Science Fiction Studies

#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 fiction.

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, <>); 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 bestseller.

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 [1988].

KS: Speaking of Ochanomizu University, do you know of the famous scientist, Dr. Ochanomizu?

SN: Hmm?

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 Purchase.

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 on television.

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 Betty Boop?

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 literature”?

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 …
ended. [Laughs]

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. Karma”].

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 before.

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 Summer [1957].

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 very spry.

SN: They say he suffered some ear damage from the diving, but he is still very active.

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.

KS: Yes.

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-].

SN: Yes.

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 Japan Sinks.

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 [1988], 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 film.

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 like America?

SN: There are a lot of recent movies about meteor strikes, Deep Impact [1998] and Armageddon [1998], 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 continued.

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 [1982], Terminator 2: Judgment Day [1991], 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 thing.

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 cults.

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. [1920] was staged in Japan, wasn’t it?

KS: When Čapek is mentioned I always think of War with the Newts [1937]. 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 well.

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 school.

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 Punishment [1866].

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 Star].

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 [1939]. 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 [1900], 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 him.

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 attention recently.

SN: Yes. Work on Rampô is part of the general mainstream of Japanese studies in America.

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 grottesca.

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 Japanese sf.

Translator’s Notes
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 never ends.”

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