#88 = Volume 29, Part 3 = November 2002
Has the Empire Sunk Yet?—The Pacific in Japanese Science Fiction
The sea as a narrative space features prominently in the genealogy of science fiction, from fantastic voyages in the Odyssey tradition to the adventure stories of the nineteenth century. But the oceans ceased to be the great unknown around the time of sf’s immediate precursors in scientific romance. In hard sf, the oceans were long ago preempted by interstellar space, more recently joined by cyberspace. It is interesting, therefore, that in Japanese sf after 1945, a number of major works focus on the ocean surrounding Japan. In fact, from 1945 through the mid-1970s, the Pacific ocean acquired the status of a Japanese sf topos. This is not simply a consequence of Japan’s being an island nation: the ocean does not figure prominently in British sf; nor does the ocean retain any special status in Japanese sf today. The object of this essay is to pinpoint the issues with which this topos was associated and to inquire what its history reveals about the sf discourses of its time.1
In brief, my argument is that the ocean figures in works that are in some way associated with Japanese national identity, specifically with pre-1945 Japanese imperialism and the idea of Japan as a Pacific sea power. In some of these works, the ocean is also connected with mythic, archetypal nature, but this is a contingent ingredient. Modern Japan’s geopolitical situation is the element most essential to the discourse in question.
From the sixteenth century, Japan’s military regents practiced a policy of isolationism, but towards the middle of the nineteenth century, pressure on Japan mounted to open its ports to international trade. This was eventually forced by a naval show of strength by the US in 1853 and 1854. Shortly after this, a coup d’état in Japan was followed by the establishment of a European-type imperial monarchy (the Meiji Restoration of 1868), which was in turn part of an aggressive modernization program. The Imperial Navy played an important part in these changes and was viewed, no doubt rightly, as a guarantor of Japan’s national autonomy in an age of imperialist expansion.
On the other hand, Japan soon became a regional colonial power in its own right, and fantastic adventure stories played their part in spreading the colonial ideology. In Yano Ryûkei’s novel Ukishiro monogatari (1890, The Tale of the Floating Fortress), for instance, a group of Japanese South Sea adventurers takes possession of a British warship and sets off to explore Africa. Yano was influenced by Jules Verne, whose works were immensely popular in Japan during the 1880s. There is no question that Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1870) was a particularly important influence on all the works to be discussed here. At the same time, the theme of Japanese identity and/or autonomy is in my view even more prominent. Hence, while many of the narratives I will discuss draw on well-known precursors (both Western and Japanese), there are significant variations. My discussion, for instance, features several idealistic renegade submarine commanders reminiscent of Verne’s Captain Nemo. Yet all are patriots and naval officers—a far cry from Nemo’s anarchism. Such telling variations suggest why it is possible to talk about a specifically Japanese science-fictional topos here.
The group of texts to be discussed includes internationally well-known works in various narrative media. In the film Gojira (1954; extensively revised for the US market as Godzilla, King of Monsters, 1956), the monster emerges from the Pacific, giving occasion for allusions to lost Japanese territories and Japanese technical expertise “misdirected” into war. Less popular but equally important is the first Japanese sf novel, Daiyon kanpyôki (1958-59, Inter Ice Age 4) by the avant-garde writer Abe Kôbô (1924-1993), which features a submarine genetic-engineering project. At the end of the period to be discussed stands the cult manga and anime series Uchû senkan Yamato (1974-1983, Space Battleship Yamato, also known as Star Blazers), in which the legendary Japanese battleship Yamato, sunk in 1945, is salvaged in the twenty-second century and sent on an intergalactic mission to save the earth. Finally, Komatsu Sakyô’s (1931- ) novel Nippon chinbotsu (1973, Japan Sinks, 1977) was a major bestseller whose popularity extended well beyond a science fiction readership; along with the Abe work, it is one of the few Japanese sf novels to be translated into a significant number of European languages.
I will first, however, discuss two lost-world romances published in 1947 and 1948 that were the debut publications of mystery writer Kayama Shigeru (1909-1975). These novels introduced into fantastic literature the characteristic postwar themes of war guilt, sense of loss, regression, and new beginning. Kayama also was invited half a decade later to draft the scenario for Godzilla, which closely echoes many of these themes. I will then focus on Godzilla, along with director Honda Ishirô’s (1911-1993) submarine fantasy film Kaitei gunkan (1963, The Seabed Warship; released in the US as Atragon, 1965), with its powerful allusions to an important 1900 militarist adventure story. Inter Ice Age 4 is treated here as the antithesis to territorial and national concerns, which are critiqued by imagining all major land masses as submerged. Finally, Japan Sinks singles out Japan, which wholly disappears under the surface of the sea. To the best of my knowledge, this is the last major application of the ocean-topos to date, at least in the postwar mode sketched here (see note 12).
Kayama: Missing Links and Misty Islands. Kayama Shigeru had a late professional debut in April 1947 with “Oran Pendeku no fukushû” (“The Revenge of the Orang Pendek”), written less than a year after the Japanese surrender in May 1946. The concluding sequel, “Oran Pendeku no gojitsutan” (“The Fate of the Orang Pendek”) was published in January 1948.
