Sugaru Miaki Interview: "On the End of the World"

An interview with Sugaru Miaki (Fafoo) about the theme of "the end of the world."

Be warned that there is, naturally, discussion of end-of-the-world scenarios, which also gets into talk about death and disasters.


* This article was published in the doujinshi "Sentimental Masochism vol. 05: Endings and Sentimentality Special Feature." We interviewed novelist Sugaru Miaki due to his specialization in "the end of the world."

Sugaru Miaki (@everb1ue)
Born in 1990. A novelist from Iwate Prefecture.
Gained popularity posting stories online under the name "Genfuukei."

Interviewer: Once-Unsuccessful Tsundere Sub-Heroine (@wak)

01. The end of the world has been depicted in many forms in creative works, in every era, the 2000s included. If there are any end-of-the-world situations you find charming or works in particular that embody it for you, I'd like to hear about them.

Miaki: The short story The Last Night of the World by Ray Bradbury is one of the most ideal world-ending scenarios I can think of. With no warning, a man has a dream of everything coming to an end. A dream where "the world just ends, like the closing of a book, let's say." When he goes to work the next morning, it turns out his coworkers have been having the same dream. When he goes home and tells his wife about it, indeed, she's been having the same dream too. So everyone is faintly convinced the end will come that night. However, there's no panic. The couple lives their lives as usual. There's nothing else they can do, so they just read the newspaper and listen to music on the radio, talk with each other and watch the fireplace.

"I always imagined people would be screaming in the streets at a time like this."
"I guess not. You don't scream about the real thing."

- "The Last Night of the World" (from Ray Bradbury's "The Illustrated Man")

And so the two of them go to bed as usual, and presumably the world ends that night.

I honestly have little interest in the sort of panicked world-ending story where people are screaming in the streets, running around bewildered, and there's conflict between survivors. The cause of the world ending also doesn't really matter. I want the end to come peacefully, the way a season ends. A pure concept of "the end of the world" enshrouds everyday life; "ending" feelings like classrooms the morning of graduation day, shopping districts at the end of the year, beaches after summer, these fill up the world. There's no pain or suffering or fear in them. While they give off a quiet resignation, there's also a feeling of restlessness somewhere. You're doing the same thing as usual, but it feels different. There's a greater sense than ever that the world exists. And before long, the end comes without you really understanding it. That kind of thing is ideal.

I mentioned in the previous interview how the sekai-kei genre directly connects "the relationship between the main couple" with "the end of the world" with no in-between, but I also think it's an experiment that tries to link daily life with the end of the world. (And if we take that its conclusion, I think sekai-kei is a natural byproduct of irregularities like "the protagonist's parents problem" in shonen stories and light novels.) Many sci-fi authors put importance on that "in-between" part when they depict end-of-the-world scenarios, but I have a much stronger interest in an ordinary situation made abnormal by jumping directly to the world ending.

02. Conversely, are there conclusions or protagonist perspectives in existing end-of-the-world stories you're dissatisfied with?

Miaki: This isn't so much a dissatisfaction with any stories themselves, as it's more my own tastes to blame, but - and maybe I've just had bad luck encountering them - I'm rather dissatisfied how I've yet to encounter a work that made me think to myself "there was probably a time when this author was genuinely wishing for the end of the world." (Please tell me if you know any.) The "endings" depicted in many stories certainly are serious, but they feel somehow lacking, as if they're writing about something that fundamentally doesn't matter to them personally, like a straight person writing a gay romance just for the sake of it.

For instance, there are people in the world known as preppers. They build sturdy shelters, buy lots of preserved foods, train themselves for combat - they're preparing for various visions of the end of the world. And I'm sure at least some percentage of them are eagerly awaiting the coming of that end somewhere in their hearts. And when the end does come, even if it's so irrationally destructive that their preparations end up being in vain, the people who prepared will probably relish the greatest pleasure of their lives. Above all else, they'll get to say "I told you so." They'll be like, we were doing the right thing, it was you who were mistaken, at the very least we're mentally ready, the people who laughed at us will die trembling in fear, that makes me more than happy enough to be worth it.

