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  • Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan by Miri Nakamura
  • Kirsten Cather
Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan. By Miri Nakamura. Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. 192pages. Hardcover $39.95/£29.95/€36.00.

Readers should not be fooled by the slimness of this volume. Ambitious and thought-provoking, Monstrous Bodies interweaves the fascinating histories of several disciplines of modern science from mid-Meiji through the 1930s—hygienics, eugenics, genetics, birth control and artificial reproduction, psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia—with an analysis of modern literary works populated by a host of monstrous, “uncanny bodies [that] proliferated the literary imagination of imperial Japan” (p. 129). The monsters that fill its pages include deadly seductresses and hygiene-expert monks, criminally deviant twins, psychological doppelgängers, insane asylum patients, and, finally, mad scientists and their robot babies. The works studied date from the turn of the century through the late 1920s and broadly fall into the category of “fantastic fiction” (gensō bungaku), but include subgenres as diverse as ero-guronansensu, avant-garde science fiction, abnormal detective fiction, and “robot stories.”

To add to this diverse array of texts and topics, Miri Nakamura pursues several strands of argument. At its core, the book asks what “modern monsters” mean and how the monstrous bodies appearing in scientific and literary works incarnated modern Japan’s deepest fears and darkest visions. In the introduction, Nakamura situates her research in terms of four key debates, generously crediting the many scholars and theorists who have informed her approach. As the book’s subtitle suggests, the most central of the issues that she tackles is the uncanny, with citations of Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jentsch, Mori Masahiro, Terry Castle, Lydia Liu, and Marilyn Ivy. But also important are empire and the role of science (Michel Foucault, Sabine Frühstück, Jennifer Robertson), the subversive or complicit nature of “fantastic fiction” (Tzvetan Todorov, Rosemary Jackson, Susan Napier), and the relationship between these new monsters and folkloric monsters of old in the newly minted modern nation-state of Japan (Gerald Figal and Michael Dylan Foster).

This is a lot for the reader to take in, and the brief introduction and conclusion (at twelve and six pages, respectively) are a bit lacking in the conceptual glue that might bind the disparate arguments together. Addressing all of them would have been a tall order for any single work and is particularly difficult to accomplish in such a short study. Much space is devoted to outlining others’ scholarship, often making us feel as though we are leaping from one scholar’s idea to another’s rather than getting a sustained argument from Nakamura herself. Nakamura also exhibits a hesitance to overtly critique other scholars, instead preferring to strike a middle ground. Such tendencies detract from her own original contribution in the form of insights and materials. [End Page 426]

And that contribution is considerable indeed. Nakamura’s far-ranging knowledge of the history of scientific discourses enables her to illuminate aspects of the texts that would otherwise be lost on us today, though they were familiar to contemporaneous readers. As she persuasively demonstrates, people of the time were encountering rhetoric about hygiene, eugenics, genetics, birth control, and so on in popular science textbooks, the mass media, and public health debates, as well as in more specialized publications such as those on abnormal psychology and robotics. In each chapter, her project is to show how these discourses were also manifested in literary works.

Chapter 1, “The Invisible Monster,” analyzes Izumi Kyōka’s canonical and much-discussed “The Holy Man of Mt. Koya” (Kōya hijiri; 1900), a monk’s cautionary tale about dangerous women and waters, in light of contemporary public health discourses on hygiene and deadly viruses as well as Kyōka’s own germophobia. In chapter 2, “Colonial Doubles in Edogawa Ranpo’s ‘Twins,’ ” a 1924 short story about an evil twin who kills his identical brother and covertly takes on his identity, is considered alongside twin studies by prewar eugenicists seeking to identify the genetic sources of criminality. Chapter 3, “Colonial Doubles: Doppelgänger in Dogura Magura,” tackles the figure of the psychological doppelg...


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pp. 426-429
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