#88 = Volume 29, Part 3 = November 2002
Susan Napier, Tatsumi Takayuki,
Kotani Mari, and Otobe Junko
An Interview with Komatsu Sakyô
Translated by Christopher Bolton and introduced by Tatsumi Takayuki
Komatsu Sakyô (pen name of Komatsu Minoru) was born in Osaka, Japan on January
28, 1931. With Tsutsui Yasutaka and Hoshi Shin’ichi, Komatsu is one of the
“Three Greats” who formed the first generation of Japanese sf as it developed
after the war, particularly during the later 1950s. Today he is one of Japanese
sf’s most important authors. This interview was conducted on January 10, 2002 at
Komatsu Sakyô’s Tokyo office; it has been transcribed by Nishikawa Asako.
Komatsu attended Kyoto University, where he majored in Italian literature and
wrote his thesis on Pirandello. He was an avid reader of avant-garde Japanese
literature by such figures as Hanada Kiyoteru (1909-1974) and Abe Kôbô
(1924-1993). Around 1950, inspired by the early work of manga artist Osamu
Tezuka (1928-1989), Komatsu began publishing such feature-length manga as “Dai
uchû no kyôfu Andoromeda” (“Andromeda, Terror of the Cosmos”) under the
pseudonym Mori Minoru. After graduating in 1954, he worked at a variety of jobs
that included factory manager, reporter for the financial magazine Atomu
(Atom), and radio comedy writer. Finally it was in science fiction, the
“Great Literature of Tomorrow,” rather than the left-wing dominated jun bungaku,
or “pure literature,”1 that Komatsu felt he had discovered the
possibility of rebuilding the lost values of a defeated, postwar Japan. Komatsu
entered a writer’s competition announced in the early issues of SF Magajin
(SF Magazine), which started publication in 1959. In 1961 his story “Chi
ni wa heiwa o”(“Pacem in Terris”) received honorable mention, and in 1962, he
debuted in the same publication with “Ekisentôriki” (“Memoirs of an Eccentric
Time Traveler”), thus beginning his career as a science fiction writer. In 1963,
his story “Ochazuke no aji” (“The Taste of Green Tea Over Rice”) was nominated
for the 50th Naoki Prize, Japan’s best known literary award for emerging authors of popular
In 1964, Komatsu’s first full-length novel, Nihon Apachi zoku (The
Japanese Apache) sold 50,000 copies, an exceptional feat for a new author.
In the same year, he published Fukkatsu no hi (Day of Resurrection),
which was later made into a successful movie (released as Virus in the US
in 1981). In 1966 he wrote what still is regarded as his most important novel,
Hateshi naki nagare no hate ni (At the End of an Endless Stream),
a work that even today consistently tops the list in Japanese surveys of the
best sf of all time. In 1970, Tsugu no wa dare ka? (Who Will Inherit?)
won the second Japanese Seiun Award—established in 1970 as the Japanese
equivalent of the Hugo, although the name translates as “nebula”—in the Japanese
long-fiction category. In 1973 Komatsu published the best-selling Nippon
chinbotsu (Japan Sinks), which garnered the twenty-seventh Japanese
Mystery Author’s Association Prize and the fifth Seiun Award, and which was
translated into English in an abridged version in 1976. This novel about the
destruction of Japan in a giant earthquake has recently been hailed as a
forerunner of today’s Tom Clanceyesque “technothriller” novels. It sold over
four million copies and was later made into a film and manga, becoming a
milestone in postwar publishing. In 1982, Komatsu started work as a film
director and also was awarded the fourteenth Seiun Prize for his novel
Sayonara Jupitaa (Bye-Bye Jupiter). His other important works include
Esupai (1965, Espy) and the unfinished Kyomu Kairô (1987-,
Galleries of Emptiness). These highlights emphasize Komatsu’s novels, but
he has also produced many short and medium-length works, including “Kesshô
seidan” (1972, “Crystal Cluster”), “Vomiisa” (1975, “Vomisa”), and “Gorudiasu no
musubime” (1976, “Gordian Knot“), which won the fourth, seventh, and ninth
Japanese Seiun Prizes for short fiction.
In addition to his fiction, Komatsu has energetically pursued other writing
outlets, including nonfiction reportage based on his travels in Japan and around
the world, essays considering the relationship between the earth and human
culture, and interviews with scientists in many fields. He worked energetically
on the planning and production of the 1970 World Expo in Osaka and the
International Garden and Greenery Exposition in 1990. From 1980 to 1983, he was
third President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of Japan (SFWJ,
<http://www.sfwj.or.jp>); and in 1980 he and
the fourth president, Tsutsui Yasutaka, helped to establish a Japanese
equivalent of the Nebula, the Nihon SF Taishô or Grand Prize for Japanese SF.
Komatsu’s own novel Shuto shôshitsu (The Capital Vanishes) won the
sixth Grand Prize in 1985.
From Manga Author to SF Writer
SN: First, please tell us something about your literary debut.
