Christopher Bolton, an assistant professor of Japanese, teamed with DePauw University professor Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Takyuki Tatsumi, an English professor at Keio University in Tokyo, to compile a scholarly study of the genre, which has seen a boom among American teens in anime films and manga comics. The aim of Bolton and his colleagues was not only to study the texts themselves, but draw a line between the current popular Japanese science fiction and its more obscure prose ancestors. Japanese animation is of such an interest to students in the United States that it gets taught in colleges among the Japanese literature classes.
"We thought at the same time that it would be interesting to look at the history of prose science fiction, because that is much less well known in the States, very little has been translated and not many people have written about that side of things," said Bolton.
Rediscovering early sci-fi
The book traces early works by authors such as Yumeno Kyusaku, an avant garde detective fiction writer whose work often explored the darkness of technology, Yano Ryukei, who was heavily influenced by Jules Verne and Abe Kobo, whose "Inter Ice Age 4" is one of the seminal Japanese texts that has actually made it into English translation. These early works map out themes that continue through the string of Japanese science fiction -- an examination of technology's relationship with humanity, how the lines blur, the national identity of the Japanese in regard to militarism and the island's relationship with the Pacific Ocean, all aspects of that most famous of Japanese science fiction figures, Godzilla.
Bolton finds that as he and his colleagues study these works, they are sometimes expected to over-simplify what they reveal about Japan and its culture, particularly its fabled relationship with technology, which many Americans believe is closer and more open than any other country's, what Bolton describes as the "Robot Kingdom of Japan" viewpoint.
"That's not an idea I really subscribe to myself," said Bolton. "I think that's an idea that we like to have of Japan because it makes them into an appealing alien civilization. In other words, whenever you talk about this stuff, there's always a tendency to science fictionalize Japan as Western authors and to see them as exotic, as in the 19th Century, when that exoticism was centered around traditional culture like geisha and the warrior culture and so forth. Today it's centered around this consumer product culture and technology. That's a kind of Orientalism or exoticism that I am trying to avoid."
Getting to the gray
In fact, Bolton believes that the science fiction stories present a much more gray view of the relationship between humanity and technology that is easily overlooked if one is only paying attention to the general plots and not the way in which they unfold in the storytelling. In films like "Patlabor," which Bolton writes about in the book, humans join with robots physically for the adventure. It's a common action in Japanese science fiction films -- it's called mecha anime -- but Bolton cautions against taking it at face value.
"On one hand, that's the kind of enhancement of the body, magnification of the body, and that could just be strictly celebratory," said Bolton, "but if you look at the stories, a lot of those stories of the mecha anime are focused more on the human relationships than they are on the technology and the suits. So I think there is still this interest in parts about the human that are not touched or affected by the technology, the desire to get out of the suit and still be a human being. The plot vacillates back and forth between a celebration of the suit and the desire to get out of the suit."
It was after working on the book itself that Bolton began to draw the connections between his own area of expertise and the roots of Japanese science fiction through the 20th Century.
"I learned a lot from reading that first chapter in the book, Miri Nakamura's piece which shows how the mechanization of the body was viewed all the way back to the '20s, which is not long after the term robot was invented," said Bolton. "You see a lot of parallels and some excitement to that mechanization, but also some anxiety, so those kind of comparisons give us a more textured and more sophisticated notion of the relationship between human beings and technology -- otherwise you can just read 'Wired,' you don't have to read 'Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams from University of Minnesota Press.'"
The bombing of Hiroshima is something else that is brought up a lot as a reference in Japanese subtexts, but Bolton feels that, too, is overplayed in analysis. Certainly it's a part of the mix, but Bolton says that you need to look at the politics of the country before World War II -- in regard to its shift to a militaristic society -- as well as its political position following that war, under the thumb of United States and having a constitution imposed on it, in order to get the full picture of what is being addressed in these stories. Sure, Godzilla plays as a grim warning of the dangers of the atomic bomb, but there is so much more to it.
