Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, November 15, 2012

1989: The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories (Apostolou, J.L. & Greenberg, M.H.)

Bizarre, fantastic, mystical, horrific - great slice of translated literature (4/5)

With 120 books unread on my shelves, I promised myself to not buy any more books from my local secondhand bookstore until I could put a good dent in my to-read collection. When I was exchanging some books for credit, I stupidly looked at the “New Arrivals” shelf and my eyes launched from their sockets when The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories met the glassy film of my cornea. I bought it without grudge to my promise—this was a rarity, a must-have! So in my shelf it went… and then out it came when I couldn’t bridle my eagerness to flip through its pages before year’s end.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Most Americans would describe Japanese science fiction with one word: Godzilla. However, true fans of the genre know that for decades, Japan has been turning out some of the most innovative stories ever published. Unfortunately, those that make it into English are often difficult to find. The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories, brings together the most outstanding short stories of this body of literature.”

Some of these stories are difficult to synopsize in eight lines (in my lined notebook I use for short stories). Sometimes I have to cram so much into those eight lines that the crux of the story becomes lost, or sometimes I have to fill in the space with adjectives and lists. I was met with both quandaries when synopsizing these thirteen short stories. Atop of this, some of the material is so allegorical that I can’t decide whether to synopsize the story OR the allegory, or both. Perhaps is common of Japanese science fiction or simply a whim of the editors and consulting editors (Grania Davis and Judith Merril).

There’s some great food for thought in these pages, be it because of the layered allegories, the horrific implications, or thoughtful presentations. The low-rankings of some of the stories are reflective of my inability to penetrate the meaning of the story, perhaps because each are laden with a certain Japanese-ness which will forever escape me.

Note: The years cited are the earliest dates I could find for the original copyright or publication of each story, which is usually earlier than the translation dates.


The Flood: Kobo Abe (1989, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by Lane Dunlop
“Humankind if threatened by a new disease—liquefaction" (21)
A philosopher witnesses a construction worker slowly dissolve into an ambulatory puddle of water. Soon, other middle-class workers also begin to form their own puddles and even unite to form large mobile masses within lakes, cups, or clouds. After a few deaths from thimblefuls of water, the fear of water is widespread, so Noah builds his ark, loads his animals, and provokes the rising flood to take his ship and his life. 7 pages

Cardboard Box: Ryo Hanmura (1974, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by David Lewis
“Contemplated in allegory is the fate of ordinary working people" (28)
Boxes in a factory become self-aware when their bottoms are taped shut. At the prospect of being filled, they are overjoyed. Once filled with tangerines and brimming with rapture, the boxes meet a “a box for pencil boxes” in the loading truck who spins a story of abuse and abandonment which all boxes must face. The protagonist box, however, desires to be filled until no space remains, yet witnesses the death of his cuboid comrades. 12 pages

Tansu: Ryo Hanmura (1983, shortstory) – 2/5
Translated by Shimizu Hitomi, Joel Dames, Stephen David, and Grania Davis
”A strange story concerning an old wooden chest" (40)
An elder mother recounts a tale of a fisherman named Ichisuke who was married and had eight children. One day the youngest boy dragged in a “tansu” wooden chest and sat upon it at night. The father was terse with the boy but he persists on sleeping atop the chest. Later, the man’s parents, his wife, and all eight children were sitting perched on a number of “tansu”. Unable to cope, the man sets sail and eventually sails back. 7 pages

Bokko-chan: Shinichi Hoshi (1963, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by Noriyoshi Saito
“The story of a B-girl who didn’t have a heart of gold" (47)
An ingenious bartender created a robot complete in female form whose charms could woo his patrons. Though lacking in conversational depth, the men in town grew fonder and fonder of the unknowingly robotic lass behind the bartender’s counter. Given drinks which were then drained and served again, the little charming robotess made him good money, but also broke one young man’s heart to the point of contemplating murder. 5 pages

Hey-y, Come on Ou-t!: Shinichi Hoshi (1971, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by Stanleigh Jones
“The discovery of a deep hole has extraordinary impact on life in a small town" (52)
A small village struck by a storm discovers a landslide which swallowed a shrine and replaced it with a deep hole. Word spread and reporters and scientists alike come to the scene to investigate the seemingly bottomless void. The town hands over the rights to one man who opens the pit up to anyone wanting to dispose of anything: nuclear waste, evidence, diaries, garbage, etc. Meanwhile, the cities and towns flourish. 6 pages 

The Road to the Sea: Takashi Ishikawa (1981, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Judith Merril and Tetsu Yano
“A boy searches for the sea he’s never seen" (58)
Having seen the sea in picture-books alone, a boy sets off to see the sea with his own two eyes. On the way, the boy meets an old man at the end of town who locates the sea in the sky alone. Unperturbed by his ill logic, the boy continues on foot over mountains and plains to chase his imagination, filled with whales, sharks, mermaids, octopi, kelp, coral, and pirates. 4 pages

