Wednesday 8 November 2023

Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad

In Japan, riding a steam train through outer space is a melancholy symbol of the human journey. Like the gentle drift of the sakura petal, the whistle of a train means a transition in life. That human quality... those melancholy, bittersweet coming of age lessons... were inherited from renowned writer Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad, whose own life was a tragic and all-too brief spark snuffed out early.  

Published posthumously in 1934 as part of his collected works, Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru (translated variously as Night on the Galactic RailroadNight of the Milky Way Train, The Celestial Railroad, and Fantasy Railroad in the Stars) underwent constant revision since its genesis in 1924 and none of the versions available to date are "complete" so far as the author's final wishes go. Nevertheless, being incomplete in itself gives Night on the Galactic Railroad its own poignancy. 

Its most immediate grounding comes with the death of Miyazawa's sister Toshi in 1922. Kenji left his home in Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture, the year before out of disgust with his family's business and friction with its patriarch. The son of a pawnbroker, Kenji became ever more sensitive to the disparity between his family and the surrounding farmers from whom his family gained its wealth. He converted to the more activist Nichiren sect of Buddhism, drawing him into a protracted conflict with his father until he left in 1921. Sadly, he returned to his sister's deathbed. Until his death from pneumonia in 1933, Miyazawa stayed in the Hanamaki area, becoming an author, schoolteacher and improver of conditions for the people of the region. 

His first work, The Restaurant of Many Orders, was self-published in 1924, followed by as many volumes of story and verse as he could save his wages up to print. At the Hanamaki Agriculture School he emphasized personal experience, pulling his students out of the classroom and into the fields more often than he let them sit at a desk. Miyazawa strove to inculcate an appreciation of nature, geology, and astronomy in the young, as well as an appreciation of the arts. Music, poetry and theatre were also subjects which he encouraged, organizing public recitals of works created by the students. In 1926 he gave up teaching at the school to form the Rasu Farmers Association. Its object was to modernize the way of life of farmers, in addition to fostering scientific and cultural pursuits. Among his activities, he introduced new and hardier strains of rice, as well as hosting European classical music listening parties on his gramophone, one of the only (if not the only) in Hanamaki. 

His personal philosophy is exemplified in his poem Ame ni mo Makezu, discovered in a notebook after his death:
Unbeaten by the rain 
Unbeaten by the wind
Bested by neither snow nor summer heat
Strong of body
Free of desire
Never angry
Always smiling quietly
Dining daily on four cups of brown rice
Some miso and a few vegetables
Observing all things
Leaving myself out of account
But remembering well
Living in a small, thatched-roof house
In the meadow beneath a canopy of pines
Going east to nurse the sick child
Going west to bear sheaves of rice for the weary mother
Going south to tell the dying man there is no cause for fear
Going north to tell those who fight to put aside their trifles
Shedding tears in time of drought
Wandering at a loss during the cold summer
Called useless by all
Neither praised
Nor a bother
Such is the person
I wish to be

Ame ni mo Makezu became an anthem for the whole of Japan in 2011, in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which especially hit Miyazawa's prefecture of Iwate hard. It was famously read by actor Ken Watanabe in remembrance of the disaster.  

Immediately after the death of Toshi, Kenji took a trip to the far northern island of Sakhalin. Long hours aboard the railways running across Japan left him with much time to reflect on feelings of death and loss, regret, loneliness, true happiness and that which makes for a well-lived life. Those reflections distilled into Night on the Galactic Railroad

The novella opens with Giovanni, a boy from an impoverished family, sitting in school at the mercy of his tormentors. Because of his mother's illness and his own need to work to get them by, he has been unable to make connections and spend time with his classmates. The result is his desperate loneliness at their cruel hands. One insult they get a great deal of mileage out of the absence of his father, a sailor. Giovanni looks forward to the return of an idealized stable and positive influence in his life. His classmates, on the other hand, are convinced of the rumour that he went off on an illegal hunt for otter furs and has been arrested. Constantly they taunt Giovanni with the question of whether his dad will bring him back an otter-skin coat. His only friend is Campanella, one of the most popular kids. Giovanni and Campanella's fathers were friends and the two grew together in a pitying sort of way. Campanella doesn't really need Giovanni, but he recognizes that Giovanni needs him. This friendship leads to a shared trip aboard the Galactic Railroad on the night of the Centaurus Festival. 

After being taunted again by the other kids, Giovanni fled from the riverbanks where lanterns were being floated to lie alone on a hilltop, gazing at the stars. Suddenly a light flashed, a voice cried out "Milky Way Station!" and Giovanni found himself inside the carriage of a steam train, sitting across from a soaking wet Campanella. Next stop, Swan Station in the constellation of Cygnus. The Milky Way, that great band of stars of which every society has some significant mythology, is known in Japan as "Amano-gawa," the "Heavenly River." In Miyazawa's prose it becomes a glittering river flanked by silvery pampas grass and star-like beacons. Each constellation is a station along the railway, with its own lessons. 

At Cyngus, the pair meet a palaentologist digging up the remains of a prehistoric cow. He exclaims that the excavation is necessary to demonstrate a multi-layered understanding of reality, poetic and scientific. Other people, without that appreciation, may just see "wind and water and empty sky." At Scorpio they hear the story of the scorpion who spent his life feeding on others but fled into a well when something came along to eat him. Fearful at his cowardice and lamenting his useless death, he prayed to be somehow made useful for others and became the constellation burning bright. The arrival of a group of passengers from a tragic sunken ship begets a discussion about necessity, God, the nature of happiness and the ability to reign one's fate. When the train arrives at the Northern Cross, the former passengers of this ocean liner which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic are instructed to depart... God is calling them to Heaven. Giovanni and Campanella stay behind, the former pledging to ride the rails with his friend forever. Some destinies, however, are unavoidable and all that matters is to make the time one has mean the most it possibly can.

In 1985, the story was adapted to an anime feature film that is the most accessible version available to the Western world. The symbolism and themes of the film version are all but impenetrable, but nevertheless, it is a strikingly beautiful "renaissance" tale befitting the renaissance man that was Kenji Miyazawa. Because Night on the Galactic Railroad is such a short novella, the film is practically verbatim. It does toy with the aesthetics of the story, most notably in its depiction of the two boys as anthropomorphic cats. 

The complete Night on the Galactic Railroad with English dubbing.

Just as obtuse, but also just as satisfying, is Spring and Chaos (1996) by Shoji Kawamori of Macross and Escaflowne fame. A biographical film about Miyazawa, the human actors are replaced with cats in homage to Night on the Galactic Railroad and the film is decidedly non-linear and highly artistic. In fact, unless one has the benefit of an intimate understanding of Miyazawa through other biographical resources, and a working knowledge of his stories, much of the film is reduced to appreciating abstract animation art for its own sake. Like other biographies of universally (or at least nationally) well-known figures, the specific historical facts aren't as interesting or as necessary as the insight into the mind of the figure that a new film may reveal. At least in regards to this topic, the insights are visually stunning. The creation of Night on the Galactic Railroad is symbolically illustrated by a train carrying Miyazawa's sister into a clockwork underworld. Images of this clockwork underworld, through which spirits drift between gears emblazoned with Buddhist icons, figure throughout. Night on the Galactic Railroad and the resolution of Miyzawa's inner turmoils are climatically realized in the most magnificent cosmic steam train launch in cinema. Imagine a pair of steam trains, one black and the other white, rising up from the earth like space shuttles, plumes of smoke in their wake, lifting into the evening sky and intertwining like dragons or strands of DNA, all to a choral crescendo. This is the celestial steam train flight to meet and transcend all.   

The complete English subtitled version of Spring and Chaos.

Yet Miyazawa was not merely a poet. He was the epitome of Scientific Romanticism, for whom a scientific understanding of nature was a vehicle to its transcendental appreciation. It is only fitting, then, that his work became the basis for a global planetarium show titled The Celestial Railroad. Though available on the small screen, it is done its greatest turn by seeing it as it was meant to be seen. Animated by digital artist Yutaka Kagaya with music by brother Rei Kagaya, it is a rare example of overdone fantasy-style art done right. The luminous qualities of the Milky Way described by Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad are translated perfectly, then increased to tremendous proportions. 

