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 through 2020.


155th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2016

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 then an odd-couple type of arrangement: Furukura will allow the semi-homeless Shiraha to stay in her apartment -- enabling him to avoid 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 partner, thereby parrying their increasingly intrusive inquiries into 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's obtaining steady employment and the "couple" having children. Shiraha (who unwittingly gives away his location through a smartphone app) is at least able to give his family the impression that he is not 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 potential 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 she watches as Shiraha walks 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 its 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 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 I tend to agree with Shimada that Murata would have done better to dig a little deeper into the "cheerful 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 just a little more serious engagement with the implications of this sort of social alienation.

156th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2016

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 obviously 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 actually “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 would take the lead with her. Instead, the hapless (if distraught) Yamashita merely allows events to take their course. One can accept this as a convincing portrayal of a naïve young man of 19 (and admire the skillfully understated way in which these disruptions intrude upon everyday reality) while at the same time harboring lingering doubts along the lines of “Is that all there is to it?.”

Of the selection committee members, the one who actually appeared to be most deeply impressed by this sense of the narrator's failing to connect (karaburi-kan, karaburi being 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 Yōko, Okuizumi Hikaru, Kawakami Hiromi, Shimada Masahiko, Takagi Nobuko, Horie Toshiyuki, Miyamoto Teru, Murakami Ryū, Yamada Eimi, 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 using hiragana rather than kanji to write the title was an unearned affectation; and Shimada wondered why -- despite the successful evocation of a sense of meaninglessness -- a story so dry should merit any special 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 characterization of the outcome.

157th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2017

Eiri (Inner Shadows), by Numata Shinsuke

The story of a gay narrator unable to contact an estranged friend in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake but unwilling to completely give up the idea that somehow the friend may have survived.

The story is told in three parts, framed by and threaded with descriptions of freshwater fishing in the Oide River near Morioka in Iwate Prefecture. The thirty-ish narrator, Imano Shūichi, starts out with a description of an August fishing outing with his friend and one-time colleague, Hiasa Norihiro, about two years after being transferred to the local subsidiary of a pharmaceutical company. Hiasa stops when they arrive at a fallen Mongolian oak, and as he carefully examines the tree, Imano notes that this behavior is in keeping with what Imano thinks is an obsessive infatuation with large-scale destruction. Hiasa had quite his job the previous February and gone to work as a "funeral manager" for a mutual-assistance society without notifying Imano, who had discovered this new fishing spot on his own in May. Hiasa reestablishes contact with Imano in June, when he "just happened to be in the neighborhood" of Imano's apartment.

This descriptive first section is followed by a section -- dated to the following September -- in which the reader learns more about Imano's life prior to his transfer, including his relationships with his sister and a transexual partner named Fukushima Kazuya, both of whom happen to send emails to Imano on the same day that he is supposed to meet Hiasa for a private outdoor party at the river, ostensibly so that the latter can thank Imano for having signed a contract for funeral insurance to help Hiasa fulfill his monthly quota (Hiasa had made the request just 10 days after their August outing). The two friends bicker and the party ends badly, even though they are joined by a friendly older man who was Hiasa's first client. Back at home, Imano phones Fukushima, somewhat surprised by the feminine voice until he recalls that Fukushima had planned to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. This lengthy phone conversation brings the section to an end.

The final section momentarily diverts the reader's attention to one of Imano's apartment-building neighbors, an elderly former schoolteacher whose initial politeness is contradicted by a streak of self-interest (exposing the discrepancy between surface and inner motivations is the reason for the story's title). A newspaper article written by the daughter of the schoolteacher's former pupil is the method Numata uses to bring the story up to the narrative present, just after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011. One day after the Golden Week break, as Imano prepares to drive home from returns to work, he is waylaid by a part-timer who tells Imano that Hiasa may have been killed in the disaster. It turns out that this part-timer, a woman named Suzumura, had been approached by Hiasa to take out an insurance policy not just for herself but also for her husband, and then a coming-of-age policy for her daughter. Not only that, Hiasa had borrowed a fairly substantial sum of cash from her, promising to repay it in the autumn of 2011 after he received his first bonus. The tsunami had destroyed the house of one of Suzumura's relatives and that family had come to live with her in Morioka, so Suzumura had tried unsuccessfully to call Hiasa at work and ask for early repayment. The mutual-aid office had informed her that Hiasa was in the coastal city of Kamaishi on the day of the earthquake -- ostensibly scouting potential clients on his day off, but also announcing that he would be bringing back some fish -- and hadn't been heard from since. As Imano drives home after speaking to Suzumura, he imagines Hiasa as he might have been on the day of the earthquake, looking out at the ocean as the tsunami approached and waiting for the force of the water to overwhelm him.

