Yamada Masaki

I continue my slow march through Japan’s SF canon. The most recent conquest comes in at #6 on the list of all-time best Japanese SF: Kamigari (God Hunting) by Yamada Masaki. (This is from the the 2006 poll in S-F Magazine. Kamigari is not #6 every year in the poll, but is generally found in the top ten.) Kamigari is part of my small Japanese language collection; it has not been translated despite its renown inside the motherland. The book seems like a possible target for English language release though, particularly as Haikasoru already has three of the above list in their catalog, so I think it wise to keep this review away from serious spoiler territory. Any reader wanting to hear greater detail is welcome to bring things up in the comments, but in the main post I’m going to keep this in a more traditional critical style.

Let’s start with some thoughts about the Japanese language. First of all, because I read this untranslated, my usual caveats apply. I am a slow Japanese reader and lack the patience to plow through these on consecutive morning commutes, so each novel takes a couple of months to read. At most I generally get through 50-60 pages before jumping back to something in English. This naturally leads to a certain amount of discontinuity, name forgetting, plot detail ignoring, and other bad habits. It also means that the page turning momentum is considerably lower than in my easier reads. I don’t ding books for this in my final assessments. Additionally, because I am too lazy to look up every word I don’t know, I am occasionally more confused than is proper. I know what happened, but some of the finer points escape me. This is also computed in my final score, since it’s hardly the author’s fault if I didn’t get the full impact of a novel due to my own incompetence.

That said, I noticed early on that Yamada is much more of a stylist than some other authors I have read. I don’t claim enough expertise to judge the quality of writing, but where some books are dry reports, Kamigari is full of rich, descriptive prose. This is pleasant both because we all prefer interesting writing, but also because it challenges the language student. Yamada also digs into a varied set of disciplines for his infodumps, rather than the usual physics and astronomy. Things start with Wittgenstein, wander in and out of linguistics, take a side trip through religion, dip a toe into metaphysics, and end up grounded in a combination of NASA and psychics. This is challenging in a whole different way than naval battles or spaceships.

Getting back to the mundane, Kamigari was originally published in 1974, with large parts of it appearing in S-F Magazine. The book was was expanded and released in 1975, when it promptly won a Seiun Award (Japan’s version of the Hugo). It was Yamada’s debut novel; he has gone on to long and productive career. The influence of the New Wave is everywhere, and a Phillip K. Dick-ian atmosphere hovers over the entire affair. It also appears to take place in the late 1960s, a fertile backdrop for Japanese fiction, with its student protests and tense relations with US military bases. I have no idea who Yamada’s literary heroes are or what he was reading at the time, but this is not some sort of Golden Age retread. In fact, it is often only tangentially science fictional, something we will look into further.

Our window into the god hunting world is one Shimazu Keisuke, a linguist extraordinaire and generally unpleasant person. He is examining “Ancient Writings,” always written in quotes just like that. (It isn’t capitalized, because there are no capital letters in Japanese, but it probably would be in English.) He has been invited to look them over because of his linguistic expertise, since nobody has any clue where they come from or what they say. Within a couple of pages, there is a terrible accident, his guide is killed, and some strange luminous man-figure is talking to Shimazu. This is pretty weird.

Before we know it, Shimazu is swept up in a worldwide conspiracy-type plot, working in a secret room with a joint US-Japan team to decipher the ancient writings. Kamigari takes a turn into spy fiction in this section, with agents, intimations of past Nazi plots, interrogations where people demand to know “what Odessa is after,” whatever that means, and other shenanigans that our university-bred Shimazu is wholly unprepared for. Apparently these ancient writings have some sort of power about them, though nobody knows quite what. Shimazu tries bravely to translate, but mostly just figures out how many participles the language has.

It isn’t until the second part that we start to get a hint of what is really going on. Shimazu falls in with a motley group led by an old man named Yoshimura. The middle section of the book is spent in their company, arguing theology and actually hunting gods. Yoshimura explains that the ancient writings are a product of a “god” who has tormented humanity for his (its?) own amusement over thousands of years. They are on the god’s trail, pledging to hunt him (it?) down and do away with him (it?). I was never totally clear on how they planned to do this, but it had something to do with tracking the god’s minions with the aid of psychic powers. I thought it sounded pretty dodgy, but Shimazu goes all in.

This is roughly the lay of the land. Saying much more would spoil things, but even this brief summary may explain why the genre assignment is so tricky. Is this supernatural horror? A sort of urban fantasy? Paranoid magical realism? Some explanations in the last quarter of the book start to push this more towards traditional SF, but it remains hard to classify. Certainly the psychic stuff and the contemporary setting would be out of place in an issue of Analog. In the end though, the book claims to be SF, SF fans embrace it as their own, and I am loathe to call it anything else. It feels to me like a Japanese version of a Dick novel, as mentioned at the top, with the sinister conspiracies moving the background and a mostly naïve protagonist. I don’t know that there was any room for gods in Dick’s cosmology, but the powerlessness and pervasive unease are right out of his playbook.

I don’t really know how to sum it all up. My wife is reading the book right now, so there may be a follow up post wherein we discuss how a Japanese reader interprets it. Kamigari was a unique reading experience and something I would very much like to share with US SF fans. Shimazu is never likable and I don’t really understand the nuts and bolts of gods and hunting, but something about the book is hypnotic and addictive. I would recommend it without reservation, except that the majority of my readers will probably have to wait for a translation. For now, I’ll just have to be happy with saying, “Kamigari exists and this is what it’s about. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”