KS: When the publishing house Hayakawa Shobô started SF Magazine in 1959,
they held a contest, the Hayakawa Science Fiction Competition. I sent in the
story “Pacem in Terris,” and that was the beginning. The sponsor who provided
the prize money was the Tôhô movie studio, which produced Gojira [1954,
Godzilla, 1956]. The condition was that Tôhô would retain the movie
rights to the winning story. That first year of the contest, I received an
Honorable Mention and 5000 yen. The second year I shared the prize with Hanmura
Ryô, who later won the Naoki Prize. We each got 30,000 yen from Tôhô, and I felt
so obligated [laughs] that in 1973 when we were discussing a film version of
Japan Sinks, I gave them the movie rights with almost no conditions. I think
they paid 1.5 million yen.
TT: At the time, that must have been quite a bit of money.
KS: Yes, the rights to Espy were half a million yen. But it earned 2
billion! [Laughing together] The following year, Japan Sinks was adapted
for television; the television series just recently came out on DVD.
TT: I suppose the television series grew out of the popularity of the manga, a
SN: I really enjoyed the movie.
TT: After Susan graduated from Harvard, she studied at Ochanomizu University
here in Japan, so she’s an expert on Japanese culture as well as Japanese
literature. She started out working on Mishima Yukio [1925-1970] and ôe
Kenzaburô [1935-, Nobel Laureate in 1994], but lately she’s published a book
titled Anime from St. Martin’s Press, which discusses Japan Sinks
in connection with Akira .
KS: Speaking of Ochanomizu University, do you know of the famous scientist, Dr.
KS: Dr. Ochanomizu is the scientist who takes care of Tetsuwan Atomu [Astro
Boy] in Tezuka’s manga! [Laughs]
SN: Tezuka Osamu [1928-1989] is still very influential even today, isn’t he?
KS: Right now I’m drawing my own manga for the quarterly Komatsu Sakyô
Magazine. Please give it a look sometime. The magazine has contributions
from critics and a number of people in the sf world.
TT: Yes, the publisher Shôgakkan has just come out with a four-volume collection
of your manga work, Rare Collected Manga of Komatsu Sakyô - Mori Minoru.
The latest issue [#5] of Komatsu Sakyô Magazine is something of a
commemoration, then, isn’t it? Susan may not know this, because even we are
learning about it for the first time, but while you were a student at Kyoto
University in the early 1950s, before you debuted as an author, you were active
as a manga artist under the name “Mori Minoru.” Fuji Shobô Publishing put out
one title after another: Bokura no chikyû [1948, Our Earth],
Dai chitei kai [1950, Ocean at the Center of the Earth], Iwan no
baka [1951, Ivan’s Foolishness], and other works strongly influenced
by the prewar sf author Unno Jûza [1897-1949] and by Tezuka Osamu, who
was already popular at that point. There’s even an anecdote about Tezuka reading
the work of this new talent and feeling that he had a rival. At that time
Matsumoto Reiji [1938– ] was reading manga by both you and Tezuka, and without
that influence he might not have written Uchû senkan Yamato [1974-83,
Space Battleship Yamato, aka Star Blazers], the work that ignited the
world-wide boom in Japanese animation. From that perspective, the influence of
this phantom sf-manga author Mori Minoru was tremendous.
In North America there are academic conferences every year on Japanese pop
culture centering particularly on anime. Mari and I got to know Susan at one of
these in Montreal three years ago. Where Japanese sf is concerned, it seems to
be anime rather than novels that receive the most coverage at these kinds of
conferences. But looking back at the history of things, Komatsu-san, your
influence has extended not only to novels but to anime as well. [Laughs]
KS: Montreal, that brings back some memories. In 1966, when I was involved in
the production of the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, I went to observe the
preparations for the 1967 Expo taking place in Montreal.
SN: There was a futuristic building there called Habitat that caused a real
sensation. It was supposed to represent dwellings to come. That was right around
the time I had started to become interested in science fiction, and I was really
fascinated by it.
KS: I was involved in the production of the symbolic display of the main theme
inside the Sun Tower at the Osaka Expo. Did you happen to see it?
SN: I saw the theme tower at the Okinawa Expo, but not in Osaka. It was a little
disappointing, perhaps because the theme was the sea. Everyone tells me the
Osaka tower was more interesting.
KS: There was something really interesting at the Okinawa Expo. Polynesia sent a
huge sailboat. It had a crew of sixteen and an enormous sail. On the crew there
was this one huge guy, bigger than the sumo wrestler Konishiki, over 220
kilograms. I asked him what he did on the boat, and he said nothing. He just
slept in the bottom of the boat for ballast! Apparently these boats need these
big guys in them just for that. [Laughter]
KM: For ballast! [Laughs] That reminds me, I heard that in 1970 you traveled up
and down the Mississippi river to gather material for a TV special.
KS: It was 1987. Two years before that I did the same thing on the Yellow River
in China. That was after the Gang of Four was freed, and the controls there had
been relaxed. It was wonderful. But the NHK network [Japanese National
Television] beat us to the punch with their own program. I was so disappointed
that I made plans for a second documentary about the Volga. The Mississippi trip
was the third in that series on “Rivers and Civilization.” After American
Independence, France still had a colonial presence outside the original thirteen
states. During the Napoleonic wars, France sold a large area west of the
Mississippi to the United States of America to raise money—the Louisiana
TT: During the Jefferson Presidency. Jefferson then sent Lewis and Clark off
toward the West Coast.
KS: And that tradition remains: “Hoe in the direction of the setting sun,” and
“Go west, young man” and so forth. One thing you can say about America in those
days, it was a safe place!