Imano later follows up by going to see Hiasa's father, who informs him that he disowned his son after learning that Hiasa had milked him of support money while ostensibly studying at a college in Tokyo. The father discovered Hiasa's deceit when he was blackmailed by the man who forged the diploma Hiasa used to get his job. Hiasa's father then states his conviction that his son isn't dead, that he is probably just using the earthquake and tsunami as a means to gain financial advantage from the disaster. As Imano is leaving, Hiasa's father tells him that his son's name is sure to appear in the newspaper in connection with some crime, and (rather inexplicably but with obvious thematic relevance) he shows Imano the yellowed notice of acceptance Hiasa received from the university and that Hiasa's father carries in his pants pocket. The notification, Hiasa's father assures Imano, is genuine. The story ends much as it began -- and in the same season -- with Imano going once again to his favorite fishing spot, this time alone. He remembers reading a newspaper article shortly after the earthquake about a man who was arrested while trying to break into an ATM at a deserted bank, and he imagines that Hiasa may well have been the man's accomplice. Imano then catches a rainbow trout, unusual for such a northern location, and resolves to search online for the reason rainbow trout might be swimming in the Oide River.

As this extended summary makes clear, Numata expends a great deal of effort establishing a detailed chronology and structuring it through narrative interludes in a way to gradually draw out social and personal motifs. The writing is confident, even masterly, and the open-ended conclusion hearkens back to a kind of suggestiveness that once was considered quintessentially Japanese, despite the contrivance involved. Indeed, it was this deliberate air of suggestiveness -- which includes a significant amount of hedging about the nature of the relationship between Imano and Hiasa -- that caused some members of the selection committee to hesitate recommending the story for the award. Miyamoto Teru, for example, while admiring Numata's talent, complained that he hadn't really treated the tragedy of the earthquake at all, that he had simply managed to drape it in a sort of camouflage. Okuizumi Hikaru felt that the story was undeveloped and left too much about Hiasa unexplored. Murakami Ryū (who ignored all of the other candidates in his comments, apparently unimpressed), expressed dissatisfaction with the way he was too easily able to discern the author's message, asserting that a successful author inspires the reader to make an imaginative effort that leads to a surprising discovery rather than to a thoroughly predictable conclusion.

Aside from these three exceptions, Numata received positive votes from Yamada Eimi, Yoshida Shūichi (who qualified his support by advising Numata in the future to focus on a Hiasa-type character rather than on an Imano-type narrator), Takagi Nobuko, Ogawa Yōko, Horie Toshiyuki (for whom the story was a second choice), Kawakami Hiromi (who also expressed a preference for a different story), and Shimada Masahiko. It is a strong showing, even if the story, despite its timeliness, incorporates what might be called a reassuringly traditional style that does give the impression of a deliberately evoked suggestiveness.

158th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2017; two winners

Ora ora de hitori igu mo (Where I Go, I Go Alone), by Wakatake Chisako

A multi-voiced meditation by a 74-year-old widow named Hidaka Momoko about the solitude, loneliness, and freedom of her own final years. The narration is a mixture of Tohoku dialect and standard Japanese, reflecting Momoko's dual consciousness of a life lived partly in Tohoku and partly in the Kanto region (she ran away from home at the age of 24, and for the past 40 years she has been living in a "New Town" suburb outside of Tokyo). The reader is given access to Momoko's internal dialogues and recollections over the course of a year, becoming acquainted with her deepening awareness that the (relatively) early death of her husband not only plunged her into sadness but made possible a joyous independence -- made it possible, that is, for her to discover herself. If her initial escape to Tokyo represented a youthful assertion of independence based on rejection and (apparent) denial, her return to the language and memories of her youth toward the end of her life represents a different sort of declaration of independence, one based on affirmation and acceptance. This affirmation does not occur without ambivalence, and precisely for that reason the story gains strength as a fully authentic portrayal of a particular end-of-days vision of life. The title, itself in Tohoku dialect, references a line in Miyazawa Kenji's poem Ketsubetsu no asa (The Morning of Our Final Parting).