In order to familiarize English-speaking audiences, the dubbed version of The Celestial Railroad only partially adapts the narrative while explaining a great deal about Miyazawa, the book, and the astronomical facts underlying it. Much of the symbolism is revealed as having its basis in true constellations, justifying its playing in scientific institutions. Kagaya also brings other elements of the story back down to their historical precedents. For example, Miyazawa describes individual stars as being triangular signposts. The 1985 film abstracts these into flying neon shapes. The Celestial Railroad, on the other hand, draws them directly from historical surveying posts. Unfortunately, The Celestial Railroad was produced in 2006, and that is an eternity in the market of planetarium shows. One may have to content themselves with what is found online.

The complete Celestial Railroad with English fansubbing.

The soundtrack to The Celestial Railroad is beautiful and melancholy, but few Japanese composers are of the rank of Joe Hisaishi. Most famous for his accompaniment to Hayao Miyazaki's films, Hisaishi composed his own concept album to the novel in 1996. The title - Nokto De La Galaksia Fervojo - employs Esperanto, the invented "universal language" that captivated Miyazawa and figures throughout adaptations of his work. Like many advocates for the language, Miyazawa also believed that Esperanto could unite humanity as a universal second language. Signage in the 1985 anime film is also written in Esperanto. A familiar concept through Miyazawa's work is "Ihatov," which is understood to be his home region of Iwate translated into Esperanto. However, his Ihatov represents more than where he lives... It also represents a Romantic, imaginative ideal of that region and a vision for its future.  

The complete Nokto De La Galaksia Fervojo by Joe Hisaishi.

Speaking of Studio Ghibli, they have added their touch to other works of Miyazawa over time. In 1982, before the creation of the studio, eventual co-founder Isao Takahata directed Gauche the Cellist, based on Miyazawa's story about a musician unwittingly trained by the creatures of nature. In 2006, Ghibli background painter Kazuo Oga directed his first and only film, The Night of Taneyamagahara. The story demonstrates Miyazawa's enlightened comprehension of nature full of life and animated beings, including the plants themselves.

Trailer for Gauche the Cellist

The complete The Night of Taneyamagahara with English subtitles.

Where Kenji's work has inspired musicians like Joe Hisaishi, we only know of one song actually written by him. Hoshi Meguri No Uta is a simple, lullaby-like tune that outlines a trip through outer space, complimenting Night on the Galactic Railroad very well:

Akai medama no sasori
Hirogeta washi no tsubasa
Aoi medama no koinu
Hikari no hebi no toguro
ORION wa takaku utai
Tsuyu to shimoto o otosu

ANDOROMEDA no kumo wa
Sakana no kuchi no katachi
Ooguma no ashi o kita ni
Itsutsu nobashita tokoro
Koguma no hitai no ue wa
Sora no meguri no meate

The scorpion with eyes of red
The eagle's wings outstretched
The little dog with eyes of blue
The coils of the snake of light
High above, Orion sings
Felling the dew and the branches

The clouds of Andromeda
Are the shape of a fish's mouth
If you extend the length of the Great Bear's paw
Five times northwards
Above the Little Bear's forehead
Is the guide to our tour of the skies
The song has been covered countless times and is a favourite of Japanese performers. It closed out the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and has appeared in numerous anime, including the visual novel Planetarian and its anime adaptation.

Hoshi Meguri no Uta from the Planetarian visual novel OST.

Closing ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. The
performance of Hoshi Meguri no Uta and Clair de Lune, honouring
the torch being passed from Tokyo to the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics,
begins at approximately 2:53:00. 

The appeal of Kenji Miyazawa lies primarily in his distinctively Japanese parallel to the project of Scientific Romanticism. As originally conceived, Romanticism was a rejection  of Enlightenment values of pure rationalism and objectivity. It rejected both the atomistic individualism of the Enlightenment as well as its conviction in the "scientific" organization of society, preferring concepts of individualism rooted in experiential and creative genius as well as a sense of community grounded in ethnic, "folk" identity. Romanticism placed emphasis on the personal, experiential, emotional, intuitive, and the creative.

However, rare minds came along that proposed a synthesis of this thesis and antithesis. The "Scientific Romanticism" of writers like Jules Verne understood that science and technology could be vehicles to the transcendental appreciation of nature. The lone Romantic genius could be a man of science. This is typified by Captain Nemo, the lone genius whose Nautilus is a technological capsule for exploring the romance of the ocean depths while carrying within it all that is good and beautiful of the surface world. 

Miyazawa, half-a-century later, is one of those rare minds. The contemporary, unromantic industrial technology of the steam train becomes, in his hands, a vehicle to traverse the great Celestial River. And more than that, it becomes a psychopomp, a vehicle to traverse the liminal space between life and death. A journey on this clanking, smoke-belching mechanism is a journey through the meaning of life. Likewise, an excavation for fossils becomes an excavation through the psychological layers of human existence.

All this he does through a distinctively Japanese lens. He embraces learning, science, music, the arts, and the fashions of the West - one of the most famous photos of him is in a bowler hat and overcoat - but like his country, these were carefully embraced and synthesized with core Japanese cultural and spiritual ideals. His visions of animate nature are less in the European or American transcendental vein and instead rooted deeply in Shinto's worship of the kami, the gods and goddesses of nature. Whereas Romanticism in Europe yielded Romantic Nationalism and Gothic Revivalism, comparable ideals drew Miyazawa to Nichiren Buddhism. Founded by the 13th-century Buddhist priest after whom it was named, Nichiren Buddhism was a reforming movement outlining the need to move beyond formal ritualism and abstract purity to live out Buddhism "with the body" or through one's whole life. It was convinced of the primacy of the Lotus Sutra scriptures and the belief that if a nation returned to the Lotus Sutra, casting out or abandoning heretical forms of Buddhism, then the nation would enjoy peace and justice in the present world. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in Kenji's time, this lead Nichiren Buddhism into a kind of Japanese ultranationalism mirroring the development of the European nation-states and lead-in to World War One. Under different interpretations, Nichiren also provided a socialist, pacifist, humanist counter-movement that was less popular and often actively persecuted, also mirroring the Transcendentalists of the 19th century United States.    

Kenji's work is also lent a mystique through his early death, and happens in many cases. But unlike a James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, Miyazawa died sacrificially living out his ideals in service to others. Japan's increasingly militarized government closed the Rasu Farmer's Association down in 1928, after which Kenji contracted an ongoing case of pneumonia. He essentially worked himself to death selling crushed limestone to farmers, in the hope that this meager job could in some way improve their crops and lives. He was initially buried at his family's plot in a Pure Land Buddhist temple, but when the family converted to Nichiren Buddhism in 1951, he was reinterred at the Nichiren temple that he himself had made the case for building. Kenji's greatest fame came after his death, also like many great artists, when his friends posthumously published his many stories and poems, including Night on the Galactic Railroad. 

Despite his humble origins and early death, Kenji Miyazawa's expansive mind lives on as one of Japan's national treasures and an enduring legacy of beauty, curiousity, and romance for the entire world. 

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Japan's Vengeful Spirits, Part II: Yotsuya Kaidan

She has become one of the most recognizable archetypes of modern horror: the creepy, pale girl with long, stringy black hair who is pursuing her relentless quest for revenge. Her main introduction to the West has been through Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films, like The Ring and The Grudge. Her pedigree goes back much further, to the Kabuki stage of the Edo Period. Now known by other names, her original form was Oiwa, the vengeful spirit of Yotsuya Kaidan.

Tsuruya Nanboku IV crafted this violent tale of infidelity and revenge in 1825 and rarely has it strayed from the Japanese popular consciousness. It is one of the oft-most retold and refilmed kaidan, or ghost stories, in the Japanese cultural repertoire, having worked its way through the zeitgeist to echo through other stories and characters. It's so potent that whenever the Kabuki drama is performed, actors attend the shrine of the historical Oiwa to appease her spirit so that it does not curse them.

This historical Oiwa, who died in 1636 and is buried at Myogyo-ji Temple in the Yotsuya district of Tokyo, is regarded as an exemplar of fidelity. Such prominence was given to her first because her father Tamiya Iemon was the vassal of the mighty shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. Secondly, she was renowned for her religious devotion, locals believing that it was this devotion that brought success to her family. Thirdly, she was a loyal and true wife to Iemon's adopted son Isaemon. Besides actors set to perform Yotsuya Kaidan, many people patronize Myogyo-ji and the adjacent Oiwa Inari Shrine to receive blessings for a long and happy marriage or success in business and entertainment ventures.

