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Giants of Japanese SF: Sakyo Komatsu [nb: Western order]

by Aritsune Toyoda
Translated by Leslie Furlong

Sakyo Komatsu is renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge and formidable memory.  He is immeasurably inquisitive, and has accumulated an enormous amount of knowledge, which he has has stored away, and has access to, like a human computer.

It is well-known that Komatsu graduated with a degree in Italian Literature from Kyoto University.  However, Komatsu's depth of knowledge, although building upon his academic background, does not end with literature.  From astronomy above to geography below, and all subjects in between, Komatsu's passion for intellectual pursuits has yet to be satisfied.

Although his significance is indisputable now, Sakyo Komatsu's talent was not initially recognized.  He moved through various jobs after graduating from Kyoto University, including stints as a reporter for a nuclear energy trade journal and as a writer of manzai comedy routines1.

Komatsu started to make a name for himself in 1960 [1959? Check], when he entered the first Japanese SF Contest.  This contest was jointly sponsored by Toho Studios, home to films such as Godzilla, and Hayakawa Library, the publisher of SF Magazine, the Japanese edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  Komatsu's contest entry received no more than an honorable mention.  Toho, being concerned more with ideas for films, made only brief comments on Komatsu's highly literate story.  The assessment of the magazine editors, on the other hand, was lengthy.  SF Magazine soon asked Komatsu to edit the prize-winning stories: even though the ideas in them were good, the quality of composition was too low to publish in the magazine as they were.

Komatsu's name spread beyond this small group following the second Japanese SF Contest, when he shared the top prize with future Naoki Prize2-winner Ryo Hanmura for the story "Peace on Earth" ("Chi-ni Heiwa").

Just how visionary a writer Komatsu is can be clearly understood through this story.  It is set during the final days of a Second World War in which the Japanese continued a resistance campaign, rather than surrendering.  This story was the beginning of "parallel world"-themed SF, which was one of the groundbreaking ideas of sixties SF.  Komatsu's literary leadership was demonstrated by the emergence of speculative military history as a major trend in Japanese SF in the subsequent thirty years: among writers of this genre are a generation who have read "Peace on Earth".  Komatsu himself did not write in a similar vein again, preferring to use his talents to explore new themes. 

The next turning point for Komatsu, after publishing a series of stories in SF Magazine, was his entry into mainstream publishing, when he began offering stories to general readers through publishers that didn't specialize in science fiction.

Komatsu's role in the growth of Japanese SF was significant, and in its early days he made two great contributions.  One was the paperback publication of "Japan's Apache Tribe" ("Nihon Apacchi Zoku"), in which people, nicknamed Apaches, appear in the ruins of Osaka and suddenly begin to devour iron.  It was a groundbreaking work that functioned both as great entertainment and as social commentary.  After its publication, many science fiction writers followed Komatsu's lead and began working with mainstream publishers.

The second was his appearance in the magazine Weekly Manga Sunday.  His story "Espy" was serialized in the magazine and this expanded his readership even more.  The story's popularity with non-SF readers eventually led to it being adapted as a film.

Sakyo Komatsu has always been actively expanding science fiction beyond the genre's confines.  Komatsu has a high profile among Japanese society as an academic leader gained by working as a symposium chairman, a panelist, and through public and private associations and advisory committees.  He has been active both at home and abroad, providing commentary on space exploration on educational television in Japan, as well as commenting on Mayan civilization from location in Mexico. 

The work that cemented Komatsu's fame for all time was the bestseller "Japan Sinks".  After selling four million copies in Japan, it was translated into English and Korean and spawned both a film version by Toho Studios and a popular television series.

Komatsu's appetite for writing has yet to be sated.  "Who's Next?" ("Tsugu no wa Dareka") is a magnificent SF epic poem of surprising insight that uses anthropological data to explore possible successors to humanity, while the as-yet unfinished "Empty Corridor" ("Kyomu Kairou") has many readers anticipating its next installment.

There are many stories about Sakyo Komatsu that bear mentioning.  During times when he was extremely active, Komatsu would sleep for just three or four hours a day, and because of this he would often fall asleep anytime, anywhere.  When chatting with another member of the SF Writers club, he would fall asleep and wake up without being aware of it, but still be somehow able to carry on with the conversation. 

Another Komatsu story tells about how he surreptitiously wrote the manuscript for a serialized novel while chairing a symposium.  He would pick a panelist at random and while the panelist was talking, pretended to take notes.  When that panelist finished, Komatsu set his pen down, chose another panelist to speak, and went back to his manuscript.

Now well into his mid-seventies, the King of Japanese SF is as sharp as ever.

1Manzai is a style of stand-up comedy in Japan, where two performers—a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke)—trade jokes at great speed.  Most of the jokes revolve around mutual misunderstandings, double-talk, puns and other verbal gags.  The form is associated with the Osaka region, and manzai performers often speak in the Kansai dialect.  (Thanks to Wikipedia.)

2The Naoki Prize (Naoki Sanjûgo Shô) was established in 1935 by Kikuchi Kan, the editor of Bungei Shunjû magazine.