SN and KM: Since 9/11, it has become much more dangerous.
KS: Tezuka Osamu idolized America and Hollywood movies from the beginning,
particularly Disney. He was drawing manga that was essentially animation broken
up into individual frames.
SN: I was in a bookstore today and I was noticing all the books about Disney. I
think it is true—Disney has a very deep-rooted appeal for the Japanese. Have you
ever been to Disneyland?
KS: Yes I have, and I’ve been to Disney World as well. The first was a trip for
the Osaka Expo. The university professors and their colleagues who were
traveling with me were very impressed with all those little dolls dressed in the
costumes of different countries singing “It’s a Small World.” They bought a
record of the song and took it home! [Laughter]
TT: You know, Godzilla dates from 1954, but both Susan and I were born
the following year, the year Disneyland opened. 1954 and 1955 correspond to the
twenty-ninth and thirtieth years of the Shôwa Emperor’s reign in Japan, so you
might say this marks the critical transition from the second to the third decade
of the Shôwa era.
SN: Really? I didn’t know I was a Disney baby. As a child I did want to see
Disneyland, though. Every Sunday I would watch the Wonderful World of Disney
KS: Besides Mickey Mouse, Popeye cartoons also appeared in Japan before the war
and were very popular.
SN: Really? So American humor had made some real inroads in Japan. How about
TT: Tsutsui Yasutaka [1934– ] loves her. He even wrote a book, Betii Bûpu den
[1988, The Biography of Betty Boop].
KS: In Japan, they said she was too risqué for children. Something like Clara
Bow, the “It” Girl.
SN: The Popeye cartoons produced by Dave and Max Fleischer were also rather
erotic. They were aimed at adults. They aren’t making animation like that in
America these days.
“The Great Literature of Tomorrow”
TT: It is interesting that you started out in the early 1950s drawing manga
but eventually cast your lot with literature, and that it was in science fiction
particularly that you began to see real possibilities. Your essay “Haikei Iwan
Efureimofu sama,” [1963, “Dear Ivan Efremov”] is your most famous declaration on
sf. But your collected works are now coming out from On Demand Publishing, and
at the end of the latest volume, on short fiction from your literary magazine
days, there are two other essays from 1956 and 1958, “Bungaku no gimu ni tsuite”
[“The Duty of Literature”] and “Bungaku no honshitsuteki kenkyû no teishô” [“A
Proposal for Fundamental Research in Literature”]. Reading these the other day,
I was very interested to see that they form the basis for “Dear Ivan Efremov.”
They basically argue that since 1900, philosophy has been tragically split
between science and literature, and that the two have to work together again. In
order to define the “fundamental” nature of literature with precision, there is
a need to establish a “science of literature.” For this, you suggest that the
most useful methodology is derived from Husserl’s phenomenology.
What really struck me is the earnestness of these essays: while they are
critical of postwar Japanese literature for slipping backward, they take in this
intellectual transition from existentialism to phenomenology, and assert that we
must do something about the state of literature.
KS: Yes, those essays appeared in Taiwa [Dialog], a magazine I
founded in 1956 with Takahashi Kazumi [d. 1971] and other people we knew from
Kyoto University. We were all writing extremely difficult things like that.
TT: That was around the time we were born. The phrase in the air was “Ashita no
dai bungaku.” How would you translate that into English—the “Great Literature of
Tomorrow”? It seems distinct from jun bungaku as well as from shuryû
bungaku [mainstream literature].
KS: For me it was more like: “Big Literature. Big Tomorrow.”
SN: In Japan today, would you say that sf is regarded as “mainstream
TT: Actually, what is happening is that more and more mainstream writers are
adopting the techniques of sf. One factor is the way Tsutsui Yasutaka seized on
meta-fiction as an essential component of sf in the 1970s and advanced its
cause. But mainstream figures from Murakami Haruki [1949- ] and Murakami Ryû
[1954- ] to Takahashi Gen’ichirô [1951- ], and even the younger generation of
writers such as Yamada Amy [1959- ], Matsuura Rieko [1958- ], and Shimada
Masahiko [1961- ], have all started to employ the techniques of science fiction.
Consider that Shôno Yoriko was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, a bulwark of jun
bungaku, for a work with the uncompromising title Taimusurippu konbinaato
[1994, Timewarp Complex].
SN: Yes, I see what you mean. In fact I was reading your book 2001 Nen Uchû
No Tabi kôgi [2001 (Heibonsha), Lectures on 2001: A Space Odyssey],
and I was interested by your comparison of Komatsu with ôe Kenzaburô.
TT: Yes, ôe is regarded as an author who followed the “high road” of jun
bungaku and the literary mainstream all the way to the Nobel Prize, but the
paired novels he produced in quick succession in the early 1990s, Chiryôtô,
Chiryôtô wakusei [The Healing Tower and Planet of the Healing Tower]
were written as straight sf. Still, he was simply traveling on the rails laid
down by people like Komatsu-san after the war—people who first absorbed and then
built on the American and European sf traditions.
