Unparalleled collection in quality, variety and depth (5/5)
- Komatsu, Sakyo: “Savage Mouth”
- Hirai, Kazumasa: “A Time for Revolution”
- Tensei, Kono: “Hikari”
- Taku, Mayumura: “I’ll Get Rid of Your Discontent”
- Ishikawa, Takashi: “The Road to the Sea”
- Yamano, Koichi: “Where Do the Bird Fly Now”
- Toyota, Aritsune: “Another Prince of Wales”
- Fukushima, Masami: “The Flower’s Life is Short”
- Ohara, Mariko: “Girl”
- Tsutsui, Yasutaka: “Standing Woman”
- Hanmura, Ryo: “Cardboard Box”
- Yano, Shinji: “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship”
- Kaijo, Shinji: “Reiko’s Universe Box”
- Kawakami, Hiromi: “Mogera Wogura”
- Yoshimasu Gozo: “Adrenalin”
Komatsu, Sakyo: “Savage Mouth” (shortstory, 1968/1978) – 5/5
Synopsis: Sickened by the absurdity of life, one man prepares to turn his own world inside-out. Stocked with pans, knives, slicers, burners, an oven, sauces, vegetables, and relishes, the man sets up the last and most important piece of equipment which he has been procuring for three months. Supine on the table with his legs stretched, the machine cuts and cauterizes, slices and dices. Order up.
Analysis: This is a classic piece of the horror sub-genre known as “body horror” and my favorite piece to-date. Not only is the scenario graphic and horrific, but the underlying allegory plays on a few different levels.
The obvious superficial parallel to the gruesome plot which the reader will first be drawn to is the connection between the consumer and their consumption—here, one in the same. The self-cannibal, an unnamed man as mysterious as his true motives, seeks independence from the vicious cycle of consumption and waste. Slowly, the man is able to work on his grisly task from the ground up—legs, waist, innards, etc. The titled “savage mouth” is the same mouth as the ever-consuming capitalist.
But looking at the man’s original stated motives—“The world we live in is worthless, absurd. Staying alive is an absurdly worthless thing” (43)—the reader can see his desperation for returning to a primitive state where reason is inconsequential and beyond the grasp of the animal-state. Through self-cannibalism and replacing his fleshy body with prosthetics, he becomes less human and more unnatural. His final conscious act of consuming that which makes him conscious is his parting wish, resulting in a animalistic urge to feed without reason—“the blind aggressive compulsion that lies in wait at the heart of all animals” (51).
Hirai, Kazumasa: “A Time for Revolution” (shortstory, 1963/2007) – 5/5
Synopsis: With the mindset of a common bully and with the ruthlessness of a gang boss that he is, Shin and his band of brother rules his petty piece of turf with an iron fist in 1967. While knocking back a whiskey and waiting to collect his protection fee, Shin’s mind is flooded with poetry he later learns is from Byron. Confused by his newly found gift of poetry and sympathy, Shin heads home, where the artists in his mind hatch their plan.
Analysis: The plot written in the synopsis is framed by the artists in the latter portion of the same synopsis. The story initially opens when a small group of humans emerges from the Pit—the deep underground prison where all humanity is kept, bred to become akin to domestic pigs. The earth, however, is scorched and barren and they are being chased by their captors. Being a world dominated by machines, it is the machines that they fear, hate, and wish destroyed.
In a time when—I guess like any other time in post-war Japan, actually—technology was becoming an increasing part of daily life, there was an obsession with mechanization in all areas of life (even massages—the first massage chair was invented in Japan in 1954). All this mechanization replaced the skill of human hands, thereby devaluing our humanity. If machines can do everything that our hands and minds can do, what is there left to our so-called humanity? In the Pit, the artists carry the torch of the human spirit in their artistic endeavors, but their subterranean prison is merely another prison within the barren earth.
Naturally, with progress there is something left behind. When there is collective progress, very little attention is paid to what’s being left behind, only that forward is the way to go. The naysayers of progress are seen as conservative, but they also act as a telescope to the past, re-evaluating modern ways in terms of the past—a past which is continually being lost. Kazumasa Hirai may be insinuating that artists are our links to the past, but aren’t Luddites more in touch with the past?
