The Man Who Watched the Sea – Yasumi Kobayashi

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“The Man Who Watched the Sea” (novelette) by Yasumi Kobayashi

English Publication History: Speculative Japan 2 (Kurodahan Press, 2011)

Original: Japanese (海を見る人, 2002)

Translated by Anthea Murphy, 2011

Synopsis: The region called Mountain holds a festival every year in which they parade around floats pulled by members of the village. Each year, many people make the trek from the region called Shore to see the exhibition; this is when boy meets girl. As she departs, she promises to return “next year”, but she fails to remember that each region—Mountain and Shore—have different temporal speeds. Through their respective telescopes, the girl lives very slowly while the boy lives very quickly. Eventually, they reunite only to separate once again to experience the pain of departed love. 22 pages

Pre-analysis: We all have the story of the one that got away or what could have been. Like Kajio’s short story “Emanon: A Reminiscence” (1979/2011), a boy quickly falls in love with a girl after a brief but memorable first meeting, only to be separated by time and longing. Almost all emotions can be summarized into a few words at least pictured in a facial expression, but love is the only one that escapes definition, never mind that the Greeks could number the types of love. No one can tell you what it is, only what it feels like—a rough analogy, a logical exploration/explanation of the purest emotion. Again like the Greeks, this love change; in this case, it’s a change from longing to appreciation.

Analysis: In Kaijo’s story, the pang of love is one of separation by time. Here in Kobayashi’s story, however, the boy and girl are separated by more than just time, and even beyond the fundamental natures of time and space, but also by parental chiding—the live apart, they live at different speeds, so their lives are incompatible. Regardless of their differences, they still seek each other out in order to fulfill their emotional motivations. When thy reunite, it’s a bittersweet moment as they know they must leave one another yet again, a division of space and time.

Here, again like Kaijo’s conclusion of a timeless kind of love, the boy gets to realize that the girl’s love is timeless, too, in one sense. In Kaijo’s conclusion, the love the two had shared is carried by the woman through time as an indelible memory of an immortal soul—the relic of their love is a timeless memory. This is similar to Kobayashi’s conclusion, though the memory of their love isn’t an intangible memory; rather, the relic of their love is a light that everyone can see; though this light is visible to all, it’s the boy who knows the source and meaning of the light.

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Ico: Castle in the Mist – Miyuki Miyabe

 
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Ico: Castle in the Mist by Miyuki Miyabe
Original: Japanese, 2004
Translated by Alexander O. Smith, 2011
Through a rite of passage, a refection on childhood

Miyuki Miyabe is a female Japanese writer spanning the genres of crime, thrillers, horror and fantasy. Of those genres, I tend to occasionally read horror but the ghostly horror stories, which her collection is about, aren’t my horror forte. This author should have remained unknown to me if it hadn’t had been for this book… a fantasy novel that I grudgingly picked up.

I don’t read fantasy. There are very few exceptions, like when the crossover with science fiction is subtle. I’m not at all into swords and sorcery, dragons and demons, elves and arrows, or kingdoms and castles—my tolerance for any of that is really low. With Ico, I made an exception for two reasons: 1) I loved the PlayStation game of the same title back in 2001 and 2) it’s a Japanese translation—quirky combination. Ico isn’t a Tolkien fantasy so dragons, elves, and dwarves are absent, but there still remain magic, swords, spells, a castle and its queen, and a warrior from a far away land.

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In the countryside, life is simple. People toil under their labors of farm or trade, have a family, and continue their lines of work. One family, however, is disturbed by the birth of their son—a boy with the nubs of horns. He’s a generational birth whose destiny is sacrifice to the Castle in the Mist, which suffers “no one to challenge its authority” (19). Being the locus of spite from the village, duty demands that the local wizard raise the boy as his own, only to relinquish him to the Castle when the boy turns the age of thirteen.

