Monday, November 30, 2015

Matayoshi Naoki: Hibana (2015)

Matayoshi Naoki 又吉直樹.  Hibana 火花.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Hada’s book.

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.   

Hada Keisuke: Scrap and build (2015)

Hada Keisuke 羽田圭介.  Sukurappu ando birudo スクラップ・アンド・ビルド.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Matayoshi’s book.

Hada was born in 1985, making him 29 when he won the prize.  So:  young.  But he’s been writing since he was 17, and had been an A-Prize finalist several times since 2008.  So he’s moving out of new-writer territory and into the mid-career zone, which traditionally would make him less likely to win it.  But there are no rules, and they’ve given the prize to a number of mid-career writers recently. 

The story is told from point of view of Kento, a 28-year-old out of work man living with his mother and grandfather.  The mother is working, and the grandfather is slowly dying.  He’s 88 and in need of serious care;  not quite immobile but close to it, not quite lost to dementia but getting there.  It has fallen to Kento’s mother to take care of the old man, but since Kento is out of work it mostly becomes his job. 

The old man hates what’s happening to him, and frequently mutters, “I should just die.”  Kento decides to help him out.  It’s difficult to tell exactly why.  Kento feels the burden of caregiving, but also feels sorry for the old man in the various pains, fears, and indignities of his condition.  The story is in the third person and goes into less detail about Kento’s thoughts than one might expect, so we’re kind of left to guess:  on the surface, Kento’s telling himself that it’s about giving the old man death with dignity.  But he’s also horrified by what’s happening to his grandfather, and so revulsion and fatigue may be driving his actions as much as love.

In any case, he chooses the gentlest possible way of providing death with dignity.  Kento’s mother helps her father as little as possible – forcing him to do as much as possible for himself, on the theory that every little bit of activity the old man carries out will stave off the inevitable that much longer.  Kento buys this tough-love theory of caregiving, and so concludes that the best way to hasten his grandfather’s death is to pamper him as much as possible.  When his mother’s around, Kento lets her make the old man carry his dishes to the kitchen after meals, sort his own clothes, that sort of thing, but when his mother’s at work, Kento accedes to the old man’s every request, fully expecting that as a result his grandfather will hurry into that good night.

At the same time Kento’s revulsion at the decay of his grandfather’s mental and physical faculties leads him to adopt an intense regimen of body-building and study.  The study is an effort to obtain new qualifications that will help him in his job search (he’s constantly going for interviews), but the body-building simply seems to be about keeping himself from declining.  Kento is presented as a fairly mediocre average-guy type:  graduate of a third-rate college, former car salesman, not too smart, not too handsome, average-looking girlfriend.  Seriously in danger of slipping through life’s cracks, if he doesn’t do something about it.  Thus the body (and mind) building. 

The book has a happy ending.  While giving his grandfather a bath, Kento leaves the room for a little while.  When he comes back his grandfather is struggling, nearly drowning;  as he saves the old man, Kento realizes that in spite of his frequent statements to the contrary, his grandfather really does want to live.  So he gives up on trying to care him to death.  Cut to the last scene, where we learn that Kento has actually landed a job. 

The prize committee commented on the humor in this story.  I take this to mean that the idea of killing the grandfather with kindness is a comic conceit.  It doesn’t elicit laughs, but it is kind of absurd, and therefore gestures toward a satire of the current state of elder care.  It’s certainly topical, focusing both on the graying of Japanese society and the failure of the economy to come through for young people.  Of course, Mobu Norio addressed the same two topics ten years ago in Kaigo nyūmon, but it’s not like the problems have gone away.

Mobu’s book had a lot more literary flair.  This one, despite the successful ironic conceit at its center, ends up as a rather mediocre read.  The style is kind of flat, the story drags (it’s 120 pages, and could have made its point in about half that length;  it’s the only story in the book, by the way), and Kento is just narcissistic enough that he’s hard to really sympathize with.  The book doesn’t have much to offer beyond its theme, it seems to me.

Ono Masatsugu: Kyūnen mae no inori (2014)

Ono Masatsugu 小野正.  Kyūnen mae no inori 九年前の祈り.  Kōdansha, 2014.

This won the 152nd A-Prize, for late 2014.  I’m a little late in reading and discussing it.

The title story is the winner, a hundred-plus page novella.  It’s about a woman named Sanae living in a small fishing town in Kyūshū, a fictionalized version (presumably) of the author’s home area of Ōita.  Sanae is in her early 30s and is a single mother;  her little boy, Kebin (希敏 – presumably a kanji-ization of the Japanese pronunciation of Kevin), is the product of a relationship she had in Tokyo with a Canadian named Frederic, who left her and Kebin.  Sanae subsequently moved back in with her parents in Kyūshū.

Kebin has unspecified problems.  He never seems to talk, and he breaks into uncontrollable crying at unpredictable moments.  The reader most likely concludes that he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum, but neither Ono nor Sanae phrases it like that, and it seems Sanae has never had him diagnosed;  we learn that she avoided his three-year-old checkup, and the Tokyo social worker’s reminders, by moving back home.  To herself (the narration is in the third person, but the narrator’s perspective is Sanae’s) she phrases Kebin’s condition almost as a form of possession – every once in a while he turns into a shredded worm
(hikichigirareta mimizu). 

