Tsutsui Yasutaka - I’m perfectly sane. But we are in someone’s else’s dream. Could you take your clothes off now, quickly

Tsutsui Yasutaka, Hell, Trans. by Evan Emswiler (Alma Books, 2008)

"Fifty-seven-year-old Takeshi has just been involved in a traffic accident. When he wakes up, he is in a strange bar and is no longer crippled as he has been for most of his life, but able to walk without crutches in his everyday business suit. Looking around, he sees a number of familiar faces—Izumi, a colleague who had died in a plane crash five years before; his childhood friend Yuzo, who had become a yakuza and had been killed by a rival gang member; and Sasaki, who had frozen to death as a homeless vagrant. This is Hell—a place where three days last as long as 10 years on earth, and people are able to see events in both the future and the past. Yuzo can now see the yakuza that killed him as he harasses a friend of his. The actress Mayumi and the writer Torigai are chased by the paparazzi into an elevator that drops to floor 666 beneath ground level. The vivid depiction of afterlife portrayed in Hell admits the traditional horrors, but subjects them to Tsutsui’s unique powers of enchantment—witty, amusing, and praised for its poetic style and the wizard-like light touch of the author’s shifting focus."

"The hell in Japanese writer Yasutaka Tsutsui’s surrealist novella is not the conventional fire and brimstone version. In fact this hell is not very dissimilar to the world that the inhabitants have just left. Devoid of the passions and desires that drove them on in their previous existences, they are able to see events in both the future and the past. The characters include a yakuza killed by a rival gang member, a novelist who is cheating on his wife, a homeless vagrant, a salaryman and his crippled boss. The characters’ different stories overlap but, like the inert new world in which they find themselves, they don’t ever really go anywhere in a vision of hell that paints a bleak picture of humanity." - Piero Bohoslawec
.
"In Hell Tsutsui brings together the life and afterlife of a large crowd of characters. The past - life - haunts all of them to at least some extent, and much of the novel revisits and recounts the signal (and occasional forgotten) episodes from before their deaths. The story flashes back and forth between present (where they find themselves in this mysterious state) and past and between the many characters and their various connexions from their time alive.
Tustsui's Hell isn't fire-and-brimstone hellish; if anything, it's more of a purgatory, where you're doomed to lounge around. In an explanation that's as good as any other, one local suggests:
"You know what Hell is? It's just a place without God. The Japanese don't believe in God to begin with, so what's the difference between this world and the world of the living ?"
But there are some differences, including time which creeps along or zooms ahead. And then there's this ability to practically sense or read much of the life of others: "In Hell it was possible to view moments in another person's life simply by staring at them".
Tsutsui's novel draws an intricate but almost effortless net of connexions among the large cast of characters, as those who were once friends or co-workers, or whose paths just happened to cross at some point find each other in Hell again. There are the occasional living characters, haunted by the dead, as it were, too - and Tsutsui offers much of the life-stories of the hell-denizens as well, moving back and forth between past and present, memory and what now passes for reality (which can get pretty surreal in Hell). There are childhood friends who took very different paths, for example, and many of those featured here were also part of an airplane hijacking that went wrong. Not surprisingly, many of the characters led less than exemplary lives -- but some seem doomed here only by happenstance.
Tsutsui does the transitions to hell-life particularly well. Rather than making much of abrupt and painful moments of death, Tsutsui presents eerily smooth transitions - with the occasional devilish bit of humour, as when the hijacked plane goes down. Instead of some fiery crash the plane flies on, without anyone piloting it, and lands, and the doors open, all as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened:
Izumi walked down the steps to the runway and looked around. There was no sign of human life anywhere. Who could have lowered the steps ? The terminal was a plain, sterile building, marked only by a neon sign that read "HELL". It glowed crimson even in the middle of the day. Of course, thought Izumi. This wasn't the real world. Anything could happen.
It's an intricate picture Tsutsui builds up, supported by this fine net of connexions, small details and life- (and death-) fragments that all, more or less, fit together. It's an appealing bigger picture that comes together, with many compelling episodes, but it still feels something short of being whole. Shrouded in the mystical, it never becomes clear what Hell is - yet Tsutsui also never makes that sense of it being unknowable truly central. Instead, it seems almost arbitrary, a convenient setting for his web of tales.
Still, the creative take and the many lives at play here make for an intriguing read. The mix of the surreal and the very real is effective, and Tsutsui does create real atmosphere here, even if ultimately almost all of it is too quick to be more then fleetingly mesmerising. Constantly one wants him to linger longer over the details, and flesh them out and reveal more of some of these lives; instead, he's always zipping along to the next bit." - The Complete Review

"It is always worth reading up on descriptions of Hell, on the grounds that there is a very small chance the place actually exists, and one wants to be prepared. There are two kinds of Hell: the traditional, Dantesque kind, and the kind which is used to make a point about our own world (Faustus's "this is Hell, nor am I out of it," Shelley's "Hell is a city much like London"). This is very much the second kind of Hell, an allegorical place set up by Tsutsui to castigate his society. "You know what Hell is?" asks one character, rhetorically; "It's just a place without God. The Japanese don't believe in God in the first place, so what's the difference between this place and the world of the living?" Much later on, we read that "the sunlight in Hell looked exactly like sunlight in the real world".
There is something extremely poignant about that last line; it actually suggests that there is, in fact, a world of difference between the sunlight in Hell and the sunlight here. For while his Hell is allegorical, it is not an allegory that is pushed on us. You can choose, if you wish, not to notice it at all - or you can think that what is going on is far more subtle than that.
Hell, for Tsutsui, is a place where people no longer feel any emotion; they can be in two places at once, they can see into other people's minds, and if you think of someone, they have a disturbing tendency to turn up moments later. "In Hell it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between memory and imagination." This seems like an elegant analogue to the interior of a writer's mind, and for all the deadpan simplicity of his prose, there is something rich and strange going on here. There is a revolving cast of salarymen, novelists, TV stars, kabuki actors and gangsters, all apparently being driven to the eventual extinction of their personalities, the loss of all curiosity.
I imagine that there are a few nuances that will not be available to the non-Japanese reader. (When a plane crashes, the dead passengers resume their journey - but only the Japanese remain.) There are references to Enma, "lord of the Japanese underworld", and, in distancing inverted commas, one character wonders if this is all about "attaining Buddhahood"; there may also be certain codes of behaviour alluded to or transgressed; but Tsutsui's portrait of the afterlife has something of the universal about it; it's as convincing, and indeed as unsettling, as any I've read. His Hell has a spooky, plausible atmosphere that gets under the skin.
Reading this, and the only other work of his available in English, the short story collection Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, I had assumed at first that Tsutsui was some young punk, an exciting 23-year-old on a mission to outrage the straights. Au contraire. Tsutsui is actually 74, and has been outraging the straights since 1965 with more than 30 novels and 40 collections of short stories. Popular enough in his native country for such a gesture to make an impact, he went on strike between 1993 and 1996 in order to protest at, as his website puts it, "the recent champions of PC consensus". Having started as a science-fiction writer, he now, on the evidence here, produces work which is entirely sui generis. Imagine a manic JG Ballard, but one with an even darker past to work out. Hell begins in post-war Japan, and one wonders how long a shadow the war and its ending cast on Tsutsui's other works. Another writer who springs to mind by way of comparison is Kurt Vonnegut; both are given to letting their imaginations leap about all over the place.
Tsutsui has been called a "surrealist". This kind of label, however understandable it is to affix it to him, is perhaps a bit off-putting; it suggests that he's more interested in making wacky associations than investigating our inner lives. He prefers to call it "metafiction", which can mean, I suppose, anything he wants it to. But you won't have read anything quite like this. It's astonishing that no other publisher has seen fit to translate him into English. We've been missing out." - Nicholas Lezard