Tensei, Kono: “Hikari” (shortstory, 1976/2007) – 5/5
Synopsis: Along the railway line, another city of lights sends its spectral beacon into the defused sky. As one man wonders of the oddity of its alienness, another man tells his tale of its becoming while others hang on his every word. One day, his family became placid and content—brightness blazed behind their eyes. They were left oblivious to emotion and maintained a clean godliness to the city. When confronted with the errant ways of the flesh, enlightenment came. 15 pages
Analysis: Inspiration strikes some in unseen yet life-changing ways; sometimes, a dream will shift your perspective on reality or a single instance can flip your paradigm. These epiphanies elevate the human experience, embracing individual experience for the better—in essence, these enlightenments help us become better, more positive people. However, this change is purely internal and does not actually change the world around us… unless it’s collective.
In “Hikari”, this enlightenment (if I must use a play on words—the people of light do experience a sort of transcendence) benefits those touched by its simplicity. They are objective in every approach, even to family matters; they see cleanliness and godliness, like the wholeness of white light; and they actually care for the errant humans in their community. The ones not touched by the otherwise shared objectiveness, are the errant ones, the ones attached to vice. Their anger boils over as they feel belittled by the perfect emotionless of the touched. Though the touched cause no direct injury or harm, the errant ones channel their internal anger externally toward the touched—a move which, itself, transcends the boundaries between the two kinds of people. As an individual epiphany can change the world very little, a collective epiphany can radiate the light of righteousness.
Taku, Mayumura: “I’ll Get Rid of Your Discontent” (shortstory, 1962/2007) – 5/5
Synopsis: A curious shabby item at a curious shabby store draws one man’s attention yet he is unable to read the paper instructions of the object unless her purchases the hand-sized trinket. Inside, he discovers the welcome gift of three wishes that will appease his discontent. Amid an argument with his boss, he uses his first wish; while a train arrives late, he uses his second; the third placates a friendship. Regardless of the “fatal” consequence, he keeps it.
Analysis: Pain is an essential mammalian experience that requires all mammals to learn in order to avoid repeating the same mistake, the same pain. However, pain comes in many varieties: the physical pain of cold, heat and pressure; the mental pain of regret, sadness and anger. Each experience with these pains alters our approach to life—you get burned by a flame, you stay away from flames; you get burned by a blond, you stay away from blonds.
If this learning tool is avoided, the physical and mental scars will build up over time into a eviscerated mess of primality… but if this learning tool is replaced with one that changes the experience, what will the result be? Without the physical sense of pain, a man would become a human bulldozer, without emotional pain, a man would become, yet again, a human bulldozer. Therefore, pain is essential as a learning tool because it aligns our trust on painlessness as a pleasant experience.
Now, compare: a) to be without pain because of invulnerability and b) to be without pain because of contentment. Respectively, one is a Caterpillar bulldozer and the other is a Woomba vacuum; one is a wrecking ball and the other is an aggie marble. If a bulldozer had emotion, how would it feel if it suddenly became a vacuum? If a wrecking ball had emotion, how would it feel if it suddenly became a marble?
Ishikawa, Takashi: “The Road to the Sea” (shortstory, 1970/1981) – 5/5
Synopsis: 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.
Analysis: Starry-eyed from the fictitious tales in his storybooks, a boy lives a fantasy in his head of all things oceanic. Seemingly without supervision, he sets out on his own to witness the great expanse of the sea not knowing the distance of location of the same sea. His youthful innocence and inquisitiveness are admirable, yet the old man who stops him is the hurdle in his quest: heed his advice and turn back or push through and seek out.
Though erratic in his words and actions, the old man—a fork in the road of the boy’s journey—is wise with age and his peculiarities may have a grain of truth. Too young to appreciate his elder’s advice, the boy pushes on. Did his culture not engrain in him the importance of heeding advice from his elders? Even if he had accepted this tacit custom, should he allow the subjective truth from one man to smother his dream.
