ANS Exclusive Interview: Author Joh Sasaki – Zero Over Berlin
By: Jonah Morgan
Several months ago, having reviewed New York based publisher, Vertical Inc.’s initial graphic novel release adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha manga opus, I received a preview sheet of their upcoiming litterary works. There was one title that particulary caught my interest, Joh Sasaki’s (http://www.sasakijo.com/) “Zero Over Berlin”, the summary read:
1940. Hitler wants to rain death on London but he doesn’t have the aircraft. Classified info about a new long-range plane –– the Japanese “Type Zero” –– intrigues Nazi generals who ask their Far Eastern ally for a few prototypes to study. But how to get the planes from Japan to Germany? Unable to fly over the Soviet Union or most of the vast British Empire, the Zeros just might make it if they can refuel at the few secret pockets of resistance. An action-packed aviation novel that presents the geopolitics of WWII from the other side.
Being a world events / geo-politics buff and somewhat of a military otaku, the idea behind the novel was rivetting. A Japanese friend of mine had mentioned Mr. Sasaki has one of his favorite authors, having published close to fifty novels. The Japan Mystery Writers Association and the Japanese Adventure Fiction Association had awarded him for excellence in writing. He has also won the Yamamoto Shugoro prize, and over a dozen of his works have been made into films and/or stage plays.
Having finished the book just last week, I’m in somewhat of an afterglow of WWII military fandom. I can vouch that it has more than fulfilled any preconceptions I held about this story going in. Zero is a historical / aviation what-if tale like none other. Sasaki’s research into the technology that ruled the skies over The Pacific, and Europe is thoroughly executed and relayed in print. The technical detail is stunning, I found myself becoming a fan of the Zero plane which I had not given much thought to in the past. The gepolitical situation that existed over the route taken by the fighters during the time period is equally covered with great detail. The characters are plentiful and well defined. Some other reviews have mentioned there are too many characters for such a short work but having exchanged mails with Mr. Sasaki I understand the reason, Zero is not one book standing on it’s own but part of a trilogy where the same characters appear in different situations and themes across the range of the novels.
Fresh from the read, I had the chance to Interview the author of “Zero Over Berlin”, Mr. Joh Sasaki, via the gracious translation services of Vertical’s Anne Ishii:
1. Thank you for this oppertunity Mr. Sasaki, I have just read your novel, ZERO, over the past several days, it was an excellent read, very articulate and intelligently executed. About 1 month ago you were in the USA promoting for the release here. How did you find the reception?
There were mostly Japanese readers who had read the original that were excited about the English release. I learned that there are many people anticipating the crossover of Japanese genre fiction into foreign countries.
2. Do you travel outside of Japan often? To the USA often?
Until I hit my forties, I did go on a lot of research-related trips, now it’s about once or twice a year that I travel abroad. I come to the US about once every two years these days.
3. ZERO was originally published in Japan in 1988, how many printings and how many copies have sold there?
I can’t remember the exact print run of Zero in Japan, but the hardcover sold around 45,000 copies, and the paperback sold something like 140,000 copies.
4. Aside from the numbers, can you tell us from the author’s perspective how you feel the novel was received in Japan when originally published?
Until about when I wrote Zero, writing about the Second World War in entertainment genre was considered taboo. War was a serious topic to be written about in literary fiction. However, since the original publication of this book, I think novelists have lost at least the psychological inhibition towards the topic of war.
5. 16 years later, what are your own personal thoughts on ZERO seeing an English language release in 2004?
I’ve been hoping for an English translation of Zero from the beginning. Japanese publishers aren’t very proactive about getting their domestic writers translated into foreign languages.That’s why it ends up taking this long before seeing a translation, but it’s truly a feat for the title to have come this far.
