The posthumous reputation of Izumi Suzuki (1949-1986) as a cult writer is justified for a number of reasons. Born in the provincial city of Itō located southwest of Tokyo, Suzuki worked a mundane job as a keypunch operator before moving to Tokyo, where she fell into its bohemian scene. She was employed on different occasions as a model and actress, including roles in so-called “pink films” which involve erotic subject matter. Suzuki married Kaoru Abe, a noted experimental jazz saxophonist, with whom she had a daughter and who later died from an accidental drug overdose. Tragically, Suzuki committed suicide at the age of 36.
Throughout her adulthood, Suzuki wrote fiction. She received attention early on, publishing her first speculative fiction short story, “Trial Witch”, in 1975 with the support of the acclaimed older writer Taku Mayumura. Considered a pioneer of Japanese sci-fi, the praise Suzuki received in her lifetime, combined with her avant-garde lifestyle, has left an enduring legacy that has continued to attract readers. Following 2021’s Terminal Boredom, Hit Parade of Tears is the second collection of her stories to be translated and published in English in the past several years. It can be assumed that more of her work will be forthcoming.
Hit Parade of Tears consists of 11 stories. Most, though not all, are situated in Japan and Tokyo specifically. Many exhibit conventional sci-fi elements – time travel, the antinomies of technology, fascist states, and off-planet beings among them. However, Suzuki also drops in random cultural references like Catherine Deneuve, Superman actor George Reeves, “Time of the Season” by the Zombies, and the early 20th-century Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Her characters are frequently cool in disposition, inclined to spend their days hanging out, smoking cigarettes, and listening to vinyl. In short, Suzuki’s stories are hybrid works that reflect the bohemian milieu she lived in while using sci-fi plot devices to speculate on the wider world.
A defining feature is female protagonists, who are generally beleaguered by boyfriends, husbands, and men. It should be mentioned straightaway that this feminist approach is a key source of Suzuki’s humor. The first story in the collection, “My Guy”, is a perfect example of her style and how she uses sci-fi for narrative purposes and as a means of social commentary. Told in the first person, it involves a young woman who describes herself as having “a bad-girl image” and falls for an eccentric guy who may or may not be an alien. The narrator ends up having an unplanned child with him, though he disappears – a UFO crash is offered as one possible explanation.
This angle towards speculative fiction that addresses the strangeness of ordinary life and especially personal relationships can be found in the stories that follow. For example, the second story, the aforementioned “Trial Witch”, concerns an unhappily married couple. The husband is a philanderer, typically coming home late after a night of drinking and carousing. The wife gains the power of witchcraft and without spoiling the ending, she uses it against him. The story becomes an absurdist revenge fantasy.
Though “Trial Witch” reflects a camp quality that often characterizes Suzuki’s fiction, such fanciful scenarios are fortunately limited. Her better stories trend toward the bleak. “Full of Malice” has a mother and daughter visiting an unnamed modern facility where the girl’s brother has been institutionalized since he was five. Her mom tells her, “He’s beyond happy.” However, the girl soon makes a horrific discovery that portends her own fate. A later story in the collection, “After Everything,” picks up the narrative, now set in a post-apocalyptic future (or, given its predecessor, a post-post-apocalyptic future). The narrator, now older, is trying to find her brother. Snakes and a ghoulish scene of a boy gouging out the eye of another boy with a metal chopstick are the lingering images from this macabre tale.
Indeed, in the style of Quentin Tarantino, there is pulp violence within Suzuki’s fiction – shocking and prosaic at once. “The Walker”, which portrays a narrator condemned to walk for eternity, has a scene involving a car accident and decapitation. This fable-like story shares a distant kinship to “Full of Malice” and “After Everything”. In “The Covenant”, two teenage girls, Akiko and Nana, seduce and murder a middle-aged man in a bar, partly out of their hatred of men. Nana had been raped by her brother when she was 12. Akiko is from another planet and believes she is fulfilling her ordained mission, which she completes through a ceremonial act of self-cutting. Be warned.