KS: When the war ended following the dropping of the atomic bombs, I was 14
years old. Toward the end of the war, I saw fellows two or three years older
than me drafted into the Kamikaze and the other suicide squads. Some died in
training, at 17. If the war had continued, I would have been called up, but I
couldn’t have been in the suicide squads because of my nearsightedness. We had
been given bamboo spears and told to hide in the cellar. “When the tanks come,”
they said, “attack from underneath!” [Laughs] I was saved by the end of the war,
but then came the Cold War. The US and Soviet Union both had the atom bomb; then
came the hydrogen bomb. Even when tensions eased, the nuclear fears were still
there. China became Communist around the time that I entered college, and by the
time I graduated they had tested an H-bomb, too. It was natural to think that
the world might end at any time. These were the conditions we were living under,
so once I had decided I wanted to treat serious issues, I chose the methods of
sf out of necessity.
TT: The real point, then, is that for you, sf was not something that had to
remain popular fiction [taishû bungaku], as it had in America, but
something that would necessarily point to that “Great Literature of Tomorrow.”
KS: The “literature” we had up to that point was all stories of the master
making advances on the housemaid.
TT: Yes, that sounds like jun bungaku. [Laughs]
Lem, Clarke, and Heinlein
SN: One of my interests is the apocalyptic imagination. I just came from
attending a Millennium Studies conference in Boston. It’s an academic conference
held every year to present work on the end of the world.
TT: If the focus in the late-twentieth century was on the end of the world,
maybe now that we have reached the twenty-first, the emphasis has shifted to
theorizing the next millennium. Maybe all this “end-of-the-world talk” has …
SN: Yes. [Laughs] The conference organizer was saying that these days people
doing Millennium Studies come off as a lot cooler than scholars studying
apocalypse! But for me, the apocalyptic imagination is entrenched in Japanese
sf. Besides Godzilla, Japan Sinks, and Akira, it is
something you see in such works as ôe’s Kôzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi
[1974, The Floodwaters Reach My Soul]. And of course, there’s Abe Kôbô’s
Dai yon kanpyôki [1959, Inter Ice Age 4]. It is one of the first
examples of an sf novel written by a jun bungaku author.
TT: Komatsu-san, it’s well known that as a student you were an avid reader of
Abe Kôbô and Hanada Kiyoteru.
KS: I think Japanese literature itself began to change after the Akutagawa Prize
went to Abe’s story “S. Karuma-shi no hanzai” [1951, “The Crime of Mr. S.
OJ: Komatsu-san says that when he recommended Abe’s work to his friends in
college, they couldn’t understand a word of it. Even among people of that same
generation, the sense of literature was very divided.
TT: Abe Kôbô came from a background different from conventional “Japanese”
jun bungaku, which has its roots in French Naturalism. Abe emerged from a
part of the literary mainstream that had adopted the experimentation of the
European and American avant-garde. In other words, Abe may not have been part of
jun bungaku in the conventional Japanese sense, but from an international
perspective he definitely wrote mainstream literature. In that respect his work
is connected to Komatsu’s sense of sf as “Tomorrow’s Great Literature.”
KS: After all, sf was regarded as children’s literature; there was a prejudice
that these novels weren’t serious works of fiction.
SN: That prejudice remains today, wrong as it is.
TT: I think it is important to remember that Komatsu-san’s work originally comes
out of an engagement with very political issues. The journal for which this
interview is being conducted, Science Fiction Studies, was started in the
early 1970s by R.D. Mullen and Darko Suvin, the Yugoslavian-born scholar who was
a friend of Komatsu-san’s and who came to be regarded as perhaps the leading sf
critic in North America. Science Fiction Studies started out as a venue
for Marxist criticism of sf.
KS: Suvin came from the Bosnia-Herzegovina region, when it was under Tito.
TT: What’s even more interesting, one of the editors of SFS and the
instigator of this special issue is Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., who is well
known in North America for his research and translations of Stanislaw Lem.
KS: At the time of the Osaka Expo, the British author Brian Aldiss contacted me
and asked if I wouldn’t help sponsor an international Symposium of Science
Fiction Authors to be held in conjunction with the Expo. There wasn’t much
money, so I made the rounds gathering up the participants myself. We tried to
get the Strugatsky brothers to travel from the Soviet Union, and Lem from
Poland, but none of them could come. There were five others from the Soviet
Union, but one of them was KGB—assigned to watch the remaining four. [Laughs]
Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, and Judith Merril all attended. What surprised
me was that the Western European writers weren’t aware that there was anyone in
the Soviet Union writing sf, even though Soviet authors were being translated in
Japan at the time. They hadn’t even heard of Lem.
TT: It was the Cold War era, culturally as well as politically.
OJ: Yes, the 1970 Symposium revealed to these Western European authors that sf
existed in Eastern Europe as well. Apparently it was only after 1970 or so that
Lem’s work really started to be translated into English.
TT: So the Western writers came because they assumed that there was sf in Japan,
but they didn’t realize it existed in the USSR as well! [Laughs] At any rate,
that was a marvelous symposium.
KS: It was held in Tokyo, Nagoya, and ôtsu, and afterward we took the overseas
authors to the Expo from Kyoto. It was even broadcast on television, but
unfortunately somehow the tape has disappeared.
The US had a very large area reserved at the Expo, and I remember wondering what
they were going to have there. It turned out to be moon rocks. The line to see
them was enormous. Apollo 11 had landed on the lunar surface just the year
SN: 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in 1968, and it was a time when science
fiction was very popular. But I’ve heard that Heinlein is even better regarded
in Japan than Clarke. What do you think of Heinlein’s work?
