Narcissism – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Narcissism” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (ナルシシズム), 1975

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: A lowly salaryman, sick of demanding and/or choosy women, decides to buy an android to satisfy his needs a housemaid and his desires as a sex kitten. Upon arrival, he’s eager to break in the product but the robot–in all appearances and functions, very much a woman–insists on making coffee and tidying up. Near dusk, he can’t contain his lust and sweeps her it from the kitchen to the bedroom. Upon waking, he lays shivering from the still-open fridge and with his robot clinging to his side begging for compliments, in which she it relishes. When he returns home, she it isn’t acting like a housemaid at all, as he expected.

Analysis: Yasutaka’s blunt generalizations of the sexes is refreshing and makes for very tongue-in-cheek reading. Consider:

When sex robots and housekeeper robots for single men first appeared on the market, not only were they technically flawed but the prices were astronomical. Yet even then, men who’d had enough of relationships with real women were falling over each other to buy them.

as the robots progressively improved, they came to rival real women in a number of ways and grew in popularity as a result. even married men started to buy the mistress robot … Soon a robot that combined the functions of sex and housekeeping services appeared. Outraged women formed lobby groups and launched an opposition movement. (129)

It’s old-school misogyny in the form of satire.

Here, Yasutaka separates men’s desires from their human source: Though their desires are purely human, they choose to release these desires in purely inhuman ways. Why should they feel the need to disregard the emotional comfort of women? Men’s so-called need for housekeeping is merely vanity, but including this function with a sex kitten only plays perfectly into their detached existence: work like a slave at the company only to come home to dominate a slave.

Here, men’s dichotomous life–one of work-life, one of personal-life–reflect one another in an obverse manner: a slave at work but a master at home. However, one thing does carry on from one “life” to the other: detached emotion at work, detached emotion at home. With constantly detached emotions, what makes these men human at all? If they are so detached all the time, how are the unlike the same robots they abuse? At work, the company demands time and order, blood and sweat; thus, at home, the men demand time and order, blood and sweat.

Review: As mentioned in the analysis, Yasutaka always has a way with satire. On the surface, the misogyny is bright, blinding, yet when squinting closely, one can see the hidden charm that’s almost always present in his stories. Indeed, this one is no exception. Another great salaryman story!

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Springer – Tow Ubukata

“Springer” (short story) by Tow Ubukata

English Publication History: Ghost in the Shell: Five New Short Stories (2017, Vertical)

Original: Japanese (スプリンガー), 2017

Translated by unknown, 2017

Synopsis: Four Olympian bodies destined for Olympian minds have run amok, murdering individuals. These seemingly mindless bodies, with Herculean strength, completely mutilate their victims as if rabid with lustful destruction. As one detective outlines the point of the case in first-person oral perspective, the details of the case become more details: robbery and fraud among other more technologically immoral crimes. As the nitty-gitty pours forth, a tale of high-level evasion and diversion further reveals a case of murder.

Analysis: You really need the context of The Ghost in the Shell to grasp the depth of this story. Naturally, you shouldn’t buy this collection if you’ve never seen the movie as the characters and nuance of the stories would be lost. With that said…

There’s a long series of stepping stones to understand the implications of the story: 1) René Descartes’ idea of the mind-body dualism, 2) Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine (1967), 3) the reality of Masamune Shirow’s The Ghost in the Shell universe, and 4) the implications of “the ghost” and its transference to “the shell”.

Without trying to give too much away: In the original The Ghost in the Shell, the “shells” were comprised of human and robotic bodies; the “ghosts” were just a form a consciousness, be it natural (human) or artificial (AI). “Springer” takes this ghost-shell ethos to a capitalist extreme, a paranoiac extreme, and a cross-species extreme to the point where the characters–everyday people–in the universe must doubt everything they encounter.

For a basis, this has been ripped from Wiki, my own underlines for emphasis only:

The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Turing proposed that a human evaluator would judge natural language conversations between a human and a machine designed to generate human-like responses. The evaluator would be aware that one of the two partners in conversation is a machine, and all participants would be separated from one another. The conversation would be limited to a text-only channel such as a computer keyboard and screen so the result would not depend on the machine’s ability to render words as speech. If the evaluator cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. The test does not check the ability to give correct answers to questions, only how closely answers resemble those a human would give.