"Characters who re-live their mistakes, their cruelties, and their sexual indiscretions populate Yasutaka Tsutsui's hell, a netherworld built in ever-decreasing circles of guilt, memory, and desire. If, as Jean-Paul Sartre claims, "Hell is other people," then it is the reflection of one's self in the eyes of other people.
The novel opens during World War II, a memory replayed, in which three ragged and smelly boys — Nobutero, Yuzo and Takeshi — play on a schoolyard platform. As they roughhouse, Takeshi falls and injures himself; the two other boys jump down and pull him along the floor, not noticing his broken leg. From this moment on, Takeshi is disabled, and the friends slowly lose contact with one another. Hell begins this way. Or does it? Details of the accident are obscured; memory plays tricks on the mind. All three boys are now in hell — whether it be one of their own making, of the novel, or the hell of senility.
Author of the short-story collection Salmonella Man on Planet Porno and the psychological thriller "Paprika," Yasutaka Tsutsui's strange worlds resemble the inner space of the late J.G. Ballard and the satirical science fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. In Tsutsui's hell, people can read each other's minds; see their memories and thoughts stretched out behind them. Like the Tralfamadorians in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, they are able to see the past, present, and future as a concrete entity. In hell, a woman's sexual indiscretions with her husband's boss force her to endlessly relive the moment her husband catches her in flagrante delicto. Dead Yakuza members use restaurants as torture chambers, enlisting the help of the female owner who takes out her revenge on men in a most gruesome way. As Christopher Marlowe wrote, "Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed in one self place, for where we are is hell, and where hell is there must we ever be."
Tsutsui's particular Hades is not wholly dissimilar to the world in which we live. Konzo Ichikawa, a young kabuki actor, lost under the stage of the Kabukiza, is able to hear the voices of other actors as he traverses the labyrinthine corridors. He is dead. In hell, reality is just beyond the senses. Hell, so similar to the living world, is reality's dark mirror. The kabuki actor finally locates a door leading him out from the maze, only to find himself in the Night Walker - a bar that acts as hell's anteroom. An actress and writer, chased by paparazzi, ride an elevator that speeds them down to floor 666 — a 21st century Virgil and Dante pursued by media Furies.
Tsutsui's style is clear and light, his satire gentle and funny, and his take on reality skewed and refreshing. The narrative jumps between characters and time to build a fully realized underworld uncannily familiar to the reader. Hell is the cinema of one's own personal pornography; a fusing of Oscar Wilde's assertion that, "We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell," and Andre Gide's contention that, "In hell there is no other punishment than to begin over and over again the tasks left unfinished in your lifetime."
Tsutsui's writing defies classification, it is genre-bending — a mix of satire, science fiction, crime and myth following in the literary footsteps of Franois Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain; Tsutsui's English-language contemporaries could include Ray Bradbury, Bret Easton Ellis, and a more somber Terry Pratchett. Alma Books, the independent publisher of Hell, Paprika, and Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, should be applauded for introducing the Anglophone world to the works of Yasutaka Tsutsui." - Steve Finbow

"Hell is a city much like London,” remarks Mephistopheles in Marlowe's Faust; in Tsutsui's version it looks more like Tokyo, or perhaps Osaka. Here, a motley collection of adulterous “salarymen”, yakuza gangsters, bestselling novelists, kabuki actors and chat show hosts are congregated to undergo penance for the crimes they have committed in their lifetimes.
As with the characters in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, they have to relive these catastrophic events many times. For Izumi, a businessman, it is the moment when he finds his wife Sachiko in bed with his colleague, Takeshi, that he must repeatedly confront. For Yuzo, a teenage thug, it is the moment of his murder he must undergo time and again. Gangsters eternally torture their victims; actors eternally suffer terrible stage fright; planes are hijacked again and again; people endlessly die in car crashes.
In this cycle of eternal recurrence, the dead are virtually indistinguishable from the living and, indeed, are fully aware of being dead. Their cartoon-like indestructibility makes it hard to sympathise with Tsutsui's characters - but one's sympathy, in any case, is not required. The slapstick humour adds to the sense of dislocation, as does the constant shifting between past and present. The result certainly gives an impression of what Hell might be like - if only through the mixture of unease, revulsion and boredom that it creates in the reader." - Christina Koning
Tsutsui Yasutaka, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, Trans. by Andrew Driver (Alma Books, 2008)

"An irresistible mix of imagination, satire, and humor, these stories by acclaimed Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui imagine the consequences of a world where the fantastic and the mundane collide.
The opening story, “The Dabba Dabba Tree,” details the hilarious side effects of a small conical tree that, when placed at the foot of one’s bed, creates erotic dreams. In “Commuter Army,” a sly commentary on the ludicrousness of war, a weapons supplier becomes an unwilling conscript in a war zone. “The World is Tilting” imagines a floating city that slowly begins to sink on one side, causing its citizens to reorient their daily lives to preserve a semblance of normality. And in the title story, we see how obscenely absurd the environment on Planet Porno appears to a group of scientists. The stories in Salmonella Men on Planet Porno winningly combine madcap hilarity and a sharp eye toward the insanities of contemporary life."

"Weird dream scenarios unfold in the bright light of midday. A train takes a traveler into a rural community of people who chant nonsense words. Another traveler boards a plane whose wings flap like a bird's. Readers can expect an equally strange, magical journey" - Jennifer Reese

"This bizarre set of short stories, written by Yasutaka Tsutsui and translated by Andrew Diver, continue the world of absurdist sexual science fiction and modern day claustrophobia made famous by Haruki Murakami. Where Tsutsui succeeds is in the lightness of his tone, accessibility to his themes and complete abandon with which he builds his satires. While Murakami focuses on serenity and silences as well as action, his subtleness lends itself to the beautiful almost ethereal plots that delve into surrealness- on the hand Tsutsui is brash and wild with it. His moderns are far and wide. ‘Rumours about Me’ focuses on a nobody office worker and the media starting to report his everyday mundane life, turning him into an unwitting celebrity. It’s amazing that something written in 1979 remains so poignantly fresh and relevant now. ‘Farmer Airways’ broaches the subjects of whim, fate and placing your trust into the hands of chaos. ‘Don’t Laugh’ is an absurd almost deliriously drunk vision of time travel that teems with frivolous laughs. In "The Last Smoker," a defiant citizen is hunted by vigilant anti-smoking police, and vows to finish his last cigarettes before committing suicide rather than living a smoke-free life. And in "The World Is Tilting," a city slowly begins to sink into the Pacific Ocean, leaving residents struggling to keep up with their daily lives. The title story lives up to its bizarre name, following a group of research scientists as they explore a sex-crazed earth alternative where libidos run rampant and no one wears clothes. Tsutsui's imagination is vivid, and his prose is enchantingly simple, perfectly chronicling the banality of daily life. While he remains unemotional and focuses on exposition and wild flights of fancy that never really get under the skin of his characters, it’s the situations they find themselves in that make the pieces work. The way the science fiction and surreal landscapes interweave into dreamlike escapes in ‘The Dabba Dabba Tree’ allow the story to breath as a comedy of unerotic errors. The idea of sex as a barrier to be conquered, as something that is just out of the reach of the characters make them all act in delirious feverish ways. This collection is worth seeking out and persisting with. Its quieter bits unfurl slowly but persist as they pay off, as do the wild fun fast-paced pieces. Alma is also publishing three other translated works by Tsutsui." - geek-pie.blogspot

"Imagine a cross between the music group the B-52s, Thomas Pynchon's V., Ryu Murakami's Coin Locker Babies , and James Turner's graphic novel Nil: A Land Beyond Belief , throw in a good dose of sf tropes and bitter social satire, and you'll start to get a good idea of what's in store for you in this collection of 13 imaginative stories from one of Japan's best-known sf writers. The climactic (pun intended) title story, "Salmonella Men," depicts a group of beleaguered scientists exploring a new planet dubbed Planet Porno, on which everything has decidedly obscene plans for them. Though the collection is hit-or-miss overall, the title story and "The Dabba Dabba Tree," in which a magical tree affects the dreams of an entire neighborhood, are brilliant examples of Tsutsui's skills as a storyteller." - Andrew Weiss

"The author, much touted in Japan for his surrealist fiction, begins by highlighting the blurred line between dreams and reality. In "The Dabba Dabba Tree," a couple acquires a tree that causes profoundly erotic dreams—dreams about people who may not be dreaming about them. Similarly comical is "Hello Hello Hello!," which features a young couple with money trouble who become conned by a ubiquitous financial advisor who magically appears whenever they do anything he deems excessive, including eating and having sex. "Rumours about Me" satirizes the paparazzi by questioning what would happen if the mundane daily activities of a typical office worker were suddenly scrutinized by the media—beginning with a rejection for a date by a co-worker. Many of the titles are amusingly self-explanatory. In "The Last Smoker," for example, a defiant citizen is hunted by vigilant anti-smoking police, and vows to finish his last cigarettes before committing suicide rather than living a smoke-free life. And in "The World Is Tilting," a city slowly begins to sink into the Pacific Ocean, leaving residents struggling to keep up with their daily lives. The title story lives up to its bizarre name, following a group of research scientists as they explore a sex-crazed earth alternative where libidos run rampant and no one wears clothes. Tsutsui's imagination is vivid, and his prose is enchantingly simple, perfectly chronicling the banality of daily life. But many of his stories still feel like one-trick ponies, and the lack of emotional depth keeps them from being great. The best ofthese pieces echo Haruki Murakami, but Tsutsui still has a long way to go." - Kirkus Reviews