KS: It’s not bad at all. I especially like Petronius the cat in The Door Into
SN: He’s one of my favorites too.
TT: That’s one of the all time greats. Last year, the Science Fiction and
Fantasy Writers of Japan published SF nyûmon [An Introduction to SF],
and as a special feature, they conducted the club’s first survey of sf’s
all-time greatest works. Not surprisingly, The Door Into Summer was first
among foreign works and Komatsu’s At the End of an Endless Stream was
first in the Japanese category. An earlier survey by SF Magazine had yielded
exactly the same result. [Laughs]
KS: What Susan said reminds me of an anecdote about Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac
Asimov. I invited Asimov to the 1970 Symposium. He lived in New York, and when I
told him the symposium was in Japan, he asked me if he could get there by
bicycle! [Laughs] Clarke tells the story of taking Asimov to England by ship.
Once on board Clarke told him: “I asked the captain a favor just for you;
they’re showing a film about the Titanic in the ship’s theater!” [Laughs]
TT: Clarke loves the story of the Titanic. He is very attached to these images
of shipwreck. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the spacecraft Discovery 1 is
shipwrecked, and Clarke often refers to the Titanic in his fiction and
essays. It’s an image that bears some resemblance to those in Komatsu-san’s
work, where Japan is repeatedly broken down, bought out wholesale, or somehow
“sunk.” The apocalyptic imagination that Susan has noted—that power to
meticulously envision the world’s utter destruction—is a central feature of
Japanese sf, I think.
KS: Clarke often went scuba diving in places like Australia. It was therapy for
the effects of polio, which like Roosevelt he had as a child. He lives in Sri
Lanka now, though at one point his prized villa was burnt down by the Tamil
Tigers. Anton Wicky, the Japanese television personality from Sri Lanka, was
Clarke’s diving student when he was a boy.
TT: Just this year Clarke was interviewed on CNN. He’s over 80 now, but he looks
SN: They say he suffered some ear damage from the diving, but he is still very
KS: In 1991, when satellite TV broadcasts began in Japan, I did a two-way
simultaneous interview with Clarke by satellite. In the October 1945 issue of
Wireless World, Clarke had written that three satellites in geosynchronous orbit
36,000 kilometers above the equator could link the whole world by radio. In our
interview I pointed out that the vision expressed in that essay, now realized,
was allowing us to talk. When I asked him how old he had been when he wrote that
paper, he said about 28.
TT: Yes, today you can read that in Clarke’s essay collection Greetings,
Carbon-Based Bipeds! [St. Martin’s, 1999] in the chapter “Extraterrestrial
Relays.” The development of Germany’s V2 rocket technology to create a
space-based relay system using artificial satellites is a familiar story to us
now. But actually Clarke worked through the problem as a young man!
KS: It was a small circulation magazine, but I ordered it from the British
Library and had Clarke’s article checked by an engineer, who told me that
Clarke’s theories and calculations were strikingly accurate.
SN: But Clarke wasn’t a scientist himself.
KS: No. Clarke was the son of a postmaster. Apparently his mother was a
telegraph operator in another office. They say Clarke’s father wooed her in
Morse code. [Laughs] Very romantic, I think!
KM: How scientific!
From The Divine Comedy to The Cosmic Comedy
SN: Komatsu-san, were you interested in science when you were young?
KS: Yes, to an extent.
TT: But it is notable that you majored in Italian Literature at Kyoto University
and wrote your senior thesis on Pirandello, a figure associated with the
avant-garde and with meta-theater.
KS: I started with Dante. In eighth grade I was made to serve on the student
library committee, and I found an anthology of world literature in the stacks.
When I opened it up excitedly, the first work I saw was The Divine Comedy.
In Dante’s time they believed in a geocentric universe, and Dante wrote that
Lucifer had fallen from heaven and come to rest in the center of the earth, and
that the concave interior of earth’s sphere had become hell. The other side of
the earth, repelled by the demonic pollution, bulged out convexly. Remember this
was the thirteenth century, before Newton. What I couldn’t figure out was why
Lucifer would stop falling when he reached the earth’s center. I even asked my
physics teacher, but he couldn’t give me an answer. Reading The Divine Comedy
in classical-style Japanese was difficult, so I only made it through The
Inferno in junior high. I read Purgatory in college, but I found it
difficult to make it to Paradise! [Laughs].
SN: The Inferno is the most interesting part.
TT: It includes its own theory about the center of the earth. But Komatsu-san,
you wrote your own stellar version of Dante, your Cosmic Comedy, which
has become one of sf’s “sacred texts.”
It’s a change of topic, but I’d like to ask you about an author who was a friend
and classmate of yours at Kyoto University, Takahashi Kazumi. Takahashi won the
Kawade long fiction award for Hi no utsuwa [1972, Vessel of Sorrow],
but his original project was researching Chinese literature.
KM: Susan is probably familiar with Takahashi Takako [1932-].
KM: Takahashi Kazumi was her husband. She started writing after his death.
SN: She is a very unusual fantasy writer.
