Jlit Net

Akutagawa Prize stories

 

The Akutagawa Prize is Japan's most prestigious literary award for promising writers. It was established in 1935 by Kikuchi Kan, the editor of Bungei Shunjū magazine, in memory of his friend the novelist Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927). The prize is awarded semiannually in January and July by the Association for the Promotion of Japanese Literature (Nihon Bungaku Shinkō Kai).


The following menu links to reviews of stories that have received this award, in groups of five:


135th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2006

Hachigatsu no rojō ni suteru (Abandoned on the Road in August) by Itō Takami

A story about the failure of the narrator's marriage, as related (and recalled) by the narrator on the day before he files the divorce papers. The narrator, a 29-year-old aspiring screenwriter named Satō Atsushi, has a part-time job with a company that restocks soft-drink vending machines. He is accompanying a female full-time driver, Mizushiro Emi, on her last day out before she transfers to an office assignment in Chiba. Mizushiro is herself divorced, and she and Satō have formed a bond that allows them to speak openly with each other. The story itself alternates between past episodes from Satō's marriage and present scenes involving Mizushiro. As Satō and Mizushiro make their rounds, the reader learns that Satō's wife, Chieko, has become increasingly unstable, in part due to the frustration of her ambitions since graduating from college, and in part due to the reversal of roles in her relationship with Satō (she supported him immediately after graduation, but she has quit working and now relies financially on Satō ). At a stop in Shinjuku, Satō learns from a client that the real reason for Mizushiro's transfer is that she is getting remarried, a fact she has been keeping from him. At the end of the day, Mizushiro waves goodbye to Satō as she walks toward the station, after which Satō, acting on impulse, begins digging frantically at the base of a roadside tree.

This last, irrational act clearly seems intended to tie in with the central image in the story, a type of shogi problem Mizushiro calls kemurizume ("smoke end-game"). The point of kemurizume is for the player to sacrifice every piece available (for the pieces to vanish into smoke, as it were) in an effort to checkmate the opponent's "general" -- in other words, to give up everything to win. At the end of the story, Satō indeed seems to have given up everything of value to him -- his marriage, his dreams of becoming a screenwriter, and even his quasi-romantic relationship with Mizushiro -- yet seems to cling to the possibility that he can somehow come out on top.

This realistic, psychologically nuanced portrayal of a representative of a growing segment of contemporary Japanese youth seems to have been what persuaded the selection committee to award the prize to Itō, although the praise was by no means overwhelming. In fact, only three of the committee's eight members can be said to have been truly positive in their assessment. (Miyamoto Teru says in his remarks that there were two members strongly in favor and six who were more or less willing to go along. Takagi Nobuko and Kōno Taeko seem to be the two members Miyamoto has in mind, although judging solely from his published comments, Kuroi Senji might also be included in the "positive" camp.) Ishihara Shintarō and Murakami Ryū expressed the strongest doubts, the former repeating what has become his standard mantra about a lack of thematic ambition and an inadequate attention to proper fictional form, the latter complaining that the candidates were all merely producing fiction that seems to have been "traced" from an existing pattern (nazoru is the word he uses). Both Yamada Amy and Ikezawa Natsuki also weighed in heavily against the limited thematic range and narrow narrative perspective to be found in all the shortlisted works.

On a strictly technical level, the structural patterning of Left on the Road in August does seem rather mechanical, and the use of kemurizume as the central thematic device is notably heavy-handed. It hardly seems necessary to point out as well the overly neat coincidence of August 31 being in some sense the "last day" for both Satō and Muzushiro, with September 1 (Satō's birthday) either promising a fresh start or -- especially in Satō's case -- serving to hammer the final nail into the coffin (the reader is told that Chieko asked Satō to registered their marriage on September 1, and that she has also asked him to submit the application for their divorce on the same date). And while Kōno Taeko, for example, claims that Itō's use of the third person in the story is successful, I think that the narrative is flawed in spots precisely because Itō fails to maintain a necessary distance between author and narrator. It is perhaps a sign of Itō's skill as a writer that the narrator's responsibility for the failure of his marriage is not glossed over in the story. Still, one can't help agreeing with Ishihara, Murakami, and Yamada that few of the recent Akutagawa Prize winners seem able to rise much above the quotidian. Must "pure" Japanese fiction really always be so narrowly constricted in scope?


