Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yatsutaka Tsutsui

I’ll start off by saying I picked this book out simply because I was looking for something to read while pumping my legs on the stationary recumbent bike at the gym the other day. I figured it looked like a light read, and thought I might even be able to finish it in a one-hour cardio session.

I was right. However, I may have been a little distracted while reading the book.

That said, I found it enjoyable and compelling enough to keep reading, but I’m not sure I would have if I’d been at home, where tons of other books were in reach.

Part of the problem for me was that the book read a little too, er, “easy” if that makes sense. Things tied up in a neat little knot at the end, I guess, or close enough to that to bother me. Of course, I’m not sure I’m exactly the intended audience for this novel: it is a YA novel, and it was originally written in Japanese. You never know what the original text was like, and what was lost may not be the translator’s fault, either.

Maybe one problem was that in neither story in the book — the novella from which the title of the book is taken, or the short story included, which is titled “The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of” — contains anything like a picture of youth of the kind that matches what I remember when I was young: school is an essentially sane and safe place, teachers really do care about students (and take them seriously as human beings), children are given some degree of autonomy, and they are able to get things done without having to overcome institutional and adult resistance.

In one of the courses I sometimes teach, Understanding Anglophone Cultures Through Film, I have students watch and discuss one of the Jim Henson Muppet movies; the last time we did so (we watched the first one, The Muppet Movie), several students expressed the opinion that the target audience for the film was adults, because children are obviously not bright enough to get the message. (Not even when Henson gleefully-but-gently bangs them over the head with a rainbow-encoded signal.)

My response was that children are the least respected people in any society: whatever we say about racism, about sexism, homophobia, or other bigotries, the bigotry against children is the most profound anywhere you look. I asked them whether they remember being children? Most of them nodded, but in a way where you know they don’t really remember what it’s like at all. And these are people in their early 20s.

It’s true: children are the least respected members of any society. I think what rubbed me the wrong way about the two tales in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is that particular tension is completely absent from both stories. There are other tensions — and there are messages I think are worthwhile, such as how “The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of” explores how fear and guilt work, such as the way the title story explores a future from which no reader could help but feel estranged.

But I guess for me it was impossible to really buy these stories because childhood seemed a little too idyllic, and the world in which the youths in these stories lived seemed a little too simple and sane to buy into. It didn’t quite feel right to me. Maybe the problem is that the book was published in 1967, and authors didn’t discuss such things in Japanese literature then? I don’t know — I’m not saying anything about Japanese lit, not at all, but I recall reading that Maurice Sendak got flack back in the 1960s when the mom sent the child protagonist of Where the Wild Things Are to bed without supper… not that moms didn’t do that, but it wasn’t something people talked about publicly. Everyone was just kind of pretending such things were unthinkable, and that made Sendak radical.

Which is not to say I wouldn’t be willing to read something else by Yasutaka Tsutsui… especially since, after all, this was one of his first books! (More translations, like Paprika, Hell, and Salmonella Men on Planet Porno, seem to focus on more recent work by Tsutsui, and apparently, he has also taken flack for his satirical take on a number of things in his own society, which is always a good sign.)

I’ve heard that a very good anime has been made from the title of story of the book, so I would like to check that out, if I can track down a copy… I’m less excited, but still curious, about the many live-action adaptations that have been done, but I’d watch one of those too, especially an older one, if I could.

4 thoughts on “Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yatsutaka Tsutsui

  1. school is an essentially sane and safe place, teachers really do care about students (and take them seriously as human beings), children are given some degree of autonomy, and they are able to get things done without having to overcome institutional and adult resistance.

    Actually.. I always wonder about schools being depicted as bad places in SF–my own school years were great, quite frankly. Granted, my relationship with the other students was on-off because I was class geek, but my teachers were always looking out for students. I never had bullying problems, and if I wanted to do something in particular the adults would be very supportive. My husband had a similar experience, and so did many of my other friends. I wonder if it’s not a cultural thing?

  2. It could be! I think it also varies from school to school, and individual to individual, though a lot of bright North Americans I know seem to remember middle and high school as a form of hell.

    (My bad luck goes beyond just being a class geek, mind, but I think I may save that for a post sometime.)

    I will say that most Koreans I know — the bright ones and the less-bright-ones alike — report high school especially as being hellish. It’s much more institutional, and the violence is often teacher-student; the people I know were never the “outcasts”… though “outcasts” in Korean schools are so thoroughly ostracized that it’s a wonder they don’t all kill themselves — it’s that bad, and many do kill themselves, the wonder is that they don’t all do it. And of course, they are at schools (and afterschool schools) for ridiculous amounts of time, even on Saturdays, and spend their last year studying for the Korean equivalent of the SATs… except that’s all they tend to do in their final year, as the examination they take to get into a university can fairly be said to determine how most of their lives turn out.

    I’ve heard in Japan, it’s quite similar, but compounded by the need to be athletic and extramural as well… that is, for those seeking “good jobs,” which parents tend to pressure kids to get.

    Of course, I doubt it was that bad in 1963, when Tsutsui was writing — I have the sense the violence would have been heavier, but the load of overschooling and the pressure to be a top grade-winner much less; I’ve no idea what depictions of high school in Japan look like now, beyond a few movies seen here and there. (I think it’s telling that the longest-lived franchise of Korean horror films are set in a girl’s high school… and that the vast majority of horror films here involve young women of school age. Heck, one of the books I reviewed about Korean film included a chapter on why Korean high school narratives focus on the atomization of groups, the shattering of relationships, and the horrors of being young here. Telling, like I said.