The selection committee was almost universally impressed by this late-bloomer's debut story (Wakatake, at 63, is the second-oldest author ever to have won the Akutagawa Prize), noting, for example, the stylistic verve (Yamada Eimi) and the effective evocation of a joined past, present, and future resulting from the story's multifaceted narrative technique (Miyamoto Teru). Only Ogawa Yōko voiced a certain dissatisfaction with the rather mundane level of Momoko's final stage of awareness, although Ogawa also took pains to comment on Wakatake's talent. (Murakami Ryū for some reason did not take part in the selection process this time.) There is no question of that talent, even if one must point out that a certain redundancy sets in in the last two sections of the five-section story, and that the ending (Motoko's granddaughter pays an unexpected visit) does seem tritely redemptive. The award is certainly deserved; one wonders what direction Wakatake will take in the future.

Hyakunen-doro (One Hundred Years of Mud), by Ishii Yūka

The narrator is a Japanese woman, divorced multiple times, who out of financial necessity has come to Chennai, India, to teach Japanese to Indians at a local IT company. Several months into her stay, the river floods, briefly confining her to her apartment. When she ventures out to work again, she crosses a bridge over the river, and items mysteriously originating from Japan are picked out of the mud and used to connect the narrator's past and present, India and Japan. First, a whiskey bottle occasions thoughts of the narrator's past marriages and her reason for coming to India in the first place. Next, a glass-encased mummified "mermaid" from a hometown temple occasions memories of the narrator's childhood and her relationship with her mother. Finally, a coin medallion from the Osaka Expo of 1970 associates themes of tourism and expatriation with the narrator's present relationships with her Indian colleagues and students, expanding the story into a kind of meditation on Indian culture.

As will be clear from the above outline, Ishii uses magical realism to create an imaginative space in which two cultures and multiple periods of time can intermingle (the title clearly echoes Gabriel García Márquez). Having wealthier Indians fly to work on artificial sets of wings which are then set out on banana palms to air adds an extra touch of cross-cultural whimsy. The mingling of fancy and reality is skillfully accomplished, although there is also a slightly discomforting sense of exoticism (the narrator, unlike the author, is more or less fresh off the boat and has not really earned her cultural insights, even if it is true that first impressions can be important in their own way). This exotic aspect does tend to give one pause, even if one can acknowledge a certain amount of personal complicity when writing in English about a Japanese story about life in India. The story is enjoyable enough to read, but finally more of a treat than a filling meal.

Although generally not as positive toward Ishii as they were toward Wakatake, the members of the selection committee did recognize the imaginative power of Ishii's technique (Ogawa Yōko noted that the story received the nod during the committee's second vote). Yamada Eimi praised the "collage" of cultural elements, Miyamoto Teru declared magical realism to be appropriate to a depiction of life in India, and Kawakami Hiromi was won over by the story's playful absurdity. Yoshida Shūichi thought that Wakatake's story contained a warmth lacking in Ishii; Takagi Nobuko took exception to the "informational" content of what was supposed to be a depiction of an Indian's thought processes; Okuizumi Hikaru said that although he was predisposed against the story, he found himself persuaded by the positive arguments of other members; Shimada Masahiko thought that a clearer line between reportage and fiction might be advisable (Shimada here seems to comes close to expressing my own doubts); and Horie Toshiyuki sensed that the plot was a little too neatly organized. (As mentioned above, Murakami Ryū did not take part in the selection process this time.) Despite these minor reservations, the other members were quite willing to have Ishii share the prize with Wakatake.

159th Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2018

Okuribi (Rite of Fire), by Takahashi Hiroki

Ayumu has started his last year of middle school as a transfer student in the Tsugaru region of northern Japan, where the population is dwindling. The school is scheduled to be merged with another school next year, and Ayumu is one of only six male students in the final graduating class. He prides himself on his ability to navigate the often troublesome waters of middle-school social life, and soon appears to have fit in with the others, including the class leader -- a bully named Akira -- and Akira's regular victim, Minoru. Ayumu nevertheless stands out: his father is a salaried worker on his last assignment before assuming a permanent management post in Tokyo; Ayumu himself plans to go to a high school in the Tokyo metropolitan area rather than a local vocational-oriented school; and he lacks the sort of moral fiber that might enable him to stand up to the sort of bullying and petty violence exhibited by Akira, who plays vicious tricks on the losers of a card game in which he is always the dealer and manipulates the cards.

