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 years.
145th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2011
No award was made for the 145th Akutagawa Prize.
Tomogui (Cannibals) by Tanaka Shin’ya
A story centered on what might be called the passage to adulthood of a sexually charged 17-year-old high-school boy in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The boy, whose name is Shinogawa Tōma, lives with his father Madoka and stepmother Kotoko in an impoverished area on one side of a river. Tōma’s biological mother, Jinko, sells fish on the equally destitute opposite side, across a bridge. The time is given as July 1988. Jinko, who lost her right hand in an air raid during the war, divorced Madoka when his violence became unbearable but remained in the area because there was nowhere else for her to go.
Kotoko works in a local bar, and Tōma often notices bruises on her face. Tōma has found a sex partner in a neighborhood girl named Aida Chigusa, who is one year older and goes to a different school. He worries that, like his father, he may be prone to violence in connection with his seemingly uncontrollable sexuality, and he does in fact choke Chigusa during sex and engages in a violent bout of sex with an aging prostitute patronized by his father. This results in an estrangement from Chigusa, although it turns out that Tōma is more averse to reconciliation than she is.
A heavy downpour and flood -- together with the disappearance of the pregnant Kotoko -- provide the means by which this blind-alley situation is resolved. Madoka, after being told by Tōma that Kotoka has left him, goes out to hunt for her, finds Chigusa instead, and rapes her. Tōma reaches Chigusa after Madoka has finished and takes her to his mother’s fish shop. Jinko says that she is going to put an end to things, attaches her hooked prosthetic hand, finds Madoka, and stabs him with it. She and the two young adults are separately detained by the police when Madoka’s body is found, but Tōma and Chigusa are released once it is determined Jinko is the killer. Tōma learns that his mother had been taken into custody at the local shrine (which was where she and Madoka had met and also where Madoka raped Chigusa), and that she had avoided walking underneath the shrine’s torii when she was taken away because she was menstruating at the time. Tōma visits his mother in detention to ask if she needs anything, but she says no, and the story closes with Tōma remarking to himself that the police would probably provide her with sanitary napkins.
The comments by members of the selection committee make it clear that Tanaka was their first choice, although Miyamoto Teru asserted that he “opposed the selection to the end” (he was put off by a lack of concrete motivation for the welling sense of anger he detected in the story). Kuroi Senji was extremely positive in his assessment, praising the story for its depiction of a kind of “geothermal energy” of life. Takagi Nobuko was reminded of Nakagami Kenji, but stressed that Tanaka was not simply dealing in a kind of nostalgia. Yamada Eimi acknowledged the 3D-like visual poetry of Tanaka’s style, though she objected to the story’s last line. Ogawa Yōko was attracted to the vitality of the women, Shimada Masahiko found Tanaka’s approach to the timeless father-son conflict to be refreshing in its very timelessness, and Kawakami Hiromi agreed on the value of the story even though she devoted most of her comments to justifying her support for the other winner, Dōkeshi no chō. Ishihara Shintarō, who pronounced the story the most readable of the lot, nevertheless considered it something of a carnival horror-house show and advised Tanaka to adopt a lengthier format. Murakami Ryū did not take part in the selection process this time. Tanaka is unquestionably a talented writer and Tomogui certainly deserves the Akutagawa Prize, but he piles on the Naturalism too thickly and makes things come together just a little too patly at the end; the story certainly does not strike me as being quite as fresh in its approach as claimed by Takagi and Shimada.
Dōkeshi no chō (The Harlequin Butterfly) by Enjō Tō
A self-reflexive, metafictional take on the meaning of narrative that compares the concept of fiction to a butterfly that manages to reproduce itself in contingent fashion by leaving “eggs” to hatch in the creative mind, the emerging insects taking wing to become objects of pursuit for other creators and commercial purveyors of similar (but different) artifacts. The story consists of five parts, each of which adopts the point of view of (apparently) one of three characters: the Japanese writer who begins the story while reading a book in a plane from Tokyo to Seattle; an elusive writer known only as Tomoyuki Tomoyuki, an extraordinary polyglot who travels widely, picking up languages by studying different methods of embroidery, and who leaves behind both examples of embroidery and writings of various sorts at the out-of-the-way places she stays; and a scholarly pursuer of Tomoyuki Tomoyuki who has translated this mysterious writer’s work. The distinctions between these narrators are not altogether clear, as suggested by their common use of the first-person pronoun watashi, and at the very end, the butterfly herself takes over the narration. It is a recursive series of narrators without clearly defined boundaries.
One additional major character is an American entrepreneur from Michigan named A. A. Abrams, who devotes the later part of his life to using a filigree net to snag from the air ideas such as those inspired by Tomoyuki Tomoyuki, a mission continued after his death by an eponymous institute employing countless “agents” -- including the aforementioned scholar-translator -- who follow Tomoyuki Tomoyuki’s trail and send in reports of sometimes dubious authenticity. Confusion surrounds the identity of this A.A. Abrams, who is introduced as a man but is said to have suffered from cancer of the uterus, is referred to as “she” in Section III, and who reappears in the final section as a male phantom of sorts. Given the choice of keeping a female harlequin butterfly as a mate for the only other living specimen that exists or of taking possession of a net that can be used to capture such a butterfly, Abrams chooses the latter, leaving the butterfly free to implant an egg in the mind of a man (possibly the original narrator) who will in turn produce a new idea to take flight. This, the butterfly says, is the way it reproduces.