Sanae’s relationship with Kebin is one of the things this story is concerned with.  She’s unable to cope, and has avoided getting any professional help.  She’s constantly at the end of the rope, we sense (it’s seldom spelled out), and there are hints that she might have abused him.  It’s not quite clear if she actually pinches or shakes him, or just wants to or fantasizes about it.  Clearly she’s under a great deal of pressure.

Her relationship with her parents is another theme.  Her father, a schoolteacher, is a distant presence who appears mainly as a vaguely sympathetic caretaker of Kebin who is, still, not quite able to deal with him.  Her mother is a dominating presence, judgmental at every turn – we get the sense that Sanae’s inability to get help for Kebin is in large part due to her own feelings of guilt, instilled by her mother, at having done something as unconventional as having a relationship with a foreigner in the first place.  The mother predicted it wouldn’t end well, and seems to accept Kebin’s problems as an inevitable consequence of Sanae’s scandalous life choices.  Sanae seems to more or less accept her mother’s verdict.

The action of the story, such as it is, mostly concerns Sanae taking Kebin to a nearby island to collect shells that local superstition holds have a healing effect.  Sanae’s mother was born on said island.  The idea is not to collect them to help Kebin (because, again, everybody’s in denial about him), but rather to help the son of an old family friend, Mitchan;  Mitchan’s grown son has cancer.  Sanae and her family are planning to visit them in the hospital that afternoon, but the story doesn’t get that far.  Instead we have a long description of the boat trip to the island, Sanae wandering around the island, and the boat trip back.  This journey is something mystical;  while on the island, looking for the right beach, Sanae seems to slip into a dream state in which Mitchan herself is there, and Kebin is gone, or is being held by Mitchan, and then she has a weird experience at a shrine on the beach.  Then when they arrive back on the mainland Kebin almost falls off the boat ramp, and drops the precious shells in the process.

This storyline is intercut with a parallel one from nine years previous, concerning a trip Sanae and some local women made to Montreal.  The village had a JET teacher from Canada who organized a trip to his hometown;  Sanae and a group of older women went.  While on the trip Sanae becomes close to Mitchan (decades older than her), but also meets the JET teacher’s friend Frederic.  It’s through these flashbacks that we learn about Sanae’s past life, but of course it’s not a love story.  The main storyline of the flashback is how, on a subway trip in Montreal, two of their number became separated and while the JET went looking for them the rest, including Sanae and Mitchan, ducked into a church and prayed for them, despite not being Christian.  This storyline too culminates in something vaguely mystical, with the prayer, and both at the end seem to contribute to a sense that Sanae is able to separate herself from her misery – like it’s standing behind her, rather than inhabiting her.  The A-Prize committee also notes this, that the story ends on a hopeful note.

To slip into critical mode, I’m not sure it’s justified.  The story is told in an even more elliptical fashion than is normal for A-Prize type fiction, and this means that both Sanae’s experience on the island in the presence and her experience in the church in the past are left almost entirely unexplained, but more than that they’re left uncogitated-upon.  Sanae is an utterly passive character who seems to stumble into marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, and single motherhood, without trying to understand any of it, and so her experience of mystical comfort is also left un-understood. 

The idea seems to be, as with so many writers, to use a passive main character as a way of getting at the environment that creates and conditions (in this case) her.  If that’s the aim, it’s effective, because we get a strong, almost overwhelming sense of the Kyushu village culture that Sanae was raised in.  This comes in the present from her mother and in the past from the village older women who go on the trip to Montreal.  If the mother is an almost villainous figure, the other women seem to be meant as something like comical relief, as we watch their utter inability to deal with their encounter with a foreign culture.  It’s not even about Japan vs. the West – they’re so closed to any culture beyond their own village that it’s clear they’d have the same reactions in Tokyo. 

One last point:  Ono’s style.  I found it frustrating that he didn’t want to give us more external-type details about what’s really going on in certain moments.  But his facility with words is impressive.  His “normal” sentences are fairly straightforward but at key moments he’ll reel off a really baroque piece of description or metaphor.  The shredded worm is a typical example.  Really memorable, striking stuff. 

The book contains three omake stories (good value for the money!).  The first is called “Umigame no yoru ウミガメの夜” (Night of the sea turtle).  It’s set in the same region as the first:  the Saeki region of Ōita.  It concerns three male friends, college classmates in Tokyo, who have come down for a visit.  The story is told in three sections, each of which takes one of their points of view.  The first is Ippeita, whose father is from Saeki;  his parents are divorced and he hasn’t seen his father since he was a child, but he has vague memories of a summer spent with his grandparents in Saeki.  And now his mother is dying.  As the three friends drive around Ippeita is looking for familiar places and maybe even relatives;  he’s also the only one who understands the local dialect.  The second friend is Tōru, who seems to mostly be comic relief, or at most a bridge between the other two;  he’s from Tokyo, so a total outsider, and spends most of the story drunk and/or asleep.  The third friend is Yūma, who is from Sendai – his family home was devastated by the tsunami.  Yūma has a stutter, and so mostly observes quietely.  It’s mostly unstated, but the Saeki coastline clearly reminds him of the Sendai coastline, and he finds himself thinking about death.  The unifying scene and image is that of a sea turtle that the three friends find on the beach at night.  She has just laid her eggs, and they flip her over and watch her helplessly paddling the air.  It’s cruel, but also a good metaphor for rootlessness, for futile striving, and for slowly approaching death. 