Nanboku combined the legends of Oiwa with a pair of grisly murders that etched themselves into the memories of Edo's populist classes. One involved a pair of servants who killed their masters, and the second a man's concubine who was caught with her own lover. Both were nailed to a wooden door. In addition to drawing from such lurid sources, his next move was to take the ghost story out of the temples and homes of the aristocrats, placing it in the same working class districts as kabuki's patrons. It marked a new generation of horror story in the Land of the Rising Sun.

This new play was grafted into perhaps the most popular kabuki play of all time: the Chushingura, or 47 Ronin. In the Chushingura, a group of samurai take on the dishonour of becoming ronin - or masterless, wandering samurai - in order to act out a lengthy revenge on the man who orchestrated their master's unjust dishonouring and subsequent suicide. It is widely regarded as something of Japan's national epic. Performed simultaneously as a double-feature, Yotsuya Kaidan assigns to one of the ronin the identity of Tamiya Iemon, and unlike his compatriots or his real life counterpart, he is most definitely a disreputable character.

In the play, Iemon is married to Oiwa, much to the chagrin of her father. Enraged by his constant belittling and demands that the two separate, Iemon secretly murders him. At the same time, a snivelling miscreant named Naosuke murders a man that he believes is the samurai husband of Oiwa's sister Osode. Oiwa's family has fallen on hard times and Osode has been engaged in prostitution to carry them through. Nevertheless, she continually rebuffed Naosuke, who became obsessed. Catching each other, Iemon and Naosuke pledge confidence. Their plan is to tell the two sisters that they will stop at nothing to find the killers, and in so doing gain their affection.

Iemon is a man of unruly passions and no sooner does he marry and have a child with Oiwa than his heart begins to turn. It helps that the new object of his lust is the daughter of a wealthy merchant and that she reciprocates his interest. They hatch a plan to disfigure Oiwa with a poison administered as a medicine to her postpartum illness. Iemon can no longer look upon her and arranges to have her raped so that he can appear to have justifiable cause for divorce. The plot backfires when the rapist confesses and an enraged Oiwa pursues him with a sword. In the scuffle, Oiwa ends up slicing open her own neck. Her hair disheveled and falling out, her right eye grotesquely inflamed, betrayed by her husband and dying in a pool of her own blood, Oiwa curses Iemon with a grudge.

To dispose of her body, Iemon has her and the corpse of a servant he killed nailed to a door and sent down the river. His alibi is that he caught them together and slayed them both, as was his right. The horrific deeds done, Iemon goes to wed the young mistress. However, in the midst of passion, Oiwa's grudge begins. Mistaking her for Oiwa, Iemon slays his bride and proceeds to slaughter her family. All he sees is the ghostly image of Oiwa mocking him. Fleeing, he takes to the countryside. As he fishes for eel along the riverbanks, the very same door washes ashore to torment him.

Iemon escapes to a temple retreat high in the snowy mountains. Meanwhile, Naosuke finally pressures Osode to consummate their marriage. No sooner is the deed done than Osode's husband tracks them down... It was not him that Naosuke killed on that poorly lit night, but his former master! Furthermore, it is revealed that Osode is actually the younger sister of Naosuke who was adopted into Oiwa's family. The shame is too great for her to bear and she kills herself. Likewise is the weight of all this evil too much for Naosuke and he follows her, but not before confessing to everything done by him and Iemon. Now it is Osode's husband who pledges a living grudge against the ronin.

The mountain retreat offers no security for Iemon. The hauntings intensify, causing his mind to snap. His most loyal accomplices who came with him begin to die off in mysterious ways. A lantern burns brightly until it is transformed into Oiwa herself. He is a sweating, panicked, unhinged shadow of his former self when Osode's husband finds him. They duel and Iemon loses... Cut down as much out of pity as of vengeance.

A lengthy excerpt of a 1956 televised performance of the kabuki play
dramatizing the death of Oiwa and her first appearances as a ghost.

Yotsuya Kaidan was a smash success that not only captured the anxieties of its age, but has lent itself to numerous interpretations that have allowed it to endure to the present. It is still one of the most popular plays in the kabuki repertoire, due to the story but also in no small part to the special effects. Kabuki theatre was at such a stage of sophistication in the Edo Period that elaborate effects with trapdoors and special props gave life to this story of the dead. When a poisoned Oiwa is combing out her hair, extra hair was pushed up through the floorboards to simulate its loss. Oiwa literally pops out of a lantern in the final act with a quick release harness system. One of the most virtuoso performances is the scene on the riverbank with the door. The same actor portrays both Oiwa and the murdered servant, and he must quickly alternate between roles as the door is flipped back and forth. These effects also account for much of the infamous “curse” befalling actors who do not properly propitiate the spirit at her shrine. Such complex effects leave plenty of opportunity for accidents to happen.

The door scene, excerpted from a more recent kabuki performance.

The play was quickly translated to film, demonstrating it durability and aptitude for reinterpretation. The first version was in 1912, with another three versions made during the silent era. By 1937 that number was up to 18. The 1949 version turned Oiwa into a psychological phenomenon, a manifestation of Iemon's guilty conscience. Another version was made in 1956, and the first colour version in 1959 by Shintoho Studios. The latter is widely considered to be the finest film version of the story. Daiei Studios also released their own version of Yotsuya Kaidan in 1959. 

Shintoho's 1959 adaptation in full.

Trailer for Daiei's 1959 verison.

Shintoho was a breakaway from Toho Studios, most renowned for their Godzilla franchise. Yet Toho began their life producing jidaigeki (historical dramas) and continued to produce them during the heyday of giant monster movies. in 1962, Toho released their version of Chushingura, followed in 1965 by Yotsuya Kaidan (released internationally as Illusion of Blood). The most recent theatrical version was 1994's Crest of Betrayal, which more consciously blended Yotsuya Kaidan and Chushingura together. 

After a 1981 episode of the anime series Kao Meijin TheaterYotsuya Kaidan was also adapted into anime form as the first four episodes of the series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales. This rendition is particularly interesting (in addition to being highly accessible) because it frames the story with a narration by the play's writer, Tsuruya Nanboku IV, who wonders if his writing made the curse real.

Clip from the 1982 version produced by Fuji TV.

Real or not, Yotsuya Kaidan is one of the most potent and enduring stories of modern Japanese culture. This story of blood and betrayal reaches beyond itself to permeate the iconography of Japanese horror and has even curled it tendrils across the oceans.

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Japan's Vengeful Spirits, Part I: Botan Doro and Bancho Sarayashiki

Amongst the popular and enduring ghost stories in Japanese culture are those of Onryo, The vengeful spirit. Predominately these spirits are women scorned in love, and they have echoed through history, being revived in such films as The Ring and The Grudge. Through them the West has inherited the particular image of the creepy woman in white with stringy black hair hanging over their frightening visage. The three most popular of these Kaidan (ghost stories) are Yotsuya Kaidan, Bancho Sarayashiki, and Botan Doro, also known at The Tale of the Peony Lantern.

Three major versions of this story exist, the first of which was adapted in 1666 from Chinese antecedents. In this version, a widowed samurai spies a beautiful woman and her retainer, who is holding a peony lantern, pass by his house on the first night of Obon, the Buddhist festival to remember the dead. She returns on subsequent evenings and a romance sparks between them. A curious neighbour wonders why this aged warrior is constantly up at night and sneaks over to peer through the cracks in his ricepaper screen. What he sees drives him to madness: inside, the samurai is making love to a decaying skeleton. A Buddhist priest is sought, who protects the house with ofuda talismans (strips of paper inscribed with protective charms). The woman returns but cannot enter. In saddness she calls from outside and, eventually, the resistance of the samurai breaks down. Come morning his body is found in a grave in a nearby temple, entwined with the skeleton of the woman buried there.

This version, part of the Edo Era's obsession with ghost stories, was later rewritten for theatre. Rakugo and Kabuki versions altered and extended the storyline significantly. This version was then translated by Lafcadio Hearn for his 1899 book In Ghostly Japan. It is considered the most common version today, and can be read here.

Along with Yotsuya Kaidan and Botan Doro, Bancho Sarayashiki is one of Japan's great folk stories of love, betrayal and unrelenting horror. The tale enters history and the theatre in 1741 and has been a constant source of inspiration ever since, rebounding between traditional Bunraku puppet theatre and Kabuki, and on to television and theatrical film. Ripe for such reinterpretations, it invites analysis as a psychological drama, a story of class divisions, a romance and a supernatural tale of revenge.

