Mechademia in Seoul

Ōtsuka Eiji Keynote

Ōtsuka Eiji, International Centre for Japanese Studies, [About | Email]

Alexander Zahlten, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilisations, Harvard University, [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 1 (Translation 1 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 23 April 2017.


The following text is a translation of the keynote address delivered by Otsuka Eiji at the Mechademia in Seoul—World Renewal: Counterfactual Histories, Parallel Universes, and Possible Worlds conference in 2012 (organised by Alexander Zahlten and Aramchan Lee). The speech delivers an account of the changes to the meanings of popular culture—and the transformation of the meaning of narrative itself—from the 1970s onward in Japan. Touching upon film, the literature of Nakagami Kenji and Murakami Haruki, Star Wars and the Aum cult, it argues that popular culture in Japan has shifted towards a formalism that is more interested in recombinable structures than in narratives with a specific truth value. Rather than a postmodern shift, this is an attempt to sustain an “I” and define a specific relationship to history.

Keywords: Popular culture, sub-culture, narrative, postmodernism, history, selfhood.

After so-called “3.11”—I actually don’t like this term and its imitation of “9.11”—I was asked the following question by manga and anime researchers from outside of Japan: Given that subculture in Japan has, on the basis of the experience of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or the irradiation of the Fukuryu Maru (Lucky Dragon) # 5 fishing boat in1954 already formulated direct allegories or parables of the “nuclear” through works such as Tetsuwan Atomu / Astro Boy (1952), Gojira / Godzilla (1954),  Hadaashi no Gen / Barefoot Gen (1972) or Kaze no Tani no Naushika / Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984), how could the Japanese allow a nuclear reactor incident to happen? One of the things I want to think about today is this question. Essentially the question is why, while subculture in Japan talked sincerely of the lessons of history, these lessons never actually reached anyone in present Japan.1

I want to look for the factors concerning this question within the context of the chatter of postmodernism in 1980s Japan and its claims of the “end of grand narratives.” At the same time as the system of “narrative” was being criticised, both subculture and subculturalised (subukaruchâ-ka shita) literature both performed the forgery of “grand narratives” and the “reconstruction of grand narratives.”

However, this reconstruction of “grand narratives” aimed to create fictional histories within subculture and literature, and as a result there was no reconstruction of history within the realm of the actual. We can call this phenomenon an escape from “actual history” (genjitsu no rekishi) to “virtual history” (kasō no rekishi). Consequently “narratives that specialise only in narrative structure” proliferated as “virtual history” cut them off from actual history, and these narratives became empty allegories that reflect nothing.

It goes without saying that this “grand narrative” is “history.” And the “reconstruction of history” that was demanded from the 1980s onward is a simple and easy-to-understand narrative structure along the lines of models proposed by Vladimir Propp and Joseph Campbell. Postmodernism had proclaimed the end of “grand narratives,” of “history,” and of “narratives with a narrative structure” (monogatari kōzō o motta monogatari). However, at least in Japan these were all put on life support and continued to exist after the 1980s as well. It is up to you whether Murakami Haruki or Gundam comes to mind as concrete examples here.

For example, to provide a renewed analysis, the scattered events of Murakami Haruki’s first three books can be listed as a kind of chronology, as was done in one of the earliest theoretical works on Murakami in Japan. That critic sees the first three books by Murakami as one “saga.” This is a very important point: For the first three books a time axis exists that makes it possible to create a “chronology” that goes beyond each individual work, and they are thus sketched as a “saga.”

On the other hand the third of these first three books, A Wild Sheep Chase, very simply applies the narrative theories of Propp and Campbell. Also, at this time (although it hasn’t been published in book form) Murakami writes an analysis of the structure of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in a review called America as a Common Period (Dōjidai toshite no Amerika).

In Murakami, we can say that from A Wild Sheep Chase, in addition to the “saga,” a “simple narrative structure that derives from the application of narrative theory” is reconstituted.

If we understand Murakami Haruki’s work in this way, we will notice that it begins to have a terrible resemblance to George Lucas’s Star Wars. In short, following this reasoning, first of all I want to say that Murakami Haruki’s work is like Star Wars. Not only that, I think the Gundam saga, Nakagami Kenji’s Kishu saga, and many other literary works and pop culture of the 1980s are part of this same phenomenon. The revival of “fantasy” in computer games is of the same kind as well.  The flood of works in the fantasy genre in present-day Japan is a related phenomenon as well.

As what kind of allegory Star Wars was produced and received in terms of American society, that is something North American researchers should investigate. However, it is my conclusion that the “saga” and works that had “structure according to narrative theory” that Japan’s subculture produced did not function as historical allegories.

Therefore, I believe that Karatani Kōjin was completely correct in directly stating that Japan’s subculture consists “only of structure.” It is a fact that Murakami Haruki’s literature begins with a “saga” and “simplified narrative structure.”

Now, let us think a bit more about the question of the “turn to saga.” This is not restricted to “literature,” but also includes works such as Mobile Suit Gundam, begun in 1979 by Tomino Yoshiyuki and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, Nausicaä and the Valley of the Winds (1984) by Miyazaki Hayao, Five Star Stories (Faibu Sutâ Monogatari) (1986) by Nagano Mamoru, or Record of Lodoss War (Rōdosu-tō Senki (1988) by Mizuno Ryo; “narrative” as it formed in the subculture-sphere in Japan throughout the 1980s is designed as “saga,” or, put differently, as historical chronology and topographical map. The direct models are J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Nakagami Kenji follows Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County saga as a model.

