JQ Magazine: Book Reviews – ‘Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?’ and ‘The Future Is Japanese’

A pair of this year’s releases from Haikasoru.

 Belka, Why Don’t You Bark?

“As a writer, Furukawa is possessed of a kinetic voice that seems to teeter on the edge of insanity. The hyperactive prose is sometimes poetic, sometimes sharp like a stinging slap in the face. Often, it’s both.” (Haikasoru)

By Sharona Moskowitz (Fukuoka-ken, 2000-01) for JQ magazine. Sharona is interested in fresh, new voices in fiction and creative nonfiction.

War: It’s a Dog’s Life. Battle Is a Bitch. War and Fleas.

These were just a few of the potential titles I had streaming through my mind as I sat down to write the review of Belka, Why Don’t you Bark?, the newly translated novel by Hideo Furukawa. But the truth is, love it or hate it (and you very well may hate it, but more on that later), Belka is far too original to be reduced to silly catchphrases or bromides.

At the very start of the novel, readers are met with a detailed canine family tree complete with the dogs’ names and nationalities. In looking back, this might as well have been a de facto warning: if anthropomorphism is not your thing, put this book down immediately.

The story begins in 1943 on the Aleutian Island of Kiska where four military dogs are left by the Japanese and then claimed by U.S. troops after the Japanese retreat. One dog dies and the other three go on to produce the offspring that populate the novel and occupy the branches of the family tree. Belka chronicles the lives of the military dogs who trace their roots back to Kiska, intertwined with the story of the young daughter of a yakuza boss who is kidnapped in the USSR and has a psychic connection to dogs. Belka is a book about history through canine eyes, namely the wars of the 20th century, as Furukawa tells us “history is moved, rolled this way and that, so simply. The twentieth century was a pawn, as were the dogs.”

As a writer, Furukawa is possessed of a kinetic voice that seems to teeter on the edge of insanity. Nobody would deny that Belka is well paced and action packed, but the writing can be distracting as his style has a tendency to overwhelm the text. The hyperactive prose is sometimes poetic, sometimes sharp like a stinging slap in the face. Often, it’s both:

“…one more dog, number 47, came running. Thirty-eight miles an hour. He leapt. Bared his fangs. Sank them into the soft fleshy throat. Twisted. Took him. Finished him.”

While Belka was not my cup of tea (or bowl of water, as it were), there is much to be said about Furukawa’s attention to historical detail and reverence for his four legged subjects. The dogs of Belka function as an interesting social mirror, reflecting the trainer’s sense of nationalism and even their personal characteristics. You might also say they serve as a clever analogy for foot soldiers (“Depression. Once it hits, a dog loses all will to live.”). You could, I suppose, even go so far as to read them as symbols of life’s crazy wayward destinies.

At the end of the day though, they’re just dogs. Unfortunately, it was difficult for me to suspend disbelief enough to fully enjoy the book, try as I might. Because Belka is so distinctive, it doesn’t lend itself to neutral feelings: you either like it or you don’t.

The Future Is Japanese

“The anthology (and December JETAANY Book Club selection) The Future Is Japanese offers 13 science fiction stories set in Japan that imagine different versions of this country’s future.” (Haikasoru)

By Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03) for JQ magazine. Stacy is a professional writer/interpreter/translator. She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observation in the periodic series WITLife.

For some in Western society, Japan is viewed as the land of the future due to its technological gadgets, electronic toilets and ubiquitous vending machines. However, those of us who have lived or spent time there know that it is not the place of flying cars and omniscient robots that these people envision. In fact, at times it is downright low-tech. But the Haikasoru anthology (and December JETAANY Book Club selection) The Future Is Japanese offers 13 science fiction stories set in Japan that imagine different versions of this country’s future.

The collection opens with “Mono no Aware” by Ken Liu, a story about a man named Hiroto who is trying to evacuate into space due to a meteor that is on a collision course with the Earth (mono no aware refers to the transience of all things in life). Hiroto keeps flashing back to when he was young and the Japanese values his father instilled in him. When they played go (chess) he imparted the importance of the group mentality to Hiroto by saying, “Individual stones are not heroes, but all the stones together are heroic.” In the midst of the global crisis, Hiroto is largely influenced by his father’s advice and ends up taking heroic action of his own.

The selection I found to be the most emotionally absorbing was “The Sea of Trees” by Rachel Swirsky. This is a ghost story that tells the tale of a lost romance and a teenager searching for her roots. We are introduced to Nao, a young woman who has spent the last seven years with the yurei (ghosts) who inhabit a place called Aokigahara, or the Sea of Trees. This is where people go to commit suicide, and where their yurei stay afterward. Nao makes a living by looting from newly arrived yurei. The reason she originally came to Aokigahara was that her lover Sayomi committed suicide there while Nao was studying abroad in the States. The teenager is an American named Melon whose estranged father was Japanese and came to the Sea of Trees to die. The reader is left wondering whether Nao and Melon will be able to reach closure with their loved ones and safely escape from Aokigahara.

“Golden Bread” by Issui Ogawa struck me as a story that could have been a Twilight Zone episode. It features 18-year-old Yutaka, who is rescued by the Kalif inhabitants of an asteroid village called Lakeview that the fighter he was flying crashed into. He is from the aggressive nation of Yamato, whose strategy is expansion throughout the universe. The more Yutaka spends with the Kalifornians, the more he becomes accustomed to their ways despite his resistance. For example, he insists that he will never get used to their strange food like rice and fish when he is really craving meat and bread. Ogawa cleverly flips Asian and Western cultures, but Yutaka is in for a surprise at the end, which makes him realize that maybe they are less different than he believes. (On second thought, this could also be seen as an allegory for the JET experience…)

Despite the surreal nature of many of these stories, many of their details are surprisingly relatable to everyday life. For example, I laughed when one of the characters asked to get her point card stamped at a restaurant. I have to admit that some of the more esoteric stories forced me to suspend disbelief to the extent that I wasn’t able to or no longer wanted to follow, but for the most part they took me to extraordinary worlds and offered an interesting commentary on current Japanese society via their fantastical visions of the future. As Hiroto’s father tells him in “Mono no Aware, “[We are defined] by the web of relationships in which we’re enmeshed. The individual is small and powerless, but bound tightly together, as a whole, the Japanese nation is invincible.”

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