In the oldest versions of the story, Okiku is the comely servant of the samurai Aoyama Tessan. Part of her duty is the preservation of a set of ten heirloom plates, the punishment for failing being death. Lustful and immoral, Aoyama tricks Okiku into believing that she had lost one of the plates so that he might “forgive” her on the condition that she become his lover. Caught between death and her integrity, she chooses integrity and is beaten to death by the spurned Aoyama himself. Rather than a respectful burial, her body is simply discarded down a well.

Of course, such a nefarious plot begets a grudge from beyond the grave. Nightly the ghost of Okiku ascends from the well and counts to nine before shrieking and descending again. Has this unquiet spirit returned to torment Aoyama with his misdeeds, or is it tormented itself, forever searching for that missing plate that cost it's life? The only solution was to count the plate, shouting “ten!” at the end of Okiku's count, causing her to return to the well relieved.

The well has traditionally been identified as Okiku-Ido - “Okiku's Well” - at Himeji Castle, Japan's largest and most-visited castle. Dating to 1346, on the base of a castle originally built in 1333, Himeji Castle was constantly remodelled and enlarged as it passed through the hands of subsequent shogun and retainers. Miraculously it avoided destruction at the hands of extensive Allied firebombing during World War II and is preserved today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Popular legend insists that her ghost still rises from the well every night after the castle closes to the public.

The association of Okiku with Himeji Castle dates to the 1741 Bunraku puppet play version of Bancho Sarayashiki. The castle becomes the background to a tale of court intrigue that swallows up the hapless lady-in-waiting when Lord Hosokawa Katsumoto lies on his deathbed. With the help of his retainer Funase Sampei Taketsune and Taketsune's fiance Okiku, Katsumoto's heir Tomonosuke plans to make a gift of ten beautiful plates to the shogun to secure his inheritance. This does not sit well with the chief retainer Asayama Tetsuzan, who sees this as his opportunity to seize power.

Tetsuzan sends a spy to steal one the plates, after which he summons Okiku to deliver them to him. In private he attempts to seduce her, and failing this he has her count the plates. One is missing, and she is responsible for it. Once more Tetsuzan tries to seduce her, this time with the offer of protecting her. Out of loyalty to her fiance and lord she refuses again, and is beaten by Tetsuzan. Suspended over a well, the villain drops her into it repeatedly. Each time he brings her up he commands her to become his lover and help him murder Tomonosuke. Steadfastly she refuses and Tetsuzan cuts the rope.

The grudge is forged and a ghostly voice rises from the well. Counting to nine, Okiku herself appears... But Tetsuzan is such a miscreant that not even the ghost can phase him. He is entirely unmoved.

The most popular version of the story was a kabuki play first performed in 1916. Written by Okamoto Kidu, this version is reputed to have been influenced by Western dramas and is the most romantic of retellings. It is also one of the most impenetrable to Western minds, as it involves some ideas that might run counter to ideals of equality and responsibility.

In this version, a shogun named Aoyama Harima has fallen in love and pledged his hand to a comely servant girl named Okiku. Unfortunately, an aunt of Aoyama's has come by and, in aristocratic fashion, courted her nephew for marriage. True to his word, Aoyama resists his aunt and reaffirms his commitment to Okiku. Servant girls are unaccustomed to such generosity from their masters and she is plagued by doubts. How can a powerful man resist the prestige of a powerful woman?

To assuage her fears, she conducts the ultimate test of love. The most valued possession of Aoyama's family are ten heirloom plates. So valued are these plates that punishment for losing even one is death. To see which loyalty is stronger, Okiku deliberately breaks one of the plates. Aoyama's family cries for blood, but the shogun himself believes it to have been an accident and spares the life of his love. Relieved, Okiku reveals the truth: this was a test of love which Aoyama has passed!

So naturally, an enraged Aoyama murders the girl and has her body thrown down the well. Inevitably Okiku's spirit rises from the well and counts out the remaining plates. Pursuing her into the garden, Aoyama sees that she is serene in death. This is not a ghost of revenge, but rather, one of otherworldly grace and peace. Taken by this, he commits ritual suicide and joins her in the next life.

Bancho Sarayashiki was first adapted into film in 1914, with subsequent versions in 1922, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1928, 1929 (entitled Isetsu Bancho Sarayashiki, “Another Version of...”), 1937 and 1954. The most easily accessible film version today is a 45-minute 1957 short entitled Ghost in the Well. This version hews close to the latter romantic rendition, in which Aoyama is a retainer whose master is forced to commit ritual suicide. The crisis forces Aoyama's uncle to arrange an influential marriage to the daughter of a magistrate, using the ten heirloom plates as a gift in exchange. Okiku, shattered by the thought of being nothing more than Aoyama's mistress, inadvertently shatters one of the plates. Aoyama spares her until, in her anger, she deliberately shatters another one. His sword is drawn, her body falls down the well, and Ayoama realizes that everything is now lost: the family, his status, and the woman he truly loved.

As one of the three great traditional ghost stories of Japanese culture, the echoes of Bancho Sarayashiki can be heard throughout history to the modern day. For example, in the first game of the Super Nintendo series Goemon - released in the West as Legend of the Mystical Ninja - the boss of the first level is a ghost who spins and throws plates. Though not exact, the connection is self-evident. So is the story's influence on one of the most internationally famous Japanese horror films, The Ring. Unable to let things rest, Bancho Sarayashiki was adapated for television in 1970, 1981, and 2002.

Unable to let things rest... Except for Okiku herself. To appease her spirit - which was thought to have extended its curse to command a species of worm invading wells throughout the countryside - she was honoured at Himeji's Junisho Shrine. Urban legend conflicts with the official religion, as the shrine maintains that she has not been heard since.

Wednesday 30 August 2023

Toei's Puss 'n Boots

Before Antonio Banderas put his accent on the character, perhaps the most internationally renowned version of Puss 'n Boots was the animated character from Toei studios. So popular was little Pero and the three films to feature him that he became the corporate logo for the company.

Trailer for The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots.

Pero is named for Charles Perrault, who provided the source material to be embellished in The Wonderful World of Puss 'n Boots (1969). In the Mediaeval fantasy world of the fairy tales, Pero has been expelled from the Kingdom of the Cats for having let some mice escape his grasp. Making his way in the world of humans, he comes across a young boy Pierre and conspires to help him improve his lot in life. The oportunity arises when the king itches to give away his daughter's hand in marriage. This Puss 'n Boots is just as crafty as his literary equivalent, but a wrench is thrown into the works by the princess' other suitor: the nearly all-powerful, shape-changing Lucifer. Nor does it help that a trio of hapless hunters have trailed Pero from the Kingdom of the Cats.

Puss 'n Boots was the 15th of Toei's stellar animated films and featured some of the early work of Hayao Miyazaki. The endurance of the film is testified to by Pero becoming Toei's mascot, a Mickey Mouse for the "Disney of Japan", and it begged a pair of sequels of a sort. The next in the series was Return of Pero in 1972. Instead of fairyland, the action is here transplanted to the Old West.

Pero and his friend Jimmy arrive into town aboard a stagecoach that also brings the daughter of a saloon owner. Unfortunately she returns just in time to see her father lying on the floor of his saloon in a puddle of his own blood, clutching a Mexican peso. With that as their only clue and Jimmy taking up the vacated mantle of town sheriff, Puss 'n Cowboy Boots brings this outlaw band of counterfeiters to justice.

As the Sixties transitioned into the Seventies, cost-saving measures hit Toei and the quality of Return of Pero is not to the same level as the original. This trend would continue into 1976 with the third and final Pero film, Puss 'n Boots Travels Around the World in 80 Days.

Full English dub of Puss 'n Boots Travels Around the World in 80 Days.

In this episode, Pero is still on the outs with the Kingdom of Cats thanks to his pro-mouse political views. As a consequence, he has taken up residence in a version of the 19th century populated by anthropomorphic animals. While working as a waiter in a cafe, Pero offends the wealthy Mr. Gourmon (a massive pig) by suggesting that a person could circumnavigate the globe in a mere 80 days. They put it to a bet: if Pero can accomplish this task then he gets all of Gourmon's estate, and if he does not then he becomes Gourmon's slave for life. Puss' trio of pursuers are back again, and if that weren't enough, Gourmon has an ace up his sleeve in the form of Dr. Garigari, a Professor Fate-like mad inventor.