Like the many pinches of salt in the ocean, the boy takes the old man’s words with a grain of salt and pushes forth, directionless, toward the ocean which surely must be over the horizon. He sleeps and walks, repeats these actions, and eventually stops to look at the stars in the desert night, longing for home to which he can never return.
Yamano, Koichi: “Where Do the Bird Fly Now” (novelette, 1971/2007) – 4/5
Synopsis: The sight and flight of birds are often taken for granted, but one man’s interest is piqued when he experiences birds swooping in front of his face, but no one else shares his vision. Further, it seems that they are a figment of his mind but not his imagination. With each swoop, the man’s reality is altered along parallel universes. Deep in the forest, he meets a self-described “bird watcher” who knows of the trans-dimensional birds.
Analysis: The man in the story had always had birds flying “in front of his face” but they were actually trans-dimensional birds affecting his mind. Each time one of the birds swoops, the man’s reality is altered slightly to that of an alternate timeline; one bird is a small timeline change while a flock of the birds shifts his timeline drastically. However, the man hadn’t learned of this seemingly idiosyncratic phenomenon until late in his life even though the birds had always swooped. So, unknowingly to this man, his reality shifted time and time again yet he didn’t know that the reality he was experiencing wasn’t the same reality from where he originated.
That’s a pretty heavy statement: He never knew his reality was changing; He unknowingly lived each day in a different parallel universe; He could never be the same man as he had begun. This shows in the man’s resultant complacency when he learns the truth from the so-called bird watcher. The simple sparrows of trans-dimensional flight, which alter the man’s reality, swoop and flock with cause. The bird watcher knows: What happens to the bygone realities? To and from, where do the birds fly? What is their mode of existence?
The man’s experience seems to be unique, aside from the bird watcher’s inclusion. Why are they the only two to discover their altering perceptions of reality by cause of the birds? It’s not as if his old reality is forgotten about; he can pick up a newspaper and see minor differences from his old reality: “Janis Joplin releases third album → Janis Joplin dies suddenly” (107). Unfortunately, he cannot control this changes, he cannot generate a more idealistic reality to counter instances of past regret.
One major event that changes his perspective, and the onset for the story, is one of death and fire. Viewing the mayhem with Noriko, a bird swoops; the following day, his companion, Noriko, couldn’t recall the event of death and fire. Eventually, Noriko disappears from his reality. Barring Noriko’s inability to recall the event, some events in our lives seem to have no catalyst for change, no impetus for a shift in our daily lives, no cause for the result, no why for the altered now. How many times has someone just dropped from your life without a word, never to be heard from again? Two words, two proper nouns, one name: Alison Mayfield. It happened to me when I was only 15 years old. I must have been living in a bubble universe because no one else knew her—her and I existed on one plane of reality then she suddenly shifted from my timeline; gone forever; no causation.
Tracking down causation for change is an ancient human endeavor and is more often than not granted to the power of the gods. Here in “Where Do the Birds Fly Now”, this agent of change isn’t a supernatural god, but trans-dimensional birds whose plan/flight/flocking is just as mysterious as the causation for so many of our daily struggles with change.
Toyota, Aritsune: “Another Prince of Wales” (shortstory, 1970/2007) – 3/5
Synopsis: In the twenty-first century, England and Japan have mutually declared war on each other and the United Nations approves of the formal hostilities. People around the world rejoice and are eager for the climactic battle limited to war machines of 1941. Keith is on the War Supervision Commission for the UN, who travels to Japan to await the start of the battle, surrounded by eager recruits and anxious spectators.
Analysis: Keith is mixed-blood man—the two halves from English and Japanese lineage. He is in a unique position to with the War Supervision Commission to assess the motivations of the two war instigators. Whereas the Europeans see war as a game where prisoners are held, traded or even cared for, war for the Japanese is a serious affair of art and dignity; rather than capturing prisoners, soldiers are executed. Times have changed, however, and war has been formalized into an absurd game.
