Kambayashi Chohei

I am really behind on this one. I finished Yukikaze back in the spring, but got sidetracked by read-alongs, commitments of one sort or another, gender equality issues, and a touch of real life. There’s six months gone. Further, Yukikaze is one of the first titles published by Japanese pipeline Haikasoru, in 2010, but I didn’t get a copy until an Amazon gift certificate fell into my hands back in March. (No library copies here, which is somewhat inexplicable considering the two massive library systems I have access to, plus a private Japanese collection downtown.) This in turn is a translation of the 2002 revision of the 1984 book, Sento Yosei Yukikaze (戦闘妖精・雪風). It is probably just as well that the English version chopped off the first two words, “battle fairy,” and kept only the name of the aircraft in the title. To sum up, a six month late review of a three year old translation of a twenty year old book. Breaking news this is not.

Kambayashi is a well-regarded, multi-award winning author; Yukikaze is probably his most famous book. It won the Seiun Award for 1984, spawned a sequel (also available from Haikasoru, but as yet unread by either of the Two Dudes), and an anime adaptation. I would not be surprised to find manga, video game, or other spin-offs, but do not currently know of any. It is often ranked on annual lists of the best ever Japanese science fiction and I have seen it recommended several times as a place for Westerners to start with Japan’s non-animated SF.

It is difficult to dig too deeply into the plot here without spoiling much of the fun. The following, however, is clear at the outset: Aliens called “JAM” have invaded the Earth through a portal over Antarctica. The combined Terran military beat them back through the portal to a world called “Faery,” where the two sides are locked in a violent stalemate. JAM are being held at bay, but humanity is unable to push them any further. (I have no idea what JAM stands for, the Japanese is equally vague, and I am just assuming it means Jerkface Alien Menace.) Faery has enough messed up flora and fauna that ground troops are an impossibility; everything is fought in the air. Fukai Rei is attached to a special air force division whose sole responsibility is to record everything that happens in every battle and return the data to headquarters. His airplane is called Yukikaze.

Things unfold through sequential short stories, all but a couple told from Rei’s point of view. While each is a discreet event, and frequently not connected to the others in any obvious way, they should be read in order. Kambayashi is covertly sketching out an arc for three agents: Rei, Yukikaze, and JAM. It really wouldn’t do to say much beyond this, save that things don’t end up where one might expect. In fact, very little of the book follows expectations. Everything about Yukikaze screams Military SF, what with the alien invasions, semi-sentient fighting machines, and elite warriors, until one starts reading. Rei’s role demands a cold distance, a mindset that prevents insanity in a job that usually means watching passively as fellow soldiers die. Kambayashi mimics this in his writing, with a sterile, deadpan delivery.

I don’t totally know what to make of the book. If there is a Message buried in there somewhere, I missed it. I detected no gripping narrative either; there is action to be sure, but somehow it is not pulse-pounding. The conflict with JAM reminds me a bit of the Cold War, which had ramped up again when Kambayashi wrote Yukikaze. The war between two more or less equal forces, carried on far from the everyday view of squabbling humanity, has certain analogues to the proxy wars fought in otherwise inconsequential places like Angola or Nicaragua. There is no pacifist agenda here though, somewhat surprising for a Japanese book about war, just a dispassionate look at what might happen as increasingly sophisticated weapons fight each other. In fact, this has the feel of a scientific experiment about it, with all superfluous variables removed. Kambyashi might be testing his ideas of AI and humanity under pressure in an otherwise perfectly controlled environment.

I suspect that I am making Yukikaze sound less interesting than it actually is. The superficially dry prose conceals much more than I expected, driving a subtle but comprehensive evolution throughout the story. It is rather like listening to Minimalist classical music, wherein the observer starts in one place and, without realizing it, is deposited someplace completely different at the end. If there is anything “Japanese” about Kambayashi’s writing, it would be this restraint, though I am not so heavy-handed as to compare the book to a Zen garden or bonsai tree. (The Japanese have no more monopoly on restraint or subtlety than we Americans do to fatty food. Exhibit A: Morning Musume.) It’s a fascinating trip though, with details, unexpected turns, and subtle insights growing up organically from the story’s foundation.

One has to take Yukikaze on its own terms, but I give the book a strong recommendation. It is another essential part of the Japanese SF canon, so there’s that. It’s also a unique creation, something that I can’t easily draw comparisons to. The closest tale that comes to mind is The Sky Crawlers, also an oddly disconnected look at Japanese air forces. Either of the above are reason enough to give it a shot, together they make a compelling case for universal consumption. I am eager to see what others thing about it.

Rating: Claudio Ranieri, a stoic, restrained manager who found great success with Juventus. (No relation between Italian match fixing and Kambayashi Chohei though.)