Now take the “interviewee” and “interviewer” away from the simple interface of text and a keyboard; let them assume the physical form; now, let the “interviewee” take the form of a non-verbal participant. The “interviewer” would judge intelligence based on reaction alone: hand gestures, shoulder shrugs, eye movements, muscles twitches, etc… that’s assuming the “interviewee” is even human! Let’s take that “shell” and transform it into that of another mammal; thus, the difficulty in the task of identifying consciousness in the “interviewee” is multiplied multi-fold. If we can’t identify the “interviewee” as human, we can’t identify them as conscious.

As a side note, this has resounding measures in terms of aliens (or, even, other forms of ghost-bound “bodies” on this earth): 1) We know consciousness in terms of humans. How would we evaluate alien consciousness? 2) Humans have their limited number of senses and those that we communicate with. How would other “bodies” be able to sense and communicate beyond our human comprehension?

Review: Though this author has no known long-form writing–only manga to attribute to his name–this is one astounding piece of fiction. Not only does the content reach beyond The Ghost in the Shell universe, but it also infringes on our modern-day ideas of consciousness. One of my lingering ideas of consciousness if this: Surely, consciousness isn’t black-or-white among the animal world; for example, dolphins exhibit more than squirrels, primates more than reptiles. If so-called “human” consciousness is base-line, surely there are levels within that level; wheels within wheels. Further, what form would a greater higher consciousness take? It boggles the mind yet is commonplace in the SF realm. As it may turn out, reality may be stranger than fiction.

Cross Section – Yasutaka Tsutsui

  

“Cross Section” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bulleye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (セクション), 1980

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: A professor has created a device that casts a beam downward into geological strata in order to show its mineral content, a revolutionary concept, which he will show to the press at his own home. While the professor was developing this device, his wife felt ignored and thus took on many lovers who were only interested in her wealth, but when they threatened to blackmail her, she simply poisoned and disposed of them nearby.

Analysis: This story is only five pages long and alternates between 1) the professor’s explanation of the device and 2) the wife’s affairs. The professor is presented very objectively, perhaps reflecting his scientific fixation; meanwhile, his wife is presented subjectively, a much more human character as she’s prone to emotion.

The professor can be understood superficially, like knowing the terrain on the planet’s surface; in contrast, it’s the wife who has layers: love, spite, adventure, pride, and vengeance. With the flip of a switch, the professor will glimpse these layers in situ, a scientific triumph where his humanity failed.

Review: On the surface, this is a story based on science fiction and inertial horror. On a more human level, it’s one of contrast between the spouses’ respective needs. It’s short and concise, brief and direct. It’s not a gem amid the collection but it does sparkle by itself.

The Stuff that Nightmares Are Made of – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“The Stuff that Nightmares Are Made of” (novelette) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2011, Alma)

Original: Japanese (悪夢の真相), 1967

Translated by David Karashima, 2011

Synopsis: Masako doesn’t understand her fear of Prajna masks and heights. While the latter dear is commonplace, the former is one that baffles her. When she sees her younger brother’s fears rooted in threats by their parents, Masako begins to understand that all fears have an unconscious and irrational root. Facing her fears, she and her boy friend Bunichi climb up high, yet she realizes that without spindles, she’s not afraid; however, the presence spindles, especially tall ones, ceases her up. In order to better understand the connection between the spindles and the mask, the two return to Masako’s hometown, where coincidence strikes and revelation springs.

Analysis: As straight forward as the synopsis points out, the entire story revolves around the teen-aged duo discovering Masako’s seemingly irrational fears. As Masako realizes through two of her brother’s fears, all fears are rooted in experience somehow; the most difficult part of this rooting out is digging down into words and histories to find the point where something tragic happened. They also begin to understand that when these fears are faced, they can overcome them. There’s very little revelation in the story as it’s easy for the reader to predict that her two fears have a similar root; in addition, I feel that the story was very superficial, without any deeper layers of allegory.

