JSF News & Views: The Nihon SF Taishō Awards
by Ebihara Yutaka
© 2009 Ebihara Yutaka
The Nihon SF Taishō (日本SF大賞) is one of the four major Japanese SF annual awards, together with the Nihon SF Shinjinshō (日本SF新人賞) for new writers) and the Nihon SF Hyōronshō (日本SF評論賞) for critical works. These awards are sponsored by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of Japan (SFWJ), a professional society. The fourth major SF award is the Seiunshō, which SF fans vote on directly at the Nihon SF Taikai annual convention (日本ＳＦ大会).
Five members of SFWJ constitute the final committee for the SF Taishō, and the committee for the 2008 award consisted of Azuma Hiroki, Arai Motoko, Ōta Tadashi, Tobi Hirotaka and Hagio Moto. This time, the Nihon SF Taishō was awarded to Kishi Yūsuke (貴志祐介) for his novel From a New World (新世界より; Shin Sekai Yori), and to Iso Mitsuo (磯光雄) for the TV anime series he directed named Dennō Coil (電脳コイル). The special award was given to the late Noda Masahiro (野田昌宏).
From a New World
Kishi's two-volume hardcover novel From a New World runs to over a thousand pages. The author describes a new world set in far-future Japan, where the population has decreased greatly and people live peacefully in small communities. Although they are as human as we are today, there is one crucial difference between them and us: They possess an almost magical power called juryoku (呪力; literally means 'magical power'). This is shown as a form of psychokinesis, the power by which people can mentally move, cut, throw and roll various objects at a distance. Everyone in the world is naturally gifted with this powerful ability. Since they are born with the power, society makes a great effort to train and develop it at school, an educational institution organized and run by the adults in the villages. Children are taught how to enhance and control their inheritance so that they can contribute to the prosperity of their society.
Watanabe Saki, the narrator, describes how she grew up there, sometimes relating precious memories of her best friends: Shun, Satoru, Mamoru and Maria. As a preschooler she ran and played in the wild fields near the village with her friends, feeling comfortable and protected by the nearness of the village and at the same time wondering what was like 'outside.' She vividly recalls past incidents, including classroom studies, their collaboration in a sports-like game where they must use only their magic to defeat their rivals, and a critical camping trip. This trip leads them to the dark and forbidden knowledge of their origin and history.
On the camping trip they encounter the minoshiro-modoki (ミノシロモドキ). In Japanese, "modoki" means "mimicry" so minoshiro-modoki would literally means "something that mimics a minoshiro, a fictional creature with strange habits. People are forbidden not only to touch it, but even to speak to it. In fact, the minoshiro-modoki is a small device invented by the previous civilization as an autonomous flying search engine, which can go wherever it wants to and offers immediate access to an enormous library database. Because of minoshiro-modoki's easy access to the huge store of information, the intellectual elite are afraid that forbidden knowledge might leak to the general public through it.
The children are well aware of the rule, but Shun is unable to resist his curiosity and asks about the world's history, most of which has been deleted from their education. It tells Saki and her friends of the war long ago between the new humans with psychokinetic powers and the original humans who lacked special abilities. When it has almost revealed all of the mysteries of their civilization, it is suddenly destroyed by an adult who discovers them. While the device was destroyed before it exposed all of the truth, Saki and her friends still hope to learn what the world really is, especially after Shun's tragic death.
The novel describes Saki and her friends growing up while depicting the beauty of the world, providing a successful reading experience. Although some of the diverse creatures there are identical to ones existing today, most are completely different from those we are familiar with. Some were gengineered, and others are the products of long evolutionary sequences, but the detailed descriptions of these creatures native to the new world capture the reader's imagination. Most of the creatures have been given proper names in kanji characters, somewhat unusual in Japanese SF where katakana names have become the norm, effectively stimulating the imagination of Japanese readers.
The most impressive and important creature is, without any doubt, the bake-nezumi (バケネズミ), which literally means a monstrous rat. They are said to have evolved from rodents in their own way, gaining the intelligence to construct their own civilization, although it is primitive. Like ants, bake-nezumi form colonies built around queens with reproductive ability. They have their own language, culture and technology. The bake-nezumi look to the humans with psychokinesis, far more powerful and intelligent than they are, as gods, and in one sense they are almost the subjects of human masters.
One day Saki happens to fall into the hands of a colony of bake-nezumi and is almost killed. As they refuse to obey her commands, Saki has no choice but to fight, and in the course of her adventure is astonished at their intelligence, even though she had been taught they are not as intelligent as humans. The more Saki learns about how the world was made, the more it becomes apparent that the bake-nezumi are intimately related to it.
From a New World looks not only at Saki, other arresting characters and creatures in the world, but also probes the world itself. The surrounding world is as important in any consideration of the novel as the characters, and the author presents an incisive look at our own world through the eyes of a psychokinetic woman of the future.
Iso Mitsuo's Dennō-Coil
Iso Mitsuo's Dennō-Coil is an animated TV series broadcast from May 12 to December 1, 2007. While the word dennō (電脳) actually means 'electronic brain' or computer, in Japanese it has traditionally been used as a translation of 'cyber.' For example, cyberspace is usually translated as dennō kūkan (電脳空間; kūkan means space or volume). In this anime version of near-future Japan, cyber-technology is sophisticated and easily available, accessed through wearable 'cyber-eyeglasses' called dennō megane. Anime is the most appropriate medium to render such a cyberworld, because it can add the cyberspace description as a layer on top of the real world. Like putting on and taking off the eyeglasses, anime can easily switch from the real to the cyber world.
There are two main female protagonists: Okonogi Yūko, usually called Yasako, and Amasawa Yūko, usually called Isako (both heroines share the first name Yūko, although written with different characters; as often happens in real life, they have been given nicknames to avoid confusion). Yasako keeps Densuke, a cyber-pet, but the day she moves to Daikoku City Densuke encounters a cyber-virus and disappears.
Yasako begins to search for Densuke, fearing the worst, and discovers that Densuke is still extant but trapped. She is helpless, but is fortunately helped by a girl detective who operates in cyberspace. Yasako is invited to join the cyberspace detective group, and so she begins a new life in Daikoku starts. Isako is also a newcomer to Daikoku City, but unlike Yasako, she has come to expose the secrets of the cyber-world.
Cyberspace is populated by various dennō creatures, many of which resemble the yōkai, traditional Japanese ghosts and monsters. They are not always either good or bad, but they are unquestionably cute and simultaneously mysterious, drumming up audience interest.
Noda Masahiro (野田昌宏), winner of the special award, was one of the founding fathers of Japanese science fiction. Without his contribution Japanese science fiction would have been very different indeed, and far poorer. He was an active author, translator and essayist, with translations including a wide range of space operas such as Edmond Hamilton's Star Wolf trilogy, Neil R Jones' Professor Jameson, of course Captain Future, and A Bertram Chandler's Rim World and John Grimes series. Japanese science fiction fans will never forget him, and continue his work in building a bright future for Japanese science fiction.