The plot -- if such it can be called -- carries the reader forward quite briskly on the one hand, holding out hope for the answer to the riddle of Tomoyuki Tomoyuki’s identity, while on the other gratification is deferred by means of wordplay, musings on language, and apparently deliberate obfuscation (one is left wondering whether there might not be some underlying connection with that literary lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov; the playfully repetitive names of both the mysterious Tomoyuki and the stalking Abrams remain unexplained ciphers). It is a challenging story and quite interesting in its way, but the metafictional approach does come off as rather precious, and the epiphanic conclusion shares the oddly disconnected feel of the ending of the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The focus (so to speak) on radical indeterminacy divided the selection committee. One side, led by Kawakami Hiromi, found that the story almost magically transformed form into content (Kawakami adduced her experience in college listening to a professor explain quantum mechanics by referring to the existence of a cat that is both dead and alive at the same time). Supporters included Ogawa Yōko, Shimada Masahiko, and Miyamoto Teru, the last of whom appears to have been persuaded that Enjō’s ambition justified the risk inherent in the story’s perplexing self-referentiality. Takagi Nobuko said that she did not really understand or like the story, but that she voted for Enjō anyway because she trusted the judgment of his supporters. Kuroi Senji was also less than enthusiastic in his support, but appears to have regarded Dōkeshi no chō as representing a type of literary diversity that was valuable despite the failure of a reader to fully comprehend it. On the opposite side, Ishihara Shintarō felt that any reader compelled to take part in a such a “poorly conceived game of cat’s cradle” was to be pitied. He took the selection committee as a whole to task for eventually recommending a story that in the first round of voting had not even won the support of half of the members. Yamada Eimi, while recognizing the existence of a stimulating world of intellectual curiosity, claimed that Enjō made excessive demands on his readers.
As a side note to the deliberations of the selection committee this time, both Kuroi Senji and Ishihara Shintarō have decided to make this Akutagawa Prize the last one for them. Kuroi briefly mentioned his decision in his comments, while Ishihara used his remarks to express dismay (once again) over the miserable state of new Japanese fiction over the past 15 years, relating it to the enfeebled sense of self in Japanese society as a whole. The outcome, according to Ishihara, has been an indistinguishable series of stories populated by weak characters. He has therefore decided, like an old soldier, simply to fade away.
147th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2012
Meido meguri (Journey Through the Underworld) by Kashimada Maki
A slight if elegantly crafted story -- fashioned in stream-of-consciousness style -- about a woman named Natsuko who takes a two-day trip to a seaside resort facility with her physically and mentally impaired husband. The facility, now operated by the municipal ward office, was once a luxury hotel that Natsuko had visited with her family at the age of eight, and her memories of that earlier visit prompt her to review and reach an accommodation of sorts with the past.
Natsuko’s personal history seems unexceptional: a self-made grandfather whose wealth made possible the family’s “golden age”; a distant father who worked for a first-rate company until he fell ill and died, leading to the family’s financial decline; a status-conscious mother who is as self-centered and materially acquisitive as she was in her youth; a no-account younger brother who has been unable to find steady work and lives off his mother and his sister; and a husband of nondescript background, whom Natsuko met while both were working at the ward office and who suffered a seizure eight years ago, leaving him heavily dependent upon on his wife.
Events in the present evoke vividly presented memories of each of these people (and the present sometimes overlaps with the past, as when Natsuko feels compelled to answer her mother’s inconsequential phone calls). The memories evoked in this way by the stay at the former hotel and by a visit to an art museum just before Natsuko and her husband, Taichi, return home serve initially to evoke an overwhelming sense of lethargy and unreasoning happenstance (the Japanese word used repeatedly throughout the story is rifujin, 理不尽) -- time and again Natsuko states that she finds it impossible to make sense of either her past or her present. Yet finally there is an epiphany, based on Natsuko’s renewed awareness of her husband as someone who does not simply endure life’s setbacks but forthrightly accepts them and, through this acceptance, wins the affection and attentions of others. As a result (in an ending that seems rather contrived), Natsuko is shown to be infected by his quiet optimism, to the extent that she can even thank her mother for calling to announce that she has sent Natsuko something to wear that matches her own (i.e., the mother's) taste in clothes.
According to Murakami Ryū, he was the only member of the selection committee who voted against awarding Kashimada the prize (for unexplained reasons of “taste” and “discomfort with the motif[s]).” Ogawa Yōko and Okuizumi Hikaru preferred something else as their first choice -- and Miyamoto Teru apparently felt compelled to demonstrate his “respect” for Kashimada’s tenacity in dealing with the same theme for 14 years -- but they, along with the other members, acknowledged Kashimada’s narrative skill. Horie Toshiyuki most clearly identified the thematic core of the story in its portrayal of a “holy fool” who demonstrates to the narrator the difference between ukemi (passivity) and ukeireru koto (acceptance), and Horie also pointed out the unnecessary explicitness of the final scene; but he is probably right to say that the parallel structure of the story manages to avoid excessive seriousness in its exploration of a typically modern personal consciousness.
a-b-san-go (a-b-three-five) by Kuroda Natsuko
A series of remembrances of the narrator's past loosely organized into 15 sections, each of which deals with a scene connected to the others through the uncertain contingencies of the narrator's life (the cryptic title is deliberately obscure: Kuroda seems at first to be suggesting a sequence, but the sequence is interrupted by switching to a different code [numbers vs. letters], then further complicated by skipping over the logical "four," and then upon reading the opening passage the reader discovers that a-b represents not a sequence but a pair of alternatives, neither of which is realized in her life -- contingencies indeed). The story that eventually emerges is that of a woman whose mother died at about the time the narrator entered elementary school, who then lived alone with her father for about 10 years, and who left home at the age of about 22 after the father took up with the household maid. The narrator spends the next 20 years moving from one temporary job to another, relying on an allowance from her estranged father to help make ends meet. Then, years later (apparently at the age of 56), the narrator begins having dreams of her earlier life with her parents.