Review: Again, as mentioned in the analysis, the story is very straightforward. It’s linear and open to the reader, who’s also able to put two (fear of the mask) and two (fear of banisters) together to understand that they somehow equate to a fear-inducing sum. This conclusion–a revelation of sorts for Masako but a mere point of understanding for the reader–passes with very little interest in the reader as there was very little in which to immerse oneself. Like “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, this story feels very much like YA-lit without much appeal to an adult audience.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (novella) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2011, Alma)

Original: Japanese (時をかける少女), 1967

Translated by David Karashima, 2011

Synopsis: Kazuko was tending to the cleaning of the high school’s chemistry lab one evening after school with her two male friends, Kazuo and Goro. While he two boys were away, Kauko herself returned to the room to discover someone else in the room. As she confronts the shadowy stranger, they dash away only to leave a broken vial smelling of lavender, from which she passes out. When she goes to bed that night, she experiences an earthquake and a fire near Goro’s home, a sequence of events that she finds ruining her entire night; regardless, the next day she awakes late to meet Goro, who’s also late, to cross the road to school… where a truck is sure to hit and kill them.

Kazuko awakens yet again displaced. At school, she finds that she knows the same math problem on the board and that she doesn’t have her notes from the previous days as she she seems to have skipped back in time somehow. She tells her two friend of her bizarre experience in addition to predicting the earthquake and fire. When both occur, the trust crystallizes in Kazuko, but the reason and implications of the newfound power they entrust to one of their teachers. Through a brief trial, Kazuko begins to learn of the power, extent, and origins of her power to transport herself though time and space.

Analysis: To start this analysis like a mediocre high-school essay: Regret can be defined as “a negative conscious and emotional reaction to personal past acts and behaviors” (Wiki). Stop and think about your own regrets of what could have been, of what you didn’t do but could have realistically done…

…errrrrr, this may take a while for some…

Now, consider one of your earliest regrets…

…again, this may take some time…

You may find yourself back in the position of your high-school self. What were those regrets? Was a specific guy or gal? Do you now wish that you had professed your love instead of being too shy? Do you wish you had said “yes” rather than than “no”?

Here, in terms of grammar, we enter the realm of unreal past, or the third conditional, which can be stated, again, in typical high-school prose: The third conditional can be defined [here, using passive voice, which can peeve writing teachers] as a “pattern used to refer to hypothetical situations in a past time frame”. Such as conditional could be: If I had asked her to the prom, she may have said yes; or, If I had gone to that party, I would have met Susie So-and-so.

Originally, this story was serialized in 1965 but only published in its full form in 1967; thus, when he first published the story when we was about 31 years old. So, the story was written just after the author passed his own thirtieth birthday. It’s possible he may have had his own regrets when writing “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”: What if he could have professed his love to that girl? What if he had known of the impending disaster? What if he had stopped his crossing of the street at that exact moment? The list of what-ifs is endless when speculating upon speculation.

In the end, the story feels like a flight of imagination based on the pangs of regret from “What if I could…” or “What if I had…” tied in teenage love.

Review: With a few exceptions, “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is one of Yasutaka’s earliest published works (aside from the untranslated “4.8 Billion Delusions” (1965; translation: Google) and “Tokaido War” (1965; translation: Google); thus, it seems that “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” solidified Yasutaka’s career in field of writing. Here, I hesitate to use path into the realm of literature only because the story doesn’t have much of a literary ring to it, as if it’s a wooden bell. I would hate to dog on YA-lit, but this story has short blocky sentences in both narration and dialogue, especially the dialogue, which is either dumped in brief spurts (albeit, more naturally) or profuse expositions (á la so-called infodumps). In the end, it may have a lasting cultural significance or teenage relevance to it in Japan, but the translated version of which remains wooden and stereotypically YA: blocky text, high-school focus, and puppy love.

