Saraba Yurei

Saraba Yurei (さらば幽霊)
Komatsu Sakyo

My participation in the annual Vintage SF party this year has been a bit lacking, in part because I didn’t get a jump on things in December, but also because one compendium I chose turned out to be 900 pages long. Oops. We’ll just file that one for later. Fortunately, I’ll be able to close things off with a bang, or at least with a post not found anywhere else. Since about this time last year, I’ve been hacking my way through a 1974 collection of Komatsu Sakyo’s short stories called Saraba Yurei, or Farewell Spirits. When my reading time cratered mid-last year, the real damage hit Japanese SF as I failed to finish a single book in Japanese for all of 2014. Only about 50 pages remained in Saraba Yurei however, so I was able to wrap this up in time for Vintage SF Month and put the first notch in my naginata for 2015.

I’ve written about Komatsu several times, but here is a quick summary for the unfamiliar. Komatsu was, until his death in 2011, J-SF’s most prominent voice. Isaac Asimov is probably the closest comparison, if Isaac had advanced degrees in literature. In spite of this, Komatsu is very difficult to find in English. (Japan Sinks and the recent Resurrection Day are the notable exceptions.) Saraba Yurei is ostensibly horror, or at least supernatural, though the stories are all over the map thematically. I lack the motivation to track down original publishing details for the eleven short stories, but my copy of the collection appears to be from the first printing in 1974. Considering the impracticality of writing a traditional book review for something that 99% of my readers will never pick up, I’ll stick with explaining some of the ideas contained in the stories and hope people are entertained.

As always, please see previous disclaimers about language limitations, risk of wholesale misunderstanding, and the difficulties of critiquing writing style in a second tongue.

Saraba Yurei contains eleven stories. The opener, “Satoru no Bakemono” (さとるの化物) or “The Enlightenment Monster,” and the title story are “yokai,” or Japanese monster stories. Yokai are different from Western monster stories, at least those in the vampire-werewolf-mummy vein, and even from typical ghost stories. Sometimes yokai involve horror and scary situations, often they are of a more mischievous bent. I get a sense that yokai are natural, or at least spirits tied to nature, more than Western ghosts and monsters. I’ll admit that my knowledge of both traditions is sketchier than we might like, as horror has never really been my bag, so grains of salt must be kept handy when I pontificate. In Komatsu’s case, “Saraba Yurei” is especially off-kilter, as the spirits, or yurei, take the role of tourists in our world and suffer from discrimination analogous to that heaped on immigrant communities. Imagine sweatshops filled with ghosts that have crawled in through the plumbing and one gets an idea of the strange reality in the story.

A couple of the stories follow standard paths. “Kiri ga Hareta Toki” (霧が晴れた時), or “When the Mist Cleared” is the most cliché of the bunch. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but a family goes hiking, sees a clearly inhabited building whose residents are inexplicably absent, some of the family starts eating the food lying around, and a mysterious fog comes in. Can anyone guess what happens next? Especially to the people that ate the food? Another story that hits common Japanese beats is “Hioka Ama no Shi” (比丘尼の死), “The Death of the Hioka Nun.” This was most notable to me because when I started reading, Komatsu’s writing was suddenly completely impenetrable. As the story moved along, I began to understand more and more of what was going on, almost as though the fog from earlier in this paragraph was clearing from the page. I realized halfway through that Komatsu was chronicling the history of this goddess through time, and that his language reflected the era. Clearly, I’m not going to get feudal Japanese anymore than a Japanese reader would understand Middle English, thus the early confusion. Anyway, the goddess is finally defeated by real estate development, a common lament as the Japanese steadily paved their entire nation through the 1970s and 80s. I found both of these stories wholly predictable, though that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the first in particular.

Most others are relatively unconventional. “Umi no Shisen” (海の視線), “The Sea’s Horizon,” is about a woman who had fainting spells in WWII when U-boats were near and was used as a sort of coal mine canary on ships. The story takes place many years later, as she has a fainting spell on a cruise ship and sees alien visitors peeking back at humanity from a future dying Earth, as they stand on what was once the ocean floor. “Hogo Tori” (保護鳥), “Protected Bird,” is about a European village that takes its endangered birds very seriously. VERY seriously. Tourists beware. Finally, my favorite story of the bunch, “Hana no Kokoro” (花のこころ), “Flower’s Heart,” is about a scientist who teaches giant, mobile flowers on an alien planet to appreciate beauty and dance. They reward her and others by eating them and sucking out the aesthetic appreciation.

Analog this is not. I enjoyed the collection, though none of the stories will go down as immortal for me. I started to translate one, but got sidetracked by a translation job that actually pays, so no telling when I will get back to it. If anyone out there is particularly interested in a story, I am happy to give it a go and post for general enjoyment, so please feel free to make requests. Otherwise, this post will stand as a vague summary of what’s out there, just in case someone wants to give their Japanese language skills a test.