"For once, a book that merits its wacky title, this collection of Japanese writer Tsutsui’s seldom-translated short stories playfully skips across the conventions of both sci-fi and slapstick. With the same knowing approach to genre as US metafictionist John Barth, he pits tight-buttoned scientists and browbeaten salarymen against a variety of near-future woes, including the rampantly indecent (yet strangely fascinating) alien flora and fauna of the title story’s planet. Back on Earth, we encounter a civil war fought by armies of commuting soldiers, a mysterious rural railway tribe and a fantastically jumbled retelling of the life of Mozart.
Mostly written in the 70s, the stories’ satirical elements and sexual politics may now seem a little creaky. Yet the sense of a world bordering on paranoid hysteria is as strong as ever, as though Tsutsui’s spineless office workers and fickle housewives were trapped inside an episode of Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em penned by Stanislav Lem." - Abi Bliss

"Science fiction and meta-fiction have a lot in common: Both are obsessed with showing the ways reality can be bent and layered. So it’s surprising that there aren’t more writers like Japan’s Yasatuka Tsutsui, a sci-fi novelist and meta-fiction pioneer who loves overlapping elements of fantasy and literary self-consciousness. Take the first story in his newly translated collection, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, in which a houseplant causes a man to have erotic dreams. Very quickly, the hero’s own sex dreams get tangled with his wife’s, his neighbor’s and, eventually, those of a character who is probably dreaming the entire story, including the magic plant.
The collection’s early pieces all play with this “What is real?” question. Some, like the one about the simple office worker who becomes a tabloid star by virtue of the fact that people want to read about a nobody, also feel like perfect evocations of How We Live Now. Others, like the title story, or the very short vignette about two men using a time machine to laugh at their five-minutes-previous reaction to the existence of said time machine, just take sheer delight in the absurd.
But read more, and a pattern emerges. In nearly every story, the protagonist is an innocent (if unadmirably wimpy) man whose life is made miserable by a nagging housewife. By the end, these housewives aren’t just demanding fancy clothes and morning sex, they’re forming angry mobs, waging murderous campaigns against smoking and, in “The World Is Tilting,” setting up a feminist dictatorship straight out of the most paranoid dreams of a rabid anti-Hillaryite. Tsutsui’s inventiveness loses steam once he gets caught up in the housewife menace, meaning the best way to read this collection, unfortunately, is to simply skip any story that has a female character in it." — Izzy Grinspan

"Much of recent Japanese fiction is steeped in the surreal, the uncanny and the icy malevolent humor of unbridled satire. From Haruki Murakami to Kobo Abe to Kenzaburo Oe, the follies and incongruities in our daily lives - the clash of powerful traditions with edgy, defiant, Western-inspired antics, the neon circus of urban life with the sadder tones of the backward countryside, the time-honored rituals of family life with the isolation and anomie of the young and the restless - incarnate a postmodern absurdist vision that ends in tragic and often hilarious anarchy.
This collection of short stories by the prolific and popular Yasutaka Tsutsui, author of more than 30 novels, winner of the Tanizaki and Kawabata prizes and a recipient of the French Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres award, is, surprisingly, only the second to be translated into English. And it's about time.
An admirer of Darwin, Freud and the Marx Brothers, Tsutsui creates worlds in which the desperate pursuit of the rational and reasonable - in science, business, finance, medicine, romance and domestic life - leads inexorably to paranoia and catastrophe.
From "The Dabba Dabba Tree," in which a small phallic tree placed at the foot of a bed induces wildly erotic dreams that spread throughout the neighborhood, blurring beyond repair the boundaries between reality and illusion, to "The Commuter Army," a scathing satire on weapons sales and war, Tsutsui pillories the follies of human greed and desire, and the institutions that cater to them.
In the Kafkaesque "Rumours About Me," an ordinary office worker finds himself the subject of 24/7 media coverage, his face on every screen and in every morning paper, his every act streamed on the airwaves. Is someone playing a practical joke? Is it a conspiracy to drive him mad? Is he mad? As the protagonist's sedative-gulping doctor explains, "If your environment is abnormal, then you must be abnormal too... If you persist in asserting your own sanity, it proves, conversely, that your environment is in fact normal but that you alone are abnormal. If you consider your environment to be abnormal, then by all means lose your mind!"
Both Kafka and Borges might have recognized themselves in the subversive title story, in which three eco-scientists on the Planet Porno set out on a dangerous journey to find a cure for one of their own who has been impregnated by the mysterious penisparrow.
Their picaresque quest, which skips between science fiction, faux-academic analysis and pure slapstick, takes them into and out of the terrifying sexual clutches of flora and fauna - fondleweed, bleedweed, widow's incubus, the panting hart, the pink and orange moons called golden globes or cupid's kettledrums - which have reverse-evolved from alien hippies and so have wildly aggressive and very public sexual purposes. The word "obscenity" is tossed about with so much joking and so many exclamations of horror that in the end, it fails to mean anything at all, which is precisely Tsutsui's point.
Similarly, the bourgeois underpinnings of credit card and holiday bliss, not to mention the genres of fantasy and science fiction, are subverted in "The Very Edge of Happiness," when a mild-mannered husband becomes enraged at his family's "phony little happiness," based of course on the installment plan, runaway inflation, built-in product obsolescence, the refusal to save money and the rapaciousness of the media. Abnormal incidents occur with alarming frequency - a mother beats her young son to death in a bank because he knocked over an ashtray, a nurse torches a hospital and incinerates the patients - all of which are reported by the media with complete indifference.
In a fabulously surreal ending, the husband takes his family for a day of sham happiness at a crowded beach, only to wind up being part of a mass suicide, as wave after wave of bathers, packed together like an advancing herd of blind elephants, walks slowly and silently into the ocean. Before he too succumbs, the husband recalls the legendary lemmings, which had "no noble intention of restoring the balance of nature by keeping their numbers down. In the same way, I entertained no feeling of introspection over the abnormal wealth, the abnormal peace, or the abnormal happiness of the human race."
In addition to the occasional awkwardness in this British translation, and the unevenness of the stories (some seem little more than sketches, or riffs on time machines or over-the-top anti-smoking regulations), this collection was written in the 1970s, so Tsutsui's satire and sexual politics are often too predictable. We have developed a certain comfort with the conventions of the uncanny, with the intrusion of the fantastical into the quotidian, which makes Tsutsui's sensibility, albeit often marvelously wacky and psychologically insightful, not unfamiliar.
Nor does Tsutsui avoid a common pitfall of satire: the smothering of plot and character under the weight of idea and argument. We appreciate the cleverness of his detailed imaginary worlds that so strangely resemble our own, but his characters - in their foolishness, their vanity, their greed, their extravagant desires, even their pathos - often seem little more than mouthpieces for social outrage.
Nonetheless, Tsutsui's fabulously morbid sense of humor, his obsessiveness and his wit make this collection sufficiently entertaining and disturbing to warrant our attention, especially today when the world as we know it has indeed tilted into the fantastical." - Abby Pollak

