Amrita – Banana Yoshimoto

Amrita (novel) by Banana Yoshimoto

English Publication History: Amrita (1997, Faber and Faber; 1997, Grove Press; 1998, Washing Square Press)

Original: Japanese (アムリタ), 1994

Translated by Russell F. Wasden, 1997

Synopsis: Sakumi, while not a teenager any longer, certainly has trials and tribulations much like someone half a decade her junior. She scoffs at having an office job so continues her fun and flexible job at a bar, yet, in the long term, it’s a dead end. She lives at home with her kindergarten-aged brother, mother, and two family friends, but the herd of this house seems to be thinning after the death of her elder sister.

What was once an urbane existence amid the toils of divorce and death, her brother begins to exhibit odd behaviors that compels to skip school. As an older sister, she takes his side in order to understand him; however, his supernatural gift of clairvoyance and telepathy catches her off guard: he says gods speak to him; he says what Sakumi is thinking; he sees future events; he recognizes “good” auras of people. Sakumi can’t deny that he has a gift, but it’s something to which she had never been exposed.

After her sister’s suicide, Sakumi lost her memory in a tumble down the stairs, memories which come back in spurts and floods. She understands that her sister used to have a boyfriend named Ryuochiro, but that doesn’t stop her from following a romantic relationship with the same man. As time moves on, her short-term memory forms fewer gaps and her relationship evolves to the point of traveling with her beau to Saipan in the Pacific Ocean, where she more inexplicable supernatural elements of ghosts and telepathy. She’s brought herself out of her comfort zone–albeit still headstrong (oops, a pun)–and forms bonds with the off locals, as does her brother who visits and experiences the same elements.

Returning home, she finds her work closed, her brother studying away from home, and another member of the household had run away. Her spirit is buoyed, however, by suddenly receiving a flood of associated memories, none of which really shed light on her permanent state of existentialism, ennui, and mediocrity.

Analysis: Citing Wiki yet again, amrita is “repeatedly referred to as the drink of the devas which grants them immortality” and is “etymologically related to the Greek ambrosia.” There’s no literal liquid of longevity (damn alliteration) in the story, so the reader must infer what the nectar is that grants immortality in a sense. Consider that memory is a large part of Sakumi’s hardships (well, that and her Gen-X ennui), her gradual recovery of memory enthralls her, as if she were re-living her life again, as if the memories themselves were immortal and material for all to view.

According to the book’s own text, the title amrita “comes from the old Sanskrit word amrta … a divine nectar, something the gods indulged in by guzzling the stuff down.” It is said that “when you’ve let the liquid gush through you, you’ve achieved life, because what happens to the flowing water is similar to what happens to people” (445). This quote comes from Sakumi’s boyfriend, a published author who’s planning on writing his next novel with the same title; further, he says, “[D]on’t you think it will make a good title for a novel? Sure, it might not sell, but that’s beside the point” (445).

This is one point where the book goes meta. It’s not a unique twist where one character decides to write a book with the same title that the reader is reading and is, indeed, what the author and character had intended. It kind of feels like the character–Ryuochiro, the author in the book–somehow reflects Banana Yoshimoto. Ryuochiro seems like a jet-setting writer always looking for inspiration but only writing pulp, who also seems to be sunk in as deep of ennui as Sakumi; though he has a permanent address, Ryuochiro wonders through the world, through women, and through tangled emotions.

Further, the book contains quite a few printed letters from Sakumi’s family and friends, extracts from her life that peak into other’s motivations.  While this isn’t meta, the book also summarizes (according to my memory) a movie and a book, which shined light on Sakumi’s situation. The author also referred to certain reals works of fiction that, again, shined light on Sakumi, but also fictional pieces of fiction that didn’t.

Review: It’s all a strange mishmash of correspondence, bits of meta-fiction, and the ennui of a Gen X Japanese girl bent on non-conformity to social standards yet has little motivation or inspiration other than taking one day after another in a struggle to beat boredom with a decent bank account while capturing stray bits of memory that come from association. As much as my summary is very sequential and disjointed, the entire 459-page book reads like that. If this is a sample of Banana’s other works, the rest of her bibliography may not really interest me.

The Wind – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“The Wind” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (風), 1988

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: What seems to be a husband and wife bicker about the sound of the wind, which sounds like their door knocking, and reminiscent about their possible sons. They’ve been hearing the knocking sound for years but have never answered the door to anyone, so they continue to ignore the sound, but behind the inaction lies the persistent memory of their sons, who, with each knock, they hope for them to return even though it has been decades without a word of either their safety or death.

Analysis: Though the relationship between the two named men and the couple (again, assuming they are husband and wife as it isn’t explicit) isn’t explicit in the story, the sons’ names are: Ichiro, which means “first son”, and Jiro, which means “second son”. The first son seems to have been kidnapped more than thirty years ago while the second son was too full of pride.

One spouse recalled Jiro’s beige coat and later, after one of the spouses returns from investigating the knocking sound, mentions that the actual visitor had a beige coat; however, the other spouse suggests that this proves it was just the wind. So the conclusion of the story seems quite vague.

In addition, it is mentioned that the visitor was wearing “a white silk scarf”, which draws a parallel to the Shinto god of wind, Fujin, who is always depicted as “carrying a large bag of winds on his shoulders” (Wiki). This story may have a much deeper analogy in step with Shinto mythology, an area in which I pretend to have no expertise.

Aside from that, I have little to analyze as the story is purely a dialogue between, again, what seems to be, a husband and wife. There are no descriptive paragraphs or even lines; there’s only the dialogue.