The second omake story is called “Omimai お見舞い” (Visiting the sick).  It’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged man named Shudō Toshiya – Toshi, for short.  It’s sort of an afternoon-in-the-life-of story, although as one might expect there are enough flashbacks and ruminations to complicate the narrative line considerably.  Basically all that happens in the present is that he gives rides to a some people in need and visits other people in trouble.  Toshi is the younger son of a wealthy fishing family – they own a bunch of boats and employ a bunch of people.  He works for his brother and considers himself something of a screw-up, not particularly good at anything.  But over the course of the story he proves himself something of a saint.  He’s taking care of a childhood friend and mentor who in adulthood has become a hopeless alcoholic.  He’s looking in on another childhood friend who’s in the hospital with a brain tumor.  On the way back from visiting the friend in the hospital he gives a ride to a pregnant woman who is the foreign wife of a local unemployed man.  At the end of the story he encounters three college kids from Tokyo who desperately need to get back, and drops everything and gives them a ride to the airport.  Of course this is all set in Saeki again, and when he meets the kids we suddenly realize that these stories are connected.  Not only is Ono exploring this single region in depth, he’s telling the story of a single sprawling community by focusing in turn on various of its members.  We realize (although it’s not really confirmed) that the friend in the hospital is the son of Mitchan from the title story, and of course the three college kids are the ones from the second story;  and we get the strong suspicion that the alcoholic friend is the father that one of the college kids has come to find.  There’s even a minor character in the first story that shares Toshi’s surname.  This of course lends all of the stories a richness that they wouldn’t necessarily have individually:  they become parts of a group portrait of small-town Ōita.  Very satisfying.

The fourth story, “Aku no hana 悪の花” (Flowers of evil) is also connected.  It consists almost entirely of a stream of consciousness belonging to (but not narrated by) an old woman named Chiyoko.  There are vestiges of a present-moment narrative, but it’s not easy to figure out what that is, so insistent and undifferentiated are the reminiscences.  Chiyoko is distraught over the illness of Mitchan’s son, who lived next door to her and helped her out in her growing infirmity;  specifically he visited the cemetery daily on her behalf.  We realize that we’ve met Chiyoko before:  the three college kids knocked on her neighbor’s door while looking for Ippeita’s father, and she told them whose house it really was.  Death and mourning rule Chiyoko’s life.  Her brother died in the war.  Her parents died when she was young.  She married a local man, older, whose mother had sent away his first wife for being unable to bear children;  the wife later killed herself.  Chiyoko was blamed by the old-fashioned locals for breaking up the marriage and causing the woman’s suicide, but then Chiyoko herself is sent away when she fails to bear a child (the idea that it could be the man’s fault very pointedly is never mentioned);  Chiyoko outlives her ex-husband and mother-in-law, but in old age comes to see the mother-in-law’s reflection in the mirror, and feel she’s becoming her.  Thoughts of these incidents are interspersed with memories of Mitchan’s son and anxieties over what Chiyoko will do if he doesn’t return, and guilt over what she fantasizes is her responsibility for his illness.  The “flowers of evil” of the title are a different species every time Chiyoko sees them, but when she sees them she always recognizes them as signs of her own guilt and inadequacy.  The last day Mitchan’s son went to the graveyard on her behalf, Chiyoko thinks flowers of evil must have been growing on the grave, and that he must have tried to clear them away and been cursed by them. 

This story is closest to the title story in its theme, as it once again explores the consciousness of women in rural Ōita, particularly women who have internalized a misogynistic tradition that oppresses them.  As such it brings the volume to a satisfying close.  But it’s also the story that has most to say about the man whose hospitalization is a key plot point in the first, third, and fourth stories:  Mitchan’s son Taikō.  In interviews ( the author has mentioned that his older brother was dying at the time he was writing these stories, and it seems to be the common assumption that Ono was writing about that.  Which means that in a sense, Taikō is the main character.  And he’s absent from all of the stories except as an occasional memory, and he’s only intermittently described.  We feel his impact on all these lives, though, because Ono has done such a complete job of evoking the interconnectedness of the community. 

It’s a very satisfying book;  much more satisfying in toto than the title story is on its own.  In terms of its place in the literary landscape it’s obviously akin to Tanaka Shinya from a few years back in its patient and uncompromising evocation of a particular locale on the margins of modern Japan.  But Ono’s book is less sensationalistic, and more sociological – more attuned to the way economics and geography shape this community.  One of the strongest A-Prize recipients in years.