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.

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The Seabottom Monster

The Seabottom Monster
Komatsu Sakyo

[This is my translation of the story 海低のおばけ, taken from the book 一宇宙人のみた太平洋戦争 (The Pacific War Seen by One Alien). As far as I know, this is the only English translation anywhere of this story. If I am wrong, or if a representative from the Komatsu Estate or the publisher finds this and is angry, I will take it down upon request. Otherwise, Two Dudes is the only place to read The Seabottom Monster until someone scrapes and plagiarizes it.]

Summer.

The children went to the sea to frolic in the sun and water. The sunlight was blindingly intense, but the black water was still cold. Nonetheless, the children were unconcerned. Unable to wait for summer vacation to come, everyone rushed to the shore when school ended. They shrieked at the cold water, whooped as the waves crashed into them, and rolled around on the red sand. The ocean and the summer are children’s best friends.
As they were playing, one of the smaller children found a strange object, sunk in the quiet waters at the bottom of a cliff. “Huh? What’s that?” Everyone gathered around and peeked over the cliff. A large, long, and slender object was tipped on its side, glowing dimly at the bottom of the black water.
“Maybe it’s a dead fish,” said one of the older children.
“But are there fish that big?” replied a girl.
“I wonder if we can grab it.”
“At that depth, I think we can,” said the oldest. “Let’s try climbing down the cliff.”
“Let it go, it’s too dangerous,” said the girl.
But the oldest children had already climbed down the cliff and jumped into the water. It wasn’t so deep.
The forms of the children gone to retrieve the object seemed to writhe like fish. At length, one child with shorter breath emerged right in front and shouted, “It’s something strange!”
“It’s not a fish?” the children on the cliff shouted back.
“No, it’s much bigger and smoother.”
Just then, the children who were still under water, just about to reach the object, kicked suddenly out of the water, startled. They rushed to the surface, struggling as though chased.
“It’s a monster!”
The children yelled in fright and hurried back up the cliff.
“There’s a monster inside!”
“You saw a monster?” the girl asked, herself frightened.
“Yes. It had windows and we could see a monster looking out. It waved at us.”
“Let’s go tell the teacher.”
No sooner had one said this then they all started running. When they reached the school, all the mouths started talking at the teacher. The teacher stretched his neck and stood up.
“I wonder what it is. Shall we go take a look?”
“We can’t, teacher,” said a child from the back. “The sea is getting rough, a storm is coming.”

The weather, quick to change in this season, soon deteriorated as the storm arrived. The storm was strong enough to blow rocks around and lasted all night. The weather finally calmed the following afternoon. The children went with the teacher to the cliff, but the mysterious object was gone.
“Hmm, the waves carried it away,” said the teacher.
“Teacher, what do you think it was?”
“Hearing the description, it sounds a little like it might some kind of transportation, like a spaceship,” said the teacher as he peered into the empty water.
“But, inside, those were definitely monsters.”
“It must have been a spaceship carrying life from another star. I’ve heard stories before about something landing here. There’s bound to be other intelligent life somewhere in this big universe.” The teacher stood as he said this. “Now, hurry straight home without stopping to play. Tests are coming soon and you need to study.”

“Hey, what kind of monsters?” the girl asked the oldest boy.
“They were really weird!”
“So what kind of weird?”
“They only had two eyes! And just two arms! And the ends of the arms were split into about five waggly things!”
Behind the oldest boy, as he waved and wriggled his hands, the twin suns of Alpha Centauri cast double shadows on the red beach sand.

Espy Pt. 2

Espy
Komatsu Sakyo

This is Part Two of our in depth look at Espy. Part One is here. Remember, if for some reason anyone is looking to avoid spoilers for this obscure Japanese novel, please stop now. Part One is more or less spoiler free.

As the story opens in Tokyo, “Good Guy” is sent on assignment to New York. He hops on a plane and, within paragraphs, has detected a bomb that mysteriously made its way into his luggage. Because Good Guy is more of a reader of minds than a mover of objects, this is a problem. He fights with the bomb for the duration of the flight, much to the confusion of the stewardesses who wonder why he is coated with sweat and gritting his teeth. Finally, he wrings out his last bit of power (get used to this, as he wrings out power an average of once per twenty pages) and defuses the bomb. When he arrives in New York, the bomb has inexplicably vanished, teleported in and out by a mysterious bad person. This is the kind of story we’re dealing with here.

