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:
Konbini ningen (Convenience-Store Lifer) by Murata Sayaka
The story of a single 36-year-old woman named Furukura Keiko who has worked part-time at the same convenience store for 18 years, finding in the unvarying routine the kind of social acceptance that has eluded her in her personal life. Disruption comes in the form of a new part-timer, a similarly alienated man of about the same age who, unlike Furukura, has become embittered and cynical. This man, named Shiraha, is fired from the convenience store, but lurks nearby with the intention of stalking a female customer in whom he has taken an interest. Furukura notices him and warns him about his behavior, which leads to a conversation about the pressure of social conventions and an odd-couple type of arrangement: Furukura will allow the semi-homeless Shiraha to stay in her apartment -- avoiding contact with his family and the world at large -- and in return she will be able to announce to her friends and family that she has found a man, thereby parrying their increasingly intrusive inquiries into in her deliberately nonconformist lifestyle.
This deal appears to work for a while, with Furukura treating Shiraha much like a pet. The attentions of Furukura's friends and family duly shift toward such conventional concerns as her boyfriend finding steady employment and the "couple" having children. Shiraha (after he unwittingly gives away his location through a smartphone app) is also able to give his family the impression that he is not yet irredeemably lost. But then the convenience-store manager and Furukura's co-workers also find out about the relationship, and they start taking an interest in her not simply as another cogwheel in capitalist society but as a woman who is being rescued from the potentail disaster of spinsterhood. This unwelcome personal attention eventually prompts Furukura to quit (ironically, her colleagues view her decision as an occasion for congratulations). Shiraha then attempts to find a regular job for Furukura so that he himself can remain in hiding, but on the day of a scheduled interview, Furukura belatedly follows Shiraha into a convenience store to use the toilet and -- hearing the "voice" (or voices) of the store -- impulsively begins rearranging the merchandise and giving the staff advice. Shiraha drags her out of the store, but Furukura realizes that she can only truly function as a "convenience-store person" (the literal meaning of the title) and watches Shiraha walk back alone toward the subway station from which they had emerged.
The selection committee swiftly reached agreement about the merits of awarding the prize to this story, with the well-grounded narrative (Murata herself, a 36-year-old who has worked in convenience stores for 18 years, obviously served as the model for Furukura) and the humor being cited by several members. In fact, only two of the nine committee members (Shimada Masahiko and Takagi Nobuko) appear to have remained opposed to Murata. I confess to finding neither the humor nor the plot especially original or convincing on its own terms, despite the story's readability, and tend to agree with Shimada that Murata would have done better to dig a little deeper into the "lighthearted dystopia" (nōtenki na disutopia) she has so effectively evoked but from which she offers no escape. The white noise of convenience-store activity (the "voices" Furukura hears) calls to mind the hum of the refrigerator in Yoshimoto Banana's Kitchen, with which this story seems to have an affinity. But by now one would have hoped for a just little more insistence on the implications of this sort of social alienation.
Shinsekai (New World) by Yamashita Norito
An autobiographically derived story about the first year the narrator (who shares the author’s name and age) spends at a training retreat in Hokkaido for aspiring actors and screenwriters. The retreat has been established by a famous screenwriter referred to throughout simply as Sensei but who is clearly Kuramoto Sō, a screenwriter whose Furano Juku served as a self-sustaining private school for small cohorts of participants from 1984 to 2010. Yamashita (the author) was a member of the second cohort, and spent the prescribed two years at the retreat beginning when he was 19 years old. From the vantage point of the present, Yamashita (the narrator) recounts his own first year at the retreat, presumably in order to take stock of the experience.
The basic narrative framework balances the arrival of the second-cohort students at the beginning of the story against the departure of the first-cohort students at the end, exactly one year later. Yamashita (the narrator) is not given to introspection, however, so much of the story is a relatively objective account of personal relationships, school activities, and community tasks the students undertake to support the school. An occasional disruption arises in the form of a recurring hallucination of an unknown man in black who seems to be looking for Yamashita, and a dream sequence in which the narrator envisions himself (rather in the manner of Natsume Sōseki’s Sanshirō) uncertain about how to respond to the romantic overtures of one of the female students.
These disruptions are clearly intended to represent Yamashita’s search for identity (his own self-abnegating goal in joining the retreat was to “become Bruce Lee”), but his inability to arrive at any definite conclusion results in an anticlimactic ending where Yamashita simply states, “I spent another year in the valley before leaving it.” Indeed, Yamashita’s indecisiveness itself is likely the whole thematic point, since the girl (nicknamed “Ten”) he talks to just before leaving for Hokkaido and who writes postcards to him at the retreat eventually informs him that she is planning to get married, strongly implying that she had hoped he had taken the lead with her. Instead, the hapless (if distraught) Yamashita merely allows events to take their course. One can certainly accept this as a convincing portrayal of a naïve young man of 19 (and admire the skillfully understated way in which these disruptions are made to intrude upon everyday reality) while still harboring lingering doubts along the lines of “Is that all there is to it?.”
Of the selection committee members, the one who appeared to be most deeply impressed by the achievement of this sense of nonfulfillment (karaburi-kan, often used in baseball to describe a swing and a miss) was the newest member,Yoshida Shūichi (as of the 2016 awards, the committee has 10 members: Ogawa Yō, Okuizumi Hikaru, Kawakami Hiromi, Shimada Masahiko, Takagi Nobuko, Horie Toshiyuki, Miyamoto Teru, Murakami Ryū, Yamada Amy, and Yoshida Shūichi). He was joined on the positive side by Ogawa, Okuizumi (somewhat reluctantly), Yamada, Horie, and Kawakami. Murakami Ryū judged the story to be simply boring (tsumaranai); Takagi likewise mentioned the blandness once the roman à clef aspect was set aside; Miyamoto added the thought that the use of hiragana rather than kanji in the title was an unearned affectation; and Shimada wondered why—despite the successful evocation of a sense of meaninglessness—a story as dry as this deserved recognition. This no doubt counts as a close call, with Kawakami’s comment that the very precision of its ordinariness may have tilted the balance in the story’s favor appearing to be the best overall statement of the outcome.