Despite the drop in animation quality, Around the World in 80 Days is much more fun than Return of Pero. Most of that has to do with the caper-style chase involving all manner of conveyance. First Pero goes from a little paddlewheel steamer to a horseless carriage, and from that to a balloon, then to a submarine, a windwagon, and an aeroplane. Dr. Garigari gives chase in a drill-tank-thing, a much larger submarine, and even a giant, robotic woolly mammoth. The race takes us across the Garabian desert, into Pindia and Pong Kong, under the seas in the vicinity of a lost civilization, and to America's Minikiki River. Here can be heard definite echoes of 1956's Around the World in 80 Days and 1965's The Great Race.

Though having gone for far too long in the West without a widespread release, Toei's Puss 'n Boots is an enduring and loveable furball whose exploits are worth finding in one way or another.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Cyrano de Bergerac: Grandfather of Voyages Extraordinaires

Though regarded as the father of Scientific Romances, and therefore the grandfather of Science Fiction, Jules Verne was not without his antecedents. Going far back, very far, into the earliest of literature that could be considered a forerunner of the genre, Verne looks to a fellow countryman. He is none other than the man most famous for his nose, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Published posthumously in 1657, de Bergerac was the first Frenchman to take a fantastic journey to the Moon. The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon is one of the first of the Enlightenment satires that would evolve, over the following centuries, into Voyages Extraordinaires.

The advent of the Enlightenment provided two of the most fundamental ingredients to speculative fiction. The first was a fresh breeze of scientific inquiry borne out of Galileo's celestial discoveries. Through the use of his telescope, Galileo was able to chart the motions of Jupiter's moons and Venus' phases, overturning the Aristotelian model of a geocentric cosmos. Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo, wrote up his scientific speculations in a novel entitled Somnium, published in 1634. In Somnium, an Icelandic sleeper is spirited away by lunar demons through magical processes during a solar eclipse. From his vantage point on the Moon, he is able to observe the phases of the Earth in a rousing defense of Copernican astronomy.

The second ingredient was a heady air of liberty that allowed social critics to write freely their observations on humanity. The new worlds opened up to the imagination by Galileo's telescope provided the perfect staging ground for commentary. Like much Science Fiction ever since, alien races become proxies for our own foibles and models for our own possibilities. De Bergerac's Other World is one such tale.

Cyrano de Bergerac lived fast and not for very long. He died at the age of 36 by a freak accident, after a falling beam in a friend's house crushed him and left him too sickly to survive an onslaught of disease. Before that, he was a renowned duellist and soldier during the Thirty Years War. He was a poet and possibly homosexual, which leaves open the question of the famous Roxane, for which was supposed to hold a torch. Like many details of de Bergerac's life, the love triangle between him, Roxane and Christian was fabricated by playwright Edmond Rostand. This includes his nose, which by accounts was large but not of the size suggested in later legend. Most likely, de Bergerac's great romance was with fellow libertin writer and poet Charles Coypeau d'Assoucy, after which the two viciously attcked each other with the quill. Besides writing public satirical tracts against each other, de Bergerac went so far as to send florid death threats.

De Bergerac, like so many "Freethinkers", was a better believer in Reason than a user of it. Nevertheless, he was a biting critic of his times. Making use of Galileo's new worlds, he took a fanciful visit to the Moon to observe the customs of its strange people. Like Kepler and author Bishop Francis Godwin before him, de Bergerac was less concerned with a credible means of getting to the orb. Kepler's man was kidnapped during an eclipse, and Godwin's arrived on an airship pulled by geese. De Bergerac had a slightly more difficult time of it. His first attempt was to use bottles of dew attached to his person. As the morning light rose, so too would the dew, carrying him along. This fails and lands him, thanks to the Earth's rotation, in New France, the colony of Quebec. In Quebec - which at the time of publication was on the eve of its 50th anniversary and is today the oldest continued permanent settlement in North America - de Bergerac fashioned an airship that also failed. Finally the airship was converted into a rocket, intended for the St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations, which conveys him to the stars.

Once on the lunar orb, Cyrano makes a series of startling discoveries: the Moon is, in fact, the Garden of Eden. After nourishing himself on the Tree of Life, he encounters Elijah and learns the history of Biblical spacefarers. Banished because of their culinary oversight Adam and Eve literally took flight to Earth. Enoch, on the other hand, was taken up to the Moon by bottling the smoke of a pious burnt sacrifice. Noah's daughter simply washed ashore after absconding with the Ark's lifeboat. Elijah used a golden chariot of his own construction, repeatedly tossing a magnetic ball into the air and letting the chariot soar upwards towards it, repeating the process until he arrived.

These are not the Moon's only inhabitants, however. After taking a bite from the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, with its ambiguous mix of omniscient fibre and ignorance-inducing peel, de Bergerac is introduced to spacefarers from the Sun who have set up their colony on La Lune. He is a bit more comfortable with these Rationalists than he is with the Biblical prophets. Godwin's astronautical pioneer also makes an appearance, when he is mistaken for a type of monkey and de Bergerac mistaken for a female of the species.

Several authors followed in the footsteps of de Bergerac. Voltaire elicited the help of aliens to satirize human self-importance in the face of a vast cosmos. Simon Tyssot de Patot critiqued religion and the arts via a lost world in 1710's Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Massé. Louis-Sébastien Mercier visited L'An 2440. Jonathan Swift took Gulliver around the planet to its many strange and varied societies. Baron Munchausen himself visited Diana several times. Washington Irving used The Conquest of the Moon as a parable of American expansionism. Fellow American George Tucker took the first steps in transforming these satires into Scientific Romances by taking a great deal more care in making plausible the means by which his persona took A Voyage to the Moon in 1827. Then there was Poe, and Verne.

De Bergerac was at work on a second story - The Societies and Governments of the Sun - when he passed away. What remains are muddled tales about his nose and his love life, and a classic ancestor to Scientific Romances. Disney recognized his contribution in the program Man in Space, where a history of rocketry includes an interlude from The Other World animated by Ward Kimball. Karel Zeman also paid respects to the poet by including him as one of the denizens of the moon, along with the explorers of Verne's From the Earth to the Moon and Baron Munchausen in the film Baron Munchausen (1961).

For us, the intrepid Donald Webb has provided an English translation and annotations to The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon.

Wednesday 2 August 2023

One Hundred Years Hence

The following samples of merchandise premium cards is an English-language version of the same art used for the set by Hildebrands Chocolate that we previously posted about. Makers of these cards - in this case likely Kuntsdruck-Friedberg of Berlin - would happily replicate art and designs for companies in different markets. Why mess up a good thing? At the turn of the century, it was highly unlikely that someone buying chocolates in some remote city in the US or UK would have previously seen the same set in chocolates from Germany, and even less of a chance that they would really care all that much.


Wednesday 19 July 2023

Un Matrimonio Interplanetario, A Marriage in the Moon

Not even cosmic space can stand between two lovers! Enrico Novelli produced this rather ambitious romance in 1910. Rich in Mélièsian imagery, Novelli makes ample use of fairy tale style while turning Verne's From the Earth to the Moon into a love story.  

Novelli, also known by the nom de plume Yambo, was already an accomplished writer of children's stories. Among them were Scientific Romances, the best known of which is 1906's Gli esploratori dell’infinito (Explorers of the infinite), in which a pair of journalists hitch a ride aboard a comet for a whirlwind tour of the solar system. 

This short of a Earthling man and Martian woman falling in love through telescope and telegraph is about as far as the Méliès-style Scientific Romance got. It is more technically accomplished than A Trip to the Moon in many respects, including miniature work and stop-motion animation, but still fundamentally "stagey." More cinematically dynamic and realist films were to come in the teens and Twenties. Nevertheless, it is a lovely film in a lovely style on a lovely subject. 

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Six Weeks in the Moon; or, A Trip Beyond the Zenith

Happy Days was a magazine that ran from 1894 to 1924 and published stories very much in the classic "dime novel" vein. The overwhelming number of its stories are of the "boy" type... The pages of Happy Days were replete with boy detectives, boy sheriffs, boy lawyers, boy financiers, boy industrialists, boy rangers, boy miners, boy adventurers, boys going to every corner of the world, boys running off to the circus, and boys before the sail. Rarely, the occasional scientific romance also graced it pages. 