It's not like I necessarily want to depict the end of the world positively, but I want the perspective of people who have considered it just that earnestly. I know it's barking up the wrong tree to seek earnestness in this genre, but even knowing that, I want to read an earnest end-of-the-world story. "The bestest end of the world I could think of."

03. The end-of-the-world genre can be broadly categorized into apocalypse, about an end that's coming, and post-apocalypse, about the lives of survivors in a world that's come to an end. Do you expect different things from these genres?

Miaki: They can be differ completely depending on the approach, but if we're just focusing on the sentimentality in end-of-the-world stories, I think using a metaphors of "a patient on their deathbed" and "a ghost" help illustrate the difference in what I want from those stories. The former is unavoidably going to be lost, and the latter has already unavoidably been lost. To get emotion out of the former, you'd present things the protagonist doesn't want to lose and emphasize their value. And if you want to get emotion out of the latter, you'd dig into the protagonist's attachment to all the things they've lost, their longing for possibilities that were stolen from them in advance, and either unbearable loneliness or some entity that fills that hole.

This comparison between "going to be lost" and "has been lost" can also be applied to "haves" and "have-nots." Haves will feel strong sympathy for losing things, and have-nots will feel strong sympathy for having lost things. A person who has never found any enjoyment in life can't see themselves in a story about someone faced with an ending world spending tragic moments with family and loved ones, and for a person who's lived life with the greatest blessedness, a post-apocalypse's ruined wastelands and lifestyles detached from civilization must be nothing but a nightmare. There are many ways to make a story that turns expectations against you, such as an end-of-the-world story starring one of those preppers I mentioned. Considering that, I'd say apocalypse is a subject generally suited for bringing sentimentality out of haves, and post-apocalypse for bringing it out of have-nots - that's my broad opinion.

04. I've been someone who got excited to hear the phrase "end of the world" since grade school, but now that I think back on it, I feel like the "end of the world" I was picturing then was more a fantasy of "I want my sterile town to sink into the sea, and to go anywhere that isn't here."

In other words, it's like the line in Makoto Shinkai's short film Voices of a Distant Star: "There's a thing known as "the world." Until middle school, I just sort of thought it meant the places you got cellphone reception." I wonder if the "world" in "the end of the world" doesn't always have to be on a global scale, and can just be based in a character's subjectivity.

So my question: what exactly is the extent of the "world" in your "end of the world"?

Miaki: The "end of the world" depicted in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example, is an entirely personal thing, and I think you could debate about whether those should be considered end-of-the-world stories. Your death is the end of your subjective world, so that's also one end of the world - once you start on that track, you get questions like "then should stories about incurable diseases also be included with stories about the end of the world?"

I believe the ending-feel hanging over Voices of a Distant Star is caused by the protagonist being spatially and temporally separated from what she considers "the world," sealing off the possibility of communication and making her the ultimate form of "alone." The world is going on somewhere, but it's equivalent to it having ended if you can't connect to it. Because it's like a parallel world. So you can naturally raise questions like "to a person who loses their senses and has all communication with the outside world cut, remaining only as a consciousness, has the world already ended?" The fact they have consciousness shows they're on some kind of life support, so perhaps you can find some proof there that the world still exists. However - if you'll allow some imprudence - I consider that to be a state boundlessly close to the end of the world. Not only that, when the end comes, there's no guarantee we'll be given the time or opportunity to experience it, so depending on how you look at it, you might call the loss of all your senses a more end-of-the-world-like end of the world.

With that said, my artless sense of things is that perhaps "the world" goes as far as your communication network goes, and the exhaustion of communication is the end of the world. The movie I Am Legend went in a different direction than I was hoping for, but I'm fond of the scene where the protagonist talks to a mannequin.

05. Many post-apocalypse stories have characters traveling through an ended world, such as Girls' Last Tour, and Let's Take a Trip, To the End of the Crumbling World. I like the depictions in fantasy light novels where adventurers cross fields between cities, and camp out on the road at night to eat dried meat. But if you were to depict that kind of travel story in a modern Japanese urban environment, I think you'd have no choice but to destroy the world to recreate those "fields between cities."