But it is important to emphasise that while postmodernists in Japan were talking about the end of the “grand narrative” and of “history,” Japan’s “literature” and “subculture” throughout the 1980s were bound towards the transformation into “saga.” However, I don’t have to mention that the main problem here is that this was not an actual history but a “virtual history.”

For example, in Murakami Haruki’s “saga” very real facts appear such as the years that certain pinball machine models were produced, but this holds no meaning whatsoever. To begin with, the chronology I just showed you was from the very beginning a “virtual history,” as we can see from this excerpt from the afterword of Murakami’s first book Kaze no Uta o Kike:

I wouldn’t say that if I had never encountered the author Derek Hartfield I would never have written a novel. However, I do think that the road I had taken would have been a completely different one.
—From Kaze no Uta o Kike / Hear the Wind Sing, Kodansha, 1982)2

After this, Murakami proceeds to write a kind of “chronicle” of information concerning Hartfield:

Finally, concerning Hartfield I quoted quite a bit from Thomas McLure’s labour of love The Legend of the Sterile Stars (1968). I am very grateful for this.3

It goes without saying that Derek Hartfield does not actually exist. There is no book written about Hartfield in 1968. By inserting these references, Murakami Haruki gives a hint that his “saga” is only imaginary.

It was the literary critic Eto Jun who pointed out that the method of the kind that Murakami employs, of authors deliberately creating imaginary chronologies and references, and thereby giving formation to a novel, was part of the subculturisation of literature. In 1976 he described the cutting off of literature from history and geography as “subculture”:

‘Subculture’ is a cultural phenomenon in which the character of regions, age groups, or individual immigrant communities or specific societal groups become conspicuous. It is a term used in contrast to a society’s ‘total culture.’ … Incidentally, literary works are not just the simple reflection of a given culture; they have to at least also become its expression. I don’t mind if a novel makes a subculture it’s subject, but in the consciousness of the author this partial culture must stand in some relation to the totality of the culture it is situated in.
—Eto Jun, “Murakami Ryu—The Nonsense of the Akutagawa Prize. There is no literary impression in the reflection of subculture.” Sunday Mainichi, 1976, July 25.4

Though Eto here is criticising Murakami Ryu and not Murakami Haruki, the problem remains the same. As a conservative Eto has a deep anger about Japan having been robbed of “history” and “geography” by the American Occupation. It is his premise that authors must write of this “Japan that has been subculturalised.”

In short, if we say that there is temporarily and actually a Japan that “simply exists,” this Japan is one that has been robbed of its history and geography. A Japan that is our own, as well as a Japan that is not our own. If we were to say it “simply exists,” then that Japan—only that Japan —is the existing one.… Then, if that is the case, to write a novel in present day Japan is to write a novel that is your own and that is not your own, in a language space that has been robbed of its history and geography.
—Eto Jun, Jiyu to Kinki / “Freedom and Restriction,” Tokyo, Kawade Shobo Shinsha, 1984.5

Yet, while a conservative, Eto did not argue for a reconstruction of “the saga of Japan” through “literature.” Eto believed that literature must write critically about the fact that postwar occupied Japan was a language space that had been robbed of history and geography. We should give attention to the fact that he did not demand the reconstruction of the saga. Eto highly praised the 1981 Nantonaku, Kuristaru (Tanaka Yasuo). This book described a conventional love story between a man and a woman, but was filled with a vast number of annotations on brand names or dance clubs. Tanaka described a love story set in a “Japan” cut off from history and geography, and the brand names in the annotations are nothing more than signs along the lines of Baudrillard; yet Tanaka did not reconstruct a “virtual saga” through literature.

Eto continually backed a kind of literature that used the actuality of a “subculturalised Japan” in a self-conscious and critical manner. He did not demand the reconstruction of “Japan as grand narrative” through “literature.”

I want to see the argument that Eto’s “subculture literature” makes as a kind of pre-emptive critique of the “reconstruction of the saga” that took place in 1980s literature.

Similarly Eto strongly pushed for a newcomer award for the 1986 book “Shōri Tōshu” by Umeda Yōko which featured a very manga-like plot about a young girl that becomes a professional baseball player. He explained his support for the book with the fact that authors that don’t read “literature” any more can only take “narrative” from “gekiga” and restore it to the “novel” (or “letter-based signs”), and the book was an attempt to do so.

These people (I’m referring to the nominees for the prize here) have without question never enthusiastically read (Nagai) Kafū, (Higuchi) Ichiyō, (Shimazaki) Tōson, (Shiga) Naoya, (Tanizaki) Junichirō, or Noma Hiroshi, or Kojima Nobuo, or Kōno Taeko, or Flaubert, or Maupassant, or Kafka or Salinger, or William Saroyan, or Beckett, or Sarraute, or Joyce, or Proust or Chekhov, or Dostoyevsky or Camus or Sartre(I will stop here).

Without question, none of them have ever immersed themselves in the works of their predecessors, they have never formed in the recesses of their mind a vague concept of what literature should be, or what a novel can be.