Resistance to any easy reconstruction of the past results from several factors: the studied ambiguity regarding gender (which is never specified for either the narrator or her parents); the nonlinear narrative; and from a style that makes extensive use of hiragana, indirect figurative description, and the use of writing horizontally (yokomoji as opposed to standard vertical Japanese tatemoji) in a Western-style book format in which pages are meant to be turned from right to left (in the March 2013 issue of Bungei Shunjū -- which follows standard Japanese book format -- the story therefore starts on page 414 and finishes on page 375 -- page 374 if the table of contents is included). Kuroda clearly intends to disrupt the reader's usual reading habits, and she is successful in doing so. It is a stylistic tour de force that demonstrates a high level of accomplishment -- as might perhaps be expected from an author who is 75 years old (the oldest Akutagawa Prize winner in history) and was writing for a little magazine even in college. The result is to tie any assessment of the literary value of a-b-three-five to the question of whether the considerable effort needed to accommodate the distinctive style is justified.
It is a close call. Telling in this respect, perhaps, is the fact that the members of the selection committee focused almost entirely on Kuroda's style in their comments, leaving the content to fend for itself. The challenge of parsing large quantities of hiragana was widely acknowledged, and in one case (that of Yamada Eimi) this challenge, along with the precocious descriptive style, proved to be too much. The other members, however, were more favorably disposed, with only Murakami Ryū joining Yamada in the negative camp, and then only because he did not think that Kuroda fit the definition of an aspiring writer -- he actually pronounced himself happy with the story despite his own principled opposition. Still, and notwithstanding a reference to Proust by Shimada Masahiko, selection-committee members did little to illuminate -- rather than to imply or simply assume -- the effectiveness of Kuroda’s style in generating its own sort of meaning. The story does create a convincingly diffuse personal inner world. At the same time, the subversion of standard reading habits is so determinedly literary that a-b-san-go may well turn out to be a one-of-a-kind curiosity in the history of the Akutagawa Prize.
149th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2013
Tsume to me (Fingernails and Eyes) by Fujino Kaori
A story that focuses primarily on the relationship between two characters: a girl of three whose mother has died in what is passed off as a tragic accident, and a young woman who comes to live with the girl and her father in a trial period of sorts before committing herself to marriage. The story is related perhaps a quarter of a century after the fact by the girl, named Hina, who has grown into adulthood. Hina addresses herself directly to the other woman, Mai, who we therefore must assume actually did become her stepmother.
Hina first tells of being traumatized by her biological mother’s death -- by hypothermia -- after being locked on the wrong side of the sliding door of the veranda of the family’s condominium apartment. Police investigate the puzzling circumstances of the death (including the fact that Hina is able to lock and unlock the veranda door), but determine that the death was an accident. Hina herself says little, behaves obediently, and has the habit of biting her nails to the quick, a habit only partially ameliorated by the endless supply of snack foods and drinks that Mai, as her new mother-substitute, constantly provides.
Mai, in her mid-twenties at the time, is more than a decade younger than Hina’s father, who has been seeing Mai since Hina was a year and a half old. Both Mai and Hina’s father take little real interest in the world around them, and in Mai’s case this lack of engagement is compounded by a nearsightedness so profound that she has trouble distinguishing even nearby faces without glasses or her usual contact lenses. Hina’s father, impotent with Mai once they start living together in a new condominium in Mai's hometown, takes yet another lover and manages only a passing interest in his daughter, whose welfare he entrusts entirely to his wife. Mai also finds a lover -- a dealer in used books in whom Mai loses interest once she discovers a blog that Hina’s mother had been keeping while alive. As Mai reads through the blog's entries, she starts adopting some of the same tastes and habits as Hina's mother.
Having being put off by Mai for a month, the book dealer abruptly visits Mai’s condominium, prompting Mai to push Hina out onto the veranda while Mai talks to her boyfriend, promising to visit him one last time at his apartment. Hina, meanwhile, is traumatized by being forced to vicariously repeat her own mother’s fate, even if she is in no real danger. The next day, Mai visits the book dealer after dropping Hina off at kindergarten, and after sex the book dealer forcibly extracts the contact lenses from Mai's eyes with his tongue. The nearly blinded Mai goes to pick up Hina at kindergarten, where she is told that Hina has gone on an uncontrollable rampage in which she has scratched the faces of her classmates with her jagged fingernails. After taking Hina home, Mai files Hina’s nails and applies manicure, then dozes off on the couch near the veranda window. She suddenly awakes to find Hina astride her and forcing into her eyes the translucent layers of polish Hina has peeled from the thumbnails of both of her hands. The story ends with Hina describing Mai’s vision of a pane of glass cutting through her body, dividing the past from the future, and then -- in the narrative present -- relating her own awareness of a similar event now encroaching upon her. The only difference between Mai and herself, Hina notes, is that because Hina has excellent vision, she can see the glint of light reflected from the approaching glass pane. The story is thus unified thematically by images of eyes, fingernails, and glass, and these images reverberate with motifs of direct and refracted vision representing memories filtered through the barriers of time and consciousness.
