Monday, March 19, 2012

Interview with TOMO Contributor Fumio Takano


Fumio Takano
Fumio Takano (author of the Tomo story “Anton and Kiyohime”, translated by Hart Larrabee) is best known for works of alternative history with a science fiction twist. Her debut novel, Mujika makiina (Musica Machina), was selected as one of Japan's best 30 works of science fiction from the 1990s. Her latest project is compiling Jikan wa dare mo matte kurenai (Time Waits for No Man), an anthology of East European science fiction and fantastica from the first decade of the 21st century. It brings together 12 stories from 10 countries, each translated directly into Japanese from its original language. Visit Fumio Takano's website.

Have you spent time in Russia or studied the language or culture?
My interest in Russia was sparked by literature and music. As a teenager I was interested in classical music and in European (and American) literature, but it was the music and literature of Russia that appealed to me the most. I was 19 when I first went to Russia—way back when it was still the Soviet Union! I studied European history at university but decided against majoring in Russian history. The Russian language was just too difficult for me. My husband, though, is an expert on Russian films. (He’s Japanese <g>.)

The Kremlin, shirabyoshi dance, nagauta, a dragon, time travel—there are so many fascinating elements woven together in this story. What was the inspiration for this story?
The legend of Anchin and Kiyohime is an old Japanese tale that takes place during the Heian period, roughly a thousand years ago. It is the story of a princess named Kiyohime who is abandoned by a priest named Anchin. Filled with bitterness, she transforms into a flaming serpent and chases after him. When she finds him hiding beneath a bell at Dojo-ji Temple, she burns him to death inside it.

Both the Noh and Kabuki performance traditions include variations of a sequel called Dojo-ji. In this story, a ceremony is being held at Dojo-ji Temple to dedicate a new bell and to pray for the repose of Kiyohime’s soul. A beautiful girl, a shirabyoshi, suddenly appears and beings to dance, and is soon revealed to be Kiyohime’s ghost. This is one of my favorite Kabuki plays, a very intense story. Ever since I first saw the great broken bell at the Kremlin in my teens, I knew I wanted to incorporate it in my own version of the Dojo-ji tale someday. I also wanted to rescue Kiyohime from her tragic love. 

Fumio Takano standing by the Tsar Bell in Moscow
A few years ago I began working on an anthology to present literary works from Russia and Eastern Europe to Japan. During the course of the project I began to feel I wanted to write a story that expressed my hope for greater friendship between Eastern Europe and Japan, which still do not know each other very well, and between Japan and Russia, and Russia and Eastern Europe, where there remains so much political enmity. I remembered the bell at the Kremlin and the Dojo-ji story and could see immediately how the whole thing would fit together. Perhaps unconsciously I had been mulling over the story all along.

Can you describe your process for developing your stories? Do you usually start with a historical element and go from there? Or do you start with a character or an incident? How do you grow your science fiction tales?
My creative work is almost always driven by history and art. I think when my own personal thoughts, interests, positions, concerns, love, and other feelings come into contact with different kinds of art or what people have done in the past it creates a kind of chemical reaction. As for where the structure of my stories comes from, this is something I cannot really explain. My writing is inspired by what I call “dispatches from outer space” <g>.

Ever since my teenage years I’ve always enjoyed American science fiction and fantasy. I’ve seen the Star Wars movies countless times since they were first screened in Japan in 1979. I grew up reading the works of authors such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke (who was actually British), and Philip K. Dick. I began listening to classical music because of John Williams’ wonderful soundtracks for movies like Star Wars and Superman. For me, sci-fi was something that just came naturally during my teenage years.

I don’t consciously think of myself as a sci-fi writer. But just as you always remember the language you learn when you’re young, before I knew it I found myself incorporating sci-fi techniques. Sci-fi makes it possible to address hidden human potentials and philosophical issues that just can’t be expressed in a story set in the everyday world of reality. Sci-fi isn’t just entertainment or pulp fiction. There are works of science fiction that have real literary merit, and I hope young readers are paying attention. May the force be with you!

You are working on an anthology of Eastern European science fiction. Can you tell us about this project?
Almost all of foreign literature translated into Japanese is from the United States. When it comes to foreign movies or foreign literature, many Japanese people are only familiar with American works. Russia and Europe, though, have long-established traditions of literary excellence. There are any number of “must-read” classics, with a whole new generation of outstanding writers today. Nevertheless, European literature, and that of the former communist bloc in particular, is barely known in Japan. The biggest reasons publishers don’t want to publish European literature is that there is no money in it and because it’s difficult to translate across multiple languages. For a long time I’ve felt I had to do something about this.

In Russia and Europe people almost never use the term “science fiction.” They talk about “fantastica,” which incorporates sci-if, high fantasy, horror, theater of the absurd, and fantasy, and is considered a genre with high literary and artistic merit. The works of Stanislaw Lem, Franz Kafka, Mircea Eliade, Karel Čapek (father of the concept of “robots”), Mikhail Bulgakov, and Milorad Pavić are all fantastica. Russian and East European literature has a strong element of fantastica in general, and there are many outstanding works, so I thought that introducing Japanese readers to works from this genre would be a good place to start.

Published late last year, the resulting Eastern European anthology includes short stories from ten countries (Austria, Romania, Belarus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, and Serbia), each translated by experts in the original language. All of the stories are recent works written in the 21st century. I hope to publish a Russian anthology this year or next, and in the future perhaps anthologies for Western Europe and the Baltic Sea States.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
The damage, both physical and psychological, that the earthquake did to our nation is just immeasurable. My parents in Ibaraki were also directly affected. But people have the wisdom, not found in other animals, to turn sad and difficult events into food for the future. Some American friends decided that instead of just collecting donations they would turn the tragedy into an opportunity for American kids to learn more about Japan, and put together the Tomo Project. I’m sure this book will generate interest in Japan, its culture, and its way of thinking among the young Americans who will shoulder their country’s future. This will be very useful in ensuring a future of goodwill between Japan and the United States. And so, to young friends in the affected areas, I say that I hope you know you are contributing to the future of the world. What power!

The pain and sadness will not disappear right away, and there are a lot of problems that still need to be solved. But let’s all join hands and help each other as we walk into the future!

And also a note for young American friends:
Today America has incredible influence in the world, which means you have a great responsibility. If you have a sense of fairness, you can be heroes. Please take a real look at the world. Please learn foreign languages, and learn about other cultures and peoples. TV and the Internet can supply you with information, but literature offers much more: wisdom and philosophy. Literature is like a stargate to a wonderful world.

If you are interested in world literature, here are some books I recommend: How to Read World Literature (How to Study Literature) and The Longman Anthology of World Literature, The Compact Edition. And if you are interested in Japanese fiction and animation, check out Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. These books may be a bit challenging, but they’re very exciting.

Finally, I must thank you for your friendship, help, donations, encouragement, and prayers for Japan!

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