TT: These days, Takahashi Kazumi’s Jashûmon [1965-66, Gate of Heresy]
is getting renewed attention. It has gained new significance particularly in the
wake of the subway gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyô cult
KS: Compared with other difficult existential novels that Takahashi wrote,
Gate of Heresy is easy to read and has a real impact. When I told him how
much I liked it, he asked me if I noticed how much he had borrowed from my novel
The Japanese Apache. [Laughs]
KM: That is another wonderful novel to read. There’s that great image of people
in the ruins after the war who resort to eating iron in order to survive. In
that work you were already developing some of the motifs that would appear in
KS: Did you know that Japan Sinks has been translated into English?
SN: Yes, but the translation cuts out a lot of parts.
KS: Yes, and there are some mistakes. One I noticed right away is in the part
where the old man Watari is staying with Dr. Tadokoro at the villa on Lake
Ashinoko. The translator mistook Ashinoko for the name of a woman. [Laughs] The
scene is supposed to take place on a lake in the mountains of Hakone, but
suddenly it was as if we had been transported to a hostess bar in Ginza!
TT: That’s very funny. Everything that ends in “ko” becomes the name of a
Japanese woman. It sounds like a Japanesque novel. A young sf writer, Richard
Kadrey, who is a friend of ours, wrote a novel called Metrophage ,
which features a female character named Sumi. It’s short for her full name,
which is Sumimasen.2 [General laughter]
Japan Sinks and the Aum Cult
KS: When I wrote Japan Sinks, I had no expectation that it would
become a movie, but there were still two little things left out of the film that
disappointed me. In the novel the old man Watari has the ear of the Prime
Minister, but he also has a rapport with a man everyone regards as a “mad
scientist,” Dr. Tadokoro. There’s a scene that takes place in a teahouse, where
Watari asks Tadokoro, “Is Japan’s destruction really upon us?” and as Tadokoro
is explaining his conclusions, there is a small earthquake. Just before the
tremor, the birds outside take flight and Tadokoro says “It’s coming.” After the
quake has passed in the novel, the teahouse flower arrangement drops a single
camellia blossom. That detail was left out of the film. The other omission was a
scene at the very end in which Watari says to a young woman, “Would you let me
see you?” and she slips out of her kimono. I wanted that in the movie, even if
they had to film it from behind. [Laughs]
SN: The novel is so full of suspense. I was sorry to see that drop out in the
TT: A movie has to be a lot shorter. There must have been scenes that were
filmed but later edited out.
KS: I didn’t get a chance to see the television version when it aired, but I was
able to see it for the first time recently on DVD. It wasn’t very good. [Laughs]
SN: You can’t beat the wide-screen of the movie.
OJ: The television version was a weekly series in twenty-five episodes. They had
to generate a new climax every week.
KS: Yes, and it was broadcast nationwide. The novel described this gradual
submergence of Japan by focusing on a few different areas, but in the television
series, different locales would go under every week. As if they were telling
people, “Stay tuned for the destruction of YOUR city!” [Laughs]
TT: [Laughs] Now that you mention it, it was a lot like a war movie in that way.
SN: Tatsumi-san, in your book Lectures on 2001: A Space Odyssey, you
identify this ambivalent fear and hope that surrounds the tearing down of the
Japanese state and the birth of a new generation of humanity. You call it the
“Japan Sinks syndrome.” Now, after the 1994 Kobe earthquake, I’m wondering what
Komatsu-san thinks of this.
KS: Before the Kobe quake, they said there would never be an earthquake in the
Kansai area. But the active faults beneath the area move every two hundred years
or so. Is this kind of “panic sf” that depicts earthquakes uncommon in places
SN: There are a lot of recent movies about meteor strikes, Deep Impact
 and Armageddon , for example. But as for depicting panic, it
will be important to see how 9/11 is depicted in films. Until now, the images
have been of high-tech threats such as nuclear weapons. But technologically, the
9/11 attack was primitive. The shock of that was a lot like the initial
reactions to the 1997 subway gas attacks in Japan.
TT: Some in America have suggested that Japan was able to deal well with that
incident, and have asked Japan for advice on how to deal with 9/11.
KS: My generation witnessed America develop the atomic bomb and saw it build
missiles using Germany’s V1 and V2 rocket technology. We were raised in an
atmosphere where it was assumed that any day the world might be destroyed. And
in Japan we had actually experienced the Bomb. So when I wrote, even though I
was writing in Japan, I wanted to write about something more—about civilization.
And it was just at that point that American sf entered Japan.
The title of my first story, “Pacem in Terris” came from something that
happened two years before the SF Magazine contest. In 1958, Angelo Roncalli of
Bergamo ascended to the papacy and became Pope John XXIII. His first encyclical
was “Pacem in Terris”—“Peace on Earth”—and I used that as my title. The story
depicted a fictional world in which the war did not end in August 1945 but
SN: An alternate history.
TT: And it depicted the final fighting on Japanese soil. In that respect,
Murakami Ryû’s 1994 novel Go fun go no sekai [A World Five Minutes
From Now] is very similar to “Pacem in Terris.” It was in the early 1990s
that Steve Erickson was being widely translated and became popular in Japan as
America’s writer of alternate histories. Against that background, Murakami was
praised for his ability to imagine an alternate world along the same lines, but
in point of fact Komatsu-san had already laid the groundwork in 1960.