Several members of the selection committee commended Fujino for her skillful use of second-person narration, noting her success in teasing out the relationship between Hina and Mai and extending the narrative into the present. Those supporting Fujino included Ogawa Yōko, Shimada Masahiko, Horie Toshiyuki, Kawakami Hiromi (on the basis of future potential), and Okuizumi Hikaru (who did, however, point out problems with the plot, especially the obscure last scene). Opposing Fujino were Takagi Nobuko (reacting against the “negativity” of an antagonistic relationship between two women), Miyamoto Teru (finding nothing in the story beyond an appeal to horror), Yamada Eimi (who thought the fear ought to have been portrayed in novelistic rather than cinematic terms), and the ever-cranky Murakami Ryū (who objected to the burden placed on the reader by the second-person narrative approach).
While I did not find the story particularly hard to follow (except for the abrupt last scene), a major problem -- or contradiction, perhaps -- does seem to inhere in Fujino’s use of the second person. The narrator is not addressing the reader, after all, but another character (as in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”). Given this basic premise, the narrator has far too much knowledge of other peoples’ experiences and motives to be fully convincing: the style is actually free indirect style in second-person guise, and the reader also becomes privy to all the characters' innermost thoughts. If the reliability of the narrator had been used to center the story, the ploy might have worked (Yamada’s desire for a more “literary” style of psycho-horror emphasis seems to proceed from this assumption). But Fujino seems to want both objective (realistic) and subjective (psychological) horror at the same time. This conflicted approach can indeed be said to limit the story to a horror-film sort of appeal, despite its considerable merits.
Ana (Holes) by Oyamada Hiroko
Early summer finds the protagonist, a 30-year-old housewife named Asahi Matsuura, quite happy to be leaving her low-paying, irregular job to accompany her businessman husband, Muneaki, to his new posting, which happens to be close enough to his hometown that the couple can live rent-free in a recently vacated house that is owned by his parents and stands next to theirs. More like a remote country village than a town -- even though the couple remains in the same prefecture -- the community offers a co-op for buying groceries and a single convenience store for drinks and magazines, but no ready work for Asahi. Both of Asahi’s in-laws have jobs, which means that Muneaki’s aged grandfather is left alone to watch TV in the house or to go out and water the lawn, a task that seems to occupy him eternally.
So far, so mundane. But then the uncanny intrudes, beginning with the sight of an unusual animal of some sort as Asahi walks along the path next to the river on her way to the convenience store to pay a bill for her mother-in-law. Leaving the path in curious pursuit of the beast -- neither boar nor raccoon dog -- Asahi falls into a deep hole and has to be helped out by a stylishly attired middle-aged woman who introduces herself as her parents’ neighbor. Asahi thanks the woman and continues to the convenience store, where a group of children are reading comics and blocking the ATM Asahi has to use because her mother-in-law did not leave her enough cash to pay the bill. A man helps her out by telling the children to move, and they do, flocking around Asahi instead, as if noticing her for the first time.
The stage having been set, the reader is then presented with further series of incidents: examples of increasingly eccentric behavior on the part of Muneaki’s grandfather; a visit to Asahi’s house by the woman who had helped Asahi and who mentions the name of a relative Asahi had never heard before; more sightings of the mysterious animal; more encounters with children, despite the general desolation of the village; a long conversation with the man from the convenience store, who reveals that he is her husband’s estranged older brother, occupies the second floor of an otherwise unused storage shed, and explains that the mysterious animal she has seen has tusks and digs holes of all sizes in which to rest; and the death and funeral of Muneaki’s grandfather after he falls into a hole by the river at night and is extricated by Asahi.
The funeral, in turn, occasions the arrival of an unexpectedly large number of elderly people who come to pay their respects. Spookily, even Muneaki comes to acquire an aura of unreality, forever engrossed in reading and sending messages on his smartphone and sleeping as if a lifeless doll. All of these experiences are interspersed with compellingly realistic descriptions of daily life and nature in the countryside. The story ends after the account of the grandfather’s funeral, with no resolution offered regarding the background of the Matsuura family, the identity or history of the mysterious beast, or the significance of the apparently illusory groups of children Asahi has observed since her arrival. All the reader knows at the end is that Asahi -- at the end of summer -- has acquired a bicycle and has just agreed to start working as a salesclerk at the convenience store. Riding home with her uniform in the front basket of her bicycle, she deliberately crushes the body of cicada lying on the river path, and once back home she tries on the uniform, stands in front of the mirror, and notes her resemblance to her mother-in-law.
Although there was strong support for at least three of the five stories shortlisted for the 150th Akutagawa Prize, Oyamada’s Ana carried the day largely on the basis of its use of magical realism. Murakami Ryū was uncharacteristically generous in his praise for the story, contrasting Oyamada's narrative straightforwardness with the structural complexity of the other candidates and admiring the skill with which Oyamada refuses to infuse her symbols with specific content (the holes of the title, for example, are both clearly symbolic and yet defy easy analysis). Kawakami Hiromi was equally impressed by the subtle interplay in the story between the visible and the occult. Other members of the selection committee voicing support for Oyamada included Yamada Eimi, Okuizumi Hikaru, and Shimada Masahiko, with Horie Toshiyuki and (rather less enthusiastically) Ogawa Hiroko concurring.