The War Commission exists so that war is ensured to entertain the population of the world and that that war is exciting, going so far as to even have a favoring hand in the battle so that the brief clash satisfies the masses. These occasional and very brief wars are valves of stress that countries use to release tension and that people watch to ease their own tension. If this reflects our reality, does America, then, have too much pent up stress? Do they feel the need to bloodlet because of their stressful way of life? I guess being the self-imposed world police would be kind of a stressful job especially when that police force is so ignorant of the same world. To quote George Orwell: “"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
Fukushima, Masami: “The Flower’s Life is Short” (shortstory, 1967/2007) – 3/5
Synopsis: With an electronic synthesizer, Rina creates luminescent flower arrangements in vivid and three-dimensional works of art. In her eighth decade of life, she is dedicated to her art and remains unattached to any partner. Her friend Yuri offers her a teaching position, but when contemplating the career move, Rina’s lover from fifty years ago manifests in her studio, making her long for a move in relationship, too. 10 pages
Analysis: Through the course of a flower’s life, it will bloom untold times, each time as beautiful and similar as the last. People, too, blossom throughout their lives in terms of their career, sexuality, education, etc. While each of these is a subjectively unique experience to the person, the objective view is one much like that of the blooming rose: one blossom is just like the rest all over the world. Subjectively, when we anticipate a fresh blooming—the pinnacle of an achievement or ceremony of accomplishment—some residual scent of past accomplishment (blooming) always lingers on the mind; this success and reminder of success is a familiar friend.
As Rina contemplates her next professional blooming as a teacher, her mind recalls the blossoming of love she had earlier in her life. Though she loved and lost, her finding a man whom she can love enduringly when apart is a big part of her artistic soul. Her reverie of fantasizing about teaching is shattered by the recall of her love life; however, just as their time together was brief long ago, this illusion is far too short. Her mixed sentimentality of success (blooming) catches her off guard, thereby dampening the excitement she held for the teaching position. Awash in regret, her tired heart flutters like autumn leaves.
Ohara, Mariko: “Girl” (shortstory, 1985/1991) – 3/5
Synopsis: An avian-like man with mammalian breasts sips cups of nectar at a bar and receives unwelcome stares and free drinks from admirers around. Calling himself Gil, yet unrecognizable from his original form as Jill Abel, he leaves the bar and falls in love with a woman in ill repute; unfortunately, they make separate ways, leaving Gil heart-broken. Dancing an obscene dance on stage, Gil catches sight of the woman again.
Analysis: This is one of the most bizarre stories in the collection, so it’s not surprising that it’s difficult to pin down an analysis which fits most nuances of the story. Jill Abel seems to be a personality of some repute, regardless of this repute being ill or distinguished, Jill has some cause for celebrity which they have cast off in order to assume a lesser yet more flamboyant appearance. Assumingly and psychologically, Jill was a male but has since resorted to a female named Gil, though their physical being exists in the grey area between the sexes.
With Jill’s transformation to Gil, internal emotional luggage is carried along regardless of the exterior façade of sexuality. Their choice to assume a more ostentatious plumage, a more ridiculous exterior, does not quell the internal struggle that they had experienced prior to the change. Once proud of Jill’s fame, now Gil survives with being a dancer as gaudy as their chosen attire; but depression follows them in spite of any change. When this girl shakes their world, their life is momentarily changed and they’re unable to focus… possibly a symptom of their indecision or indecisiveness to choose a path for life, sex, or sexuality (IMHO, not that there are actually two separate, individual sexes, but rather a smeared grey between the two popular notions of male and female).
Tsutsui, Yasutaka: “Standing Woman” (shortstory, 1974/1981) – 4/5
Synopsis: For lack of greenery and for want of stiffer punishments, a city turns the unruly into arborous sculptures. 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—complete with foliage and bark. The same treatment goes to embittered housewives and students who line the streets, while dogpillars and catpillars occupy gardens to be fed and loved or forgotten to become derelict bonepillars.
Analysis: In a megapolis, dogs and cat—though only a few years old—can be seen pointless additions to the city’s strained resources; further, those even mildly embittered by daily inconveniences are seen as a superfluous part of the population. When a city is pressed to buy and place foliage within its constrained city limits, the excessive parts of the same city are snipped from their functions and placed in public areas.