"Tsutsui Yasutaka's stories are, if nothing else, very creative flights of fantasy. Though many are grounded in fairly realistic descriptions and situations, almost all make at least one big leap into the fantastical - and some considerably more. The stories are also marked by Tsutsui's willingness to add yet another sharp turn, anywhere - and, often, then another, final twists that take the often surreal stories in yet another direction.
Tsutsui keeps the reader guessing. Even when you can see what might be coming, Tsutsui tends to take it to a different level - as in 'Bad for my Heart', where a man gets posted to an island by his company, his greatest concern being that he has a supply of medicine for his heart ailment (one which nobody else is very convinced of), his desperation ruining pretty much everything else in his life.
Sometimes the most effective story-telling comes in the holding back from that final leap: 'Bear's Wood Main Line' is an enjoyable detour, a man finding himself off the beaten track (and on a railway line that's being illegally run by the locals, after the railway company shut it down). The narrator describes his odd but believable experiences among the locals, who eventually get a bit carried away. When he joins in the local song-and-dance things go ominously - but not too obviously - wrong, the story closing with only the feeling of catastrophe, rather than it actually happening.
Elsewhere Tsutsui is willing to show the darkest of visions, as in the family-tale 'The Very Edge of Happiness', the narrator and his family going - like everyone else, it seems - on a beach-outing which turns into an eerie lemming-like march out into the sea.
'The Last Smoker' envisions a world where smoking bans have gotten out of hand (a step further than even Benoît Duteurtre imagined in The Little Girl and the Cigarette), while 'Commuter Army' is a comic twist on modern warfare. There's fairly conventional science fiction - 'Don't Laugh' is little more than a time-machine scene - and even close to straightforward fiction, as in the effective 'Hello, Hello, Hello !' about a very driven "Household Economy Consultant" (Tsutsui's most compelling character-invention) badgering a whole neighbourhood to watch their money more closely, who turns out not to be quite what he seems.
Among the most enjoyable stories is 'Rumours about Me', about an average Joe who suddenly finds himself at the centre of a great deal of media attention, the newspapers reporting on his every move ("MORISHITA BUYS ANOTHER PAIR OF SOCKS (BLUE-GREY, 350 YEN)" screams one headline ...). And 'The Dabba Dabba Tree' is an entertaining overlayering of dreams and reality (with a good dose of sex to liven things up)
One character in the title story tries to explain Planet Porno:
But things aren't always normal on this planet, or to be more exact, things tend to veer from the normal towards the obscene, if anything.
In that case, they really do tend to the (incredibly) obscene, but there's a similar tendency on what can be called planet-Tsutsui, where out of kilter is the norm (and where it's no surprise that there is a story which describes literally what its title suggests: 'The World is Tilting'). And 'veering' describes these stories, too: they may start out fairly close to normal, but wind up going all over the place. And, one has to hand it to Tsutsui, he's not very predictable: you expect some sort of catastrophe in 'Farmer Airlines', for example - another island-expedition that results in a desperate flight out during a typhoon where the pilot hands off controls for a while to breast-feed the baby she's carrying on her back ...), just not quite the one that happens - or the cold (but funny) closing punchline.
The collection is bubbling over with ideas,and Tsutsui often shows a deft surreal touch. 'Bravo Herr Mozart !' is a nice, short exercise, cleverly summing up and reimagining Mozart's life from a different perspective - suggesting, for example:
Mozart was born at the age of three. The reason for this is not known. He was born in his father's house in Salzburg - probably because he didn't have a mother.
But many of Tsutsui's narrators have more common stories to tell (until, of course, it all goes wrong), and he handles those voices quite well too. Still, it's clear throughout that the ideas and concepts are what Tsutsui is really interested in. He fleshes out the concepts well enough, turning them into 'stories', but the focus is on what's underneath and not the telling of the tales. They're still enjoyable enough, but often there's a feeling of them being constructed, of Tsutsui's art not quite up to the challenge of all his ideas.
Fun and very varied diversions, but perhaps not all they could have been." - The Complete Review

"The fictions in Salmonella Men on Planet Porno combine elements of sci-fi, metafiction, satire, surrealism, and screwball comedy to mixed but always provocative effects. While Tsutsui’s disregard for political correctness is at times refreshing, many of the stories in Planet Porno are angering, bewildering, or both. There’s a mean streak of misogyny that runs almost throughout the collection and tends to distract from everything else going on around it. A prime example is “The World is Tilting”, a story about an island built by and for women that is in the midst of total collapse thanks to—wait for it—female idiocy. In other stories, Tsutsui’s businessmen deeply resent their materialistic, selfish wives and/or their wives set out to kill them (“Bad for the Heart”). While some of this sexism serves a satirical purpose—in “Bad for the Heart”, ultimately the joke’s on the husband—most of it is pretty infuriatingly dismissive of women’s experiences and lives. Certainly an argument could be made that the book’s sexism is intended to indict or illuminate the sexism pervading Japanese culture, but Tsutsui’s misogyny is so gleefully written that such an argument would be hard to take seriously.
Despite my offense at the ideologies prescribed by many of Tsutsui’s stories, I do appreciate the author’s originality and embrace of the politically incorrect. The title story is a terrific example of Tsutsui’s deftness at combining meticulously thought-out alternate worlds with a good dose of irreverent slapstick. The story imagines another planet (nicknamed Planet Porno), the flora and fauna of which have reverse-evolved from alien hippies and so all have sexually motivated physiques, e.g., fondleweed—“Run! Run or be fondled!” screams a character at one point. The main characters are research scientists who have set out on a mission to discover how to treat a woman pregnant by a penisparrow; when they are not avoiding the many creatures who would like nothing more than to molest them, the scientists fill most of the story’s pages with dialogue referencing Freud, Jung, and Darwin. The story is then nicely balanced between action, absurdity, and intellectual gravitas. Moreover, Tsutsui does an excellent job pitting attitudes about sex against one another: one of the scientists finds everything obscene, while another character is seen as perverted for enjoying sex as much as he does. In the end, neither of them come out as more noble or correct—it’s simply that one person will be appreciated more in one environment, and the other in another.
When Tsutsui veers away from science fiction, he most often chooses satire and surrealism—fitting, since both are more ‘literary’ methodologies for achieving the goals of science fiction. One of the most disturbing, and disturbingly familiar, satirical stories in the collection is “The Very Edge of Happiness”, which (along with “Commuter Army”) reads like George Saunders at his most unsubtle. A generic businessman is living in a kind of hell, where his wife deceives herself into happiness through material objects and his relationship with her is devoid of any genuinely positive emotion. The story follows him through a few slice-of-life episodes, including one that takes place at the bank, where he watches a seemingly ordinary woman yell at her son for several minutes, then beat him to death with an ashtray. Later, on a long weekend, the man drives his wife and son to the seaside for a short holiday. But the seaside is so crowded that they must leave their car in the midst of a sea of cars and walk to the beach, where the mass of people, all so determined to enjoy themselves, pack into the water, which is “glistening slimily with human fat” and quickly becomes a death trap. Tsutsui fills in the story with brushes of dark humor and thankfully avoids mocking his characters, as he does to mixed effect in the majority of the rest of the collection.
Elsewhere, Tsutsui’s sense of humor is somewhat crude to my sensibilities—I prefer the darkest of Brit-style humor, but those who appreciate slapstick a la the Marx Brothers will likely find punches rather than groaners. However, even in stories where the humor goes awry (for me, at least), other elements anchor down the narrative. The surrealism and absurdity of “The Dabba Dabba Tree”, for instance, in which those who are not asleep enter and participate in the erotic dreams of those asleep, are interesting enough to forgive the cheesy screwball-comedy confusion of the dialogue. And the unique twist on the usual time-machine motif in “Don’t Laugh” more than compensates for a joke that goes on far too long.
As in most story collections, Planet Porno contains a few wholly original ideas, several well-written if mediocre stories, and a few duds. Here, the original ones are pretty darn original and the mediocre ones read like Borges ripoffs—not the worst you can do. Tsutsui’s certainly not everyone’s bag, but his voice is idiosyncratic enough to garner a cult following. Whether he’ll eventuallly become the Roberto Bolano to Murakami’s Garcia Marquez is anyone’s guess; either way, the world of Japanese literature in English translation just got that much bigger." - Megan Milks