Two members were opposed to the selection: Miyamoto Teru, who felt that the ending represented a retreat from the central theme of the story and who expressed doubts about the freshness of magical realism as a technique; and Takagi Nobuko, who also considered the the story to be frustratingly inadequate in achieving resolution. I follow Miyamoto and Takagi in my basic reaction: the “magical realism” of the story ultimately falls apart. As a character, Asahi seems willingly obtuse in her reluctance to question any of the mysteries that confront her (particularly the status of Muneaki’s presumed brother), the narrative time gaps are puzzlingly irrelevant (virtually nothing seems to happen "off-stage"), and the abundance of naturalistic description overcompensates for the uncanny aspects of the story. One can appreciate the impulse to leave the reader in a state of suspended disbelief, but precisely for that reason adding a final scene identifying the narrator with her mother-in-law strikes me as being self-contradictory. The talent is unmistakable, however, and perhaps this potential is reason enough for the award.
151st Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2014
Haru no niwa (Spring Garden) by Shibasaki Tomoka
The garden of the title belongs to a blue (mizuiro) house, now 50 years old, located in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. The character first assumed by the reader to be the narrator, a divorced man in his thirties from Osaka named Tarō, moved into an apartment house adjacent to the house three years before, following his divorce. The apartment house is 31 years old and scheduled to be torn down as soon as the contracts of all the current tenants expire, meaning that Tarō’s tenancy has one year to go. The reader is told of the (non-romantic) relationship Tarō develops with another tenant close to his own age, a manga artist named Nishi, who has herself moved into the apartment house because of a long-standing infatuation with the blue house, which had been featured in a collection of photographs Nishi saw when she was a high school student, some 20 years before. That collection (also titled Haru no niwa) depicted a fashionable young couple showing off their carefree lifestyle in the spacious house, becoming for Nishi -- who grew up in Nagoya -- an ideal image of life in Tokyo.
Nishi has since learned more about the couple in the photographs -- including that they subsequently divorced and went their separate ways -- and now, multiple owners later, she makes the acquaintance of the family that has just moved in (the Morios, a couple with two children). Although this connection provides Nishi with access to the interior of the house, one room remains stubbornly out of bounds: a bathroom surfaced with yellow-green tiles. Nishi therefore enlists Taro’s aid in implementing a ruse that will enable her to see the bathroom (he is supposed to spill a drink on her after they have both been invited to dinner by Mrs. Morio). Although a more dramatic incident intervenes involving Nishi’s getting severely cut after getting bumped from behind by the Morios’ son, the outcome is the same, and Nishi is finally able to see the tiled bathroom. The story draws to an end -- nearly a year after it opened -- with the Morios being transferred, Nishi moving away to live with her mother in Chiba, and only Tarō and one other tenant still left in the building.
At this point, the narrative point of view shifts abruptly to that of Tarō’s older sister, who is the only character to address the reader as “I” and must therefore be counted the story’s true narrator. The sister, who lives in Nagoya, notifies the reader that she has found a child’s tooth under the cushion of a sofa that the Morios had left with Tarō and that Tarō has apparently shipped to her in Nagoya. She explains that about six hours after she took the tooth outside to dispose of it in the traditional manner by either tossing it into the air or burying it, Tarō secretly entered the garden of the blue house in Tokyo with a small grinding bowl and pestle. After his father’s death, Tarō had used these implements to reduce some of his father’s post-cremation bones to ashes for scattering, and the reader has previously been told that grooves of the bowl retain traces of the ashes. Tarō is said to have buried the implements in a hole he digs in the same location the young man in the Haru no niwa photograph collection had been shown digging a hole. (To his chagrin, the suspicious Tarō only finds a some egg-shaped rocks there.) Tarō is then reported to have entered the now-empty blue house through a defective second-floor sliding door, to have fallen asleep on the floor, and to have awoken the next morning to the sound of voices downstairs. Tarō at first takes these voices to be those of police interrogating a woman about a body that has been found in the house’s backyard, and he quietly descends the stairs to investigate. He soon learns that the voices are those of actors being videotaped for a TV crime show and, receiving a covert signal from the show’s actress, he retreats upstairs and, retracing his path of the night before, returns to his apartment. This is where the narration ends.
The sudden narrative twist at the end of the story creates a number of problems that are not fully resolved. This is primarily because no narrator-as-character could ever have such complete access to another character’s inner life and sensibilities such as Tarō’s sister seems to enjoy (this point of disjunction is first apparent in the way Nishi is portrayed -- ostensibly by Tarō, relying on his conversations with Nishi -- and thus operates at a second remove when Tarō’s sister is revealed to be the actual narrator). If this is a metafictional ploy on the part of the author, its purpose remains unclear. Yet the introduction of a problematic narrative frame surely reflects a deliberate strategy on Shibasaki’s part, one that questions the nature of the relationship between specific places and the formation of human memories over time. It is a paradoxical relationship that evolves out of both personal experience and a shared social existence, further complicated by the vagaries of individual recollection (Tarō and his sister, for example, who grew up together, do not and cannot remember their shared past in the same way). Shibasaki attempts to bridge the gap between place and memory first through a style that impressively captures the sensibilities of each of the major characters. She then draws them together by a mostly convincing web of synchronicity (the word itself appears in the story) and overlapping imagery. This latter aspect involves people, places, and objects from the past -- things like overlaid waterways in urbanized Tokyo, unexploded World War Two bombshells, mysterious objects buried in people’s backyards, the tooth discovered by Tarō’s sister, and the bony remnants in the grinding bowl -- that return to stake a claim on the present and become part of a continuous process to which all individuals are fated to contribute. Images of both Nishi and the young woman photographed in Haru no niwa are explicitly superimposed on the face of the actress at the end of the story; household objects reappear in altered settings (as do the characters and, of course, the title itself); and reconstruction is forever altering the urban landscape of Tokyo. The fact that Tarō’s sister lives in a Nagoya danchi like the one in which Nishi grew up is also suggestive. The continual burying, unearthing, and reburying of personal and communal memories is at the heart of the story’s meaning.
