Japan is a giant of the video games industry and in recent years, Japanese anime and manga have risen in popularity across the world. Yet Japanese science fiction novels remain largely unknown outside of Japan.
In 2007 Japan hosted Asia's first Worldcon. One of the convention's aims was to increase awareness of Japanese science fiction and the dealer's room included a display in English about Japanese SF legend Sakyo Komatsu. However, there was a noticeable divide in terms of attendance of Japanese and foreign fans at programming events. Language proved a difficult barrier to overcome and most Japanese SF program events featured only minimal translation, making it difficult to gain an insight into contemporary Japanese SF.
Yoshio Kobayashi is a leading translator of foreign SF into Japanese. When asked what the impact of the Worldcon on Japanese SF was, he answered, "Actually not much. There were many programs about American SF in English and many about Japanese SF in Japanese and they didn't cross over. We couldn't produce a decent Japanese SF anthology in English except an old one. There weren't enough foreign fans and writers to cause a great impact." (1)
Common Themes in Japanese SF
William Gibson once described Japan as "the most inherently futuristic of all nations" (2) and speculated the reason for this was the massive societal changes Japan underwent in the nineteenth century to catch up to the technology of the Western powers. From this time on Japan was effectively living in the future and eventually became a world leader in technological research.
Tokyo's gigantic urban sprawl looks like a city from the future. Japan's neon-drenched cityscapes have influenced the look of science fiction, most famously in Blade Runner.
Japan also manages to be one of the world's most traditional societies. Customs and festivals going back hundreds of years are still observed and Japanese culture is still influenced by the Shinto worldview of nature as alive with spirits and gods. The clash between the modern world of technology and the animist world is a central theme in many Japanese stories.
One of the most pervasive themes in Japanese SF is the destructive power of technology. The most famous of all Japanese SF icons, Godzilla (Gojira) is in some ways a reaction to the nuclear bombing of Japan. Other films contain cautionary tales of technology's dehumanizing effect. A recent example is Steamboy, where the course of scientific research is perverted by the desire to create better weapons.
Post apocalyptic societies are also prevalent in Japanese SF, notably in films and series such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell (Koukaku Kidoutai) and Evangelion (Shin Seiki Evangerion). Roland Kelts' book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. charts the rise in popularity of anime and includes a discussion of how the atomic bombings influenced Japanese popular culture, along with the claim that Japan became the first post apocalyptic society. The book goes on to speculate that one of the reasons for the rise in popularity of anime and manga in America is that after 9/11 Americans were better able to relate to tales which dealt with "a sudden shift in a mass population from the known risks and vulnerabilities to the unknown, the abstract, the shadowy, and the faceless—
Another important factor that has shaped Japanese SF is Japan's sense of isolation. In 1633 the shogun made it illegal for Japanese to travel abroad and a few years later closed all foreign contact with Japan except for a few Chinese and Dutch traders. Japan remained cut off from the world until 1853 when Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan's ports to trade. Japan is now heavily influenced by American culture but still retains the sense of isolation that comes from being an island country and the only country that speaks its native language. This sense of vulnerability and isolation is most notably depicted in Japan Sinks (Nihon Chinbotsu), the novel (and subsequent TV series and films) showing the Japanese and world reaction when Japan's islands start sinking.
Japanese animated films and manga are sometimes criticized for their misogynistic violence and disturbing depictions of sex. A whole subgenre developed around films featuring tentacle sex—
Novels and Short Stories
Japanese SF novels and short stories have failed to have the same world impact as anime, video games and manga. The anthology, The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories was released in 1997 and another anthology, Speculative Japan was released at the 2007 Worldcon, but there are few other places to find English versions of Japanese SF short stories.
Japanese publisher Hayakawa has published many key Japanese novels, but few novels receive English translation. Hayakawa also publishes Hayakawa SF, Japan's leading SF magazine. The magazine features original stories as well as translations of foreign writers into Japanese.