Despite the disturbing grisliness at hand, these stories of violence are more powerful than others. “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” and “I’ll Never Forget” are mutually situated in a world unrelated to Tokyo or Japan. These feel less grounded and less successful as a result, even if the first contains the delightfulness of man-eating starfish, rabbit-like beings, and a mysterious alien baby. “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic!” is one of Suzuki’s better-known stories, though it has the exact opposite problem: it is too dense with cultural references, especially music. Unless you know them beforehand, you may feel left out.
Suzuki’s strongest works are “Memory of Water” and the title story “Hit Parade of Tears”. The former begins with an audience watching a lake form in an auditorium, which is intended to reveal different psychological states. This situation may remind readers of the premise of the 1961 sci-fi book Solaris, as written by Stanisław Lem and later filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky and Steven Soderbergh. The main character is a loner who suffers from multiple personality disorders. Unlike many others, this story has a strong Kafkaesque feel. Without revealing the ending, the final image includes a mushroom cloud.
“Hit Parade of Tears” finishes the collection. It returns to a domestic setting with a couple that is struggling. The husband is a film buff, and it is gradually disclosed that he is much older than his wife. He is 180 years old; his wife is around 30. This plot element creates friction between them, but it also catalyzes a political move by the husband. They live in a future Japan ruled by a fascist dictator referred to as the Dear Leader. Hearing a song that reminds him of student protests during the 1960s, the husband mounts an impossible one-man insurrection, leading to his arrest as a thought criminal.
This story consequently brings together many of the themes found in Hit Parade of Tears. Among them are relationships between women and men, but also culture and memory, authoritarian politics, and the vicissitudes of time. Suzuki’s stories are not about extravagant worldbuilding. Though her fiction retains elements of future conjecture and civilizational prognosis, she is more committed to this genre as an edgy tool for social and emotional analysis. Suzuki’s cunning female protagonists maintain circumspect worldviews as a survival technique, whether lame-ass boyfriends or fascist states are involved. Suzuki tacitly suggests a connection between both phenomena, which conveys her hilariously skewed humor.
As noted, there are limitations to Suzuki’s work as well. The shorter stories tend to be stronger, providing quick sketches and scenes that linger. They let the reader fill in the blanks with their imagination. The longer stories can drag. The sci-fi elements in this book can also have a slightly dated feel. They recall classic films like 1968’s Planet of the Apes, 1972’s Silent Running, or Solaris once more, where one must avoid the temptation to critique campy outfits or outmoded set pieces. The ideas are what matter.
For this collection, a team of four translators – Sam Bett, David Boyd, Helen O’Horan, and Daniel Joseph – made Suzuki’s fiction available in English. However, based on the front matter, it is unclear when and where these stories were first published or whether some were posthumously published. It’s a shame that Verso hasn’t provided more information to situate the making of this collection, in addition to offering an account of Suzuki’s life for the uninitiated.
Given its themes and approach, Hit Parade of Tears will remind readers of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Jonathan Lethem. Unsurprisingly, Haruki Murakami also comes to mind with Suzuki’s hipster cultural aficionados, especially in stories like the time-traveling “Hey, It’s a Love Psychedelic!” Yet her work also has a distinct punk rock attitude that resembles the voice of Kathy Acker, a generational peer. The photo of Suzuki by Nobuyoshi Araki, himself a noted artist, which graces the cover of Hit Parade of Tears, looks like an image from Nan Goldin’s canonical 1986 photobook, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Suzuki still imparts a countercultural aura.
With scenes involving mental illness, mind control, and bad boyfriends, there is irrefutably a dystopian quality to Hit Parade of Tears and its anxiety-riven stories. Many of Suzuki’s characters end up institutionalized. Suicide also features. A key argument that Suzuki implicitly makes is that personal or cultural memory can be a source of liberation or imprisonment. It can incapacitate a person from living a more complete life. It can also provide a counternarrative to autocratic measures of ideological conformity.
Nonetheless, Suzuki also has a light, comic touch. If your boyfriend, wife, or partner is acting strangely, why couldn’t they be from another planet?