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A Meaning in Art that's No Longer Possible: an Interview with Kiyoshi Kasai.

Kiyoshi Kasai was born in Tokyo in 1948. Pursuing an early interest in politics, he attended Wako University, a center of student activism. Kasai joined a new-left political organization in 1968 and under the pseudonym Ryuji Kuroki was a prominent radical activist until giving up all political involvement and expatriating to Paris in the mid-seventies. Eventually returning to Japan, he published a novel, Bai Bai Enjeru (Bye Bye, Angel), which won the Kadokawa Award in 1979. Bai Bai Enjeru launched the career of Kasai's detective protagonist Kakeru Yabuki, who employs phenomenological speculation to solve his murder cases.

His most ambitious Kakeru narrative so far is the 2,000-page novel The Philosopher's Locked Room, which concerns the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the recent revelations of Heidegger's involvement in Nazism. When the interviewers visited his house in the summer of 1992, he had published the first 1,000 pages of this in serial form for EQ, the Japanese version of Ellery Queen's Magazine. But after finishing the serial, he found there was more to go and he wrote another 1,000 pages. (TT)

Sinda Gregory: Is Kakeru Yabuki a private detective acting on his own or a member of the police who somehow is part of a larger legal system?

Kiyoshi Kasai: He's a nonprofessional detective somewhat like Poe's Dupin. The theme of my new book is death--the difference between the nineteenth-century experience of death and the twentieth-century experience of death.

Larry McCaffery: Don DeLillo has also addressed this issue in his novels, like White Noise and Mao II, which both imply that technology mediates our experience of death in all sorts of ways.

KK: I agree with that idea. World War I was the first technologized war in which death was completely different from that depicted by Homer or even by Stendhal. In technologized war, people were treated just like garbage; they died without dignity; it was a mass production of death. That war was the actual beginning of the twentieth century. Until then, people were living in an extension of the nineteenth century.

LM: How does Heidegger fit into this--his connections with fascism?

KK: Heidegger was one of my favorite philosophers when I was a student, along with Gyorgy Lukacs. In Sein und Zeit Heidegger states that the human being becomes the true self only when he is confronted with death. This philosophy was derived from the experience of World War I. Before then, people were able to die their own death, whereas after undergoing World War I, that became impossible. This wound up leaving the theme of death to the philosophers to speculate about. Anyway, I became interested in the fact that the World War I experience in Europe gave rise to Heidegger's philosophy of death and also the classical type of detective fiction simultaneously.

As you know, most of the major movements associated with modernism--for example, formalism, surrealism, dadaism, and expressionism--originated in countries like Russia, Germany, and France, where battles had actually taken place in front of their very eyes. Whereas, you don't find these sorts of drastic artistic movements occurring in countries like America and England, which didn't experience the war firsthand. Then what did happen in America and England? The fad of serious mystery novels! Let's take a serial story in a magazine or newspaper. Before the war, at least one person per day or per week or per month was killed in those stories. The way death is presented in those works reflected the way people thought about death before the war--it was routine, very easy: people simply died, very quickly, with almost no fuss at all. But in a serious postwar mystery novel, death doesn't happen so easily: the murderer scrupulously plans the killing in detail and carries out the crime with every due respect to the victim. Even after the murder, the detective works very hard to find out who had done it. This is almost like a double-authorization of the victim. The death of the individual is made very meaningful--perhaps in order to give it meaning in art that's no longer possible in real life.

SG: Are classical detective novels--the kind you associate with Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie--popular in Japan?

KK: Yes, the fad of the classical British-type detective novel is still pretty popular, even now. The reason for this popularity is that Japan is one cycle removed from the experience of war compared to America or England. That is, since Japan had not really experienced World War I, we had to wait until World War II to truly understand the meaning of the serious classical mystery novel, which emphasizes the significance of death and the horror of mass-slaughter.

SG: What about writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe who wrote much earlier than World War I?

KK: The backbone of the detectives of the nineteenth century is positivism. They thought that the truth exists and that they could get to that truth by experience, observation, and presumption. Holmes is a good example. However, the detectives of the twentieth century begin by doubting the truth. If there were any truth at all, it would be something that they themselves must create, rather than discover. In a sense, nihilism was pervasive. From this point it is interesting to see that Van Dine was a student of Nietzsche. While Holmes was a typical nineteenth-century Victorian detective, Poe doesn't fit into this categorization. I am not so interested in Holmes as I am in Poe. Poe was a rhetorical writer, a postmodern writer. My new book is going to be the fourth case of Dupin.

LM: Earlier when we asked about the type of the detective you usually depict, you said a phenomenological one. That makes me think of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Michael Butor. I know that you lived in Paris for a time. Were you interested in the French detective novels or the nouveau roman, and was your new story influenced by them in any way?

KK: I like Sarraute and Butor better than Robbe-Grillet. I read the antiromans when I was a university student, and I thought they were different from what I thought was a novel. I think the narrative is very important in a work of fiction, whereas the avant-garde writers try to deprive the novel of their narrative. Detective fictions or SF novels are trying to recover narrativity--that is why my interest lies in these fields. By using the narrativity system of science fiction or detective novels, I would like to present a theme of our time. By this, I hope to avoid the blind alley in which all the antiromans seemed to have trapped themselves.