The annual Seiun awards are the Japanese equivalent of the Hugos and are voted on by attendees of the Japanese national science fiction convention. They include awards for best novel and short story as well as other forms of media. Kobo Abe is regarded as one of Japan's first SF novelists. Much of his work was published in the 50s and 60s and his work ranged from Kafkaesque fantasy to genetic engineering to computer stories.
Sakyo Komatsu was one of the 2007 Worldcon's guests of honor and is one of the key figures in Japanese SF. In 2006, readers of Hayakawa SF voted Komatsu their all-time favorite Japanese science fiction writer. (4) Komatsu is best known for the 1973 blockbuster disaster novel, Japan Sinks (Nihon Chinbotsu).
Other notable writers include Ryu Mitsuse and Housuke Nojiri. Hayakawa SF's readers voted Ryu Mitsuse's novel Ten Billion Days and a Hundred Billion Nights (Hyakuoku no Hiru to Senoku no Yoru) the best Japanese SF novel of all time. Housuke Nojiri has won the Seiun Award for best novel twice in recent years. The Sun Usurper (Taiyou no Sandatsusha) is a first contact story and features the discovery of an alien building on Mercury.
Other Japanese genre authors who have had recent success include Hideyuki Kikuchi, the author of the Vampire Hunter D series and Wicked City, both of which have been made into films. Koji Suzuki is the author of the Ring (Ringu) novels, which inspired the horror movies of the same name. Another of his horror novels, Dark Water (Honogurai mizu no soko kara) was also adapted into a Hollywood movie.
Although not regarded as a science fiction writer, Haruki Murakami's novels often veer into the fantastic. Murakami is one of Japan's most respected writers and one of the few Japanese writers to be widely translated. His recent novel Kafka on the Shore (Umibe no Kafuka) won the 2006 World Fantasy Award. Other novels to include fantastical elements include The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Sekai no owari to Hadoboirudo Wandarando) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru). His books often feature characters who are outsiders in contemporary Japanese society and who come into contact with the magical power of nature.
Adult Japanese science fiction novels suffered a decline in the 1980s and so-called light novels—
Yoshio Kobayashi describes the current state of Japanese SF as "somewhat healthy, because many new authors are appearing. But book publishing in general is dying." (5)
One of the most notable trends in Japanese publishing has been the rise of the so-called "keitai shousetsu"—
Websites allow people to upload their novels for others to download and read on their cell phones. One of the most popular sites, Maho no-irando, has more than 1 million novels listed. (7) It's estimated that more than 20 million people downloaded copies of the debut novel "Love Sky." (8) The novel was subsequently published in book form and became the best-selling Japanese novel of 2007.
Cell phone Internet usage is much more popular than it is in other countries. A 2006 survey estimated that four in ten Japanese use cell phones to access the Internet. (9) Many Japanese face long commutes in crowded trains and cell phones have proved popular devices to use as e-book readers. A Technorati analysis of blogs found that the Japanese are the world's leading bloggers (there are more blog posts in Japanese than any other language) (10) Writing short personalized novels is seen as an extension of blogging. The novels are generally written in the first person and feature short, simple sentences that can easily be read on a small screen. The overwhelming majority of cell phone novels are written and read by young women. All of the best-selling cell phone novels have been romance or stories of personal struggle. Wired Magazine reported on a 2007 competition held by the Magic iLand website that was seen as the world's first award for a mobile phone novel. "While most of the 2,400 entries were romance novels written by women in their teens and early 20s, other popular genres included horror, sci-fi and fantasy. The Outstanding Achievement Award went to a man pushing 40 who told an apocalyptic tale of the last 24 hours on Earth." (11)
Comic books in Japan are known as manga. They are perhaps the dominant form of Japanese literature and there are comics aimed at all ages. It's estimated that about 45% of all books and magazines sold in Japan are manga. (12) Manga are the driving engine of Japanese SF. Most TV anime are adapted from popular manga and there are many reasons for its popularity in Japan. The difficulty of the Japanese writing system means that Japanese novels remain largely inaccessible to younger Japanese children, encouraging them to read manga and the range of manga available means that many Japanese continue reading comics in their later life. The rise in popularity coincided with the rebuilding of post-war Japan. Strict censorship was imposed in the wake of the Japanese defeat, yet manga and anime often escaped this censorship, because their characters weren't as "realistic". This meant Japanese manga and anime were able to tackle subjects that novels and live-action TV shows didn't, developing a market for adult readership.