In the first story, Professor Miyakawa is an anthropologist who has recently returned after spending the war years in Sumatra. He reports on two unknown species of humans: the Orang Pendek of the title (“small man,” a kind of missing link)2 and another which is amphibious and features gills. At the climax of his lecture reporting on these species, the scientist collapses and dies. When examined, he is discovered to have the rosette birthmark of the Pendek and the gills of the Orang Pendek implanted in his skin. His assistant Ishigami investigates and finds explanations for Miyakawa’s mysterious state. Ishigami becomes his mentor’s heir and marries his daughter Hatae.
This denouement is false, however. Having left home without warning, Ishigami reveals in a letter to his wife that he poisoned Miyakawa. He is in fact an Orang Pendek, compelled to leave his people soon after his birth because he lacked their characteristic birthmark. He was brought to Japan, adopted by Miyakawa, and learned his identity years later. He originally planned the murder because he was forbidden to marry Hatae, but (as already suggested by the title) he is also given the more profound motive of revenge when he discovers that his adoptive father has killed several of his people. Ishigami has also, for the same reason, killed another Japanese scientist and a British administrator on Sumatra.
So far, the ocean topos is only implied through the related lost-world topos in its “island romance” form. In the sequel, however, the principal setting is the ocean. Hatae sets out on a yacht to look for her husband accompanied by an Indonesian crew and a disguised skipper (who eventually turns out to be the missing husband). At the end of a twisting plot, hero and heroine join the rest of the surviving Pendek on an island shrouded in mist near the Antarctic Circle. Ishigami has calculated that shortly after their arrival, there will be a series of submarine volcanic eruptions that will interrupt the current that has brought them there, hiding all trace of the Orang Pendek from the rest of humanity. He suggests that Hatae join the Orang Pendek—who are genetically identical and lead a polygamous life—to refresh their gene pool. When she refuses, he decides that he actually loves her and does not simply need her body for reproductive purposes. At this she consents to stay, give up her identity, and join the primitive tribe on its way to becoming homo sapiens.
In the course of the two stories, postwar remorse and loss turn magically into future promise, with evolutionary progress as a metaphor for modernization. At the same time, the boundaries between nations, tribes, and even species are blurred and geopolitical space is converted into mythical space. This narrative strategy suggests a reconciliation of a traumatic and guilt-laden national identity with a hopeful future, free of territorial conflicts.
This foggy reconciliation responds to the Japanese postwar myth of a new beginning, which integrates both national identity and all manner of hopes seen as progressive (often a vaguely defined conglomerate of universal peace, democracy, and welfare). In Kayama’s conclusion, regressive and progressive desires seem to harmonize, as the misty island suggests both a lost paradise and a promised land. The linking of progressive with regressive fantasies is hardly unusual in science fiction of any kind, but what is characteristically Japanese here is the narratives’ close link to a problematic national identity.
Kayama’s text has not aged well. To make his invisible island plausible, he has to resort to an absurd proliferation of abnormal meteorological phenomena. But it is futile to suggest that another planet might have served his purpose better. The fact is that by setting his tale in the Pacific as he does, Kayama introduces the issue of the lost Japanese empire into postwar fantastic literature.
Honda: Monsters and Sacrifices. Godzilla makes more effective use of a conflict between regressive (mythological) and progressive moments, partly through the use of anti-realistic stylization.3 Godzilla is actually a highly politicized film—not because it espouses a particular political creed, but because it raises political issues that are conveyed all the more effectively through stylization and the resulting suspension of disbelief. Its Pacific setting is an important plot element.
To recapitulate briefly the well-known plot: a dinosaur that has survived in a cave under the Pacific is first roused and then genetically changed by the US hydrogen bomb tests on Bikini. Turning into an incarnation of the bomb, it sinks several ships and devastates a fishing village on an island at the periphery of Japan’s national territory. Attacked with depth charges that only provoke it further, it follows its attackers to Tokyo and devastates the city. The monster is eventually killed by the “oxygen destroyer,” a fantastic weapon of potential mass destruction developed during the war by a young chemist, Dr. Serizawa. The inventor has kept it strictly secret, fearing the consequences of making public even the existence of such a technology. He changes his mind when he sees that the monster is causing as much damage as the war, but he ensures that he himself dies while deploying the weapon.
The testing of the H-bomb is the hottest political issue raised by the film. The Bikini Atoll, nearly 4000 km from Japan, was in truth quite close, since Japanese vessels fished in that area. One such ship, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 (Daigo Fukuryû-maru) was affected by fallout from the explosion, and one crew member later died in the hospital. The “Lucky Dragon Incident” provided a direct link between nuclear weapons and the everyday lives of the Japanese, and gave a welcome opportunity to criticize US superpower politics. It should also be pointed out that the Marshall Islands, to which Bikini belongs, were a Japanese mandate from 1920 to 1945. In that sense, the drama both in the film and in reality takes its point of departure from one of Japan’s lost territories. The film confines itself to postwar Japan, of course, but it implies a Japanese Pacific identity when the monster first comes ashore on a remote—yet still Japanese—Pacific island.