If the ending of the story -- based as it is on a certain amount of narrative sleight-of-hand and an unlikely set of coincidences -- ultimately makes the pattern of convergence seem just a little too pat, Shibasaki’s ability to portray human memory as the result of a process anchored in the experience of place is extraordinary. The members of the selection committee who supported Shibasaki seem to have come to the same conclusion. Positive evaluations were offered by Takagi Nobuko, Miyamoto Teru, Yamada Eimi, Kawakami Hiroko, and Horie Toshiyuki, with acceptance also voiced by Ogawa Yōko and Shimada Masahiko (these two stated that other stories were their first choice). Okuizumi Hikaru was more reserved in his praise (saying that he could appreciate Shibasaki’s talent while not quite being able to enjoy her story), and Murakami Ryū pronounced his distaste for all three final contenders in the voting. The deliberations this time seem to have dragged on somewhat because committee members remained split in their opinions. In his written comments, Okuizumi described the usual process by which the committee members cast their votes: either for a story (a circle), against it (an x), or noncommittal (a triangle), with favorable votes counted as one point, noncommittal votes worth half a point, and negative votes as zero. Given the number of members (nine), in principle it takes a total of five votes to win, and in this case that number was not easily achieved. Murakami wrote that since it would be unthinkable for there to be three winners, most of the time was actually spent discussing the technical issue of how many winners -- and which ones -- would be appropriate. The result of this process was the choice of Shibasaki as sole winner (influenced possibly by the fact that she has been a candidate three times before and this story was seen to mark a culmination of sorts). These post-selection comments provide an interesting backstage glimpse of the selection process, which at any rate appears to have resulted in the choice of a suitable winner.
Kyūnen-mae no inori (Nine Years and a Prayer) by Ono Masatsugu
The narrative occupies two days in the life of Andō Sanae, now in her mid-thirties, who has returned to the seaside town in Ōita Prefecture where she was born, bringing along her nearly four-year-old son, Kevin (Kebin), three years after being deserted in Tokyo by a Canadian husband whom she had first met while on a group visit to Montreal at the age of 25 (the "nine years ago" of the Japanese title is a reference to this earlier trip). Sanae learns from her mother that the son of one of the other local women who had gone to Canada, Watanabe Mitsu, is in the hospital seriously ill. Sanae proposes visiting the son in the hospital, taking as a present some of the seashells from a nearby island that are supposed to have the power to ensure health and safety. The next morning, Sanae and Kevin take a ferry to the island to collect the shells before Sanae's father is to drive the family to the hospital.
Flashbacks are skillfully interspersed with this narrative to describe Sanae's trip to Canada, her encounter with her future husband (named Fredrick), and an incident at a Montreal subway station in which two women from Sanae's group become separated from the rest. The group's host, a Canadian assistant language teacher who had been assigned to Sanae's school district, went to search for the lost women while his friend Fredrick was charged with watching over the others. The group decided to find a suitable place to wait, settling on a church where they decided to pray for the safe return of their stray companions. Sanae remembers that Mitsu (who is referred to by the local nickname "Mitchan-nee") spent much longer praying than everyone else, and further recalls that when the two errant women did eventually reappear, they were upbraided for not having followed the group's original agreement to hold hands to prevent just such a predicament.
Sanae's memories of Mitsu also include the conversation the pair had at their hotel about Mitsu's husband and son, and the less certain recollection that Mitsu had encouraged indulgence toward a baby who was crying loudly on the flight from Japan (the memory is suspect because the two women were not actually seated together and one of the other women does not remember a crying baby). Mitsu's personal situation (the hardship she and her family face, along with the current hospitalization of her son) is thus superimposed on Sanae's own difficulties as a single mother, including her relationship with her emotionally troubled son (complicated by the fact that Sanae herself is at least partly responsible for his condition). Arriving at the island to collect the shells, Sanae hallucinates that Mitsu takes charge of Kevin, allowing her a momentary feeling of freedom and relief. This fantasy, however, simply serves as a cover for Sanae's willful neglect of her son, for they have in fact become separated while walking to the inlet where Sanae plans to collect the shells. Sanae eventually discovers her son standing before a small seaside shrine, where they both offer their separate prayers. Then, after returning by ferry to the mainland with a small vial filled with sand and shells, Kevin once again manages to elude his mother's supervision and sets off down the pier on his own, coming perilously close to falling into the water. Sanae is just able to clasp him in her arms before this happens, but the small vial containing the shells and sand they have collected is dislodged from Kevin's grip and drops into the ocean.
