The World is Tilting – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“The World is Tilting” (novelette) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1989
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: The city of Marine City is floating in the sea and uses pachinko balls as ballast, which were used in a checkerboard arrangement under the city at the mayor’s expressed command—Fedora Last. Now, after a typhoon, the island city tilts three degrees to the SSE—an obvious listing for a professor and engineer. Regardless of expert advice, the female mayor and her housewife retinue vehemently deny any such tilt, even as it passes twenty degrees.

Pre-analysis: “The World is Tilting” is a story that takes place entirely on a floating city named Marine City, which floats in the Pacific Ocean. When the very land beneath their feet begins to tilt, the heads of government turn a blind eye toward the oncoming dilemma with humorous and sad conclusions. On a similar note, Masaki Yamada’s novel Aphrodite (1980) also has a floating island city with the same name as the novel. This novel has a more somber tone with the head of government seeing the downward spiral of the city’s fate and takes steps to protract its lifespan accordingly.

It’s a popular fact that Tokyo-Yokohama has the world’s largest metropolitan population—around 37 million people, which is 11 million more than Seoul at #2. It’s not particularly dense when comparing it to such squalid cites as Dhaka or Jakarta; actually, the population density of the metro area is equal to that of Barcelona or Prague.

Analysis: But take Tokyo proper into consideration: the perpetual modernization, the rat race of salarymen, the twin bindings of constraint and conformity. When the city becomes cramped, the way of life becomes constrained, and friction builds, the only way out of the fiery cauldron of pressure is outward… outward to the countryside when the inevitable sprawl of metropolitan Tokyo will eventually probe with its grimy fingers or outward bound upon the ocean? If freedom from the strains of urban life is the aim, then the only direction is the ocean, where a city can float on its own buoyancy, live by its own rules, and contemplate its own navel if it very well pleases.

Escape from the complacent chaos of an organized city life into the budding chaos of a fledgling semi-anarchic city life. While visions of sugarplums and bucolic bliss may dance in the heads of the city’s disfranchised, another reality awaits them on the opposing side of their chosen life—life elsewhere takes just as much effort and care to maintain as the city. As a city may teeter on the brink of disaster due to social inequality or natural disaster, strong central governance can overcome these urban hurdles.

Now take the “floating city” in the context of a salaryman: he’s an island unto himself and he has many inner workings, but one priority is key: remain afloat, stay balances, don’t flip. However, the nature of the salaryman is an unbalanced one; too much work, not enough play; too much pressure, not enough release; too much conformity, not enough individuality. While the salaryman’s waking consciousness (the engineer and scholar) is aware of the dangerous tilting, the sub-conscious (the finicky mayor, Fedora Last) ignores the problem as just another common symptom of life in general.

From the demanded conformity to the institution comes the learned conformity of the mindset all-is-normal and nothing-to-see-here-folks. In the case of Marine City, this conformity and complacency is a recipe for disaster.

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Hello, Hello, Hello! – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“Hello, Hello, Hello!” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1974
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: Just a salaryman, one man and his wife casually save money for a home and retirement—eventually—, but are tempted by simple luxuries. As they discuss buying new clothes at the breakfast table, a man enters their home uninvited and announces himself to be from the bank’s Household Economy Consultants. Each time they face a monetary choice, he mysteriously pops into their home denouncing their activities and urges extreme frugalness.

Analysis: In a time—well, ever since rampant capitalism has been around—when we are urged to buy, buy, buy, there is rarely the voice of reasons that tells us to save, save, save. Even if money were saved in the bank, the interest rates in bank deposit accounts are atrociously low; saving money is just as good as wasting it. Investment, however, is a wise choice if a family is able to use their salaries toward a larger purchase… as they say, you need money to make money and not everyone has the free cash to make more cash.

So, people just end up stuffing money away in piddling bank accounts, saving it for a purchase of land and/or a house. Mortgages inflate rapidly with interest and cut into salaries, so it seems that accumulating money is the only way, but even that it uncertain when currencies devalue or markets crash or banks fold. Regardless, you count your pennies and spend your dollars.

In “Hello, Hello, Hello!”, their efforts to save money are hampered by whims of indulgence. Guilt weighs thinly until guilt manifests itself in the form of a Household Economy Consultant. Pennies are saved at the cost of happiness, an emotion which is also the goal of the same saving; but true to a bank’s loyalty to customers—or lack thereof—they see no progress in their saving as the man, who had told them to be so thrifty, disappears. The family of two aren’t the only ones stumped or victimizes by his disappearance.