136th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2006

Hitoribiyori (On My Own) by Aoyama Nanae

A story that centers on the relationship between a young woman, aged 20, and the 71-year-old widow -- a distant relative -- who temporarily takes her in when the younger woman moves to Tokyo from Saitama Prefecture in an attempt to establish her independence. The action takes place over the course of a single calendar year, with the names of the seasons serving as chapter titles (beginning with spring; a short "pre-spring" chapter is added as a sort of epilogue). The young woman, whose name is Mita Chizu, has rejected her divorced mother's advice to go to college and instead finds part-time work as a "companion," serving drinks and attention to male partygoers. The elderly widow, named Ogino Ginko, lives in a rather dilapidated house that stands next to the platform of Chōfu station. (I haven't seen it mentioned elsewhere, but Ogino's name is a direct borrowing of the name of Japan's first licensed female physician [dates: 1851-1913], who happens to have been born in what is now the city of Kumagaya, Aoyama's hometown.) We follow Mita through two unsuccessful love affairs, her sometimes tense relationship with her mother (who is visiting China on a teacher-exchange program for most of the story), and her emotional development as she emerges into adulthood. This emotional growth is deeply informed by her relationship with Ogino, although that influence is never made to seem obtrusive and Ogino is portrayed as an individual with an inner life that Mita knows she can never fully be party to. At the end of her year in Ogino's house, Mita accepts the offer of a full-time job, moves into the company's dormitory, and starts a romantic liaison with a married man who works in the same office. As a clear sign that Mita has learned one of life's ambiguous lessons, she returns to Ogino the various small items she has stolen from her since her arrival, and also disperses the collection of other articles she has stolen from people over the years by squirreling them away behind the numerous photographs of Ogino's previous pet cats that gaze down from the walls of the room in which Mita lives.

The ending of the story might therefore be characterized as programmatic, and, as one of the selection-committee members (Kōno Taeko) noted, some light trimming may have been advisable in the latter part of the story. Still, Aoyama is quite assured in her style -- the descriptive power of which Ishihara Shintarō praised lavishly, comparing it to impact made by the opening scene of Murakami Ryū's Kagiri naku tōmei ni chikai buruu (Almost Transparent Blue) -- she has an astonishing skill for effectively portraying the personality of a character not herself given to psychological introspection (Mita's habit of stealing small objects from people she knows, for instance, is never fully explored but is all the more compelling for that very reason), and she deals with serious topics -- the difference between youth and age, the solitude involved in growing up -- with a refreshing lightness of touch that does not diminish the significance of the topics themselves. The presence of such composure in so young a writer (at 23, Aoyama is the seventh-youngest Akutagawa Prize winner in history) is surely what prompted six of the eight members of the selection committee to support her for the award, including both Ishihara and Murakami, who have been notably critical of young writers in the past. The other four relatively unqualified supporters were Takagi Nobuko, Kuroi Senji, Miyamoto Teru, and Kōno Taeko. The lone dissenters were Ikezawa Natsuki, who, while acknowledging Aoyama's obvious skill, preferred a story by a writer he viewed as more willing to "break the mold" of established conventions, and Yamada Amy, who considered Hitoribiyori to be "boring" and "lacking in seriousness" -- the sort of diversion that would be enjoyed by a world-weary man who, on a day off, drowsily sips tea on the veranda of his home. I personally found Hitoribiyori to be much more engrossing than many other recent winners of the prize, and think the award was richly deserved. To my mind, the story is an impressive accomplishment.

137th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2007

Asatte no otoko (A Disoriented Man) by Suwa Tetsushi

"A Disoriented Man" (more literally, "A Man of the Day After Tomorrow") takes the form of a collage of reminiscences, diary entries, and philosophical speculation on the part the unnamed narrator about his uncle (whose name is Akira), and the possible reasons for the uncle's increasingly strange behavior and ultimate disappearance. The story is metafictional in the sense that the narrator starts by offering a "traditional" opening to a story about a character based on his uncle, who was known for blurting out incomprehensible words and expressions at inappropriate times (this "deviance" from the communicative norm is what gives the work its title). He then declares, however, that traditional narrative form is itself inappropriate to the task at hand, and he proceeds to present more objectively -- through diary entries, his own memories, and the accounts of his uncle's wife -- what he has learned about his uncle's tenuous relationship with verbal reality. Here, too, however, the narrator is aware that principles of selection and ordering are at work, and that interpretive traps attend even this more "objective" approach. Furthermore, although he claims at the end of the story not to have brought it to a traditional conclusion, the narrator has most definitely returned to his starting point, giving the story a clear shape. The form of the story itself, in other words, seems intended to reflect the central problem of how to effect intelligible communication.