Summer vacation starts, and Ayumu thinks that the remainder of the school year will probably play out much as the spring term did. But on the day in August the community is scheduled to perform its okuribi ceremony -- setting fire to giant straw figures as a means to guide ancestral spirits back to the other world after their brief sojourn on earth during the Bon Festival -- former graduates of the middle school gather the classmates together to perform their own traditional hazing ritual, a "circus" stunt in which one of the boys must try to maintain his balance on a medium-sized Day-Glow ball. The victim is chosen by playing the usual card game, and (although Ayumu is said to be unable to determine whether Akira cheats) Minoru loses, eventually getting beat to a bloody pulp before rebelling violently and stabbing the OB ringleader with a knife, then attacking Ayumu with one of the sharp-edged farm implements that have brought for the hazing. Ayumu at first supposes that Minoru has mistaken him for Akira, but Minoru shouts that it is Ayumu he has always resented. The seriously injured Ayumu manages to run off, finally fainting next to the river, where he regains consciousness in the evening just as the first of the three straw ceremonial figures is being set alight.

With the repeated emphasis on Ayumu's ability to "get along" with his classmates (the "kyōchōsei" for which he is commended on his school report card), the reader is obviously being set up for the reversal of expectations that occurs in the final section. The fact that Ayumu, Akira, and Monoru are the three classmates forced to take part in the card game to decide who is to be subject to the hazing "game" -- along with Ayumu's mistaken impression of the reason for Minoru's attack -- suggests that this three-cornered relationship holds the key to interpretation. The final image of the burning "sacrifice," too, makes it clear enough that the three have been implicated in some sort of primal coming-of-age rite. What is not clear is what, if anything, is being sacrificed or exorcised. Is this some sort of masochistic and nihilistic form of revenge taken on a mainstream stance toward middle-school graduation as a means to achieving one's "dreams" while in fact offering only the promise of brutish, lifelong drudgery on the land? That is about as apt a moral as any, I suppose. But the story ends in freeze-frame fashion, and there is no follow-up, no epilogue of any kind. It's powerful stuff, but it's also mostly just a boot to the head.

Okuribi was chosen as the winning story on the first ballot, with Takahashi garnering near-universal praise from the selection committee for his sheer talent as a writer. The style is assured and the insinuation of extreme violence into the everyday life of a rural community is handled with extraordinary skill. The only real point of contention was the significance (or lack of it) of the violence in the final climactic section. Kawakami Hiromi (who actually favored another work over Okuribi) gave voice to the ambivalence over the ending by saying that she would like Takahashi to have the violence lead somewhere but that she respected the right of a writer not to satisfy the demands of his or her readers. Ogawa Yōko, Yamada Eimi, and Horie Toshiyuki were unequivocal supporters; Shimada Masahiko was lavish with his praise; Miyamoto Teru found the ending puzzling but admired the "dense texture" of the story's details; Yoshida Shūichi offered congratulations while hedging in the same manner as Kawakami; Okuizumi Hikaru supported another story but was willing to go along with the majority. Takagi Nobuko remained opposed to Takahashi to the end. Murakami Ryū announced on July 6 that the previous award (the 158th) marked the end of his participation as a member of the selection committee. The precise reason for Murakami's decision is unclear -- and it is worth noting that he had absented himself from the previous selection-committee meeting -- but news reports noted that he had made his intentions clear well before his public announcement, and that his decision consequently had nothing to do with a charge of plagiarism that had been leveled in June against one of the award candidates.

160th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2018; two winners

Nimuroddo (Nimrod), by Ueda Takahiro

Nimuroddo starts off by alternating between sections focused on the daily life of Satoshi Nakamoto, who provides system support for a small IT company with offices in Tokyo and Nagoya, and sections devoted to a cryptic series of messages over Line, the popular SNS app, that Nakamoto receives from “Nimrod” describing various failed historical aircraft projects (such as for the Bonney Gull, which was designed to physically resemble a bird and killed its inventor-pilot on its maiden flight in 1928). It turns out that “Nimrod” is the online handle of a colleague of Nakamoto’s named Nimuro who has been transferred from Tokyo to the firm’s Nagoya office. Nimuro/Nimrod is an aspiring author whose novels have failed to win recognition, and his fixation on failed aircraft functions as an allegory for his own failure as a writer: his fanciful creations have been similarly unsuccessful. Nimuro has adopted the name "Nimrod" because of its association with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, and he is working on a novel about this Nimrod’s building a personal Tower of Babel with a collection of failed aircraft on its roof. Since Nimuro always refers to himself as “Nimrod, King of Mankind,” the allegory is clearly meant to implicate humanity as a whole.