6. How did you first concieve the idea for ZERO?
As I explained in the book, there were moments in the historical timeline of the Second World War that had a curiously coincidental way of unfolding, which caught my eye.
a. 1940, 9/13. The Zeros attack China in an all-out raid.
b. 9/15. Germany halts the English mainland invasion.
c. 9/27. Germany, Italy and Japan sign the Tripartite Alliance, forming the Axis.
d. Also, I found out that during the Second World War, Japan had dispatched some commuter planes (the A-26) from Singapore to Germany. They disappeared after takeoff.
7. How did you research the various elements for the book?
There’s a saying, “God is in the details”. To create this huge fabrication, the details must approach the truth as thoroughly and as close as possible. That’s my basic method.
8. Which area required the most research?
The most important part of my research concerned the Navy of that period, and especially the circumstances of the Air Corps. My interviews with fighter ace Saburo Sakai were crucial.
9. On the idea of a Zero or other Japanese plane flying from Japan to Germany during the time frame in ZERO, if done in secrecy in the real world, do you believe such a thing could have been undertaken and slipped into the mists of time without a trace?
It would have been really difficult (to get a Zero to make that trip). Like I said before, not even the A-26 made it.
10. Going back to your research, was there any real interest from Germany in the Japanese aviation technology? It is true that at the beginning of the war the Germans lacked aircraft with range to conduct their campaigns over England as laid out in your book.
Unfortunately, as regards aviation technology, there doesn’t seem to have been any real interest on the part of Germany towards Japanese aviation technology.
11. Regarding the Zero aircraft itself, what special research did this require? Did you happen to find a real aircraft to examine for the book?
Yes. However I didn’t see the Zero Fighter until after I wrote this book.
12. Looking at ZERO from the perspective of being an anime and manga fan their are 2 names that come to mind relating closely to this book. One is the manga author Kaiji Kawaguchi who has produced several works dealing in historical military “what if” fiction. The second would be Leiji Matsumoto who in 1993 produced a 3 epsiode Original Video Animation titled “The Cockpit”. Are you familiar with these individuals and their works?
Of course. Especially Matsumoto’s Cockpit, which I read avidly throughout my teens. I’d say that the experience actually influenced my writing of this book in no small way.
13. Has ZERO ever been considered for adaptation to animation or live action film in Japan?
Though there were talks of producing a fim version of Zero, we did not end up signing any contracts.
14. Have you considred a followup novel to ZERO?
Yes. This is just the first in a three part series that broadly paints the picture of World War II. There are different main characters for each book, but the cast of characters combined show up in the second and third books.
15. The character outlines in ZERO are quite strong, especially that of Ando, where did you draw influences in styling the characters in this work?
I envisioned to create a character that would appeal to contemporary readers.
16. Several of the characters in ZERO appear from the real world of history, what challenges did adapting their personalities to a fictional plot present to you?
To not stray from the records. To stay the criticism or revelation of an atmosphere that is plenty analogous to the historical facts when writing complete fictions.
17. In ZERO, we get a look at the various internal poltical struggles within the Japanese military and governmental power structures during the era. How real were these issues and how difficult were they to present in print?
To make it easier to understand, I’ve simplified many of the elements, but for the most part, I’ve stuck to the historical facts. So as not to be questioned or doubted by people who were associated with these events, I wrote everything based firmly in the facts.
18. Since the publication of ZERO in Japan has any further research evidence surfaced that may lend more evidence to the validity of the key elements?
No. In fact there’ve turned out to be people who’ve mistaken the events in this novel for historical truth.
19. Are you a fan of current Formula 1 racing? The BAR Honda Team has certainly made some strides into the top of the field this year although they just lost their best driver, Jenson Button. What are you thoughts?
Honda’s figuring as a challenger in technology is greatly manifested in the F1 project. I never want this “mass culture” to disappear.
18. Thanks you again for your interview Mr. Sasaki, do you have any parting words to your fans and readers?
I’ve said everything I want to say in the book. If the readers thought the book was interesting, I probably succeeded in telling what I “wanted to tell”. There’s nothing I really want to add.