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.