The OF Blog: Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington (eds.), Phantasm Japan

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington (eds.), Phantasm Japan

But that's how it is.  It's not something unique to here.  The place and the particulars might change, but it's all the same.

It doesn't matter if you're only a tourist.  When somebody points a camera at you, you shouldn't thoughtlessly flash the V sign.

What meaning does that pose hold for the people around you?  How will it be taken in the place where you are?

Even among your fellow men, some will see it as an impression of a crab, and some won't.

What will you be communicating?

You have to think about that.  For cultural exchange.


Okay, that's enough pictures, it's time to become holes and let them in.

For the future.

– from Yusaku Kitano's "Scissors or Claws, and Holes," pp. 33-34

Places are tricky entities to pin down and define.  No matter how accurate one's GPS might be, whether one believes that 35°68'N, 139°69'E gives a precise location, places shift and shimmer, grow fuzzy and morph into something beyond a tract of land or sea.  This becomes even more readily apparent when we try to populate our conceived places with people.  So many concepts, both "true" and "false" alike (each have their own facets that belie the beliefs associated with these titles), that we bring to bear when talking about place.  We overlay our own beliefs so thickly upon certain places that it is difficult to tell where one culture's general belief pattern ends and another's begins.

As I was reading the just-released Phantasm Japan anthology, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, these multitude of thoughts on the inherently imprecise nature of place came to mind.  Ask someone to define "Japan," and his or her answers are going to vary wildly.  Ask an elderly World War II vet from the United States and his or her responses will be very different from those of someone who watches anime or plays the latest from Nintendo or Sony.  Even within Japanese society, the concepts of "Japan" will be staggering for outsiders.  Certainly the stories in this anthology, from both non-Japanese and Japanese writers alike, serve as a testimony and celebration of these diverse conceptualizations of Japan.

Phantasm Japan contains six translated stories and fifteen original short stories.  It also contains stories referencing environmental disorder, cultural appropriations good and bad, online stalkers, monsters, fox spirits, tricksters, and ghost tales.  For the most part, these stories manage to create an interesting collage effect, as the various elements that they explore echo and amplify points of emphasis from other stories.  For example, Yusaku Kitano's "Scissors or Claws, and Holes," from which I pulled the above quote, deals with differences in perspectives between Japanese and Westerners in things as simple as taking one's index and middle fingers and spreading them out.  Is it the sign of scissoring when moving together and apart, or is it a crab clawing at its prey?  Who is doing the perceiving shapes the narrative is part of the point of this story, and the "holes" through which one might enter might also be the absences caused by a lack of perception of how the host views the encounter.

In a different way, Tim Pratt's "Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters" plays off of these blind spots that non-natives have for native perceptions.  Using the fetishization of Asian (including Japanese) women as being docile sex dolls as a springboard, he creates a horror tale whose real effect is not felt until the very end, when the reader is finally able to piece together what has occurred around the margins of the tale.  It is in interplays between outsider and native cultural prejudices that a certain narrative tension occurs, one in which these multiple, sometimes contradictory stories of spirits and monsters, of technology and estrangement, collide. 

Although there were a few stories that felt slighter, more like mood pieces than substantive narratives, for the most part the stories in this anthology work better together than they would have independently.  Certainly there are some excellent stories.  Besides the Kitano and Pratt stories already mentioned, the novella-length "Sisyphean" by Dempow Torishima is a highlight of the anthology.  Utilizing elements of weird fiction and hard SF, Torishima has constructed a tale that might feel somewhat familiar to Western readers, yet with a certain thematic sensibility that deals more with Japanese past conceptualizations of horror and progress than with anything Anglo-American.  It is a vivid, visceral story, one that will take another re-read before it can be unpacked adequately.

As a collage of images and views of this perceived place called "Japan," Phantasm Japan does an excellent job in illustrating these various and sometimes contradictory views of Japan.  The majority of the stories are short, sharp, concise bursts of narrative and reflective prose that explore these various concepts of Japan, often with surprising twists and turns.  While there were a few tales that I thought were slighter and could have used more space for developing their themes, on the whole Phantasm Japan is an excellent anthology that showcases several developing SF/F talents from across the globe.

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