According to the narrator, Akira was a stutterer up to the time he entered college, a condition which the narrator attributes to his uncle's lifelong sense of disorientation. Although the stutter miraculously cleared up, the uncle's return to "normality" only seemed to increase his sense of dislocation, resulting (after his marriage) in his occasional use of meaningless comments and expletives such as ponpa, hoemyau, and taponteau. The narrator is able to track down the linguistic origin of at least one of these words, and he recounts a number of events that suggest his uncle's heightened sensitivity to the provisional relationship that obtains between pronunciation and the reality that words are assumed to represent. The uncle's attachment to reality is said to have become even more tenuous after his wife died in a traffic accident, causing him to isolate himself by moving into an apartment in a neglected danchi, where -- from his meaningless words -- he apparently devised a sort of private dance symbolizing the conflict between impersonal "will" (the narrator makes a reference to Schopenhauer) and personal agency. Akira then simply vanished, sending his older brother (the narrator's father) a postcard announcing that he was going on a trip. The narrator concludes his account by summarizing the evidence he has managed to collect and noting that no further word has been received from his uncle, so that he can provide no satisfactory answer to the riddle of his disappearance. But the suggestion that Akira has perhaps "broken through" to some ideal form of reality is strong, and the narrator appends a copy of a diagram of the danchi room in which Akira spent most of his time, implying that the map is meant as a substitute for a verbal conclusion. In typical deconstructionist fashion, the appendix thus becomes the true focus of thematic interpretation, and the map functions effectively as both a diagram of the puppet stage and as a kind of Buddhist mandala.

Support for "A Disoriented Man" was overwhelming, with six of the nine selection-committee members favoring Suwa for the prize. The two newest members, Ogawa Yōko and Kawakami Hiromi, were especially glowing in their praise, perhaps hinting at a slight shift in the committee's evaluative standards. Opposition was expressed first of all by the usual suspects: Ishihara Shintarō and Murakami Ryū. The former once again lamented the generally poor quality of all the candidates, pointing to the large number of eccentric titles as evidence of a lack of narrative responsibility. With regard to "A Disoriented Man" specifically, Ishihara taxed Suwa with being needlessly obscure and relying too heavily upon non-narrative tricks like intertextual diagrams and a map tacked on to the end of the story. One takes Ishihara's point; still, it would appear that Ishihara has a major blind spot when it comes to the use of play in narrative (one imagines he would despise Sterne), and he seems notably lacking in a sense humor. Ishihara's own insight as a critic seems quite limited. Murakami complained, as is his wont, that the quality of the candidates was uniformly low and that it was a chore to slog through them. He managed some kind words for one candidate, but not for Suwa, whose story, according to Murakami, was highly wrought stylistically but finally contained only the trite message that human communication is imperfect and life hard. Miyamoto Teru was the other dissenter, objecting to what he considered to be excessive intellectual playfulness.

It is true that Suwa relies rather heavily on the ideas of the philosophers he seems to have encountered as a student (there is an epigraph from Antonin Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty is thereby invoked, and explicit mention is made of Heinrich von Kleist in an apparent allusion to Kleist's essay "The Puppet Theater"). The story is perhaps a little too philosophical and metafictional for its own good. On the other hand, tying these philosophical ideas linguistically to the history of Japanese cultural interaction with the West (from the Doctrina Christa to the postcolonial writings of Ngugi wa Thiong'o to an extraordinary phonetic rendition of Gilbert O'Sullivan's pop hit "Alone Again (Naturally)"), and then centering the story on the life of a modern Japanese afflicted with stuttering, produces a richly nuanced texture that gives the lie to Murakami's simplistic formulation of the theme. It has been a long time since I read an Akutagawa Prize story that actively encourages intellectual speculation, and one that moreover breathes new life into the dilemma of Japanese "modernity." The Akutagawa Prize this time seems to me to have been richly deserved.


138th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2007

Chichi to ran (Breasts and Eggs) by Kawakami Mieko

This comparatively short story relates the short visit of an Osakan woman and her daughter to the Tokyo apartment of the woman's younger sister, who acts as the story's narrator. The older sister, Makiko, a divorced woman on the point of turning 40, has ostensibly come to Tokyo to receive breast-augmentation surgery. Her daughter, a sixth-grader named Midoriko, wonders why her mother would want to subject herself to such a potentially dangerous procedure, and is herself concerned about the prospect of starting menstruation, which most of her classmates have already experienced. Disgusted both by her mother's obsession with the size of her breasts and by the impending physical changes in her own body that signify an unwanted transition to adulthood, Midoriko has refused to speak for almost half a year, communicating instead by writing in a notebook. On the second day of her three-day visit, Makiko visits her former husband without telling her sister or daughter where she is going, and after she returns to the apartment late that night, Makiko and Midoriko engage in a dramatic egg-smashing confrontation, each breaking raw eggs over herself in a symbolic catharsis that causes Midoriko to regain her voice and demand that her mother tell her the truth about her motivations, inspiring Makiko to reply that some things in life are simply not open to interpretation as the "truth."