Even so, it is not my intention to scold or denounce them for the shallowness of their reading experience. Because I know that these days bookstores don’t lay out the works of their predecessors. It’s unavoidable that when even if you wanted to read them the books aren’t there your eyes will wander to the magazines and gekiga manga, and you will begin to think that this is sort of what a novel is.
—Eto Jun, “Bungaku Kigō ni yoru Gekiga e no Chōsen”6

Eto here acknowledges the end of the history of literature. Eto interprets this novel as a “critique” of the described state of affairs, though we might say this is somewhat excessive praise.

If we treat Tanaka Yasuo and Eto Jun as the exceptions, we can say that the characteristics of literature in the 1980s are the “transformation into saga” and the “return to simple narrative structure.” To prove the latter we need only remember how Hasumi Shigehiko in his book Shōsetsu o Took Hanarete / Far Away From Literature applied Propp’s narrative theory to show how the novelists Murakami Haruki, Murakami Ryu and even Murayama Saiichi had all been writing the exact same narrative.

We would do well to understand this revival of the “saga” in 1980s Japan as set against the background of the defeat of the leftist movement at the beginning of the 1970s.

It is something I often repeat, but Gundam is the joint creation of Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, who was once a member of a New Left sect, and of director Tomino Yoshiyuki, whose senior at university was the later Red Army member Adachi Masao. One of the leaders of the leftist movement in the late 1960s/early 1970s was Kuroki Ryushi, who later became Kasai Kiyoshi and penned the Komure Saga / Komure Sâga in the 1980s (which included Vampire Wars / Vanpaiâ Sensō). It’s in this context that we should understand how Ota Ryu, one of the leaders of the New Left, became so excited about so-called “fake history” (gishi). 

Here one gets the impression that the “defeat in actual history” of the left becomes a motivation for the construction of a “virtual saga.” Regardless of whether the authors had direct experience with the leftist movement or not, the defeat of a Marxist model of history is compensated with the “virtual saga.” Murakami Haruki and Nakagami Kenji held their distance from political movements, but in the end it is the same phenomenon. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the New Left movement was a type of pop culture. Shirato Sanpei’s gekiga manga previously showed an attitude of portraying a historical perspective based on class warfare. We can say that when the hijackers of the Yodogo airplane defected to North Korea and declared that “We are Tomorrow’s Joe” / “Wareware wa Ashita no Joe de aru” (translator's note: referring the the popular manga Tomorrow’s Joe) they were also defecting into the realm of the imaginary.

Now, one thing we must take special care about is that while the “virtual saga” of the 1980s is a “compensation for actual history” on the basis of the defeat of the left, in the beginning the “virtual saga” existed as a “reflection of history” and it was possible to read the narratives as “historical allegories.”

For example, Gundam features “the promised land” as a main theme, and borrowed the constellation of problems around Palestine. In Japan Murakami Haruki’s “saga” is commonly understood as having a leftist frustration as its background. Yasuhiko and the Studio Ghibli producer Suzuki Toshio both have a history in the leftist movement and are one generation above Murakami, while Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao have never hidden their leftist ideology. The giant soldiers in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which Suzuki made together with Miyazaki and Takahata, are without question nuclear, and can be understood as part of an “allegory of the nuclear” of postwar Japan.

So then, the question arises of why the “virtual saga” and the “allegory” constructed through it became cut off from history?—They deliberately severed the material to be used for the “saga” from actual history, and used the fragments to construct the “saga.”  This is made explicit in a paragraph Murakami Haruki wrote about the AUM leader Asahara Shōko. In it Murakami criticises the teachings Asahara passed on to his followers.

It needn’t be anything particularly fancy, nothing complicated or refined. You don’t need to have library ambitions. In fact, rather, the sketchier and simpler the better. Junk, a leftover rehash will do.… A simple “emblem” of a story will do for this kind of narrative… Asahara Shoko was talented enough to impose his rehashed narrative on people (who for the most part came looking for just that). It was a risible, slapdash story.
—Murakami Haruki, Underground, 1999.7

Murakami is saying the following:

  1. Murakami explains “junk” as a fragment, emptied of meaning, that has been severed from “context” or the “whole”
  2. Asahara attains an understanding of the world through his “junk” medley
  3. Within this “world as a medley of junk” Asahara tells a narrative that is extremely simple.

About his own novels, Murakami seemed to believe that he used medleys of junk—fragments that were severed from “history” or the “whole”—like an avant-garde constructivist making a collage. #2 points out the intent towards “saga,” and #3 points out the intent towards a “narrative with a simple structure.”

Concretely Murakami Haruki thought that Aum’s doctrine—which took from the doctrines of many other new religions as well as from the discourse of New Academism or subculture’s specificities to retain believers one by one—corresponded to his own novelistic method.

For example one of AUM’s executives, Tsuchiya Masami, wrote up statements by Asahara that are known as the Tsuchiya notes. I once summarised their content in the following way:

First of all the notes predict that in the process of Asahara’s trial the existence of paranormal abilities will be proven and Japanese society will shift towards a “100 million complete AUM.” Then “in 1995 it will be able to surpass the power of the entire nation,” and by ’98-’99 AUM will essentially replace the Japanese nation. As one aspect of this AUM will aim to become “the highest religion in the world,” and in three steps (mid-90s, late 90s, 2030) it will invade Jerusalem and lead a religious war with Islam.

