Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ikeido Jun: Shitamachi Rocket (2010)

Ikeido Jun 池井戸潤's the author; Shitamachi Rocket 下町ロケット (literalishly "Downtown Rocket", although Seidensticker is probably right that "Low City" is better) is the title.  It was published in book form in late 2010 (after having been serialized in Shūkan Post 週刊ポスト, a general-interest newsweekly) and won the Naoki Prize in summer 2011.  There was no A-Prize awarded this summer, so I picked this up instead.  Thought I'd have a go at a Naoki Prizewinner for a change.  I've read a few over the years, but accidentally:  despite my interest in the A-Prize, and in popular fiction of some varieties, I've never taken on the Naoki challenge.

This one is a keizai shōsetsu 経済小説, what's usually called in English a "business novel": a good description, if an inexact translation.  I freely admit (this is me, freely admitting it) that I don't know much about this genre.  Think a novel set in the business world, then imagine what genre conventions might arise?  I.e., not a mystery or a thriller or a love story that just happens to involve people with jobs, or a backdrop of high finance, but a novel in which the ups and downs of business deals are meant to provide the main narrative interest?  At least, that's what's happening in this one.

It was interesting to notice my reactions to it, because I went into it having intentionally read nothing about it.  All I knew was the title, and some vague recommendations I'd seen in an ad on a train:  I wasn't expecting it to be a "business novel."  I had no expectations at all, other than (this being ostensibly popular fiction) readability and an interesting plot.  And some kind of excellence somewhere, this being a Naoki winner and all.

So I'm going along, reading through it, and it's following all the ins and outs, ups and downs, of a small-to-midsize manufacturing company in an unfashionable district of Tokyo, and it's going into such details about their deals - a patent-infringement lawsuit, a countersuit, a negotiation over licensing, a subcontracting proposal, all dealing with valves and other engine parts - and there's not much else going on, and I was about halfway through before I remembered, oh yeah, there's a genre for this.  That's when I stopped expecting anything more to happen.  And sure enough, nothing more happened:  we just kept following Tsukuda Manufacturing's efforts to convince the behemoth rocket-engine maker Empire Heavy Industries to let them supply them with a particular valve, when Empire would rather just license the technology.  That's the story:  little company convincing big company that it can do the job.  In the end, the rocket launches with Tsukuda's valves aboard, and everybody's happy.

Knowing nothing about the genre it supposedly so excellently represents, I can't say anything about how it does or doesn't deal with its conventions.  What it felt like to me from the very beginning was a Japanese TV drama series - keeping in mind that, like HBO series or most British series, Japanese dramas begin with an end in mind.  Also keeping in mind that I love a good TV drama, in this case I don't mean it as a compliment.  It felt formulaic - odd how you can feel that even if you've never encountered the formula - and shallow.

Formula:  the Little Company that Could.  Again and again we have scenes and encounters designed to remind us that Tsukuda is an old-fashioned, familiy-oriented, craftsmanship-rich company that's trying to do business in a world increasingly filled with financial and legal predators, and still dominated by snooty Big Firms who disrespect the Little Guy.  And of course the Little Guy comes out on top.  There's even a scene where reps from the Big Firm are inspecting the Little Guy's manufacturing setup, and we learn that Tsukuda Inc. sometimes makes their precision high-tech rocket valves by hand, by feel, rather than with machines calibrated to the micrometer.  (Maybe that's how it really works, but to me the scene was as risible as the one in the third Matrix movie where we see our future tribal people making high-tech machine bombs with mortar and pestle.  The Old Ways...)

Shallowness:  The main character is Tsukuda himself, son of the guy who founded the company, an ex-academic rocket scientist who took over the family business when his dad died.  Also Tsukuda had been associated with a failed rocket launch and hounded out of academia.  So of course he's having to adjust to the business world, and also redeem himself by being associated with a successful rocket launch.  Fine.  He has a family - a mother who was once pretty involved in the business herself, an ex-wife who stayed in academics and divorced him because he didn't (wtf?), and a teenage daughter in a rebellious phase.

Here's what I mean about shallow.  Tsukuda's back story exists entirely so that we can see him discover that there's meaning and satisfaction to be found in running a company well - people always suspect, half accurately, that he secretly misses the hallowed halls of etc., but in reality he's finding that helping his company succeed, his employees take pride in their work, etc., is a good life for him.  Has intrinsic dignity.  And I don't disagree, but jeez, how hackneyed is that?  Especially in a business novel - it's like having your detective in a mystery novel learn by the end that, "gee, I really like solving mysteries."

And the women in his life exist entirely to forward his story.  His mother exists solely to reassure Tsukuda that he's not neglecting his teenage daughter by spending so much time at work.  His ex-wife exists solely to get us to feel sorry for the lonely, misunderstood middle-aged salaryman.  And his daughter exists solely so that at the end she can give him a bouquet and say, "well done, Dad."  Sniffle.

I want to say it's a novel resolutely devoid of subtext, but that's not quite right.  It's just that the subtext is so incredibly (a) obvious and (b) old-fashioned.  In 2011 we're still celebrating the Little Company that Could?  Still celebrating the sad-sack salaryman as the repository of all that's good and holy in modern Japan?  Especially in light of the trenchant critiques of the work world that have appeared in recent A-Prize winners (by women, significantly), this seems either incredibly reactionary or almost poignantly naïve, like the antidote to companies wrecking the economy is just celebrating the idea of a company that doesn't...

On the other hand, it really was readable.  Ikeido's prose is chock-full o' clichés, but at least they make the writing go down easy.  And the plot really did move right along, hitting the right emotional notes at every turn. That bouquet...

