The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories
Ed. John Apostolou and Martin Greenberg
I probably should have started with this anthology. Anyone taking a methodical approach to foreign writing is well served by digging into broad overviews like the one Apostolu has put together, but my course has been anything but methodical. I am finally getting this Japan thing in gear though; hopefully it leads to more coherent and informative reviews. But enough about me, let’s talk about Japanese SF short stories. This post will be more descriptive than analytical, which is something I normally shy away from. In this case however, explaining a bit about what the stories are and who wrote them will lay the foundation for some later writing that digs more deeply.
First, the basics. The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, hereafter TBJSFS, is thirteen stories written by ten different authors that were originally published in between 1963 and 1989. (Six from the 1980s, five from the 1970s, one from the 1960s, and one unlisted.) The so-called Big Three of Japanese SF, Hanmura Ryo, Hoshi Shinichi, and Komatsu Sakyo, each get two stories. The godfather of Japanese SF, Yano Tetsuya, contributes the last story. Abe Kobo, an author perhaps familiar to some for books like Woman in the Dunes, presents the first story. Another major author, Tsutsui Yasutaka is also present, but there are several names I am surprised not to see, among them Mitsuse Ryu. (Mitsuse is the author of Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights, which has been called the best Japanese SF novel ever. I will post a review here as soon as I can get my hands on the brand new English translation.) I was familiar with Abe’s literary output from university days, while reviews of Komatsu and Tsutsui are here and here, respectively. These are the first stories I’ve read by the other seven, even though I recognized several names. There is also a short reading list of Japanese SF included at the end. Unfortunately, most of the English titles available were published in Japan for English students and are hard to come by here.
Some things that aren’t included: No pulps, no Golden Age-style SF, and no otaku culture. Most of the staples of classic Western SF – square jawed heroes vanquishing dastardly aliens with laser beams, scientists and engineers logically solving problems through the scientific method, space wars – are completely absent from TBJSFS. Likewise, many of the characteristics of the Haikasoru releases are also missing. No gamer or anime aesthetic, nothing that relates to Japanese geek culture as it has developed in the last couple of decades. Instead, most of the stories are perhaps better described as fantastic literature. Only a couple are full-on science fiction, a couple more are science fiction trying to be contemporary literature. The rest have elements of SF or of the fantastic, but are firmly in the same literary space as, for example, Murakami Haruki. This is not said with disdain or irritation, but the reader should be forewarned not to expect epic space battles or cutting edge physics. The reader probably shouldn’t expect happy endings either. The tone of the collection ranges from darkly ironic to melancholy, then further into vague menace and warning. The stories aren’t really bleak or nihilistic, but there aren’t any heroes riding off into the sunset either.
Questions of why will come in later posts, so for now I want to introduce a few highlights. Abe Kobo starts out the collection with a tale of the ultimate in class warfare. I suppose the reader’s reaction will depend on his place in the tax bracket, but the story sets the tone for the rest of the book: bizarre, mildly horrifying, and darkly humorous with a touch of forewarning. Hanmura Ryo follows with a look at the life of a cardboard box and a horror-lite story about furniture. Former English teachers will be surprised to discover that Hoshi’s “He-y, Come On O-ut!” is a different translation of “The Hole,” a story that graces every 8th grade New Horizons textbook. (The English textbooks in Japan seem to feel that, in addition to teaching language skills, they have to depress their students.) Who knew that an SF grandmaster (or perhaps I should say an SF Black Belt?) would be fodder for JHS English courses. Komatsu follows later in the book with a full-on tale of someone who combines eating and burning societal hatred in inventive ways. “The Savage Mouth” is not easy reading.
The last stories are finally more recognizable as science fiction. Kono Tensei’s Triceratops starts out comparatively light-hearted, as dad and son see a dinosaur on their way home. It soon follows the the way of the other stories however, taking on a darker tone. (No, the dinosaur doesn’t eat or stomp on any of the characters.) “Fnifmum.” by Mayumura Taku is the most obvious SF and the only appearance made by aliens and spaceships. It is also my favorite story of the batch and most heartwarming. Well, as heartwarming as giant aliens and galactic fugitives can be. Tsutsuis “Standing Woman” is firmly in his idiom: off the wall near future speculation paired with a dim view of human nature in general and government in particular. This one is much more ominous that some of his other madcap writing however. Finally, Yano’s “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship” could be a real life recollection of a place he once visited, or a melancholy tale of a really weird Japanese village, or something about stranded aliens. He never really says, but it is a haunting tale just the same.
To repeat the first paragraph, this is just a look at the What of TBJSFS, saving the Why for later. As for recommendations, there isn’t any way to not approve of this book. Regardless of the quality or style of stories, this is the place to start for anyone who wants to know about Japanese SF. SF Anime is everywhere and the newest generation of Japanese writers is seeing some exposure in the West, but for the original, pioneering stuff, TBJSFS is the only place to start. While I would have enjoyed reading stories in a more conventional style, I am happy to have finally read authors like Hanmura and Hoshi. (Or realize that I was reading Hoshi, since New Horizons never tipped me off.)
Rating: The Guardian’s annual EPL preview. Necessarily light on analysis or in-depth reporting, it’s an essential overview to get the season started.