To the Stars: Yukinobu Hoshino

Jonathan Clements investigates Japan’s mastermind of historical SF, the author of Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure and TO: 2001 Nights.

Yukinobu Hoshino never “completed” his education. In 1975, aged 21, he dropped out of the Aichi University of Fine Arts and Music partway through his art degree, when he sold “Queen of Steel” to Shōnen Jump magazine. In the years since, he has carved out a solid reputation as a keynote creator of manga on space flight and mythology, with several volumes of his work translated into English.

His earlier stories, often drawn for juvenile magazines, framed mature themes around a somewhat cartoony art style. As he moved into magazines for older readers, his artwork acquired a sharp, photo-real work reminiscent of similar material by Katsuhiro Ōtomo. This, perhaps, explains his sudden leap into English in the late 1980s, at the height of Akira‘s American popularity, when several of his science fiction works were translated in America. However, the Hoshino material known to the West is only a fraction of a far larger body of work.

Hoshino’s manga are particularly strong in the realm of the short, sharp shocker – mood pieces that pay respectful homage to earlier works by authors he admires. One Day in the Life of Ivan Dejavu (1986 Business Jump) is an SF pastiche of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but set in a town dominated by a giant cannon, which the occupants are obliged to load and fire in an unending war similar to that in Ōtomo’s later anime/manga Memories. Its message, however, is focused not on war but on a preoccupied worker who tries to buy his neglected son’s affection with an ill-chosen gift — a metaphor for Japan’s proletarianised labour force.

A major strand of Hoshino’s work involves the reappraisal of stories from mythology as a prolonged “shaggy god story”, applying SF themes to mysteries from world history. As Hoshino himself has regularly pointed out: history is science to him, and historical fiction is science fiction. Legend of the Titans (1977 Shōnen Jump) reconceived the giants of Greek mythology as a forgotten race whose plan to avert the last ice age by converting Jupiter into a second sun is dusted off by modern scientists in the face of renewed climate change. The Nazi-themed Song of the Lorelei (1979 Young Jump), was the first of several stories that focused on women’s power over men: a theme that reached its high point with the extended Queen of the Desert (1979-1980 Young Jump), which re-imagined the reincarnation of Cleopatra as the Biblical Salome and Zenobia. This fix-up was itself fixed up as Yōsei Densetsu [“Legends of the Enchantress/Siren”], a two-volume collection that re-imagined numerous women from history as reincarnations of the same prehistoric sorceress.

Hoshino’s most enduring character in this Fortean style is the protagonist of the Professor Munakata series, beginning with The Strange Investigations of Professor Munakata (1995-1999 Comic Tom), depicting an aging but vigorous investigator in the Sherlock Holmes vein. Initially he solves mysteries from early Japanese history, but his later cases spread to cover similar phenomena in other countries. Most notably, Professor Munakata hunted down odd artefacts and mysteries in the story of Khubilai Khan, in one of several NHK TV specials that were also converted into spin-off comics. After a hiatus at the beginning of the 21st century, the series moved to a new venue with The Case Records of Professor Munakata (2004~ Big Comic), leading to Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure (2011), the only volume to date to be translated into English.

Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure - Yukinobu Hoshino

Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure [Purchase] was the result of an invitation for Hoshino to visit the London treasure house, where he spent several days photographing artefacts and musing on potential plotlines. No stranger to scandal – he has previously written stories about Japan’s controversially mythical and Korean-influenced past — Hoshino plumped for a story that grappled obliquely with modern arguments over the rightful home of many of the British Museum’s artefacts, uncovering a dastardly French plot to steal the Rosetta Stone, involving the mysterious disappearance of Stonehenge, a plot to destroy St Paul’s Cathedral, and informative capers around the museum’s many galleries.

Primeval Blues

Several of Hoshino’s early works focus on the genre potential of environments under the sea. Meteorites of Fear (1976 Shōnen Jump), was the first of several linked disaster stories published in the anthology Blue City, in which a meteorite shower unleashes a global plague, from which humanity retreats in submarines. The unrelated Blue Hole (1991 Mister Magazine) posits the discovery of an underwater time tunnel off the coast of Africa that permits time travel between the present and the age of the dinosaurs. The first evidence of its existence is the presence of coelacanths near Madagascar. Subsequent “blue hole” discoveries connect Hoshino’s storyline not only to legends of the Bermuda Triangle and the Loch Ness Monster, but also to other blue holes that link the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Paleozoic periods. Initial stories focus on exploration and ecology, and an abortive scheme to ease pollution by swapping spoiled modern seawater for its unsullied prehistoric equivalent.

The sequel Blue World (1995 Comic Afternoon) sends a combined military and scientific team of British and American explorers through the hole into the past, in an intriguing hybrid of Jurassic Park and Stargate. An ongoing subtext associates successive blue hole manifestations with fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field, itself a key element in the various extinction events that wiped out several breeds of dinosaur, leading some scientists to deduce that this new, present-day proliferation of the phenomenon could indicate the approaching end of the world. Although unknown in English, the story has been translated into French, Korean, Thai and Chinese. Hoshino’s interest and expertise in prehistoric creatures would also lead to his illustration of a series written by Ryūji Kaneko, Dinosaur Wonderland (1993-1996 Comic Tom).

