Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan, Ed. by Helen Mitsios, Cheng & Tsui, 2011.
Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan charts the enormous social and cultural changes that have taken place in Japan in the last twenty years. This collection of short stories features the most up-to-date and exciting writing from the most popular and finest award-winning authors in Japan today. These wildly imaginative and boundary bursting stories unfold fascinating and unexpected personal responses to the shattered bubble economy, sometimes with a playful magic realism, and sometimes by pulling back the covers on a dark backlash to the mass media immersion Japan's youth culture has undergone in the last two decades. Along with some of the world's best-known Japanese authors this collection will include writers making their English language debut. Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan will be the first short story collection of its kind to capture the unlimited range of imagination and excellence in Japanese fiction today.
Great stories rewire your brain, and in these tales you can feel your mind shifting as often as Mizue changes trains at the Shinagawa station in My Slightly Crooked Brooch... The contemporary short stories in this collection, at times subversive, astonishing and heart-rending, are brimming with originality and genius. --David Dalton
Here are stories that arrive from our global future, made from shards of many local, personal pasts. In the age of anime, amazingly, Japanese literature thrives. --Paul Anderer
To start off this review, I’m going to make a prediction. It’s a somewhat bold one, and it has some qualifiers, but I would bet a small amount of money on it, since I really do believe that this will be true: Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is going to be an important book for the next decade or so. Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is the latest anthology of contemporary Japanese fiction, collecting thirteen short stories from nine mostly unknown authors, three relatively well-translated ones, and one undeniable international superstar. It joins the now twenty-year old collections New Japanese Voices (which was also edited by Helen Mitsios) and Monkey Brain Sushi, along with its brethren New Penguin Parallel Texts: Short Stories in Japanese, also released last year and edited by Michael Emmerich, which will also be a significant text for the same reasons I will get into shortly.
The simple truth is, Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices (though truthfully I’m more of a Monkey Brain Sushi man myself) were very influential texts when I first started reading Japanese literature. Like most people of this generation, the author who brought me into this love of Japanese fiction was not Mishima or Kawabata or Soseki, but Murakami. Consequently, my desire for Japanese literature skewed to more contemporary and post-modern fare. Discovering the battered copy of Monkey Brain Sushi from my university library was ultimately a life-confirming experience, if not a life-changing one: not every story has stood the test of time but reading it I knew that this was I wanted: new Japan, young Japan, post-modern Japan, and Murakami was not the be-all and end-all of contemporary Japanese fiction. I believe Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is going to have that same effect on Japanese literature newcomers of the coming generations that those previous anthologies had on me.
Lucky for them, this is a really wonderful collection. The range of voices and styles is really quite diverse, though of course that will always make at least one or two not fit the taste of every reader. Taste is an issue with all book reviews, but it can make it especially problematic for anthologies. Does the inclusion of one or two “bad” stories hurt the rest of the collection? And are they “bad” because they don’t somehow “fit” with the rest of the anthology? Or is it simply a matter of taste? For example, the apathy and dispassion in Hitomi Kanehara’s “Delilah” doesn’t work for me at all, nor does the rambling, disjointed construction of Jungo Aoki’s “As Told By a Nocturnal Witness.” But the anthology promises “the best” right in its subtitle. Are these just poor examples of these authors’ work, or are they just examples that were destined to move others but not me? It’s hard to say. And does Haruki Murakami really need to be included, when he was not only included in both Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices twenty years ago, when he still was relatively unknown, and is now the bestselling Japanese author of late? I know the subtitle promises “the best,” and not just “new.” He’s perfectly worthy of inclusion. But even the other authors in this collection who have been translated before are at least presented here with newly translated work. It just seems to me that “Super Frog Saves Tokyo,” while a wonderful story, just doesn’t really need to be here.
But I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives, like I feel I already have, because some of the stories here are simply revelatory. Tomoyuki Hoshino’s “The No Fathers Club,” in my opinion, is the breakout short story here. It’s just a perfectly crafted piece of short fiction, about a teenager who begins to imagine a father who becomes more real to him than his actual, absent father, and he starts to encourage others to do the same.
Other highlights include Ira Ishida’s “Ikebukuro West Gate Park,” the short story that spawned the critically acclaimed TV show of the same name. It’s a raw depiction of urban teenage life and crime that slips slightly towards melodrama towards the end but is still engrossing throughout. “The Diary of a Mummy” by Masahiko Shimada (another author included in both Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices who is so important to contemporary Japanese literature but has yet to take off in America) chronicles the thoughts of a seemingly normal man who is slowly and deliberately starving himself to death. And “The Floating Forest” is a delicately devastating story about family and literature from Natsuo Kirino, the queen of contemporary psychological thrillers. Who knew?
