Tsutsui – Iromegane no rhapsody

Tsutsui Yasutaka.  “Rose-tinted Rhapsody (Iromegane no kyoushikyoku [rapusodi])”.  In Tsutsui, ed. The Best Japanese SF of the ’60s Collection (60-nendai nihon SF besuto shuusei).  Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.  2013.

Holy crap, everyone, I just read the wackiest story, and I need to get some thoughts out.  You may remember Tsutsui Yastaka from my post about his book Kazoku Hakkei.  In search of a good case study text to use as I begin baby’s first dissertation chapter – and with a sense that Tsutsui’s blend of carnal politics and psychoanalytical SF could hold a lot of potential – I’ve been looking through his short stories.  He was the editor on Chikuma Shobo’s Best Japanese SF Collection (日本SFベスト集成) series, which are anthologies of Japanese SF short stories organized by decade.  My sense is that he’s a bit full of himself, as evidenced by the fact that he always includes one of his own stories in each of the volumes of this series I’ve seen, but it at least makes finding his work easy!  There’s a lot going on in this 1968 short story (originally published in the April issue of Shousetsu Gendai), and I’m going to try to unpack it to the best of my ability below.  Racist alternate histories ahoy!  

“Rose-tinted Rhapsody” (my rendering of 「色眼鏡の狂詩曲」, which might also be translated “Rhapsody of Sunglasses”) falls squarely into the “meta-fiction” genre that Fujita Naoya has analyzed in his book on Tsutsui of which I really need to read more.  The basics of the plot concern an unsolicited manuscript Tsutsui claims to have received from an American teenager, self-described as “future political satire” and imagining a second Sino-Japanese War.  With some help from his translator friend Etou Tenma (I think?  I’m having a hell of a time finding the proper reading for 典磨, though after posting this the first time, a kindly Twitter user told me that yes, it is Tenma, and it is a name that’s in reference to real-world SF translator Itou Norio 伊藤典夫), he renders the first three chapters of the manuscript in Japanese, which he presents to the reader verbatim.  The contents of the manuscript are horrifically, comically racist, so much so that it inspires Tsutsui to write his own incredibly racist alternate history story about America, the first chapter of which is again presented in its entirety to the reader.  But not before a plane crashes next door?  What?  Like I said, there’s a lot going on here.

Let’s talk about the racism, since my whole shtick is insisting the intersectional specificity of different bodies is integral to SF.  The depictions of Japanese and Chinese people by Dick Trimble, the 17-year-old American who sent his manuscript to Tsutsui, are a catalogue of all the horrendous Yellow Peril stereotypes one can imagine.  In Trimble’s Japan, everyone is buck-toothed, all the women are “geisha girls,” and all the students are members of Zengakuren (which has somehow been morphed into a political party?).  Harakiri is the reaction of choice whenever anything bad happens, but apparently the Japanese are too stupid to realize that it hurts since they’re not as scientifically advanced as the US.  In China, meanwhile, a Mao Zedong stand-in egotistically laps up the fawning adoration of the youthful members of the Red Guard to further his own lecherous desires, nobody in the military seems to know how to work their own missiles, and displays of militaristic bravado are undercut by slapstick decapitations.  I could go on, but hopefully you can fill in the rest yourself.  If it’s wildly offensive, you can be sure it’s in there.

It’s so over the top that it seems to defy credulity that anyone would take it seriously.  Trimble himself writes in his letter that accompanies the manuscript to Tsutsui that every American editor he asked to publish the piece turned him down, hence why he’s sent it to Tsutsui.  While this would seem to suggest that this view of East Asia is derided even in America, Etou comments that, from what he’s read of other SF in which Japan appears, this evaluation of Japan is common.  Hilariously, they call out the influence of Edward Seidensticker by name, concluding that this youthful author must have been looking to the translator’s depictions of Japan for inspiration.

