Otsuichi (乙一) writes his name with the characters for strange and one, and “strange” is certainly a good adjective for the stories in Zoo. These pieces fall somewhere between Rod Serling at his gotcha! best and the daymare world of OMNI-era Orson Scott Card as shown in “Breathing Lessons”, or “Had I Died A Thousand Deaths”. At their best, the stories in Zoo hit either one of those marks, but the misfires — and, yes, there are a few of them here — simply land with a hollow clink.
This is not the first of Otsuichi’s material to be translated into English, but it may well be the highest-profile release of his to date. It’s been published under the Haikasoru imprint, a VIZ sublabel specializing in popular literary works in translation from Japan — the same folks who gave us the excellent All You Need Is Kill a while back. Zoo isn’t quite in the same caliber as that novel, if only because it’s a collection and like all collections the pieces can vary wildly. The good pieces in Zoo, however, are more than worth saving.
The title story — the name “Zoo” itself is a reference both to its real-world counterpart and the truly weird Peter Greenaway film — is the one with its blurb on the book’s back cover: a man receives a new photo of his girlfriend’s corpse every day in the mail, making a kind of movie of her decomposition. He is also her murderer, now spending his life in a schizoid state where he alternately laments her disappearance and savors her death. It’s effectively grim, the “happy” ending doubly so, since by then we know full well he’s never going to get out of his little fugue. I’m reminded of a strikingly similar segment in Yumeno Kyūsaku’s surrealist classic Dogura Magura, not yet available in English but which has this subplot rendered intact (as a puppet show, no less) in the film version of the novel.
My favorite story of the batch, “Song of the Sunny Spot”, has the simplicity of a fairy tale and some of the same insight-through-the-fantastic as Stanisław Lem’s best work. The last man on earth has created a robot to bury him when he dies, but there is a great deal more going on besides that, and in the end the robot learns that to be fully human means to contain contradiction, to have both love and hate for the same things at once. It’s beautiful and elegiac, the kind of story I could see being adapted into an animated production by the likes of Makoto (5 cm/sec) Shinkai. “White House in the Cold Forest” also has a fairy-tale feel to it, but this one’s more in the Uncensored Grimm’s Edition vein, where a (crooked) man builds a (crooked) house entirely out of corpses, and things only fall apart when he substitutes a living person for one of the dead as an act of kindness.
“Words of God” starts with what seems an obvious conceit — a kid whose words become material reality — but spirals out from that and becomes truly ominous and disturbing. It has the same all-encompassing horror as one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s movies about the world falling to pieces; in fact, I could easily see him directing a live-action adaptation of this. “Seven Rooms” presents us with a situation out of the movie Cube or one of the current crop of torture-porn flicks, or maybe even an Uziga Waita manga: a brother and sister have been kidnapped and held in a cell, presumably to be murdered at some point. The brother discovers other prisoners in adjoining cells, and uses what information he can glean from their cellmates to figure out an escape plan. What’s best about the story is how Otsuichi focuses on the emotions of the situation and not just the cold logistics of escape — the tragedy of how the group can be saved by the sacrifices of one or a few, and how terrible it is to know the exact moment of your death far in advance. The shortest story in the collection, “In a Park at Twilight, A Long Time Ago”, has the simplicity of one of those nightmares you have in the second when you drop off to sleep in your chair and then instantly wake up again.
Less effective but still touching is “SO-far”, where what looks like a supernatural conceit turns into something a little more immediate and heartbreaking. After an accident, a young boy’s mother and father seem to exist in parallel worlds — a metaphor for marital rifts that turns out to be a good deal more than metaphorical. “In a Falling Airplane”, however, is like five stories that never boil down to one good one: a hijacking turns into an arena for the frustrations of several of the victims as well as the hijacker. The problem is the story never declares its real intentions: instead of being creepily ambiguous it just comes off as confused.
In “Wardrobe”, a murder apparently takes place and a body may or may not be hidden in the titular piece of furniture. It’s cleverly constructed — too cleverly, really, since Otsuichi makes the story work by leaving out just enough for us to fill in the gaps with the wrong information. The rest of it is clanky puzzle-solving dialogue and filler. It’s in the mystery / crime fiction mold — not a sin in itself, but here the gears squeak so loudly they drown out everything else. The bottom of the barrel for the book is probably “Kazari and Yoko”, a story so bad it’s frankly embarrassing to see it sharing the same volume as “Sunny Spot”. The two girls in the title are twin sisters, and if your suspicions about the story’s motives perked up the minute you heard the word twin I don’t blame you. I half-expected the old They’re Really The Same Person ploy to surface here, but we don’t even get that. Lovely Kazari receives all of her mother’s dotage, but dowdy Yoko is beaten by Mom for the slightest infractions, forced to sleep in the kitchen and fed only table scraps. Eventually Yoko finds a way to turn the tables on her tormentors by staging her death. Weep? I nearly laughed.
Oddly enough, I owned a copy of Zoo in Japanese long before it ever arrived on my doorstep in English. A hardcover copy of it turned up at my local Book-Off (at $1, it was a stone bargain), and I intended to use it to check the quality of Terry Gallagher’s translation. Thankfully, it wasn’t required. Zoo uses simple, straightforward language and does not revolve excessively around Japanese tropes, either cultural or linguistic, so the end result is a solid and undistracting read.
Even if some of Zoo is hit-or-miss, the mere fact it’s in English is a good sign. The door leading towards a whole world of material that deserves to be in translation is being kicked open all the more. I’m more than willing to live with a few duds like “Kazari and Yoko” if it means we get “Song of the Sunny Spot” and “Words of God” in the bargain.