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Asian Anthologies, Part III: Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs: The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
Edited by Helen Mitsios
Foreword by Pico Iyer

There are some pretty wild support groups out there. Acne support groups, jealousy support groups, lactose intolerance and tooth grinding. (And yes, these really do exist. I looked them up.) But wait, it gets better. What if you made a support group, more of a club really, for kids who have lost their fathers? That sounds pretty normal.

Except in this club members talk about their fathers as if they are still here, less as figments of revived memories and more a society of paternal imaginary friends. Yeah, this was a new one for me too.

Helen Mitsios introduces Tomoyuki Hoshino in her second anthology of Japanese literature Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs, a renewed and reworked edition of her New Japanese Voices: The Best Contemporary Fiction from Japan of twenty years ago. Mitsios’s collection, like the others in the Asian Anthology series, was recently published by Cheng and Tsui Company and is just now bringing new literature into English translation.

Hoshino’s story “The No Fathers Club” centers around a small group of people who are, in the absence of purpose and two-parent homes, looking for a connection. “We shared the problems and conflicts we had with our faux fathers and discussed together strategies for dealing with them. I told everyone how my father was perhaps too understanding, and that while it was nice that he let me do as I liked, I sometimes wondered if he really just didn’t care.”

While the whining and personal issues seem like things that ought to be listed as non-problems, the “fathers” in the club assume places in their world that are surprisingly real, even daring to leave a bruise and a split lip on one member for talk of not going to college. The club eventually shrinks to the narrator, Joe, and his friend Kurumi who he begins dating, but their time together is haunted (so to speak) by their paternal alter egos. Truly it is all they have in common. In the end, Hoshino explores how some relationships only last as long as the illusions do.

Aside from the support groups, Digital Geishas takes other interesting turns and shouldn’t be turned aside for some of its more unconventional content (as if that wasn’t reason to read it enough). Would you give your spouse permission to have month long affair? If you did, would you really mean it? Noboru Tsujihara brings to the table “My Slightly Crooked Brooch,” a story that plays on elements that are part fairytale and part urban legend. Ryō, a married man, has fallen in love. The proposal was all so very reasonable.

“She was a college student, he told her, just getting ready to graduate. Once she was finished with school, her parents had arranged for her to return to Matsuyama on the island Shikoku, where she was to get married. They’d already screened the groom and gone through with the engagement ceremony last fall. She and Ryō had decided a clean break would be best. But until then she wanted to live together during her final month of freedom, so he had agreed. It’s what they both wanted, he said.”

After some compromise, Ryō’s wife Mizue agrees. “He would be gone for a month. Not a day, hour, even a minute more. That was his promise.”

Over the course of the month Maiko and Ryō make the most of it, carefully avoiding the countdown to their final days; a husband with a different wife. Meanwhile, Mizue makes a change in her own behavior. A new apartment, a cell phone, an occupation of sorts. A jealous wife or something more?

Mitsios’s anthology takes the best of Japanese contemporary issues and writers today and brings them to English readers. Be it children of novelists or yes, talking frogs, Digital Geishas is good fodder for the reading inclined. Like the Cheng and Tsui’s other Asian works, the collection does not disappoint.



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