Because it takes a while for a cat, dog or human to eventually grow into a tree, their initial planting is a reminder to the other urban dwellers to conform. Later, these same catpillars, dogpillars, and manpillars offer the city its greenery in their original form, be it with bark and leaves.
In “Standing Woman”, the reader sees this all through the eyes of a writer who see himself on the border of being rebellious and even superfluous to the city. His old dog Buff was once planted as a dogpillar only to be forgotten about by the city to become a bonepillar. Now, his wife has been planted just outside a hardware store. Though she’s still able to talk and retain some sensation, he fights an internal battle to show her his love by visiting or by respecting her wishes and staying away from her and her eventual pulpy entombment.
Hanmura, Ryo: “Cardboard Box” (shortstory, 1975/1980) – 5/5
Synopsis: 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 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.
Analysis: Kobo Abe’s shortstory “The Flood” was an allegory about the depression of the blue-collared working force and their struggle to find power when oppressed. This short story—one of only two published in English, which is also included in the same collection—is an allegory about the enthusiasm of university students in their diligent move to improve themselves for entering the work force. But the story goes further into their disillusionment when actually entering the work force, a hostile environment when its own perils. And little did they all know, life for them is just a conveyor belt.
After graduating high school, students are given their diplomas; they are deemed educated with the knowledge given them (they are “taped up” yet ubiquitous and numerous). Entering university, they are eager to fill their mental vessels with further knowledge; thus, being overjoyed. After being filled with tangerines (the live-giving fruit of knowledge), the university students meet a jaded professor (“a box for pencil boxes”) who warns them of the drudgery of blue-collar work and its ultimate fate—destruction (breaking down the box). Ever disillusioned, the last enthusiastic student of life endeavors to learn more and more, to be promoted higher and higher even while witnessing the burnout of their peers.
When the result of an education is only to end up as a salaryman, where does the enthusiasm die? How has youthful exuberance been quashed? What lays beyond retirement, what use is a person after their working age?
Yano, Shinji: “The Legend of the Paper Spaceship” (novelette, 1975/1984) – 4/5
Synopsis: 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 willing town harlot and folds and flies a paper airplane while naked. The town’s men take advantage of her youthful beauty while many of the women scoff at her indecency; regardless, her sexual existence inspires a minority of the town. When she becomes pregnant, the villagers are astonished to hear her speak as she demands that she keeps the baby, which the villagers reluctantly allow. One soldier visiting from outside hears her lyrical songs which he believes may represent corrupted versions of historical lullabies and point an interstellar finger at her true origin.
Publication: This is one of the most famous translated Japanese SF stories, having been published in seven different anthologies. That doesn’t surprise me because it has the beautiful aura of Japanese-esque with its imagery of bamboo enshrouded in mist. One thing is strange though: Tetsu Yano is considered “the Dean of Japanese SF” yet doesn’t have any other stories translated into English. Aside from the three publication stated above, this story can also be found in The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction (Penguin, 1986), Tales from the Planet Earth (St. Martin’s Press, 1986), and The Road to Science Fiction 6: Around the World (White Wolf Publishing, 1998).
Analysis: Though it may be the most famous and most published of the all the stories, it’s also one of the most straightforward stories in a collection where allegories abound. There’s a theme of identity lurking among the pages of this hauntingly beautiful story, but there is the added treat of linguistics which captures the mind of many readers.
Though a human in all physical regards, Osen is treated as an outsider because of her obscene behavior. Rather than being cared for and sheltered as their own kind, the villagers treat her an ostracized shame and the men also treat her as a pleasure palace. Her mind is an alien territory of insanity and ambiguity, but little do the villagers know that she may actually be from an actual alien territory.
Her son is better adjusted to the life of the village, though he too is ostracized for being the shameful spawn of Osen. Obviously able to speak and comprehend matters, he seems intelligent—only, they don’t know of his secret telepathic ability which he keeps to himself for his own means. The boy, Emon, slowly understands the common emotions of the people and even dips into the neurosis of many of them, including guilt and jealousy. He also senses that his mother, while disconnected from reality, also has the same telepathy but doesn’t employ it as he does.