Imprisoned prior to his sacrifice, Toto, his friend visits him and tells him that he’ll find a way to follow him to the Castle so that he’s not alone; however, the way is forbidden, it just as mysterious as the Castle itself. In a city built of nothing but ash—the buildings and even the people frozen in place—, Toto finds the glowing tome of light which he takes back to the village, only to suffer the fate of those in the city. The wizard, Ico’s caregiver, realizes that it’s the Book of Light, a powerful force which could repel the dark forces in the Castle. Within the tome, the wizard notices a certain design that may protect him, so his wife creates a cape with the same symbol for Ico to wear to his sacrifice.

Upon entering the Castle under supervision, Ico is placed in his sacrificial stone sarcophagus and left to the Castle’s wishes. But his cape’s symbol protects his from the dark force of the Castle, dumping him onto the floor. He gasps at the uninhabited expanse of the castle, which looks like it was once densely populated with royalty and servants, but now only dark windows stand where no life stirs. The only other soul to stir in the Castle is caged aloft in a tower, whom Ico releases from her imprisonment. Ico takes it upon himself to find a way out for the both of them. Though incommunicable, Ico takes Yorda’s, the Princess’s, hand and leads her toward an exit if one can be found.

But their escape is hindered by the labyrinthine layout of the Castle, oddly shapes statues that guard exits, and the boiling shadows that rise from the floor to whisk Yorda away, which Ico beats away with a wooden stick. But these pestering spirits aren’t the only entity to prevent their route to the outside; the nefarious Queen, mother of Yorda, manifests herself throughout the castle to haunt and intimidate Ico. The history of the Castle and Yorda come through his contact with the girl and through the words of the Queen.

The entire Castle is steeped in the murderous history of the Queen’s dark conquest. She’s the daughter of the Dark God and this God holds a complete and deathly reign over the land beyond the Castle. As Ico winds his way through the Castle, he begins to see its bloody history all throughout—in its walls, in its gardens, and even in its chandeliers:

Ico was struck by the similarity between the hanging crystals on the chandelier and the bodies hanging from the bridge below—a long, macabre chandelier stretching the length of the room. In place of candles, corpses. In place of light, blood, spilling on the floor of the great hall. (137)

Only two things compel Ico to find the way out: 1) his budding love for the girl in white and 2) his father’s words of prophecy—he’s destined to return home. Before he escapes, he must first confront his own history and its link to the Castle.

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The story of Ico is one of transition—from child to adult. In Ico’s society for the horned boy, that transition occurs at the age of thirteen. Obviously, through his perilous adventure through the Castle, he is unaccustomed to such dangers with such repercussions. As he enters adulthood through his unwilling and unexpected rite of passage, he becomes involved with two metaphors of childhood: the Castle in and the Princess.

Adults are all too aware of the time: the minutes of routine, the amount of time spent in traffic, deadlines for work, due dates for bills, dates of important events, etc. In contrast, childhood can be seen a carefree time when, aside from education, a child should just be a child; a child should indulge in their nature of childhood. The essences of childhood is timelessness, unaware of their on physical growth or their own progress.

In relation to Ico, the kingdom of the queen and the Castle itself are timeless. Here, Ico explores the wonders of good and confronts the harmful nature of bad, all the while oblivious of passing time. Here, he is allowed to indulge in his childhood without feeling the presage of time: “[H]e reflected on how strange it was that since meeting the girl, he had felt neither hunger nor fatigue” (143). Yorda, too, experiences timelessness: “In exchange for the power to hold back time, she had lost the power to mark its passage …. A sea of forgetfulness, a barrier from the truth” (153).

In this timelessness, adults see childhood as innocence with minimal responsibility and with honest intentions. Yorda embodies this innocence through chastity and and cloth. White has always been a symbol of purity and Yorda continually dons this color throughout: “[A]ll the clothes she had been given were simple things of the purest white that loosely wrapped around her” (169). This modesty is reinforced by the queen: “The queen did not like to expose Yorda to strangers” (168) and she says to Yorda, “[T]hose who desire you desire also our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice them or enchant them” (167).

However, Ico’s imposed escape is anything but simple because he is now entering adulthood, a period fraught with timeliness and responsibility.