Tsuchiya will be highly active in this war. Together with his teacher he will be taken prisoner, but AUM will use the military to save them. During that battle, Tsuchiya will “beat two or three people to death to protect the teacher.” During the third invasion of Jerusalem Tsuchiya and his teacher will construct a shrine together. However, in the suburbs of Jerusalem “the teacher will die the death of the Buddha.” For whatever reason Tsuchiya will not make it in time to attend the death of the sect’s founder. Asahara dies calling out “Where is Tsuchiya,” and directly afterwards Armageddon begins. Many disciples die, but Tsuchiya lives to be 92 years old and “lays the foundation for the kingdom of a thousand years,” though finally “through a rogue from another religion or an internal schism” he follows his master in death.
—Ōtsuka Eiji, Asahara Shōko wa ika ni Rekishi o Katatta ka / “How Asahara Shoko Narrated History,” RONZA, July 1, 1995 issue.8

That is to say, in the “saga” that Asahara narrates, all the leading figures inside AUM are treated as cliché characters in a heroic story. It is not difficult to see how much the AUM leadership (many of whom were from the “otaku” or “shinjinrui” generation) was hungry for connecting “themselves” with a “grand narrative.”

At that time Murakami Haruki was quite right in feeling confusion, but he chose to aim for a “total novel” and to intensify the “virtual saga.” That is the reason we can see the will to a “total novel” in his books The Wind-up Bird Chronicles or IQ84.

And so, at this point, the “first-person (narrative) problem” of the “I” (boku) emerges. It is the problem that this “I” is the main character in the “simple narrative” that is positioned in the “saga as junk.” It may be difficult to understand why the inner leadership circle at AUM—with their high-level educational backgrounds—sought self-realisation through the “virtual saga” and the “simple narrative,” but the self-gratification that readers in Japan achieved with Murakami’s novels that made “I” (boku) into the main character of his novels touches upon the same problem.

Regarding this, there is a related problem that we should point out. We need to discuss a bit more the issue that 1980s’ subculture was also a kind of “conversion literature” (tenkō bungaku). While on the one hand we can see the escape to a “virtual history,” we can also see that another phenomenon existed which we might call “gender-theoretical conversion.” We can for example note that in the early 1970s, after the demise of the leftist movement in Japan, “folk songs” discarded political messages and began to sing from the position of female first-person narration, or reproducing messages of female independence. The problem here is that the ones narrating this were male.

One representative of this “conversion” to “female first person” perspectives is Hashimoto Osamu’s Momojiri Musume / Peach Hip Girl (1977). Hashimoto wrote the following in his novel, which uses the first person narration of a high school girl:

Today, it came. Ah, it really finally came, this is good, really good. Man, I was really starting to worry, ’cause ever since the new school year started it didn’t come. I mean, yeah, it doesn’t always come on time, but I started thinking, like, ‘Wow, this is bad, what am I gonna do’. But then I suddenly understood, like, ‘Whaaa, it’s coming’ I was really gonna shriek or something. Ah, this is good.

I guess it was good I really tried hard and used a tampon day in, day out. Usually I think, well, it’s a drag but this kind of stuff happens, but today was great, maybe that’s just me. 
—Hashimoto Osamu, Momojiri Musume / Peach-Hip Girl, Kodansha, 19779

I think we can say that by using a high school girl’s ramblings, and thoroughly basing the storytelling on everydayness, Hoshimoto is relativising “politics,” “society” and “history.” This mode of “literature” in which it obtains a privileged position through males using female first person narration to relativise the world is something we can actually already find as early as Dazai Osamu’s Schoolglrl / Joseito.

In the morning, when I awake, my feelings are interesting. When I’m playing hide-and-seek, and crouching hidden in the pitch-dark closet, and suddenly the door is slid back by Deko-chan and the sunlight puts in all at once, and Deko-chan says in a loud voice, ‘I’ve got you!’, and first I’m dazzled and then feel strangely awkward, and after that my heart beats very fast, and I bring my dress together in front, and, a little bashfully, I come out of the closet, and then, suddenly, I feel so angry I’m sick to my stomach—that feeling, no that’s wrong, it’s not that feeling, what is it, it’s something more unbearable. When you open a box, and inside it there’s another little box, and when you open that little box, again, inside that there’s a smaller box, and when you open that, again, there’s another smaller box, and when you open that little box, there’s another little box, and so you go on opening seven, eight little boxes, and finally, at the end, there’s a box as small as a die, and you carefully open that there’s nothing, it’s empty, that’s a little what it’s like.
—Dazai Osamu, Schoolgirl / Joseito, 193910

However, I want to emphasise how an “I” that in this way isn’t rooted in reality is very easily absorbed into a “grand narrative.” This is exactly why the first-person perspective mode is a technique of “conversion” and “escape.”

The short story collection Joseito went into print two years after the Russian-Japanese war. This non-historical, non-political collection, which focused on stories in the first-person mode of an “I” that was unstable and floating, was re-released in 1942 just after the beginning of the Pacific War with the title of Josei / Woman, this time including a story called Jūni-gatsu Yōka / The Eighth of December. I don’t have to say that the eighth of December is of course the day the war between Japan and the U.S. began.

Today I will write my diary entry with special care. I will write a bit about how a housewife from a poor Japanese family spent the eighth of December 1941. Maybe it will become a contribution to understanding history if in 100 years, when we beautifully celebrate the 2700 year epoch of Nippon, this my diary is dug up in the corner of some storehouse, and people can understand what kind of life a housewife from this our Japan was leading on this important day. So even if my writing is poor, I will take care not to write any lies. It’s tough, because I have to consider the 2700 year epoch when writing this.
—Dazai Osamu “December 8” in Josei, written in 194211

From this we understand how easily the non-historical female “I” is collected into the “Tennō saga” and the “fascist saga” of the “2700 year epoch.” In other words, the non-historical, non-political female first-person “I” is easily collected into the “virtual saga.”