The title -- "Breasts and Eggs" -- thus initially associates the former image with Makiko and the latter with Midoriko. But the mediation of the narrator and the final egg-breaking climax serve to implicate both of these images in the broader context of living life as a woman, with all the physical and psychological complications that that entails. At the very end of the story, Kawakami seems to be aiming at a comprehensive synthesis when the narrator -- whose own increasingly irregular period has begun -- examines her breasts in the bathroom mirror and characterizes them as being halfway between funny and pathetic (nakiwarai no yō datta), thus gently reprising the comically melodramatic egg-smashing scene enacted by her sister and her niece. It is a carefully structured story, told in a fluid style that makes effective use of the Kansai dialect, and allusions to Higuchi Ichiyō's classic "Growing Up" were quickly picked up on by various readers (not only is "Midori," the name of Higuchi's famous protagonist, appropriated, but the aunt's nickname is "Nattchan," an echo of Higuchi's own real first name, Natsu). "Breasts and Eggs" is thus clearly a "gendered" story, but it comes with a lightly worn authenticity that ultimately proves quite compelling and is well attuned to the tone imparted by the Kansai dialect used for the narration.

The selection committee ended up strongly in favor of awarding Kawakami the prize, although it appears that another writer -- the Chinese-born Yan Ii (Yang Yi) -- had strong initial support. The problem with the 43-year-old Yan, who has lived in Japan for 21 years, was her perceived lack of skill with Japanese. Several committee members (including Ogawa Hiroko, Murakami Ryū, and Kuroi Senji) were prepared to accept linguistic deviations from "standard" Japanese as a valid expressive technique. Other members -- Miyamoto Teru, Ishihara Shintarō, and Yamada Amy, to name the most outspoken -- were much less forgiving, referring to Yan's Japanese as simply crude. In any case, Ikezawa Natsuki, Ogawa Yōko, Murakami Ryū, Kuroi Senji, Kawakami Hiromi, and Yamada Amy were firmly in the Kawakami camp, where they were joined perhaps somewhat less enthusiastically by Miyamoto Teru and Takagi Nobuko. The consensus seems to have been that Kawakami's storytelling talent combined with her stylistic skill made her the obvious choice. The only member adamantly opposed was Ishihara Shintarō, who once again railed against all of the nominated works on the grounds of superficiality, and who was especially critical of Yang's Japanese.

Ishihara is fair enough in pointing out that the mother-daughter conflict at the center of "Breasts and Eggs" does not seem especially fresh, and it is also true that Kawakami's stylistic panache tends to obscure such troubling practical questions as why Makiko should have to come to Tokyo for her surgery anyway (a point also made by Ishihara) and why the narrator should feel no qualms about secretly perusing her niece's notebook after she has fallen asleep. No doubt opinions will also vary over the effectiveness of the climactic egg-smashing scene. But while Kawakami flirts with being trite on the one hand and overwrought on the other, on its own terms the story can surely be counted a success. "Breasts and Eggs" is deceptively easy to read, but the lasting impression it makes is due in no small measure to that very fact.

139th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2008

Toki ga nijimu asa (A Morning Steeped in Time) by Yan Ii (Yang Yi)

The first story by a nonnative speaker of Japanese to win the Akutagawa Prize, "A Morning Steeped in Time" is the fairly straightforward account of a young man from rural China who enters college in 1989, becomes infected with the patriotic enthusiasm of the pro-democracy movement leading up to the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, and -- expelled from school and disillusioned -- emigrates to Japan, where he becomes active in the expatriate community and ultimately seems to resign himself to life in his adopted home. The first six sections of the 10-section story follow the young man -- whose name is Ryō Kōen (names appear in the story in Japanese transcription) -- from the time he takes the university entrance examination (in July 1988) up to the point the following year when he and his best friend are imprisoned for fighting drunkenly over activist politics with two taxi drivers in a restaurant. Ryō, whose own father had been rusticated during the Cultural Revolution, is portrayed as an idealistic innocent who also finds a nonpolitical outlet for his romantic yearnings in the popular songs of Teresa Ten (Teresa Teng). As a freshman, Ryō falls under the charismatic influence of a professor of poetry (Kan Ryōshū) and becomes infatuated with Haku Eiro, the female leader of the university's student dissidents. This confluence of political idealism and romantic yearning, harnessed to an earnest patriotism, would seem to be the defining aspects of Ryō's character.

