Yasutaka Tsutsui, born in 1934, is less well-known outside of Japan than other contemporary Japanese writers. This is perhaps because, as translator Andrew Driver says in his introduction to Bullseye,
it’s hard to pin a label on him as he has been comic storyteller, novelist, playwright, science fiction writer, actor, TV personality, nonconformist, guru of metafiction, jazz musician.
To place him within a band of recognizable Japanese writers, he is more Ryu Murakami than Haruki Murakami—with the profane and sometimes violent edge of the former, rather than the smooth and contemplative surrealism of the latter. Tsutsui is certainly more Kobo Abe than Kenzaburo Oe.
Most of his stories are what I call “sciencey” fiction, that is, not so much traditional science fiction, but fiction that is not constrained by the present knowledge or application of what we know of the natural, and human-made, world. For example, in the book’s title story, “Bullseye,” the main character finds his reality has changed one morning:
I’d just been thinking how it wasn’t me that was expanding but the universe that was actually shrinking, and was about to resume this train of thought when a woman came out of the kitchen.
The unknown woman, and her partner who also appears out of thin air, leave a couple of million in cash lying around so the protagonist makes off with it. Out walking around, he stops at a police box to ask directions for a non-existing university. The officer leaves his gun on his desk when he goes to the back to ask to see if anyone knows the university. The protagonist steals the weapon and makes a plan to use both—well, why not? He makes a good start but things quickly go awry as he wastes a bullet on some street thugs who disappointingly turn out to be cowards. In a nearby community center, he finds a lecture in progress. The audience are tempting targets. Instead, he shoots the lecturer and then proceeds to give the lecture off the top of his head.
Good afternoon. I’ve just turned up here today, but I think I can muddle through. Yes. I’m sure I can muddle through, so please don’t worry. So, on to the theme of my talk, The Tale of Genji. Actually, there’s no such thing as The Tale of Genji. That’s because it originally had no title; books tended not to have titles back then. So what did people call it? They could have called it Carry on Genji! or maybe Confessions of a Saucy Courtier.
Things go downhill from there as he runs from the frightened audience by ducking into a hostess bar. Then he is captured by belligerent but inept police detectives. After finally making his escape from them, we discover his ultimate plan.
In the “Running Man,” the main character is, well, running. The race is in an Olympics in the distant future, when no one even knows what the Olympics are, so there are no spectators. There are only two other competitors, and the course they run is to be determined by each runner.
I kept running. As I ran, I began to wonder what had motivated me to take part in the first place. I often ran alone, and I used to think about different things while I was running; it helped me forget the breathlessness and the searing pain in my chest. But what made me want to pound the earth like that, planting one foot after the other on the ground, two short breaths in, two short breaths out, as I ran alone through virtually deserted streets lined by dreary office buildings?
Our runner gets lost, stops for directions, even grabs a shower, and more, in a young woman’s home after getting soaked running through a storm drain. Back running after the interlude, he contemplates his life and the meaning of his seemingly pointless running, and eventually days, weeks, or perhaps months later, arrives at the finish line when he learns the fates of the other competitors and if he won. Or lost.
“The Wind,” a short, short story, begins like an Edgar Allen Poe tale:
“Listen! Someone’s knocking at the door.”
“No, it’s just the wind.”
“Really? It doesn’t sound like the wind. It sounds like someone knocking.”
“But the wind sometimes sounds like that.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“Yes. And it always turns out to be the wind.”
“So it does. But this time it might be someone knocking.”
Told strictly in dialogue, the couple speculate on who could be at the door. Maybe it’s Jiro, a son asking for money? Or someone with a grudge? Ichiro, who vanished thirty years ago? We learn much about the couple in their brief exchange.
The theme of “The Countdown Clock” is time—the inevitable march to death. But time doesn’t proceed smoothly, as the main character, a writer, finds in Oddo’s watch shop. Sometimes it jerks forward in odd increments, or pokes the wearer of a unique watch with a needle. The watchmaker also has harsh words of criticism:
… you’re too obsessed with death these days. It’s understandable—people around you are dropping like flies. First your father, then your brother, then other writers, artists, musicians, your contemporaries. That’s why you write about nothing but death in your short stories and novels. Even now—look!” he said, pointing at the street outside. A friend of mine, a famous cartoonist who had recently died, waved as he walked past the shop window.
The protagonist visits the shop again and again. But the shop keeps changing names as well as time itself keeps changing. But what exactly what is time, and what is its correlation with life? That is really what the story is about.
It was never my intention to go to the clock shop in my dreams; if it had been, I would probably have never made it there. In any case, it was rare for me to remember the shop when I was awake. What usually happened was that I remembered it after I’d started dreaming, and only then would I want to go there.
This remarkable collection of short stories is more skillfully curated than merely collected. After I selected the four stories to detail in this review, I noticed they were from different decades: “Bullseye” (2015), “Running Man” (1973), “The Wind” (1988), and “The Countdown Clock” (1996). All give a different perspective of Tsutsui’s oeuvre. Overall, the collection is highly recommended not only for those who enjoy Japanese fiction, but also those looking for a unique voice writing thought-provoking, darkly humorous, and insightful narratives.
Todd Shimoda is the author of Why Ghosts Appear, Subduction, Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono No Aware', The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji.