And so we come to it. Every so often the awarding of the A-Prize becomes big news, spilling out beyond the rarefied precincts of literature and into the wrestling ring of popular culture. It’s part of why it’s a big deal, why it’s the most famous of Japan’s literary prizes. We’re in one of those moments right now.
Matayoshi hardly needs introducing to Japanese readers. Born in 1980, he’s a well-known TV personality: specifically, he’s a manzai comedian. He’s dabbled in books before – some essays, some poetry, a couple of short stories. This is his first full-length work (and it’s longish: 150 pages in hardback). It was published in Bungakkai early this year, which of course marks it as literary, from an institutional perspective. And that issue of Bungakkai was the first in the journal’s 80-year history to require an immediate reprint – i.e., it sold a boatload of copies. When the book was published it immediately became a best-seller, and when it got the A-Prize in the summer it was the best-selling recipient in history, surpassing Murakami Ryū’s 1976 Almost Transparent Blue. It’s going to be a Netflix Original Series next spring. In short, it’s a full-on mass-media (media-mix, to use the Japanese buzzword) phenomenon – print, internet, TV. No surprise, since Matayoshi belongs to the Yoshimoto agency, who run all the big manzai stars.
All of which inevitably raises suspicions about the work’s literary quality. There’s not much of an old guard left to natter on about the blurring of the lines between serious and popular fiction, but you don’t have to be a pure-lit elitist to feel a twinge of regret at the possibility that the Prize has totally capitulated to mass-market forces. That it has allowed itself to become just another cog in the Yoshimoto publicity gears. Of course, such worries have been around with the prize for 60 years, since Ishihara Shintarō and Taiyō no kisetsu…
In this essay, of course, I’m not trying to take the measure of the whole Matayoshi phenomenon; I just want to account for the story itself. So in a sense all of that is irrelevant. But of course it’s not; it’s one of those books that even someone relatively insulated from the owarai boom like myself (living in the States, only visiting Japan once a year, mostly ignoring TV when I’m there) is going to be unable to read in isolation. Everybody’s going to have an opinion on it, and that opinion is going to be at least half-formed before reading a single word of the book. It’s going to be impossible to judge it completely on its own merits. So if the A-Prize committee couldn’t, I can hardly blame them. I’m going to try, of course (like I’m sure they tried), but I might as well lay out my biases here, although they’re probably pretty apparent already.
I like popular fiction, I like literary fiction, and I like fiction that (like my fave rave Murakami Haruki) blurs the lines. I’m not opposed to that sort of thing. That means that I’m not the kind of elitist who would reject a work simply because it’s popular – simply because it’s written by a comedian. I wouldn’t dream of doing that. But at the same time, I would hate to see literary fiction disappear. I’m not so much a pop-culture triumphalist that I am comfortable with the idea of the islands of pure-lit disappearing beneath a tsunami of cash. I don’t want market logic to be the only logic available to a writer, or to a reader. All that suggests that I’m going to be torn about this book.
Surprise: I’m torn about this book.
Here’s the story. It’s narrated by a young aspiring manzai comedian named Tokunaga, and it traces the ten-year arc of his career. It begins when he’s scuffling at the entry level, performing at neighborhood festivals. He meets a slightly older comedian named Kamiya and is so impressed that he adopts Kamiya as a mentor. Most of the book is scenes from their relationship as it matures. Some of these scenes are Kamiya instructing Tokunaga, or expounding on what’s truly funny, and how the manzaishi should live. Other scenes explore the complicated emotions that Tokunaga experiences as he watches his mentor live and perform with much more dedication than Tokunaga himself can muster, but then enjoy less success than Tokunaga. Tokunaga gradually rises through the ranks until he achieves a certain level of fame, but Kamiya never finds much of an audience. At the end of the book Tokunaga retires, but he’s been estranged from Kamiya for a while by that time – the latter disappears in order to flee debt collectors, than reappears but in such a way as to alienate Tokunaga almost completely (more on that later).
No doubt much of the book is drawn from Matayoshi’s own experiences as a manzaishi, but the arc is plainly not autobiographical, since Matayoshi is still performing. Instead he’s giving us two kinds of manzai failure to compare. Tokunaga retires primarily because his partner Yamashita decides to retire: Yamashita is getting married and wants to start a family, and it’s clear he’s not going to be able to support them on his earnings as a manzaishi. Tokunaga can’t imagine performing without Yamashita, since they’ve been together since middle school, so he retires too. But of course what they’re both realizing is that they’re not going to truly succeed at this: they’ve risen about as far as they can hope to, and it’s not far enough. It’s a kind of failure, but then so is the decision to quit and do something else. This is suggested by the way Kamiya fails, which is quite different. He’s been even less financially successful than Tokunaga, and as noted, he’s in debt to loan sharks; what’s more, for most of the book he’s letting a quasi-girlfriend support him, but then he lets her get away. Kamiya is a stereotypical dysfunctional artist, brilliant (in Tokunaga’s eyes) at his art but a complete screw-up at life. But he never gives up, and never compromises his sense of what’s truly funny to please a crowd. And this is what finally alienates Tokunaga. When Kamiya resurfaces after a year on the lam, he has breast implants – F-cups. He says he got them on a lark, thinking it would be funny. But it’s a bridge too far for Tokunaga, who lectures Tokunaga on how audiences aren’t going to get this, are going to think he’s being cruel to transgender people, and how it’s not wrong to think of your audience once in a while. But by this point Tokunaga is already retired, and Kamiya, though abashed, plainly isn’t going to change. So who’s the better manzaishi?
The title refers to two things. The name of Tokunaga’s manzai duo is Sparks (スパークス), so Hibana 火花 (“sparks” in Japanese) is clearly a reference to that. But the first and last scenes in the book are set in Atami during fireworks displays, and Matayoshi lingers on the poetic beauty and resonance of fireworks sparks in his descriptions of those scenes. This last point is worth noting. In style, this is literary fiction. That is, Matayoshi’s descriptions are polished enough and beautiful enough to satisfy those who define literariness as beautiful writing. His narrative strategies, too, are more literary than popular in the Japanese context. The story he’s telling ends up having a tight narrative arc (it’s gonna be a natural TV series), but that kind of takes you by surprise because for most of the book he’s giving us vignettes, impressionistic descriptions of moments in Tokunaga’s relatinship with Kamiya. It feels fragmentary in the way that much serious J-lit does, even if in the end it’s not.
This is a problem, I feel. The book’s ending, with the two powerful dramatic moments of Tokunaga’s retirement and Kamiya’s body-modification revelation coming one after the other, is seriously jarring after the reflective mood of the rest of the book. Matayoshi hasn’t prepared the reader for either one of these moments. This is actually more of a problem with the retirement than with the implants scene. This is because when it comes time to retire, Matayoshi lets Tokunaga go on for about ten pages about how much his partner Yamashita has meant to him through his life and career. It gets really, really sentimental in here, which might have been fitting and expected if it wasn’t for the fact that Tokunaga has barely mentioned Yamashita up to this point. Reflections on the manzaishi partner are conspicuously minimized for most of the story, in order to play up the mentor-pupil relationship. So I at least was not prepared to believe any of this sentimentality about Yamashita at the end.
The implants scene is problematic for a different reason. We’ve realized for a while that Kamiya’s career isn’t going to go anywhere, that this story is following the pupil-surpassing-the-master pattern, subcategory but-pupil-knows-he-can-never-really-surpass-the-master. So we can understand on one level that we’re meant to see Kamiya’s implants as what Tokunaga interprets them as: a sign that this guy will sacrifice anything and everything for his art, but that this is precisely what’s going to keep most people from getting him. But Tokunaga is not wrong when he explains to Kamiya that this is not a funny joke these days: we know enough about gender and sexuality issues now to see the cruelty in this. The problem is that Matayoshi’s trying to have his cake and eat it too, right? Because the end of the book depends on us still admiring Kamiya on some level for being willing to take it that far – meaning Matayoshi expects us to be able to see this as a joke. We’re supposed (I think) to feel that Tokunaga has a good point, but that Kamiya is still cool.
This is why I’m torn about the book. When it’s good, it’s really good. The descriptions of place and time are vivid, and the evocation of Kamiya’s and Tokunaga’s relationship is really fine. Not so much the reflections on What’s Funny – those I could take or leave – but the nuanced depiction of how tiring and downright annoying a funny person can be, balanced with Tokunaga’s self-doubt. This is fine stuff. But the ending feels like it was written with a TV series in mind, frankly. It rings false on many levels, and undercuts much of what came before.
But then, would I feel that way if I didn’t already know it was going to be a TV series? I don’t know.