Review: This story is only five pages and, as mentioned above, is in the pure form of dialogue. Certainly, there must be hints as what the author wants to convey–be it the relationship of Shinto mythological gods or the history of Fujin’s arrival into Shinto mythology–but, for me, there aren’t enough points of reference to gain any leverage, which leaves me groping in the dark. It’s slightly mournful with a probable parallel to Shinto mythology… anything deeper is beyond my grasp.

Soliloquy – Yoshinobu Akita

 

“Soliloquy” (short story) by Yoshinobu Akita

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

Original: Japanese (自問自答), 2017

Translated by uncredited, 2017

Synopsis: Motoko’s mind awakens to a reality that isn’t quite what she had expected: She is floating motionless, body-less above a park, which also seems to be motionless, dustless. She’s soon confronted by an image very much like herself leads her down a long line of questioning. To Motoko, she think she may have been ghost hacked, but the questions feel more like inquisitiveness or counseling rather than interrogation. She learns that she had lost her body in an accident, so without her five senses to ground her mind to reality, her mind has needed to be engaged otherwise. Her detached self begins to wonder if the reality-of-the-mind is her permanent home, or whether the next sleep will be the forever sleep.

Analysis: Of course, a soliloquy is “an act of speaking one’s thoughts aloud when by oneself or regardless of any hearers” (Wiki); in regards to this story, Motoko does, in fact, speak to herself, albeit a version of herself to her real mind-only self, so it’s a type of soliloquy. The word “soliloquy” has its origins in Latin, which means “solus (alone) + loqui (to speak)”, which is etymological related to “solipsism”, which mean “solus (alone) + ipse (self)”. In this story, while a large portion of the story is one long soliloquy, it has a foundation that challenges solipsism.

Digressing again to René Descartes’ idea of the mind-body dualism, human can only experience what they feel from their senses, which, even unto itself, is not truly experience any object; each experience is completely subjective: the red I see may not be the red you see. This is related to Thomas Nagel’s famous paper “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and the philosophical idea of qualia. But to be brief…

Motoko, in her normal real-life physical body, would know that she exists purely in her own mental ability to perceive, or “I think, therefore I am”. With the real world around her, physical laws govern and effect follows cause; the world is right. However, when her awakens to find herself body-less in a static environment, certainly the idea that “I think, therefore I am” is questioned as nothing in this virtual world follows real-world common sense. With nothing but conversation to ground her mind from flailing, Motoko is on the brink, on the cusp of teetering between self-awareness and mental chaos.

You may have experienced something this if you’ve ever had a false awakening, something made famous by the movie Inception. You wake up and start your daily routine as if it’s real, only to wake up again and realize that the former “reality” you had experienced was only a very lucid dream; thus, upon waking, you immediately question what is real. When this is experienced for the first time, the feeling came crop up from time to time, something that really questions our sanity, solipsism.

Review: While the ideas and philosophies behind the story are enticing, the application in the story isn’t as solid as it could have been. The dialogue feels protracted, possibly because there’s very little else that can happen in the story aside from the virtual environment. Nevertheless, it offers some interesting points to reflect on, something which Ghost in the Shell is very good at offering, both the movie and the collection.

Sadism – Yasutaka Tsutsui

 

“Sadism” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (サディズム), 1975

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: The company that creates celebrity look-alike sex dolls–always with permission, of course–gets a visit from actress Hisako Toba and her lawyer as the lawyer believes he had seen an android look-alike for his client. When the android appears, the lawyer firmly states that it’s a look-alike, yet Toba disdains the androids features and manner then scoffs at any suggestion that they are similar, to which the lawyer stomps off and Toba talks to Ishida about the possible manufacture of one her own look-alike, albeit well mannered, as opposed to her real brash, narcissistic self. The representative–possibly the CEO–convinces himself of the usefulness of such an android: self-centered, rude, and combative. After his work, he enters the lobby only to see Toba’s figure, which excites him, and when she/it gives some attitude, he only gets further excited. Remembering that the android resembles Toba exactly, he gets a thrill for this innocent revenge on Toba’s brash character.

Analysis: Similar to the author’s other story “Narcissism” (1975/2017), this story has a blunt misogynist message: Men are animals and want to relieve those primal urges on women yet remain guilt-free: “Men have an aggressive instinct, a destructive urge … sometimes they want to direct it at women … [with androids] men could satisfy those urges without hurting anyone … a kind of channel for mental healing” (144). As the representative explains, the combative androids are so popular “because women have become too domineering and men are sick of it! If they get married, they’re worked like dogs,and if they want a divorce they’re sued for every penny!” (139). Emotionally, they want the pride of defeat and the power of domination while being free from guilt and penalty.

Again, similar to the previous “Narcissism” story, the main character in this story, too, wishes to ignore his own emotions of guilt and compassion–thereby dehumanizing himself–while attacking and dehumanizing the human simulacra, which reflects human appearance and character. He sees no problem is reverting to his primal state of violently physical aggression and revenge because there is no victim; there’s only plastic and silicon. As there are no repercussions for his lashing out, he can indulge in his sadism, which is surely only a temporary state, something the character may be trying to convince to himself, yet again.

He refuses to see his own inhumanity upon the inhuman android, as if two non-volitional objects crashed into one another: a falling branch striking a boulder, a meteoroid striking a lake surface. Without malice, is seems, there is no crime, only the following of pre-programmed instinct… just like the android.

Review: Yet again, Yasutaka concisely highlights men’s instinctual drives as inhuman while using sexual service androids as a moral mirror. It’s not the repercussions of lashing out that men should fear, but the origin of those emotions. This is precisely why there are progressively-minded campaigns against the future of sex robots. For being 40 years old, this story is becoming more and more timely and relevant, something that says a lot about the lack of moral progress in our society… technological progress, yes, but we’re still morally corrupt. Pre-programmed instinct… just like the android?