Genocidal Organ

Genocidal OrganAuthor: Project Itoh
Translator: Edwin Hawkes
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421542720
Released: August 2012
Original release: 2007

Although Genocidal Organ was the third novel by Project Itoh to be translated and released in English, in Japan the book was actually his debut work as an author. My introduction to Itoh’s fiction was through the award-winning Harmony, his first novel to be translated into English, which I greatly enjoyed and found to be an intelligent, thought-provoking work of science fiction. I was also greatly impressed by his two short stories: “The Indifference Engine,” collected in The Future is Japanese, and “From Nothing, With Love,” found in Phantasm Japan. Thus, reading Genocidal Organ, released by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint in 2012 with a translation by Edwin Hawkes, was an obvious choice for me. The publication of Genocidal Organ in Japan in 2007 established Itoh as a talented author to watch out for. Sadly, he died two years later at the age of thirty-four from cancer. But Itoh and his work haven’t been forgotten. In 2014 it was announced that three of his novels, including Genocidal Organ, were to be adapted as feature-length animated films.

Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, American citizens have more or less willingly given up their privacy and freedoms in order to feel safer from perceived terrorist threats. Much of the world has followed suit and there are very few places left where a person isn’t closely monitored and recorded, the immense amounts of data and metadata collected being saved indefinitely, waiting to be complied at a moments notice. In order to maintain this life of extreme hyper-surveillance there are people who must deal in death. Clavis Shepherd is one such man, an assassin who is a part of the Special Operations of the United States Military. He has killed countless people in service of his country—men, women, even children—but his recent missions have all had one target in common, an American linguist by the name of John Paul. Time and again the man seems to manage to slip away just before Shepherd’s unit arrives, leaving behind one developing country after another devastated by civil war and genocide.

Genocidal Organ is a novel that is absolutely saturated with death. It’s something that Clavis cannot escape in either his personal or professional life, whether he’s asleep or awake. Killing other people is his job and aided by modern science and medicine he is largely able to accept that, but his work is still tremendously damaging psychologically. But it’s not until Clavis had to make the decision whether or not to remove his mother from life support after she was in an accident that mortality really became personal to him. From there, his mental stability begins to steadily unravel as he is haunted by all of the death that he has seen and the death for which he has been responsible. Genocidal Organ can be horrific and tragic, gruesome and visceral. Clavis has been both a participant in and a witness to some truly terrible things—war and genocide that lay waste to entire countries and populations and all that accompanies that devastation. And, as an assassin for the government, he knows that he’s not an innocent bystander in how events unfold.

First and foremost, Genocidal Organ is Shepherd’s own personal narrative as he struggles to come to terms with his role as an assassin, but his story is couched in a much larger one dealing with global policy and international politics. Itoh has successfully incorporated many different genre styles in order to create a compelling and cohesive novel. In addition to all of the action and espionage, there are also the mysteries surrounding Paul as the “King of Genocide,” and an exceptionally strong philosophical and intellectual bent to the story as Genocidal Organ examines the worth of life and cost of freedom. Itoh presents an incredibly insightful perspective of the Untied States as a world power. Although it is perhaps more critical and frank than most American authors would likely attempt, the perspective is one that still feels surprisingly authentic. (It’s also very clear that Itoh was particularly well-versed in Western literature and popular culture.) Ultimately, though at times heavy-handed, Genocidal Organ is a fascinating and engaging novel of the near future; I remain convinced that Itoh was an author of exceptional talent.

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 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.


Author: Project Itoh
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
U.S. Publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421536439
Released: July 2010
Original release: 2008
Awards: Nihon SF Taisho Award, Seiun Award, Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation

Harmony, by Project Itoh, was originally published in Japan in 2008, winning both the 2009 Nihon SF Taisho Award and the 2009 Seiun Award. Although I was previously unfamiliar with Itoh’s work, I was very excited when the novel was picked up by Viz Media’s Haikasoru imprint and released in 2010 with a translation by Alexander O. Smith. Happily, Harmony has been very well received in English and was recently nominated for the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award. As far as I know, this is the first book in translation and the first Japanese novel to ever be nominated for this award. (The nomination is also particularly meaningful to Haikasoru as the imprint takes its name from Philip K. Dicks award-winning novel The Man in the High Castle.) Harmony is currently the only work by Itoh available in English although a fairly reliable rumor has it that Haikasoru has more Itoh plans in the works. I really hope that is true.

After an unprecedented, worldwide mass suicide, admedistrations across the globe are thrown into turmoil. In a society that views the human  body as a vital resource and a public good to be protected at all costs, suicide is an unthinkable crime. The Helix Inspection Agency, a part of the World Health Organization, is charged with the investigation into the incident. For Tuan Kirie, a Helix member playing an important role in the investigation, the event is very personal. She herself once attempted suicide in defiance of the admedistrative system of which she is now an integral part. She watched as one of her friends took her own life during the mass suicides. Her father was one of the original developers of the WatchMe nano- and biotechnologies that allow the admedistrations to function, but which may have also laid the groundwork that would make such a wide-spread tragedy possible.

The most unusual element of Itoh’s writing in Harmony is his use of EML, or Emotional-in-Text Markup Language (which looks very similar to other markup languages such as XML or HTML.) Even if a reader isn’t familiar with markup languages, it is soon obvious what is going on and the EML shouldn’t provide too much of a challenge. Some people might see it as a clever gimmick, but I found the use of EML to be quite effective and integral to the story. It emphasizes many aspects of admedistrative society in both subtle and direct ways: The EML is a constant reminder of the biotechnological advances that have been made; the perpetual recording and surveillance of individuals’ lives, health, and minds is made obvious; emotional states and human desire are shown to have been reduced to data points for clinical observation; the barrier between one person’s experiences and another’s is broken down. I believe EML is critical to Harmony and I doubt anyone will be able to convince me otherwise.

As with any fiction successfully exploring utopia and dystopia, Harmony is extremely thought-provoking in addition to being engaging. It is easy to see the obsessions and neuroses of today’s societies, particularly those regarding health, reflected and taken to the extreme in Harmony’s world. Occasionally, Itoh can be a bit heavy handed, but overall his world-building has taken a logical if not entirely realistic path. Even a near perfect world can’t make everyone happy and the methods used to get there can be terrible no matter how they are justified. The epilogue doesn’t mesh as nicely with the rest of the novel, but it does provide important information, clarifying specific plot elements while still leaving some ambiguity to the story. I enjoyed Harmony immensely—it’s smart, thought-provoking, and has stuck with me for quite some time after finishing it. I really hope to get a chance to read more of Itoh’s work in English.