What interests me here is the interplay between this racist manuscript and the “real world” of the framing narrative.  Tsutsui the narrator brings this up explicitly toward then end when, inveighing against the rank racism on display, he says, “Beyond the fact that this sort of image of Japan actually exists inside the heads of real, live Americans, to them it’s actually true!  And that hides the possibility that the truth for people actually living in reality can be accepted as fact.  No matter what we try to say, there’s a whole other Japan that stubbornly persists inside their heads.”  In other words, fiction’s effects on truth and reality are under discussion here.

We see a manifestation of those effects in a slightly earlier narrative interlude, as Tsutsui is reading a chapter written from the perspective of China.  Predictably, all the Chinese characters speak with broken Japanese grammar, and in what I think is an attempt to render a Beijing accent, “aru” peppers their speech, substituting for the copula “da” or “de aru”.  In the narrative cut-away to “reality,” Tsutsui, seemingly apropos of nothing, suddenly asks Etou about playing mahjong.  Beyond this bizarre appearance of the Chinese game, we see that Etou has adopted the “aru” sentence ending just seen in the manuscript, as well as the imperative “yoroshi” that is used toward similarly racist ends.  What’s more, Chinese pronunciation glosses are given for the kanji compound for “sensei,” indicating that Etou is suddenly using the Chinese word in its place.  Add to this a comedic moment of linguistic misunderstanding, and we can see that the poetics of the manuscript passage have infected their translator.  Three weeks spent with the manuscript was apparently enough to overcome Etou’s instinctual resistance to the language depicted, and its virulence appears to seep out of the text and into his everyday reality.

While we might question the role of the translator here (did Etou really render the American’s language in all its repulsive nuance, or was some of the racism his own?), the fact that he gave up the translation project in disgust after three chapters suggests that that’s not what Tsutsui the author is trying to get at.  Instead, this is Tsutsui the narrator’s fears about wrong-headed depictions of other cultures making their way into reality.  So wherefore the airplane?  The airliner crash is introduced, only to be ignored by the narrator Tsutsui, who at this point is so overcome with rage at the manuscript that he feels compelled to sit down and write his own version right this very instant, regardless of the fact that the building is burning down around him.  The first page of his response story, “American Prosperity,” concludes the short story, and depicts Tsutsui and Etou arriving to a twisted version of America on an immigrant vessel.  “Columbia” is emblazoned in neon over the Statue of Liberty, cops and Black Muslims are shooting at each other, and movie stars in speedboats skirmish around the larger cruise liner.  Like Trimble’s manuscript, geography is scrambled, historical personages freely intermingle, and violence is the order of the day.  What’s going on, and how does it connect to the crashed airplane outside?

It might be that Tsutsui the author is lambasting Tsutsui the narrator’s tunnel vision, perhaps implying that he’s getting too worked up about mere images of reality when there are more pressing issues in the actual reality around him.  Nothing says “delusional” like the image of furiously writing a short story as the world burns down around you.  We could connect this to the very beginning of the story, in which the narrator compares himself, an intellectual who understands the illogical nature of intellect, to the unlettered masses who try to show off what little learning they have, only to make fools of themselves by bungling the intellectual implications of whatever they’re discussing.  In this reading, then, Tsutsui is poking fun at his own narrator, who in the end is no better than the teenager who sent him a manuscript.  Alternatively, we could say that the crashed plane is meant as a bombastic demonstration of the stakes of fiction’s connection to reality.  I’m not as thrilled with this one, personally, but let’s give it a shot: if fictional depictions of reality render that reality as warped, racist, violent, etc., then the natural outcome once those warped perceptions start to inform our treatment of others is violent destruction.  Could it be that the airline pilot was a fan of crappy depictions of Japan, scrambling his or her understanding of the physical reality of Japan, its airspace, and its landing strips?  Was the pilot so overcome with fantasy images of Japan that the real Japan right in front of them was invisible?  Perhaps so.  Either way, this was a crazy story, and one that I’m going to keep thinking about for a while.


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