Book review: Speculative Japan 2

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that there are two publishers (that I know of) specialising in Japanese SFF in translation: Kurodahan Press and Haikasoru. I own a few titles from each, but today I’m reviewing my favourite: Kurodahan Press’s anthology Speculative Japan 2.

As you can guess from the title, it’s the second in a series of anthologies of Japanese speculative fiction (I do not own the other two, yet). As is pretty much always the case with anthologies, there were some stories I enjoyed much more than others, and for me the weaker ones seemed to be clustered at the beginning: despite being a lover of folklore, I wasn’t overly interested in Awa Naoko’s folklore-inspired ‘A Gift From the Sea’, and I thought Ōhara Mariko’s whimsical ‘The Whale That Sang on the Milky Way Network’ was fun but ultimately unsatisfying (though another reviewer loved it). I was a little more taken with Toh EnJoe’s ‘Freud’, a surreal story which begins with the sentence ‘we were on the verge of demolishing Grandmother’s house when a crowd of Freuds appeared from under the floor’, and only gets more amusing and bizarre from there.

After what I felt was a slow start, though, the anthology goes from strength to strength. ‘Speculative fiction’ can mean many different things, and I was particularly impressed by the range represented here – from the hard SF of Tani Kōshū’s ‘Q-Cruiser Basilisk’ to Takagi Nobuko’s subtle not-quite-ghost-story ‘Melk’s Golden Acres’. You can see the full list of thirteen stories (plus their authors and translators) on Kurodahan’s website, but I’m only going to tell you about the ones that really moved me, that got inside my mind and lingered there long after the book was finished. I’m usually happy to get one or two of these in an anthology, but this one gave me four.

‘Old Vohl’s Planet’ by Ogawa Issui – A story about massive alien lifeforms who have evolved to live in the atmosphere of a distant gas giant, communicating by reflecting light through the lenses on their bodies and occasionally eating one another to survive. They discover that their planet is at risk of being destroyed by its star, and decide to work together to communicate the accumulated knowledge of their species to a distant star where, they hope, other sentient life forms will be able to receive it. I struggled to get through this one when I was reading it – the creatures were so strange and their way of living and communicating with one another was hard to imagine – but I found myself thinking about it for days afterwards. The story is well-constructed and almost cinematic in parts, and I think the creation of such alien aliens is a feat in itself.

‘Emanon: A Reminiscence’ by Kajio Shinji – Apparently this one has also been made into a manga or something? A traveller and science fiction obsessive meets a girl who tells him that her ancestral line has the ability to pass down their memories: she can remember all the experiences undergone by her ancestors for the past three billion years (so yes, the earliest ones are about being single-celled organisms!). She tells him stories from her past lives while he tries to figure out whether she’s really what she says she is.

‘Mountaintop Symphony’ by Nakai Norio – Beautiful, poignant yet comical story about the performance of a neverending symphony. A famous composer spent his whole life, from childhood to death, writing this one symphony – he wrote like a man possessed, even in his sleep, and by the time he died the sheet music for the symphony filled entire warehouses. Now a team of orchestras are playing the symphony in a mountaintop concert hall which is never silent. There’s a whole industry devoted to this symphony – a team of transcribers hurry to transcribe the score into separate instrumental parts in time for it to be played, four orchestras perform the symphony in shifts, and organisers and administrators make sure it all goes smoothly and the music never stops. The story is told from the point of view of one of these organisers, and the numerous difficulties he faces in preparing for the most difficult part of the symphony: the 800-person movement.

‘The Old Man Who Watched the Sea’ by Kobayashi Yasumi – I’ve left this one until last because it’s the one that made the deepest impression on me. At the mountain town’s annual festival, a boy from the mountain meets a girl who is visiting from the shore – they connect, briefly, and she promises to come back and see him again as soon as she can. The trouble is, time is distorted in their world, and a year of mountain time is equal to just two or three days of shore time. The boy thinks about the girl constantly until she visits again two ‘mountain years’ later, but will they ever be able to be together? It’s an extraordinary and beautifully told story, and then you think about it for a while and notice the parallels with the Japanese legend of Urashima Taro and that just makes it a hundred times more awesome. For me it was the stand-out story in a very strong collection, and inspired me to pick up a collection of Kobayashi stories last time I was in Japan.

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