It was notable that the 2007 Hugos featured no nominations of Japanese work, despite the fact that Worldcon took place in Yokohama that year. Compare this to two years earlier, when the Worldcon was in Glasgow and UK authors had a clean sweep of Best Novel nominations. Now, there are plenty of reasons why this might be, but it does speak to a chasm between the dominant tradition of Anglosphere SF and this major national tradition. Whilst Japanese visual media—comics (manga) and films (anime)—have been hugely influential in the West the same cannot be said of literature. There are authors of genre interest being published—the odd bestseller like Haruki Murakami or more cult authors like Ryu Murakami—but nobody whose impact on the genre compares to that of anime. This may well be changing, though.
Earlier in the year I reviewed Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui. It was published by Alma Books as part of a concerted effort to make the works of this famous Japanese writer available in English for the first time. Now Viz Media have set up a new imprint, Haikasoru, to do the same for more contemporary Japanese SF writers. The Lord of the Sands of Time by Issui Ogawa and All You Need Is KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka form half of their launch titles, along with ZOO by Otsuichi and Usurper of the Sun by H?suke Nojiri which will be published later in the year. Neither of these novels is going to set the world on fire, but their appearance in English is still an entirely welcome development.
The Lord of the Sands of Time was originally published in 2007. Reading Jim Hubbert's translation, I was reminded of the work of John Scalzi, not just because it is a contemporary book that feels substantially older—it could have comfortably been published fifty years ago—but because like Scalzi’s work in general, and Old Man's War in particular, Ogawa needs to create a wildly implausible situation to justify the existence of his newly awoken philosophical warrior. Six centuries hence there is an invasion:
"We call the enemy ETs. At first it meant extraterrestrials, but once the fighting started, they were Enemies of Terra. After we lost Earth, they were simply Evil Things." (p. 27)
This is what I mean about the novel being old fashioned. These ETs quickly wipe out Earth by building a gigantic disc in space that blocks out the sun. Despite being advanced enough to cross interstellar space and pull off this engineering feat they do have an Achilles' heel:
"At this point, we were down to seven percent of our pre-war population. But the enemy apparently depends on solar energy—specifically, they appear to distribute solar power by means of laser-modulated transmission—and they failed to mount major attacks against the outer planets, where the Sun's energy is greatly attenuated." (p. 29)
Hmm. To break this flimsily contrived equilibrium the ETs jump back in time 500 years to a time when Earth was more vulnerable. Yes, they can do that too. Luckily so can the humans and so, in response, the survivors create an army of cyborgs called Messengers to go back in time and battle them across history. This is all pretty silly. (Late on in the novel we learn the actual reason for the invasion and it is even more preposterous.)
Luckily Ogawa is less interested in this narrative framing than in one final battle waged in an alternate Fourth Century Japan. By this point Messenger O, our protagonist, has made over four hundred jumps through time and reached humanity's last chance to change history. Conveniently manifesting himself just in time to save Sayaka Miyo, a figurehead pagan queen, he frees her from her ritual prison and together they unite the lords of Japan to destroy the alien menace. It is all competently if unexcitingly done, and Ogawa works hard to imbue the proceedings with a bittersweet air: the tragic romance of Deep Time, actions and emotions repeated, love cut adrift across the centuries. Still, the time travel makes very little sense and it is hard to get past this since it robs the book of all narrative plausibility and (seemingly more important to Ogawa) all emotional power. Time travel is so well developed as a trope that it must be treated extremely carefully, and its casual deployment here only reinforces the feeling of a novel that has appeared from an earlier time. It seems a strangely backward-looking choice to lead a new imprint with—but then again, looking at this year's Hugo shortlist for Best Novel, maybe it is exactly what the market wants.
All You Need Is KILL, first published in 2004, is, weirdly, the same but different. The ETs are now the Mimics but they are still a remorseless, inhuman horde from beyond the stars. The Messengers are replaced by the soldiers of the United Defence Force, jacketed in the armoured suits of Robert Heinlein's mechanised infantry that have proved so popular in Japanese SF. And again our sensitive warrior hero must repeatedly travel through time, experiencing combat far more regularly and therefore intensively than his peers. There is even the same yearning almost-relationship, complete with the suggestion you can save the world or get the girl but not both. It is puzzling that Haikasoru should launch with two such similar novels, particularly when the comparison is not flattering to The Lord of the Sands of Time.
The differences between the two are signalled by their titles, and as soon as you start reading Sakurazaka's novel it is clear that the tone is very different to Ogawa's:
Fuck the brass and their pathetic excuse for air support!
Fuck the suits and their plans that aren't worth a damn once shit starts flying!
Fuck the artillery for holding back the left flank!
Fuck that bastard who just got himself killed! (p. 3)
The novel is nowhere near as gung-ho as that passage—or the inexplicably bad and never explained title—suggests. Instead Alexander O. Smith's translation reveals a smart, sharp, and spiky book. Keiji Kiriya is a young soldier on the cusp of his first battle: the day passes mundanely, he suits up, he enters combat, he dies. He awakes. Kiriya is trapped, Groundhog Day-style, in the same day, doomed to repeat everything until he can somehow break the cycle. The mechanism behind this time loop is no less silly than anything in Sands of Time but it is treated more rigorously and the results are commensurately more impressive. It is a scenario that offers rich pickings, and Sakurazaka makes the most of them as Kiriya is internally transformed into a veteran whilst outwardly remaining the same greenhorn.
Or the most that can be made of them in 168 pages anyway. These are both very short novels—Sands of Time is just over 200 pages—and whilst it is to their credit that they both feel like short novels rather than overgrown short stories they are a long way from being The Great Gatsby. They cling to their single central idea, not quite achieving the breadth or depth of a good novel. These are not novels to sink into but discrete packets of entertainment, the ideal sort of thing for a train journey but with the disposability that suggests. If you are heading on such a journey leave Lord of the Sands of Time behind though; it is unoriginal and uninteresting and soon you will be staring out the window. Instead take All You Need Is KILL which, despite being perhaps no less familiar, is punchy and fun and a good way of passing the time.