Sleepy Summer Afternoon – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Sleepy Summer Afternoon” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (睡魔のいる夏), 1979

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: A factory worker exits his work alongside the factory supervisor, both of whom join the crowds at the beer hall where most of the munition factory workers conjoin after their labor. In the sky, they see a single white cloud. Once inside, they begin to realize that they both feel sleepy, that people are cold to the touch, and that others have already nodded off at the table, where they sit, or on the very ground. Again realizing that they’ve been attacked by “that new bomb” (117), they part ways. The nameless factory worker continues to survey the hall until sleep overcomes him.

Analysis: In terms of cause and result, the story is straightforward: the little fluffy cloud results in ubiquitous lethargy as a sign of attack. Considering the munitions factories of the story’s location, it can be assumed that it occurs during WWII in an area such as Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka. As the worker mentions his wife but not his children, we could further assume that he’s young. This sets the scene for the story.

What are some historical parallels to the story? Nearly three years passed between America’s first air raid of Tokyo (April 1942) to the first aerial reconnaissance of Tokyo (November 1944) to the bombing of Hiroshima the Nagasaki (August 1945). This isn’t a brief span of time by any means, but perhaps the onset was an indicator of a greater loss to come, as if any attack on the mainland was the beginning of defeat. That first initial raid was called the Doolittle Raid. Could the author be having a play on words here (Doolittle = do little = lethargy)?

When it becomes obvious that the ubiquitous symptoms of everyone in and around the beer hall stems from the attack, the lethargy spreads, affecting the workers, children, and both genders alike. Even while the nameless factory worker decides to curl up on a cot, the only other person left unaffected is an old man who only complains of the heat rather than his lassitude. As sleep (or death) overcomes the factory worker, his mind shunts from the present (his wife) to the past (his dead mother) and back to the present (his wife again). To his mind and in the state in he finds himself, the past is just that: history. To the old man, however, he remains stalwart to any change, as stubborn as ever in order to recapture the future of the past that’s been lost.

The fatal lassitude of the attack can be seen as a severe strike to morale on the actual post-war population of Japan, perhaps as a complete loss of trust in the government and the emperor or as a complete separation from sovereign destiny.

Review: Only six pages long, the story feels trite without any reflection: There’s an unseen explosion and everyone sleeps. The end. I couldn’t appreciate the story until I began to put some of its pieces together for myself, as is the case with most of the author’s stories. So, this story may not stir the interest of many on the first reading, but, again, like most of Yasutaka’s stories, it is imbued with history and significance.

Running Man – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Running Man” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (走る男), 1973

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: With only a few other foreign runners in the Olympic race, one man feels that he has victory sealed. The objective: Run to a cigarette vending machine and back while winding through the city without a pre-determined course. Losing his way due to a road closure, the man takes to an underground sewer by advice, only to be attracted by a woman who lives in a house in the same sewer. He stops for a shower, chat, love-making, marriage, work, and child-rearing. Nearing the autumn of his age, he begins to reflect on his Olympic non-glory.

Analysis: Yasutaka Tsutsui is known to be an advocate of the acceptance of public smoking in Japan. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that he’s a life-long smoker, but I can’t find the source anywhere in English. In Japanese, however, “As being a smoker, he criticized the recent ‘smoking fascism’ and has participated in a smoker group ‘Go smoking‘”. How about for a platform! Smoking Fascism? Anyway, the author has also written an absurdist story titled “The Last Smoker” (1987/2006 by Andrew Driver in Salmonella Man on Planet Porno [2006], also 1987/1995 by Andrew Rankin in Kyoto Journal, November 1995). The story is summarized in my previous review:

A well-respected and widely-published writer is irked by a reporter’s business card that reads “Thank You For Not Smoking”. As a chain smoker himself, he denies them the literary interviews and becomes the butt of growing scorn over everyone who smokes. Tobacco smokers become persecuted, then ostracized and, finally, they are lynched and burned. The writer remains one of the last smokers still standing in a smoker’s haven.

