Death Sentences was written by famed Japanese science fiction writer, Kawamata Chiaki, in 1984 and was translated in 2012 by Thomas Lamarre and Kazuko Y. Behrens. The story is a narrative that spans hundreds of years and even planets as it details the people literally haunted, and who later die, as a possible result of reading a surrealist poem entitled “The Gold of Time” written by a young poet known as Who May.
Chiaki clearly has a love for the French Surrealist era. After all, in the beginning of his novel, some of the characters include Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Antonin Artaud. As the story begins, we follow Breton’s journey as he meets and becomes enamored with Who May. Upon reading Who May’s works, Breton has what can only be described as an out-of-body experience that haunts him for years to come and supposedly ends his life. In fact, one of Who May’s lines, (i.e. a “death sentence” I suppose) is actually on Breton’s epitaph, “Je cherche l’or du temps.” (“I seek the gold of time.”)
In his forward to the Death Sentences, Takayuki Tatsumi believes the science fiction genre can be seen as an offspring of the surrealist art movement. Death Sentences can certainly prove Tatsumi’s point (in addition to Tatsumi’s citations of Phillip K. Dick). We fast forward from pre and post World War II to present day Japan where we follow the journey of an art magazine publisher, Sakakibara Koji. Sakakibara and his team at Kirin Publishers are tasked to go through an old trunk of Breton’s where he uncovers Who May’s poetry. A similar effect happens to workers at Kirin Publishers, where they read “The Gold of Time” and have an out-of-body experience that’s so awesome and yet so deadly.
Because of such mysterious deaths, Who May’s poem finds itself in more hands, only to have this deadly side affect spread globally like a virus as we leap to the future. Towards the end of Death Sentences, we find ourselves on an inhabited Mars with Carl Schmitt, a member of the Martian Guard. Schmitt is ordered to lead his team in destroying a colony known for having a copy of “The Gold of Time” in order to prevent a similar epidemic that resulted on Earth years earlier.
So, now you’re probably wondering what elements of the “Gold of Time” make the poem actually kill its reader? Well, you never really know, but I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it? Death Sentences doesn’t have “The Gold of Time” written in full. You read parts of the poem every couple of chapters.
However, the stanzas of “The Gold of Time” are rather haunting. Not only does it include a made up word, dobading, but you see dobading utilized as a noun, verb and other parts of speech. The characters’ fascination with the word and their fixation on the poem as a whole make you fixated. This, in turn, allows you to keep reading even if you’re getting ahead of the story a little. We all know that our new protagonist will likely die after reading “The Gold of Time”, but what else does “The Gold of Time” say?
Similar to viewing a piece of surrealist art, “The Gold of Time”, and, as a result, the entirety of Death Sentences can haunt you. (But not kill you. Don’t worry.) You sense a feeling or see an image that leads you to conclude about some truth of the human condition, but when you try to actually verbalize your newfound gospel, you’re at a loss of words. It’s like watching Leos Carax’s Holy Motors or having a dream where you think you’ve encountered some grand certitude about your existence and then everyone else’s existence, only to realize that you have no idea what you’re even talking about. I suppose that cycle of meaning and non-meaning can be vexing. What are the truths that exist in our subconscious that we can never grasp? If we can’t grasp these truths do they even exist? Why do we constantly run around in circles for answers?
So, do the characters die from over-thinking? Is the action of thinking the death of surrealism? I don’t know. But what I do know is that if you have a lot of time on your hands to let your brain travel to… Mars, let’s say, I encourage you non-LSD users to stop talking about how genius you think Salvador Dali is and pick up Death Sentences.