Six Weeks in the Moon; or, A Trip Beyond the Zenith ran in Happy Days from issues 68 to 75, volume III, February 1 through March 21 of 1896. Unfortunately, issues 70, 72, and 73 are lost, cutting out several chapters of the story. What does exist is presented here. Click on the image for a larger version, right click for even bigger.

Wednesday 21 June 2023

The Electric Hotel by Segundo de Chomón

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So goes the adage that Westerners like to tell themselves, spoken by Science Fiction authors channelling the spirits of racial "scientists" of a century past who saw others only as ignorant savages. While those "savages" were well aware that the man holding the box that made images of them was simply the owner of a technology, the adage has gotten a fair bit of mileage in the Western world as a means for updating old tricks. What was once magic became alchemy became science!.

For Segundo de Chomón, science was useful in giving a gloss to his cinematic world of trick photography. Instead of a demon-infested inn, his hotel would be a supermodern marvel automated by electricity! How else to explain all the nifty stop-motion work throughout, except that sufficiently advanced technology can produce limitless marvels?

Wednesday 7 June 2023

Moscow in the XXIII Century

William Gibson once described Science Fiction not as true speculation about the future, but rather, the colonization of the future with the present. A dramatic example of this truism can be found in the postcard series Moscow in the XXIII Century, produced in 1914.  

Published by Einem, one of the biggest and most popular confectionary brands in Russia, these cards purported to show the grand Russian capital as it would become between 2114 and 2259... The same mixed image of metropolitan futurism with the social and aesthetic conventions of the day seen in the French En L'An 2000 card series. Unfortunately, Einem could not predict that a scant three years after production of these cards, the blight of Communism would seize Russia, murdering tens of millions and dashing any such hopes as these. Whereas En L'An 2000 has a wistful air, Moscow in the XXIII Century has a tragic one. 

Eight cards were produced in the series, collected here...


Wednesday 24 May 2023

The Conversion of the Professor by George Chetwyn Griffith

Now against the specialist, against the man who studies only art or electricity, or the violin, or the thumbscrew or what not, there is only one really important argument, and that, for some reason or other, is never offered. People say that specialists are inhuman; but that is unjust. People say an expert is not a man; but that is unkind and untrue. The real difficulty about the specialist or expert is much more singular and fascinating. The trouble with the expert is never that he is not a man; it is always that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well — that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique. If a biologist had no views on art and morals it might be all very well. The truth is that the biologist has all the wrong views of art and morals that happen to be going about in the smart set of his time.

This quote by the Edwardian Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton nicely articulates the central problem in George Chetwyn Griffith's The Conversion of the Professor: A Tale of the Fourth Dimension. Published in the May 1899 edition of Pearson's Magazine, the author of A Honeymoon in Space and The Angel of the Revolution introduces us to a British high society melodrama. Poor Miss Idris Lincoln, B.Sc. wishes to marry Mr. Frederick Herne, a solid, good, and faithful man though not of Miss Lincoln's intellectual caste. Standing between them is her father Professor Lincoln, who is taken with near-religious fervor for eugenic ideas. Humane entreaties of romantic passion hold no sway over the man of genius who adheres to the laws of natural selection as he understands them.

When not occupied with family drama, the esteemed professor's attentions are consumed by calculations which may open up to him the mysteries of the Fourth Dimension, that great unknown beyond our three dimensions. These explorations are oddly mystical... They are opened up not by a machine of some devising, but through symbols and sigils and equations. But by whatever means he achieves the Fourth Dimension, what he learns there will transform his life and the lives of everyone around him.

The full text of The Conversion of the Professor follows, as it was published in Pearson's Magazine. Click on each page for a larger version.    

Wednesday 10 May 2023

Arthur Thiele's Flugmaschinen

Carl Robert Arthur Thiele was a well-known illustrator of postcards within Germany, though his output outside the country is not as well known. Beyond Deutschland he was mostly known as a painter of anthropomorphic animals, and they were his most profitable subject. Nevertheless he produced many, many images of many different kinds. Born in Leipzig in 1860 and dying in the same city in 1936, he lived through both the fantasies of air travel and its realization. Among his prodigious postcard paintings are a few series of the life aeronautic. Even these are but a small sample of his postcards on this one subject.  

Receiving drinks and hors d'oeuvres aboard the party barge.

The caption speaks to the pleasure and strengthening of the heart
that comes from a flight through the Italian sunshine. 

Collision with a messenger boy.

Aerial rabbit hunting.

Wednesday 26 April 2023

Space Travel in 1918

The following excerpt from a 1918 children's encyclopedia shows the immense distances of celestial objects by how long it would take for them to be reached by a flying machine travelling at a whopping two miles a minute. Click for a larger image.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

The Scientific Romances of Garrett P. Serviss

From the last quarter of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th, Garrett P. Serviss was one of the best-known popularizers of astronomy in the United States. Though trained in law, Serviss became a journalist in 1876 for the New York Sun and revealed an aptitude for reporting on scientific matters in clear terms that could be understood by the lay reader. This led to his first publication, Astronomy Through the Opera Glass, in 1888. A decade later he dipped his toes into writing fiction with the publication of Edison's Conquest of Mars, an unofficial sequel to H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.

It is doubtful that two more different a pair of books could be found than H.G. Wells' classic tale of alien invasion and Garrett P. Serviss sequel. Technically, Serviss' novel is a sequel to the downright copyright-infringing Americanization of Wells' novel that was published in Stateside newspapers as Fighters from Mars: the War of the Worlds in and near Boston

H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was a smash success in England when serialized in CosmopolitanThe Boston Post wanted to bring the story across the pond, but didn't particularly feel like paying Wells for the rights to do so. The result was Fighters from Mars, an abridgement that transplanted the events of Wells' story to the Eastern seaboard of the United States.

To compare, here is an excerpt from Wells' original:
Then came the night of the first falling-star. It was seen early in the morning rushing over Winchester eastward, a line of flame, high in the atmosphere. Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling-star. Albin described it as leaving a greenish streak behind it that glowed for some seconds. Denning, our greatest authority on meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about ninety or one hundred miles. It seemed to him that it fell to earth about one hundred miles east of him.

I was at home at that hour and writing in my study; and although my French windows face towards Ottershaw and the blind was up (for I loved in those days to look up at the night sky), I saw nothing of it. Yet this strangest of all things that ever came to earth from outer space must have fallen while I was sitting there, visible to me had I only looked up as it passed. Some of those who saw its flight say it travelled with a hissing sound. I myself heard nothing of that. Many people in Berkshire, Surrey, and Middlesex must have seen the fall of it, and, at most, have thought that another meteorite had descended. No one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.

But very early in the morning poor Ogilvy, who had seen the shooting-star, and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw, and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand-pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath and heather, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

The Thing itself lay almost entirely buried in sand, amidst the scattered splinters of a fir-tree it had shivered to fragments in its descent. The uncovered part had the appearance of a huge cylinder, caked over, and its outline softened by a thick, scaly, dun-colored incrustation. It had a diameter of about thirty yards. He approached the mass, surprised at the size and more so at the shape, since most meteorites are rounded more or less completely. It was, however, still so hot from its flight through the air as to forbid his near approach. A stirring noise within its cylinder he ascribed to the unequal cooling of its surface; for at that time it had not occurred to him that it might be hollow.

He remained standing at the edge of the pit that the Thing had made for itself, staring at its strange appearance, astonished chiefly at its unusual shape and color, and dimly perceiving even then some evidence of design in its arrival. The early morning was wonderfully still, and the sun, just clearing the pine-trees towards Weybridge, was already warm. He did not remember hearing any birds that morning, there was certainly no breeze stirring, and the only sounds were the faint movements from within the cindery cylinder. He was all alone on the common.

Then suddenly he noticed with a start that some of the gray clinker, the ashy incrustation that covered the meteorite, was falling off the circular edge of the end. It was dropping off in flakes and raining down upon the sand. A large piece suddenly came off and fell with a sharp noise that brought his heart into his mouth.

For a minute he scarcely realized what this meant, and, although the heat was excessive, he clambered down into the pit close to the bulk to see the Thing more clearly. He fancied even then that the cooling of the body might account for this, but what disturbed that idea was the fact that the ash was falling only from the end of the cylinder.

