BOUND TO PLEASE / The scene of the crime is an alternate universe

The Japan News

Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterHanzai Japan: Fantastical, Futuristic Stories of Crime From and About Japan

Various authors

Haikasoru, 341pp

Unity and variety are the hallmarks of any themed fiction anthology. The editor ties the whole book together with a theme, and the writers stretch the theme in diverse directions.

In “Hanzai Japan” the theme is crime, with a supernatural or science-fiction twist. In one story, the crime is child abandonment — but the child is adopted by ghosts. In another, the crime is bank robbery — facilitated by one of Godzilla’s wall-breaking rampages through town.

The 16 Japanese and non-Japanese writers in this collection are a mixed crew of relative newcomers and decorated veterans, including winners of the Akutagawa, Naoki and Edgar awards.

The prize for most outlandish premise in a book full of outlandish premises would have to go to Yumeaki Hirayama’s “Monologue of a Universal Transverse Mercator Projection.” The narrator is a book. Specifically, it is a Tokyo road atlas that exercises a subtle psychic influence over its owner, a taxi driver. There’s a lot of technical exposition about how such a thing came to be possible, but it pays off in a story that has more than one twist, as the reader gradually realizes — in line with Hirayama’s intentions — that the atlas is more learned than wise.

A sentient object is also at the center of Libby Cudmore’s “Rough Night in Little Toke,” in which a Japanophile New Yorker drunkenly gets a tattoo of a kanji that he cannot read. After sobering up, he is dismayed to learn the tattoo is an entity with a mind of its own. There are a few points at which this story seems to be heading in a predictable direction, but each time it goes somewhere else.

“The Electric Palace” by Violet LeVoit begins in the projection booth of a tiny Tokyo cinema during the Occupation.

Its narrator is a yakuza moll who takes pride in her ability to show no emotion as her boyfriend-boss brutalizes the theater owner in furtherance of a protection racket. In her “poison-green” silk dress and “gore-red” lipstick, she’s as fatale as a femme can be, until an incident in the seating area beyond the booth’s window sparks a childhood memory and cracks her hard-boiled mask. In the last paragraph, the story takes a surreal turn that recasts the whole thing as a meditation on the interplay between life and art.

The most humorous story is Carrie Vaughn’s “The Girl Who Loved Shonen Knife.”

The narrator is a teenage musician who has two big worries about an upcoming school dance. The first is that her band might not be chosen to provide the music. The second is that the world might end — thanks to the machinations of anarchistic hackers — before the dance even happens.

Ending the world would indeed be a major crime. But it’s just one of the strange things that happen in “Hanzai Japan.”

Where to read

Inside a cardboard box. After a serial killer is executed in Naomi Hirahara’s story “Jigoku,” he finds himself in a version of hell that takes this very form.

Maruzen price: ¥2,960 plus tax (as of Nov. 25, 2015)Speech

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