Monday 29 September 2014

Phantasm Japan

(September 2014)

We’ve established that I’m no fan of David Cameron’s, so you can imagine how much it pains me to say that every once in a while he, or at least his speechwriter, is capable of turning quite a nice rhetorical line. One specific instance sticks in my mind from ages ago, when he was baiting Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions and claimed that, “He was the future, once.” And you know, this reminds me very much of Jesus Christ.

Sorry. No. Not Jesus. Channeling my inner ‘Trendy Vicar on Thought for the Day’ there. What I mean to say is that this reminds me very much of the relationship between Japan and it’s representation in Western speculative fiction. You can see how I got confused. You can also see, specifically here, and to a lesser degree here, what I think about some aspects of that relationship. The vision of Japan that continues to dominate Western conceptions of the country is, still, one that was largely formed during and has calcified since the Bubble. Perhaps I’m unduly influenced by the fact I’ve recently reread Neuromancer, but I don’t think it’s just me. The visions of the future we were offered by mid-eighties cyberpunk were posited on the aesthetic (if nothing else) of then-contemporary urban Japan (more precisely: the aesthetic of very specific, localized, small patches of central Tokyo and Osaka). And because these visions never really came to pass in the West, they still stand; they still have currency as what could be. This, of course, conveniently ignores the fact that given the stagnation of Japanese society during the Lost Decades, for the tens of millions of Japanese under the age of 35 this vision of what could be is indistinguishable from what always has been; what was and what is. The paradoxical upshot of this is that Japanese inspired representations of futuricity seem almost axiomatically retro.

Look at that cover, it is undeniably gorgeous (seriously, I must be completely clear that I fucking love it), but it’s still tapping very directly into that retrofuturism vibe. The Battleship Yamato-esque quality of the linework is compounded by blatant evocation of the imperial Rising Sun standard and the fact that it’s Tokyo Tower (erected 1958) dominating the urban panorama, not the more recent Skytree. We are, mercifully, not quite crossing over into that mind-numbingly tedious ‘unique fusion of traditional and modern’ territory which is so often present in discourse on Japan (“Look! Here’s a picture of a geisha using a mobile phone!” One: it’s not a fucking geisha, it’s a yankee schoolgirl in a yukata; and Two: mobile phones as a symbol of modernity? In 2014? Really?), but we’re still very clearly reaching into one group’s past in order to frame another’s present and future.

Nothing necessarily wrong with that of course, in and of itself. The objections arise from how it might be done, and usually revolve around issues of (un)originality or (mis)appropriation. Phantasm Japan certainly can’t stand accused on the first of those charges – by and large it’s very successful at avoiding the Orientalism tropes that could have tripped it up – but with only 6 out of the 17 contributors actually being Japanese themselves, the second could have posed more of a problem. Given Haikasoru’s sterling work at getting more Japanese authors available in English translation this seems a little odd,* and in fairness it’s something that the co-editor Nick Mamatas obliquely addresses in his forward, which is a slightly odd thing itself. On the one hand it can be read as something of an apologia for the fact that this company with its impressive stable of Japanese authors has managed to produce a Japanese anthology with so little directly from (as opposed to ‘inspired by’) Japan, but on the other I certainly can’t disagree with him when he says that, “Japan is no more mysterious than the haunted cornfields of Iowa or the strange and twisting labyrinths of the New York City subway system.” Using the mystical to demystify; whatever else you might say, you can’t accuse them of choosing the easy route out.

Likewise, the stories themselves are not unaware or uncritical of the traditions they’re tapping into, either in terms of Japanese folktales or more metatextual discussions about the constructed nature of ‘Japan’ in the Western imagination. Quentin S. Crisp’s The Last Packet of Tea wrestles directly with these issues and is both erudite and considered, harking back to Swift no less, but also has very obvious pretentions to Literature and labours doggedly under the weight of its own overwriting; an interesting read but not a smooth or particularly enthralling one, unfortunately. Happily however it represents a rare low point in a collection that’s stylistically much more eclectic and innovative than I was expecting. Zachery Mason, for example, contributes five stories, none more than two pages long, and these vignettes act as wayposts marking progress in a manner that I’m not entirely sure works, but I wouldn’t call a failure either. By the fifth (and final) story – Tengu of the Wood – it’s come to feel a little gimmicky and that undermines what is quite a nice little sketch, but in sum they impose a certain sense of continuity and unity on things that nudges you towards considering the book as a single whole rather than a disparate assortment of unrelated parts, so a good idea that doesn’t quite come off. Here’s probably also a good point to mention the treatment of loanwords, which (pace recent discussions) appears to be to italicize in the first instance and then let stand in roman after that. This is an unhappy compromise that definitely doesn’t work; I’m increasingly coming round to the anti-italicization side of the argument,** but either way it’s better to choose one side and stick to it or else it really does come across as an apology.