Honda’s interest in Japan’s past glory is even more graphically illustrated by the film in which he debuted as a director, which appeared a year before Godzilla. Taiheiyô no washi (1953, The Eagle of the Pacific) was one of the first big-budget war films made after Japan regained national sovereignty in 1952. The hero of the film (which also marked the beginning of Honda’s long-running partnership with special effects designer Tsuburaya Eiji) is Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the Commander of the Imperial Navy who recommended the sea-based preemptive air strike on Pearl Harbor that started the Pacific War in 1941.
In the history of the Japanese Navy, the aircraft-carrier-based attack on Pearl Harbor marks the peak, and the end, of a series of remarkable military successes (most notably, victory in the wars against China  and Russia ) in which the rapidly modernized navy played an important part. Honda’s and Tsuburaya’s monster films address the ghosts of the Japanese past playfully and at the same time seriously, in a way calculated to exorcize those ghosts. They celebrate the nation, but theirs is a pacifist nationalism. Probably the best example of how they used fantasy to defuse militarism is Atragon, a 1963 film.
The Japanese title of this film, “The Seabed Warship,” is also the title of a classic 1900 militarist adventure story by Oshikawa Shunrô, in which Captain Sakuragi of the Imperial Navy Reserve retires secretly with his crew to an island in the Indian Ocean in order to develop a new type of submarine, to be based on an array of innovative Japanese technologies. His charisma and inventive genius mark him as a Japanese Nemo-type character. In the first story (five sequels followed between 1902 and 1909), the submarine is deployed against pirates; but its declared purpose is to force the respect of the Western powers and ultimately to enable Japan to unite the Asian countries in opposition to Western imperialism. In other words, the weapon is devised to serve a highly idealized Japanese counter-imperialism. Nationalism at this time was a mainstream movement—not only in Japan—and the Japanese victories over China and Russia did indeed win the country international respect. The special significance of the Oshikawa stories is that they constituted a major milestone for scientific romance written in Japanese. Not only did this author introduce Verne-type technological speculation; he also pioneered the use of a lively but stylized colloquial Japanese, combined with vivid descriptions and effective use of narrative tension, so that he is almost invariably named in the genealogy of Japanese sf.
The Honda film contrives to salvage the myth of Japanese technical prowess while defusing militarism. Honda takes from Oshikawa’s story the motifs of the Imperial-Navy-commander-cum-genius-inventor and the topos of the desert-island base, as well as the idea of the super-submarine. But he sets the story in Japan in 1963, shifts the genre to fantasy, adds elements of family drama, and no doubt also draws on the popularity of Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), another film in which a submarine commander saves the world. In Honda’s film, the commander, Captain Shingûji, has been developing a revolutionary submarine, secretly launched the day before the Japanese surrender in 1945. He is presumed killed in action, but has in fact been improving his invention: as the film opens, the audience witnesses the launch of the new submarine, which can even fly and cut through rock. But technical hyperbole is not the most fantastic element in the film, which takes up the legend of the lost continent of Mu,4 picturing an archaic yet technically advanced civilization (its leaders recognizable in the film by wigs of wonderfully unlikely colors) surviving in caves under the Pacific and plotting to re-colonize the surface. To help them in this task, the Mu have captured a submarine that Shingûji constructed in 1945. Since the attack on the surface world is imminent, and since it has become known that the submarine’s inventor is still alive, a small party including Shingûji’s former commanding officer (now a ship owner) and his daughter Makoto ask him to use his expertise to save the world. He refuses, saying that he has made the ship for his country, not for humanity. Only after Makoto, a true child of the postwar, bursts into tears and tells her father that she hates him does he relent, and the battle against Mu can begin. The destruction of Mu, with which the film ends, stands for the end of imperialism and colonialism.
Films of this sort were aimed at a mass audience of all age groups. Symbolically, the film reconciles progressive moments (innovation, reform of political values in line with a global mainstream) with conservative ones (appreciation of Japanese virtues and Japanese achievements, even when formerly placed at the service of the “wrong” values). The reconciliation is aided by attributing one destructive aspect of the past (imperialism) to a fantastic enemy (Mu), and another (military technology) to an equally fantastic toy-like invention.
Similar themes are echoed in Godzilla, in which a fantastic weapon likewise defeats a mythical enemy. The co-existence of conservative and progressive messages is embodied by the paleontologist Professor Yamane, who identifies the monster and speaks the warning epilogue after the double sacrifice of monster and tainted scientist.5 Though as relieved as everyone else, Yamane mourns not only the younger scientist, who had been his assistant, but also the animal, a living example of a species thought dead.
In both films, the surface of the ocean acts as the boundary with the unknown and the unconscious. It brings forth the monsters of the past, but it also receives them at the end in merciful oblivion. In addition, the ocean is the conjurer’s handkerchief that reconciles the known and the unknown by making them interchangeable—and profitable, since monsters, like white rabbits, can be made to reappear if the audience is ready for a sequel. This is why, while the 1954 Godzilla still exudes real menace, Honda’s later films, including Atragon, are firmly rooted in family entertainment and what Brian W. Aldiss calls “cosy catastrophe” (293-294). As well as the ironization of pathos that characterizes the development of any genre, this can be seen as showing the sense of security that grew in Japan between the publication of the Orang Pendek stories in the late 1940s and the release of Atragon in 1963.
