Preparing a Shrunken Head by Takashi Atoda

September 26, 2011

There was a short delay between ringing the doorbell and hearing the footsteps, but before long a thick, rough voice replied from behind the door.

“Who is it?”

“Hello. It’s Tamura from the daily M. We spoke on the phone a while ago,” I replied.

As Dr Tanabe opened the door, I noticed the badly lit nature of the room within.

“I live alone you see,” he explained before guiding me to the reception room.

Primitive mannequins and spears, grotesque in nature, lined the display cabinets of the room, and furthest to the rear, a shrunken head hung within a glass case. Its face was bluish-white and its expression cold and disturbing.

“So this is the head in question then?” I asked.

“Indeed it is. And these are extremely difficult to get hold of.”

Dr Tanabe was a well-known explorer as well a somewhat hidden authority on ethnology. He was especially knowledgeable in South American customs and had just returned from a tour of the continent where he had been researching the mysterious techniques used to prepare shrunken heads.

I wasted no time in getting to the main point. “Are shrunken heads still being made now?” I asked.

“Well of course. They are closely linked to the religious beliefs of certain ethnic groups, so production is hardly likely to come to a halt.”

“But the preparation method is being kept a secret from outsiders?”

“That is correct. They rarely let anyone see the preparation process.”

“But you were able to see this during your recent trip?”

“Yes. But it took an incredibly long time to become close enough to the people concerned.”

“Could I ask you to explain it in detail for me?”

“Well it’s something I’ve put my whole life into,” said Dr Tanabe, laughing ironically. “There’s no way I would divulge the details publicly.”

“How about just a brief outline?”

“Ok. Well, you cut a hole into the back of the head and carefully remove the skin and bone, sew up the hole and boil with medicinal plants, then insert a fist sized stone into the middle and you’re done.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes that’s about it. But each stage of the process has a certain knack to it. It’s not that simple. I observed every stage of the process carefully and even brought back with me some medicinal plants.”

“What’s the most difficult part? Could I ask you to explain about that part in detail?”

Dr Tanabe stood up, handed me a drink and proceeded to explain. “First of all, it’s difficult to remove the skin without damaging the facial expression. Secondly, it’s difficult to mix the medicinal plants correctly. Also, it’s difficult to dry the head without destroying the lifelike facial expression. I’ve actually thought about making one myself but then the most difficult part is…”

Dr Tanabe stopped talking, before continuing his explanation slowly and clearly. I noticed the peculiar, bitter taste of the drink.

“Getting hold of the materials.”

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5 Responses to “Preparing a Shrunken Head by Takashi Atoda”


  1. penultimate paragraph is very well translated, just the pause and the taste.

    i think this is missing the mounting tension that only a longer piece could maintain. we need more of a sense of the atmosphere of the place, the macabre intelligence of the doctor, and more of an increasing sense of something being very wrong.

    fortunately roald dahl has done that for us – see ‘the landlady’. bet you can get that online somewhere. real classic short story. have a look!

  2. nikzback Says:

    I have a feeling I read the landlady when I was a kid. I’ll have a mooch around.

    There was one story I read a while ago with that perfect mounting tension, but it was about 30 pages long so it was a bit much. Basically there’s a guy who’s convinced he’s the ancestor of Napoleon Bonaparte and another guy who is obsessed with anything Napoleon related. He has a Napoleon museum in Tokyo where he keeps articles, objects etc. The narrator knows them both and introduces then through a letter and the obsessed guy pays a visit to the museum guys house. What happens at the end is similar to this story, but it maintains a lot more atmosphere over the last few pages. You’re really itching to see what happens when they meet.

    I think there’s an English translation around somewhere. It’s called Napoleon Crazy.

  3. hypodemicnoodle Says:

    Yes, the ‘tension before two people meet’ can be great feeling : ) Although a bit different to that in the Landlady, about a mysterious old lady in a bed and breakfast and her only guest, which I think is closer in character to your story.

    The ‘pre meeting tension’ is actually common trope, isn’t it – off the top of my head – Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader (or any film with a ant- and protagonist confrontation, i.e. most thrillers, or a contest, e.g. the Rockys). Cf. loads of comics where characters with different superpowers or fighting skills are going to meet…

    Your example sounds tense because of the unique characters developed. I bet the most interesting cases are ones which in some way stand out from the others – Pacino and De Niro in Heat, their first scenes together after both had become major stars (I think); Paris, Texas (ever seen that)? Apocalypse Now because of the mystery of Brando, his character and the ambiguous relationship between him and Sheen.

  4. hypodemicnoodle Says:

    That’s a fucking gruesome picture by the way.

  5. nikzback Says:

    i had another look at apocalypse now. marlon brando is like jabba the huk in his little cave. is that the doors at the end there?

    the tension happens in real life too. simpson meets foster in brgs!?

    haven’t seen paris, texas, but i’ll have a look sometime.

    i’ve finished my japanese exam by the way (think i’ve past) so i’ve been studying french and researching the delta in my free time. i might start module one in the new year 🙂


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