Japanese literature, at least as it is known to those of us who cannot read it in the original, is in a position similar to that of Western classical music. Just as classical music lovers are likely to be more familiar with composers who died 100 or more years ago than with those who are now writing music, so readers of Japanese literature in translation are more likely to have read “The Tale of the Genji,” prewar masters such as Soseki Natsume and giants of the immediate postwar years such as Yukio Mishima than they are (with the exception of a couple of big names) to have read the work of Japanese authors now writing. That this is the case becomes abundantly clear when one scans the list of writers featured in the recent “New Japanese Fiction” issue of the American journal The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Those of us who keep up with Japanese literature will certainly know Haruki Murakami and may recognize the name Masahiko Shimada, but the other eight authors chosen by editors Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory will almost certainly be new. We must be grateful, therefore, to McCaffery and Gregory for expanding our literary horizons.
As this will likely be our first encounter with several of the writers included here, and may also be our first encounter with Japanese fiction of the postmodern, fabulous, often science-fictional type that these writers produce, the short introductions to and interviews with each of the authors that preface their works are useful. We learn, for example, that Yoshio Aramaki, early in his career, wrote “a heavily theoretical science-fiction manifesto,” and that from there he went on to produce what he calls “Virtual Reality War Novels” featuring “Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the real-life naval commander during World War II, as a central character reincarnated in alternate history.”
Knowing this we are not at all surprised to find that his “Soft Clocks,” included here, does not take place among the shoji and tatami of traditional Japan, or even among the high-rises of Tokyo, but for the most part on a version of the planet Mars where several of Salvador Dali’s paintings have, with the help of advanced technology, been brought to life. As bizarre as the story may sound, however, it is characterized by the narrative drive typical of adventure tales — the sort of popular tales Aramaki would later go on to write. He makes us care enough about his world that we are forced to tear through the pages in our eagerness to learn if and how the character called DALI — not the painter — will be stopped before, “running into the melting desert, 30 feet tall, devouring boulders and handfuls of red sand,” he consumes, in his overpowering gluttony, all of Mars.
This commitment to narrative is characteristic of many of the writers included in this collection. Kiyoshi Kasai, for example, shares this desire to keep readers turning pages, and it is precisely this desire that has driven Kasai to forms that exist on the margin of what is conventionally thought to be literature. “Detective fictions or SF novels,” he explains, are “trying to recover narrativity,” and are therefore, to Kasai, more compelling than that sort of writing normally branded “avant-garde.”
Thus he has given us, in “Oedipus City,” a science-fiction tale that is exciting not only intellectually, but also viscerally. He makes us want to understand the secret of the society he has created, a domed community that has survived “The Great Destruction” and in which fathers as we know them appear not to exist and sexual relations between sons and mothers are the norm.
Yumi Matsuo, in “Murder in Balloon Town” also employs elements of science fiction: the story takes place at a time when most women who become pregnant do not carry their babies to term but rather employ “artificial uteruses.” She mixes the SF up, though, with the police procedural. Those few pregnant women who elect not to employ artificial uteruses live together in a part of Tokyo called Balloon Town. When a murder appears to have been committed by one of these pregnant women, it is up to a young female detective, a member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Force, to go undercover in Balloon Town in an attempt to catch the killer. Like the stories discussed above, this tale is rich not only in event, but also in ideas. Matsuo examines, for example, pregnant women’s loss of identity — there were witnesses to the murder, but all they saw was the perpetrator’s stomach — as well as the ethics of alternative means of giving birth or, in the case of those who’d rather not, aborting fetuses. What is clear is that Matsuo’s novella — we only get an excerpt of it — is a cracking good read.
In fact there is not a tale in this collection, however bizarre its premise, however unfamiliar — to those of us accustomed to a diet of Soseki and Junichiro Tanizaki — the conventions it employs, that will not offer something of interest to the open-minded reader. As enjoyable as the work is, however, one does regret that much of it is not actually all that new. The most recently published story here included, for example, dates from the mid-’90s; the oldest, “Soft Clocks,” was published in 1968, just a year after Oe’s “Silent Cry.” Thus one sees that the editors, rather than giving us truly new Japanese fiction, have provided instead a snapshot of a certain type of Japanese fiction as it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. This being the case, those of us who wish to know what Japanese writers are doing now must hope that McCaffery and Gregory are at work on a volume more up-to-date than this one.