The last four sections of the story jump 10 years to the end of 1999 and bring the reader up to date on Ryō's life after his imprisonment, including his marriage in China to a woman from a Japanese "war orphan" family, his emigration to Japan, the births of a daughter and a son, and his ambivalent involvement in expatriate politics (protesting the selection of Beijing as a site for the 2008 Olympics, for example, and striking up a relationship with a well-known Chinese dissident living in exile in the United States, while at the same time being compelled to acknowledge his privileged status in Japan and having to face the reality that exiled Chinese dissidents have been effectively silenced). The story ends in December 2000 when Ryō briefly meets his former professor, Kan Ryōshū, who stops for a night in Japan on his way back to China in the company of Haku Eiro, who after her divorce from a Frenchman started living with Kan along with her half-French son. The next morning, as the jet takes off for Beijing, Ryō's son Tamio asks where it is going, and Ryō answers, "To China, your father's furusato." Tamio asks Ryō the meaning of furusato, and Ryō replies that it means "home," to which Tamio responds that, for him, Japan is home.

The selection committee this time quite clearly took into consideration the fact that Yang is a Chinese resident of Japan writing in a second language, thus injecting a specifically nonliterary (or perhaps quasi-literary) element into the selection process. Those who expressed support for Yang (Takagi Nobuko, Ikezawa Natsuki, Kawakami Hiroko, and Kuroi Senji, with Ogawa Yōko and Yamada Amy along for the ride) seemed to base their support on Ryō's appeal as a character, the story's cultural-political theme, and the related impression that Yang had "something important" to say. Those opposed (Ishihara Shintarō, Murakami Ryū, and Miyamoto Teru) cast doubt on the extent to which Yang's style can be considered fluent, and questioned whether she had in fact seriously explored her topic (Ishihara detected some stylistic improvement over Yang's previous story, "Wan-chan," but Murakami flatly refused to acknowledge any progress). I confess that I find both Ryō's character and the theme to be relatively superficial, and agree with Murakami that the main character's "purity" and earnestness are not enough to constitute a convincing treatment of the post-Tiananmen Chinese diaspora (the facile ending reinforces this impression). Yang's Japanese seems competent enough, but there is a discordantly colloquial note at times, and (as Yamada complained) the metaphors can seem rather overdone. The choice of Yang may perhaps be called a conscientious one intended to give due recognition to the implications -- cultural, thematic, and stylistic -- of fiction by writers working in a second language, but conscientiousness is not necessarily the most reliable indicator of literary worth.


140th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2008

Potosuraimu no fune (The Lime-Pothos Boat) by Tsumura Kikuko

"The Lime-Pothos Boat" traces the inner life of the central character, Nagase Yukiko, as she approaches and then passes the milestone age of 30. Nagase is a line worker in a cosmetics factory who has quit a previous job because of "moral harassment" by a superior, and she has spent four years working to achieve full-time contract status at the factory. Her annual take-home pay amounts only to about $16,000, and she supplements this income by working after hours in a former college classmate's coffee shop and by tutoring senior citizens in how to use a PC. The plot centers on Nagase's plan -- inspired by a poster at her factory -- to save up enough money (an amount equivalent to her net annual salary) in the course of a year to take a round-the-world cruise on an NGO-sponsored cruise ship. As Nagase continues to keep track of her expenses in a notebook she always carries with her, we follow the developments in her relationships with her mother, the line boss at the factory, and three of her college friends (including the one who runs the coffee shop). These relationships -- all with other women-- provide a convincing depiction of the life of a modern working Japanese woman (they also draw heavily upon personal experience: the unexplained "moral harassment" of this story was in fact the subject of an earlier short story by Tsumura, who has referred in interviews to the harassment she experienced in her first full-time job). Nagase eventually succeeds in saving up the desired sum, and the final scene has her imagining the islander boy depicted in the cruise poster waving to her from his outrigger canoe.

Although the story thus serves as a authentic portrayal of working-class life for a modern Japanese woman, it is not simply an exercise in slice-of-life realism. The title suggests an underlying allegorical impulse based on two related thematic motifs: first, the image of hardy lime-pothos plants, which Nagase raises at the dilapidated house she shares with her long-divorced mother; and second, the outrigger canoe from the poster, which reappears in a dream Nagase has in which she uses the canoe to distribute pothos plants to the islanders she visits on her journey. Pothos plants have no practical benefits (Nagase spends a great deal of time trying to learn whether or not the leaves are edible, only to find out that they are not), and even in Nagase's dream one group of islanders refuses to accept the plants because the island has no fresh water -- the single nutrient needed by the plant to grow. An element of futility is clearly implied. At the same time, Nagase receives as a present a set of pothos-plant drawings from the daughter of one of her college friends, a girl who admires the illustrations of reptiles and amphibians in a pictorial encyclopedia. There is clearly a certain unsentimental -- if romantic -- sense of self-reliance at work as well. Pothos plants can thus be taken to represent both Nagase's hopes and the existential emptiness of those hopes, an ambivalent circumstance that nevertheless does not lead to despair (at least not permanent despair).

