Science Fiction Studies

#88 = Volume 29, Part 3 = November 2002

Christopher Bolton

Editorial Introduction: The Borders of Japanese Science Fiction

Rei Toei, the computer generated Japanese pop star of William Gibson’s novels, is only one recent emblem of the influence of Japanese culture in American science fiction. In Gibson’s language this artificial media star is an “idoru”—an Anglicization of the Japanese aidoru, itself a Japanization of the English word “idol.” Gibson’s language here hovers between America and Japan, just as Rei Toei crosses the boundaries between different media and cultures, alternately networked and embodied, globally famous and at the same time locally Japanese.

Rei Toei might be a fitting emblem for this special issue, which is devoted entirely to Japanese science fiction, but which also traces the complex process of importation, reverse-importation, and exchange that has occurred between Japanese and western sf. The articles in this issue all deal in some way with the boundaries among cultures, genres, and media—in short, with the question of what Japanese science fiction is and where its borders lie.

Miri Nakamura explores the historical beginnings of sf in Japan through the proto-sf of Yumeno Kyûsaku (1889-1936), directing our attention to the artificial body and the mechanical uncanny in order to shed new light on Yumeno’s pivotal work. It is frequently said that authors like Yumeno laid the foundation that allowed the establishment of sf as a well-defined genre after World War II. Nevertheless, one of the first of these postwar sf writers, Abe Kôbô (1924-1993), argued into the 1960s that the boundaries of this genre were and should remain fluid. The historical essays in this issue by Abe and Shibano Takumi show this ongoing theoretical negotiation of sf’s borders in the postwar period.

Shifting the focus from historical distinctions to geopolitical ones, Thomas Schnellbächer discusses Abe’s work and other postwar sf that uses the topos of the Pacific, an ambiguous space that both connects and separates Japan from its neighbors, a place where Japan’s prewar colonialism is addressed (or resurrected) as its new global identity is defined. During this formative time for Japanese sf, Schnellbächer shows that the boundaries of the genre are intimately connected with the boundaries of the state.

Another border for Japanese sf to negotiate is the one with western sf, whose translated texts continue to constitute a major influence. Yet several of the articles here show how Japanese sf has used this very nearness to set itself apart, frequently playing off Western texts and tropes. In a wide-ranging survey of recent women’s sf, Kotani Mari shows how women writers have altered the received elements of western sf (from the feminist utopia to the phallic swordsman) in order to construct a new space for women within this genre.

This issue includes an eclectic interview with first-generation sf writer Komatsu Sakyô (1931-) that shows the reach of this writer’s influences and that illustrates many of the connections and negotiations discussed above; but it also draws some unexpected links between this giant of prose sf and the neighboring realm of visual science fiction, including manga, or comics, and anime, or animated film. Internationally, these visual genres have become the most ubiquitous and influential products of Japanese sf, and the last few articles in this special issue take up these texts. (The related issue of anime’s local and global audience is addressed in the review essays, where William Gardner and Carl Silvio discuss anime’s consumption in Japan and America.)

Sharalyn Orbaugh’s piece on the cyborg in Japanese anime ties together many of the issues that have come before. Focusing on the tropes of ingestion, absorption, and permeability as they relate to gender definition, Orbaugh moves the question of boundaries from the plane of nations and genres down to the level of the human body. It is no accident that many of the works discussed in this issue, from Yumeno Kyûsaku onward, address the figure of the mechanical body: like Rei Toei, the hybrid figure of the cyborg—both embodied and dispersed, part self and part other—is a fitting figure for Japanese science fiction.
The other articles about anime further explore how anime may begin to dissolve the boundaries of nation, gender, and genre. Expanding her influential work on anime’s apocalyptic vision, Susan Napier shows how two recent science fiction anime are able to threaten the narrative conventions and construction of the genre itself, turning the narrative in on itself in a way that suggests the power of media technology to erase or remake the world. My own article asks whether anime can criticize that power even as it embodies it, by mounting a visual attack on the mass media from which it arises.

The final word comes in Tatsumi Takayuki’s surprising afterword. It would spoil the ending to reveal too much here about Tatsumi’s meeting with an Imperial Japanese cyborg, or his surreal tale of Salvador Dali’s ingestion, translation, and transformation by Japanese sf. Suffice to say that after reading the preceding essays, it is a denouement as compellingly unnatural and inevitable as the cyborg itself.

NOTE: Except for the ambiguously international Rei Toei, throughout this issue the names of Japanese characters and authors are given in Japanese order, with the family name first. In addition, when both first and last names are listed, the family name is capitalized to avoid confusion.

Back to Home