Great Japanese Writers: Miyuki Miyabe
By Iain Maloney
On December 11, 2017
One of the draws genre fiction has with readers is the comfort of familiarity. For busy people looking for stimulation or escapism after a hard day’s work or on a dull commute, the risk of a new author with an untested style can be off-putting. When the writer’s work is a translation and the culture and context may be unknown, that risk is often heightened in the book-buyer’s mind. In those situations, genre provides a bridge between the known and the new.
This is clearly evident in recent international publishing phenomena such as Scandi-Crime and Cli-Fi. Publishers are keen to jump on labels like “X is Kiribati’s Stieg Larsson” or “Y is Macedonia’s Haruki Murakami.” With that in mind, it makes sense that Miyuki Miyabe, a master of genre-jumping, is many people’s way into Japanese literature.
Born in Tokyo in 1960, Miyabe first published in 1987 and quickly became a prolific mainstay of the Japanese publishing world — both in terms of output and sales. She has brought out a huge number of books in Japanese, sometimes a few each year, many of which have then been adapted for TV and cinema. In Japan, she has won the Naoki Prize (1999), the Shiba Ryotaro Prize (2002), the Yamamoto Shugoro Prize (1993), the Japan SF award (1997), the Japan Adventure Fiction Association Prize (1998), the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (1992) and the Yoshikawa Eiji prize twice — once for New Writers (1992) and once for Literature (2007). She also won the 2008 Batchelder Award in the US for the translation of her children’s book Brave Story.
The reason I list all of her awards is because it highlights the diversity of her work: science fiction, mystery, historical fiction, children’s fiction, young adult, fantasy, crime, thriller and horror. There is barely a genre she hasn’t succeeded in. This makes her ideal for the newcomer to Japanese literature — whatever your taste, there’s bound to a Miyabe book for you.
Her debut in English was All She Was Worth (1999). Police detective Shunsuke Honma accepts a private investigative commission to find his nephew’s fiancée and unearths a conspiracy involving money and murder. It’s a delightfully twisting thriller as well as a strong piece of insightful social commentary, examining the effects Japan’s economy and out of date bureaucracy can have on people’s lives.
After this auspicious start, it took a few years for another Miyabe book to make it into English but once a second came, the floodgates opened. Shadow Family (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) came out in February 2005 and the dam broke. Originally titled RPG (role playing game) in Japanese, it tells the story of Ryosuke Tokoroda whose online and in-the-flesh infidelities lead to the creation of a bizarre “shadow family” formed by Ryosuke as the father, with a fake wife, son and daughter. The almost inevitable murder of Ryosuke triggers a sting operation involving Detective Chikako Ishizu (returning from All She Was Worth). Again the thriller elements are supported by social commentary, this time on the changing nature of family life with the invention of the internet.
This makes her ideal for the newcomer to Japanese literature — whatever your taste, there’s bound to a Miyabe book for you.
Her next, Crossfire (2006, translated by Deborah Iwabuch and Anna Isozaki), was the first time one of Miyabe’s more genre-blending novels was translated. This novel is a must for fans of The X-Files blend of the supernatural, police procedural and thriller. Junko Aoki is pyrokinetic and uses her power to deal vengeance on criminals, turning herself into a the kind of solitary vigilante that would find a home in the Marvel universe. Throughout the novel she is hunted by the police and other vigilantes who want to team up.
The next two novels were both translated by Deborah Iwabuchi. The Devil’s Whisper (2007) took Miyabe fans into the horror genre. Mamoru is a teenager and now ostensibly an orphan. His father disappeared more than a decade before and his mother has recently passed away. He moves in with his uncle in Tokyo who is accused of a hit and run. Mamoru tries to clear his uncle’s name and in the process unearths a trail of sinister deaths.
The Sleeping Dragon (2010) sees Miyabe return to psychic powers, this time visions. A journalist encounters a boy who claims to have “seen” the murder of another boy and follows the story, never quite sure if the boy really does have powers or is leading him on.
After the success of her children’s novel Brave Story in 2008, Haikasoru brought out the fantasy YA novels The Book of Heroes (2010) and Ico: Castle in the Mist (2011). Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo (2013), followed, a collection of Miyabe’s horror stories.
Publishing trends being what they are, it took a few years to return to Miyabe’s more weighty adult fiction, but when attention did return it was to perhaps the weightiest of them all. Ginny Tapley Takemori took on the epic responsibility of translating Miyabe’s 1,500 page work Puppet Master, the first part of which came out in 2014 with four subsequent parts following, the final in 2016. It tells the story of a pair of serial killers who use the trappings of modern media to relentlessly taunt the police and the relatives of their victims, entertaining the public along the way. It’s a story of manipulation on top of manipulation, of wheels within wheels, all cast in the comforting embrace of a manhunt. This may be Miyabe’s magnum opus, and certainly few writers could keep the tension so high over a five-part series. Brilliant, but not for the faint hearted.
There are literally dozens of Miyabe books yet to be translated but the ones listed here, not least Puppet Master, could keep even the most enthusiastic reader occupied and enthralled for a long time. Whether you’re new to Japanese literature or a deep diver who hasn’t yet experienced the thrill of Miyabe’s tales, why not ask Santa for one of these in your stocking?