“A Japanese master to be ranked alongside Haruki Murakami,” proclaims the cover for Yasutaka Tsutsui’s "Paprika." To which the average Japanese reader might respond: why merely alongside?
Tsutsui is a colossal presence on Japan’s literary scene, and one with an oeuvre to match. “Prolific” doesn’t even begin to describe a back catalogue that runs to somewhere in the region of 100 published novels, novellas and short story collections — and that’s to say nothing of the essays, plays, children’s books, albums, and frequent TV, stage and movie appearances. His standing is such that, when he went on a writing strike between 1993 and 1996 to protest the timorous nature of the domestic publishing industry, it inspired a national debate rather than getting dismissed as a hissy fit.
Faced with a body of work so vast, it’s hard to know where to start — though Alma Books certainly picked an odd place when they released "Salmonella Men on Planet Porno," hardly one of Tsutsui’s more essential works, in 2006. That it was the first of his books to appear in English was, well, nothing short of ridiculous.
But enough about that: 1993’s "Paprika" is a more obvious choice, and one that will already be familiar to some Western readers thanks to Satoshi Kon’s visually dazzling (and totally incoherent) 2006 anime adaptation. It tells of a female psychotherapist who has developed a device that allows her to enter patients’ dreams. She puts it to good use at night, when she adopts the alter ego of Paprika and offers illicit treatment to high-profile figures as a “dream detective.” Things get complicated when some of the prototypes are stolen and used to drive people insane, pitting her in a race to find the culprit before the divide between dream and reality breaks down.
It’s a great idea that makes for a slightly less-than-great read. Part of the problem lies with Andrew Driver’s translation, which can be awfully ungainly at times. “While a knowledge of phenomenological anthropology of course came in handy, seeking the transcendental structure behind empirical events wouldn’t be of much use to the treatment either,” reads one particularly bewildering passage.
Then again, there’s no escaping the fact that the book’s dreams are a lot more interesting than its reality. The characters are thinly drawn and the dialogue perfunctory, meaning that things only really get interesting once everyone has dozed off. These sections positively sparkle, though: Tsutsui does a brilliant job of capturing the tangential, free-associative nature of dreams, and the final third of the book, in which the walls of reality begin to crumble altogether, is an absolute treat.
"Hell" shares this freewheeling illogic but uses it to different ends. The novella, originally published in Japanese in 2003, paints a vision of hell that’s more in line with Jean-Paul Sartre than the traditional fire-and-brimstone shtick. It’s a place whose inhabitants can read each other’s minds and relive traumatic moments from their lives, but have been sucked dry of the ability to care about any of it. The narrative is fragmented, disorienting stuff, ripe with moments of grim humor, including one particularly macabre set-piece on an airplane that’s about to crash. Evan Emswiler’s translation has some moments of real lyricism, too.
One hopes that Alma’s mission to translate the Tsutsui catalogue will yield further results. "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" and "Kyoko Sendan" (Fantasy Fleet) are crying out for English versions — and after that, there’ll only be another 95 or so to go.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine.© Japan Today