August 14, 2011

JAPAN: Death of a sci-fi pioneer

NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Arts / August 11, 2011

Sakyo Komatsu, 80, Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 80

By Dennis Hevesi

Sakyo Komatsu, one of the leading science-fiction writers of Japan, whose 1973 best-selling book, “Japan Sinks,” rattled a nation that sits on one of the most earthquake-prone zones in the world, died on July 26 in Osaka Prefecture, Japan. He was 80.

The cause was pneumonia, representatives of his publication, Sakyo Komatsu Magazine, told Japanese news organizations.

Mr. Komatsu’s premise in “Japan Sinks” was that the tectonic plates that grind beneath the Japanese archipelago undergo a sudden colossal shift, setting off a chain reaction of volcanoes that spew torrents of lava, tsunamis that inundate cities, earthquakes that shatter the countryside and the deaths of millions of people.

The unpredictability underlying the theme was made clear this year on March 11, when Japan was struck by an earthquake and a tsunami that set off a nuclear-plant disaster. In the issue of his quarterly magazine published on July 21, Mr. Komatsu said he hoped to see how his country would evolve after the catastrophe.

“I had thought I wouldn’t mind dying any day,” he wrote. “But now I’m feeling like living a little bit longer and seeing how Japan will go on hereafter.”

Beyond the apocalyptic plot, the book delves into interpersonal relations, how the Japanese might cope with the end of their world and how dispersed survivors might fare in willing host countries. But there is no resolution; the story ends with boat people watching the waves swallow their homeland.

“Japan Sinks,” one of more than a dozen books by Mr. Komatsu, sold more than four million copies in Japan, was published in the United States three years later, and inspired two Japanese disaster movies (one in 1973 and a remake in 2006) and a television series.

A 1973 article in The New York Times said that “Japan Sinks” is “a chillingly realistic work of science fiction” by an author “who evidently knows his geophysics.”

Among Mr. Komatsu’s other books are “Peace on Earth” (1961), a parallel-world story in which World War II does not end in August 1945 and a young man prepares to defend Japan against the Allied invasion, and “Nihilistic Corridor” (1999), which tries to envision how humanity might survive by evolving into some other species.

With Shin’ichi Hoshi and Yasutaka Tsutsui, Mr. Komatsu was considered one of the masters of Japanese science fiction.

Mr. Komatsu was born in Osaka on January 28, 1931. He received a degree in Italian literature in 1954 from Kyoto University and later worked as a magazine editor, a factory foreman and a comedy scriptwriter before turning to science fiction.

He was haunted by memories from his teenage years of the devastation caused by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mr. Komatsu told the Japanese newspaper The Daily Yomiuri in 2006.

In a world suffused by nationalism and ethnicity, he said, “I began to think how people in Japan would live if they lost their land,” adding, “I sometimes wonder if our intolerant territoriality is really justifiable on this planet, where continents are constantly drifting.”

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