‘Bullseye!’ by Yasutaka Tsutsui (Review)

Small Japanese publisher Kurodahan Press have introduced me to some excellent books over the years, including works by Osamu Dazai, Ryū Murakami and Teru Miyamoto, so I’m always happy to take a look at their latest releases.  The most recent addition to their catalogue dropped through my letter box a couple of months back, a collection of stories by Yasutaka Tsutsui (with a rather intriguing cover), but it’s taken me until now to finish off my Women in Translation Month reading and get through some of the more pressing ARCs on the shelves.  So, was it worth the wait?  Definitely – and the first story alone makes it a must read…

*****
Bullseye! Twenty Short Stories is a collection of Tsutsui’s short fiction lovingly compiled and translated by Andrew Driver.  As he explains in his brief introduction, whereas the only other Tsutsui collection in translation (the intriguingly named Salmonella Men on Planet Porno…) sources the majority of the stories from one book, Bullseye! is a greatest hits effort, with twenty pieces selected from about a dozen of the prolific writer’s works.  Clocking in at 220 pages, the collection features a range of topics and styles, with a mix of short pieces (five pages or so) and some longer efforts, the majority of which are thoroughly entertaining.

Tsutsui is known for being hard to pin down in terms of style, and this collection showcases a variety of approaches and genres.  In places, he veers firmly in the direction of speculative fiction, and this is most apparent in the splendidly titled ‘Zarathustra on Mars’, in which a devious academic of the future uses an ancient text to write a bestseller:

By that time, you see, Nietzsche’s name had already been washed away by the tides of history and buried under the sands of fashion, along with all his other works.  In short, he had become a nobody known by no-one.  He wasn’t mentioned in any literary or philosophical textbook; he had vanished into the distant recesses of the past, far beyond the waves of time that ceaselessly ebb and flow.
But on Mars, in the year 2250,
Zarathustra came back to life.
‘Zarathustra on Mars’, p.47 (Kurodahan Press, 2017)

Zarathustra fever sweeps the red planet, and it only intensifies when an unemployed slob from Earth with a similar name steps off the shuttle.  In a dumbed-down society, a little philosophy goes a long way, and the newcomer soon finds himself precariously positioned at the head of a new craze.  Yes, it’s a little over the top, but for a story first published in 1973, it’s also uncannily prescient in its analysis of a reality-TV society.

There are several other stories with similarly gloomy views of the future.  ‘Running Man’ takes a look at the Olympics of the future, a rather low-key affair, focusing on a long-distance runner who abandons his race after meeting a woman, only to seek closure years later.  Then there’s ‘Sleepy Summer Afternoon’, a story following a worker off to a beer garden on a beautiful summer day.  It’s a perfectly crafted short piece in which nothing really happens, yet which leaves a lasting impression.

Moving away from the futuristic tone, there are several stories with a slightly sinister edge.  ‘The Night They Played Hide and Seek’ is a short piece that straddles the line between nostalgia and suspense masterfully, with the reveal perfectly placed, but it’s ‘A Vanishing Dimension’ that really catches the reader’s attention.  Tsutusi uses this longer story to create an atmosphere of dread, with the protagonist returning home to his old, creepy house only to find his wife and infant child gone.  As he hears muffled cries and catches the odd glimpse of white out of the corner of his eye, he starts to realise that something very strange is happening.  It couldn’t have anything to do with the creepy-looking monkey toy he bought for his son, could it?

However, Tsutsui doesn’t always need an uncanny influence to drive his writing, and there are several stories in Bullseye! that are played with a much straighter bat (but still with his trademark humour).  ‘Oh! King Lear!’ sees a respected, but dull, classical actor surprised by a ringtone one day while on stage; his response takes the company’s production in a surprising (and successful) new direction.  Meanwhile in ‘The Good Old Days’, a family finds itself in the catastrophic situation of (temporarily) not possessing a working television, and in an attempt to relieve the awkwardness, the adults begin to tell a story, a fairy tale of sorts:

Sadly, the prince was too timid to do anything.  Like the weak effeminate young men of today, he was only concerned with looking cool.  He could happily chitter-chatter with girls all day, but when it came to actually doing something, he didn’t have the guts; he was too scared of being rejected and looking uncool.  So he did nothing.
‘The Good Old Days’, p.86

In a clever twist, it gradually becomes apparent that the protagonists of the story being told are thinly veiled versions of the speakers themselves, with the family members taking the chance to air their old grudges in public.

There’s a lot to like here, and Driver’s work is never less than smooth and enjoyable, but it’s not without its flaws.  The majority of the stories rely on plot over writing, and some shorter pieces come and go without leaving much of an impression.  Even some that are fairly entertaining, such as ‘Having a Laugh’, a nice take on how technology controls our lives, probably wouldn’t stand up to a reread.  Perhaps more importantly, though, a couple of the early stories, ‘Narcissism’ and ‘Sadism’ (both featuring sex androids), are a little disturbing in their violence and rape themes.  There is a point to it all, but more than a few readers will find these stories confronting and unnecessary

Nevertheless, this journey through Tsutsui’s back catalogue of short fiction makes for a fun experience, with far more hits than misses, and as I hinted earlier, it starts with a bang.  ‘Bullseye!’ is twenty-five pages of sheer lunacy, a chaotic piece in which an old man steals money from his family before going on a rampage through Tokyo.  In between shooting up petty criminals, stealing anything not nailed down and reducing policemen to tears with incomprehensible metaphysical mathematics, he manages to hook up with a prostitute and insult a roomful of women expecting to hear a talk on The Tale of Genji.  There’s even the odd nod to the reader:

“All right.”  He turned back to look at me just as he reached the door.  “I can’t believe it.  It’s like something out of a movie.”
“This isn’t a movie.  It’s a short story.”

‘Bullseye!’, p.23

With his family (accompanied by gangsters wanting their money back…) hot on his trail, the protagonist effortlessly shuffles around the capital, unhampered by the time skips and memory gaps resulting from old age, before finally deciding where he should go to use his new-found weaponry.  Batshit crazy?  Absolutely, but I loved it.

I haven’t managed to cover everything in my review (there are a couple of other meta-fictional pieces that stand out), but I suspect that by now you’ll probably know if Bullseye! is for you.  It’s certainly not my usual fare, but despite the few weaker pieces in the collection, I certainly don’t regret giving it a go.  It’s a book that’s left me with plenty of vivid images as a souvenir, and if you decide to check it out, I’m sure many of you will find your own favourite moments too 🙂

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