Sakyo Komatsu 1931-2011

Sakyo Komatsu, the science fiction author best known for Japan Sinks, has died aged 80. In lieu of an obituary, I give you the entry from the upcoming third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for which I substantially upgraded Takumi Shibano’s entry on Komatsu from the previous edition. You should be able to access the draft text here.

Japan Sinks

(This is my review of Sakyo Komatsu’s original SF novel, from Anime FX way back in 1995 when it was released in paperback suspiciously swiftly after the Kobe Earthquake. The latest movie remake, oddly retitled Sinking of Japan, is out this week in the UK from MVM).

Although the hardback version was first published a generation ago, Japan Sinks remains one of the few works of Japanese textual SF available in English. Now re-released this month by Kodansha, the book and translation make for intriguing reading. When first published it was ahead of its time; last year it might have been regarded as a little dated, but this year it has acquired new significance.

Sakyo Komatsu is, according to Brian Aldiss, one of the most-read SF authors in the world. He remains virtually unknown in the English market, but gained many readers worldwide when Japan Sinks was made into a film (known here as Tidal Wave). But Japan Sinks is not the most representative Komatsu story; like his compatriot Shinichi Hoshi, much of his real skill lies in the punchy twists of SF short-shorts. Many of his stories are also parables, making warnings of the if this goes on… variety. In The Quiet Corridor, for example, the narrator realises too late that his own sterility is not unique, and that the ‘quiet corridor’ of the maternity unit and the dying vegetation outside his window are but two indicators of imminent environmental collapse. More warnings are contained in At the End of the Endless Stream, which shows humanity fleeing a dying planet by travelling into the past. Komatsu’s novel Resurrection Day depicts the hellish results of a bacteriological weapon, which leaves only a small pocket of humanity left alive in the Antarctic. In each case we see the human reaction to a global problem, and this form of writing is repeated in Japan Sinks. The title should be enough of a hint. Scientists discover that the Japanese archipelago is just about to give way; the government tries to cover it up, but then all hell breaks loose as the inhabitants flee their drowning country. But what will happen to the global economy? Where will those millions of people go? If they leave Japan, will they still be Japanese?

Japan has always been a danger area, at risk from earthquakes, tsunami and volcanoes. Critics of anime violence who see an easy explanation in the influence of the Bomb, might already have discovered their mistake in the wake of the Kobe earthquake. Natural disasters have played an important role in the development of the Japanese psyche, and this book throws much light upon it. Komatsu’s Japanese are adaptable, brave people, whose characters have been shaped by their environment. Japan Sinks posits the ultimate disaster, and shows us how Komatsu thinks his countrymen would deal with it.

On occasion, his observations speak volumes about Japanese attitudes. In extreme situations, Komatsu’s characters revert to (stereo)type, as an insular, nationalistic and determined herd. By extrapolating ‘disaster’ to such extremes, Komatsu is able to amplify subtle influences to such an extent that many stereotypical views of Japan become much more understandable. However, post-Kobe, some of Komatsu’s scenes are tragic in their inaccuracy. How could he have guessed that when the next big earthquake came in 1995, the rescue operation would be anything less than efficient? Komatsu expects a stiff-upper-lip heroism from his nation, and in one scene describes the arrival of humanitarian aid. It is not unlike the post-Kobe operation, although Komatsu’s characters do not charge money for drinking water. Neither would they have bulldozed ruins scant days later, even though survivors were being pulled from the Mexico City site three weeks after zero-hour. While Komatsu makes many interesting points about ‘the Japanese’, he also makes many assumptions that have proved to be too optimistic.

This may be a symptom of the book’s age. It was written in 1973 and translated in 1977, two factors which have considerably influenced the style of the English version. The 70s edition was abridged from the original by an experienced literary translator, Michael Gallagher. Gallagher is better known for his ‘mainstream’ works, and his versions of Mishima’s Spring Snow and Runaway Horses are excellent. He did a pretty good job on Japan Sinks, too, but there are features of his text that both date the work and demonstrate areas where a background in ‘high’ culture can work to a translator’s detriment. ‘Software’ for example, is spelled ‘softwear’; a reasonable mistake in the computer-illiterate 70s, but not one that would escape the attentions of a contemporary editor. Similarly, there are a few places where Gallagher’s translation seems to be pitched at the wrong market. There are words and references which would require no explanation to an audience of Japanese-language students, but which a mass-market readership would find confusing. In one scene, characters make ironic reference to the sinking of the Tei-en. Although readers would be aware that it is a line from an old war song (it says as much in the text), few would know that the Tei-en, or, to give it its real name, the Dingyuan, was a Chinese flagship in the Sino-Japanese war, or that the lines of the song are the last words of a dying sailor, asking if his comrades have succeeded where he has failed. The pathos of the scene is thus lost on much of the readership. (Although if you really want to know about the Dingyuan, its story is told in my biography of Admiral Togo – JC, 2010).

If Japan Sinks were a modern translation, things might have been very different. It is possible that Gallagher might not have been hired at all; not because he is bad (he isn’t), but because there is now a significant number of skilled translators who specialise in popular texts, just as Gallagher specialises in literary works. One wonders what ALfred Birnbaum, Dana Lewis or Frederik L. Schodt would have made of the same material; they too would have cut it drastically, but they might have also written for an SF audience. Readers used to ‘real’ SF might find Japan Sinks a little turgid in places, while readers of ‘literature’ might find the characterisation too sketchy. Using a literary translator on a popular work is a little like using a spanner to drive in a nail. It might work well enough, but a hammer would have done a better job.

(Ah the naivety of youth. There was me in 1995 assuming that popular translation would bring its own rewards, and cause people to specialise in it. In your dreams, today, in your dreams would you get people of the calibre of Michael Gallagher translating modern Japanese science fiction novels. But I have ranted about this before – JC, 2010)