Tsumura enjoyed strong support from the selection committee, with Murakami Ryū expressing the least enthusiasm, complaining that although "The Lime-Pothos Boat" was an accomplished story, it did not reveal the essential authorial need to "control the uncontrollable" (one often gets the impression that members of the selection committee look for their own qualities in the work of others). Ogawa Yōko was in favor of a different story, but briefly acknowledged that Tsumura would no doubt continue to write in the future, apparently accepting this as a sign of promise. The other members were generally positive, with even Ishihara Shintarō saying that the other candidates for the prize paled by comparison (still, he considered Tsumura's story to be restricted in scope and would rather have waited until her next effort). Yamada Amy offered perhaps the most interesting remark when she noted that sheerly on the basis of contemporary relevance, younger readers would be better off reading Tsumura's story than Kobayashi Takiji's The Cannery Boat, which has undergone a minor national sales boom recently, presumably because of Japan's current economic situation. It is a point well taken.

141st Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2009

Tsui no sumika (A Final Home) by Isozaki Ken'ichirō

"A Final Home" deals in a telescoped -- and occasionally fantastic -- manner with the relationship between the unnamed narrator and his second wife over a period of some 20 years, beginning from about the time they both turn 30. Their marriage comes on the heels of failed relationships for both, and the pair appear to have been brought together less by passion than a shared awareness of narrowing possibilities and a growing sense of world-weariness. After the marriage, the narrator's wife reveals a manic-depressive side that, once a daughter is born, results in the couple's not speaking to each other for 11 years. The narrator, alternately feeling trapped in his marriage (and by life) and compulsively attracted to certain other women, engages in a string of affairs that only comes to an end one morning when he has an epiphany on the train from his home to the pharmaceutical company where he works. The narrator has recently been instrumental in enabling the company to expand its market share even in the depressed economy of the 1990s, and now, in his late 40s, he suddenly feels the self-satisfaction of successful middle age. When he arrives home that evening, the narrator declares that he has decided to build a family house, an announcement that prompts his wife to break her long silence and respond that, yes, it was about time for that to happen. The house takes almost three years to complete because of delays in finding the appropriate materials, but once it is complete the narrator takes pleasure in viewing the sunsets from one of the second-floor windows.

Two years after the house is built, the narrator-- now 50 -- is sent to America to deal with a problem involving an important business partner, a problem that ultimately takes nearly a year and a half to resolve but seems to renew the narrator's sense of purpose. Upon returning to Japan, the narrator finds that his daughter has left for the United States (the reason is unspecified), where he himself has just expended so much effort as a business "combatant." The story ends with the narrator taking his wife by the shoulders and gazing into her eyes, realizing that they are still the same people they were 20 years ago -- each in a way the mirror image of the other -- and filled with an awareness that they will now spend the rest of their days together in the same house.

Although Yamada Amy, in announcing "A Final Home" as the winner, pointed to strong support for Isozaki's story, the comments published by selection-committee members in Bungei Shunjū suggest a division of five "for" and four "against." The former group would include Yamada, Ogawa Yōko, Kuroi Senji, Kawakami Hiromi, and Ikezawa Natsuki. The treatment of time and the skillful use of neurosis to explore the role of irrational human motivation seem to have been deciding factors here. Ishihara Shintarō (a perennial killjoy), Takagi Nobuko, Miyamoto Teru, and Murakami Ryū found the portrayal of the main character to be too transparent, unconvincing, or unmemorable. I tend to agree with the supporters and find the inexplicable disjunctions between external convention and internal desire to be well suited to constructing the personality of the narrator. One might perhaps point to a certain similarity with Tsumura Kikuko's "The Lime-Pothos Boat," while also acknowledging that Isozaki's version of reconciling the dreamy with the real does seem to be attended by intellectual trappings that "The Lime-Pothos Boat" manages to avoid. More puzzling to me is the conceit that one essentially reaches the end of life's road at the age of 51 (in the last line of the story, the narrator states that he does not expect his wife or him to live that much longer). It introduces a note of inauthenticity into what is otherwise a satisfying portrayal of the perceived unreality of the transition from the end of disappointed youth to a more stable -- if in some ways unfulfilled -- middle age.


142nd Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2009

No award was made for the 142nd Akutagawa Prize.