Another fun indication of story content comes at the airport. Our hero is psychically contacted by the lovely Maria, another espy. She says he’s handsome, he peeps at her and compliments her naked form, and she telepathically slaps him. I don’t fully understand the mechanics of all of this, but we’ll take what comes to us here at Two Dudes. Anyway, everyone takes off to Long Island; that’s the last we’ll hear of boring yuppy havens again, because Yoshio (getting tired of writing Good Guy) and Maria are promptly shipped off to Turkey.

The flight to Turkey is eventful. Yoshio and Maria get it on without delay, but the afterglow is interrupted by Spanish fighter planes. Spain, still under Franco, demands that they land in Barcelona. Here, they are detained by members of the Spanish military that are in thrall to the mysterious, but very psychically powerful, bad guy. Rescue soon comes in the form of Basque separatists. They are motivated by freedom, revenge, and whatnot and are naturally quite magnificent. Yoshio comments on this magnificence throughout the book.

Once in Turkey, the fun really begins. A plot is afoot to assassinate the Soviet Premiere, apparently because he is on good terms with the US President and close to ending the Cold War. Yoshio’s merry band has grown and together they wander through Istanbul looking for clues. They bump into various spies and suspicious characters, a crucial source is killed by an ingenious long range sniper, and Maria vanishes. As they go in search of Maria, we reach what is probably the best part of the book.

Yoshio and his partner enter an opium den, because this is Turkey and of course there are opium dens in the back rooms of cafes. The cafe is full of Nazi war criminals, hit men, and Mafia members, but Yoshio has some secret thing that lets him in. (I was hazy on how that went down.) They slip past the opium addicts in the first secret room, and find themselves in an even more secret room. There is a stage here, where a drugged girl dances and morally questionable rich men watch. The head bad guy says something like, “So nice to see you Mr. Good Guy” and chains him to a chair in the front row. Who should emerge now, but Maria! (Dramatic and threatening music.) Maria is naturally naked, because there is no way that these men would tolerate a clothed woman on the stage, and she is soon joined by a prodigiously endowed black man. People are drugged out, drums are beating, the black man approaches Maria, Yoshio closes his eyes so he won’t see what happens to his beloved (that was fast) Maria, but it turns out he’s in an electric chair, so the bad guy can shock Yoshio whenever eye closing occurs, and this is just about the most terrible situation ever.

And then, Espy‘s crowning moment. Yoshio wrings out the last ounce of his power (again), telepathically grabs the black man who is now ravishing Maria in merciless fashion, and psychically BREAKS THE MAN’S WANG IN TWO.

Wow. I was ready to stop reading books forever, knowing that nothing will ever top this. I didn’t even know that such a thing was possible. But the story continues. In the ensuing chaos, everyone is rescued but Yoshio. He talks with the bad guy during the previously mentioned scene where Abdullah is flogged, then is tortured, put in a small cage, shipped out into the black sea, and dropped in. Fortunately, his boss arrives from Tokyo in a submarine, so Yoshio is fished out of the water. Good thing that sub was just hanging around, but I guess when one’s boss has telepathy, one is never really out of reach.

Off to Germany with them, to foil the plot. A number of strange things happen. Yoshio can now teleport himself, and Maria can make people spontaneously combust. Torment can have its rewards, apparently. We also learn that silver somehow turns off psychic power, as Yoshio is whisked away to a secret room with no door by a be-silvered woman. No worries here, though, since Maria can start her rival on fire and Yoshio can flee the conflagration. There is another scene involving the obligatory high rolling casino, where the bad guys again say too much. Now they are set up for the assassination attempt, which is almost as amazing as the Turkish opium den.

As everyone watches the Premiere give a dramatic speech, the espies frantically search for bad people. Suddenly, a missing espy appears in the sky and plummets to the earth. While everyone is watching this, a shot rings out and hits the Premiere. The espies have failed. Yoshio traces the bullet’s path, teleports his way to the assassin, and lands on top of the getaway driver. The other espies do what they must. Yoshio deduces that the assassin waited in that spot for the doomed man to appear in midair, then as soon as the bodyguards moved a bit, shot through the sudden opening into the Premiere’s now unprotected back. Yoshio then attempts to teleport with the assassin, but ends up leaving the poor man’s head behind. Sorry, assassin.