"Yasutaka Tsutsui’s quirky and entertaining Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, a collection of short stories written in 1979, is just now making its debut in the United States, but the stories capitalize on the same theme—the bizarre nature of systemized society—that the contemporary television series The Office exploits today. Tsutsui shrewdly reveals the hairline stresses, lusts, and insanities that no society can ever completely wall in.
But while Tsutsui’s message may be similar to The Office, the events through which he conveys that message are of a drastically different brand. His tired office workers encounter trees that inspire erotic dreams and find planets full of pornographic animals. Throughout Tsutsui’s eclectic assortment of stories, rather mundane characters are brought face to face with dystopia and the world of science fiction. Time machines and stampeding gangs of smoking abolitionists break through the white static of the protagonists’ humdrum lives. Tsutsui’s surreal elements forcibly draw attention to the need for an expressive outlet in a world marked by such brutal pressure to conform.
And indeed, the pressure to conform is brutal. The men in these stories (and every one is written from a masculine perspective) face the unrelenting duress of not bringing shame to their family, friends, work, or nation. Both ends of the spectrum are represented—the men who completely buy into the system and the men who try to fight against it.
The narrator of “Farmer Airlines” decides to fly through a typhoon in an airplane piloted by a woman of dubious credentials in order to avoid a tongue-lashing by his boss. Even though he privately thinks his Editor-in-Chief’s orders are a “disastrous idea,” when other people voice this opinion, he speaks up in dishonest defense. Luckily he survives the ordeal. His photographer, however, does not. When the protagonist makes it back to the office, there’s no sympathy expressed for his predicament nor any sort of remorse at the death of his co-worker. Rather, in true company-first fashion, his boss bursts out in anger, “Why the hell didn’t you get the film off him first?!”
On the other hand, in “The Last Smoker,” the narrator defiantly rebels against convention. He continues to smoke cigarettes even when health officials and the public argue violently against it. Most other nations have already given up smoking, and, in the story, many Japanese perceive the fact that cigarettes are still being sold in their country, in so-called “smoke-easies,” as humiliating. Discrimination against smokers gives rise to McCarthy-esque blacklists of prominent smokers, and angry housewives are armed with kitchen knives for those who refuse to stop smoking “despite repeated requests.” The repression of smokers and, transitively, the repression of dissenting individuals in society is ultimately shown to have terrible consequences.
The toll of this draconian suppression of the human spirit can be seen in the growing indifference of Tsutsui’s characters. In “Hello, Hello, Hello!” a “Household Economy Consultant” shows up at the narrator’s door, reminding the narrator and his family to save money whenever they think of pouring guests tea or buying new clothes. Though at first the narrator shows some indignation at being told he is poor, soon he is starving himself in order to save himself a little extra money. In the end, when his savings are erased, he hardly bats an eye. “You see, our hard-earned savings are always going to be taken from us by someone—whether we have any or not.”
In other stories, the apathy is even more marked. Decapitation by piano strings and asphyxiations by pachinko balls are details thrown into stories that go without special notice by the author—who just glides over them—or by any of the characters, who all fail to notice the strange occurrences. The wife of “Bad Heart” brushes off her husband’s complaints of cardiovascular problems as a childish bid for attention.
The main characters find themselves suppressed even in the domestic realm, as their wives make them feel ashamed, used, and inadequate. Developing complexes that make them shudder at the thought of having sex with their wives, they retreat into passivity or run far, far away into delusion.
Tsutsui’s own detached narrative voice allows the reader to laugh at events that would otherwise be overly pathetic or horrifying. The clever blend of science fiction and realism allows Tsutsui to defamiliarize the familiar and highlight certain similarities that wouldn’t otherwise be obvious. The routine parts of life—worries about what the boss will say, or the wife will do, or the men will think—are emphasized even more against the backdrop of absurd calamities—a plane crash, an organ rupture, or a sinking city. Even in extraordinary circumstances, the ruts of their daily life are too deep to escape.
Through these strange but memorable stories, Tsutsui invites the reader to explore the ridiculous. One just hopes that some readers will respond to his invitation. After all, aren’t we all just trapped in the same mindless, socially imposed preoccupations that cage Tsutsui’s protagonists and blind them to savoring—or even just realizing—the beautiful uniqueness of their circumstances?" — Rebecca A. Schuetz

"When Andrew Driver pitched this translation of Tsutsui’s work to publishers he must have gotten some very strange looks and it’s our luck that someone at Alma Books took it on because this is a strange but very fine collection of surreal stories from a man who understands the mind of modern Japan all too well. His stories are often self-mockingly misogynistic – nicely ironic and creep under the skin of bewildered salarymen everywhere.
In the West if we think of Japanese literature at all we turn to Haruki Murakami for contemporary insights or Junichiro Tanizaki’s short, erotic novels The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima is seductive and dark. For tradition and brilliant writing Soseki Natsume's I Am a Cat reveals much about the Meiji era Japan.
So enter Yasutaka Tsutsui and he’s here to shake your perceptions of Japan. The hilarious moment the Dabba Dabba tree enters the life of a bored married couple you know that things are not quite as they seem. The notion of an erotic dream is taken to new highs and you will laugh out loud, tempered by this misogynistic streak that runs through Tsutsui’s work. Frenetic attempts to have sex with complete strangers in your dreams turns out to be hard work and just because you are asleep and dreaming, it doesn’t follow that everyone else is and resentment and chaos ensues.
‘I’m perfectly sane. But we are in someone’s else’s dream. Could you take your clothes off now, quickly.’
The second story 'Rumours about Me' is a wonderful exercise in paranoid writing as an ordinary guy discovers his every move followed by the media, every insignificant event a major headline in the newspapers and on TV.
‘TM slams co-worker Fujita (25) over paperwork error’
‘Morishita Buys Another Pair of Socks’ (Blue-grey, 350 yen)
It occurred to me whilst reading this colelction of short stories that here at last was a writer getting to grips with what really ails us with the prescience of another science fiction writer, the late Philip K Dick. These could be new Dick stories and everything that bugged him, sex, betrayal, drugs, corporate bullying, the uncertainty of life in a changing world of the 1950's onwards is here. It was a good feeling to be at once comfortable with the writing style and know that you were reading new material.
From short pieces like the absurd moment a friend calls to say he’s invented a time machine –to the strange heavy atmosphere of the stranded railway line of Bear’s Wood, you are in the company of a writer who is comfortable with sexual tension, disappointment and secrets. Farmer Airlines about a journalist and photographer trying to get off a hurricane stricken island because they are more afraid of the wrath of their boss back in the office than the near certainly of death in the air is delightful and relentless. You are there in the eye of the storm and sharing their anxiety.
The crazed cruel bizarre moments on the Very Edge of Happiness tell us a great deal what it like to live and work in corporate Japan – no one who has ever been a major traffic jam or frustrated at work or home would fail to see some aspect of their pointless lives here.
The Commuter Army is a mad but so plausible tale of a gun supplier of faulty rifles forced to enlist in the day army to fix the rifles at the front which shifts with alarming regularity. The absurdity of war and the incredible acceptance of everything make it hyper normal. The scene where his wife brings his dinner at the front is poignant and amusing.
Although I didn’t take to The Last Smoker – the satire was just too heavy handed, as was The World is Tilting however the last story Salmonella Men on Porno Planet is a fully imagined classic. An extraordinary world of complete obscenity where men battle against multiple orgasms and every kind of plant and animal keen to have their wicked way with them. It’s hilarious yet keenly written with some excellent philosophy on evolution on alien worlds. Andrew Driver has done an excellent translation which must have been quite a challenge.
If you have never read any Japanese short stories, this would be a perfect place to start and if you just want a serious insight into the weird psyche of the richest country on the planet – Salmonella Men on Planet Porno by Tsutsui is for you. You will not be disappointed. You may even become addicted." - Sam North
Tsutsui Yasutaka, The Maid, Trans. by Adam Kabat (Alma Books, 2010)

"Nanase cannot remember when she first realized she could read people's minds, but not once during her eighteen years has she ever questioned her particularly unusual ability. Yet, working as a live-in maid, she is inevitably drawn into the lives, thoughts and desires of her employers, with dangerous and at times hilarious consequences. From the sexual rapaciousness of her first boss to the grime and stench of the house where she works next and her third employer's inability to accept she's no longer young, Nanase's adventures are a picaresque journey into the inner sanctum of the lives and psyches of ordinary Japanese people."

"Yasutaka Tsutsi’s The Maid takes the reader into the minds of the ordinary: the lacivious husband, the desperate to stay young wife, the family that despises cleaning. It follows the growth of a young girl who has always been able to hear the innermost longings and thoughts of those around her. It questions what it really means to know someone, and the terrible things that can hide behind the facade of everyday life.
We travel through everyday Japan with Nanase, a girl who can hear the thoughts of others. This extra sense neither excites nor inspires her. Instead:
Nanase could not recall when she first realized she had the power to read people’s minds. But not once during her eighteen years had she ever thought that it was a particularly unusual ability. She even felt that there must be a lot of people with this power, her logic being that anyone who could do this would keep it secret, as she herself had done.
Her first job takes her to a puzzle, a woman whose thoughts seem so shallow, so focused on the everyday, that Nanase cannot understand her at all. She is soon distracted from this mystery by the all too obvious thoughts of the rest of the family: the father reliving extra-marital conquests, the daughter flaunting transgressions, and the son, where the danger for Nanase lays, lusting after the pretty young maid his mother has just hired. Nanase’s response to these threats is to flee. In fact, she continues fleeing in the next story, running from too much flith and hatred.
Nanase begins with a blase attitude towards her “extra” sense, and she tends to use it both defensively and to indulge in her curiousity about her employers. However, although she would be the first to claim that “for her, mind-reading was neither a plus nor a minus”, she bends her life around it to accomodate and protect this special ability. It is at her third job that Nanase becomes more proactive, fascinated by the obsession with youth her newest employer focuses on. That, too, falls apart, and she flees from job to job, sometimes in physical danger, sometimes in danger of exposure, gradually learning to use her extra sense as more than a passive tool. Her work as a maid allows her to move easily from place to place for the protection that anonymity brings, and her role as a silent presence in a house deflects the thoughts of others from her. But these protections are not full proof, and Nanase must flee house after house, until her final job leads her to a mind darker than any she could ever imagine.
Tsutsui’s Nanase is a dangerous innocent, both intruder and victim to the vagaries of the lives around her. The language in these stories is spare and sharp, and it is easy to forget that, although Nanase sees more than most, she is still blind to some things that go on around her. This lack, a deafness that comes from youth and inexperience, puts her in danger and shakes the lives of those around her to the core, and gives the stories a haunting quality and lyrical presence that shows the stories of ordinary people for the complex and often dangerous realities they really are." - Jennie Blake