Commuter Army – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“Commuter Army” (novelette) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1973
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: A Japanese man is the branch manager for an arms manufacturer that has supplied five hundred rifles to the Galibian side of the non-Japanese war. To entice recruits, the Balibian army has hired part-time soldiers who can commute home after a battle…if they don’t die first. The manager is mildly interested, but gets thrown into the war so he can fix the rifles that his company produced, earning him a second salary as a non-combatant.

Analysis: The title itself is perfect in its simplicity and directness.

Q: Which came first: the corporation or the military?

A: The military.

Q: When the corporation evolved, from what did it evolve?

A: The military.

Q: From what is corporate governance structured?

A: The military.

In regards to the overarching organization of the corporation, structurally, the hierarchies are the same; motivationally, the directives are the same: infiltrate, dominate, and destroy.  When a company cannot full the demand and/or depend upon its full-time (FT), well-benefitted staff, it turns toward Option B: the part-time (PT), less-benefitted staff and, as a result, the less-motivated and less-relied-upon staff. Upon the capitalist mantra: Where there’s a niche, there’s a need; where there’s a pitfall, there’s a profit; where there’s a placement, there’s a peon.

You enter the army as a private only to work your way up the ranks to become more disciplinary and regimental, only so that your subordinates do the same—the rule, the law, the governance. As a novice/private grows through the ranks, they become immune to the progressive dehumanization of the process. Where accuracy and lethality become paramount in the military arena, demographic specificity and growth become dominant in the corporate world; where, in the military, human lives are an indication of enemy loss or own loss, money, in the business world, comes as a profit or a loss. When the two spheres of influence intermesh—the militant world and the corporate world—circumstances become a bit dicey.

Soon, in the regional war outside of Japanese influence, there’s a local need for soldiers on the PT basis. As a Japanese non-combatant, the man considered himself outside qualification for being a PT soldier. He could have used to money but, when weighing the options, possible death by gunshot on a battlefield doesn’t seem all that appealing. When his company sells faulty rifles, he once again considers himself unqualified for the job of repair because of the pride of his hierarchical position in the company, yet someone must be sent to do the repairs. His superiors send him off to war as a non-combatant.

Regardless of his corporate position, he is sent to war. Regardless of his lowly status in the war, he is sent to the trenches. Here, “the trenches” take on a dual meaning: the frontline of the war effort and the frontline of his corporation’s activities. Whether on the frontline of his work or at war, his wife can still visit him to bring him lunch.

The Very Edge of Happiness – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“The Very Edge of Happiness” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1973
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: A life dedicated to his work, one man’s unfortunate outcome also seems him living with his mother, wife, and son. Usually tetchy, once a month, circumstances get the best of him and he treats both his wife and son abusively. His numbness is confirmed when he, and others, witness a mother beat her child to death in a bank. This emotional fatigue extends to a long holiday where car traffic and foot traffic wear all tempers and souls thin.

Brief Intermission: Along with Tsutsui’s “Commuter Army”, “Hello, Hello, Hello!”, and “Bad for the Heart”, this is the other short story based on the daily struggles of Japan’s symptomatic social pit of the salaryman. I’m a sucker for the salaryman-type stories: e.g., Ryo Hanmura’s “Cardboard Box” (1975/1980), Hiromi Kawakami’s “Mogera Wogura” (2002/2005), Mayumura Taku’s “I’ll Get Rid of Your Discontent” (1962/2007) from Kurodahan Press’s Speculative Japan (2007). But out of all them, “The Very Edge of Happiness” is the most powerful, the most visual, and the most gruesome. One of the very best short stories I have ever read!

Analysis: The inhumane pressures of work take their toll on one man. Though he has a family, no one would call him a “family man”, as he strikes his wife and places his baby son in a scalding bath. These instances of abuse don’t touch his conscious as he remains coolly and cruelly detached from any emotion. His systematic frustration, anger, and abuse boils over into a holiday in which everyone seems to be flocking to the same destination; slowly yet progressively, the masses of flesh press forward toward the sea. Over the roads, cars amass; through the trees, bodies press against each other; on the sand, only one direction remains as the momentum of the horde presses on; and now ankle-deep, hip-deep, and shoulder-deep in the water, something is amiss. All of this progression results in only forward momentum—bodies line the seabed and yet, the only way is forward.