Abe: No Man’s Land. There is nothing cozy about Abe Kôbô’s Inter Ice Age 4, which resists reconciliation and unfolds a radical reading of the nature of science, humanity, and the future. Of the Japanese works discussed here, this novel is the only one that, notwithstanding a Japanese setting, views the ocean from a truly transnational, not exclusively Japanese, perspective.
The part played by the sea in this story is revealed late in the narrative, while the significance of the title is revealed only at the denouement. The novel depicts several layers of reality, the most superficial sequence of events taking place on four days in August of an unspecified year in the near future: everyday reality is unchanged, but the advanced computer technology described is a fictional innovation. Beneath this, however, runs a deep-time structure that begins with a recapitulation of the previous three years and ends with a far future vision.
The first-person narrator, Professor Katsumi, is in charge of a Japanese government project responding to a new class of Soviet prediction computers that are making disturbingly accurate economic forecasts. But when the US declares political forecasts immoral following the Soviet prediction of the first fully Communist society within thirty-two years, Japan follows suit, and Katsumi, who is himself not interested in politics, is hard put to find a field that does not involve politics. It is decided that they will secretly predict the life of a random individual, and together with his assistant Tanomogi, the protagonist sets out to choose. Here begins an increasingly absurd series of events that begins with the murder of the man picked for the prediction and ends with Katsumi’s wife’s undergoing an abortion at a mysterious clinic after a voice on the telephone (which she takes to be her husband’s) instructs her to do so. We learn that women going to this clinic are told that their offspring will not be killed but bred into better humans. In this way, a mystery is set up in the first part of the novel (Sec. 1-23, entitled “Program Card 1”).
“Program Card No. 2” (sec. 24-34) reveals a hidden logical order. Tanomogi takes his superior to a secret aquatic research project that breeds hybrid aquatic organisms from mammal fetuses. The enterprise already can breed submarine livestock on an industrial scale. Katsumi suspects that the organization behind this project is connected with the fetus trade, and that it is breeding aquatic humans—a suspicion that eventually turns out to be true. He resolves to find his aborted child and kill it. The next day, he is summoned to a meeting by a telephone voice that is identical to his own.
It is here that a further layer of hidden reality appears. Katsumi’s voice is generated by a computer, more specifically by his “second degree forecast.” This is the construction of his situation as it would be if he knew the content of a preceding first-degree prediction, an alter ego that is always one step ahead of the original. The model accuses him of being reactionary, unable to bear the thought that the future might not be a logical extrapolation of the present. Katsumi finally has to present his case to the “committee,” consisting mainly of people associated with his project. They are working on a secret computer project running alongside the official one, and it is this project that has generated the narrator’s alter ego. The murder has been plotted to implicate him, the “abortion” to test his attitude. Katsumi is informed that it has been decided to kill him, since he knows about the aquatic human breeding project but rejects it. First, however, he is given a detailed report that culminates in a long-range prediction by the computer.
Only at this point does the full significance of the ocean (and the “inter ice age” of the title) emerge. The secret organization behind the “committee” has been founded by leaders of private industry in response to the news, kept secret from the general public, that there will be a drastic rise in the level of the oceans due to steam issuing from undersea volcanic eruptions. This change will destroy the polar ice caps once and for all, so that the present Inter Ice Age 4 will give way to another ice age. The organization is breeding a new race of aquatic humans (aquans) who will be able to live on the sea floor.
The computer leaves open how many years elapse before the developments described in the last part of the novel, entitled “Blueprint” (Sec. 35-38). The Japanese government moves to a secret undersea location, announcing by radio the existence of the submarine colonies and at the same time claiming submarine territorial rights. Eventually, the colonies acquire equal rights with terrestrial humans and form their own government, which is internationally recognized. Other governments follow suit in breeding aquans. It is not specified whether nations continue to exist in the submarine age, but the implication is that they may not.
In the final pages, a young aquan is shown suffering from “land disease,” a longing for wind and dry land. He dies on the beach of one of the few remaining islands. In this way, the envisioned future is overwhelmed in its turn by another future. In his epilogue, Abe wrote:
A true future, I believe, must appear on the far side of a rupture, as a “thing” transcending … value judgments.… The future finds the feeling of continuity of the present guilty. Since I believe that this problem is an important topic for a time of transition such as the present one, I decided to depict a future intruding into the present as something that passes judgment. The feeling of continuity of the everyday must die the instant it glimpses the future.… (141, my translation)
The future is seen from the vantage point of Japan in the present, and to this end the novel uses features derived from a geopolitically defined national identity. But it is in order to expose this nationalism as secondary and ideological that Abe takes up the ocean topos, and thinks beyond the essentialist myth of a Japanese Pacific identity. He sees the period contemporary with this novel as especially transitory, an attitude born of an era in which Japanese society had just started to stabilize. Abe opens up a historical panorama to the point where historical events appear from an eternal perspective. It is little wonder, then, that his depiction of political ideologies and relationships, such as those between the USSR, Japan, and the US, appear vain and caricatured—though at the same time, there is nothing to suggest that the role of technical innovator allotted to the Soviet Union is seen at all ironically.