143rd Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2010

Otome no mikkoku (Girl Informant) by Akazome Akiko

A coming-of-age story in which Mikako, a second-year student of German at a women's university in Kyoto, links her own struggle for identity to the problem of Jewish identity expressed, as she sees it, in Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Mikako, like all second-year German students, has been assigned an entry from the diary to recite from memory at an intramural competition between two rival groups organized by her professor, an eccentric German who carries a doll with him everywhere (speaking to it in his office) and who has divided his "young ladies" on the basis of their preference for either strawberry rice cake (ichigo daifuku) or whisky. Clearly, a "romantic" versus "worldly" approach is involved, and Mikako, as might be expected, chooses the former. There is a problem, however. Despite incessant practice, whenever Mikako reaches a key passage near the end of the entry -- which Akazome gives as April 9, 1944, although the definitive English translation by Susan Mossott puts it as April 11 -- Mika suffers a bout of "amnesia" and cannot continue. The passage is the one in which Anne declares her wish to become a Dutch citizen after the war, thereby setting up a conflict between her inner Jewish identity and her public social persona, between being herself and being "other." The German professor intends Mikako to take this very unromantic aspect of the Anne Frank story to heart, and once an unsavory rumor about Mikako and the professor begins to spread, that is exactly what she does, at first trying to vindicate her reputation as a "young lady" (otome), but ultimately realizing that the label is only a mask behind which she seeks social acceptance. Mikako thereupon resolves to take part in the recitation contest, and in the event she manages to recall the key passage, after which she melodramatically proclaims, "I denounce Anne Frank. I denounce Anne Frank as a Jew." In this way, it would seem, Mikako is attempting to deny both Anne Frank and herself the dubious comfort of assuming a false identity.

The selection committee was, on the whole, impressed by the story, with Ogawa Yōko and Ikezawa Natsuki writing particularly lengthy justifications of their support. Other supporters included Kuroi Senji, Kawakami Hiromi, and Yamada Amy, with Takagi Nobuko inclined to go along. Murakami Ryū complained that Akazome had overreached herself in her theme, trivializing the issue in the process, and Miyamoto Teru bristled at the idea that the comic aspect of the story could be reconciled with the stark historical reality represented by Anne Frank. Ishihara Shintarō, although favorably inclined toward one of the other candidates, criticized Otome no mikkoku specifically as an artificial display of technique that only too well symbolizes the current etoliated state of Japanese literature.

Murakami seems to me to have a strong case. The notion that, under the right circumstances, anyone could be guilty of betraying an Anne Frank -- and that therefore everyone can be considered complicit in the betrayal, meaning in turn that identification of an individual informer is beside the point -- should be rather more than the clever (and melodramatic) conceit it becomes. The problem of thematic imbalance is exemplified in the oxymoronic climax, in which Mikako announces to an entire auditorium of listeners what, when literally translated, is a secret denunciation (mikkoku). On the one hand, the denunciation uses the story of Anne Frank to criticize the assumption of a false identity. But Mikako is no Anne Frank (Murakami rightly notes that the Japanese word otome remains only vaguely defined), and as a result, the ending seems hopelessly overdrawn. Moreover, the parallel between Anne and Mikako itself is developed in a heavyhanded and ostentatious manner, and (like Miyamoto) I found the the German professor to be repellent as a character rather than, say, endearingly eccentric. Given the underlying ambition of the author, this may well be overstating the case; but it is not easy for me to see the same depth in the story that Ogawa and Ikezawa do.


144th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2010; two winners

Kiko Towa (Kiko and Towa) by Asabuki Mariko

Two women meet again after a separation of 25 years. The older woman is Towako (shortened to Towa in the title), now 40 years old, married, and the mother of an eight-year-old daughter. The younger woman is Kiko, now 33 and involved in an affair with a married man. Towako’s mother worked as the caretaker of the resort home in Hayama owned by Kiko’s mother, and Towa became close friends with Kiko despite the seven-year difference in age.

The death of Kiko’s mother several months after the summer stay of 1984 broke off contact between the two girls, who had been so close that in the opening scene of the story -- set in a car during the last summer they spent together—they are described as being nearly indistinguishable from each other as they sleep in the back seat of the car. Now, a quarter of a century later, Kiko and her brother have decided to sell the Hayama property, and Towako substitutes for her mother as an intermediary. She then spends two days at the resort house with the visiting Kiku, reminiscing about the past and renewing the bond between them even as they take stock of subsequent changes and the differences in their memories of the past.

Several distinct motifs and images serve to create parallels and disjunctions between the two women. Most prominent is the motif of dreaming, which especially infuses Towako’s perception of both the past and present. Kiko is said not to dream, but in fact -- at the very end of the story -- she has her first dream, which promptly fades from her memory even as it hints at how memory will continue to play an important role in the future. The image that serves most clearly to unify the story is that of the women’s hair, an image that becomes associated with the process of aging and with Towako’s daughter, now the same age as Kiko when Towako last saw her.