In other words, if you make the destination "somewhere that isn't here" and the objective of the journey "to get in a Supercab and head with a girl to the ends of the earth" - if you remove the unnecessary things from the journey and abstract it out, do you think the resulting emo-ness is a good fit for a post-apocalyptic setting?

I want to hear your thoughts about the relationship between the post-apocalypse and traveling.

Miaki: Among people who like to travel, there are those who hope to meet people in the process and those who don't. For those who say "a meeting I had on a trip changed my life," there are also those who will avoid talking to anyone, traveling alone just to reaffirm their loneliness. Naturally, I put myself among the latter - when I travel, if I'm taking public transportation, the more empty the bus is the better, and if I'm in a car, the more open the roads are the better. Whether I'm staying at a hotel or in a tent on a campground, the fewer other people using it the better. Indeed, even though it's a chance to get away from daily life, forget my usual self, and become an invisible, anonymous entity, as long as there are other people around to reflect me like mirrors, I'm unavoidably made conscious of my own existence. There's the phrase "going on a journey to find yourself," but I would call this moving around to lose myself. Or else, a way of escaping from my own phantom. I may have departed a bit from the purpose of the question, but in the sense of the silence of a ghost town or remote place being applied to the entire world, I agree that a post-apocalyptic setting is suited for depicting certain kinds of travel.

06. When I read your tweets, I get the impression that you don't consider "emo" something that's only in fiction, and quite often visit real places that have an emo feel, like the Auto Restaurant Tekken Taro in Saitama where they have a lineup of retro vending machines, or the port city Choshi that feels like it was left in the Showa era.

I'd like you to tell me about any destinations you can name that personally give you a sense of the end of the world.

Miaki: In college, I often walked around ruined buildings and abandoned railway lines. But while the season, weather, and time obviously matter, how you're feeling when you visit - to put it another way, what lens you're looking at it through - has a greater influence than anything else. Thus, there are probably rather few specific places that have a end-of-the-world feel. Even a place that felt terrifyingly end-of-the-world-like when I first visited can feel insipid when I revisit it, and the opposite naturally happens as well. If there isn't some kind of end-of-the-world seed in you, even the most ruined scenery won't connect with you, and the only emotion it can get out of you us the kind you get from a museum. It becomes appreciation rather than sentimentality.

Once, when my future was unclear and I was half in desperation, I went walking through Yokohama with a friend and went to Cosmoworld on a whim. It was already about to close, so we rushed through the park to a roller coaster to get at least one ride in, and I remember feeling strangely as if the world were ending then. But I doubt I would get the same sensation if I were to do the same thing in the same place now.

07. For people who became conscious from 1980 to 1990, it feels like there were even more ways to become drawn to the end of the world back then than there are now - occult things like the predictions of Nostradamus, ecology like the Gaia hypothesis suggesting "from the perspective of the Earth, would it just not care if humanity went extinct?", and manga, anime, and games that embraced these things.

It's fine whether it's something personal or something societal - are there any early experiences that got you drawn toward the end of the world?

Miaki: Some rather dark media was popular from the late 90's to the early 00's, but my sensitivities hadn't really developed by then, so they hardly influenced me. I became drawn to the end of the world awfully late; some time after entering college, I suddenly found a part of myself that was charmed by endings. Back then, I wandered around places without people whenever I had the time, and as I did so, I realized "if I took the scenery I'm searching for to its logical conclusion, it'd surely be a scene from the end of the world." Or perhaps the innate feeling that my possibilities as a human are being exhausted accelerated that tendency.

08. Previously, when I interviewed you about the Summer Complex, you said the following.

"I adore works in the so-called "sekai-kei" genre not because of the structure that directly connects the protagonist and heroine's relationship to the fate of the world and so on, but because of the "scent of death" that's a byproduct."

I'm thinking the "scent of death" isn't limited to the world; it can be felt from the end of summer vacation, from an independent game shop that still has games from three generations ago at the counter, or from a faded cushion in the waiting room of a local station that only gets one train an hour.

If you can escape from that season or place, the scent of death will go away. However, an "end of the world" that terminates the lives of all humanity equally might be considered an inescapable situation where the scent of death spreads all over the world.