The linguist part of the story is a slippery one; it may in fact directly relate to Osen’s heredity or it may simply be the observer’s fancy to explain the situation; regardless, the reader is left to draw their own conclusion. The soldier hears snippets of songs and thinks “with only a shift in syllabic division” or “single change of consonants” (209-210), the children’s song could explain to much more:
“First month—red snapper!”
“One: ship’s hull”
“Second month—then it’s shells!”
“Third—we have reserve, and”
From misunderstanding Osen and misunderstanding her song, the village had built Osen’s narrative for her: one with a scrambles mind who sings childish songs. The soldier, however, gets closer to her true narrative: the descendant of a star faring race who recants checklists for their return to space. Whether she’s an insane shame of the village or the insane child of the stars, he place on Earth is hopeless.
Kaijo, Shinji: “Reiko’s Universe Box” (shortstory, 1981/2007) – 4/5
Synopsis: Upon Ikutaro and Reiko’s wedding, they receive an anonymous gift of a “universe box” which actually contains a miniature universe within. As Ikutaro spends more time entertaining customers than with his subservient wife, Reiko’s attention shifts to the stellar mysteries of the box. Inside, a white star blazes, which she names Ikunosuke, and planets orbit. While these bodies have motion, the marriage quickly stagnates without emotions and one temper flares.
Analysis: The most intricate of gifts, the most detailed of items are often kept away, unappreciated, in closets or shelves so as to keep them from harm; fragile Bone Chine plates are stacked with liners in the dining room hutch while the plethora of visual and audio art on vinyl records are slotted away in the stereo cabinet. Another remarkably detailed gift is that of a human relationship; however, unlike plates and records, which can be rediscovered and brought back out, the stowing of emotion is irrevocable.
The husband invests his time at work, perhaps securing a future for the young couple, but while he’s thinking merely of the future, he has forgotten the single-most important focus of the now—his emotion. His wife had to find a way to cope with the emotionless state of her husband, the simple and placid state of their lives, so she turns her attention to the wonder held within the glassed box; there, she finds remarkable detail of which her marriage has been without. The husband finds this turn of attention to be adulterous. Rather than share in the wonder of detail from the box or in their emotion, the chasm of misunderstanding divides them, a chasm like that of the blackhole which has spawned inside the box.
Kawakami, Hiromi: “Mogera Wogura” (shortstory, 2002/2005) – 5/5
Synopsis: A clawed, miniature-man-sized mole lives as most moles do in Tokyo—underground with his wife and with a roomful of humans sleeping on futons. Most of his human captives are the kidnapped people from the same city where the mole works and are despondent or downtrodden on life, so his subterranean refuge is a type of convalescence, he says to himself. An office worker by day, a magical kidnapper by night—he stalks prey.
Analysis: Mogera wogura is the binomial name for the Japanese mole. By nature, it’s a solitary creature that lives day in and day out beneath the turmoil of the surface—by day, it toils about yet by night it slumbers in the same abode. The exact same could be said for down-trodden salarymen—their eyes hidden from the sun for most of their waking day, a salaryman toils in caves of concrete and glass, only to return home to abodes of wood, concrete and glass, all the while ensconced by the walls that surround them.
The protagonist mole in “Mogera Wogura” is the enlightened sort that you’ve never come across. He has a good life working in the city, but he just happens to have the habit of collecting the dispirited among the city dwellers. His intentions are not nefarious; rather, he would just like to kindle the spark in each of the dispirited. Most of his compatriot moles forever toil underground, living out their miserable lives; but he is an example, one of which has risen above the doldrums of the commonplace. He collects the downhearted humans for hope that they too do not have to be complacent with their city-ways of life. Eventually, some awaken to their purposes and are granted leave while others are stubborn to change and die miserably.
Yoshimasu Gozo: “Adrenalin” (poem, 1976/1980) – 4/5
Synopsis and Analysis: A mythical forested land of birth and renewal is ethereally juxtaposed with modern day Tokyo: now what humans call a river that runs through the city was once simply Birth Road; paths to shrines are now rivers of electricity. Each day in this place holds a place in the undying Spirit Diary, where the heavenly narrator dabbles with hell while urging the humans, her children, to naively seize the day.