Jonathan Clements examines the insider literature and celebrated romance of Taku Mayumura
There are seventeen words in Japanese for “I” and thirteen words for “you”. There’s a word for “I” that only the Emperor can use, and a word best employed solely by bad girls who carry knives. There’s a word for “you” that’s best employed when you are about to spit on someone. There’s a word for “you” that rather implies you have slept with the addressee, or intend to relatively soon, and a word for “you” that implies cosy, spousal affection. Combine that with the standard word for “love”, as well as an earthier, raunchier variant, and add to these the word “like”, often regarded by the Japanese as so familiar as to function as a cognate with “love” in the Western sense, and you can perhaps see that there are a lot of ways to say “I love you” in Japanese.
As a language student at a loose end, I once started compiling them, and reached an impressive 1194 iterations before I gave up. The problem, then and now, was that saying “I love you” in Japanese is oddly gauche: rather direct, blunt and foreign in its assumptions and presumptions. The Japanese, particularly older Japanese, only seem to do it in histrionic television dramas. In real life, they are apt to use subtler variants, or a set of idiomatic expressions or actions that mean “I love you” without ever saying it. For a manly truck driver, the best way might be to mumble “I think of you from time to time.” For a star-crossed samurai-era urbanite in Love Suicides at Sonezaki, stabbing someone in the throat seems to do the trick. Japanese filmmakers often prefer a symbolic act, such as two lovers sharing the same umbrella (Japanese graffiti’s equivalent of an arrow through a heart), or wrapping each other in the same long scarf. There are, it seems, myriad ways.
Taku Mayumura’s short story “Fnifmum”, included in Apostolou and Greenberg’s The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories [Purchase], presents two vastly different perspectives on love and lovers. Its protagonists, such as they are, are two human soldiers, crashlanded on an uninhabitable world in the midst of an interstellar war. With limited oxygen and dwindling supplies, they take a leap of faith by using their last temporal disruptor to fling themselves into the planet’s far future, hoping that it will have developed plant-life and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. They are destined, perhaps, to become the Adam and Eve of their new home, but we never see their fate. Instead, we witness their scheme through the eyes of Fnifmum, a quasi-immortal inter-dimensional being who is mourning the loss of his own mate, Honycominah, separated from him by the relative gaps in their time streams. Watching the two humans and their plight, Fnifmum is reminded of his own love, and develops a platonic, parental adoration for the two new arrivals. Redolent of one of Italo Calvino’s cosmicomics, “Fnifmum” was the first appearance by Mayumura in English, and understandably regarded at the time as an unrepresentative example of his work. For much of his career beforehand, romance was the furthest thing from his mind.
Born as Takuji Mayumura in 1934, the author graduated from Osaka University in the decidedly unromantic field of economics. He then went to work for a large ceramics company, for what appears to have been six miserable, unfulfilling years. He drifted into SF with short stories for Yasutaka Tsutsui’s magazine Null, and found breakout success with Expo ’87 (1968), a vicious satire of corporate intrigues. Published in Japan two years before a real-life World’s Fair arrived in Osaka, Expo ’87 was an extrapolatory experiment; what might happen a generation later “if this goes on.” Mayumura posited a Japan in which multinational corporations doggedly pursued single-minded business interests, often in cahoots with right-wing ultranationalists and front companies for organised crime. The 1987 World’s Fair becomes a battleground both in the streets and in the media, as the rival business interests fight over lucrative construction, marketing and tourist contracts.
Mayumura’s most famous work would similarly re-conceive the brave new worlds of science fiction as treadmill of tedious business meetings and political opportunism. Commencing with “The Flame and the Flower” in SF Magazine (1971), his Administrator series of linked stories presented a far future scenario in which viceroys and civil servants of a galactic empire brokered disputes and managed disasters on offworld colonies. The first collection, Administrator [Purchase], has been published in English translation by Kurodahan Press, although Mayumura’s stories of an interplanetary civil service would go on to fill ten volumes in Japanese, including the three-part Seiun Award-winning Vanishing Halo (1979), in which a bureaucrat is given the seemingly impossible task of evacuating an industrial colony world threatened by an imminent nova. The serial’s high point was the five-volume Time of the Ebb Tide (1995), which won Mayumura his second Seiun.
Mayumura has characterised his own work as a Literature of the Insider” (“insider bungakuron“) in opposition to the detached observers of mainstream Japanese fiction, positioning his protagonists at a tense nexus between the rival forces of the organisation and the individual. This might seem at first to be a re-invention of the wheel, not the least of Japan’s traditional dramatic conflicts of duty versus emotion. However, Mayumura’s valorisation of middle management in an SF context won him great acclaim among a readership of Japanese commuters and office workers
Like many Japanese science fiction authors of the 1960s and 1970s, Mayumura did not refuse the opportunity to accept commissions for young adult books and television spin-offs. After the success of his colleague Yasutaka Tsutsui with The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1965), Mayumura completed several works for younger readers that similarly introduced SF situations into high-school environments. Indeed, new adaptations of Mayumura’s work often seem to follow revivals of Tsutsui’s like a form of literary aftershock. His works in the 1970s seem riddled with girls who “fall from the sky”, “travel the galaxy” and undertake similar SF-like actions, in apparent imitation of Tsutsui’s “girl who leapt through time”, although none of them quite achieved the popularity of the celebrated original.
