Friday, January 18, 2013

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

As an English major in college professors loved to throw anthologies in my direction, surveys of the literary establishment.  Really, they're no different from short story collections.  Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is a little of both, as its subtitle The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan suggests.

It's less about the short stories and more about celebrating the current crop of literary talent from Japan.  As such, the most obvious contemporary name, Haruki Murakami, appears.  The rest are present simply as a matter of exposure.  Each has a biography that appears before their story.  Some of the authors appear in English translation for the first time, or are so obscure to English language readers that this is an introduction.  So it's not really about the short stories themselves so much as presenting Japanese writers and current trends to a new group of readers.

Of course, you can absolutely read the collection for the stories themselves.  There are some pretty amusing entries, certainly led by Murakami's "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," featuring a giant frog introducing himself to a pretty anonymous individual and declaring that an earthquake is going to happen and that he can stop it with a little help.  There are other surreal stories, such as "To Khabarovsk" from Yoko Tawada, about a train trip interrupted by a dream, and "The No Fathers Club" from Tomoyuki Hoshino, about a group of students and then just a potential romantic coupling who imagine their dead fathers back to life.  There are several efforts that reminiscent of any short story effort you might come across, and don't necessarily have to be considered particularly Japanese at all.  The best of these is "The Diary of a Mummy" from Masahiko Shimada, which details a man's journey in starving himself to death.  

The highlight and main reason for anyone to read this, other than to sample Murakami, is undoubtedly "Ikebukuro West Gate Park" from Ira Ishida.  Apparently it's a whole thing in Japan, having inspired a TV series and manga.  It's the latest in my continuing exploration of the international crime genre, made most famous recently by Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo et al), which I will be reading at some point.  My favorite is Roberto Bolano's 2666, which uses and transcends the genre (and every other one).  Considering how immediately I identified "Ikebukuro" as part of this trend, I find it a little surprising that Digital Geishas is the only source of an English translation to date.  

It's the longest story in the collection at about 40 pages, not so long that it could be printed as its own book (probably) but easily long enough to sell the whole collection on.  Seriously, you need to get your hands on Digital Geishas just so you can relish "Ikebukuro West Gate Park" for yourself.  It's about a bunch of students who find themselves embroiled in a murder investigation.  It's not just about the investigation, but how a group of friends comes together and their connections in the wider community, in some ways exactly like the Millennium Trilogy as it demonstrates how the specific details of where they live and how they live lead to the story that defines their young lives.  

If nothing else, it would make a fantastic movie, much as Infernal Affairs helped give us The Departed.  In any collection there should always be a standout.  This one stands out brilliantly.  Mission accomplished, Digital Geishas

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