Death Sentences

Death Sentences
Kawamata Chiaki

I learned about Death Sentences from an article I now cannot find, a shame because it discussed the story surrounding the book’s translation and early efforts to get Japanese SF into English markets. The publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, isn’t the first place I look for Japanese SF, so this was completely off my radar until I read the now lost article. (It also provided a good overview of the books available in English and where to find them; this is where I first heard about Vertical Press.) I’m sure the publication hurdles were considerable, but Kawamata’s book is certainly deserving of a wider audience. It picked up all of Japan’s major awards in 1984 and Kawamata still has fingers in many Japanese genre pies.

Death Sentences is what might happen if The Ring was co-written by Umberto Eco and Phillip K. Dick. The story chases after a poem that leaves dead bodies in its wake (the power of words!), twisting and turning throughout the Surrealist period of the early 20th Century, 1980s Japan, a Gibson-esque dystopian Japan of the near future (paranoia!), and, briefly, Mars (science fiction!). It is a dizzying narrative, but all related in efficient, matter of fact prose, as though a poem written in France by a mysterious kid named Hu Mei that drives its readers into a fatal, dream-like trance is a perfectly normal turn of events.

This is the kind of book where individual mileage will no doubt vary greatly. I found the premise thought provoking, but I don’t really remember the characters. They were nice enough people I guess, but names and details now escape me. Those more educated about philosophy and literature will probably enjoy certain parts of the book more than I did, as Kawamata appropriates several Surrealists as characters, while name checking many others. As I understand it, those people killed by Hu Mei’s poem die on the same day and under the same circumstances as they did in real life; no doubt a fun game for anyone tuned into the Surrealist Movement. There is another character late in the book that Kawamata uses to show his disdain for a particular writer, but I didn’t realize that until reading an accompanying essay afterwards. These sorts of games, as well as the fact that a poem is the killer, remind me of Eco and figure to amuse astute readers.

I initially expected the focus to be on the near-future dystopia, as the book is billed as a relative of the cyberpunk emerging at the same time. Instead, a lot of attention is paid to the 1980s narrative track, wherein the employees of a small press in Tokyo prepare an exhibition for a department store that unleashes Hu Mei’s poem on an unsuspecting Japan. This, and the personal details that unfold, rather betrays the promise of poetic mayhem. On the other hand, what better counterpoint for a grim police state than nerd romance centered on obscure scholarship? The twists at the end also caught me off guard, though I liked the final solution. I do detect a whiff of, “now how do I get myself out of this?” as the plot starts to wind down, apparent in the slightly disjointed feel of the last two sections.

Death Sentences gets credit for being different, or at least for combining familiar elements in an unfamiliar way. It’s the kind of book I would give to a literature type who is willing to try SF, or a jaded reader tired of big mysterious objects, first contact, and the like. I enjoyed the book, despite its imperfections, and while it isn’t my favorite Japanese SF, I hope it gets a wide recognition.

Rating: The dystopian parts of the book remind me of the North Korean soccer team.