The Empty Field: Morio Kita (1973, shortstory) – 2/5
Translated by Kinya Tsuruta and Judith Merril
“A crowd gathers to witness a momentous event" (62)
Atop a vacant hill wait a group of youth ready to receive messages from a UFO. Though only rumored, their expectations on this barren crest are electric, yet an old man, a reporter for a magazine or television, remembers the bounty that the hill once held. Amid the locusts and gnats, the rumors are real yet only the memory of the past echoing forward through time feels real. 12 pages

The Savage Mouth: Sakyo Komatsu (1969, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Judith Merril
“A horrific tale by Japan’s leading SF writer" (74)
Sickened by the absurdity of life, one man prepares to turn his own world inside-out. Stocked with pans, knives, slicers, burners, an over, sauces, vegetables, and relishes, the man sets up the last and most important piece of equipment which he has procuring for three months. Supine on the table with his legs stretched, the machine cuts and cauterizes, slices and dices. Order up. 11 pages

Take Your Choice: Sakyo Komatsu (1967, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Shiro Tamura and Grania Davis
“The ultimate escape: a one-way ticket to the future" (85)
Roaming alleyways in search of a shop which promises one-way time travel, a man hopes that his 2.5 million credit payment will be worth his choice of three possible futures: an ultra-modern technological society through door one’s scene, an ecological Eden for society in door two, and a nuclear holocaust in door three. Knowing the seen future is twenty years away, the man chooses door three, as so many others have chosen. 19 pages

Triceratops: Tensei Kono (1982, shortstory) – 3/5
Translated by David Lewis
“A funny thing happened on the way home—a dinosaur crossed our path" (104)
A father and his son bike in the hills surrounding their home’s subdivision when they witness a shadowy giant cross their path. His wife discredits their exaggeration of the rhino-shaped intruder as no news report had surfaced, yet again the oddity manifests itself in their garden only to disappear through a stone wall. Later, other dinosaurs appear transparent in the daylight to the duo, who also witness a carnivore/herbivore confrontation. 17 pages

Fnifmum: Taku Mayumura (1989, shortstory) – 5/5
Translated by Katsumi Shindo and Grania Davis
“A surreal love story that spans centuries" (121)
His body spanning a length of time, Fnifmum bores of using his “sensory organ” to see the same sights in the same eras along his temporal growth. For want of company, he looks to his tail, earliest in time, to communicate with Honycominah, but the time of their first meeting is too far back. Instead, he looks forward, ahead in his latest growth, to see two human escapees. 9 pages

Standing Woman: Yasutaka Tsutsui (1974, shortstory) – 4/5
Translated by David Lewis
“A future society uses a frightening method to provide urban greenery" (130)
Exceeding a metropolis, a megalopolis faces even greater problems of both crime and green space. A postman and mail clerk complain of their wages only to get their feet planted into the ground to become a manpillar and, one day, a mantree. The same treatment goes to embittered housewives and students who line the streets, while dogpillars anc catpillars occupy gardens to be fed and loved or forgotten and to become a bonepillar. 14 pages

The Legend of the Paper Spaceship: Tetsu Yano (1978, novelette) – 4/5
Translated by Gene Van Troyer and Tokomo Oshiro
“A poignant tale from the dean of Japanese SF writers" (144)
An isolated mountain village in Japan is home to Osen, a woman swathed in rumor and mystery—said to be the remaining heir to a family fortune and sole survivor to a family massacre. The reality is that she’s the town harlot and flies around a paper airplane while naked. When she births a son, her songs may represent corrupted versions of historical lullabies and point as interstellar finger at her true origin. 31 pages


  1. Kobe Abe is amazing. His novel Woman in the Dunes is a disturbed classic. I recommend not only the novel but the movie adaptations of his works (he wrote the screenplays for the films) -- Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) and the science fictional art-house trip, The Face of Another (1966) -- one of the more gorgeous experiences ever, and downright disturbing as well -- of course, you have to be in a Japanese cinema mood. I haven't watched Abe's third Teshigahara collaboration, Pitfall (1962) yet....

    Kobe Abe also wrote a body of science fiction novels -- Inter Ice Age 4 (1959) about genetically modified gilled children who must now live in water, or The Ark Sakura (1984) about a recluse who attempts to sell tickets to his mine shaft ark in preparation for the apocalypse....

    (great review, as always....)

  2. Hey! I just stumbled across your blog, and I love it! Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and taking an interest! I appreciate the feedback and the encouragement :D