"It is 6am, a freshly made cup of tea steams on my bedside table. My wife sleeps quietly beside me. My cat nests in my left popliteal fossa, snoring gently. I am slowly getting annoyed. From the living room, I can hear my friend – who is paying a visit to Tokyo from London – chanting. The chant sounds something like, “I’m yarding egos! I’m yarding egos! I’m yarding egos! I’m yarding egos!” And there is the attendant coughing, ululating, and expectorating, followed by a bell ringing and then something that sounds like a herniated yodel. But it is not these sounds that are distressing me at this early hour – it’s because I have tried for three days to finish Yasutaka Tsutsui’s The Maid. Oh, have I tried.
Let’s start with a little background. Tsutsui’s oeuvre, spanning four decades, comprises over thirty novels and more than forty short-story collections. Alma Books – his English publisher – has so far published the anthology Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (2005 Japan / 2008 UK), and the novels Hell (2003 Japan / 2007 UK), Paprika (1993 Japan / 2009 UK), and The Maid (1972 Japan / 2010 UK). Before I start this review proper, I would like to assert that Alma Books is a brave and innovative publishing house and should be championed for its booklist.
I came to Tsutsui’s work through Salmonella Men on Planet Porno and, intrigued by these surreal and genre-bending fictions, moved on to Hell, which I gave a very positive review, likening Tsutsui’s work to Rabelais, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut among others. Having found an author I enjoyed and whose work resembled that of heroes of mine – JG Ballard, Ray Bradbury, and Bret Easton Ellis – I looked forward to the next publication. This happened to be Paprika, a psychological horror that should have remained a short story. The novel is sometimes bloated and inconsequential, while the prose suffers from a dire translation that had me flinging the poor book across the room and watching it land with broken wings and a severed spine. However, I gave it a positive review, Tsutsui’s ideas still fresh and different enough from the usual published tosh, and I felt it deserved better than a literary kicking.
I am not a snark. I don’t often do snarkish. Snarking is easy. But there are some novels that raise the nascent snark within me – On Chesil Beach springs to mind. Plus I do enjoy literary putdowns. This is a favourite of mine – Martin Amis on Michael Crichton: “Animals – especially, if not quite exclusively, velociraptors – are what he is good at. People are what he is bad at. People, and prose.”
Here goes.
The narrative premise of The Maid is that eighteen-year-old Nanase can read people’s minds. She works for a succession of Japanese families none of whom has any redeeming qualities. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, in-laws are all greedy, rapacious, slothful, bullying, lying, cheating, tiresome. Nanase is an innocent observing the decaying world of Japanese family life, culture, and society. Her special ability allows her to listen in to the secret thoughts of individuals and discover their tastes, passions, fetishes, hates, and fantasies. At one point, she uses her power to turn a would-be rapist insane by manipulating his thoughts. The eight stories that make up this novel are morality plays, revenge tragedies, and sexual farces. However, one has to ask why did Tsutsui use the mind-reading hook upon which to hang his narrative? I am not sure about you but if I had mind-reading skills, I would not spend my time picking up semen-covered socks from beneath a teenage boy’s bed; I would be a champion poker player, a speculator on the stock market, or a chess grandmaster.
The narrative/narrator problem may have something to do with Japanese language and culture. The Western use of the omniscient-third-person narrator does not have a parallel in Japanese literature; Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short story “In a Grove” is a classic case of multi-viewpoints and multi-narrators without an overriding omniscient vision. Haruki Murakami has only just started to experiment and move away from the Shishōsetsu (or I-Novel) to third-person narration in Kafka on the Shore and to even use a second-person narrator in After Dark. I think a novel fails when the reader finds the main character obtrusive and unnecessary, when that character’s thoughts are bland regurgitations of the author’s ideas on a subject – be they moral or political – the main character merely a mouthpiece and a conduit with no life of their own. Surely, the author of the text acts as the mind reader, the one to read his/her characters’ thoughts and pass that skill on to the reader.
The Maid, first published in Japan in 1972 under the title Kazoku Hakkei or Eight Family Scenes/What The Maid Saw, has not aged well; the outdated social satire, the cliched characterization, the unnecessary narrative trickery make this a stale reading experience. The translation by Adam Kabat is a huge improvement on that of Paprika but my willing suspension of disbelief foundered and, with hackles raised, I struggled through the last chapters as though through a molasses of spent ideas and old-fashioned storytelling. Although the Yasutaka Tsutsui fictions so far published by Alma Books have sequentially reduced in quality, I await the next publication in the hope it restores my interest." - Steve Finbow

Tsutsui Yasutaka, Paprika (Alma Books, 2009)

"Yasutaka Tsutsui is the doyen of avant-garde Japanese writers. His work is by turns innovative, thought-provoking and – not least – extremely entertaining. Much of it concerns alternative realities; in relation to Western fiction, Tsutsui stands squarely within the modern and post- modern domain from Franz Kafka to J G Ballard.
Paprika, one of Tsutsui's finest novels, is now translated by Andrew Driver. Fittingly for a writer with marked surrealist influences, the story is all about dreams. The setting is Tokyo's Institute for Psychiatric Research. Major breakthroughs are taking place, using new machines which access the minds of sleeping patients. A couple of top psychoanalysts are in line for the Nobel Prize for this revolutionary innovation. One is the young and beautiful Atsuko Chiba, who uses the equipment at night to cure some of Tokyo's leading citizens of mental trauma.
Atsuko has to be discreet because there are strict restrictions upon the machines, so she disguises herself as an alter ego – the eponymous Paprika. Unfortunately, back at the Institute the machines are being misused by her enemies on the staff, and the most powerful versions have gone missing." - Peter Carty

"Comparisons to Haruki Murakami and J.G. Ballard on the cover of this book do Tsutsui little service. His novels do not have the steely gaze and cool prose of Ballard's "Crash," nor the magical-realist tint of Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." What they do have is a thorough awareness of horror films and classic science fiction, plus a peculiar Japaneseness that makes them — for want of a better word — strange.
Amid medical and administrative politics at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, the beautiful and brilliant Atsuko Chiba analyzes schizophrenic patients using psychotherapy (PT) devices invented by her co-Nobel-Prize-nominated, otaku-like partner. These machines enable the doctors to monitor, record, participate in, and manipulate their patients' dreams.
The institute's administrator asks Atsuko to help a friend of his, a top-ranking executive in the motor industry suffering from a very Heideggerean form of anxiety neurosis. Enter Paprika — the dream detective — a kind of superhero among psychoanalysts. While Atsuko is one of Japan's most brilliant psychotherapists, her alter-ego Paprika is, well, Japan's most brilliant psychotherapist.
There are subnarratives, including every otaku's dream, the love story where obese geek gets the beautiful girl, and the action is interspersed with some humorous insights into corporate Machiavellianism. But the main plot deals with the use of the PT devices to collect dreams for Paprika to investigate. For this purpose her partner invents a portable dream collector, the DC Mini — sort of the iPod of psychotherapy.
The anxiety-riddled executive's dreams are filmic. Tsutsui uses movie motifs and storylines to express the banality of most people's unconscious. Sinisterly in the background, two of Atsuko's jealous rivals, Inui and Osanai (who are lovers and colleagues and bear a close resemblance to real-life 20th century figures Yukio Mishima and Masakatsu Morita) scheme to change dreams for their own evil ends.
To enable their plans, they steal five DC Minis and systematically turn their enemies within the institute into psychological wrecks. Inui and Osanai intend to use the machines to gain control of the institute, and also as virtual-porn devices with which they hope to determine the "true essence of sex."
Paprika's next private patient is a chief superintendent suffering from clinical depression. Dreams start to bleed into each other and into the waking world. Atsuko/Paprika battles Inui and Osanai in the unconscious realm. As the narrative pace quickens, the line between dream and reality attenuates.
There are two attempted rape scenes in the novel, blurring the book's moral relativity. Atsuko allows Osanai to rape her because he's not that bad looking and she hasn't had "real" sex in a while; after all, how bad could it be if the rapist's breath doesn't smell?
However, Osanai cannot quite rise to the occasion and it is Atsuko who becomes angry. She hasn't been "satisfied" and so berates the would-be-rapist for being impotent, but after he leaves, she feels guilty about her cruel words, and chastises herself for not being more sympathetic about his lack of rape-readiness.
Osanai argues that the use of PT devices goes against basic tenets of psychotherapy such as "warmth" and "morality" — an argument that surely contradicts the clinical distance and doctor-patient confidentiality of actual psychoanalytic practice. Tsutsui also insists on using the term "subconscious," a word the psychology profession derides.
Tsutsui's portrayal of a no man's land between the unconscious and conscious worlds is well drawn. The imagery (some later used in J-Horror movies like "Exte") is nightmarish and the characters, as well as the reader, become unsure of what is real and what is not. Tsutsui's world is his own: a flash forward to a society where technology and the human mind merge."- Steve Finbow

