Nakamura, Miri. Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan.
Miri Nakamura's Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan is an endeavor to understand the concept of the monster in modern Japan by utilizing the concept of the uncanny (in particular, Mori Masahiro's "The Uncanny Valley") to better appreciate the shift in monsters from the apparent and grotesque to that of the unseen. Nakamura's text utilizes "the Jentschian definition--the fear arising from the uncertainty of an object being animate or inanimate" as an anchoring point upon which the rest of the argument is built (3). By suggesting that modern (late nineteenth and early twentieth century) concerns about hygiene, colonialization, and the birth control movement are legible through fiction about uncanny bodies, Nakamura makes a compelling argument about how these concerns were interpreted.
This book is divided into four chapters that each takes on the text of an author or authors that fit this theme. Chapter one looks at Izumi Kyoka's Koya hijiri (The Holy Man of Mount Koya) in terms of anxiety about hygiene. Chapters two and three are concerned with issues of Japanese colonialism: Edogawa Rampo's "Soseiji" ("Twins") addresses the monstrous twin that tries to replace its double, and Yumeno Kyusaku's Dogura magura (Dogra Magra) confronts concerns over the doppelganger in the colonies and mental illness. Chapter four looks at two short stories of the same name, "Jinzo ningen" ("Robot"), by Takada Giichiro and Hirabayashi Hatsunosuke, and how the two stories are connected to fascinations with artificial life, eugenics, and the birth control movement.
Nakamura's text begins on a compelling note with the first chapter, entitled "The Invisible Monster: Translating Hygiene into Supernatural Language." Nakamura makes a persuasive argument about hygiene concerns at the national level and how they were disseminated to the public in ways echoed by Izumi Kyoka's text. "By reading Kyoka's canonical text, together with hygienic writings, this chapter will undo the image of Izumi Kyoka as an unrealistic writer trapped in premodern literature and situate him squarely in modernity" (Nakamura 16). Nakamura then elaborates on hygienic discourse of the period, pointing out that scientific discussions on reducing the spread of cholera still utilized supernatural language to communicate the issue to the public at large. These diseases do not necessarily mark the body as "other," prompting concerns about uncanny bodies that masquerade as healthy. This is what makes Izumi Kyoka's text so inviting for comparison; the lady of the forest, the so-called diseased body that the narration warns against, appears to be healthy but transmits disease to men who do not follow her rules. However, what Nakamura does with this narrative is to trouble the standard interpretation by arguing that there is a second uncanny body present in the tale: the monk who, despite not following the rules, remains disease free and able to communicate the cure to the university student who ultimately tells the tale. This maneuver illustrates that, while the concerns about hygiene were gendered in public discourse, the supernatural (the only explanation for how the monk remains clean) was still a strong element of narration and understanding in Japan.
Chapters two ("Colonial Doubles") and three ("Colonial Doppelganger") are better understood together, as they both take on stories that have links to colonialism. Edogawa Rampo's "Twins" is an interesting story about a good twin brother who is killed and "replaced" by the younger twin; the evil twin is only discovered to be a murderer when a fingerprint in the older brother's diary links the replacement to a second murder. Nakamura successfully ties this story to concerns about colonialism, especially in terms of being the colonizer of Korea and concerns about being colonized. The younger twin's first murder, when viewed "as an allegory of the Great Kanto Earthquake, a story about Japan's repression of its historical memory" is "almost a dictionary definition of the Freudian uncanny, for it is based on an uncovering of what the nation concealed--a massacre not considered to be a crime. Something that was repressed--the unofficial murder--came to light in a manner that disrupted the present" (Nakamura 68).
While chapter three is about the uncanny double that reveals as much in its absence as its presence, chapter three is also concerned with colonialism, violence, and mental illness. Looking at Dogra Magra, a novel described as "a fantastic, strange detective fiction (genma kaiki tantei shosetsu)," Nakamura investigates concerns over the border between the colonizer (Japan) and the colonized (Korea), and the sustainability of the borders when one is trying to mimic the other. "Dogra Magra is presented to the reader as a 'frighteningly long' trick film. The horror--the uncanny--arises when the protagonist, as part of his incomplete mirror stage, is forced to face his Chinese look-alike onscreen, causing his repressed Chinese ancestry to return to him. At this point, it becomes unclear if the border between the colonizer and the colonized can really be sustained" (Nakamura 98). By understanding the psychological research that went into Dogra Magra, Nakamura illustrates how a nonsensu work tells a frightening tale about mental illness while simultaneously operating as a commentary on colonialism.
Of the four chapters of this text, the final one, "Robot Babies," is the weakest when it comes to analysis. Nakamura makes claims that the eugenics movement and the birth control moment were connected for the first time over the concerns of the poor having children, but leaves several passages with little explanation. Nakamura begins the chapter strongly by discussing Japan's fascination with robots; cited as originating with the arrival of Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1920, it started a robot boom that lasted through the 1920s that is still evident today. However, unlike the chapters about hygiene and colonialism that are thoroughly examined with clear ties to the texts of analysis, this chapter makes moves towards explanation, but does not always deliver the explanation with the same level of detail as the other chapters. For instance, there is no explanation given as to why the term "feminist" is qualified: "When Muraki announces his experiment, a 'feminist' reacts to it" (Nakamura 112). Nakamura then says that "Yoshida Morio, in his seminal essay on 1920s robot literature, brilliantly demonstrated that modern robot texts ... were inseparable from the birth control movement" without finishing the thought on the movement itself (113). This may have more to do with the texts chosen for analysis--two stories of the same name about robot babies who turn out not to be robots at all--than a true failing on the part of the author. Unlike the stories in the previous chapters, these narratives do not completely coincide with the theme of the chapter, leaving Nakamura to weave strong ties out of tenuous threads.
This is not to say that this chapter is empty of value; in fact, discussions about illegitimate babies, reproduction without women, and concerns about women's health and childbirth (or the need to choose between having children or a career) are discussed and cited with footnotes that give helpful explanations outside of the main discussion point. Considering that one of the short stories ends up with an illegitimate baby instead of a robot, this was quite fruitful. It is only that the discussion on artificial babies somewhat lacks the investigative and analytical thoroughness exhibited in previous chapters.
Even with a lack of full explication in the final chapter, Monstrous Bodies is a very engaging academic text that will appeal to those in East Asian studies who may be interested in a text that illuminates how modern "monsters" were formulated through public discourse that was primarily interested in creating healthy bodies and cooperative citizens in Japan and its colonies. Those familiar with current consumerist media in Japan will see several origin stories for themes that are prevalent in twenty-first-century Japanese society. Concerns about low birth rates, for example, were a concern in the Taisho and early Showa periods as well as today, even though the previous concerns took on very eugenicist overtones. With its copious research into psychology, philosophy, and aesthetics, this text is useful for those interested in Japan and the uncanny. Nakamura brings the idea of monsters into the modern era, and that is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in where some of today's ideas originated.
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|Author:||Clopton, Kay K.|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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