This ending -- with its image of Sanae's hands clasped over over Kevin's and the implication that there is no magical protection from sadness -- is clearly intended to draw together the previous scenes of prayer into an ambivalent epitome: Kevin has been saved, but human tragedy cannot be completely avoided. This ambivalence appears to be the reason that Okuizumi Hikaru, in his comments as a member of the selection committee, confessed that he found the story to be somewhat "difficult to grasp" (toraenikui). But Okuizumi went on to say that Ono had achieved his rhetorical aim of orchestrating his prose in the manner of a musical composition, thereby turning this interpretive difficulty into an advantage. Murakami Ryū, too, praised Ono highly for taking regional materials that might more typically be associated with enka and fashioning them into a proper "aria" (although his taking the message of the aria to be one of universal maternal love seems overstated, to say the least). Ogawa Yōko and Kawakami Hiromi were the other unequivocally positive supporters, with Shimada Masahiko and Horie Toshiyuki also tagging along. Takagi Nobuko found the story wanting, although she acknowledged it to be inviting to read and the best of Ono's efforts thus far. Yamada Eimi was opposed, apparently taking issue with what she perceived as an unwarranted favoritism shown by the author toward his female characters (Yamada's argument that Ono intends to redeem Sanae, however, seems to me to be a misreading of the ending, and Yamada gives the impression that she simply does not believe a man can accurately depict a rounded female character). Joining Yamada in the opposition camp was Miyamoto Teru, who complained that the story seemed more like a collection of fictional parts than a finished work.
I found the authenticity of story compelling, especially in the way it explores the complexities of individual and community identity by placing them in the context of a specific time and place. I am rather less taken with the contrivance of the plot, especially the overwrought ending. This does indeed result in a disjunct between the smooth flow of the writing and the overall structure that can be counted a fairly serious shortcoming in an otherwise appealing story.
153rd Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2015; two winners
Hibana (Sparks) by Matayoshi Naoki
The story is told by one member of a manzai team, mostly about the quasi-master-apprentice relationship he establishes with a member of another manzai team. The narrator, named Tokunaga, meets the older geinin, Kamiya, while performing at a fireworks event in the resort town of Atami, southwest of Tokyo. Kamiya takes an instinctive liking to Tokunaga, who asks Kamiya to become his mentor, or shishō. The remainder of the story follows their relationship over a period of 10 years, up to the time Tokunaga and his partner -- who as a team go by the name "Sparks" (hence the title) -- break up and Tokunaga, at about the age of 30, lands a regular job.
Hibana thus becomes a kind of Bildungsroman in which Tokunaga must both work out and work through the meaning of life as a geinin, constantly comparing his situation with that of his mentor. Kamiya is a simpler sort than Tokunaga, yet he is admired by the latter for his uncompromising attitude toward his “art,” despite the fact that his dedication involves rejecting currying favor with the audience in a way that can only lead to professional failure. One example used to demonstrate this patronizing attitude on the part of geinin is the way adults try to amuse babies by playing peekaboo. Tokunaga feels that he can only play the game by the same rules as everyone else, while Kamiya insists that a refusal to play by the rules is the only thing that guarantees originality and authenticity. In his final stage performance with his own manzai partner, Tokunaga proves that he gets the message by first unconventionally insulting his partner and the audience, then ending with the crowd-pleasing statement that his harsh words only expressed the opposite of his true feelings. Tokunaga thus reveals both an awareness of the underlying truth of Kamiya’s philosophy and the realization of its costs (and the fact that the story ends with Kamiya having undergone breast-augmentation surgery as his most recent attempt to break the mold is intended to be an indication of the miserable fate in store for martyrs such as him).
Both this story and Hada’s were the overwhelming favorites among selection-committee members. Most were impressed by the authentic glimpse behind the scenes of a popular segment of Japan’s entertainment industry (Matayoshi is himself an active if relatively undistinguished geinin, a fact that added to the news value of the award announcement this time). Matayoshi writes with sensitivity and discernment about what he knows and has experienced. Only three members of the nine-member committee expressed objections or reservations. Takagi Nobuko complained that the ending of Matayoshi’s story reduced Kamiya’s philosophy of speech to the visual -- and trivial -- travesty of breast augmentation. Okuizumi Hikaru felt that Matayoshi’s flat descriptive style failed to reach far below the surface, thus causing Matayoshi to miss something central to the experience of a youth like the narrator, whose own inner life remains largely unexplored. Murakami Ryū was favorably impressed by the literary “respect” he detected in Matayoshi’s work, but thought that the story ended up being too long for its own good, losing an ineffable sense of “unmanageable fear” (te ga tsukerarenai kowasa) that Murakami apparently thinks is essential to artistic integrity. All three criticisms strike me as being accurate, although since Hibana is a debut novel, one can certainly understand adopting a generous attitude toward a serious literary effort that may finally be just a little too earnest and a little too deliberate.
Sukurappu ando birudo (Scrap and Build) by Hada Keisuke
An extremely readable story of a young man between jobs who, living at home in Kanagawa Prefecture with his mother and grandfather, decides to grant his elderly relative’s often-expressed wish to be “taken away” from a life that has left him in poor health and placed such a burden on his children. Kento, who is 28 years old, somewhat naively takes his grandfather’s habitual griping about life seriously (not surprisingly, given that the old man has in fact previously attempted suicide). A conversation with a health-worker friend inspires him to keep his grandfather as inactive as possible, thus hastening his ultimate -- and presumably desired -- demise.