The giant of Japanese manga is Osamu Tezuka. In Japan he is sometimes referred to as "the God of Comics". He is most famous as the creator of Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) and Kimba the White Lion (Jungle Taitei). Tezuka pioneered the distinctive large-eyed appearance of manga characters (influenced by Bambi and Betty Boop) and transformed the way manga were produced in Japan. Tezuka wrote, "I experimented with close-ups and different angles, and instead of using only one frame for an action scene or the climax, I made a point of depicting a movement or facial expression with many frames, even many pages… The result was a super-long comic that ran to 500, 600, even 1,000 pages. I also believed that comics were capable of more than just making people laugh. So in my themes I incorporated tears, grief, anger, and hate, and I created stories where the ending was not always happy." (13)
In 1947, when Tezuka was a 19-year-old medical student, he produced New Treasure Island based on Robert Louis Stevenson's novel. Even though conditions were harsh after the end of the war, the manga became an instant bestseller and sold more than 400,000 copies. (14) Tezuka's output was prolific and he was responsible for creating more than 700 manga series. The majority of Tezuka's work is not readily available in English. Translations of popular manga series have become increasingly common in the last few years. Manga translated for English markets sometimes have their storylines softened. For example one of the Sailor Moon (Bishoujo Senshi Seeraa Muun) manga where many of the sailor girls were killed was altered so that the sailor girls weren't killed, instead they were simply removed from the action.
In 2007 the Japanese Foreign Ministry set up the International Manga Award to recognize the work of non-Japanese cartoonists. Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, said he wanted to "make the award something like the Nobel Prize for manga" and he hoped manga would act as a Japanese "bridge to the world." (15)
Long known for the masterpieces of Akira Kurosawa and giant monster films, the Japanese live action film industry has been eclipsed by the success of animated films. Japan's genius of animated film is Hayao Miyazaki, the acclaimed storyteller behind a string of Japan's biggest box office hits, culminating in an Oscar win for Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi). His production company, Studio Ghibli, has consistently produced some of Japan's best films and Miyazaki is revered in Japan. A typical Miyazaki film features a young female protagonist who encounters a fantasy world.
Satoshi Kon is relatively unknown outside of Japan but has produced some of Japan's most acclaimed anime of recent years. Kon's films typically blur the boundary between reality and dreams and his work has been described as a collision between Philip K. Dick and Hello Kitty. His films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika) and TV series include sharp criticism of contemporary Japanese society and the culture of conformity. His most recent film, Paprika received a limited release in the US in 2007.
Two other directors who have come to international attention for their mature and thought-provoking SF films are Mamoru Oshii (the Ghost in the Shell films) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira and Steamboy). Akira is notable as the one of the first Japanese animated films to attract worldwide attention. A live-action US remake of Akira is currently in the works.
Japan's live-action fantasy films have centered on the success of the Godzilla (Gojira) movies and the seemingly endless series of sequels and remakes. Aside from giant monster movies, Japanese live-action fantasy films have struggled at the box office. There have been few hits to match the success of China and Hong Kong's flying swordsmen films. Various attempts have been made at feudal fantasy movies (such as Azumi), but the efforts have usually been less than remarkable.
Japan's recent live action successes have been in the horror genre. Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-on) feature creepy looking Japanese ghosts and were recently remade by Hollywood. The notorious Battle Royale also gained a lot of attention. It's a violent tale about a class of junior high school children forced to fight each other to the death.