Bear’s Wood Main Line – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“Bear’s Wood Main Line” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1974
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: On a personal quest for the best buckwheat noodles, one man takes a long train ride. On that ride, a kind fellow traveler informs him of a little known train line that could save him four hours of travel time. The Bear’s Wood Main Line seems to be owned and operated by the man’s clan but he’s evasive about their responsibilities to the Line. Atop the hill, the man’s family is hosting a wake, yet their giddy ways enliven his unparticipative state.

Analysis: The common notion of not talking to strangers on public transportation spans nations—it’s as true in America as it is for Thailand as it seems to also be true for Japan. With the exception of one notable bus journey sitting next to beautiful women (OMG, she had the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard but she also had the longest arm hair), conversations engaged upon a train usually meet with someone demanding something from me (my sandals), being awkwardly invited to the bathroom for a smoke (stale, hand-rolled Thai cigarettes), or being talked at for hours (much of it over my head).

The man who takes the train journey for the simple pleasure of perfect buckwheat noodles meets his fate when he speaks to a stranger on the train. The stranger’s advice seemed innocent enough—save a few hours of travel time—but the man’s first fault was accepting this advice. His second stumbling block was accepting an invitation to join the funeral festivities at the top of the hill, in which the family members performed a ridiculous song and dance. Everyone, including the man, were enraptured with laughter at the sight and sound of the dance. When everyone had their turn—each slightly altering the vowels to the song—the man felt he had to confidence to participate. This participation was his third fault which has long-reaching unforeseen consequences for him, the family, and the nation.

Therefore, decisions made on public transportation should never include the advice of strangers; otherwise, you may inadvertently place your entire country in peril. Listen to your mother: “Don’t talk to strangers.”

Farmer Airlines – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“Farmer Airlines” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1974
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: Two men are on assignment for an unpopular men’s magazine doing a story on uninhabited islands in Japan. Their story takes them to Tit Island, home to terraced farms but without any permanent farmers. Taken to the island by boat before, the journalist and his photographer become stranded on the island during a typhoon. They seek shelter in a lean-to hut and discover two drunken farmers and an ominously sounding airline service to the mainland.

Analysis: Friction between the journalist and the photographer had already started even before going to the uninhabited island, but when their matters go from strained to taut, the friction between themselves threatens to tear them apart. They are both city folk in obviously odd circumstances: on a terraced farm of an unpopulated island, thrashed by the winds of a typhoon without hope of rescue, and the only help they have are from two drunken farmers—not an ideal situation is any regard.

The journalist is the flexible type with an adaptive personality; he finds the country way backward but can find value in its simplicity and function. In contrast, the photographer is the finicky type with a resistive barrier of experience he finds the country way barbaric and only sees the negative, the disastrous, the inexplicable unnaturalness of their way of life.

The journalist is the active force in their rescue; reluctantly, he agrees to fly on the ramshackle airplane with the unqualified pilot and remains calm even when they fuel up at a roadside gas station. The photographer, however, is at his wits end through the entire journey and refuses to take the last flight to salvation. For the reports open-minded tactics at saving his own life, his efforts are unrewarded… which is more to say than for the photographer.

Don’t Laugh – Yasutaka Tsutsui

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“Don’t Laugh” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History:
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma Books, 2006)
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Pantheon Books, 2008)

Original: Japanese, 1975
Translated by Andrew Driver, 2006

Synopsis: The gravity of Saita’s dilemma sounded serious and sincere over the phone, so his friend rushes over to his house to console him. Actually, Saita has invented another machine, adding one more to his growing list of patents. But when Saita breaks the news that his invention is a time machine, the duo break into a fit of hysterical laughter while looking at and, later, using the same contraption.

Analysis: This is an odd little story and the shortest story of the entire collection. Though only seven pages long in my e-book edition (oh how I wish I could track down a print copy!), it has sixteen lines of “Wahahahahaha!” Their canned and projected laughter is such an steady part of the story that the reader, too, smiles at the curious unfolding of the story.

The man’s initial burst of laughter, even after a warning to not laugh while he himself was giggling, is at Saita’s news that he had invented a time machine. Through the man’s suppressed snort, Saita laughs first and soon fits of laughter flow through the story. While the man inspects the machine with Saita, all the while laughing their heads off and clenching their stomachs in pain, the machine actually does transport them back in time a minutes.

While it seems linear enough, the truncated ending feels like an uncompleted Kafka story, left open to interpretation. As they travel those few minutes back in time, they witness themselves through the floorboards above: Saita paces, the man walks in, a short conversation ensues, and they burst out in amusement. They suppress their laughter as to not to disturb their prior selves below. Will, then, a time loop establish itself? Will they meet themselves and proceed with further laughter?