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Beyond the Frame

The forward-thinking sci-fi of Izumi Suzuki

Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki. Verso, 224 pages.

To begin with, there are the photos: mostly black and white, mostly taken by the famed photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, and all depicting a woman who displays that ineffable sense of self-possession known as glamor. Known as cool. You can fake almost anything in a photograph, but you can’t fake that; it’s not about looks. It’s about presence. Intelligence. Some people don’t even know they have it until they step in front of the camera. It develops alongside the film.

The woman in the photos is named Izumi Suzuki, and she was an artist in her own right. A writer. It is mostly the photos, though, that comprise her particular trail of search-engine flotsam; they float along, contextless. But with a little digging, you’ll learn they come from an anthology put together following her suicide in 1986. There, a beginning and an end. A framing device. “I end up putting a frame around everything I see,” says a character in a story of hers, “Terminal Boredom.” He’s a teenage boy, explaining why he’s undergone a surgery to implant a TV chip in his brain. “It makes it seem fresh, helps me relax as a viewer.”

These are brash, clever, odd works of science fiction, propelled by an irreverent kind of up yours! energy.

In a few short pages, he’ll murder his pregnant ex-girlfriend with the aid of another lover, like something out of a police procedural. There are a lot of references to TV in Suzuki’s writing, a lot of references to films, to pop culture, to music and books; also to fertility, the environment, consumerism in postwar Japan. Images. The essential artificiality of human relationships, gender, and love. These are the subjects of the seven stories that comprise Terminal Boredom, the first translation of Suzuki’s writings to appear in English, thanks to the work of translators Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan. These are brash, clever, odd works of science fiction, propelled by an irreverent kind of up yours! energy, and yet also a deep worry for the state of life in twentieth-century Japan and also the planet itself.

At times, they bring to mind the other politically forward-thinking science fiction of the seventies that was being written in English-speaking countries by the likes of Joanna Russ, Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others. As Le Guin wrote in her 1976 forward to The Left Hand of Darkness, “All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology.” Suzuki’s work is awash in its own metaphors, populated by its own new technologies, new possibilities, some that still preoccupy us today. Like so many other science fiction writers working in languages other than English, her work is also a reminder that the use of these particular new metaphors—these metaphors of sex, of space, of travel and time—is not solely the provenance of Anglophone fiction.

Suzuki was born in 1949 in the city of Ito in Shizuoka Prefecture, on the eastern coast of Japan, and worked in a factory and as a bar hostess after dropping out of high school. When a story of hers was accepted by SF Magazine, she would flee that world, too, eventually making her way into bohemian life and acting in both mainstream films and “pink” movies (that particular Japanese genre of erotic cinema). Marriage to the experimental jazz musician Kaoru Abe would come, with whom she would have a daughter; it was an intense relationship, later immortalized in the 1992 novel Endless Waltz by Mayumi Inaba and its film adaptation three years later. Suzuki and Abe divorced in 1977; a year later, at the age of twenty-nine, he would die of an overdose. Eight years later, in 1986, at the age of thirty-six, Suzuki took her own life.

But before that, there were the stories. Translator Daniel Joseph, writing for Art Review, notes that Suzuki “started writing SF as early as 1972, publishing five strange, unsettling stories in addition to her mundane fiction”; the critic Nozomi Ōmori, he quotes, wrote that Suzuki and her scant few female contemporaries were “treated by the SF community as outsiders, or perhaps ‘tourists.’” During a talk held online in the spring of 2021 for the launch of Terminal Boredom, another of Suzuki’s translators would go on to observe that Suzuki and Haruki Murakami were born the same year—how different international perceptions of Japanese literature might have looked if she had survived!