Japanese live-action SF TV shows have been mainly limited to children's superhero shows. There are numerous TV shows featuring characters in colorful costumes that transform into giants or robots and battle giant monsters. The most famous of these shows include the long-running Ultraman, Kamen Rider and the Sentai series. Some footage from Dinosaur Squadron Beast Rangers (Kyouryuu Sentai Zyuranger) was adapted to form the basis of the American series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Animation remains the leading force in Japanese SF television. When Japanese TV studios started broadcasting, animation was seen as a natural successor to the popularity of manga. Due to a lack of foreign actors, Japanese TV shows were limited in their choice of settings. Animation allowed a wider range of settings and stories than live Japanese dramas could hope to portray.
As with manga, it was the work of Osamu Tezuka that led the way in animation. Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) was the first hit anime series and was the first Japanese animation to be shown on U.S. television. The series followed the adventures of an android that fights evil robots and struggles to be accepted as a part of society.
Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman was a popular Japanese TV series and is credited with introducing the Super Sentai (a team of transforming superheroes) concept in anime. When it was first broadcast in the U.S. it was renamed Battle of the Planets and was significantly altered. Some of the more violent scenes were cut and character deaths eliminated. To capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars, new scenes with a robot named 7-Zark-7 (that looked suspiciously like R2-D2) were added to fill out the time.
Speed Racer (Mach GoGoGo) was another anime series that was popular in the US in the 1960s. The Wachowski brothers recently made a Speed Racer live action film, but it received mixed reviews and did poorly at the box office.
Many of the more popular fantasy anime (such as Naruto, DragonBall and OnePiece) are aimed at children, but—
Although it is still difficult to obtain English versions of many anime (unless you rely on downloading fansubbed versions), this situation is slowly improving with more anime titles being released and screened outside of Japan. The increasing popularity of anime in the US was noted with the creation of the American Anime Awards in 2007.
Japan is home to the giants of the video games industry. Nintendo, Sony and Sega have all shaped the history of video gaming. Microsoft's Xbox and PC games have struggled to find a market in Japan and foreign games for Japanese consoles rarely do well in Japan. Game classics originating from Japan include icons such as Pacman, Mario and Sonic. The Pokemon craze (comic books, games, trading cards, toys and movies) originally started as a series of games for the Nintendo Gameboy. Fantasy role-playing games have been particularly popular in Japan. One of the longest running and most influential series is Final Fantasy, which includes over twenty games and several movies. In 2007 readers of Edge Magazine voted The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as the best game of all time. (17)
- Email interview with Yoshio Kobayashi. 31 March 2008. [back]
- Gibson, William. "The Future Perfect: How did Japan become the favored default setting for so many cyberpunk writers?" Time, Apr. 30, 2001, vol. 157, no. 17. [back]
- Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. [back]
- "Hayakawa's SF Magazine's All-Time Best SF." [back]
- Email interview with Yoshio Kobayashi. 31 March 2008.[back]
- Onishi, Norimitsu. "Thumbs Race as Japan's Best Sellers Go Cellular." New York Times, Jan. 20, 2008. [back]
- Ibid. [back]
- "Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader." The site has an English translation of Sky of Love's first chapter. [back]
- "Mobile Phones Could Soon Rival the PC As World's Dominant Internet Platform." [back]
- Sifry, Dave. "The State of the Live Web, April 2007." Apr. 5, 2007. [back]
- Katayama, Lisa. "Big Books Hit Japan's Tiny Phones." Wired Magazine, Jan. 2007. [back]
- "Japan's Madness for Manga." BBC News report, Sept. 18, 2003. [back]
- Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Kodansha International, 1983. [back]
- Thorn, Matt. "A History of Manga." [back]
- "Aso Announces 'Manga' Award for Foreign Artists." Japan Times, May 23, 2007. [back]
- "Japan's Favorite TV Anime." [back]
- "Zelda game named 'greatest ever.'" BBC News report, July 2, 2007. [back]
Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi)
Winner of the Academy Award for best animated film. A young girl is drawn into a strange fantasy world centered on a bathhouse catering to spirits and gods. A masterpiece of storytelling and the most successful animated film at Japan's box office.
