Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction

Edited by Alfred Birnbaum

New York: Kodansha, 1991
305 pp., $18.95
ISBN: 4 7700 1543 7

Review by Chris Lott

Six years old but still relevant today, this collection of modern Japanese
fiction is experimental and playful. Perhaps none of these stories should be canonized,
but who cares! They are entertaining and fun. . . and that is enough.
Bottom line: If you can find it, read it, particularly if you are a fan of pomo authors
likeMurakami, Barthelme, Barth, etc.

Monkey Brain Sushi was, when it was first published in 1991, one of the first collections of the new Japanese fuikkoshon to reach the English speaking literary world. Fuikkoshon (fiction) was the product of the mid-late 1980's, and a is a tradition that stands in stark contrast to bungako, or the "pure literature" practiced by such well-known and widely admired authors as Mishima and Endo.

The rebellious character of fuiikkoshon (a literary character paralleled in American fiction by such "greedy Eighties" works as Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and other similar titles) is clear in every story in the volume. Each story is devoid of subtlety and wrought with irony, obscenity and cynicism. A typical example is Amy Yamada, famous in Japan for her book Bedtime Eyes which detailed in obsessive, kinky detail a young Japanese woman's affair with a black American G.I., who opens her story "Kneel Down and Lick My Feet" like this:

"It's not as if she's some priss who doesn't know a thing about men, but the first time Chika saw me spit in a guy's mouth, she had to run to the toilet. I mean, really. She's the one who came to me begging, Shinobu, Sis, I need to make some money. Help me find a job. What was I supposed to do? I was the same way at first. When I got started in the business, seeing men humiliated like this made me want to puke. But after a few years it's like any job. Your own craft is the only thing you can believe in. If it makes guys salivate and snuggle up, or if it makes them shit before my eyes, it's all the same to me. Men look up to me from all fours and I pity them. I grind my high heels into their pitiful little cocks and watch their faces twist while I drag on a cigarette. And then I say: kneel down and lick my feet."

This is certainly not the territory of Mishima, and one can only imagine the rolling he is likely doing in his grave at the sarcastic implication of a comparison between the craft of the dominatrix and the craft of the writer!

But this is not to say that these stories are necessarily poor because of these characteristics. In fact, Yamada's story is one of the best stories of the collection (as far as lasting literary quality goes), as is the acerbic "T.V. People" by Haruki Murakami, an author who has gained quite a measure of popularity in the west since this book was published. If there is any overt flaw that runs through the volume as a whole, it is the pervasive feeling of literary obeisance to Kobo Abe, who really began this literary revolution some 20 years or more earlier! Too often the apparent superficiality of the stories turns out to run all the way through them, as if the writers were just practicing for the real stories they are just becoming ready to write. Only a few cases, particularly the two stories noted thus far, leave the reader feeling as if he has sensed a current below the generally tempestuous surface in the way readers of Raymond Carver or Charles Baxter (to name two so-called minimalists) often will.

Still, the entire book provides—at the very least—entertaining and playful reading, qualities that are sadly lacking in many volumes of contemporary short fiction. I can see the philosophical and critical import of some of the stories, but as a reader I carried away a much more vivid memory of the stories that are generally regarded as filler, such as Yoshinori Shimizu's delightful piece "Japanese Entrance Exams for Earnest Young Men," which tells the story of young Ichiro, who is shocked—but finally gratified—to realize that the University entrance exams are really games, not tests, and that he need only learn the methods of test-taking to succeed. This reviewer chuckled at the truth of this idea, but can only imagine the irony it must have in a culture where children (and their parents!) are known to commit suicide after poor grades on High Schoolexams! And then there is my favorite story, "Peony Snowflakes of Love" by Osamu Hashimoto, in which Yae, a severely depressed—and repressed—waitress becomes sexually involved with a very butch, lesbian truck driver and even after months of living with her can think:

"But if Tomeko weren't female, then what would this all be about? This is what Yae failed to understand. Particularly as Tomeko was not a man, but a woman, and one with very beautiful breasts."

Monkey Brain Sushi is still well worth reading, even now, more than six years after its initial publication. In fact, it may well be more relevant now that some of the authors (and others similar to them) are becoming quite popular in the West.

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