And then he perceived that, very slowly, the circular top of the cylinder was rotating on its body. It was such a gradual movement that he discovered it only through noticing that a black mark that had been near him five minutes ago was now at the other side of the circumference. Even then he scarcely understood what this indicated, until he heard a muffled grating sound and saw the black mark jerk forward an inch or so. Then the thing came upon him in a flash. The cylinder was artificial—hollow—with an end that screwed out! Something within the cylinder was unscrewing the top!

"Good heavens!" said Ogilvy. "There's a man in it—men in it! Half roasted to death! Trying to escape!"

At once, with a quick mental leap, he linked the Thing with the flash upon Mars.

The thought of the confined creature was so dreadful to him that he forgot the heat, and went forward to the cylinder to help turn, But luckily the dull radiation arrested him before he could burn his hands on the still glowing metal. At that he stood irresolute for a moment, then turned, scrambled out of the pit, and set off running wildly into Woking. The time then must have been somewhere about six o'clock. He met a wagoner and tried to make him understand, but the tale he told, and his appearance, were so wild—his hat had fallen off in the pit—that the man simply drove on. He was equally unsuccessful with the potman who was just unlocking the doors of the public-house by Horsell Bridge. The, fellow thought he was a lunatic at large, and made an unsuccessful attempt to shut him into the tap-room. That sobered him a little, and when he saw Henderson, the London journalist, in his garden, he called over the palings and made himself understood.

"Henderson," he called, "you saw that shooting-star last night?"

"Well?" said Henderson.

"It's out on Horsell Common now."

"Good Lord!" said Henderson. "Fallen meteorite! That's good."

"But it's something more than a meteorite. It's a cylinder—an artificial cylinder, man! And there's something inside."

Henderson stood up with his spade in his hand.

"What's that?" he said. He was deaf in one ear.

Ogilvy told him all that he had seen. Henderson was a minute or so taking it in. Then he dropped his spade, snatched up his jacket, and came out into the road. The two men hurried back at once to the common, and found the cylinder still lying in the same position. But now the sounds inside had ceased, and a thin circle of bright metal showed between the top and the body of the cylinder. Air was either entering or escaping at the rim with a thin, sizzling sound.

They listened, rapped on the scale with a stick, and, meeting with no response, they both concluded the man or men inside must be insensible or dead.

Of course the two were quite unable to do anything. They shouted consolation and promises, and went off back to the town again to get help. One can imagine them, covered with sand, excited and disordered, running up the little street in the bright sunlight, just as the shop folks were taking down their shutters and people were opening their bedroom windows. Henderson went into the railway station at once, in order to telegraph the news to London.

The newspaper articles had prepared men's minds for the reception of the idea.

By eight o'clock a number of boys and unemployed men had already started for the common to see the "dead men from Mars." That was the form the story took. I heard of it first from my newspaper boy, about a quarter to nine, when I went out to get my Daily Chronicle, I was naturally startled, and lost no time in going out and across the Ottershaw bridge to the sand-pits.

And the same from Fighters from Mars:
Then came the night of the first falling star. It was seen early in the morning, rushing over northern Jersey eastward, a line of flame, high in the atmosphere.

Hundreds must have seen it, and taken it for an ordinary falling star. Albin of Yale University described it as leaving a greenish streak behind it that glowed for some seconds.

Dennings, our greatest American authority in meteorites, stated that the height of its first appearance was about 90 or 100 miles. It seemed to him that it fell to the earth to the east.

Some of those who saw its flight say it travelled with a hissing sound. I myself heard nothing of that. Many persons in the towns and villages of Middlesex county must have seen the fall and have thought that another meteorite had descended. No one seems to have troubled to look for the fallen mass that night.

But very early in the morning poor Ogilvy, who had seen the shooting star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere in the fields above the Lexington road, rose early with the idea of finding it.

Find it he did soon after dawn, and not far from the Lexington line. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction.

They formed heaps visible a mile away. The long brown grass was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke arose against the dawn.

The uncovered part had the appearance of a huge cylinder, caked over and its outline softened by a thick scaly dun-coloured incrustation. It had a diameter of about thirty yards.

It was, however, still so hot from its flight through the air as to forbid his near approach. He did not remember hearing any birds that morning, there was certainly no breeze stirring, and the only sounds were the faint movements from within the cindery cylinder. He was all alone.

Then suddenly he noticed with a start that some of the grey clinker was falling off the circular edge of the end. It was dropping off in flakes and raining down upon the sand.

A large piece suddenly came off and fell with a sharp noise that brought his heart into his mouth.

For a minute he scarcely realized what this meant, until he heard a muffled grating sound and saw the black mark jerk forward an inch or so. Then the thing came upon him in a flash.

The cylinder was artificial--hollow--with an end that screwed out! Something within the cylinder was unscrewing the top!

"Good heavens!" said Ogilvy. "There's a man in it--men in it! Half roasted to death! Trying to escape!" At once, with a quick mental leap, he linked the thing with the flash upon Mars.

The thought of the confined creature was so dreadful to him that he forgot the heat and went forward to the cylinder to help turn. But luckily the dull radiation arrested him before he could burn his hands on the still-glowing metal.

He stood irresolute for a moment, then turned, scrambled out of the pit, and set off running wildly toward Concord. The time then must have been somewhere about six o'clock.

He met a wagon driver and tried to make him understand, but the tale he told and his appearance were so wild--his hat had fallen off in the pit--that the man simply drove on. He was equally unsuccessful with the porter who was just unlocking the doors of the road house.

The fellow thought he was a lunatic at large and made an unsuccessful attempt to shut him into the stable. That sobered him a little; and when he saw Henderson, the journalist, in his garden, he called over the palings and made himself understood.

"Henderson," he called, "you saw that shooting star last night?"

"Well?" said Henderson.

"It's out on the sand pits now."

"Good Lord!" said Henderson. "Fallen meteorite! That's good."

"But it's something more than a meteorite. It's a cylinder--an artificial cylinder, man! And there's something inside."

Henderson stood up with his spade in his hand. "What's that?" he said. He was deaf in one ear.

Ogilvy told him all that he had seen. Henderson was a minute or so taking it in. Then he dropped his spade, snatched at his coat, and came out into the road.

The two men hurried back at once to the sand pits, and found the cylinder still lying in the same position. But now the sounds inside had ceased, and a thin circle of bright metal showed between the top and the body of the cylinder. Air was either entering or escaping at the rim with a thin, sizzling sound.

They listened, rapped on the scaly burnt metal with a stick, and, meeting with no response, they both concluded the man or men inside must be insensible or dead. Of course they were quite unable to do anything. They shouted consolation and promises, and went off back to the town again to get help.

By eight o'clock a number of boys and unemployed men had already started to see the "dead men from Mars." That was the form the story took. I heard of it first from my newsboy about a quarter to nine. I was naturally startled, and lost no time in going out to the sand pits.

Officially, Fighters from Mars is an anonymous work, but suspicion falls on Garrett P. Serviss since he went on to pen the sequel the same year. And though Edison's Conquest of Mars is intended as a sequel to Fighters from Mars, it is actually better to read it in contrast to the British original. In doing so, the cultural differences permeating each side of the Atlantic at the dawn of the Twentieth Century come more clearly into focus.   

The War of the Worlds is very much the story of Imperial decline and cosmic nihilism. Wells turns the tables on the British Empire by bringing down an invasion force that does to it as Britannia has done to so many others around the world. How many spears and muskets were but pinpricks against the undefeatable might of the English armada? A superior force from beyond our furthest frontier annihilates the seat of the Empire itself, literally sucking the lifeblood from its citizens. Those citizens are themselves anonymous spectators. The narrator has been denied a name and identity. That is the point: he was just another faceless Imperial functionary before the invasion and just another faceless victim during it. Only a bizarre twist of evolutionary fate rescues a subjugated Earth, but it is psychologically conquered. Our narrator has still lost himself in contemplations of a universe cruelly indifferent to humanity.

