’s failed regime. Also aircars. Lots of aircars, though heaven only knows what those are.
There are times, though, when I suspect that Komatsu goes beyond simply fun and is seeing how crazy he can get before someone calls him on it. He plays it straight the entire time, with no hint of satire or any winks at the audience, but things get so over the top that I can’t believe he’s serious. The good guy’s name, Yoshio (良夫), literally translates as “Good Guy.” At one point, he actually says, “Using skills passed down from the ninja….” Later, one of the bad guys, an ex-Nazi with a monocle, calls out, “Igor (!), please escort Abdullah to the basement and flog him. He is demonstrating an unforgivable attitude towards our guest.” “Our guest” happens to be chained to a metal chair and is engaging in witty repartee with the bad guy about fine wines. As the love interest is about to be ravished, “Good Guy” goes off at length about how pure and radiant she is, despite the fact that they have only known each other for about three days, the first of which involved an initiation into the Mile High Club. (This does not make her a bad person, but I was puzzled why “Good Guy” blathers so freely about protecting her virtue, when he did anything but on that airplane.) Komatsu is far too smart to not realize how crazy some of this is, but he never gives any indication that his book is anything by deadly serious. Maybe there is a deeper Japanese comedic undercurrent that I am unable to discern.
Finally, there is the ESP. In general I am not a fan of such things. (John W. Campbell would hate me.) Very few books with telepathy, ESP, or whatever at their core hold my interest. Indeed, had I known what I was getting into with Espy, I may not have read it. (My wife chose it for me at the Japanese library based entirely on the cover, which involves 70s looking guys with guns and sunglasses next to a mostly undressed woman. “This is what you want, right?” she asked.) Komatsu builds an ESP system with varying powers (telepathy, mind reading, telekinesis, etc.) that seems to hold together, though it feels like he’s making it up as he goes. “Hmm, how can I get him out of this mess? Maybe he can teleport. That sounds good.” Or perhaps, “wait, this is too invincible. I know! Silver is their kryptonite! Perfect.” I just went along with it, though sometimes I had to roll my eyes.
This brings the spoiler-free section to a close. The next post will give a rundown of the plot, highlight things I thought were hilarious, and open a window into the Soul of Modern Japan.
Continue to Part Two.