"This review is backwards. Yasutaka Tsutsui's novel was published in Japan in 1993. Thirteen years later, it was filmed by Satoshi Kon. This year, it has finally been translated into English by Andrew Driver. So I am not just reviewing a novel that is well into its second decade of life as if it is new; having already seen the adaptation, my original text is not the original text.
The film opens in a dream, although we do not yet know this. Paprika, a "dream detective," is inside the head of Detective Toshimi Konakawa, trying to get to the root of his anxiety neurosis. What appears to be a stakeout in a big top circus melts into Tarzan and Jane and then flashes through a succession of other filmic scenes before climaxing with Konakawa arriving too late to prevent a murder and waking screaming. As the light fades, we hear a voice: "But what about the rest of it?" As a false opening it is as clever as that in Serenity (2005) and as reflective of the concerns of the following film as that in Strange Days (1995). It is followed by an equally inventive credit sequence in which Paprika leaves Konakawa's apartment on a moped before leaping into billboard signs and computer monitors, flying through the sky and pausing time, until finally she ages two decades as she arrives by car at her apartment. Is this still a dream?
The book opens less auspiciously. Without the need for a visual hook Tsutsui starts his novel more prosaically, in the staffroom of the Institute for Psychiatric Research with two scientists, Doctor Atsuko Chiba and Doctor Kohsaku Tokita, discussing recent problems with their work over lunch. Everything is slower, more clinical. This is not necessarily a deficiency, but the contrast between the two mediums is wide and telling. However, even within a few pages a true deficiency quickly presents itself: the translation. On the second page, Tokita complains to Chiba about his lunch:
"Not chopped burdock with sesame and marinated pan-fried chicken yuan style, AGAIN!"
The sentence is clumsy—would anyone really disgorge that mouthful?—but the capitals for EMPHASIS are terrifying. Then there is the exclamation mark. There are six on this page alone. If you were to tally up all such instances in the book you would soon run out of fingers and toes. Even worse, the next page marks the appearance of the dreaded interrobang. On page 166 we have a double exclamation mark, which is either a typo or a fresh perversion.
Leaving aside the alarming punctuation, the translation is also oddly quaint. Early on Chiba is described as possessing a "beauteous visage" and "laughing with abandon". Either this is heavily encoded with irony or Driver is making strangely old-fashioned choices; I'm surprised it isn't "laughing with gay abandon." Immediately after laughing she lies "somewhat calmly" which is both a meaningless description and a further indication of the stilted and dated language used. In combination with the excess of slangy punctuation, this creates a weirdly yo-yoing tonal dissonance.
It turns out that the first scenes of the film and the book are approximately reversed. In the book, after a bit of rumination on the new psychotherapy (PT) technology and some internal politicking Chiba is asked by the administrator of the Institute, Torataro Shima, to treat an old friend of his, Tatsuo Noda, an executive at a car company. (Konakawa does not appear until much later in the book but the scenes serve much the same purpose.) To treat him Chiba changes her hair style, glues on some freckles and adopts the persona of Paprika, a disguise she used to treat important figures—with the Institute's blessing—prior to the dream technology being approved by the Government. The continued secrecy is because of the stigma against mental illness in Japan where (as the book would have it) even something as common as clinical depression is esoteric, frightening, and potentially career-ending. At the same time, this clandestine operation seems slightly undermined by Paprika's rubbish disguise and the fact she carries out the therapy in an Institute grace and favour apartment with the name Chiba on the door.
In showing Chiba gluing on the freckles, Tsutsui makes quite explicit the answer to a question which the film leaves as a puzzle for the viewer: what exactly is the relationship between Paprika and Chiba? In the film, Paprika appears to be an independent entity or psychic aspect of Chiba (the two appear on screen at the same time). This odd, almost magical realist, flourish allows for multiple readings and lends mystery to the film. It is a mystery that is entirely absent from Tsutsui's novel, which never shirks from spelling out in bald detail exactly what is going on. What it does shrink from is getting to the point.
In the film, the story kicks off immediately after the credits with the revelation that some of the PT machines have been stolen from the Institute in what it appears to be an inside job. These machines allow people to access dreams and subvert reality, the two states bleeding into each other, and the potential ramifications are catastrophic. This happens in the first ten minutes. It takes the novel 117 pages, just over a third of its length, to get to a comparable position. Whereas in the film Chiba, Tokita ,and Konakawa then play a version of that old anime favourite, hunt the insane computer genius, by this point in the novel we have already been told the who, the what and the why. Since he appears in a cameo role, Tsutsui must have given the film his blessing but it is a fundamentally different beast. In all respects the film is brighter, brasher, breezier and, by and large, this is preferable. The screenplay by Kon and Seishi Minakami radically reconfigures Tsutsui's original novel into something more akin to a virtual reality thriller like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004). There is nothing thrilling about the original. It is a truism that there is nothing more boring than other people's dreams and Kon's visual panache is a welcome replacement for Tsutsui's ponderous psychoanalysis.
At the same time, the film shares some of the book's flaws. As is all too common with anime, the American translation and voice work are poor, meaning that the dialogue is frequently risible. Beyond this the characterisation is often weak and implausible. Kon and Minamaki have adapted liberally and inevitably much of the background of the characters—particularly that revealed in internal monologues—has had to be abandoned. Too often that means we only skim the top of motivations and whilst sometimes this mystery is intriguing, often it is irritating or confusing. On the other hand, at least some of the blame for this must come back to Tsutsui as a lot of the characterisation is not that convincing to begin with.
Every man in the novel is in love with Chiba/Paprika. In case we were in any doubt about just how beauteous Chiba's visage is, when she attends a press conference: "Some social affairs correspondents who were attending for the first time let out involuntary gasps of astonishment at her ravishing beauty, which even exceeded its reputation". When she returns to her office, her assistant is equally impressed:
Now Nobue's eyes were filled with an expression of rapture. "My! Oh, my! How beautiful! How very, very beautiful you look! What have I done to deserve this?! Doctor Chiba, please! Won't you appear on television again, just for me?"
Feeling slightly embarrassed at such unfettered adoration by a member of her own sex, Atsuko hurried out into the corridor
.
Well, you would, wouldn't you? Sorry, I mean: wouldn't you?! The portrayal of the other characters is similarly clumsy. In contrast to Chiba, Tokita is monsterised. He is lisping, slobbering, obese and infantile to the point where his depiction as a gluttonous idiot savant is borderline offensive. Despite this—and Tsutsui explictly invokes Beauty and the Beast—the pair are in love. This is one of the aspects of the novel that is ignored by the film, until the very end when we are informed they have married. Without the context provided by the novel this seems like a particularly extreme version of the Hollywood law that any man and woman of a similar age in a film must end up in a relationship, regardless of what actually happens on screen. Oh, except Chiba is also in love with Noda. And Konakowa. How will she weigh up "the relative merits of their manly attraction"?
Even those characters she is not in love with are seen through a queasily sexual lens. Moroi Osanai, another colleague who we are told resembles a Greek god and, yes, is in love with her, decides the best way to show this love—as well as gain revenge for a work dispute—is to go round her apartment and rape her. After being punched in the face and having her underwear pulled down, this is Chiba's response:
"Aren't you ashamed of yourself, doing this to a colleague? [. . .] And you call yourself a therapist ?! [. . .] All right. All right! I'll let you do it [. . .] But you'll have to do it properly. You'll have to satisfy me [. . .] What is this?! [. . .] Do it if you're going to do it! You could at least have prepared yourself! [. . .] You're useless as a therapist, and now as a man."
My ellipses condense but they don't distort. This is a horrendously ill-judged scene: Chiba's concern at the lack of professionalism in this sexual assault gives way to resignation that this is a chore that she needs to get over and done which then gives way to the thought that since she is being violated against her wishes she might as well enjoy it, which in turn gives way to anger at this pathetic man who can't even give her a good raping. This is where the whiff of misogyny that the characters give off throughout is overpowered by a stench of misogyny coming off the whole book. Peter Carty—who implies he has read Paprika in the original—describes this as evidence of "Tsutsui's impish black humour" but you would be hard pressed to find any humour, except perhaps the unintentional and distasteful, in Driver's translation. It has to be more than just the translation, though. It is hard to believe any of Tsutsui's characters are adults with agency, rather than mere puppets for his positioning.
As I said, this review is backwards. It is hard to review the novel on its own merits having seen the film first, so I have not attempted to do so and have instead reviewed them both. It is a comparison that finds the book wanting. Compared to the glorious dream sequences that Kon conjures up, Tsutsui's prose is deathly dull or just plain silly. On any other measure of entertainment he is similarly (and comprehensively) beaten and, truth be told, it was hard work even to make it to the end. He is ill-served by his translation but still it seems unlikely that greater depth is lurking underneath it in the original Japanese. Paprika the novel is a psychosexualdrama in which the psycho is tedious, the sexual is ridiculous, and the drama is nonexistent. Kon fillets this to provide himself with the basis for a fundamentally different type of work, one that is infused with his own concerns, particularly (and slightly recursively) around cinema itself. His film has a slightly patchwork quality because so much connective tissue is discarded, but mostly we should be thankful that most of the sexual elements were binned. The result is a far superior work which fearlessly and sure-footedly walks a tightrope between fantasy and science fiction." - Martin Lewis