    I’d be curious to hear what you think of Paul Graham’s article “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”; I think there’s some self-justification in what he writes, but his observations of what schools are like (a world made by young people themselves, resembling nothing so much as Golding’s Lord of the Flies) rings true for me.

    I can say that I ran into cases of unabashed child-hatred in my school experience so profound that, had it been racism instead of child-hate, the teachers would have lost their jobs. I’ve seen, and experienced, violence from teachers, but also purposeful humiliation and usually visited by teachers not on the worst-behaved kids but instead on the most vulnerable.

    I don’t think all teachers don’t care, though: I think a few do. I’d say it’s probably 20% teachers who care, 20% teachers who are actively hateful of children, and 60% teachers at various stages of burnout. Having taught for ten years in Korea, and about 12 years in total now — most of that consecutive — I’m still able to empathize with my students, but I know what burnout looks like and I can feel it creeping in.

    It would be unfair to blame teachers completely for staying at it when burnt out. Probably many start out as idealists and committed to the work; they end up burned out but with no real options for dealing with it. (It’s not as if they can get sabbaticals, not in most North American schools.)

    Anyway, you’re right culture is likely part of the equation. Now you have me very curious about the depiction of school experiences/settings across cultures… did you read much YA in French when you were young?

  3. I don’t know anything about the school system in Asia, so I can only comment on France :)
    To a large extent, what university you do in France also shapes your life (we have a ridiculously long memories when it comes to diplomas, continuing to praise them even when the individual in question left uni more than 20 years ago…). There certainly is pressure to get the right kind of school; but I never had the feeling it was unbearable, or that I wanted to kill myself. I was never depressed as a teenager (OK, I take that back. I was depressed, but it had nothing to do with school).

    Similarly, I was mildly unpopular in school (mainly for being smart, rather than being the only Asian girl in an all-White school); but it never really became violent, and I never felt that the teachers were either neglecting me or were encouraging any kind of bullying. And I’ve read Paul’s article, and it doesn’t quite ring true for me, at least not in terms of my experience–I could always find other friends to hang out with, and being an athlete, or being cool, wasn’t what made you the most popular kid in the class (I’d be hard pressed to remember if there even was a popular kid in the class. Certainly a large majority of us thought the local jock was an idiot). I was in school from Monday to Saturday morning (France also has ridiculous hours…), and what I remember hating most was losing my Saturday morning; but that was pretty much it. I never dreaded going to school, never had to deal with persecution (unless you count a few satirical drawings, which happened, like, once in my entire high school?)

    I read a far amount of YA when I was young–about half was translated, and half was French. I remember quite a fair bit of horror stories set in high schools, but all of these were from the US… The French schools depicted in YA tend to be boarding schools, where the students go on the rampage (illegal expeditions and all that), and the teachers try to stop them, but there is a strong underlying assumption that most of the teachers are just trying to do their jobs, not that they’re actively tormenting students. And, if you do get an evil teacher, you generally try to outwit him by bringing his depredations to the attention of other teachers, or of adults, rather than deal with the matter among students.

    That’s what I remember. I could certainly be wrong; it’s been such a long while..

  4. That’s interesting, Aliette… and you’ve reminded me of some YA novels I read — or maybe they were just called “juveniles” then — where institutions weren’t so much hellish as just, you know, kind of institutional, and smart kids broke rules to get around them.

    The funny thing is, the only ones I actually remember like that were by Gordon Korman… the books I read apparently being his first few, written when he was still a teenager, apparently. (So sez Wikipedia.) There was plenty of subvert-subvert-subvert, but the systems weren’t as dystopian or horrific as I now apparently expect and see as realistic.

    Meanwhile, you just reminded me of a very interesting thought that struck me the other day, and which slipped out of my mind though I meant to blog it. I’ll save it for my next post, I suppose. :)

    But I will say my experience really was unlike yours. I’ve heard friends from small-town schools describe things like not having a “cool” or “popular” kid, or how jocks were not automatically special (and even how sometimes the jock was also the straight-A student, something quite rare but also seen in my high school… though those kids usually did sports other than hockey: we had a speed skater, for example, who was also a top student, and one football player who, while he could get on with the jocks, was actually a decent guy I liked just fine.

    I suspect part of the effect I’m talking about arises when there’s a critical set of characteristics: a big enough body of students — inducing tribalizing differentiation — and a certain degree of impunity to students breaking the implicit “adult” codes of conduct.

    Then again, and I think I’ve mentioned this, there was a group of jocks in my high school who were rumored to have formed a “rape club” to brag about their, er, “conquests.” We thought that was just a rumor, until one of them ended up in court, and a friend of mine told me a story about another of them.

    (And they say Canadians are “nice.”)

    I should note, I was probably also just unlucky with timing. I arrived in that high school in 11th grade, but if I’d arrived in 9th, I’d likely have ended up in the advanced courses, and with a crowd more suited to me (and more likely to model better geek coping skills for me, as well as greater safety among their numbers… but, hell, I ended up with an amazing lifelong friend because I didn’t arrive then, so it works out, I suppose).

    By the way, though it might be (perhaps, and only slightly) exaggerated at times, I think the TV show Freaks & Geeks captured the kind of social structure that existed in my high school. There were a lot of flashback moments for me — and even some surprising emotional reactions (especially anger) that I felt watching that.

    (Which reminds me of the one student I’ve had in Korea who was a fan of Buffy. She told me that the main reason was because she felt it reflected her own experience of high school, as a newcomer in the town and an “outsider” because her regional background was different from her classmates.)

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