KS: Around the time he won the Akutagawa Prize for Kagirinaku tômei ni chikai
burû [Almost Transparent Blue]—that would make it around 1976, I
guess—I met Murakami in a bar in Ginza. He said to me, “Komatsu-san, literature
from here on out will be sf.” And a few years later in 1980 he wrote Koin
rokkaa beibiizu [Coin Locker Babies, 1995].
SN: I think Coin Locker Babies received a strange reception in America,
partly because it didn’t come out in English translation until just five years
ago. People couldn’t believe it had been so popular in Japan. I had my students
read it one year, but not all of them liked it. They said it was disturbing.
TT: That’s especially true in the wake of the Aum incidents. Some reviews of
that book even tried to group Murakami Ryû in with cyberpunk authors.
KS: What shocked me about the Aum incidents was that such an idiotic
organization so easily managed to produce weapons of mass destruction. The nerve
gasses like sarin and tabun that they were manufacturing were far more deadly
than the gas first used by the Germans in World War I.
TT: Aum took a cue from your own early novel Fukkatsu no hi [1964, Day
of Resurrection]. Sarin figures there, after all. Among the films on Aum’s
list of recommended viewing were the obvious choices—Blade Runner ,
Terminator 2: Judgment Day , Kaze no tani no Nausicaa [1984,
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind]—and also Fukasaku Kinji’s 1980
film adaptation of the novel Fukkatsu no hi [Virus].
SN: Is that right?
KS: When they showed footage of the Aum compound on the news, there was the
Hayakawa edition of my novel Day of Resurrection right in the frame. “Ah,
they have read it.” That was my first thought.
KM: I would bet that they all read it cover to cover. They read Kasai Kiyoshi’s
Banpaia wô [1991, Vampire Wars] too. Especially the spokesman,
Niimi. Niimi even wrote the author from prison, saying he hadn’t been able to
finish the story and asking how it ended.
KS: Science fiction will have to watch itself.
KM: Yes, you can bring these sf scenarios to life, but it’s not always a good
SN: And what about Matsumoto Reiji’s Star Blazers?
KM: That’s right. The air scrubbers Aum developed to protect themselves from the
gas were given the name “cosmic DNA” [kozumikku kuriinaa], just as in
Star Blazers. Both Tezuka Osamu and Mori Minoru influenced Matumoto Reiji,
and Aum got its start.
KS: A cult cobbled together from science fiction and comic books.
SN: But Aum drew its members from elite parts of society, right?
KS: The leaders were all science and engineering majors from first-rate national
universities, and Tatsumi-san’s own Keio University, too.
SN: That’s frightening. But sf has always been read by the educated, people with
science and technical backgrounds from places like MIT.
TT: In the 1960s, there were those among the radical students who wanted to
bring about the revolution by reading science fiction. During the 1990s, maybe
it was new religions [shinkô shûkyô]. You can see how people who would
once have invested their hopes in the left wing are now investing them in these
SF’s Hidden Tradition
KS: I think a big celebration is in order for 2003. The Wright brothers’
first flight was in 1903; that makes next year the 100th anniversary. Now that
the year 2000 is behind us, I’m often asked by science writers and reporters
what kind of age the twentieth century was. I tell them that at the dawn of the
twentieth century, there was not one person alive who had ever ridden in an
airplane. In 1900, no one had ever flown. But according to statistics, in the
year 1998 alone, 1.46 billion people rode on airplanes, 600 million of them on
international flights. That number, 1.46 billion, is greater than the world’s
population in 1900. That’s the twentieth century.
SN: Robots, too, have come into being in the last hundred years. Karel Čapek’s
R.U.R.  was staged in Japan, wasn’t it?
KS: When Čapek is mentioned I always think of War with the Newts .
That was actually my model for The Japanese Apache. Czechoslovakia was a
peculiar country. When it was still hard to get into Czechoslovakia I went to
Vienna to do the foreign correspondent column for the magazine Bungei shunjû.
At one point I ended up in Bratislava, and I was able to go by taxi to Prague,
but only on the condition that I promise not to get out of the car along the
way. It was a dark city. After all, it produced not only Čapek but Kafka as
TT: Now that’s interesting. Abe Kôbô is often paired with Kafka, and you with
Čapek—two Czech connections. In point of fact, maybe Japanese sf had its
beginnings in Czechoslovakia, or at least in Eastern Europe.
KM: The real birthplace of Japanese sf.
TT: By the way, Fukuda Kiichi [1930- ], who appears in a recent issue of
Komatsu Sakyô Magazine [Jan. 2002], was the model for Kida Fukuichi in
The Japanese Apache, wasn’t he?
KS: While Takahashi Kazumi and I were writing these very serious existentialist
things, Fukuda published his first story, “Ushinawareta miyako” [1953, “Lost
City”], which was later put out as a book. In it, this character is walking
through Shinsaibashi just after the war and meets up with Napoleon. Napoleon—the
real man—doffs his hat and says in perfect Osaka dialect, “Hey! What’s up?” It
turns out he has come in search of Hideyoshi’s lost treasure, so that he can be
resurrected. What a story! [Laughs]. He was writing that kind of thing around
1952 and 1953.
TT: It sounds like sf historical romance [denki sf], like something by
Hanmura Ryô [1933-2002] or Aramaki Yoshio [1933– ]. Who would have thought the
guy you modeled a character on wrote sf himself!