However, Mayumura characteristically moved his focus away from Tsutsui’s perspective on a lone individual into the tensions between the individual and hostile organisations. His Mysterious New Students (1967) depicted undercover refugees from a destroyed planet, outed from their hiding place at a Japanese school, but already planning to leave the Earth, which they regard as similarly doomed. Other works similarly approached teenage social exclusion from a genre perspective, most notably Hellish Talent (1975), in which the high-school in-crowd is a coterie of psychic fascists from the future, and School in Peril (1976) in which a similar teen cabal is revealed as the products of an experiment. These stories have been adapted for TV and film on several occasions, combined as the TV series Challenge from the Future (1977), and the latter singly as the film School in Peril (1981), and two TV series of the same title (1982 and 1997). Mayumura also returned to romance, albeit of a thwarted variety, with Mysterious Penfriend (1970, adapted for TV 1974), in which a Japanese teenage boy acquires the titular correspondent. She seems, and is, too good to be true — rich, sophisticated and oddly interested in him, but soon revealed as one of an advance party of machine-based alien invaders, who intend to replace the children of Earth with robot facsimiles in the style of The Stepford Wives.
Mayumura’s other success in the YA market came with several stories of time travel, catapulting modern teenagers into historical periods likely to come up in their school exams. A Summer to Remember (1977) was adapted into the TV series Bakumatsu Miraijin, which can only be translated in full with the unwieldy People From the Future in the Time of the Fall of the Bakufu Shōgunate (1977). Other adaptations of his work, possibly even based on the same source, include the TV series Highschool Students in the Time of the Fall of the Bakufu Shōgunate (1994). Time Stranger (1981) sent an entire busload of Japanese teenagers back to the time of Japan’s 16th-17th century civil war, and was adapted into an anime of the same name.
Mayumura’s career reached its pinnacle in the 1990s, when he taught for several years at the Osaka University of Arts, presented a satellite TV programme in which he interviewed fellow science fiction authors, and produced the capstone volumes of his Administrator series. He also found an unexpected new market in the historical magazine Rekishi Yomihon, for which he serialised the long, didactic but unquestionably science fictional Decree of Carthage (1990-97), in which time travellers from Japan journey to the Mediterranean in the 2nd century BC, where they become witnesses to, and ultimately participants in the rise and fall of Hannibal. Mayumura’s approach was deliberately conceived through a Japanese perspective, comparing the Roman Republic with the modern United States of America, and viewing Carthage as an analogue to Japan in the 20th century.
In the same period, Mayumura completed his less well-known series Irregular Esper, redolent of both Frank Herbert’s Dune and E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, with contending noble houses using psychic soldiers to execute byzantine power-plays. However, Mayumura returned in it to the theme of doomed romance that had characterised “Fnifmum”, depicting a love across social boundaries, in which the Guardian Ishtar Rowe inevitably falls for Lady Ellen Ereshkova, the woman he is supposed to be protecting. The story unfolds in a series of picaresque missions, as Rowe and Ereshkova discover their feelings, and are then separated by the vast abysses of intergalactic space opera.
There were parallels to be found in Mayumura’s daily life. He described the 1990s as a period of slow mortification, in which he briefly withdrew from the Japanese SF writers’ club, and felt that his productivity was dwindling. His published output diminished even further in the late 1990s, when his wife of many decades was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a year to live.
Determined to entertain her in her last months, Mayumura began a new policy of writing a story every day. He had long been proficient in writing short-shorts: a skill he had acquired in the 1970s when he briefly worked as a late-night radio disc jockey and had to fit writing in around a shift-work schedule. His output in the 1990s hence transformed once more into sudden bursts of anthology publications, generated at a rate of three pages a day, every day.
Buoyed up, it was claimed, by her husband’s efforts, Mrs. Mayumura endured long past her original terminal date, living for five further years, and leaving Mayumura with over ten thousand pages of material. After her death in 2002, Mayumura would publish some of it as Tsuma ni Sasageta 1778 Hanashi [“1778 Stories for My Wife“] (2004), a collection that found a readership far beyond the normal boundaries of the SF ghetto, largely because of the melancholy sentiment of its creation — a man feverishly looking for light-hearted story material, all to distract the woman he loved from her own impending death.
The story of Mayumura’s Scheherazade-like attempt to keep the Grim Reaper at bay was subsequently adapted into Mamoru Hoshi’s live-action film Watashi to Tsuma no 1778 Monogatari (1778 Stories of My Wife and I), released last month in its native Japan. Helmed by a former TV director, the film was shot through with predictable weepy drama, but also with magic-realist snapshots of Mayumura’s tales of robots and distant worlds, and musings on the motives that drive writers to write in the first place. Opening on 315 screens nationwide, it arguably brought Mayumura’s work to his widest and most unforeseen audience, with particularly high focus-group ratings recorded from women in their forties. Mayumura also returned to publishing after half a decade’s silence, with A Sunken Man, a new collection on bereavement and fantasy, released in December 2010. Aged 76, he continues to speculate on the power of love across, through, and beyond time.
1778 Stories of My Wife and I: Japanese film trailer