Midst the Mist – Koji Kitakuni

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“Midst the Mist” (short story) by Koji Kitakuni

English Publication History: Speculative Japan 2 (Kurodahan Press, 2011)

Original: Japanese (靄の中 , 2007)

Translated by Rossa O’Muireartaigh, 2011

Synopsis: Lee’s a seasoned investigator while Sakaguchi is the novice, both of who discover a dog axed to death. A nearby cowbarn raises their suspicions, so they drive to the homestead where a family of three are about to sit down to dinner. Lee asks detached questions to the man, which makes Sakaguchi uncomfortable. When the man accepts and chews a piece of pre-chewed gum, Lee shoots the man’s face off and runs to kill his wife. Meanwhile, Sakaguchi holds the boy, hoping he isn’t one of them, too. 18 pages

Pre-analysis: I remember once reading, long ago, that there were many types of love, not just the four, five or six attributed to the Greeks. If a modern word like love can be analyzed and broken down into constituent parts and contextual use, it clearly isn’t the simple, pure emotion we think it to me.

On the opposite side of the coin, there is hate. If love can be divided into types, surely hate, too, can be divvied up… or are we too proud of love to treat it like hate? Is the word so loathsome that it shouldn’t be treated like its opposite emotion?

As there are different realms of love/hate, there are also different degrees of love/hate. Each can span the spectrum from passive to active or maniacal to peripheral, but when the love/hate becomes logical, it transcends its own definition.

Analysis: The premise of the story is that an insect-like alien species has invaded Earth and taken control of their human hosts, simply for sake of their own survival. Because of their willing inflicted harm on humankind, they exhibit a kind of hate—an active yet tame hate. Meanwhile, Lee is an investigator who relishes hunting down and killing these human hosts and, thereby, the alien parasites—his hate is active and borderline maniacal. His partner, Sakaguchi, is shocked by Lee’s aggressiveness, only going through the motions by following Lee—his hate is passive and tepid. Toward the end of the story, Sakaguchi’s passive form of hate morphs into an active form of love.

Emanon: A Reminiscence – Shinji Kajio

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“Emanon: A Reminiscence” (short story) by Shinji Kajio

English Publication History: Speculative Japan 2 (Kurodahan Press, 2011)

Original: Japanese (おもいでエマノン , 2000)

Translated by Edward Lipsett, 2011

Synopsis: Scorned by age-long unrequited love, a young man steels himself against further pain from raw emotional wounds. On a 17-hour ferry ride, a beautiful girl befriends him. As they begin drinking beer together, she shares her “believe it or not” story. The man, being a fan of SF, takes her story to heart and analyzes it for relevance: Though her body is young, her mind contains the memory of three billion years of direct evolution. As he wakes, she is gone. Thirteen years later, their mutual memories of each other linger. 17 pages

Analysis: Before the age of social media, you never knew anyone virtually—everyone you knew was direct (family and friends) or indirect (friends of friends or distant relatives). If you wanted to find someone you didn’t know well, you either used the white pages or asked around. If you met someone in passing while on holiday or in transit, that person would likely be lost to you forever, leaving only the tenuous memory. When that person made an impression on you, the mark was indelible and the memory could remain vivid, regardless of never having met again (wouldn’t they love to know of that indelible imprint that has been carries around for years or decades?). It sucks to linger on what could have been, but only the human mind can attempt to grasp at the impossible.

Our ability to ponder what could have been has created the genre of SF—or what could be. The lonely man in the story is a fan a SF, so he knows all too well what could have been and what could be. After meeting Emanon (“no name” spelled backwards), he dwells on his stagnant longing for the girl. He mulls her unreal story of having the memory of three billion years of evolution and tactic knows one thing: she’s out there, she’s real, and he loves her. Yet, his longing has limited his mind from what could be to what should have been.

When, finally, the man meets Emanon again, she isn’t as he had expected and the impression he had made wasn’t as tenuous as he had expected: “[H]alf an hour or a few decades, it’s all the same … either is but an instant” (103).