Kayama’s tale about a primitive race threatened with extinction and finally embarking on an evolution program reveals only the parochial Japanese obsession with catching up with the rest of the world. In Abe’s conception, the surface of the planet itself changes. For that reason, his narrative is reminiscent of works from a transnational socialist canon depicting a post-national and post-human (though not post-organic) world.6 This is one way in which this work differs so from the others discussed here. Another is that Abe’s is the only work with real philosophical ambitions. While the others try to define Japanese postwar identity in some way through the use of the ocean topos, Abe’s concern is to demonstrate the limitations of national identity itself.
Komatsu: Has the Empire Sunk Yet? Komatsu Sakyô, writing Japan Sinks a decade and a half later, seems similarly motivated and uses a comparable geodynamic device, but in my view his viewpoint ultimately is conservative. He permits his characters to bid a fond farewell to the country they love, and to take their culture with them. Komatsu’s geodynamics also differ from Abe’s: this time, only Japan goes under. Moreover, it does so in the space of only two years, the result of an acceleration of convection movements in the mantle of the earth, ending with the islands sliding into the fold of the Japan Trench at the bottom of the Pacific.
The length of the novel notwithstanding (two volumes of 409 and 384 pages respectively in the paperback version), the first million copies of the two-volume novel were sold in just two and a half months after its publication in March 1973. The appeal at the time was in what was perceived as a realistic description of the sinking process.
Three levels of events can readily be identified: physical, social, and affective. All three are connected to questions of Japanese identity. On the physical level, there is the geological process, explained with a profusion of facts and figures and partly illustrated with diagrams (all cut from the translation). This is realism on the level of technical plausibility, which, of course, is a feature of hard sf everywhere. Yet the events explained in this way are destroying the environment only of the Japanese, and the interest shown in the plausibility of this is not something readily translated or transferred overseas. Serving a similarly instructive purpose are the social and political events that arise in response to the impending disaster. Komatsu describes not only the reaction of the political and other institutions of Japanese society but also (and this is the real issue) what might happen to the Japanese after Japan no longer exists—i.e., what options the Japanese government might have for evacuating 100 million Japanese within the geopolitical givens of the time.
On the affective level that is most directly connected to questions of identity, the narrative dramatizes the emotions created by these events within a rather small cast of central characters, mostly associated with the project (called Plan D) to investigate the initially mysterious natural events. There is one principal hero, a young deep sea submarine pilot called Onodera. Besides these narrative masks, however, there are a number of major characters shown only from an outside perspective. The most important of the scientists is Professor7 Tadokoro, a maverick geophysicist who considers that intuition is the most important characteristic for a scientist, and who is at first ridiculed by his colleagues for suggesting that Japan might sink (Chap. II, Sec. 4). The most politically influential character is Watari, over a hundred years old, who has been active behind the scenes in Japanese politics and business for several generations, and who finances Plan D. These characters stand respectively for the scientific and the social levels of the novel.
There are two women associated with Onodera. The first is the cosmopolitan and slightly blasé Reiko, his prospective wife in an arranged marriage, with whom he shares a passion for diving. She dies during the eruption of Mount Fuji (Chap. V, Sec. 7/Japanese: Sec. 8). The other is Mako, a young bar hostess whom he has met in Tokyo and who turns up again as an unlikely member of a group of mountain walkers whom Onodera tries to rescue (Chap. VI, Sec. 3). It is Mako to whom he is married at the end of the novel, thus ending up with the more down-to-earth of the women, the one more likely to have children and ensure ethnic continuity. This is made clear in the final scene, when she tells her now-husband a legend from her home island, in which the pregnant Tanaba, sole survivor of a flood, founds a new tribe with the son she gives birth to as her partner. The story comforts her, she says, and she would do the same if necessary.
Though his appearance in the novel is brief, an important character is Professor Fukuhara, an expert in the comparative history of civilizations who is summoned by Watari when it becomes clear that there only remain a few months to evacuate Japan. After presenting the results of a week’s continuous work with his commission of experts, he collapses and dies (Chap. V, Sec. 4/Japanese: Sec. 5). The commission has suggested dividing the Japanese into three groups: those who could build a new state, given territory on which to do so; those who could assimilate in other countries; and those who could not live elsewhere and must go down with the country. Fukuhara’s commission also makes an additional suggestion that they personally favor, while conceding that it is not likely to be acceptable: that the Japanese people should all go under with their country. The policy eventually adopted essentially corresponds to the three-part division. Those remaining behind are mainly the old.8 On the colonial front, there is a plan to settle a substantial number of refugees in Namibia, then occupied de facto by South Africa despite being nominally a UN mandate (Chap. V, Sec. 10/Japanese: Sec. 11). Of the scientists in the novel, some are on board a ship headed for the tropics, while Onodera and Mako, both injured, are on the Trans-Siberian Railway, heading west over the continent.