A crisis arrives when Kento, needing to use the toilet while bathing his grandfather, leaves his grandfather alone in the tub even though the old man pleads that he is going to drown. Kento shakes off the old man’s grasp, and when he returns from the toilet he finds his grandfather struggling desperately in the bathwater. This causes Kento to wonder if he had not subconsciously tried to arrange for just such an “accident” and, given his grandfather’s obvious desire to go on living, to realize the inherent self-centeredness of the assumptions he had made about his grandfather’s wish to die. The story ends with Kento leaving his mother’s home to take a new job in Ibaraki Prefecture. He is surprised when his grandfather -- who has been placed on the waiting list for a nursing home back in his native Saga Prefecture -- wishes him well and tells him not to worry, that he will be fine on his own. As Kento sits in the train watching a propeller aircraft fly off into the sky, he realizes that there are no final answers in life, but that one must continue to struggle through it toward what lies ahead even though the future can only be built upon the past.
Although media attention this time focused on Matayoshi, Hada received an equal amount of support from members of the selection committee (his distinctive personality also led to appearances on various TV quiz and variety shows, none of them together with Matayoshi). Hada's strengths are quite clear: a naturally fluid style of writing (in contrast to Matayoshi’s distinctly more labored approach), an unstrained and understated sense of humor, and the convincing portrayal of the internal life of a quite ordinary, not-yet-fully-mature human being. Only two committee members stated outright opposition to Hada. Ogawa Yōko thought that his story should have been either more obviously humorous or more compelling in its treatment of the darkness underlying the relationship between Kento and his grandfather. Murakami Ryū acknowledged Hada’s talent while simply declaring the story was not to his personal taste. Shimada Masahiko seemed to hit the nail on the head by expressing admiration for Hada’s sheer versatility while commending Matayoshi for his authenticity, cautioning the latter that his reliance on personal experience would best be restricted to this debut effort.
Irui kon'i tan (Tale of a Mixed Marriage) by Motoya Yukiko
The Japanese title refers to a category of folktale in which a human typically gets married to an animal or spirit that has taken human form. Here, the most obvious reference is to the increasingly unnerving presence of the husband of the narrator, San-chan, a woman who has been married for five years and seems worried about losing her own sense of identity. San-chan notices that her husband's facial features sometimes seem spontaneously (and almost imperceptibly at first) to rearrange themselves. She then discovers that her own features have also started shifting, so that she and her husband appear to be melding into a single creature, much as two snakes who devour each other from the tail eventually metamorphose into a single "snake ball."
A neighbor informs San-chan that this sort of bewitchment can be avoided by using a rock or other object as a proxy to absorb the emanations from one's spouse, but San-chan seems unable to apply this knowledge to her own situation, at least until her neighbor asks her to help her get rid of her pet cat, who cannot stop urinating all over the apartment. San-chan drives the neighbor and the neighbor's husband, along with the cat, out into the mountains, where the cat is released in the knowledge that it will likely die. San-chan is then able to gather the courage to confront her husband, who by the end of the story seems intent on fully reversing their domestic roles, prompting him to literally explode and transform himself into a wild Japanese peony.
San-chan takes the peony to the same place that the cat was released and plants it there, next to a purple gentian. The following year, when she goes to pay a visit, she finds both flowers thriving and is overcome by the chilling thought that the flowers are actually becoming indistinguishable from each other.
Shinde inai mono (Life after Death) by Takiguchi Yūshō
The setting is the wake (tsūya) of a man named Hattori, at which 30 or so family members and friends spanning four generations have gathered to pay their last respects to the 85-year-old patriarch. The author, in a stylistic tour de force, describes the event from the shifting perspectives of a number of the participants (as well as from a more omniscient authorial point of view), relying on memories both shared and individual to weave a finely textured web of family relationships. The story ends, appropriately, with the tolling of a temple bell late at night, leaving the characters and the reader wondering just who might be ringing it (the dead man himself? the dead man's oldest son, who abandoned his family five years previously and hasn't been heard from since?). The message, such as it is, seems to be that this is what life -- and death -- is like for a family with a growing number of branches, and that's that.
The stream-of-consciousness descriptions are masterfully done, even if it eventually becomes tempting to skim through them; considerable effort must also be expended to keep all the family relationships straight. No doubt the confusion is intentional, and it certainly befits the situation (there is a sort of grand review of the names and ages of the 10 grandchildren, at least, in Section 8 of this 15-section story, and things settle down after that). The author's powers of empathy are impressive, the treatment of the passage of time lends resonance to a family's history, and the sense of reality is palpable.
There does not appear to have been much disagreement over the double award this time, with Motoya perhaps being slightly preferred over Takiguchi (of those selection-committee members who can be said to have favored one over the other, Okuizumi Hikaru and Shimada Masahiko may be placed in the Takiguchi camp; Yamada Eimi, Takagi Nobuko, Kawakami Hiromi, and Murakami Ryū went with Motoya). The chief objection to Motoya (from Shimada) was the perceived letdown of the final transformation into a flower, while Takiguchi was taken to task by Murakami for engaging in a deliberate kind of obfuscation that can be considered disrespectful of the reader.
For this reader, Motoya's story remains tantalizingly coy about the connection between the two flowers (and thus the connection between San-chan's husband and the hapless abandoned cat) while it also very neatly applies a traditional folkloristic template to a contemporary situation. Takiguchi's story, on the other hand, takes a while to gel, and even after it does, there is still a preciousness that is slightly distracting (and the temple bell functions as something of a narrative deux ex machina). Even so, one can understand the reluctance to decisively favor one over the other.