The Secret of the Fish and Other Stories – Review

Artwork by Natalie Parisi

When a foreign work is translated into English, so much depends upon the translator. The translator’s responsibility lies not only in the rendition of each word, but also in the successful expression of the author’s meaning in a way beautiful enough to move the reader. When it comes to a language like Japanese, sentence structures and certain words have no simple equivalency in English, meaning that the translator has a duty to create his own prose. Often translations of Japanese works into English are awkward and difficult to enjoy. The fault lies not with the foreign language skills of the translators, but with the lack of ability to convey the beauty the author had articulated in the vernacular.

Geoffrey Ivar skillfully translates meaning, tone and emotion, making “The Secret of the Fish and Other Stories” by Kotarou Tanaka fluid and pleasant to read. His clear, simple prose illustrates the stories and allows certain moments of Tanaka’s works to shine.

The publication includes “Moths,” “The Soldier Who Vanished Into Thin Air,” and “The Secret of the Fish.”

Of the three short stories, I was most impressed with “Moths,”(1923) a unique story in which Tanaka seamlessly blends the surreal and mundane experiences of a young woman. The girl spends her days working at a restaurant catering to rowdy, provincial men. Her life becomes touched with beauty when she meets a mysterious, attractive young man, “with a gentle, fair face that projected the aristocracy.” His compassionate and graceful nature makes an impression upon the girl, who becomes enchanted by his relationship to moths. As the story progresses, his aspect appears to the girl daily, in dreamlike apparitions, which spark a connection between them. The illustration of this relationship between the boy and the girl is charming:

                  Her eyes slipped to the insect cupped in his hands. The customer lightly cradled the moth, giving it plenty of space. “A butterfly came the other night, too. It’s like you share a bond with butterflies.”

“Ah, yes, there was one then, too. It’s a shame that I only share a bond with butterflies, and not with you.”

                  The second story presented, “The Soldier Who Vanished Into Thin Air,” (1938) is the weakest of the three. It’s a very short piece, with a very predictable twist. Unlike “Moths,” there are no vibrant characters, and, unlike “The Secret of the Fish,” it lacks powerful and memorable imagery.

Essentially, the story concerns air force pilots whose comrade mysteriously vanishes during a drill. These pilots periodically meet their lost comrade at unpredictable times as they fly. There is nothing particularly striking about this ghost tale.

The third short story, “The Secret of the Fish,” (1934) comes with rather memorable imagery. A group of young people visits a pond, intending to catch fish by pouring poisonous chemicals into the water. A wandering monk condemns their actions and begs them to halt, though fully aware that the young people have made up their minds. Dark images of the massacre of fish are illustrated:

                  “The lagoon coalesced in inky blue­black shadow. It began to boil and crash, and the body of an enormous indigo­white fish emerged. The terrible fish turned face up, exposing its white belly, and then floated, totally still.”

Overall, I found this short collection of stories to be remarkable. I recommend this to anyone interested in short stories and certainly recommend it to any fans of Japanese literature.

Ivar’s translation provides the first collection of Tanaka’s stories that is readily available to western consumers on sites such as, currently on sale for 99 cents. It is also available on in Kindle, PDF, Epub, and other formats.

See Link For Other Works By the Author:

“Moths” first appeared in the Osaka Daily News, October 25th, 1923

“The Soldier Who Vanished Into Thin Air” first appeared in The New Collection of True Ghost Stories, 1938

“The Secret of the Fish” first appeared in The Complete Collection of Japanese Ghost Stories, 1934


3 Comments on “The Secret of the Fish and Other Stories – Review”

  1. Mr. Shindo says:

    A fine review of an excellent compilation. Now, I should be back to my study of dinosaurs.

  2. Carey Griffin says:

    Awesome review! Makes me want to read the stories now.

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