LM: In the fifties and sixties there were so many discussions about the death of the novel. But now we seem to have gone beyond that. It's almost as if writers of the eighties and nineties have said, "OK, let's go back to story, we need it, it's important." Voila: the death of the death of the novel.

KK: As a critic, I cannot ignore the hard-core literary theory which had sort of insisted on the death of the novel and the irrelevancy of story. But as a writer, I go back to Balzac and Dumas and emphasize narrativity.

LM: There seems to be a lot of connections between SF and detective fiction. And maybe some significant differences, too. Since you've worked in both of them, what connections do you see and what differences?

KK: There are two points that are similar: they are both genre novels and formula fiction. As such, they both tend to repeat certain popular motifs once they have become popular. Let's take SF novels for example. After the H. G. Wells novel The Time Machine appeared, almost all the novels afterward build up their story with the time machine functioning as a main gadget. The same thing can be said with the detective story as well. Once a writer uses the locked room murder, so does everyone. ! think this is an essential condition for these two types of novels. They are also both concerned with epistemology. The difference is whether the writer uses the rhetoric of science dominantly and consciously, as SF authors do, or the rhetoric of logic and empiricism, which is what detective writers rely on. In both cases it doesn't matter if the science or empiricism used in a work is faulty, or even wrong, so long as the rhetoric found there is dominant.

SG: In most detective fiction the world is set up and controlled by reason. The question is answerable. This seems to me to be one of the defining characteristics of what is not postmodernism: a solution, a finality, a denouement exists and does not shift. That's one of the reasons why I would argue that Hammett is pushing the borders of modernity because what he is suggesting in his books is that the solution is one that is constructed by the detective. The truth does not exist; it's simply a construct of the detective.

KK: I think it's very unproductive to say that the only truth is that there is no truth. When they say "there is no truth," in actuality, most people automatically believe in a truth that there is no truth. Generally, this attitude characterized highly fashionable Japanese postmodernism during the 1980s. In those days college students used to carry about the texts of Derrida and Deleuze just like accessories. They often referred to "deconstruction" or "rhizome," but it was just because the terms sounded smart and fashionable. And now, no one reads Derrida. It went out of fashion. The same thing can be said about failed metafictions. Metafiction attempts to erase the existence of its author, the authority of its fictional world, who is even analogous to God. Poor metafiction, however, transgresses the fictional order of realism so easily and arbitrarily that it provides the author with much more authority than that of realistic fiction. At this point, the fiction is no longer a metafiction that implies there is no truth, but a fake metafiction that makes propaganda for the truth that there is no truth.

LM: Is there is any chance for a writer's work being able to have any real impact, either on the world or at least on the ways people think about the world?

KK: During the Gulf War, there was a controversy among the Japanese poets and critics. On the one hand, a magazine called Hatoyo! (O, Dove!) asked several poets to write a poem about the Gulf War. So they wrote antiwar poems using motifs of the dying sea birds and so on. On the other hand, there were those who criticized these poets and poems. Of course, this reaction was not because the criticizer was approving the war but because he or she thought that it was not a very good thing for a poet to jump onto a social issue and take stands against or for it by means of poetry.

Takayuki Tatsumi: Some of these writers who came against the war just seemed to do so because it was fashionable--it was a stance that grew out of a postmodern posture and seemed the thing to do. Opposition to war just became another new thing that could be put out there to consume. There were those of us who thought this was irresponsible coming immediately after the Gulf War began. Expressing one's antiwar feeling right after the war was declared could cause problems because it is too hasty.

SG: Most people who think about these things and who are not just knee-jerk patriots had very ambivalent feelings about the war. It was a more complex feeling than the way we felt about Vietnam. Most people felt that Hussein needed to be stopped, that he was a dangerous and brutal man. But there was also a recognition that George Bush was using this for political reasons.

KK: Until the post-Vietnam era of the 1970s, people were still able to believe in truth, justice, the existence of the center of the world. Then why did postmodern skepticism or nihilism become "fashionable"? I think the boat people of Vietnam and the great massacre of Cambodia had a lot to do with it. Those incidents exposed, the "justice," that one thing you always thought you had to stand up for, suddenly turned fake. It was not until then that people started to be skeptical, in America, in Europe, and even in Japan. So comes the approximately ten years of the "noncentered world," "no absolute world," "no justice world." But then, especially in Japan, we began to get bored with that situation. That is when the Gulf War occurred. We Japanese were not the ones who were actually involved; we were the outsiders, which made us all the more "irresponsible." So some people, mainly those who could not bear the unstableness, the uncertainty of postmodernism anymore, made an attempt again to insist on the old-fashioned justice opposing to America's imperialism. This is how I see the "Anti-War Protest" of Hatoyo! magazine, and I think it is wrong.