Then there is Edison's Conquest of Mars. The title alone betrays so much about it, for this is not merely a war between planets. This is the conquest of the alien orb by the soldiers of Earth, and it is led, by name, by Thomas Edison. The anonymity imparted by Wells is utterly overturned by Serviss, who was himself an already notable scientific author and lecturer. Everybody who's anybody is involved in launching this invasion spearheaded by Edison. Just as Napoleon brought along a cadre of researchers and artists in his invasion of Egypt, so does Edison bring along the best and brightest of the turn-of-the-century: Kelvin, Roentgen, Rayleigh, Mossiman, Hale, and more. Contrary to the nihilistic egalitarianism of Wells, Serviss has all of the significant heads of state survive the initial onslaught, from Queen Victoria to Kaiser Wilhelm to Emperor Meiji to the King of Siam, whose donation of a massive diamond assists the subscription service required to raise an army of vessels designed by Edison.

Of course, this great counter-invasion force is led by the Americans. Wells wrote of the decline of the British Empire and Serviss writes of the ascent of the American one. This aspiring world power lacks for neither money nor enthusiasm, and Serviss spares no shame for informing us of how grateful the world is to be led by them in this endeavour. With the exception of Wilhelm, however, who Serviss has no small pleasure in picking on. As these royal heads meet in Washington to hash over the invasion, Wilhelm finds democracy unflattering and insists on returning home to lands that know proper respect for a king. Such unruly citizens are practically falling over themselves to enlist for the counter-invasion force.

Efforts like flying to Mars and attacking the invincible Martians would be impossible if not for Edison's technological breakthroughs. Two are most critical for the progress of the story, the first being the development of craft that can cruise between the planets on a principle of electric repulsion. The second is a disintegration beam, the effect of which is achieved by disrupting the harmonic convergence of atoms. Humanity is not waiting around for microbes this time. 

Besides imperial American jingosim, the tone of Edison's Conquest of Mars is quite different from Wells. Given Serviss' scientific credentials, having published the popular guide Astronomy Through an Opera Glass a decade before, his story is much more of a Scientific Romance in the vein of Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion. En route to Mars, the savants pause on the Moon to explore its environs, discovering traces of an ancient cyclopean civilization and diamond-encrusted craters. Before reaching Mars, they have their first engagement with Martian asteroid miners excavating gold from an orbiting body. As much time is given to the study of gravity as to the effects of disintegration rays on Martian physiology.

In contradiction to Wells, who was always light on actual science to begin with, Serviss' universe is not only comprehensible to humanity, but conquerable by it through the marriage of scientific knowledge and financial capital flowering in the United States. This emphasis on "Capitalism's Conquest of Nature" actually distances Edison's Conquest of Mars from the likes of Verne and Flammarion, implanting it more thoroughly in the American literary zeitgeist shared with John Jacob Astor IV's A Journey in Other Worlds and Edward S. Ellis' The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies. Inspired by this very novel, John Clute coined the term "Edisonade" for this variation on the Scientific Romance (defined as "any story dating from the late nineteenth century onward and featuring a young US male inventor hero who ingeniously extricates himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from defeat and corruption, and his friends and nation from foreign oppressors.").

Beyond this, some critics suggest that Serviss had been long holding onto this story and that War of the Worlds only provided an occasion for it. A solid clue is that the Martians of the piece in no way resemble the Lovecraftian extraterrestrial menace of Wells. Such alien entities stand as embodiments of malevolent nature, and I doubt that there is any accident in Cthulhu being tentacled. Serviss' Martians are giant, bestial men, a breed of "intelligent savage" who in the end are conquerable by humanity not only in military prowess, but in culture and spirit.

In itself proof of the transition in global power at the end of the 19th century, Edison's Conquest of Mars must have captured the American zeitgeist sufficiently to warrant a new side-career for Serviss. Though never matching the output of a Verne or Wells, he nevertheless did produce a new story every few years, from 1900's The Moon Metal to 1909's A Columbus of Space to 1911's The Second Deluge and his final novel, 1915's The Moon Maiden. This, paired with his almost yearly output of popular scientific books, make him one of the last of the true, grand old Victorian Scientific Romantics in marked contrast with the man whose work he cribbed in Edison's Conquest of Mars. The arc of Wells' career was from metaphoric Scientific Romances through which he voiced his social critiques, to true Science Fiction prescribing how technology may be used to achieve his faux-utopian ends, to plain political tracts. 

The Moon Metal begins with a simple and practical premise: the discovery of gold reserves at the South Pole which throws off the gold standard and creates economic chaos throughout the world. Suitable replacements are discussed with little resolution, and one would be excused for thinking that Serviss saw this as his chance to offer up his opinion on global monetary systems. Into this mess arrives Dr. Max Syx, bearing with him a brand new metal of previously unknown type. He has dubbed this metal "artemisium" and offers it as a substitute for the gold standard. And how will he maintain the appropriate and necessary amounts of artemisium available to the world's governments? Why, by his own proprietary knowledge of how to extract it.

Dr. Syx has little fear for the security of his monopoly. He even invites bankers, investors and other scientists out to his mine in the Grand Teton Mountains to investigate the ore for themselves. To the untrained eye, Syx insists, natural artemisium looks virtually identical to ordinary chrysolite, and the process for its extraction is so deceptively simply that it defies the brilliance of anyone but him to discover it. Prospectors flood to the Tetons to try their hand and find a great deal of the ore, quite easily... too easily... but are none the wiser for how to turn it into the precious metal.

This piques the curiousity of a group of investigators, who deduce that it must be Syx himself who is seeding the mountains with an ore that not only seems like chrysolite but is chrysolite. This sets off a scientific mystery story as they try to figure out what Syx is up to and uncover the nature of this miraculous substance which only he can produce. Evidently they did not read the title of the story they are in.

Serviss is at his best in this story. With the cosmos at his fingertips he seems only to produce something banal. When forced to restrain himself to a scientific mystery, and only in so many pages, he fashions a real little gem. The investigators' snooping around is enjoyable and there's some fun nonsense science in it to explain the eponymous element. Most curiously, we see in The Moon Metal an early prognostication of our still-ambitious proposal to mine the celestial bodies for resources that may prove useful (and profitable) here on earth.

Another decade passed - during which he mostly wrote scientific books - before he wrote another Scientific Romance. This was A Columbus of Space, which began with a lofty dedication "To the readers of Jules Verne's romances..." Thankfully he had the presence of mind to clarify  "Not because the author flatters himself that he can walk in the Footsteps of that Immortal Dreamer, but because, like Jules Verne, he believes that the World of Imagination is as legitimate a Domain of the Human Mind as the World of Fact." He was right not to flatter himself so.

A Columbus of Space is the nadir of Serviss' Edisonades, who wrote the most Edisonadish of the Edisonades... The pulpiest, purplest, most petrified stories of the type. Their lionization of specifically American individualism, industry, invention, and colonialism - Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A. in space - can be entertaining enough in the right hands. Certainly no implicitly worse than comparable stories of British or French exploration. Unfortunately, Serviss' hands are not the right ones. A Columbus of Space means to describe scientific heroism, and instead describes what I can only call a kind of maleficent pranksterism.

The science-hero of the book is Edmund Stonewall, a quiet and dreamy-eyed inventor whose associates never cease to praise his unfailing, unflappable, imperturbable intelligence. It begins with the very first sentence of A Columbus of Space, and is loathe to diminish in intensity:
I am a hero worshiper; an insatiable devourer of biographies; and I say that no man in all the splendid list ever equaled Edmund Stonewall. You smile because you have never heard his name, for, until now, his biography has not been written. And this is not truly a biography; it is only the story of the crowning event in Stonewall's career.
The effect Serviss was going for is severely diminished by the fact that neither Edmund nor his companions have the slightest clue what they're doing as they traipse around the planet Venus aboard his atomic-powered airship. Most of their choices seem to be made simply for puerile interest, like strapping a gang of the gorilla-like inhabitants of Venus' dark side to a carriage on the underside of their ship, only to have them die in a reckless charge on the stormy winds of the great ice mountains separating the hemispheres. The activities of this latter day "Columbus" during their and a half on Earth's sister sphere are reckless at best, and just as frequently senseless and violent.

Anything, taken too seriously, may be reduced to a kind of self-parody. A Columbus of Space nearly reads as a satire, and would have been a pretty funny one if it were. Yet there is such an earnestness in Serviss' delivery that the reader must inescapably conclude that he kind of means it. Edmund with his floolhardy choices and bipolar regret after those choices kill off one or two or a dozen people really does come across like Serviss' ideal man. Is it a flaw in Serviss' own character, or merely a want of literary ability?