In Suzuki’s work, monsters disguise themselves as ordinary members of a Japanese nuclear family, the effects of dangerous new drugs intermingle with the sounds of American standards, and pollution destroys human men, creating instead a world where women fall in love with women. It is the latter story, “Women and Women,” that opens this collection, with a plot similar to that of Joanna Russ’s 1975 novel The Female Man. In Suzuki’s envisioning of a world without men, women have been left behind on a ruined planet destroyed by pollution and warfare. “We were taught that it was the men who had created that horrifying culture,” explains the story’s teenage girl narrator. “By the end, they had used up almost all of the oil. . . . Women have been left carefully husbanding the scant resources of a planet stripped bare by men.”

The few remaining men left in Japan are kept in what is called the Gender Exclusion Terminal Occupancy Zone, where, our narrator hears, a mysterious secretion is harvested from them in order to make babies (the story is filled with sly winks like that, allusions to biological details and familiar gender-based stereotypes that fly over the narrator’s head). In her day-to-day, the girl lives with an older sister, Asako, and their grandmother; their mother is in prison, following an illegal affair with a man. At school, she and her friends develop crushes on actresses and watch new musicals “about a heroine named Sappo or Sappho or something.”

Everything changes, though, when she spies a teenage boy walking near her home. The boy, Hiro, has been disguised as a girl since childhood and hidden by his mother; sometimes, though, he puts on boy clothes to sneak out and walk alone. The narrator is fascinated with him, and a tentative friendship is formed, but there is the pull, the undertow, the awful law of merging and violence that tugs beneath the surface of relationships; it is a web that ensnares even the narrator and Hiro. “Suddenly, he hugged me,” the narrator describes, “then flipped me over and pinned me down like we were wrestling . . . I spent the rest of the day learning the unexpected, dreadful truth about human life. Learning it with my body.”

This obsession with societal roles, with rules, and with the stories that explain these roles to us crops up again in “Night Picnic.” Here, there is an ordinary family: Mom, Dad, Sis, and Junior. But they’re not ordinary, not really; they are on a planet that is not Earth, and they are trying to imitate Earthlings, though it’s not exactly clear why. They read Earthling magazines and watch Earthling movies, trying to gain clues; “Families depend on every member acting out their roles,” Suzuki drolly observes.

For Suzuki’s characters, the bracing effects of violence, both outward and self-directed, is the only logical next step.

The roleplay falls apart. On a picnic, they encounter a monster who reminds them that they, in fact, are monsters, too. “The monsters who had posed as a family stood stock still, overtaken with amazement,” Suzuki writes. “They could not wrap their heads around what had transpired or why.” What really bonds a family together, anyway, beyond a mutual acknowledgement of shared history and fundamental power differentials? The monsters drift away from each other, “leisurely, with no particular place to go, stewards of a new anxiety.”

It is the collection’s final story, “Terminal Boredom,” that is particularly relevant for the contemporary reader, in that eerily predictive way that good science fiction can be. The story follows another young woman, who is fascinated and repelled by an old boyfriend she thinks of only as HE; their lives are defined by boredom, by endless television reruns and an unrelenting apathy (“They were saying on the news that more and more young people were forgetting to eat, starving to death”). A new surgery is growing in popularity, one that fully links the brain to the television. HE has gotten it, but the narrator’s not so sure.

“All the shitty stuff stops bothering you,” argues HE. “Reality feels like a TV show, and TV shows feel like reality. It’s like the boundary between them breaks down, like you’re living in a dream.” Reading this in 2022, in a cultural moment in which disassociation has become a favorite buzzword and any idealism regarding the transformative effects of the internet has long been eroded, Suzuki’s depiction of disaffection and depression, and the blurring between one’s self and one’s stories, is more an uncomfortable truism than narcissistic warning sign. But how, exactly, to snap out of it?

For Suzuki’s characters, the bracing effects of violence, both outward and self-directed, is the only logical next step. The girl’s father commits suicide. The girl herself kills the newly pregnant ex-girlfriend of HE, alongside him. But even this is following a script—“Think of it as a TV show,” urges HE. “Pretend you’re an actor.” The boredom may go. But the frame still encloses the picture.