Review: Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

An essential collection of contemporary writers, with something for everyone.

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
Edited by Helen Mitsios
Cheng and Tsui Publishing

To start off this review, I’m going to make a prediction. It’s a somewhat bold one, and it has some qualifiers, but I would bet a small amount of money on it, since I really do believe that this will be true: Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is going to be an important book for the next decade or so.

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is the latest anthology of contemporary Japanese fiction, collecting thirteen short stories from nine mostly unknown authors, three relatively well-translated ones, and one undeniable international superstar. It joins the now twenty-year old collections New Japanese Voices (which was also edited by Helen Mitsios) and Monkey Brain Sushi, along with its brethren New Penguin Parallel Texts: Short Stories in Japanese, also released last year and edited by Michael Emmerich, which will also be a significant text for the same reasons I will get into shortly.

The simple truth is, Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices (though truthfully I’m more of a Monkey Brain Sushi man myself) were very influential texts when I first started reading Japanese literature. Like most people of this generation, the author who brought me into this love of Japanese fiction was not Mishima or Kawabata or Soseki, but Murakami. Consequently, my desire for Japanese literature skewed to more contemporary and post-modern fare. Discovering the battered copy of Monkey Brain Sushi from my university library was ultimately a life-confirming experience, if not a life-changing one: not every story has stood the test of time but reading it I knew that this was I wanted: new Japan, young Japan, post-modern Japan, and Murakami was not the be-all and end-all of contemporary Japanese fiction. I believe Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs is going to have that same effect on Japanese literature newcomers of the coming generations that those previous anthologies had on me.

Lucky for them, this is a really wonderful collection. The range of voices and styles is really quite diverse, though of course that will always make at least one or two not fit the taste of every reader. Taste is an issue with all book reviews, but it can make it especially problematic for anthologies. Does the inclusion of one or two “bad” stories hurt the rest of the collection? And are they “bad” because they don’t somehow “fit” with the rest of the anthology? Or is it simply a matter of taste? For example, the apathy and dispassion in Hitomi Kanehara’s “Delilah” doesn’t work for me at all, nor does the rambling, disjointed construction of Jungo Aoki’s “As Told By a Nocturnal Witness.” But the anthology promises “the best” right in its subtitle. Are these just poor examples of these authors’ work, or are they just examples that were destined to move others but not me? It’s hard to say. And does Haruki Murakami really need to be included, when he was not only included in both Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices twenty years ago, when he still was relatively unknown, and is now the bestselling Japanese author of late? I know the subtitle promises “the best,” and not just “new.” He’s perfectly worthy of inclusion. But even the other authors in this collection who have been translated before are at least presented here with newly translated work. It just seems to me that “Super Frog Saves Tokyo,” while a wonderful story, just doesn’t really need to be here.

But I don’t want to focus too much on the negatives, like I feel I already have, because some of the stories here are simply revelatory. Tomoyuki Hoshino’s “The No Fathers Club,” in my opinion, is the breakout short story here. It’s just a perfectly crafted piece of short fiction, about a teenager who begins to imagine a father who becomes more real to him than his actual, absent father, and he starts to encourage others to do the same.

Other highlights include Ira Ishida’s “Ikebukuro West Gate Park,” the short story that spawned the critically acclaimed TV show of the same name. It’s a raw depiction of urban teenage life and crime that slips slightly towards melodrama towards the end but is still engrossing throughout. “The Diary of a Mummy” by Masahiko Shimada (another author included in both Monkey Brain Sushi and New Japanese Voices who is so important to contemporary Japanese literature but has yet to take off in America) chronicles the thoughts of a seemingly normal man who is slowly and deliberately starving himself to death.  And “The Floating Forest” is a delicately devastating story about family and literature from Natsuo Kirino, the queen of contemporary psychological thrillers. Who knew?

It’s also wonderful to have an example of Toshiyuki Horie’s writing, since he has never before been translated, and seems poised to play an important role in Japanese literature, especially since he has recently become one of the judges of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. It is similarly terrific to have more new work by important woman writers Yoko Tawada and Yoko Ogawa, who both use a dream-like logic to create beauty and dread in equal measure.

For those highlights alone I consider Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs a must read for anyone interested in Japanese literature. It’s a great sampling of un-translated and under-translated writers, and I hope it brings more attention to them and their work. Hopefully we will get to see more from them in the future.

____

Originally published March 2, 2012.

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