"The original 'Godzilla' is a lot more anti-nuclear than the American version and the nuclear power at the time was America," said Bolton. "It's not exactly anti-American, but it certainly questions what America's doing in the world a lot more pointedly than the American release. That applies to a lot of this stuff, these issues of nationalism, particularly Japanese nationalism, internationalism, are important to a lot of these titles and often do get stripped out, either by the translation or just the way we read them. I think that's one thing we often miss that is particular to Japan, its own national, political, historical context after World War II that we don't clue into."
In this regard Bolton says that the book attempted to shift some of the focus away from the obvious and connect the dots between the subtle in order to present a fuller picture of the pieces of the puzzle that make up Japanese science fiction. The populist view as pulled from fiction tends to drift towards the vision of Japan as a now pacifist nation that was a victim because of the atomic bomb -- Bolton urges a more nuanced examination of the works.
"In Miri Nakamura's essay that starts out the volume, it's all about the connections between nationalism and national identity and racial identity and this mechanization," said Bolton, "and Thomas' article on Godzilla and the motif of the Pacific also touches on that, this notion of Japanese nationalism and national identity, how you define a nation and how the trope of the Pacific works in that, all in these narratives that you might want to focus on the monster or the technology, he focuses on the ocean as a thing that encloses and defines a nation. You have to look a little more at the politics than sometimes people tend to."
So much of Japanese science fiction revolves around taking these pieces and positioning them into an examination of what it means to be Japanese in context of the rest of the world. One of the classic applications of this central theme is the 1973 novel "Japan Sinks," which presents an Irwin Allen style adventure in which the entire island begins to disappear into the ocean -- through the unavoidable realities of reinventing a nation, author Komatsu Sakayo asks many of the big questions of Japanese identity within a technological backdrop.
"What really makes that novel interesting is that underneath it asks the question of how closely Japanese national identity is tied to a place," said Bolton. "Is culture portable? Can you simply move it? Can you recreate Japan in Africa? How important is landscape, weather? Is history tied to geography? Those are interesting questions about national identity. I think as Americans, we might have the idea that we could recreate America anywhere because it's about bringing cultural influences from the old world to the new world."
And, as Bolton says, you can build Disneyland anywhere. But Japan, with a millennium old culture, is a far more complicated existence to merely transfer. And yet young Americans have embraced Japan's comics and movies over the last 15 years in a way that no other country has ever quite met with success -- to be a teenager these days is to have some aspect of Japanese science fiction as a natural part of your cultural landscape.
Taking artistic risks
"Japanese artists have done some really experimental and interesting things, making things very political or testing very avant garde forms of representation, really disjointed, disjunctive plots," said Bolton. "I guess it's that innovation that appeals to American viewers. Within these tropes, concerns, genres, like science fiction which is very popular in America and Japan, within that there's a lot of stuff and so different artists have room to innovate, so you get something in the genre that's familiar to you, that you like, but within that, there are these weird innovations that you've never seen before."
In examining the work, Bolton realizes that the American audience is reliant on translation and the choice of what is translated to the American market can present a skewed vision of Japan based on the portion we see, which is often the result of Americans grafting their exoticized vision of Japan onto the work that makes it here.
"You have to ask yourself these questions, like 'Why is it available to us in translation?' Well, because there's a market for it here," said Bolton. "'Why is there a market for it here?' Because it portrays Japan in a way that we like. You've always got to realize that there's a heavy dose of yourself, of American culture, in anything that's going to come to you, unless you go there and find it in the original."
Even with that circumstance, Bolton points to a rich variety of Japanese creations in the science fiction realm that literally offer something for everyone. The sheer enormity of what is actually available may be the thing that has contributed to the boom in America more than anything else -- you are bound to find something in the mass of releases and of that booty, there will no doubt be a new frontier revealed to you. As Bolton says, Japanese science fiction is continually "an undiscovered country" on the American cultural landscape.
"Science fiction makes you appreciate a variety -- of history, possibility, identity, and literature that you might not otherwise see," said Bolton. "It perpetuates some of those stereotypes -- the Robot Japan, the Cyborg Japan, the Blade Runner Japan -- but it also helps break some of them down by the variety of anime and manga, it just makes you realize that there's stuff going on there that you never realized."
"Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams" is published by Univer-sity of Minnesota Press.