One of the films that brought Japanese animation to the world's attention. Set in a Tokyo rebuilt after World War III, the film explores humanity's psychic awakening.
A new machine allows psychiatrists to enter the dreams of their patients. Someone steals one of the machines and a dream terrorist tries to take over the minds of their enemies.
Ghost in the Shell (Koukaku Kidoutai)
A team of cyborgs battle it out with cybercriminals and AIs. This stylish movie was followed by a sequel and a TV series.
A visually stunning movie that covers similar ground to Ghost in the Shell. Futuristic cyborgs and humans battle it out for control of Earth. Its sequel Appleseed: Ex Machina continues the story.
My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
Although primarily aimed at children, this charming film tells the story of two children's encounter with a forest spirit.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkuu no shiro Rapyuta)
Children get caught up in the conflict surrounding the search for a mysterious flying castle.
Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime)
Set in feudal Japan it details the clash between humans and nature. Mining and logging put the humans at war with the forest’s guardian spirits.
Kiki's Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyuubin)
The adventures of a young witch who sets out to explore the world.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika)
Humans struggle to survive in a polluted world overrun by giant insects.
Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
Based on Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. A young girl suffers from a curse that turns her into an old woman. She tries to enlist the help of a wizard who lives in a magical castle. The plot of the movie differs significantly from the book and is overlong, but it still won a Nebula award for best script.
Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Banpaia hanta D)
This standalone movie is the second Vampire Hunter D movie and the much better of the two. It follows the adventures of a half-vampire, half-human vampire hunter and features impressive animation and interesting characters.
Ninja Scroll (Juubei Ninpuuchou)
Ninjas and demons battle it out in feudal Japan.
Battle Royale (Batoru Rowaiaru)
This disturbing and violent movie is based on a controversial novel. Classes of high school students are abducted and taken to a remote island. They are given weapons and told that only of one them will be allowed to leave.
The film that launched the recent interest in Japanese horror. It involves a cursed videotape. Anyone who sees the video dies a week later. A number of sequels, as well as a Hollywood remake, were later released.
Recommended TV Series
Paranoia Agent (Mousou Dairinin)
A complex and baffling series that defies synopsis. From acclaimed director Satoshi Kon, Paranoia Agent is similar in theme to his movies and blurs the line between reality and dreams. At times humorous, at times scary, this series is one of the gems of recent television.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shin Seiki Evangerion)
Widely regarded as the masterpiece of Japanese TV anime. This complex series follows a team of teenagers who are chosen to pilot giant robots in the fight against a series of giant monsters terrorizing Japan.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu)
One of the most popular anime of recent years, the series veers between high school slapstick and complex metaphysical speculations. Filled with interesting ideas.
Cowboy Bebop (Kauboi Bibappu)
It’s hard to beat Cowboy Bebop for style. The hero of the series is a laconic bounty hunter who travels space looking for criminals.
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Koukaku Kidoutai Stand Alone Complex)
Set in the same world as the acclaimed films. It focuses on a team of agents dedicated to preventing cyber crime in a world of high technology.
Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) This fantasy series follows the adventures of two alchemist brothers. One of their experiments goes wrong and one of the brothers is transformed into a living suit of armor.
Apostolou, John L. and Martin Greenberg, eds. The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories. Barricade Books, 1997.
Clements, Jonathan and Helen McCarthy. The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917, Revised and Expanded Edition. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2006.
Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1996.
van Troyer, Gene and Grania Davis, eds. Speculative Japan: Outstanding Tales of Japanese Science Fiction and Fantasy. Kurodohan, 2007.