Asabuki very skillfully manages the transitions between past and present on the one hand and the points of view of Towako and Kiko on the other to suggest both the enduring value of personal memory its and tenuous connection with reality and the present. The story exhibits a (dare one say it) traditionally Japanese sensitivity to the passage of time, together with a mastery of style that is both impressive and -- because it seems almost too precious in places -- somewhat mannered. Although Asabuki received notably strong support from selection-committee members, the accomplished (even over-accomplished) style gave rise to doubts on the part of members like Kawakami Hiromi, Ishihara Shintarō, Ogawa Yōko, and Murakami Ryū, the gist of which was that that the story lacks substance and thematic clarity. Miyamoto Teru acknowledged this drawback while observing that the story should be considered a satisfying harbinger of even better work in the future.

It should be noted that Shimada Masahiko took part in the selection process for the first time this time. The current selection committee comprises the following 10 writers, all of whom took part in the voting for the 144th Akutagawa Prize (Japanese alphabetical order):

Ikezawa Natsuki, Ishihara Shintarō, Ogawa Yōko, Kawakami Hiromi, Kuroi Senji, Shimada Masahiko, Takagi Nobuko, Miyamoto Teru, Murakami Ryū, and Yamada Amy.


Kueki ressha (Forced Labor) by Nishimura Kenta

A grimy story, lightly tinged with irony, about a young day laborer who typifies the modern Japanese underclass. A middle-school graduate with no prospects hounded by the reputation of being the son of a convicted sex offender, Kitamachi Kanta leads a hand-to-mouth existence, alternately spending days on the job and slacking off, taking greatest pleasure in drinking and visiting cheap sex-trade (fūzoku) establishments. The plot, such as it is, concerns Kitamachi’s short friendship with a handsome vocational-school student named Kusakabe Shōji, who takes work as a day laborer to earn some spending money. Kusakabe and Kitamachi are close enough in age that they might have been classmates at school, which leads Kitamachi to view Kusakabe -- athletic and capable as well as handsome -- as something of an idealized version of himself.

But upbringing and heredity will out, and the cheerful Kusakabe’s seemingly effortless success at work and at finding a steady girlfriend engender resentment and jealousy in the self-abnegating yet selfish and prideful Kitamachi, with predictable results: a storm of invective that opens a breach the depth of which Kitamachi lacks the intelligence or sensitivity to appreciate. Kitamachi’s innate perverseness compounds the loss of friendship by costing him his job as well, and the story ends with Kitamachi at work for a different contractor, taking baseless satisfaction in learning that Kusakabe has “only” managed to find a permanent job as a postal worker and drawing a bleak measure of consolation from photocopied versions of novels by Fujisawa Seizō, an autobiographical writer who ended up freezing to death in Tokyo’s Shiba Park in 1932.

Nishimura is a self-proclaimed writer of just such autobiographical fiction (shishōsetsu, or “I-novels”), and he has referred to this particular story as 80 percent fact and 20 percent fiction. A sufficient number of selection-committee members seem to have felt that Nishimura’s engaging style places the autobiographical elements in a convincingly artistic context, resulting in a sense of perspective notably missing in traditional confessional writing (the story is told in the third person, for instance, and the colloquial style is at once authentic and mocking). Ishihara Shintarō was especially laudatory in his comments, referring to the story as a contemporary picaresque that might serve as a suitable admonishment for a society spoiled by prosperity (it was not long after this that Ishihara publicly referred to the 2011 earthquake as “divine punishment” for modern greed, and then went on to win reelection as the governor of Tokyo). Yamada Amy was a supporter, as were (to various degrees) Kuroi Senji, Miyamoto Teru, and (apparently) Shimada Masahiko. Ogawa Yōko and Murakami Ryū seem to have accepted rather than actively supported the choice, though were not without praise. Kawakami Hiromi expressed hopes for Nishimura’s future work, Takagi Nobuko charged Nishimura with want of plot interest, and Ikezawa Natsuki simply avoided comment on the story.

Perhaps it could be said that Nishimura’s greatest accomplishment is having revitalized the “I-novel” tradition by, paradoxically, making such fiction enjoyable to read. “Forced Labor” is buoyed by the energy of its style, although the stylistic mannerisms do sometimes get repetitious and the ending is quite clearly forced and self-consciously “artistic” in the way it points to Nishimura’s own later development as a writer. It seems a somewhat awkward choice for the Akutagawa Prize, although it does make a strong impression.