In the Preface to the 1995 Kôbunsha paperback edition, Komatsu addresses the question of identity: “I wanted us to think a little bit about the significance of our country, whether things went as they should with prewar and with postwar Japan” (5). Japan itself is everywhere identified with the ephemeral, a recurring theme in interpretations of Japan both by Japanese and others.9 Tadokoro compares the convection currents in the earth’s mantle to meteorological phenomena, leading the listeners to conclude that “[t]he Archipelago on which they lived was like a line of clouds that had taken form along the leading edge of a moving mass of warm air” (Chap. II, Sec. 4/Japanese: Sec. 5 ). Another example of the emphasis on the ephemeral is the list of landmarks destroyed by every new earthquake or volcanic eruption. This produces an effect common to every disaster film or novel: anticipated elegy raises the value of the transient.
Japan’s imperialist past, on the other hand, is viewed in the novel with equanimity. Looking back in the direction where his native country has just gone down, the computer scientist Nakata ironically quotes an old song from the Sino-Japanese War of 1895: “Hasn’t the Dingyuan sunk yet?” The Dingyuan was an enemy ship at that time; the joke is that, though incapacitating it at anchor was a key success for Japan in winning this war, the ship never did sink.10 The old songs may still survive even in the memory of those who do not share the militarist sentiment, it is implied, but they can take on a new meaning if that old sentiment is defused. As with the Mu Empire in Atragon, there is much in the old Japanese Empire that is best left to go under—yet in some important aspects, it will never sink.
Of course, Komatsu also addresses the question of what might become of the Japanese after the sinking of Japan. Abe Kôbô in Inter Ice Age 4 projected a far future in such a way as to let the national questions become secondary to the more general philosophical questions about human nature. Komatsu is interested in realistic, near-future scenarios and the enduring nature of cultural identity. He seems to be agreeing with Watari when he says:
If we could lose this thing called Japan altogether ... if one could drop the Japan in Japanese and just be human, then there would be no problem, but that doesn’t work.... Our culture and language are our historical karma.... If everything else disappeared completely along with the land of Japan—our nation, our race, our culture and history, then that would be fine.... But the Japanese are still a vital young race ... they’re full of energy, and they still haven’t fulfilled their karma to live [Chap. V, Sec. 4/ Japanese: Sec. 5, my translation]
This is Watari’s wise response to the enthnologist Fukuhara’s comparison of the landless Japanese to the Jews in diaspora. In explaining a little earlier in the same scene why the commission favors the Japanese going under with their islands, one of them explains that he doubts that the Japanese could bear diaspora, since they identify themselves too closely with their islands. Viewed in this context, the “karma” that Watari refers to is not the expression of fatalism, but of hope. The hint of a suspicion remains, however, that, since the Japanese at the end of the novel will not have a homeland to return to, the state of diaspora is seen as preferable to the present one. Beyond that, however, Komatsu provocatively leaves open the question whether national identity is tied to land. Certainly, he questions the myth that the Japanese are less suited to living outside their country than other peoples. At the same time, he shows respect for those expressing this view.
But if he does not mythologize a diaspora identity, he does seem to mythologize the submerged Japan as a new Atlantis, in line with the anticipated elegy elsewhere in the novel. The name of the sunken city is first mentioned in the novel by the chairman of an American research group holding a news conference after coming to the conclusion that Japan will sink. Pressed to describe the effects on Japan, he says only that it is “the kind of thing that makes you think of the Atlantis legend” (Chap. V, Sec. 7/Japanese: Sec. 8). The epilogue comes back to the theme of Atlantis at greater length in the Japanese original—the English version cuts all but one of these, and omits all references to the lost continent of Mu. In the first of the unnumbered sections of the original Japanese epilogue, the narrator comments that the last stages of the sinking are intensely covered by television stations from all over the world, saying that if the legends of Atlantis and Mu were fascinating, then the spectacle of Japan sinking was all the more so because it is a contemporary and wealthy industrialized nation, whereas Atlantis had been a legendary city-state.
On another mythical level, Japan is personified as a dragon in the epilogue, which also bears the title “The Death of the Dragon”:
At the eastern edge of the Eurasian land mass, which covers half of the Northern Hemisphere, a dragon lay dying. As he twisted his huge body and thrashed his tail, smoke and fire poured from every part of him....
This dragon is a metaphor for the land of Japan, and hence the allusion to Godzilla, who appears as a synecdoche for the forces of nature surrounding the islands. The two images share the emphasis on a suffering, destructive monster. Both invite a certain degree of pity and identification with the beast: Japan is endowed with pathos and significance.