KS: The existentialist works I wrote with Takahashi were also romances. We both
loved Dostoevsky. I had read The Brothers Karamazov [1879-80] in middle
SN: Didn’t you find it difficult at that age?
KS: No, not really. I was really struck by the essay by Ivan Karamazov that
appears within the novel, “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” and that
remarkable part where the Inquisitor interrogates Jesus.
SN: Mishima Yukio was an admirer of Dostoevsky as well—particularly Crime and
TT: He was also a science fiction fan. He belonged to a UFO research society,
and he wrote a novel about UFOs, Utsukushii hoshi [1962, Beautiful
SN: That’s right! Though it’s not exactly his best work. [Laughs]
KS: No, it wouldn’t win any science fiction contests! [Laughs]
TT: So for those who don’t place in sf contests, there’s always a career as a
writer of jun bungaku! [Laughs]
KS: Besides sf there were also the mystery and other similar genres, but I’m
happy to have encountered American sf when I did. The jun bungaku that
interested me most was Faulkner, at a time when everyone else was reading
Hemingway. “Now this is really something,” I remember thinking. The first
Faulkner work I read was The Wild Palms . When I traveled to
Mississippi, I made special arrangements to interview Faulkner’s daughter, and I
asked her what kind of person her father was. She told me that she had had a
black nurse named Mary who had doted on her, and that many of this woman’s
stories eventually ended up in her father’s fiction.
TT: The black nanny is an important presence in American literature, often a key
figure. It is true of Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain as well: they grew up in
the South, hearing these stories from their nannies, and later became authors.
KM: The same is true of Irish maids.
KS: I visited New Orleans on the same trip, and in the city library were some
files from The New Orleans Times going back to the time when Lafcadio Hearn
[1850-1904] was a reporter there. I looked through them and sure enough, his
work was in there. Even the librarian was surprised. Hearn came to Japan and
wrote books in Japanese under the name Koizumi Yakumo. His collection of ghost
stories, Kwaidan , is an amazing work.
TT: He researched voodoo while he was in New Orleans. I really believe that the
zombies of voodoo and the ghosts of Japan were essentially the same thing for
OJ: Tatsumi-san, the anthology of Japanese sf classics you are editing for
publication in Russia by the Japan Foundation is going to include Komatsu’s
novella Gordian Knot, isn’t it? That’s a story that forces together
exorcism and black holes, but in style it is a conventional ghost story. How do
you think something like that will go over in Russia?
KS: That won’t be a problem. Russia has its ghost stories too. Stalin loved
them, being a peasant himself. When I first went to the Soviet Union to do
research in the 1970s, the Stalin regime had ended and Aleksey Kosygin was in
power. I had arranged to spend one night in Georgia, the region where Stalin was
born. I met some authors there, and they were all pounding down vodka and
speaking this bewildering English. There was supposed to be one writer there who
was fluent in Japanese, but when I asked where he was, they told me he had come
home drunk the night before and hit his wife, who had turned him out on the
street naked, so that he ended up in jail. [Laughs]
When I went to do the documentary on the Volga in 1986, the publishing ban on
Dostoevsky had just been lifted in Saint Petersburg. (At that time it was still
called Leningrad.) Journalists and writers from places like France and Germany
were very excited. Until then, there were restrictions on publishing his work
for the general public. After all, in those days even mystery stories were
disapproved of, because of the official position that “evil” did not exist in
communist society. But sf and ghost stories were both recognized modes.
SN: Ghost stories make many people think of Edgar Allan Poe, but after all he
was an sf-style author as well.
KS: Poe has been known in Japan for quite a while. The famous Japanese mystery
writer Edogawa Rampô [1894-1965] invented his pen name by transforming Poe’s.
TT: Rampô’s works have an aestheticized, gothic romance quality to them. I
understand that Japanese scholars in the US have been giving him more and more
SN: Yes. Work on Rampô is part of the general mainstream of Japanese studies in
KS: Because of my background in Italian literature, I’ve been to central Italy
many times for research. There’s an interesting area on the east coast of the
country—a series of very spooky limestone caves. It is said that people take
their children there to tell them frightening stories and to pray. They call the
caves grotte in Italian, and the frightening stories are called
SN: I just went today to see the great new film by Miyazaki Hayao [1941-],
Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi [2001, Spirited Away], and there is a
recurrent quality of the grotesque in the film that resonates with what we have
been discussing. The spirit characters themselves are grotesque, but their
actions are more so, which I thought was very unlike Miyazaki. At a deeper
level, though, there is an aesthetics of the grotesque at work here. From
Komatsu to Miyazaki, that seems to be one of the traditions that runs through
1. Jun bungaku, literally “pure literature,” is a term that denotes
“serious” literature, in contrast with taishû bungaku or “popular
literature.” Notwithstanding the arbitrariness of these categories and the
inevitable leakage between them—a phenomenon discussed in this interview—these
labels remain very influential within the organized and hierarchical world of
the Japanese literary establishment. For example, the most important literary
awards for emerging authors, the Akutagawa Prize and the Naoki Prize,
distinguish carefully between these two categories. The former is awarded to an
emerging writer of jun bungaku; the latter effectively labels a writer as
an author of popular literature.
2. Sumimasen is a flexible Japanese interjection that in Kadrey’s own
offbeat translation can mean, variously, “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “This
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