The editorial approach is thus one that by definition is going to throw up the odd item or two that don’t work for any given reader, but it’s definitely a price worth paying for the far greater number of successes. Indeed, one of my favourite stories – Lauren Naturale’s Her Last Apperance – is both fractured and disjointed, and yet surprisingly moving, giving us a tale about place and memory that reminds me a bit of Christopher Priest, though that may be just because it’s a period piece about a stage hypnotist and demands (and rewards) quite a bit of effort from the reader. From the Nothing, With Love, meanwhile, sees the late Project Itoh [trans. Jim Hubbert] not so much take the fan theory that ‘James Bond’ is really just a code name for a series of different agents and run with it as bundle a sack over its head, kidnap it, then drag it in a headlong sprint down the backalleys of technothriller and psychological horror whooping maniacally as he goes. It’s a gloriously baroque piece exploring similar notions of consciousness and free-will to his novel Harmony and is one of those stories that you might consider buying an anthology for all by itself.

The Crisp, Itoh, and Naturale pieces all plug into some of the more surprising themes of the collection, those of loss, memory, and, more brutally, ending. Or perhaps The End; there is a very definite sense throughout this book of things coming to natural and inevitable conclusions. The endings of cycles. Actually no, not that. Just endings pure and simple; the more conventional ‘rebirth’ phase of that whole Circle of Life thing is often conspicuous by its absence. You could pick almost any of the stories to exemplify this, but to choose a couple more favourites both Nadia Bulkin’s disconcerting Girl, I Love You and Jacqueline Koyanagi’s excellent 神懸 (Kamigakari) deal with approaching terminality, the former through black magic and schoolgirl suicide pacts, and the latter through a split post- and pre-apocalyptic narrative wherein the narrator is, essentially, the Spirit of Entropy and the Heat Death of the Universe. Both are spooky, touching, well-wrought, and above all final.

This is not what we were being sold on the packet, clearly. Phantasm Japan is definitely not pushing the same tired, faded-neon vision of a perpetually past-tense Japanese future. Things end. I cannot overstress how satisfying this is. It doesn’t drop lazily into the past-continuous but pushes us to consider situations for which English at least doesn’t have a defined grammatical tense. And that, in many ways, is the essence of speculative fiction; casting out narrative into the unknown unknown and seeing what gets reeled back in. Benjanun Sriduangkaem is one of the more successful anglers here, affectingly riffing on the inherent oxymornicity (Oxymoronicality? Oxymoronicism? Whatever you take ‘using the mystical to demystify’ to be, that) of the collection in Ningyo by giving us a fisherman’s daughter cum mermaid hunter with a seemingly terminal case of immortality; and while the titular allusion makes it very clear we’re trawling similar waters in Sisyphean by Dempow Torishima [trans. Daniel Huddleston], I can’t in good conscience force it into this little fishing analogy I’ve got going on here. Though I don’t know that you could force it into any pigeonhole at all, really. It’s the longest story in the collection by quite some way and as the penultimate one is clearly meant to serve as the climax, which it does with, er… Let’s just say it does, because I’m still not sure exactly what it does. An illustrated grotesque born the bastard child of Franz Kafka and David Lynch, I still haven’t worked out quite what it’s all about, but when you can’t stop turning a story over and over in your mind like this you know something must have worked.

So this, perhaps, is what happens if you live in a perpetual future which never comes to pass. If you’re constantly deferring the present because the future’s always greener on the other side of the fence, then when you find yourself standing on the same wilted, worn-out old grass as back at your place and back in your time all you’re left with is memories; tricksy, faded, fallible memories. Phantasm Japan still gives us a vision of Japan as the future, but it’s not the future we were sold. As Japan leads the developed world into a comfortable but diminished demographic senescence the future instead is one of decline, confusion and, hopefully, if we’re lucky, sharp knife-twists of emotion, which are no less real for all that they might be entirely unreliable. Some things in this collection work better than others but as a whole it absolutely nails the mood of living in early 21st Century Japan, and that marks it as something special. The future, of course, is now.

*I know I’ve previously been unimpressed regarding the literary merits of a fair bit of their output, but those are individual works. The project as a whole deserves both applause and support.
**I know, I know, pace. But it’s not like I should be writing Latin in roman now, is it? Oh…


  1. I read this right after you posted it and have yet to formulate a coherent response. Odd that I am reading a book this very moment that borrows so heavily from 80s Japan perceptions (Rajaniemi's Causal Angel), when both you and I know that Japan most certainly is not the future. (Or maybe it is, if the future is decrepit politics and too many old people, all surrounded by the relics of better economic days.)
    I will say that your description of Itoh is probably the best I've ever read. I also agree with the italics thing.I think we should get rid of it.

    1. How are you finding the Casual Angel? I enjoyed the Quantum Thief, but it didn't really make me want to rush out and buy the sequel (is it the sequel? I think there's a third now as well, I lose track).

      When I wrote this I hadn't quite put together the fact that Haikasoru published The Future is Japanese as well, which means I'm going to have to find a whole new angle for it as and when I read/blog it. Life's tough sometimes, eh?

    2. I enjoyed Causal Angel quite a bit, but it's probably not for everyone. Steep learning curve and all, and I still don't know half of what went on.

      You'd get a huge kick out of the Golden Bread story in the Future volume.

    3. Is Casual Angel the 2nd or 3rd? Heard mixed reviews about the 2nd (whichever that was) and it kind of got pushed to the bottom of the wishlist after that. Sure I'd probably quite enjoy it if I read it, but there's so much other stuff as well, y'know?

    4. Wow, that's an embarrassingly repetitive response, isn't it? The dangers of ignoring the comments for days at a time then catching up on them all in a rush. Still, at least we've established that I'm a bit hazy on the names of the sequels.