This kind of “gender-theoretical conversion” is not just a problem of first-person narrative, but also a question of male authors transferring the main subjectivity of the story to female characters. This is also the context in which we must understand what Saitō Tamaki has called “beautiful fighting girls.” This switch in gender of the main subjectivity of the story to female first-person narrative as performed by male authors and its relation to the post 1970s’ “conversion” is very important. It is a very similar problem to Murakami Haruki’s non-historical, non-political first person narrative “I” (boku). His first-person narration sounds to Japanese like a non-national (mukokuseki) first-person narration from a translated novel. In the the end it is a hollow “I.”

In this way subculture (or subculture literature) as “conversion literature” has on the one hand shifted towards the “virtual saga” and on the other to a “gender-theoretical conversion type narrative.” Through this we can understand why currently anime and manga are so full of “fantasy” and “moe.”

So, of these two forms of “conversion,” I now want to return to the “virtual saga” and the shift towards “narrative as structure.” Let’s take another look at Nakagami Kenji as an example to consider this.

That Nakagami in his later years wrote a scenario for a gekiga manga that then suffered a setback has rarely been discussed. Before I published its scenario with Kadokawa Geijutsu Publishing in 2005, it wasn’t even included in Nakagami’s collected works (Table 4). This gekiga manga was serialised in Manga Action magazine from 1989 to 1990. That Nakagami in his later years had a strong inclination towards “stereotypical” narratives is a well-known fact, and supported by the following quote:

At first, Nakagami Kenji brought a resolute objection to the usual understanding of the stereotype.... He on the contrary, in Izoku used very flat and typical patterns for characters and places. He gave extremely stereotypical names such as “Kankan” and “Utari” to a Taiwanese and an Ainu character. In Seoul Story (Monogatari Souru) he treats the main characters Joonyang and Changiru in the same way, giving them names from classical stories and folk tales that everyone in Korea knows. These famous names are borrowed to function like a mask. They are not proof of an identity, but are exchanged like baggage that is tossed off by friends, like nicknames, like abbreviated shouts. They are specific names that are presented like goods for consumption. It is narrative  regarded as an exchangable and disposable existence. Here there is no dignity or solemnity, it is an actuality built only on speed.
—Yomota Inuhiko, Kishu to Tensei—Nakagami Kenji / “High Birth and Re-Birth,” Shinchōsha, 199612

In other words, Nakagami deliberately used stereotypical characters for narration, and through this deconstructed the system called “narrative.” Actually, novels from Nakagami’s later years stand out as simply substituting specific terms (that are only signs) from the simple narrative structure of the modern Japanese tale Hakkenden and what Origuchi Shinobu calls a kishuryūritan structure (roughly: legend of exiled nobels). However, can we really say that Nakagami attempted to dissolve narrative in a postmodernist manner?

If we look at Nakagami’s literary work as “saga,” we can I think divide it into three stages that change over time.

  1. A child’s millennial “world”
  2. The Kishū-saga, which makes the backstreets (roji) its point of origin
  3. A “Greater Asia saga” as virtual saga in his later years,

His 1973 work Map of a Nineteen Year Old / Jūkyūsai no Chizu can be seen as representative of (1). It tells the tale of a newspaper delivery boy that marks the houses of people on his route that he feels animosity towards with an “x.” The “saga” in this book is the reflection of the fragile self of a boy, situated it in a tiny map. Therefore, this small world never develops into a “grand narrative” at the end of the novel, and ultimately collapses.

The “Kishū-saga” in which he uses the alleyways and the hisabetsu buraku communities as a starting point belongs in phase (2).  It is the same as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County-saga. There is no question the “Kishū-saga” constructs a saga by subsuming the Emperor-system and the hisabetsu buraku.

Nakagami’s Minami Kaikisen, then, is situated in (3). In this third phase, he uses the plot of the modern literary fable Hakkenden in his book Different Tribes / Izoku (1993). It is the same attitude that George Lucas had when he used the narrative of the Arthurian myth according to Joseph Campbell’s narrative theory to write the script for Star Wars. It is here that he begins to insist on telling stories that adhere to narrative theory. In fact, as early as 1984 Nakagami says the following:

If we were to have a writing class, and I would assign a theme and have everyone write ten pages, and then do a close analysis, I would be able to talk about how to develop the plot, how to decide on the setting for the plot, how to drive the plot forward and so on. I think the fact that we can talk about these things is due to, for example, the Russian formalists, who grew tired of socialist realism, tried to reform the Russian novel, to renew it, to think about what the novel is, what literature is, this group that started work under the oppressive circumstances of Russia constructed a theory that created data in the way that you input into a computer.… In other words I think maybe it’s automatism that can do what can’t be done, by using automatisms in a novel you create a kind of tautology, by using automatisms in a narrative you produce a tautology.
—Nakagami Kenji, Gendai Shōsetu no Hōhō / The Method of the Contemporary Novel, 198413

What Nakagami is talking about here is an awareness of how by using a literary theory such as Propp’s one can control the narrative. This moment in 1984 is exactly the point at which Nakagami finished his “Kishū-saga.” Until this point the Kishū-saga had used a real incident to create an allegory, and arranged it in the mythical world of “Kishū,” which originated in the alleys (roji). This is close to the method by which the folklore researcher Yanagita Kunio constructed his mountain people saga of an other world of indigenous people; he did this by allegorising an actual murder case in the essay Yama no Jinsei, a work that we might also call a short “novel.”

