The giant reptile Godzilla has spawned a franchise of 38 films (and counting) and even has his own official website. But for all the fun of a rampaging 50m monster (or is he 120m?—he has grown along with Tokyo’s skyline), it’s easy to miss his origins as a powerful metaphor for the consequences of nuclear warfare. Shigeru Kayama’s novellas Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again in Jeffrey Angles’s new translation restore Godzilla’s metaphorical roots.

Writers responded to the triple disasters of 11 March 2011 with a new genre of Japanese literature: shinsai bungaku or “earthquake literature”. Almost 13 years later, it’s easy to forget  just how terrible 11 March 2011 really was. The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered a tsunami that may have reached heights up to 40 meters. It rushed as far as 10 kilometers inland at the speed of a passenger jet at cruising altitude. It caused massive destruction along more than 400 kilometers of Japan’s eastern coast, wiping away coastal towns in minutes. 

In his 1994 speech accepting the second Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to a Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe claimed that, in the history of modern Japanese literature, “the writers most sincere and aware of their mission were those ‘post-war writers’” who “tried with great pains to make up for the inhuman atrocities committed by Japanese military forces in Asian countries.” He went on to describe more contemporary writers as “a youth politically uninvolved or disaffected, content to exist within a late adolescent or post adolescent subculture.”

The tales in Ao Omae’s People Who Talk to Stuffed Animals Are Nice are about sensitive people trying to navigate an unjust world. Take Nanamori, the protagonist of the collection’s title story. The characters in “People Who Talk” are members of the university Plushie Club. Members justify the club to university officials as an organization that collects and crafts stuffed animals. In reality, they use the stuffies for a kind of informal talk therapy.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Kappa is the story of a psychiatric patient who claims he once spent time in a land of water-loving creatures out of Japanese folklore. Most of Akutagawa’s contemporaries—as most Japanese readers today—would have been familiar with this famous folktale monster. A kappa is about three feet tall and, according to Patient No 23, weighs 20-30 pounds. It has webbed hands and feet, as well as a dish on top of its head that has to remain wet. The kappa also loves cucumbers and sumo wrestling. 

Akira Mizubayashi’s Fractured Soul opens in Tokyo in 1938. Rei sits quietly to the side while his father Yu conducts rehearsal for a string quartet playing Franz Schubert’s “Rosamunde Quartet”. Yu plays first violin, accompanied by three exchange students from war-beleaguered China. When Yu realizes they’re about to receive an unexpected visit from Japan’s military police, he hides Rei in a Western-style wardrobe in a spare room. Rei listens as officers smash his father’s beloved instrument and then take Yu away, never to be seen again. A lone military officer discovers Rei’s hiding place, but keeps his secret.