Now, for the weakness in this evil plot. Apparently, the assassin had ties to the CIA, which would be discovered upon his capture. (He was, of course, unaware that he was being set up.) The world would find out that someone with vague CIA connections had knocked off the Soviet leader, the world would immediately veer off the road to peace that it was on, and the evil group of super spies would somehow profit from all of this. We know this because the be-silvered woman’s twin sister revealed all in the high rolling casino. Why? I’m not certain. But back to the plot. Besides being convoluted, what would have happened had the bodyguards not moved? That’s a waste of an espy decoy right there. And what would happen if, however implausibly, a forewarned Russian were to wear a protective, bullet-proof vest? No head shots for Soviet leaders? As luck would have it, this is exactly what happens! The Premiere stands up, shaken and with a bruised back, but otherwise unharmed. The bad guys fail, the Russian lives, and the assassin that was to have touched off World War III (or something) lost his head in a teleportation void. Doh.

However! The head bad guy is still at large! We now reach my second favorite part of the book. Everyone rushes back to the casino, because this was a bad guy stronghold. The bad guys have all fled, but what should the espies find, but a portable nuclear reactor in the basement! Now, I’m not certain how our readers feel about this, but I would give a nuclear reactor a pretty wide berth. (I’m speaking as an Idaho native who is quite comfortable with the world’s first nuclear plant next door.) Our espies are made of sterner stuff, however, and their first response is, “Hey, let’s power this sucker up!” And so they BLINDLY SET ABOUT TURNING ON A NUCLEAR REACTOR. Right there in the room. “Hmm, let’s see what this switch does!” Holy cow. This activates some mysterious thing that sends Yoshio and Maria to South Africa, fortunately without blowing up West Berlin.

Awaiting them is a receiving station for a weather satellite. This turns out to have been a secret base, but the bad guys have fled. As they are giving up, Yoshio feels the probing psychic finger of The Bad Guy. After some consultation, they decide that he is on a formerly manned capsule that the Africans sent up some time ago. Yoshio promptly teleports himself out into space, into this capsule. (Not considering, I suppose, that it might be a vacuum or something. Fortunately, it is not.)

This is where the book takes a serious turn towards Weirdsville. Yoshio meets the disembodied presence of The Bad Guy, who reveals that he’s not really all that bad, he’s just observing and occasionally testing humanity. He also mentions that some really powerful beings used to live on Earth, but their continent sank into the ocean, and that The Bad Guy personally tested a charismatic religious leader who wandered into the desert to fast for forty days, oh, about two thousand years ago. Yoshio realizes that The Bad Guy is none other than … Satan.

They go on and on about the nature of evil and why people do bad things to each other. Finally, Satan says, “Well, it’s been nice talking, but I’m taking off. I’ll be testing you again later.” Yoshio is stuck on the capsule. Bad news for him, he is apparently too weak to teleport back to the Earth. (Should have thought about that before racing off to confront Satan, huh?) He can still talk to Maria though, who he loves desperately, so we stagger towards a (Satan-less) touching conclusion. Literally. His last request is to be allowed to, er, psychically fondle her. And does, as he once again wrings out his last ounce of power. In this world, teleporting yourself is one thing, but grabbing a telepathic handful is no problem at all. It’s a good thing for Yoshio that it is, too, (and that he’s apparently very good at it) because as Maria becomes, umm, excited by this virtual finger, her “burn people who surprise me” instinct suddenly kicks in. Yoshio is consumed by physic sexyflames, his own “get me out of danger now!” teleportation instinct returns, and he is suddenly (on fire) back in South Africa.

On this happy note, with Yoshio wrapped in bandages but very much in love, the espies realizing that their ultimate adversary is The Devil, and the book comes to a satisfying close.

Rating: I have no idea. This one is beyond my metaphoric powers.

Espy (ESP Spy) Part 1

Espy
Komatsu Sakyo

Espy is a clever bilingual title (ESP + Spy) that is thwarted by the ESPN Sports Awards of the same name. Komatsu did it first, so we can’t hold this against him, but it is much easier for me to think of it with a Japanese pronunciation than visualize the English. This despite the fact that it sounds a bit like someone with a fake Mexican accent discussing espionage. (“Where eez dis espy, senor?”) Setting aside (bad) language jokes, this review is going to be something a bit different. Espy has never been translated, as far as I know, so rather than writing a proper review, I will try to introduce the book to readers who will probably never have a chance to read it otherwise. While a short summary is no substitute for the real thing, I hope that a selection of these introductions will build a useful foundation to discuss Japanese SF. I may, if I find something really amazing, even start a translation project. Going forward, I will be happy to accept requests and recommendations for this.

First, some disclaimers. Most importantly, I am assuming that nobody else will ever read this, so spoilers abound. If any readers think that someday, somewhere, they are going to pick up a copy of this minor work in the original Japanese, stop after the first post.  If not, then press on to part two and enjoy the chaos. Second is a word about my Japanese ability. In English, I read about one page per minute. This amounts to 150 pages or so during a normal workday commute. By the end of Espy, I had pushed my Japanese speed up to almost 40 pages per day. Painfully slow. A Japanese novel takes me between two and three weeks, usually with a break halfway for something written in English. Further, on any given page, I probably don’t understand ten or fifteen characters. I am far too lazy to actually look things up, so I gauge meaning from context and hope I don’t miss anything crucial. Sometimes I do, but the misunderstandings generally even out over time. “Hey,” comes the voice from the peanut gallery, “I thought you said you were fluent!”  I pretty much am, but in my defense, how many people reading a second language understand the sentence, “The Lieutenant ordered the second officer to engage the anti-grav repulsor lifts and fire a battery of laser cannons at the approaching rebel dreadnought?” The end result of all of these is that, first, I am usually off-base on a plot point or two, and second, I am far too impatient by the end to care. If there are holes or weirdness, my apologies, but please consider the source material before launching verbal broadsides.

For today’s post, the spoiler-free summary, just in case somebody wants to go out and read this. A more detailed look will follow later this week. Espy is a strange hybrid. At heart, the story is a typical superspy romp from the depths of the Cold War. Not just any spy, though, but an espy! Our hero, Tamura Yoshio, belongs to a secret worldwide group of ESP enabled spies dedicated to maintaining peace, order, and happiness in the world. The plot is pretty straightforward for this sort of thing, but then there are little dashes of SF tossed here and there. “Aircars” are everywhere (but undescribed), there are hints of sundry advanced technologies, and a laser rifle makes an appearance. These are all unrelated to the main plotline until the end, when things very suddenly turn philosophical and futuristic. More on that later. For the most part though, this is a quirky book in the James Bond vein.

Komatsu seems to be having a great time with the tropes of the genre. The good guys are a super secret band of super spies. The bad guys are also a super secret band of super spies, but they want to take over the world instead of protecting it. The bad guys have a needlessly convoluted plot in motion and have a tendency to talk too much. (The notorious “Well, now that I’m about to kill you, I guess it’s alright if I spill the beans” cliché.) The action moves quickly through exotic and/or seedy locations, except for a brief moment in Long Island. Maybe that’s exotic to Japanese people. All of the women are seductive. There are a number of snazzy vehicles, various guns, fights, and occasional explosions. The book is also dripping with Cold War atmosphere, gently seasoned with organized crime and clandestine refugees of Hitler’s failed regime. Also aircars. Lots of aircars, though heaven only knows what those are.

There are times, though, when I suspect that Komatsu goes beyond simply fun and is seeing how crazy he can get before someone calls him on it. He plays it straight the entire time, with no hint of satire or any winks at the audience, but things get so over the top that I can’t believe he’s serious. The good guy’s name, Yoshio (良夫), literally translates as “Good Guy.” At one point, he actually says, “Using skills passed down from the ninja….” Later, one of the bad guys, an ex-Nazi with a monocle, calls out, “Igor (!), please escort Abdullah to the basement and flog him. He is demonstrating an unforgivable attitude towards our guest.” “Our guest” happens to be chained to a metal chair and is engaging in witty repartee with the bad guy about fine wines. As the love interest is about to be ravished, “Good Guy” goes off at length about how pure and radiant she is, despite the fact that they have only known each other for about three days, the first of which involved an initiation into the Mile High Club. (This does not make her a bad person, but I was puzzled why “Good Guy” blathers so freely about protecting her virtue, when he did anything but on that airplane.) Komatsu is far too smart to not realize how crazy some of this is, but he never gives any indication that his book is anything by deadly serious. Maybe there is a deeper Japanese comedic undercurrent that I am unable to discern.

Finally, there is the ESP. In general I am not a fan of such things. (John W. Campbell would hate me.) Very few books with telepathy, ESP, or whatever at their core hold my interest. Indeed, had I known what I was getting into with Espy, I may not have read it. (My wife chose it for me at the Japanese library based entirely on the cover, which involves 70s looking guys with guns and sunglasses next to a mostly undressed woman. “This is what you want, right?” she asked.) Komatsu builds an ESP system with varying powers (telepathy, mind reading, telekinesis, etc.) that seems to hold together, though it feels like he’s making it up as he goes. “Hmm, how can I get him out of this mess? Maybe he can teleport. That sounds good.” Or perhaps, “wait, this is too invincible. I know! Silver is their kryptonite! Perfect.” I just went along with it, though sometimes I had to roll my eyes.