Yasutaka has a penchant for tobacco and it’s odd that it plays such a small role in “Running Man”; actually, it plays such a small, mundane role that it piqued my curiosity: What if the story were viewed in reverse polarity? In my opinion, the reverse-polarity perspective of the story quickly took it from an absurdist story to a possibly autobiographical one, a inkling of which I cannot confirm even after Google translating the Japanese Wikipedia page for the author. So, it might be biographical of someone the author knowns, but again, this is just speculation on top of absurdity.

For a side-by-side comparison, the “real” biographical story is in bold while the fictional story above is in italics. Spoiler alert, to boot.

The setting: The biographical story would go something like this: In 1972, the Winter Olympics was held in Sapporo, Japan. (In the story, the Olympics are an unheard of event, unknown to nearly everyone). The hype around the hosting of events caused a social push for smoking reforms in order to better reflect the international opinion on the matter. (No one cares about the Olympic participant in the story). With the proactive prosecution of smoking, smokers felt under the strain of fascism. (The runner feels the opposite: totally abandoned).

The character: He meets a girl, stops running, gets married and has a child. (In the biography, perhaps the man divorces his wife). Regretting his long absence from the sport, he returns to complete his race. (After a long divorce and absence from smoking, he again gets married only to return to smoking). He finds that he’s the only runner left and, therefore, claims the Olympic prize. (In reality, he finds that all of his smoking friends had died and his prize is solely loneliness). Happiness after regret. (Sadness after abstinence). Life (Death).

Review: It’s easier to appreciate this story when considering “The Last Smoker” as I feel that they diverge from the same source of motivation: the author’s habit and advocation of smoking. It’s absurdity not the point of pushing the extreme like “The Last Smoker”, but taking a biographical or fictional portrayal to the obverse of the situation: in the story, substitute the Olympics with smoking and vice-versa. It’s clever in this way, but it can also make you appreciate the opposing view (if anti-public-smoking is your stance).

The Good Old Days – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 

“The Good Old Days” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (団欒の危機), 1973

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: With the old TV having been pawed off and the arrival of the new TV delayed, an awkward situation with a family that’s accustomed to basking in the screen’s glow at dinnertime and in the evening. With nothing else to do amid the bickering of her family, Grandma Chie chimes up with the suggestion of an oral story, which is taken up by grandpa Masato. What begins as a urbane story of restrained youthful romance soon morphs into a tale of love and espionage, only to transcend into a narrative of disappointing marriage, which has yet another odd turn of plot when the next family member takes over.

Analysis: As in 1973, as in 2017… as in Japan, as in the US. Who says technology is progress? What exactly does it progress? Technology and innovation for the same of technology and innovation? With the advent of TV, family time turned away from the radio. Prior, the advent of radio turned families away from books (not that I’m demonizing books, good lord). And before that, books took attention away from what mattered – the oral tradition among family members. What if that oral tradition were fast-forwarded to the modern era? What tale would evolve?

As the story begins from grandpa’s perspective, his bias boils from the tale in which the youthful romance is between degenerate youth; however, the listening children are bored. As the father takes over, the urbane romance soon slides into lustful predation; however, the wife interrupts to spare the children’s virgin ears. As she takes over, the narration takes on a regal tone that descends into familial angst, again, much to the disappointment of the children. When the grandmohter finally aims to complete the story, emotions flare.

With each turn of story comes the repressed emotions of the narrator. Even though the audience is intended to be the children, the frothing angst among the family members spills forth into the narration. The personally embittered ideas of relationships are injected into the characters’ own relationships. Instead of the story running smooth as water, it merely treads in blood, the froth of which choking the very family who kicks to survive.

Unknowingly, the TV had held more than just their attention; it also held at bay the very emotions under their skins. With the repressive glow of the cathode ray tube removed, repressed angst percolates from the boredom, the victims of which are the children rather than the intended recipients.

Review: It’s funny yet relevant even though it was written more than 40 years ago. It’s interesting that each character in the story is characterized through the words through the story, a kind of meta-fictional mirror. The children, the intended audience of the round-robin story, are quickly smothered by the smoldering animosity. As their generation is nearly entirely reliant upon technology, what can be said for the children’s future in which they may face only the company of people… what hostility will bold forth?