I'm not surprised to learn that it actually was made into a TV show.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Asano Inio: Oyasumi Punpun (2007- )

The other Asano Inio title I've read is Oyasumi Punpun おやすみプンプン, which started in 2007 and is still going on, up to 11 volumes at the moment.  I read the first three volumes back when that's all there was, and never went any farther.  Reading Nijigahara makes me want to go back to Punpun to see if it got better.

Here's what I wrote in my pre-blogging days:
Punpun is a fifth-grader in an abusive home.  His father gets sent to prison for beating his mother almost to death, then they get divorced;  his mother’s not too nice either;  her slacker brother Yuichi moves in and sort of takes care of Punpun.  Meanwhile he has a crush on a girl at school, Aiko, who’s also in a scary family—her mother’s a cultist, and drags her around proselyting.  Aiko wants to run away, and makes Punpun promise to come with her, but he has to stand her up when his mother attempts suicide.  Then we skip to two years later, Punpun’s a seventh-grader, Aiko hasn’t talked to him for two years, but he still has a crush on her.  She, however, is going out with the captain of the badminton team, who Punpun is kind of friends with.  Meanwhile, we start to follow Yuichi more, as he meets a cute ex-nurse who likes him;  he starts to tell her about a traumatic event in his past, when a sixteen-year-old hottie from an abusive household made a pass at him…  And that’s where Vol. 3 ends. It’s a well-told story so far, with just the right number of minor characters, and a lot of dysfunctional-family stuff that’s handled with an appropriate dull ache.  By the end of the third volume, though, it’s starting to lose focus—the whole Yuichi bit feels like we’re moving sideways rather than forward.  Maybe Asano doesn’t know where he’s going with this after all.
What makes it special, though, is the art.  Everything is in a super-realistic style except for Punpun, his parents, and his uncle, who are drawn in thick, childish lines, and who in fact don’t look human at all:  they’re drawn like lumpy birds, or stick figures with sheets on and pointy noses.  Like something a kindergartner would draw.  Nobody else interacts with them any differently because of this, so clearly what we’re dealing with here is an expressionistic way of depicting Punpun’s (everybody else has normal names, by the way) sense of alienation.  A striking visual metaphor, and it creates any number of interesting and suggestive situations. There’s a whole overlay of God stuff, too, as Punpun, in his adolescent gawkiness and horniness, thinks he can see God—who looks like a grinning hipster.  We’re not sure yet quite what this means—make of it what we will, I guess—but it’s part of a consistent metaphysical questioning by the characters.  It’s a serious manga, about serious themes.  That’s why it disappointed me when in the third volume it began to feel like the author was just spinning it out, creating saleable variations on the basic situation, rather than leading us through a story he’d planned out.  Abuse and depression are not really the stuff of episodic manga—I want to know he has an idea to resolve things, not necessarily with a happy ending, but with something other than “This week on the Suicidal Depression Show!”

Asano Inio: Nijigahara horogurafu (2006)

The author is Asano Inio 浅野いにお. The title is Nijigahara horografu 虹ヶ原ホログラフ (translatable as Nijigahara holograph, Nijigahara being the name of the town where it's set). It was serialized in the "subculture magazine" (trendspotter central) QuickJapan between 2003 and 2005 before being published in one volume in 2006.

The title is never explained.  It's that kind of book.  If I had to guess I'd say it that (a) the word "holograph" is being used as it sometimes seems to be in Japanese, as a mistake for "hologram", and that (b) Asano's trying to suggest a parallel between the way holograms create the illusion of three dimensions in two, i.e. seem to rotate as your perspective shifts, and his narrative technique here, which involves gradually and piecemeal revealing the identities and relationships between characters, on two timelines ten years apart, so that your understanding and sympathy changes with each chapter.  It's that kind of book.  (I'd also entertain the idea that he's using the word "holograph" according to its proper meaning:  I don't suspect that this manga is autobiographical [I sure hope not], but it may be told, arguably, in the first person, something that isn't always and immediately apparent.  It's that kind of book.)

I've read one other title by Asano (I'll blog it soon), and was impressed by his art and his serious themes, but not by his storytelling.  Here it all comes together.  This is a masterpiece.  As a narrative it's as fragmented, multiperspectival, and time-ruptured a story as any postmodernist could wish for, and yet despite its refusal to resolve itself into any final form, it's curiously satisfying anyway.  It's not about teasing you.  It's about fragmentation as a way to emotional truth, about the possibility that the only possible response to existential horror is myth and wonder.

The plot, as you might guess, can't easily be summarized, partly because you can't be exactly sure what it is.  But it concerns a group of people in the small town of Nijigahara (Rainbow Meadow).  One timeline follows them when they're all in the same 5th-grade class, and another timeline follows them all 11 years later.  We meet some of their parents, teachers, and some of their families.  But the narration is cagey about names - only gradually do we become aware that all the characters we're following in one timeline match up with those in the other timeline, and how.

But by the time the book ends, not only have we made all the connections (we think), but we've also learned how grotesquely they're all linked by horrible things:  suicide, murder, child abuse, rape, stalking, bullying, assault with deadly weapons.  We see a scar, then learn how it was administered, then realize we've been sympathizing with the administerer.

Thematically, then, I guess you could loosely say it's working the rich seam of anxiety about Kids These Days, with their bullying and their tempers and their shut-in tendencies.  But it goes so deep, and is so determined to invest all this melodrama with metaphysical significance, that it hardly reminds you of the typical social-issue story.  As this very perceptive (and much more coherent than mine) pair of blog posts on Manga Bookshelf Transmissions suggests, it's really trying to make its own myth about familial love and redemption, about where it all went wrong and how it might have turned out if it hadn't.

Yeah, I won't say any more than that.

(Hey.  I wasn't the first to blog in English about this.)