Perfection in fiction is a tricky, usually unattainable, goal: the perfect short story exists, certainly, but the perfect anthology is harder to pin down. The more authors involved, the more rarified the reader who will appreciate all of them. It may be that the only person who loves every story in a given anthology is the editor (or editors); certainly for most readers two or three stories are bound to fail. Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark, From And About Japan is not that mythical perfect anthology, but it has more hits than misses, and contains some genuinely fantastic (in the superlative sense of the word) stories.
As the subtitle implies, the book is loosely themed. Not all of the stories take place in Japan; some of the stories by Japanese authors have no particular connection to Japan at all. Project Itoh’s story “From the Nothing, With Love,” for example, concerns the secret history of a certain British secret agent, offering a seamless occult explanation for every reboot and personality quirk. At the other end of the spectrum, Zachary Mason offers five palm-of-the-hand retellings of classic Japanese tales. If the latter feels a bit gimmicky after a while, and the former feels constrained by the material that inspires it, there are other offerings that are richer and more unexpected.
Tim Pratt’s less-than-subtle, yet satisfying revenge tale “Those Who Hunt Monster Hunters” takes place in the present day Bay area, while Dempow Torishima’s horrifying and beguiling “Sisyphean” takes place in an indeterminate future where dead-end jobs don’t really end once you’re dead. Miyuki Miyabe’s “Chiyoko” concerns a broke college student hired to wear a magical pink rabbit costume, who finds that looking through the creature’s eyes gives her a surprising perspective on everyone she sees.
The strongest entries here include “Her Last Appearance,” Lauren Naturale’s dreamy, languid story about theater and difference; “Girl, I Love You,” by Nadia Bulkin, an almost-familiar tale of black magic, obsession, and revenge that works because of the desperate and heartbroken tone it reaches. In fact, Phantasm Japan is often strongest when dealing with inevitable ends: Jacqueline Koyanagi’s gorgeous “[Kamigakari]” concerns the spirit of our sun, traveling through human bodies and time in the moments before its own death; the end of Sayuri Ueda’s “The Street of Fruiting Bodies” is obvious almost from its start, but this science fictional Matango-in-suburbia story is never rote, and never flinches from its horror of the potential that our world still holds to destroy us at any time. Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s visceral “Ningyo” concerns the unfinished business between a no-longer-quite-human girl and the mermaid she once tasted, in a world that’s becoming more and more inhospitable to both.
Haikasoru has been working since 2009 to bring Japanese genre fiction to English-speaking audiences, and for readers unsure where to start with their catalog, this anthology should offer some ideas. In addition, it serves as a great introduction for several non-Japanese authors. All things considered, this is a strong showcase.