Prehistoric matters similarly feature in Saber Tiger, the title story of one of Hoshino’s very few anthologies to have been translated into English. Published in Manga Action in 1980, it is a short, sharp shock clearly inspired by Ray Bradbury, in which meddling time travellers in the Ice Age inadvertently wipe out humanity’s future existence by leading the titular beast into an enclave of cavemen. The similarly representative Planet of the Unicorn (1980 Manga Shōnen, translated in the same collection) is also designed as a short with a twist, as human colonists are forced to proceed with landfall somewhat earlier than intended, and soon turn on each other in a hostile and mysterious environment. Here, Hoshino speculates that all planets have an ambient background noise — the sound of their own rotation — which local life-forms evolve to screen out, but which can drive alien visitors mad with constant subsonic resonance. In other words, humans can never survive on another world without evolving a new coping mechanism: humanity is effectively confined to the Earth.

To Infinity & Beyond

Taking a leaf from the books of “future historians” like Larry Niven and Robert Heinlein, Hoshino began to concentrate on stories that that could be retrofitted together in order to form larger works – no more ends of the world, or exiles to Earth. The stories in the Saber Tiger collection are often pessimistic or have conclusions that effectively end the possibility of future history. It is these conclusions that wall them off from Hoshino’s best-known work in the English language, 2001 Nights, which posits an ever-onward, ever-upward progression of humanity from Earth to the stars.

Serialised from 1984-1986 in Super Action magazine, 2001 Nights is a sequence of vignettes on the themes of space travel and exploration, many of which form an over-arcing future history. The title deliberately recalls both the 1001 “Arabian” Nights, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. 2001 Nights charts humanity’s slow exodus from Earth, from the near future of Earthglow, in which astronauts on the space shuttle suspect, wrongly, that their payload will start World War Three, to Children of Earth, in which a dwindling population of humans prepares to leave Betelgeuse for a 3000-light-year leap into hyperspace. With a generally melancholy quality, and the ultimate implication that humanity, at least in its current form, is unsuited for the colonisation of other worlds, the series manages to impart a sense of New-Wave pessimism, even amid imagery and storylines largely drawn from the golden age of SF. Despite the future setting, 2001 Nights also dovetails Hoshino’s SF and fantasy work, most notably in Lucifer Rising, an extended meditation on Paradise Lost, in which a Jesuit scientist, sent to explore a newly discovered tenth planet, is forced to confront the implications for religion and astrology. But even then, Hoshino’s subtexts render mankind insignificant beneath the light of the distant stars.

Selected stories from the series have twice been adapted into anime, as Space Fantasia 2001 Nights (1987) directed by Yoshio Takeuchi, and TO (2009) directed by Fumihiko Sori. Both were billed as video releases, although the latter was previewed first on television, and hence should technically be classed as TV. Manga Entertainment will release Sori’s take on the story later this year on UK DVD.

A Hoshino aficionado might also consider his Two Faces of Tomorrow as another instalment in the 2001 Nights saga. Published in Japan in two parts in 1993, and translated by Dark Horse Comics in a monster omnibus edition in 2006, it is a full-length manga adaptation of the novel of the same name by James P Hogan. While other stories in the 2001 Nights saga have been called derivative by curmudgeonly critics, Two Faces of Tomorrow is a licensed adaptation, and neatly subsumes Hogan’s near-future tale into Hoshino’s grand narrative.

The End of the World

Hoshino’s standing is oddly, refreshingly fragmented from territory to territory. His standing in the English-speaking world is based on 2001 Nights, a hard SF collection that is already two decades old. He has a considerably larger footprint in France, where both his Sea Monster and Blue Hole are also available in translation. Meanwhile, only a fragment of his significant Professor Munakata is available outside Japan, or rather will be later this year, and his critical highpoint within Japan is arguably none of the above. It was, after all, his untranslated Yamataika (“Fires of Yamatai”) that won Hoshino his sole Seiun Award. Its plot is so crazy, and so tied up in Japanese minutiae, that it is unlikely to see the light of day in English translation.

The story of Yamataika is a sprawling holocaust that draws deeply on both ancient and modern Japanese mythologies, as well as on the common anthropological assumption that prehistoric Japan was the site of a slow, inexorable and brutal conflict between rival ethnic groups. The modern setting imagines a millennial cult in southern Japan that soon splits the nation along these ancient rivalries, between the volcano-worshipping people of the Race of Fire, who use bronze artefacts to channel latent psychic powers, and the Race of the Sun, who use iron artefacts to similar effect.

Ancient sites in Japan are caught up in a quest for the doomsday device known as the Omoikane (Chime of Great Moment), which is eventually forged by the Race of Fire by melting down the Great Buddha statue at Kamakura. With the power of the Omoikane, the Race of Fire raises the sunken hulk of the WW2 battleship Yamato from the seabed, charges it up with powerful spirit possession, and sends it off to attack the American air base on Okinawa. The Race of the Sun fight back by awakening the dormant power of their ancient god-king, Yamato Takeru — the prehistoric leader whose crushing defeat of the historical Race of Fire is now only remembered in garbled folktales and myths.

The grand finale, with Japan engulfed in supernatural disaster amid erupting volcanoes, finds the reincarnation of the ancient historical priest-queen Himiko squaring off against her nemesis aboard the refloated hulk of the Yamato in Tokyo Bay. It is, to steal an idea from its own pages, a climax of “great moment”, uniting imagery from Japan’s distant legend and 20th century history. In dragging together past, present and future in an explosive confrontation, it is the quintessence of Hoshino, a manga creator who still has much to offer Western readers.


TO: 2001 Nights is playing at Sci-Fi London’s Manga All-Nighter on 30th April, and will be released by Manga Entertainment later in the year. Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure will be published by the British Museum Press in July.

TO: 2001 Nights trailer