However, the blissful relation of a “novel” and “saga” that is inextricably connected with folk tales and folk culture did not last in Nakagami’s work. A good indicator of this change is the idea of “applying automatism in narratives” and that “narrative controls the narrative.”

I would like to emphasise again that Nakagami conceived of himself as a “storytelling machine.”

Yasuda Hitoshi, who helped popularise table top role playing games in Japan, in 1987 described computer games as “myth-generating machines.” He envisioned computers of the future as “machines that self-generate narratives.”

Nakagami’s statements are made in the context of Russian formalism’s narrative theory, which of course has a strong degree of compatibility with information theory. Nakagami’s use of the computer as a metaphor for Russian formalism’s narrative theory is quite correct.

In Nakagami’s case, his attempt to redefine himself has a “storytelling machine” implies elements of possession, in other words of a Shaman that relies on the gods, of an image of himself as narrating myth; in any event, he attempted to grasp his own production in terms of a “storytelling machine.” This point is similar to Murakami Haruki. Murakami writes the following in the afterword to Underground:

You are the “maker” of a narrative, at the same time you are a “player” that experiences the narrative.
—Murakami Haruki, Underground, 199914

Here Murakami touches upon the important point that essentially people are both “makers” (mêkâ) and “players” (pureiâ). However we should also notice that in this afterword to Underground he uses the word “maker” for author, thereby framing production in a very systematic theory of creation. Therefore it looks to me as if Murakami produces his narrative from “simple signs” in the context of a “virtual saga” much like a machine. For Nakagami it looks as if he is playing a computer game, and one installment of that game is “literature.” Minami Kaikisen especially can really only be read as an attempt of this kind. In the first place, for a literary author to write the script for a gekiga manga means that he is renouncing the function of specificity that “literature” possesses. Below is one part of that script (gensaku):

Paper falls.
A crumpled ball of paper falls.
A hand picks it up.
It opens the ball of paper.
It is a map of Tokyo.
Like the fluff of a dandelion the map’s wrinkles look like the fluff of a dandelion.
A finger holds the map of Tokyo. A finger with dirty fingernails moves.
—Nakagami Kenji, Minami Kaikisen, 200515

As underlined, here “like” is repeated twice in a way that is incorrect in Japanese grammar. Moreover, this script is expressed by the manga artist in the way you can see here.

Figure 1. Nakagami Kenji, Minami Kaikisen, 2005.

Ōtsuka, Figure 1

Credit: Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan, Tokyo.

That “the map’s wrinkles” look “like a dandelion’s fluff” is, in the written form, interpretable as a form of dissimulation. However, once it becomes an image in a gekiga manga it loses this function. Essentially in the gekiga manga, apart from the dialogue, Nakagami’s text is not used. “Style of writing” is taken away with the transition to gekiga image.

In the end, the only elements to remain are characters and storylines, and what in manga and animation is called the “worldview” (sekaikan) of the work. Actually, despite the importance of the specific place name of Kishū (Kii Peninsula) for Nakagami’s “Kishū saga,” it disappears in the gekiga manga, while it is mentioned in the manga script:

The helicopter flies through the sky. It flies along the coastline. It flies above Kii Peninsula. “Look, look,” Takeshi says to Kyoko. He points at the white wave crashing on the craggy rocks visible from the window. “It’s down there, down there is the tree of fireflies. Mine and my father’s secret” “Where?” “Down there. Where the rock turns rough.”
—Nakagami Kenji, Minami Kaikisen, Kadokawa Geijutsu Shuppan, 200516

However, once this becomes a gekiga manga (image #2), this kind of specific naming with all the meaning connected to it does not appear. Minami Kaikisen’s narrative sticks closely to what the Freudian Otto Rank described as the structure of the Oedipus myth in his The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, or what Joseph Campbell sees as the structure of the “hero’s journey,” or what Origuchi Shinobu called a kishuryūritan structure. He follows the patterns very closely, and doesn’t add much in terms of invention.

The narrative follows the main character, who is born to a noble family but is orphaned very early; he learns of his noble lineage and gains the support of friends and a transcendent person, passes through several ordeals, topples an “enemy” that represents the “father” and achieves the glory of self-realisation. If you insert the name Luke Skywalker into this it becomes Star Wars; if you insert the name Kusakabe Takeshi it becomes Minami Kaikisen; and by the way if you insert the name Madara it becomes a computer game I helped conceptualise in the 1980s called Madara.

In Minami Kaikisen, the father of the main character is an exceptionally talented boxer and race car driver who was born to a father from Japan and a mother from Tonga. The main character’s mother is originally from Japan, but she marries as the “third queen of Tonga.” In other words, she is nobility. The father escapes with his son to hide out in a circus, and the mother’s death is narrated in the following way:

“Dad said that because I was as hot as fire, my mother died.”
“It was a story almost straight from a myth.”
—Nakagami Kenji, Minami Kaikisen17

This initially reminds of the episode from ancient Japanese lore in which Izanami, who gave birth to fire, dies. However, the hero learns that his mother is actually still alive, and the search for his mother begins. It is suggested that a powerful right-wing figure is the hero’s grandfather. Like in Star Wars or in a computer-based role playing game, the hero forms a party and departs on the quest. The members of the party are as follows:

—A boy that resembles a small Mao Zedong
—Yang Kwei Fei
—Mike Tyson

Figure 2. Nakagami Kenji, Minami Kaikisen, 2005.

