Jonathan Clements on the Japanese John Carter novels
Disney’s new John Carter film isn’t the only modern spin to be found on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There’s a whole world of as-yet untranslated Japanese novels that delve into the worlds of Victorian science fiction and adventure, from the prolific author Hitoshi Yoshioka, best known in English as the creator of Irresponsible Captain Tylor and Idol Defence Band Hummingbirds.
Yoshioka also seems to have been the first man to use the term “steampunk” in a Japanese context with his novel Steam Punk! (1995), set on a world in which maverick engineers duel with sci-fi steam locomotives. But his serious, ongoing obsession with the Gilded Age began in 1995 with Going with the Wind, an epic spin-off from Gone with the Wind that asked the searching question of exactly how the original’s Rhett Butler made money as a blockade runner. Yoshioka homed in on the simple fact that if Butler were a rich cad in the 1870s, he had probably made a lot of his money running guns to one of the world’s military hotspots in the previous decade – revolutionary Japan. Yoshioka’s novel was populated with fictional characters from Gone with the Wind and real names from Japanese history, retelling the story of the Meiji Restoration with an adventurous twist.
Yoshioka’s researches also led him back to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose character John Carter was another veteran of the American Civil War. This in turn inspired him to write another pastiche in which a young soldier is transported to another world instead of dying on Earth. Toshizo Hijikata of Mars (2004) is inspired by the tragic figure of one of the ‘last samurai’, who died fighting restorationist forces in a battle he knew he could never win. Yoshioka’s version has Hijikata transported to Mars by astral projection at the moment of his apparent death. There, he enjoys a new career as a samurai mercenary, fighting in the realm of John Carter, Prince of Helium.
But that was not enough for Yoshioka. He soon followed up with Z-Signal on Venus (2004), which transported the Japanese naval hero Saneyuki Akiyama to the oceans of Earth’s sister planet, and his tour-de-force, Southern Cavalry Captain John Carter (2005), which imagines what kind of man Burroughs’ hero would have been before he made his fateful journey to the Red Planet. In this latter book, Yoshioka imagines Civil War America itself as a fantasy realm, where scantily clad first-nation girls take the place of Martian slaves, and Victorian technology is regarded with awe and fear on the great and largely unexplored plains of the ‘new world’. As with Going with the Wind, he drags in both factual and fictional characters, including the future US president William McKinley, and a Reverend March who appears to be the future paterfamilias of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women!
Disney's John Carter is released in the US and UK on 9th March. Here's hoping that an enterprising publisher gives these novels a go, too.