Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark from and about Japan

Phantasm JapanEditor: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington
Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421571744
Released: September 2014

Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark from and about Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, is the second anthology of short fiction curated specifically for Haikasoru, the speculative fiction imprint of Viz Media. Phantasm Japan, published in 2014, is a followup of sorts to the 2012 anthology The Future is Japanese. A third anthology in the loosely-related series, Hanzai Japan, is currently being complied. I rather enjoyed The Future Is Japanese and so was looking forward to the release of Phantasm Japan. The anthology collects twenty-one pieces of short fiction, including an illustrated novella, from seventeen creators in addition to the two introductory essays written by the editors. Most of the stories are original to the collection, although a few of the translated works were previously published in Japan. Much like The Future Is Japanese, Phantasm Japan promised to be an intriguing collection.

With a title like Phantasm Japan I had anticipated an anthology inspired by yokai and Japanese folklore. And while the volume does include such tales—Zachary Mason’s “Five Tales of Japan” (tengu and various deities), James A. Moore’s “He Dreads the Cold” (yuki-onna), Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Ningyo” (mermaids and other mythological beings)—it incorporates a much broader variety of stories as well. The fiction found in Phantasm Japan is generally fairly serious in nature and tone and all of the stories tend to have at least a touch of horror to them, but they range from historical fiction to science fiction and from tales of fantasy to tales more firmly based in reality. Pasts, presents, and futures are all explored in Phantasm Japan. The authors of Phantasm Japan are as diverse as their stories. Some make their homes in Japan while some hail from the Americas, Europe, or other parts of Asia. Many are established, award-winning writers while others are newer voices. In fact, Lauren Naturale’s “Her Last Appearance,” inspired in part by the life of kabuki actor Kairakutei Black, marks her debut as a published author of fiction. I also personally appreciated the inclusion of both queer authors and queer characters in the anthology.

Sisyphean Other than being a collection of fantastical stories, there isn’t really an overarching theme to Phantasm Japan. However, some of the works do explore similar concepts, but use wildly different approaches and settings. In addition to the stories influenced by traditional lore, like “Inari Updates the Map of Rice Fields” by Alex Dally MacFarlane, there are those that reflect more contemporary concerns like Tim Pratt’s “Those Who Hunt Monsters” which mixes online dating, fetishism, and yokai. Ghost of various types make appearances throughout Phantasm Japan, from the supernatural haunting of Seia Tanabe’s “The Parrot Stone” to the biohazard-induced hallucinations of Sayuri Ueda’s “The Street of Fruiting Bodies.” Joseph Tomaras’ “Thirty-Eight Observations of the Self” is in part reminiscent of stories about living ghosts. Possessions are seen multiple times in the volume as well. In “Scissors or Claws, and Holes” by Yusaku Kitano, creatures are intentionally invited into a person’s body in order to exchange memories for visions of the future while in Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Kamigakari a consciousness is shared by a man and something that isn’t human as a result of an accident.

One of the recurring themes that I found particularly appealing in Phantasm Japan was the power of memories and stories to shape, create, define, and redefine reality. In Gary A. Braunbeck’s “Shikata Ga Nai: The Bag Lady’s Tale,” a tailor from a Japanese-American internment camp is responsible for passing on centuries worth of history. In “The Last Packet of Tea” by Quentin S. Crisp, an author struggles to write one last story. Project Itoh’s “From Nothing, With Love” (which re-convinced me that I need to read everything that he has written) is about a very specific cultural touchstone and the life that it has taken on. As with any short story collection, some of the stories are stronger than others and different stories will be enjoyed by different readers. Some contributions to Phantasm Japan are readily accessible to just about anyone, such as Nadia Bulkin’s “Girl, I Love You” and Miyuki Miyabe’s “Chiyoko,” but then there are more challenging works like Dempow Torishima’s exceptionally bizarre and grotesque novella Sisyphean. As for me, I enjoyed Phantasm Japan as an anthology. I liked the range and variety in the stories collected, and my reading list has certainly grown significantly because of it.

The Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic by Koushun Takami

The Battle Royale Slam BookEditor: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington
Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421565996
Released: April 2014

Battle Royale has recently seen something of a revival in North America in recent years. Koushun Takami’s controversial novel was originally published in Japan in 1999. Both the novel and its manga adaptation illustrated by Masayuki Taguchi first appeared in English in 2003. The novel was released again with a slightly revised translation and additional supplementary material in 2009 by Viz Media’s speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru. (This tenth anniversary release was my introduction to Battle Royale.) However, it wasn’t until 2012 that the film version of Battle Royale and its sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem received an official release in the United States. And now, in 2014, we’re seeing the releases of a new English translation of Takami’s novel by Haikasoru, the recent Battle Royale: Angels’ Border manga illustrated by Mioko Ohnishi and Youhei Oguma, and The Battle Royale Slam Book: Essays on the Cult Classic by Koushun Takami, which is also notable for being Haikasoru’s first foray into nonfiction. Takami’s original novel left a huge impression on me, so I was very excited to read all of these new Battle Royale releases.

The Battle Royale Slam Book, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, collects sixteen essays (seventeen including the introduction by Mamatas) which examine various aspects of the entire Battle Royale franchise. The core of that franchise is of course Takami’s original novel, but The Battle Royale Slam Book also explores many of its manga and film adaptations as well. The contributors to the volume include award-winning writers, academics, fans, and many others from around the world—the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and even Japan itself are particularly well-represented. I was specifically excited to see an essay by Toh EnJoe included in the volume, but the rest of the lineup is great, too: Nadia Bulkin, Carrie Cuinn, Raechel Dumas, Isamu Fukui, Sam Hamm, Masao Higashi, Brian Keen, Gregory Lamberson, Kathleen Miller, Konstantine Paradias, Jason S. Ridler, Adam Roberts, John Skipp, Steven R. Stewart, and Douglas F. Warrick. All of their essays were written specifically for inclusion in The Battle Royale Slam Book.

The Battle Royale Slam Book includes several types of essays ranging from academic ruminations to literary and film criticisms to the authors’ more personal experiences with Battle Royale in all of its iterations. The topics of the individual contributions are also varied, though some recurring themes do emerge. Many of the essays focus on some of Battle Royale‘s most controversial aspects, such as extreme violence and the deaths of school-aged youth, gender portrayals and sexism, and so on. Other essays position Battle Royale within a greater context, exploring its place within and relationship to not only Japanese popular culture but Western popular culture as well. School literature, professional wrestling, teen films, and other similar subjects are all addressed. The volume also examines the historical context of Battle Royale and its themes. The Battle Royale Slam Book shows how the Battle Royale phenomena has been influenced by, uses, and challenges literary and genre conventions in addition to showing its impact and continuing influence on individual people.

Several assumptions are made with The Battle Royale Slam Book, primarily that the readers are adults already familiar with Battle Royale, have a basic understanding of the novel’s premise, or have been exposed to at least one of its adaptations. It’s also helpful but not absolutely necessary to have some grounding in literature and film, and especially with speculative fiction and horror. The Battle Royale Slam Book will probably appeal most to those who are already interested in or who have already experienced Battle Royale in some form. Though the contributors don’t hesitate to point out the flaws and challenges presented by the Battle Royale novel, manga, and films, it is very clear that they are all either fans or are fascinated by the material and the responses to it. There is criticism to be found, but in general the volume tends to take a positive approach. The Battle Royale Slam Book was written for people like me who want to learn more about Battle Royale, its influences, and impacts. I found The Battle Royale Slam Book to be utterly fascinating and would highly recommend the volume to similarly minded individuals.

