Known for frequently lacing his works with dark humor and satire, Yasutaka Tsutsui is considered one of Japan’s leading science fiction writers. The prolific Tsutsui has penned scores of short stories and novels, including the Toki o Kakeru Shojo (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), which has served as the basis for TV series, films and manga. Many more of his works have been adapted for the screen or Japanese TV, and he has been recognized with a number of prestigious literary awards over the years.
The list of English translations of Tsutsui’s work, however, is surprisingly short. I first came across his short stories more than 20 years ago in What the Maid Saw, translated by Adam Kabat and published by Kodansha International in 1990. (Alma Books re-released the book in 2010 as simply The Maid.) The central character, a young woman who can read minds, goes to work for eight different families as a live-in maid. Through his heroine, Tsutsui’s delves into the psyches of seemingly average Japanese families and peels back the hidden layers.
Searching recently for material for a university course on Japanese fiction in translation, I was delighted to find Bullseye!, a new collection of selected works from Tsutsui in English. The translator, Andrew Driver, previously translated another collection of Tsutsui’s short stories, Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, as well as the novel Paprika.
As a collection Bullseye! is somewhat unusual, in that the stories come from various periods in Tsutsui’s career. Driver says the catalyst for this new book was the fact that Tsutsui published two Japanese collections of new material in 2014 and 2015, after a break of many years.
“The first criterion was to select suitable stories from the new collections. These were then supplemented with worthy additions from earlier collections,” Driver notes. “I deliberately arranged the order to make good contrasts between long and short, old and new, funny and poignant, etc. I designed the overall flow to give the impression of travelling on a meandering journey through Tsutsui’s creative output, culminating in the increasingly somber tone of the latest stories.”
My personal favorite is “The Good Old Days,” with a three-generation Japanese family wondering how to fill in the evening after a mix-up deprives them of their beloved TV. Grandpa starts to tell everyone a story, with each member contributing to the narrative in turn. This seemingly innocuous pastime ends up becoming a sly metaphor for revelations about their familial relationships.
“Narcissism,” from 1975, is a prescient tale of a nondescript salaryman who purchases a robot to fill the dual roles of maid and sex partner. Japan’s latest developments in humanoid robots, coupled with media stories about men who prefer the company of life-size dolls to flesh-and-blood companions, make this story creepily real.
According to Driver, the content and themes in some of Tsutsui’s newest stories from the Japanese collections meant they would be difficult to fully appreciate in an English translation. “But when Japanese cultural references were not central to the story in question, I felt that they could work perfectly well in English. I made some adjustments to help this along. In ‘Bullseye!’ (the title story) for example, there were a few too many references to (unknown) Japanese film actors, so I changed some of them to well-known European or American ones, with the author’s blessing,” Driver explains.
He was in constant contact with Tsutsui, with the author approving all the stories selected for the new collection. Driver recounts an amusing anecdote: “The title story was the opening shot in his 2015 collection Sekai-wa Gojōdan (The World is Your Joke). He said he had wanted it to be the title story of that collection, but thought the Japanese title Penisu ni Meichū (Aim for the Penis) might attract the wrong sort of attention. When I suggested translating it as ‘Bullseye!’ and making it the title story (of the English collection), he heartily agreed.”
Having written upwards of 300 short stories in his career, Tsutsui notes that it is difficult to say if one volume is truly representative of his entire body of work. However, while admitting that English isn’t his forte, he is highly satisfied with the new collection. “I’m afraid I’m not the person to ask about translation, but I have complete confidence in Andrew’s style.” And his favorite story in the collection? “Without a doubt, that would be the titular ‘Bullseye!’ It’s my most recent masterpiece—and probably my last,” Tsutsui says candidly.
Some of the stories in Bullseye! will make you chuckle, while others will make you squirm or even double-check that you locked the door before bed. Whether you’re already familiar with Tsutsui’s work, or meeting him for the first time, there is plenty of food of thought in this eclectic volume.