Ōtsuka, Figure 2

Credit: Kadokawa Gakugei Shuppan, Tokyo.

The hero is comparable to a member of the group from Lord of The Rings. I don’t have to emphasise that the characters here from their names and exterior immediately create a simple image, and that they are cut off from their original “context.” They are nothing more than references, what Murakami called “junk.”

This arrangement of sampled characters and of Origuchi’s Kishuryūritan myth turned into structure is simply the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” as a medley of junk. Within the story Chinese aristocrats that are conspiring to resurrect the Qing dynasty and a powerful right-wing figure that dreams of creating an empire in the South Pacific make a bet. As part of the bet the hero of the story has to fight with Mike Tyson and wins; as the winner he gains the right to wed a young woman named “Yang Kwei Fei,” a descendant of the Qing dynasty. In other words the hero is saddled with the fate of connecting the Chinese mainland and the South Sea as king. In this way the hero then departs on a journey much like Han Solo and Princess Leia or as in an RPG. They travel to Davao in the Philippines, where he meets Jackson, who resembles the ghost of General MacArthur, who greets him with nuclear bomb. At this point the manga was interrupted due to trouble with the publisher.

But, does this work contain a narrative with some kind of message? Can we really say that a “historical allegory” is formed in this “saga” of both misunderstanding and reconstructing the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in this narrative that features Mike Tyson and Mao Zedong, schematically modeled on the myth structure of Kishuryuritan? Of course it would be easy to point out Nakagami’s shallow “shift to the political right” here. But actually Nakagami did nothing more than decontextualise characters and place names, and even the atomic bomb, from “history” and “reality,” and produce a fake Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere much along the lines of the “world view” (sekai-kan) in computer games and anime. In the same way that Gundam sometimes references Islamic names for its characters, Nakagami is cutting off these “signs” from “history” and playing with them. It is the same picture Murakami Haruki saw in AUM’s Asahara.

However, I don’t think we should mistakenly praise Nakagami for in this way criticising “grand narratives” or “narrative structure” and trying to deconstruct them.

At this point, let me quote Murakami’s Underground one more time at length:

You are the narrative’s “maker,” but at the same time you are a “player” that experiences the story. By possessing this multi-layered narrativity, we more or less console ourselves over the loneliness of being an individual in this world. However, if you (or rather, anyone) don’t have a specific self, you can’t create a specific narrative.… It is the same sense in which you can’t make a car without an engine. It is like without a material thing no shadow can be cast. But you as you are now have inherited your self (jiga) from another person.
—Murakami Haruki, Underground18

Let’s think about what Murakami is saying:

  1. First of all, he claims that “you,” the reader, and not only the author, is a “maker” of narratives.
  2. “You,” or rather the “player” live(s) these self-created narratives
  3. To drive this machine called “maker of narratives” an engine is necessary. This is the “self;” however with the AUM incident this was left to a third party.

Here I have to call to mind a collection of essays I wrote when I was young called Theory of Narrative Consumption (Monogatari Shōhi-ron, 1989). In these essays I proposed that, using derivative works in dōjin publications and RPG computer games as a model, the “receivers” of a story—the readers—were transforming into what we must call “storytelling readers.” To explain this, I used the example of how scripts for Kabuki, which emerged in the early modern period in Japan, were written. In Kabuki there are many “worlds” such as Taiheki (Chronicle of the Great Peace) or Oguri-hogan. While these are assemblages of fragments of information that structure the “saga” (of history, maps, or blood relations) and are close to the “world-view” of animation and games, they are not organised as in a database, but rather are medleys of “junk” that create one respective “world.” Such a “world” is a “realm” (bunya) shared by the sender (author) and receiver (audience) of Kabuki and consists of character images created through typologies based on historical figures and folk knowledge, much like a storyteller on the street handles storytelling. In this way Kabuki scriptwriters give form to script after script. This is called a shukō (variation).

Such a “world” is not shared in concretely written form; it is more of a common understanding between the sender and receiver. I understand derivative works as having an awareness of manga narratives as a “world” that is shared, and common awareness is used to create variation (shukō). The difference from the Edo period is that now the “receivers” are the ones performing this action. 

Actually when Nakagami was writing Izoku in the late 1980s and early 1990s, [the epic 19th century novel] Hakkenden was being released in various forms such as novelisations, anime, comics, and even new Kabuki plays. It therefore looks as if Hakkenden was shared as a “world” in the 1980s and  Nakagami wrote Izoku as a variation. Minami Kaikisen is a medley of “junk” as history, made up of—especially after the appearance of Mike Tyson—stereotypical characters and fragments of what the Japanese know as representations of “wartime” and the “postwar.” We could also say that it is close to the common level of “awareness of the world” of the general public in Japan at that time.

 So we can say that Nakagami was acting as a “narrative-maker” that was creating (somewhat in the mode of a “player” of a computer game) a variation on the basis of a shared world between “receivers” and other authors. However we don’t know whether Nakagami had noticed that by this time many of the “receivers” were doing the same thing.

