Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: Japan Sinks

Back a few months ago when I had a chance to meet gag manga artist Tori Miki, I asked him who his favorite authors are. Tori Miki is a big science fiction fan, and one of his short-gag (4-5 pages each) book collections (SF Taishou) was a parody of over 20 SF movies and western novels (Rose for Algernon, Time Machine, etc.) He replied that he really likes Sakyo Komatsu. The people with me at the event all recognized the name, but I didn't. So, I requested a copy of one or two of Komatsu's books, and one of them arrived at the apartment 2 weeks ago. After finishing the Murakami books, I started on Komatsu.

(From Used for review purposes only.)

Sakyo Komatsu began writing SF in the 1960's, and he has at least 8 novels, over 50 short stories, a manga and several TV programs to his credit (according to the Japanese wikipedia entry). Several of his stories have been turned into movies. But, very little has been published in English in the U.S., being limited to "Japan Sinks" and "Bye Bye, Jupiter" (AKA: "Sayonara, Jupiter"), and the "Savage Mouth" short story (included in an anthology). He's been called the king of Japanese SF, has acted as a technical consultant on a live concert in Austria by Isao Tomita, and was co-guest of honor at the 2007 World Science Fiction Convention in Yokohama.

As with most things related to Japanese entertainment, Komatsu is very well-known in Japan and virtually unheard of outside. My copy of "Japan Sinks" was published in Japan in 1973, and in the U.S. in 1976. I started reading SF in 1977, and during all that time up to when I switched to manga in 1992, I'd never come across his name. Most of the SF I saw on the shelves was from the U.S. or England, and what little got translated from other languages came from Russia or the Czech Republic. Back then, no one I knew took Japan seriously for anything other than period romances and zen/martial arts-oriented fantasy. Which is a shame.

"Japan Sinks" is a straight disaster story, and the science fictional elements come strictly from the speculation that plate tectonics around the Japan Trench off the eastern Japanese coast could shift in such a way as to cause all of the islands of Japan to submerge. The science concerns itself with oceanography, the order that the dormant mountains would erupt, and the recording equipment used to monitor the disaster. The most speculative element is a "holographic" display - a clear block of plastic with magnetic particles that can be used as a 3D view of the Japanese topology.

All of the technology in the story is dated. One of the main characters uses a "portable phone" consisting of a handset attached to a suitcase-sized transmitter. To record the eruption simulations, 6 VCRs are placed in front of the holographic display and they "click" as their shutters operate (did VCR cameras ever have shutters?) The data from the analysis simulations is all on paper printouts that need to be hand-delivered to various recipients, and one big block of data is lost when some spies steal the stack of printouts. But, most of the drama in the story would have been lost if the technology was much more advanced, since the problems all revolve around the lack of communications to the outside world.

The story begins with Toshio Onodera, an operator of a mini research sub, coming into Tokyo station and casually observing a crack in the wall next to a water fountain. Onodera is tasked with helping discover why an obscure, unnamed island some hundreds of miles south had sunk 50 feet below the surface of the ocean over the course of 2 days. He's joined by various research specialists, including Professors Yukinaga and Tadokoro, Nakata and a few others. The book then follows this group as they learn that the ocean floor is behaving strangely, up through the point that the Prime Minister needs to decide how to evacuate 110 million people within 1 year (and where to put them all), to the final inevitable conclusion. Along the way, Onodera meets two women (one that is being proposed for an arranged marriage and the other a hostess from a bar in Ginza) that he occasionally runs into again later through twists of fate. While there are some soap opera elements, the plot sticks primarily to order that the mountains blow and the earthquakes hit specific cities.

With a title like "Japan Sinks", you know the ending before you even buy the book. Komatsu likes to jump around with his narrative, hopping from Onodera to Yukinaga, to the Prime Minister, to Tadokoro and back. Most of the action is divided up between some offices in Tokyo, some visits to Osaka, and lots of exploring of the southern islands underwater. The book does provide a map of the Japanese islands, but Komatsu expects his audience to already be familiar with the streets and districts of Tokyo and Osaka (you have to get your own maps for those places).

There are some loose ends, with a few key plot elements left unexplained, such as who the power broker funding the scientific research behind the scenes really is. But the main weakness to the story is in Michael Gallagher's translation. Granted, it's hard to go from Japanese to English, since there's a lot of repetition in Japanese, but in the first two pages of the book, when describing how hot and muggy Tokyo is in the summer, Gallagher uses the word sweat 5 times (sweat drenched, dripping with sweat, etc.) And I guess that editors in the 1970's wouldn't catch this at the time, but spelling it "softwear" today is kind of a glaring, silly error. Gallagher doesn't know his oceanography, so his descriptions of the research, equipment and underwater activity comes off as wooden and overly wordy.

Ignoring the problems, though, "Japan Sinks" is a fascinating look at the dangers facing a country situated directly on the Ring of Fire, and some of the descriptions of earthquake damage presaged the Kyoto quake of 1995. Because Komatsu's editor pushed him to get the details right, the book took 9 years to finish, and it shows in the way the governmental leaders behave when faced with the idea of having to move 110 million people in less than a year, to countries that still remember Japan as an aggressor in WWII.

What's really interesting is comparing Komatsu's disaster story to that of modern western film makers. From Hollywood, if an asteroid strikes, there goes New York. Tidal wave? - there goes New York. Lava? - bye bye L.A. From Japan - the entire country has to face monster earthquakes, volcanoes and typhoons. The only thing missing here is the monsters.

I also want to mention something else that caught my attention. In the real-world English newspapers in Japan lately, there's been an ongoing complaint by western foreigners (primarily from the U.S. and Australia) that they've been running into Japanese natives that don't believe that foreigners can fully understand elements of Japanese culture, such as Noh theater or kabuki, because those foreigners didn't grow up in Japan and therefore don't understand the "Japanese heart". The foreigners are upset with this assumption because they've lived here "x number of years" and do so understand this culture, yadda yadda. In "Japan Sinks", Komatsu gets into precisely this argument, asking what's going to happen to the Japanese people, to the "Japanese heart" and what it means "to be Japanese". There's an inbred belief that being "an island nation", with a long history of traditions has led to this "Japanese heart" that no outsider will ever completely understand. 30 years later, the Japanese people still believe this. Komatsu's view here may be one reason why most of his works can't easily find a western audience.

Note that in 2006, a parody film was made entitled "Everything but Japan sinks".

Summary: "Japan Sinks" is a straight disaster story with little in the way of SF elements. It's dated, but is worth reading to gain what little exposure is available in the U.S. to one of Japan's best-known SF writers.

Next up, "Sayonara, Jupiter".

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