At this stage of Komatsu’s novel, the submerged Japan has been virtualized and internalized. It exists in tales, legends, and songs, some preserved as they were, some modified or adapted (like the dying dragon). As the old man Watari says, “Our culture and language are our historical karma.” This is the essence of things Japanese that Komatsu has distilled. To convey this enduring quality in the culture, despite all changes, is his primary message, if we take seriously his intention, stated in his Preface, to provoke reflection on the meaning of Japan. In both scientific and mythical discourse, Komatsu stresses the reassuringly stable elements. His is the most conservative of the narratives discussed here, ultimately exuding a quiet confidence in the worth and durability of the Japanese identity—understood in cultural, not national terms. It is on the basis of a secure ethnic identity that Komatsu criticizes nationalism. As he outlines in his Preface (4), he began writing the book in 1964, in response to validations of Japanese imperialism beginning to be voiced, which he saw as symptoms of a society grown too wealthy. He is not critical of the achievements of the postwar Japanese economy, but of complacency about those achievements, especially if it goes hand in hand with a revival of imperialist thought.
New Dimensions, Old Dimensions. All the postwar novels discussed here in some way refer back critically to the myth of Japan as a modern Pacific hegemon—a myth that the adventure stories of Oshikawa at the beginning of the twentieth century helped to establish. Even though they reject militant nationalism, they need to refer back to it because it is so intimately associated with Japan’s modernization, which continued to be a mainstay of Japanese self-identification after 1945. The most unorthodox of the texts is Inter Ice Age 4, which puts the national in a fundamentally anthropological perspective. In that novel, the ocean topos is less geographically specific than in the other works, since the evolutionary process from fish to quadrupeds and beyond is also important; yet here, too, the ocean suggests an allusion to the Pacific empire.
Kayama’s “Orang Pendek” stories and Godzilla are more recognizably rooted in a postwar culture of remorse. They express basically conservative attitudes, but are compelled to sift which parts of a national identity (seen as tainted) can be conserved. Kayama’s strategy is the least clearly defined in dealing with the past, which becomes a stew mingling genocide committed by Japanese (and other colonialists) with the more general fall from grace of modernization. The narrative ends with an equally vague future hope. The strategy of such films as Godzilla and Atragon is much more successful, since they end with purification rituals that leave intact those aspects of the national past not seen as tainted by the war.
Komatsu’s project of isolating what “Japanese-ness” might be without national territory is still in this tradition; but in my view, the novel marks the tradition’s end. Scientific communities and technical expertise had by 1973 led to an economic boom that was a new source of national pride. Territory was no longer a source of prestige compared with capital and technical expertise. As most of the other essays in this issue illustrate, virtual environments and cyborgs dominate contemporary popular narratives in Japan. When the sea appears in this cybernetic mode, it is generally as a backdrop to highlight a mood.11 Occasionally it does still appear in the old geopolitical mode, but not—with few exceptions—as the principal setting.12
I’ll conclude by noting that most of the works described here are typical products of the postwar period in their conflict between espousal and rejection of national values. Science fiction tends to choose topics about which authors and readers feel insecure, and it is safe to say that the perspectives opened up by developments in information technology and genetics are more disconcerting, and sublime, than the ocean. Nonetheless, if in Star Blazers a World War II battleship can be dispatched into outer space, no doubt a revival movement is possible in virtual space. Without the skepticism of the postwar era, however, any such revival is likely to be reactionary in character.
1. By using the term topos, I am not intending to refer to anything archetypal or confined to any kind of monolithic culture. I see topoi as functions of discourses; if the one sketched here is confined to Japan, this is because the discourse in which it has validity is similarly specific.
2. There are a number of websites dealing with reports of the Orang Pendek, including recent sightings. See, for example <http://www.geocities.com/Area51/ Cavern/7270/orpend.html>.
3. For the discursive backgrounds of this film, see my “Alltag und Apokalypse.”
4. This is a modern legend, first postulated by an American amateur archaeologist in 1926. The theory of Mu was never taken seriously by paleontologists, but still has adherents among New Age devotees and ufologists. In Japan, Mu became popular as a topos of fantasy literature, comparable to Atlantis, but Mu is always associated with the superhuman and its inhabitants are sometimes said to be of extraterrestrial origin.
5. Yamane’s epilogue is missing in the radically changed US version, Godzilla, King of Monsters. This adds an American narrator-protagonist, played by Raymond Burr, who speaks a brief and hard-boiled conclusion from off-screen.
6. The most important allusions are to Alexander Belyaev’s Chelovek amfibia (1929, The Amphibian), in which a young man has shark’s gills implanted, and Karel Čapek’s Vàlka s mloky (1936, War with the Newts, 1937), in which giant newts bred as slave laborers revolt and flood the continents.
7. He only holds a professorship in the translation. In fact, he does not appear to have an academic affiliation and is introduced in the original novel using only the more general honorific -sensei, which can be used for an instructor of any kind.
8. Watari is exemplary here. He is also, however, an exemplary migrant, who with his dying breath reveals to Professor Tadokoro that he had a Chinese father (Epilogue). Tadokoro, who is only sixty-five, confesses in the same scene that he has loved Japan like a woman, and that going down with her is for him like a romantic double suicide.
9. Buddhist-inspired aesthetic terms for this remorse are mujô and mono no aware. The latter term, for example, was used as the title for film historian Donald Richie’s influential essay about Japanese atom bomb films, first published in 1961.
