Introduction to Speculative Japan Vol. 3


Darrell Schweitzer

It's not for me to say if these stories are "typically Japanese." As an outsider, I can only point out what non-Japanese think are "typical" Japanese characteristics, and whether or not they are present. You will find some of those expectations fulfilled here. Certainly Asamatsu Ken's "A White Camellia in a Vase," in which a samurai is preoccupied with aesthetics and the placement of a single flower in an otherwise bare room, seems very Japanese to me. This is the sort of minimalism we see in Japanese art, where the subtlest details matter. But what seems more "typically Japanese" is that the elderly samurai can care about such things without any suggestion that he has lost any of his masculine, heroic character. You would not see a medieval European knight or a Homeric warrior behaving that way. So the foreign reader can indeed see that these stories are—unsurprisingly—written from a different set of cultural assumptions, which is part of their charm and their fascination. At the same time I think I see a Western influence here. The winking flowers at the end call to mind nothing more than Arthur Machen's observation (from "The White People") that true evil is a perversion of natural law: ". . . if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad."

At the same time, some of the stories in this book are surprisingly outward-looking and cosmic in a manner we have rarely seen in Anglophone science fiction since, at the very least, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End if not the works of Olaf Stapledon. "To the Blue Star" by Ogawa Issui is exceptionally ambitious. The protagonist is a machine hive-mind which is the successor to the human race. The action takes place over hundreds of thousands of years. Fujita Masaya's "Angel French" is on a smaller scale only by comparison. The title may refer to a type of donut, but the story itself spans light-years and centuries, as two lovers (or their post-human memories, programmed into space probes) are reunited very far away from the story's starting point.

The range is impressive. Mori Natsuko's "It's All Thanks to Saijō Hideki" is very subversively strange indeed. Whether it is intended to be a kind of black comedy is hard for me to tell, because of cultural distance, and because it is a translation, but consider this: the human race has been wiped out by a virus. The last female in the world is a typical 15-year-old Japanese schoolgirl in pigtails and sailor uniform, a figure familiar enough from manga, except she is also a giantess and desires only intimate female companionship. When she finally meets the last man, he's a drag queen. Now what?

We see in Ayatsuji Yukito's "Heart of Darkness" something akin to surrealism and also a moral fable about human perversity. Onda Riku's "The Warning" is a neat little horror story, largely narrated by a dog given the ability to read and write by aliens. Marc Schultz's "Green Tea Ice Cream" is a science fictional medical horror story of sorts, written from a different perspective, that of a foreigner resident in Japan. The style is a little more Western, American I would guess without knowing anything about Mr. Schultz. It is a very moving story about Japanese people and Japanese beliefs. Is it, or are any of the stories in this excellent collection, "typically Japanese"?

That may be the wrong question to ask. Japan has, of course, its own literary tradition going back many centuries to at least The Tale of Genji, and it has in modern times its own distinct speculative tradition. But these stories are universal. They are human. We can relate to them emotionally, regardless of who we are. Some, like "To the Blue Star," consider all of humanity (or post-humanity) at once, without reference to specific nationality or culture. What the Western reader looks for initially in a book like this is strangeness—difference—but what he finds ultimately is commonality. That is the message of these stories, that, despite any differences, when it comes to the most important things in life, we are all the same. We are one.

November 2012
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


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