A case where the scent of death spreads worldwide, versus a temporary situation like the end of summer vacation - I want to know how you feel they differ, and what they bring to mind.

Miaki: There's the saying "fellow sufferers pity each other." If the scent of death covered the earth, it would be as if the world itself became a sanatorium or hospice (or for a more commonplace example, like an online game just before the servers get shut down): all people would be able to have the same sorrowful compassion for all others, or so I'd like to hope. In reality, there's a high possibility of chaos that would be unbearable to watch, but if the miraculous circumstances were met for people to accept the end peacefully, I could see that perhaps being plausible. Something like the end of the year, where people all around the world are facing the same direction - some avert their eyes or turn their backs, but they're still conscious of the same thing. If such an end came where everyone could share a hopeless sadness with an inescapable unity, perhaps then we could give a little forgiveness to this thing called life.

09. When discussing end-of-the-world scenarios in fiction, there are also, separately, real-world disasters, so it can get hard to talk about it optimistically. To speak my mind, I'd like to make out with a wonderful person in a world-ending scenario, but whenever I try to say that, I see real disasters like earthquakes, storms, and epidemics, so I hesitate and wonder, "Is it really okay for me to optimistically speak about my desires?" Part of me wonders, can I only talk so optimistically about the end of the world because I'm in a position of safety? I'd like to ask how to keep some distance from real disasters when fantasizing about the end of the world.

Miaki: Certainly, in recent years - especially this year - it's become difficult to innocently talk about the end of the world. Having an interest in the end of the world is already a dark joy predicated on the making the vast majority of people unhappy, so I think the reason it isn't criticized as a "mistaken desire" regardless of that fact is mostly that it's so massive and involves such thorough misfortune that it has no sense of reality. However, at this point, it has been given some partial reality. Also, due to the spread of the internet, people have become attuned to a kind of indiscriminate ill will - making yourself happy relative to the misfortune of others - and fears of being thought as engaging in that have risen. Perhaps from now on we should bolster the unrealism by no longer saying "hope the world ends," but "hope the universe ends." To make it clear this is even more of a fantastical fantasy than you're thinking.

That said, even if you insist "This is a fantastical discussion separate from reality, and has no relation to real catastrophes that have happened or will happen," you can't deny it if someone points out "but you at least modeled your fantasy after that, didn't you?" Even the most fantastical world-ending scenario unmistakably uses real tragedies in it somewhere (deliberately or otherwise). This could be said about all manner of things in bad taste, not just interest in the end of the world, but it's a fact that people will feel uncomfortable no matter how much logic you apply. In which case, we people with bad taste shouldn't arm ourselves with logical excuses like "this has no relation to reality because of such and such reasons," but to compromise to an extent and commit to being "human garbage that at least has good sense." You can't deny the existence of the inner child who, when faced with a calamity beyond human understanding, separate from the part of themselves whose heart is hurt, is stimulated on a base level by the catharsis of such overwhelming energy.

I'll refrain from direct examples, but I think stories written by authors with certain sexual preferences often have a lingering mood of extreme self-punishment, a strong guilt or self-hatred. That surely must be because they're aware of their tastes being "impermissible" anywhere, but that doesn't make them something that can be changed even if they want to, so they have to enjoy it with people of the same tastes on the edges of society. They let out their desires in the most harmless way possible, in closed spaces. When I see people like that, I feel like culture really has matured, and ultimately, I suppose that's the only option for people born into this imperfect world with unseemly tastes. And it's not necessarily a compromise. You could take things to an extreme and argue that all happiness is predicated on someone else's misfortune, but I think that, ahead of anything about other people, there's value to it even including that guilt. Indeed, we feel guilty about our tastes, but we're unable to deny the charm of them - thanks to that "but," we can always remember the value of the subject matter. Perverse enjoyment is strictly just perverse enjoyment, and I think it's fine to quietly enjoy it while being sensitive to those around you.

10. Lastly, I want to know how you would spend your final day if the world really came to an end.

Miaki: There is one thing I've decided I'd definitely do, but it's a secret. Because it's an incredible stale way to spend that final day, but if I were to put it into words, it would probably become even more stale.

Posted December 11th, 2020

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