It’s also wonderful to have an example of Toshiyuki Horie’s writing, since he has never before been translated, and seems poised to play an important role in Japanese literature, especially since he has recently become one of the judges of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. It is similarly terrific to have more new work by important woman writers Yoko Tawada and Yoko Ogawa, who both use a dream-like logic to create beauty and dread in equal measure.
For those highlights alone I consider Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs a must read for anyone interested in Japanese literature. It’s a great sampling of un-translated and under-translated writers, and I hope it brings more attention to them and their work. Hopefully we will get to see more from them in the future. - www.junbungaku.com
In 1991 the gods of publishing granted fiction lovers a boon: two anthologies of newly translated contemporary Japanese fiction—Alfred Birnbaum’s Monkey Brain Sushi and Helen Mitsios’s New Japanese Voices. Now Mitsios returns with a second collection: cause for celebration, immediate ordering, immersion in these thirteen worlds of Story, and then . . . unease.
Upon reading these stories, two things struck me. First, their exceptional level of craft. As short fiction, they are as well wrought as any I’ve read in years. Second, their despair. In Noboru Tsujihara’s “My Slightly Crooked Brooch,” we experience the repressed despair of Mizue, whose husband, Ryō, casually informs her of a yearlong affair with a college student he now wants to live with during her last month in Tokyo. In Masahiko Shimada’s “The Diary of a Mummy,” we feel the dejection in its day-by-day account of an anonymous man who seeks to “reverse the insignificance of [his] life” by starving himself to death.
This despair seems born of anonymity and aimlessness. Each of the young men and women who, in Tomoyuki Hoshino’s story, form “The No Fathers Club” (“We admitted only those whose fathers truly didn’t exist in this world . . .”) is not merely filling a family void: they’re trying to create a self. Devoid of passion, raised “in aimless plenty,” their days “[overflowing] with leisure,” they can connect only through shared artifice: “The idea was to pretend we really had fathers every second of every day, leaving no room for sharing feelings.”
Even the gangs of unemployed youth in Ira Ishida’s “Ikebukuro West Gate Park” spend most of their time on a bench, “[j]ust sitting there idly, waiting for something to happen. There’s nothing for us to do today, and no plans for tomorrow either.” It takes the depredations of a serial killer to give them a purpose, however transient, a shared effort that ends in tragedy.
This pervasive tonality differs strikingly from that of the 1991 anthologies. But then, the authors in those collections wrote mainly during Japan’s boom times; the writers in Digital Geishas saw the energy and growth of that period end in collapse. During the ensuing “lost decade” of the 1990s, Japan’s long quest for national identity turned inward, personal. Cultural and socioeconomic forces fragmented families and widened generational gaps into chasms. Japanese youth, especially, responded either by rejecting the search for self altogether and becoming hikikomori (withdrawn youth) of Michael Zielenziger’s Shutting Out the Sun (2006) or by seeking identity in one of the consumer or religious mono-subcultures of Karl Taro Greenfeld’s Speed Tribes (1994).
And so the depressive young woman in Hitomi Kanehara’s “Delilah” can find momentary surcease only in anonymous sex. The protagonist in Yoko Tawada’s “To Khabarovsky” suffers a nightmare of identity mutilation and bodily metamorphosis. The collection officer in Haruki Murakami’s “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” who returns home one day to find a six-foot-tall talking frog awaiting him, is chosen to help save Tokyo from an impending earthquake precisely because he is a total nonentity: “I’m . . . [l]ess than ordinary. . . . I don’t have a single person who likes me, either at work or in my private life. . . . I don’t know why I’m even living.”
In these and other personalized glimpses of a society in distress, Digital Geishas vivifies the anguish of a culture of the East that seems to eerily anticipate the future of the West. - Michael A. Morrison
There are some pretty wild support groups out there. Acne support groups, jealousy support groups, lactose intolerance and tooth grinding. (And yes, these really do exist. I looked them up.) But wait, it gets better. What if you made a support group, more of a club really, for kids who have lost their fathers? That sounds pretty normal.
Except in this club members talk about their fathers as if they are still here, less as figments of revived memories and more a society of paternal imaginary friends. Yeah, this was a new one for me too.