The Future Is Japanese: Science Fiction Futures and Brand New Fantasies from and about Japan

Editor: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington
Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421542232
Released: May 2012

I have been impatiently waiting for The Future Is Japanese: Science Fiction Futures and Brand New Fantasies from and about Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, ever since the anthology was first announced. I already adore Viz Media’s Japanese speculative fiction imprint Haikasoru and will buy and read anything it publishes. However, I was particularly excited about The Future Is Japanese because it is Haikasoru’s first original publication. (I also hope that it isn’t the last.) I was thrilled when the book was finally released in 2012. The anthology collects thirteen stories from creators both East and West (primarily Japanese and American). All but two of the stories were being published for the first time. Just looking at the table of contents I was very pleased with what I saw. Most of the contributors to The Future Is Japanese are already award-winners in their own rights; those whose works with which I wasn’t already familiar I at least recognized by name. As an added bonus, the book’s cover illustration is by Yuko Shimizu, one of my favorite artists. The Future Is Japanese had a lot going for it from the very start.

After a foreword by Masumi Washington and an introduction by Nick Mamatas, The Future Is Japanese begins strongly with Ken Liu’s short story “Mono no Aware,” a meditation on impermanence wrapped in a science fiction tale of humanity’s survival at the edge of space. The next two stories were probably my least favorite in the collection although there were moments in each that I enjoyed tremendously. “The Sound of Breaking Up” by Felicity Savage starts as one story and ends up being an entirely different one. This frustrated me because I was more interested in the first. David Mole’s mecha tale “Chitai Heiki Koronbīn” ends too abruptly for my taste and seemed like it should be the introduction to a longer work. (Granted, one that I would like to read.) These are followed by “The Indifference Engine” by Project Itoh which explores war, hatred, and prejudice. Originally published in 2007, the story confirmed the fact that I want to read everything written by Itoh. The next story was one of my personal favorites in the anthology, “The Sea of Trees” by Rachel Swirsky, a haunting tale about death, ghosts, and letting go. Toh EnJoe’s story “Endoastronomy,” which follows next, has a philosophical and intellectual bent to it, something I enjoy about and have come to expect from his work.

The next selection, “In Plain Sight” by Pat Cadigan deals with the complications caused by artificial and augmented realities. The Future Is Japanese continues with “Golden Bread” by Issui Ogawa. I happen to be fond of Ogawa’s longer works and was not disappointed with his short story. Next is Catherynne M. Valente’s contribution, “One Breath, One Stroke” which is about yokai that live close to the human world. Written in a delightful but fragmented style, the work creates more of a mood rather than a cohesive story. Ekaterina Sedia’s near future and slightly melancholic tale “Whale Meat” follows. Next in the anthology is a selection from the extremely prolific Hideyuki Kikuchi. I actually preferred “Mountain People, Ocean People” over many of the other works of his that I have read. Following next is “Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling, one of the longer stories in the collection it is about the pirates and darkness that settle on Tsushima island after Japan is destroyed. The Future Is Japanese concludes with “Autogenic Dreaming: Interview with the Columns of Clouds” by TOBI Hirotaka. Originally published in 2009, the story won a Seiun Award in 2010. A complex story featuring a digitization project that has unexpected consequences, “Autogenic Dreaming” particularly appealed to my information science background.

As with most short story collections, how much a reader will enjoy each individual work in The Future Is Japanese will depend on personal preferences. Although I wasn’t blown away by the anthology, personally I found The Future Is Japanese to be a very satisfying read. The short story can be a difficult form to master, but even the works that I found problematic had their strong points. The stories do all tend to be serious in tone, but the collection covers a nice range of speculative fiction from fantasy to science fiction to horror. The Future Is Japanese also has a good balance between Western and Japanese authors. Appropriately enough for the anthology’s theme, even the Western works show Japanese influence, whether stemming from the writers’ personal interests or from the creators having lived in or visited Japan. Overall, The Future Is Japanese is a solid anthology that was well worth the wait.