Most of us go through life without thinking much about our mitochondria the small power producers within our cells. We remember them, if at all, as blobs in cell diagrams from biology class. But, by controlling cell differentiation, movement, death and growth, they are crucial to keeping us alive. And in the surreal, over-the-top and often unintentionally humorous biomedical horror Parasite Eve, Japanese novelist Hideaki Sena depicts them as sentient beings so indignant over our indifference that they want to wipe us out and take over the world. Of course the notion is far-fetched, but the endosymbiotic theory of mitochondria, which posits that the organelles evolved from ancient bacteria, provides Sena's gruesome fantasy with a veneer of plausibility. Given the chance, he suggests, they might want to become their own organisms again and knock off their human hosts while they're at it.
A new English-language paperback edition of Parasite Eve comes just in time for summer getaway reading. The editors at Vertical Press haven't weeded out the slew of mistranslations from the original hardcover English edition. But some of these botched phrases including real puzzlers like "the unreality of a shimmer at the bottom of a cascade of sunlight" and "pessimism encountered the warmth lingering in his hands from the night before in subtle billows of conflict" inadvertently achieve a kind of prose poetry reminiscent of the great Dada-influenced poet Chuya Nakahara. Grumbling about their incomprehensibility just keeps you from enjoying their unwitting beauty.
The book tells the story of a genetic scientist named Toshiaki Nagashima, who works in a university lab. He and his wife Kiyomi share a breakfast of fried eggs, salted salmon and miso soup with tofu one morning before he heads off to work. Later that day he gets a call informing him that Kiyomi's car has mysteriously veered off the road and crashed into a telephone pole, and that she is now brain dead. From here the story unfolds backward, and clues reveal that something sinister took an interest in Kiyomi and Toshiaki long ago. We learn that Kiyomi attended a lecture on mitochondria as a university student and became bizarrely agitated when images of the organelles were shown ("too enraptured to notice that she was panting like a dog"). She was a girl "whose heart thrilled to mitochondria," but never guessed why this was so. That was probably for the best, since poor Kiyomi turns out to be an unwitting host to a colony of mitochondria plotting away inside her, desperate to break free, propagate and put unappreciative humans in their place.
Toshiaki is also central to their plans. When he tells Kiyomi that his article on mitochondria has been accepted by Nature, the mitochondria speak through her: "I knew you were the one I've been looking for." After Kiyomi dies, the grief-stricken Toshiaki hits on the creepy plan to keep a bit of her alive by culturing her liver cells. His obsessive love of his wife and his science blind him to the strangeness of what he's doing. But the mitochondria see a perfect opportunity and rejoice. They will harness his expertise in biotechnology to conquer the world and they aren't scrupulous about how they try to do so. The second half of the novel oozes with enough violence and sexual perversity to make Caligula blush.
Sena was a pharmacology Ph.D. student at Tohoku University in the northern Japanese city of Sendai when he wrote Parasite Eve, his first published novel and the recipient of the first Japan Horror Novel Prize. The book was partly inspired by mitochondria research he was pursuing at the time. He also felt encouraged by the way in which the public's imagination had been gripped by the "African Eve" hypothesis (which argues that we are descended from an ancient African woman whose mitochondrial DNA we all share).
Parasite Eve was first published in Japanese in 1995, and together with Koji Suzuki's Ring helped to launch a new wave of Japanese horror both novels were made into movies. Director Hideo Nakata's adaptation of Ring enjoyed more domestic success than the Fuji TV-produced Parasite Eve, but Sena's story reached a broader audience outside Japan through a Sony PlayStation video-game adaptation that shifted the tale to New York City and ratcheted up the gore most fantastically in the mass spontaneous combustion of an opera audience at Carnegie Hall. There are also two Japanese manga versions of the story, one based on the original plot of the novel and another on the video-game adaptation. Talk about successful propagation.