Napier – The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature

Napier, Susan.  The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity.  London: Routledge.  1996.
Amazon page
(No image this time just because it’s the same damn cover Routledge puts on every freaking book they publish.  COME ON, PEOPLE, HIRE A DAMN COVER DESIGNER.)

Because my media studies list is the focus of this month, most of my posts will be about books on that list, but just because the index card for this one is sitting here next to me, I thought I’d throw down a few quick thoughts.  Susan Napier’s work was some of the first anime scholarship to which I was exposed back in my undergrad days, and it wasn’t until much later that I found out she only came to anime later in her career.  I always found her readings of anime texts compelling as well as (and this is SO KEY) lucidly written.  She has the kind of writing style that shows academic writing CAN be compelling and fun and immediately graspable in its importance.  So imagine my surprise when — despite not doing a list on anime — her work still came up as relevant.  This is a book from earlier in her career than I’d encountered before, one that takes up the notion of “the fantastic” as it had gained traction in other disciplines and applies it to a study of modern Japanese literature.  Find out what I thought below.

As Napier says in her introduction, hers is the first study in English of what she terms “the Japanese fantastic,” and so she has a lot of ground-clearing work to do.  She runs through a few major works of scholarship on fantasy and the fantastic (namely Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, and Kathryn Hume) to arrive at her working definition of the term.  She follows Hume in defining the fantastic as, “any conscious departure from consensus reality” (9).  If this seems broad, it is consciously so.  Napier explicitly states she wants to start from the broadest possible definition of the fantastic in order to open as many works as possible to reexamination as works of fantasy.  And as an initial study, maybe that’s the best way to go about it.  20 years on, though, it feels frustratingly vague to me as I try to dial in to the specificities of the genre that will help me in my own work.

Unfortunately, loose definitions plague the work as a whole.  We might start with one included in Napier’s/Hume’s definition of the fantastic itself: “consensus reality”.  What’s that?  Indeed, Napier spends a lot of time in the book discussing consensus and the collective, but a lot of this discussion just seems to come out of the “Japanese people love collectivity” stereotype.  Again, maybe that was still necessary in 1996 (hell, maybe it’s still necessary in 2016, given the comments I always read on articles about Japan…), but one would hope that it wasn’t necessary among academic audiences.  Had we as a field really not made the fairly basic jump of “Japanese people are all individuals, too, and not the Borg” by that point?

“Modernity” becomes the other bugaboo that Napier is determined to show Japanese people are willing and able to resist.  Again, this seems to come out of a desire to simply rebuke the stereotypes of Japanese people as go-along get-along types, and so it arrives at the pretty basic argument of, “fantasy [defined broadly enough to be almost synonymous with “fiction”] is sometimes used subversively.”  Like, we all knew that already, right?  Napier defends this assertion through a reading of a staggering number of canonized junbungaku (“pure literature”) works (including Izumi Kyoka, whose status as a junbungaku writer and familiarity to English-language audiences at that time seems to have been less stable than now).  But again: we all already knew Kyoka and Tanizaki Jun’ichiro were subversive, right?  She blazes through dozens of works, reading them all as political critiques of their times and paying special attention to feminist and psychoanalytic readings (which felt familiar to me after reading her anime analyses).  Each of these readings is fairly solid in its own right, but taken as a whole, one gets a reductive picture of Japanese literature in which all works are simply commentating on their contemporary national political landscape, specifically along the lines of an individualist critique of collectivism.  Surely there’s more to them than that?

But the problem I found the most frustrating was that, in a book about “the Japanese fantastic,” Napier didn’t read any works of genre fiction, i.e. works that were sold explicitly as gensou shousetsu (幻想小説: fantasy novels or kuusou kagaku shousetsu(空想科学小説: science-fiction novels).  This to me felt like the most unfortunate lost potential of the book since it would have done marvels for her project of showing the internal diversity of Japanese society to show the ways in which “modern Japanese literature” doesn’t just mean “junbungaku“.  After all, that’s the whole point of this “Genre Fiction” list: to show the ways in which pulp and popular novels give an alternative view from the cultural formation of “pure literature” (bound up in considerations of prestige as it is).  If you want to subvert (literary) modernity, why not do it by examining the alternative literary history that’s run alongside it?

I hate to do nothing in this post but rag on Napier’s book.  Again, maybe the culture of American Japanology in 1996 was such that even these simple assertions still needed to be made.  And she does make them very clearly and persuasively through attentive close-reading.  At this point in cultural studies, though, they’re the kinds of assertions that seem like they should be self-evident.


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