Helen Mitsios introduces Tomoyuki Hoshino in her second anthology of Japanese literature Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, a renewed and reworked edition of her New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan of twenty years ago. Mitsios’s collection, like the others in the Asian Anthology series, was recently published by Cheng and Tsui Company and is just now bringing new literature into English translation.
Hoshino’s story “The No Fathers Club” centers around a small group of people who are, in the absence of purpose and two-parent homes, looking for a connection. “We shared the problems and conflicts we had with our faux fathers and discussed together strategies for dealing with them. I told everyone how my father was perhaps too understanding, and that while it was nice that he let me do as I liked, I sometimes wondered if he really just didn’t care.”
While the whining and personal issues seem like things that ought to be listed as non-problems, the “fathers” in the club assume places in their world that are surprisingly real, even daring to leave a bruise and a split lip on one member for talk of not going to college. The club eventually shrinks to the narrator, Joe, and his friend Kurumi who he begins dating, but their time together is haunted (so to speak) by their paternal alter egos. Truly it is all they have in common. In the end, Hoshino explores how some relationships only last as long as the illusions do.
Aside from the support groups, Digital Geishas takes other interesting turns and shouldn’t be turned aside for some of its more unconventional content (as if that wasn’t reason to read it enough). Would you give your spouse permission to have month long affair? If you did, would you really mean it? Noboru Tsujihara brings to the table “My Slightly Crooked Brooch,” a story that plays on elements that are part fairytale and part urban legend. Ryō, a married man, has fallen in love. The proposal was all so very reasonable.
“She was a college student, he told her, just getting ready to graduate. Once she was finished with school, her parents had arranged for her to return to Matsuyama on the island Shikoku, where she was to get married. They’d already screened the groom and gone through with the engagement ceremony last fall. She and Ryō had decided a clean break would be best. But until then she wanted to live together during her final month of freedom, so he had agreed. It’s what they both wanted, he said.”
After some compromise, Ryō’s wife Mizue agrees. “He would be gone for a month. Not a day, hour, even a minute more. That was his promise.”
Over the course of the month Maiko and Ryō make the most of it, carefully avoiding the countdown to their final days; a husband with a different wife. Meanwhile, Mizue makes a change in her own behavior. A new apartment, a cell phone, an occupation of sorts. A jealous wife or something more?
Mitsios’s anthology takes the best of Japanese contemporary issues and writers today and brings them to English readers. Be it children of novelists or yes, talking frogs, Digital Geishas is good fodder for the reading inclined. Like the Cheng and Tsui’s other Asian works, the collection does not disappoint. - Julianna Romanazzi
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert on Japanese literature. While I’ve read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and a fair amount of traditional Japanese literature and folklore, I have yet to immerse myself in the wonderful world of contemporary Japanese literature.
Instead of jumping right in and gorging on as many modern Japanese novels as I could find, I decided to ease into things by reading Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan, a collection of short stories by some of Japan’s most respected authors.
I can honestly say that my mind has been blown.
The stories are whimsical. Uniquely written. In many cases, downright disturbing. The stories stick with you, gnawing at your psyche as you try to figure out their meaning, the hidden symbolism. You begin to dance circles around your own thoughts, wondering if the characters of these stories have somehow invaded your brain.
Because if there is any common thread between the stories in this collection, it is the fact that many of the protagonists and supporting characters struggle against themselves and battle against what can only be described as mental imbalances. Some of the stories leave you wondering if what you read was the true account of events, or something created in the mind of the character.
Wait… weren’t you a kitten a second ago?
Even the stories where the protagonists are decidedly ‘normal’ you get this feeling that something more is lurking beneath the surface. A subtle tension that stretches across the page.
And the style.
I don’t know if it’s unique to this particular set of authors, or if it is simply a stylistic difference between Western and Japanese literature, but I found the style of these stories to be mesmerizing. Everything was fluid, as if the details were moving past me like a river. Even when the prose was purposefully choppy, it still had an undeniably poetic feel to it. I got swept away, completely immersed and caught up in the world of whichever story I was reading.
But, as much as I liked these stories, I would not recommend them for everyone. The subject matter may be disturbing for some, (as some of the stories deal with suicide by starvation, underage prostitution, and sexual abuse) and a great deal of the stories end abruptly, without a definite conclusion.
But if you have been toying with the idea of reading Japanese literature, or even a book of short stories this summer, I highly recommend that you take an earnest look at Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs. The stories are short enough where you can commit to reading just one a day, or devour them all in one sitting.