This brings the spoiler-free section to a close. The next post will give a rundown of the plot, highlight things I thought were hilarious, and open a window into the Soul of Modern Japan.

Continue to Part Two.

Japan Sinks

Japan Sinks
Sakyo Komatsu

In Feb. 2011, I started reading Japan Sinks, in which earthquakes run rampant and sink all of Japan into the ocean. In March 2011, an earthquake ran rampant and a tsunami smashed my former home in Northern Japan into oblivion. The parallels were disturbing.

Real life aside, Japan Sinks is a puzzling book. Not on the surface, of course, as the story is a fairly typical disaster story. Earthquakes pound Japan, millions die, frantic leaders try to save everything, and, finally, Mt. Fuji erupts gloriously. James Cameron really needs to make this into a movie. Forget the Titanic – this is a whole archipelago going down. (Apparently there is a 2006 Japanese version, but 1) it stars someone from SMAP who was later arrested for running naked and drunk through a Tokyo park, and 2) it has an unacceptable happy ending.) I’m not sure I recommend reading Japan Sinks right now, but once tender feelings from the real life Armageddon have healed a bit, the disaster bits are pretty amazing.

Taking a peek below the surface, however, is a bit more puzzling. Komatsu has claimed that he wrote the book as a warning to Japan, not of impending doom, but of the need for Japan to integrate more fully with the rest of the world. Japan Sinks came out in the early 1970s, just as Japan was starting to take over the world. This was the decade when people finally realized that Japan had roared back from the devastation of WWII and were single-mindedly devouring all foreign competition. These were the early days, before Ezra Vogel wrote Japan Is Number One and hysteria peaked in the 80s, but people in the know realized that something amazing was happening. More importantly, the Japanese themselves knew.

If Komatsu is cautioning the Japanese about their insularity and rigid adherence to tradition, he’s going about it in a roundabout and vague way. (This would be wholly appropriate, considering the Japanese way of dealing with disagreement.) Indeed, parts of the book are downright effusive, praising the Japanese for their stoicism and discipline in the face of disaster. One is reminded of the incredulous newspaper articles in March 2011, describing the baffling lack of riots, looting, or general disorder in the aftermath of the tsunami. It also highlights the efficiency (ruthlessness?) with which the Japanese leadership moves to secure Japan’s future, and the tendency of the Japanese to work themselves into the ground for the perceived greater good.

It’s harder to see where the criticism may lie. Certainly the Japanese leadership misleads the general public and obfuscates the truth, as they do in real life, but I’m not sure this is an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. There has always been a casual disregard for the hoi polloi among Japanese elites, but the book is subtle in its expose. No brazen class warfare here. Komatsu’s other point of attack seems to be Japanese attitudes towards the rest of the world. Things might be a little better now, but Japan is notorious for thinking itself somehow apart from everyone else. The most egregious examples come from the trade wars of the 80s, but even now, the Japanese like to talk about their Four Seasons, as though the rest of the world doesn’t make an annual progression from summer to winter and back again. Komatsu doesn’t say so directly, but implies to his Japanese readership that the day may come when Japan needs the rest of the world, and that Japan might want to play well with others just in case.

There is one last bit that may be a warning, or may be a flaw of the book. The lead scientist has a team of several men who do a lot of the grunt work and are the focus of most of the novel. I’m trying to remember how many of them there were, but I can’t, because they all blend together into one. (“All you Asians look the same to me!”) I wonder if Komatsu is intentionally making his men faceless as a comment on contemporary Japan, or if the lack of characterization is bad writing. Regardless, it makes their personal tragedies and triumphs less compelling.

To sum up, Japan Sinks is frighteningly prophetic in many ways. Japan in 2011 is not so different on a fundamental level than Japan in 1973. Some might argue with that statement, but the reaction in Sendai mirrored the reaction in Japan Sinks far too much for comfort. Stepping back from the cultural analysis, Japan Sinks is all kinds of disaster fun. How can a person not enjoy Fuji blowing its top and Tokyo sinking dramatically beneath the waves? All we need now is a giant monster attack.

Rating: Well, wholesale tragedy, collective national heartbreak, individual acts of heroism overshadowed by official incompetence and a cruel world… how about the English National Team?