"It seems you’ve been living two lives, Miss Chiba. In one, you are Atsuko Chiba, an accomplished researcher and therapist working for the Institute for Psychiatric Research. You’re a hard worker, a dedicated scientist, and on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. In the other, you go by the alias “Paprika” and carry out illegitimate dream therapy with restricted-use dream-imaging devices borrowed from the Institute’s own labs. One of these lives has a future; the other does not.
Forgive the Matrix quote, but it’s a fitting way to kick off a discussion of Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s landmark novel. Tsutsui’s eclectic mixes of fantasy, SF, black comedy and other genres have been only sporadically presented in English; Paprika itself was only recently translated, and isn’t even directly available to readers in the United States yet. That’s a shame, because the book’s a broadly entertaining introduction to an author who hasn’t yet gotten his due domestically. He’s been superficially compared to Haruki Murakami or J.G. Ballard, although he’s more playful than the latter and more formally grounded in genre than the former. At the start of Paprika, it’s Dr. Chiba and not her alter ego who seems to have a future, and a very bright one at that. Chiba’s elbow-deep in work that has proven enormously effective in the treatment of severe mental disorders. One of her colleagues, the brilliant but nerdy (and badly overweight) Kosaku Tokita, has invented a super-miniaturized version of the Institute’s existing dream-analysis devices. Dubbed the “DC Mini”, it allows a dream researcher — for instance, Dr. Chiba herself — to analyze or even enter another person’s dreams.
Then Institute Administrator Torataro Shima asks Chiba to do him a favor and bring Paprika out once again. A close friend of Shima’s, an industrialist named Tatsuo Noda, has begun suffering crippling anxiety attacks and doesn’t want rumors about his mental health to ruin his work — especially in Japan, where the fact that someone of high profile is seeing a mental-health specialist might still be seen as a sign of weakness and not personal responsibility. Not wanting to jeopardize her relationship with her superiors, she says yes, and is soon wrestling with Noda’s dream-demons as prelude to fighting off a great many other peoples’.
Not everyone in the Institute is thrilled with Chiba and her extracurricular activities. Consider the young, sexually voracious and deeply amoral Morio Osanai. He harbors both lust for and jealousy of Dr. Chiba, and would just as soon steal her away from that nerdy slob Tokita (whom she loves quite unabashedly). The DC Mini gives him a way to do that, as well as ways to engineer all sorts of other machinations within the IPR’s halls of power. Soon Chiba’s cohorts and superiors are falling victim to what looks like a scandalous epidemic of contagious insanity, which threatens to bring down both Chiba and the IPR. Chiba cannot fight such things on their own terms: for that she must bring her alter ego Paprika entirely out of retirement, and fight a war in the dream world that runs the risk of not being confined there. Sure enough, it isn’t, and the entire final third of the book is a dream-logic ride that includes such crazed images as a three-headed demon crashing a Nobel Prize ceremony.
Paprika comes labeled as science fiction, although I’d bet the stricter interpreters of that term would opt more for calling it straight fantasy. Or maybe just fiction, in the same way Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five was fiction and not SF. The hard-science parts of Paprika are not what drive the story, anyway: they’re simply a way to make the dream world and the real world that much more interpenetrable. The real plot strategies are also not scientific but psychological and personal. Paprika’s one big advantage over her opponents is how she understands the behavior of dream terrain intimately, even when it’s not her own but rather the inside of someone else’s very perverted head. Very little in the story isn’t shot through with with sexual under- and overtones — especially in the last third, where reality and the dream world start interpenetrating (pun intended) vigorously. The climax (pun also intended) revolves around the way such things are turned into the substance of the dream world itself, and subsequently dispelled. (If I sound vague, it’s only because I’m tapdancing as fast as I can around some really, really sticky plot threads that don’t deserve to be ruined.)
The most interesting elements of Paprika aren’t the fantastic trappings or even the orgy of dream-world fantasy spilling over into the real world in the book’s final third. It’s the way certain societal attitudes about men and women are embodied in the book, and not always consciously. Chiba may be a doctor, but Paprika’s freewheeling approach to her work makes her into a kind of bar hostess for the soul. Noda certainly treats her like one, going to her to pour out his heart and let her dig into him rather than trust his wife or the rest of his family. Small wonder all of Paprika’s assignations in the book take place in a bar: the “Radio Club”, where she’s at least as knowledgeable about the drinks as the bartender. No coincidence, either, that both of Paprika’s male patients are married, that she has a crush on one and feels contemptuous of the other’s spouse.
Good thing Tsutsui himself seems conscious of all these issues, since he takes time out to show us each character’s psychology through a top-down view of them all. He writes how Paprika “bridled with the righteous indignation that single women often feel against the wives of likeable married men”, and also takes the time to cast the same gimlet eye over Osanai (“[to him], as a woman, [Paprika] had no ideology”) and the other male characters who eye her. To Noda, she’s a savior; to Osanai, an object of conquest or destruction; to Tokita, a colleague and a true friend, a peer instead of just an object of desire. Chiba’s wearing more than two faces in this story, but the two she wears are the ones she’s come to identify with the most. Tsutsui allows us to identify with both sides of her, each only able to express themselves in limited arenas of life. And like her, when it’s over, we long for a chance when both of them can be given equal time in the real world.
* * *
No discussion of this book would be complete without some mention of Satoshi Kon’s animated adaptation. “Adaptation” is the best word for the movie version of Paprika: it uses about half of the original story as a launchpad for Kon’s own brand of visual exuberance. There’s a lot of the book in the movie, but what has been left out is even more striking: very little of the twisted sexuality or original character motivation remains. Apparently Tsutsui didn’t mind the book being changed this radically and was quite fond of the end result. What mattered most was how Kon retained the use of dream logic — or “dreason” as Chiba puts it — to drive the story. The movie’s driven more by Kon’s dream-logic ideas than Tsutsui’s, and a number of characters have been telescoped into each other or dropped entirely, but book and movie parallel each other more often than not.
Less likely to win an audience domestically but still worth mentioning is the manga version, created in 1994 shortly after the book’s debut and drawn by Reiji Hagiwara. Weighing in at over 550 pages, it adapts the book in remarkable detail — not just scene by scene, but sometimes line by line as well. And not just in the sense of individual lines of dialogue used, but actual pieces of Tsutsui’s text are excerpted from the book and placed on the page  as design elements. It’s intriguing, especially since it’s used to accentuate the story’s most surreal moments ; it ties it back to the book all the more tightly and yet at the same times makes it all the more distinct from it. At one point, when a nightmare samurai attacks the heroes , the inlaid text even changes to a more archaic typeface to better match the incongruity of the whole episode. That's inspired." - Serdar

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

across & beyond - a transmediale Reader on Post-digital Practices, Concepts, and Institutions

Daïchi Saito proposes a personal reflection on language and the image, a meditation that does not strive to theorize practice, but to recount it.

Thor Garcia - By turns defiant, paranoid, brooding, absurd and knock-down funny. Like Hunter S. Thompson meets Russ Meyer’s Under the Valley of the Supervixens meets Daft Punk – wearing a press pass and a smiley badge to a San Francisco gangbang