Yet, while postmodernists were proclaiming the “end of history and of narrative,” Nakagami, Murakami, and Asahara were on the other hand creating extremely simplified narratives that were “nothing but structure” and “saga made with junk.” “World” was cut off from “history” and “actuality,” and the self-producing “narratives” which producers/authors were creating could no longer be historical allegories.

What really created an environment in which not only authors but anyone could in this way become a “narrative-maker” was the Internet. Words and information are turned into decontextualised fragments that accumulate on the Web and become a kind of “understanding of the world.” Within this “junk-like” “world,” people produce as “makers” and live as “players.”

This is the current state of Japan.

Perhaps we can say that countries other than Japan sometimes look the same as well.

In the essay “Theory of Narrative Consumption” I once tried to explain the system within which single persons are “makers” of narratives and are also “players,” and I predicted that an age would come in which many people would participate in such a system. However, at that time I wasn’t at all able to imagine the shape of the Web as it exists today.

Currently, in such a “Japan as junk” people reproduce the simple narratives of “Japan” and “the Japanese” through Twitter and through blogs, which re-enter the “world” as feedback, and people live within this “world.” In the sense of Nakagami’s Minami Kaikisen this “Japan” is a “saga,” and people continue to tell these “simple narratives” out of mischief, satisfying a “narrativising subject” or rather a hollow “self.”

If Japan had really been heading for postmodernity, this kind of substitute for “history” and the “simple narratives” that function to satisfy a “hollow self” would have been unnecessary. However, in AUM we can see that there was a demand for an “imaginary history” that cheaply supported the “I,” and the current narrative of “Japan” that is circulating in Japan is actually an extension of the “imaginary saga.” In the same way that the criticism of school textbooks began around the time of the AUM subway incident, after the late 1990s “history” was narrated as a kind of patchwork made up of a former discourses of “conservatism,” much like Nakagami “quotes” the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. I think that more than seeing this as a resistance to the disintegration of history, we can see it as a sabotage of the “construction of history.”

Therefore, what researchers of manga and anime present here and are working on are merely “imaginary sagas” and “narratives that only consist of structure” that are perpetuated by the logic of narrative consumption. This goes for discourses of “territory” as much as for discourses that talk about Hatsune Miku. This is something we should not forget.


[1] Translator’s note: Ōtsuka uses the term sabukaruchā in Japanese, derived from the English-language word “subculture.” The usage in Japanese however veers more towards meaning something closer to popular culture, and can include very mainstream works—anime and manga are therefore generally often referred to as sabukaruchā. For an excellent analysis of this usage see Anne McKnight, “Princesses and Revolution: The European Interfaces to Japanese Subculture, from the 1970s to the Millenium,” in Minikomi 75 (2008): 28-37.

[2] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji. This section is not contained in the translation of the story from the 2015 edition, Haruki Murakami, Wind / Pinball, trans. Ted Goossen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

[3] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji. This section is not contained in the translation of the story from the 2015 edition, Haruki Murakami, Wind / Pinball, trans. Ted Goossen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

[4] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[5] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[6] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as quoted by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[7] Translation taken from: Haruki Murakami, Underground, transl. Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel (New York: Vintage International, 2001), 232. A more literal translation would be: “There is no need to make it a refined, complicated, excellent narrative. No need for a literary odour. Rather it’s better to be crude and simple. To say more, maybe it’s best to keep it as close to junk or rubbish as possible.... Therefore, it is enough for the supplied narrative to be a simple narrative, to stand as a single sign.… Asahara Shōko was able generously to supply people (people who demanded it) with such a junk narrative, and he was able to supply it convincingly.”

[8] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as quoted by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[9] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as quoted by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[10] Translation from Dazai Osamu, The Schoolgirl, trans. Lane Dunlop, in Northern House Poets 35 (1992): 2-23.

[11] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji. Here I chose to use a more literal translation than the existing one by Ralph McCarthy as this emphasises the point Ōtsuka is trying to make. See also Osamu Dazai, “December 8,” trans. Ralph McCarthy, in Manoa 13:1 (2001): 74-80.

[12] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as quoted by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[13] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as quoted by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[14] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as quoted by Ōtsuka Eiji; the translation by Birnbaum and Gabriel translates mêkâ with “storyteller” and “pureiâ” with “character,” which doesn’t capture the point Ōtsuka is trying to make about Murakami’s choice of words (see Underground, p. 231).

[15] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[16] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[17] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji.

[18] Translator’s note: My translation from the Japanese original as provided by Ōtsuka Eiji. Again, this translation departs from Birnbaum and Gabriel’s for the aforementioned reasons.

About the Author

Ōtsuka Eiji is Professor at the International Centre for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, Japan, with a long career as a theorist, editor, author, and critic. He has published prolifically on the history and form of manga, on popular culture in Japan, Yanagita Kunio and anthropology and folklore studies, on narrative theory and on media mix. His numerous fiction works include the MPD Psycho and Madara series, and he has worked across media on novels, manga, video games.

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About the Translator

Alexander Zahlten is Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilisations at Harvard University. His research on film and audiovisual culture in East Asia and especially Japan from the 1960s onward focuses on the connection between larger economic, social and institutional structures and film and media aesthetics. His recent work explores topics such as the changing character of fiction or ‘amateur’ media production. His most recent publication is Media Theory in Japan (Marc Steinberg & Alexander Zahlten, eds., 2017).

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