LM: I completely agree with you. I don't think postmodernism or the implications of postmodernism should be used to justify nihilism. It is important to recognize subjectivity, but you also have to understand the absolute necessity to finally take positions and to make distinctions between systems that lead to death and chaos versus those that are life-enhancing and create cooperation and community. If you just say that they are all equal, you wind up saying that something that creates death is the same as what creates life. The postmodern artists that I admire are those who are absolutely taking stands.

KK: Ever since the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, postmodern issues have become more and more critical. I think we must try to find out what kind of justice can exist on the premise that no such absolute justice exists.

SG: Since "serious" forms of literature, at least in America, are read by a very very few people, their potential for generating political action is almost nonexistent. But it seems like pop culture, which is the dominant culture both in terms of prevalence and marketplace clout, has a potential for actually affecting large numbers of citizens. The dynamic is in place for art to change things even if it's rarely used for anything other than repackaging the same old merchandise/information. In other words, pop culture could challenge the norms just as well as reinforce them--that's what Larry is proposing with his avant-pop concept.

KK: In Japan the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction is unique, compared to that of Europe or America. When Japan started its modernization a hundred years ago in the Meiji era, the bureaucrats, university teachers, and high-ranked military men were the ones who wore Western clothes. And serious fiction was read by those who wore Western clothes. Pure literature was something Western, something imported. Now, during this same time, all the ordinary people were wearing their kimonos. For them, there was Kabuki, Kodan, and other forms of popular culture which had succeeded in establishing themselves from the Edo period. This division continued for about a century. Nowadays, of course, most of us Japanese wear Western clothes. The border between serious literature and popular literature has become vague.

In Japan the role of academicism is undertaken by journalism. You would have to produce something once a year that would sell 50,000 copies if you want to make an average living. I suppose there are fewer than ten "serious writers" who are able to do that in Japan. There are five major publishing companies that turn out serious literary magazines every month. If you are prestigious enough to be able to have your short story published in one of these major magazines, there will be requests for lectures, reviews, and essays from all over. That is how you would make a living.

LM: You've said earlier that both SF and detective fiction are formulas. But when you began writing the science fiction series Vampire Wars, was there anything you would say that was fundamentally different about writing SF and detective fiction?

KK: I don't think there were any big differences, no. Both of them are formula fiction, and both of them are really gadget-oriented. And both of them are dealing not with the "I" but with something more general.

LM: Was there any particular reason that you used the vampire motif?.

KK: My interest in vampires wasn't very abstract. The main reason for using the vampire motif was that I wanted to write a novel in which the vampire, who is usually the bad guy, is the good guy, and the human beings, who are usually the victims, are in turn the bad guys. I was trying to make a remixture of Gothic romance and SF. As a theme, I wanted to differentiate humanism by using the vampire device.

LM: You apparently were writing Vampire Wars primarily as popular entertainment. Would you be interested in writing "serious" SF, or do you not much consider such distinctions?

KK: Theory and practice are two different things. I just want to do something new. Having experienced the Hawaii Tour and London Tour, even Sumo has become international. The only things unique in Japan are probably No, Kabuki, and the classic puzzle-solving-type detective fiction. Nowadays, Japan is the only country that enjoys this genre. So I think we should preserve this as one of our national traditions. There are several awards for detective fictions in Japan but none for the classical type. I guess I would have to establish one. At present, in Japan, the mainstream of the mystery genre is Frederick Forsyth or Robert Ludlum, who write long political novels.

Transcribed by Reiko Tochigi; translated by Takafumi Akimoto

The complete interview with Kiyoshi Kasai can be accessed at www.centerforbookculture.org.

TAKAFUMI AKIMOTO received his M.A. in American Literature from Keio University; the co-author of A Readers' Guide to Paul Auster (Sairyusha, 1996), he teaches American Literature at Konan University.

SINDA GREGORY published an interview with and essay about Rikki Ducornet in the Fall 1998 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction; the author of Private Investigations: The Fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, she currently is Professor of English at San Diego State University.

LARRY McCAFFERY's most recent publication was Federman, A to X-X-X-X--A Recyclopedic Narrative (San Diego State University Press); currently a Professor of English at San Diego State University, his main activity is hiking near his home in the Anza Borrego Desert.

TAKAYUKI TATSUMI's recent books include: New York Decadence (Tokyo: Chikuma Publishers, 1995), which included queer readings of Melville, Adams, and Duchamp as the cultural engineers of the celibate machine, and Slipstream Japan (Tokyo: Shinchosha,1998), which discusses postmodern Japanese writers such as Yasutaka Tsutsui, Ryu Murakami, Haruki Murakami, Masahiko Shimada, Yoriko Shono, and others. He won the Pioneer Award in 1994 for his collaborative essay (with Larry McCaffery), "Towards the Theoretical Frontiers of Fiction: From Metafiction and Cyberpunk through Avant-Pop" (SF Eye #12) and the Yukichi Fukuzawa Award in 1996 for his literary historical study, New Americanist Poetics (Tokyo: Seidosha, 1995). Currently a professor of English at Keio University, he lives with Mari Kotani in Tokyo.
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Author:McCaffery, Larry; Gregory, Sinda; Tatsumi, Takayuki
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:3231
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