Interview with a Translator: Edogawa, The Genre

Kate: It appears that everyone is fascinated by aliens! Edogawa’s book is reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and, even more so, Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of Wells’ famous book. What about Roswell? Is Japanese fascination with aliens equivalent to that phenomenon? Or does Japanese fascination take its own particular path?
Eugene: Very much the equivalent, and no less pervasive in popular culture. On a sociological level, it’s not hard to read this fascination as a metaphorical or psychological representation of Japan’s historical encounters with the outside world, from the 16th century Jesuits and Portuguese traders to Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” in the 19th century to the Occupation following WWII in the 20th.

Aliens show up in droves in the sillier Godzilla sequels. In the 1970s, Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato defined the “combat” space opera, with evil aliens destroying the Earth Independence Day style, and another race of “good” aliens providing Earth with the technology they need to survive, except the Yamato has to fight its way through enemy territory to get it.

Also starting in the 1970s, Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura took an I Dream of Jeannie approach, with a cute alien called Lum attaching herself to a hapless teenage boy. Basically, aliens are everywhere in Japanese genre fiction.
Kate: Do the Japanese enjoy The X-Files? How do the Japanese feel about conspiracy theories?
Eugene: The X-Files is still popular, so much so that the theme music is used during talk and infotainment shows to indicate that something “mysterious” is about to be discussed.

Conspiracy theories are great fodder for plot material. As in Witch Hunter Robin and Hellsing, institutions like the Catholic Church and the historical Inquisition show up in the most unlikely places. Superheroes often work out of Buddhist and Shinto temples, while exercising their superpowers undercover. A good example is Noragami, which has the gods as well conspiring against each other.

The wide-ranging Magical Girl genre is rife with secret organizations, while everything remains “normal” on the surface. Alice & Zoroku is a recent example par excellence (it also riffs off Alice in Wonderland). Watching Alice & Zoroku, I couldn’t help seeing parallels between the “good guy” agents and Mulder, Scully, and Skinner.

The “conspiracies” can also have a kind of fairy godmother function, as in Oh My Goddess, in which the Norse goddesses labor behind the scenes to keep the Earth on an even keel, but now and then slip up and grant rather unusual requests.

The police procedural Aibou (“Partners”) mostly does “cozy” mysteries during the
regular season, and then wraps up with a two-hour TV movie special. The specials often involve complicated government conspiracies with secret agencies vying against each other and some poor sap getting murdered in the process. I personally prefer the cozy mysteries.

I don’t mind the conspiracy genre as long as I’m not being asked to take it seriously as some sort of higher political commentary.
Kate: Parts of The Space Alien have a strong horror element—more creepy than merely suspenseful. Is horror a popular genre in Japan? What type of horror? Slasher? Monster? Hitchcock? Ghosts? All of the above?
Eugene: Definitely all of the above. Horror is huge in Japan and has been for centuries, if not millennia. You can find every type of horror in abundance, from low-brow exploitation and splatter flicks to psychological to theological, mixed and matched with an enormous library of folk and fairy tales, from which, for example, the whole “girl ghost with long black hair” character emerges.

In Makai Tensho (“Samurai Resurrection”), remade at least three times with varying degrees of explicitness, the leader of the 1637–1638 Shimabara Rebellion, the “Christian Samurai” Shiro Amakusa, rises from the dead to wreak vengeance and it’s up to Yagyu Jubei (another historic character and samurai flick favorite) to save the Shogunate.

Japanese writers eagerly tap into Japan’s long history with Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity since the 16th century, and do not hesitate to borrow whatever religious elements might make for a good story. One result is Saint Young Men, a slice-of-life comedy that has Buddha and Jesus hanging out in Tokyo.

According to the critics (I’ve only read his young adult novels), Edogawa favored a psychological and modernist approach in his novels for adults. It stands to reason that such material should work its way into his young adult novels.
Kate: Like Dracula, The Space Alien indicates a fascination with new technology. This combination (horror & sci-fi) has been largely—though not completely—split in the West with Supernatural, for example, occasionally employing high tech, and Star Trek occasionally having a horror episode. Are the genres split in Japan? Do they overlap more than they do in the West? Or less?
Eugene: I’d say it never occurred to Japanese writers to split them apart. To be sure, there are the traditional categories like space opera and horror and mecha and magical girls and the ever-popular police procedural. But in Mob Psycho 100, a teen coming-of-age dramedy in the John Hughes mode blends in the horror and action genres, with a Buffy-style world-almost-ending in the second cour.

Dimension W starts out as hard science fiction with a premise borrowed from Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, tosses in an action hero straight out of the Fast & Furious franchise, a cute android sidekick (from Asimov’s robot novels), and often ends up with stories that would work as X-Files episodes.

A SF&F genre I consider unique to Japan, arising not only from the previous century of Japanese history but from the past thousand years, starts with an apocalyptic event that destroys a major city, after which the population picks themselves up and gets on with life. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, as in Blood Blockade Battlefield (a hellmouth opens in the middle of Manhattan), it’s a good opportunity to start a new business.

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