The Big Drawer – Riku Onda

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“The Big Drawer” (short story) by Riku Onda

English Publication History: Speculative Japan 2 (Kurodahan Press, 2011)

Original: Japanese (大きな引き出し, 2000)

Translated by Nora Stevens Heath, 2011

Synopsis: Mitsunori has the incredible ability to memorize everything he ever reads, including sheet music—but everyone in his family can do that—; however, he is forbidden to reveal their family secret to anyone. As his parents prepare to sift through their stored information while in a self-induced coma, the boy experiences his first boom, or a sudden realization of reality. As he kneels next to a dying man, he witnesses the man’s lifetime of tribulations. Come the man’s funeral, Mitsunori aims to put things right. 16 pages

Pre-analysis: The traditional view of intelligence is based on book knowledge, that a good student who earns high marks is generally regarded as an intelligent person. I like to think they “play school” well. I’ve known some school-smart people in my life; people who could easily pass a prepared test with some studying… yet they would easily fall victim to the most blatant scam on the street. Street-smart and school-smart aren’t the only kinds of intelligence though. We would need to look at knowledge and wisdom to understand more about humans and information—knowledge is static and quantifiable; wisdom is fluid and dynamic.

Analysis: Mitsunori’s parents are terribly proud of their ability to remember and recall. The boy knows that he has also has the ability, but hasn’t reach the age of maturity where it begins to affect him. His parents demand that they move around a lot so as to evade suspicion due to their supernatural gift. Mitsunori is a good student, but he’s also a good boy. When he experiences the death of the man, he does more than store the knowledge—he uses the man’s knowledge to mend the man’s history of family misunderstandings. Where his parents were proud of their knowledge, Mitsunori can now be proud of his wisdom.

Old Vohl’s Planet – Issui Ogawa

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“Old Vohl’s Planet” (novelette) by Issui Ogawa

English Publication History: Speculative Japan 2 (Kurodahan Press, 2011)

Original: Japanese (老ヴォールの惑星, 2005)

Translated by Jim Hubbert, 2011

Synopsis: A turbulent gas-giant orbits its sun and is ravaged by both punishing winds and temperatures, yet an alien species still thrives in its seas, forever planet-bound. One large amoeba-like member optically views an incoming body that destroys most of its species, but not before transferring its knowledge to the rest of the species. Thereon, all remain vigilant toward skyward peril—and one body is seen that is sure to destroy their lives, their world. With their remaining time, the species collectively attempts to contact another species, if there are any. 26 pages

Pre-analysis: The gears of bureaucracy are weighty, ponderable, and largely immovable. Regardless of warnings or research, most governments simply shrug in the face of statistical danger while cladding themselves in their warm blanket of ain’t a problem yet, won’t be a problem later. With both manpower and money at their disposal, the gears still grind their steady decadal tunes, accommodating very little that’s new into their orchestra of maintaining the status quo. And yet, with each passing year and the ridiculous news items that summarize our state of affairs—as a country or as a planet—very little gets done, yet most can foresee the result of the government’s perpetual inaction.

Q: End America’s nuclear weapon program?

A: Nope, not with others wielding the same weapons.

Q: Cut carbon dioxide emissions?

A: Nope, not when fossil fuels are so profitable.

Q: Put an end to weapon ownership?

A: Nope, we glorify war too much to end that.

Q: Use alternative sources of energy?

A: Nope, nature will balance out the actions of seven billion people.

Q: Fund the search for near-Earth objects?

A: Nope, the likelihood is far too remote.

Analysis: As much infighting as the aliens did in their history—based on size and age—, they have very admirable qualities which span their history until the conclusion of the story: (1) they share knowledge of the their immediate demise realize its gravity, (2), they unify to seek out other such world-shattering objects, and (3) they unify to search for civilization that may assist them when the end nears. This is all possible due to their unique physiological trait that allows them to pass on and store knowledge passed down through the generations.

The amoeba-like aliens can unite and progress with their own millennium-long salvation because they objectify knowledge, share knowledge, accept knowledge, and react to knowledge. Their alien-equivalent eyes are tinted or tainted by self-interest or lobbied interest; their only interest is for their own long-term survival—for their race.

Aside from the elimination of the small pox virus, has there ever been another altruistic drive to benefit human life since then?

For being able to pull together for the benefit of the greater common good, these aliens deserve any respect or solace given to them. They may not be human-like in any physical, cultural, or governmental regard, but their actions and ambition definitively echo what’s best of who we ought be.