10. The Dingyuan (or Tingyüan; read “Teien” in Japanese) was the flagship of the Chinese Fleet in the Battle of the Yellow Sea (September 1894); it was considered virtually unsinkable. Shortly before the decisive battle, she was surprised at anchor in a nocturnal torpedo boat attack and so badly damaged that she had to be beached. In the anecdote related by the song (“Yûkan naru suihei”/“The Valiant Sailor”), a wounded sailor on the Japanese flagship Matsushima asks his commander whether the Dingyuan has sunk yet, and is told what has happened. The sailor replies: “Please strike the enemy!” and dies, which the song celebrates as exemplary patriotism. The Japanese text can be viewed at <http://www.eireinikotaerukai.net/E03Gunka/E0302.htm>. There is an English translation (Keene 280). The version cited here is from the Keene translation.
11. The cyborg heroine of Oshii Mamoru’s film Ghost in the Shell (1995) goes scuba diving in her spare time, and, asked by her colleague what she feels when diving, lists fear, anxiety, loneliness, darkness, and possibly hope (99). Of course, the ocean in the entirely urban setting of this work has no significance beyond being one of many available recreational environments.
12. The exception is the manga comic-book Chinmoku no kantai by Kawaguchi Kaiji (1989-, Silent Service). A more incidental and slightly later instance is the ending of the manga version of Akira by Ôtomo Katsuhiro (1982-1990, Akira, 1991-1995).
In Silent Service, yet another charismatic young submarine commander, in charge of the latest vessel secretly developed by Japan and the US, steals the ship during a test run, declaring it an autonomous nation. The US in particular resolves to destroy the boat, but all attacks fail. What is more, the Yamato has an unknown number of nuclear warheads on board. In fact, Commander Kaieda’s goal is to push for nuclear disarmament and the creation of a transnational force to safeguard world peace. But since the heroes of this story are so Japanese and so heroic, it can hardly be said itself to transcend the national (see Schodt, 284-88).
In the final episode of Akira (400-33), after Neo-Tokyo has been destroyed by the meeting of two cosmic forces, an armed UN surveillance force lands to police the destroyed country. But the gang that has accumulated around the youthful leader Kaneda is perfectly capable of looking after itself. They send the intruders packing and set about building a new country. Neither this nor other episodes involving the sea are included in the animated film version (1988), which was directed by Ôtomo.
Abe Kôbô. Dai yon kanpyôki. 1959. In Abe Kôbô zenshû (Complete Works of Abe Kôbô), 29 vols., Tokyo: Shinchôsha, 1997-2000. Vol. 9. 9-174. Trans. as Inter Ice Age 4 by E. Dale Saunders. New York: Knopf, 1970.
─────. “Nichjôsei e no senkoku” (“A challenge to the everyday”), 1958-59. Epilogue to Dai yon kanpyôki. In Abe Kôbô zenshû. Vol. 11. 141-42.
Aldiss, Brian W. Billion Year Spree. The True History of Science Fiction. New York: Schocken, 1974.
Honda Ishiro (dir.). Gojira. Tôei, 1954. Reedited and released in the US as Godzilla, King of Monsters! Embassy Pictures, 1956.
─────. Kaitei gunkan. Tôei, 1963. Released in the US as Atragon. American International Pictures, 1965.
Kayama Shigeru. “Oran Pendeku no fukushû” (“The Revenge of the Orang Pendek”), 1947. Kayama Shigeru zenshû (Complete Works of Kayama Shigeru) 14 vols. + suppl., Tokyo: San'ichi Shobô, 1993-1997. Vol. 1. 9-25.
─────. “Oran Pendeku no gojitsutan” (“The Fate of the Orang Pendek”), 1948. In Kayama Shigeru zenshû. Vol. 1. 177-197.
Keene, Donald. Appreciations of Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1981.
Komatsu Sakyô. Nippon chinbotsu (Japan Sinks), 1973. 2 vols. Tokyo: Kôbunsha, 1995. Abr. and trans. as Japan Sinks by Michael Gallagher. London: New English Library, 1977.
Oshii Mamoru (dir.). Kôkaku kidôtai (Ghost in the Shell). Tokyo: Kôdansha, 1995.
Oshikawa Shunrô. Kaitô bôken kitan/Kaitei gunkan (The Seabed Warship. An Island Adventure Romance). In Oshikawa Shunrô shû (Oshikawa Shunrô Collection). Tokyo: San’ichi Shobô, 1987 ("Shônen shôsetsu taikei" [Juvenile Literature Series), Vol. 2. 10-96.
Ôtomo Katsuhiro. Akira (6 vols., Tokyo: Mash Room, 1997-2000). Vol. 6. 1993.
Richie, Donald. “‘Mono no Aware’: Hiroshima in Film.” Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film. Ed. Mick Broderick. London: Kegan Paul, 1996. 20-37.
Schnellbächer, Thomas. “Alltag und Apokalypse. Japanische Science-fiction und die Nachkriegszeit” (“Everyday and Apocalypse; Japanese SF and the Postwar”). 11 Deutschsprachiger Japanologentag in Trier 1999. Ed. H. Gössmann and A. Mrugalla. Hamburg: LIT Verlag, 2001. 399-411.
Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan; Writings in Modern Manga. Berkeley: Stone Bridge, 1996.