Nakamoto’s role as narrator is to complicate and expand the allegory. He does this by establishing a second parallel based on his own job as an IT worker. Nakamoto has been assigned by the company president to put excess server capacity to use by mining Bitcoin. This allows Nakamoto to engage in some popular philosophizing about how desire can create value out of nothing while also being subject to the law of diminishing returns. How is one supposed to produce continued value out of the blockchain when individual transactions become of increasingly negligible importance? The parallel with the history of failed aircraft (and thus to the core Nimrod story) is clear enough to the reader, if not to Nakamoto himself (who is nevertheless quite aware that he shares his name with the supposed inventor of Bitcoin). Nakamoto also provides Nimuro with emotional support and, more concretely, a lover. This woman -- whose name is Takubo Noriko and who works for a high-powered financial firm -- starts out as Nakamoto’s lover, but she becomes increasingly absorbed in Nimuro’s imaginative reveries as reported to Nakamoto. Near the end of the story, the two friends and Takubo take part in a three-way video conference, after which Takubo flies to Singapore to close a financial megadeal and then sends Nakamoto a message about flying out east over the ocean, never to return -- a reference to the inventor of one of Nimuro’s failed aircraft, the Yokosuka MXY-7 Ōka kamikaze plane, who left behind the same message when, shortly after the end of World War II, he took off in a training aircraft with the apparent intention of committing suicide. Takubo, in other words, is saying goodbye to Nakamoto, perhaps to run off with Nimuro, who himself has not messaged Nakamoto since the conference call. Metaphorically speaking, Takubo would appear to have become the ideal, all-accepting reader Nimuro has been denied in real life.

But, of course, that begs the question of why Nimuro -- who says that he would prefer to emulate J. D. Salinger and write only for himself -- has continually been sending draft fragments to Nakamoto, and this apparent contradiction points to Nakamoto’s second function, which is to serve as a conduit between the imaginative world of Nimuro and the presumably more mundane world of the reader of the story. Ueda’s answer as our own author is disingenuous: he simply has both Nimuro and Takubo acknowledge that Nakamoto has an unaccountable ability to elicit such responses from people. There are at least two other points on which authorial intention or execution appears to stumble. First, a final message from Nimuro is transcribed in which he describes himself in the cockpit of an Ōka kamikaze plane heading out over the ocean, an obvious attempt to complete the circle between biography and fiction that Nimuro has been drawing. The trouble is that there is no justification for the message appearing in the story: even after it is inserted (and even though Nimuro addresses Nakamoto as he has in his previous messages), Nakamoto explicitly states that he has not heard anything from Nimuro since the conference call. Furthermore (although this is not a case of plausibility), Nakamoto concludes his narrative by musing about the possibility of creating his own unit of cryptocurrency, which he plans to call the “nimrod.” Rather an obvious sort of thematic linking, but with the final message from Nimuro accessible only to the reader, the intended merging of the second parallel with the first is only partly successful.

This lengthy analysis may make the story seem more substantial than it really is. To summarize, I would say that the writing is flat (even supporters on the selection committee expressed dismay that so much material was simply lifted from a referenced website); the allegorical aspects are obvious and trite; as a character, the hapless Nakamoto is forever being made to check Wikipedia on his iPhone 8 so that the reader is aware of the necessary technological and historical background; and the thematic implications raised by the presence of Takubo (who has had an abortion) are left unexplored. Even the semi-escape fantasy at the end has been largely presaged by Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie Brazil, which is a much more engrossing treatment of a similar theme with similar subplots. However, the only outright dissenter on the selection committee was Ogawa Yōko, who complained that the narrator simply seems to vanish at the end, as if a computer’s power button had suddenly been switched off, leaving nothing behind. The story’s two strongest supporters were Yoshida Shūichi and Yamada Eimi, who marveled at the narrative perfection on display. Others on the committee who were favorably disposed included Takagi Nobuko (who wrote of the humanity of finding hope in despair), Shimada Masahiko (who noted the resemblance to the Icarus myth), and Kawakami Hiromi, (impressed, as were others, by the story’s “narrative strength”). Also in agreement regarding Ueda’s narrative skill were Okuizumi Hikaru and Miyamoto Teru; Horie Toshiyuki, although not opposed to Ueda, did seem to find the treatment somewhat superficial.

Ichi raundo ippun sanjūyonbyō (1 Minute, 34 Seconds of the First Round), by Machiya Ryōhei

Machiya Ryōhei’s Ichi raundo ippun sanjūyonbyō is narrated by a young, nameless boxer who, like Nimuro in Ueda’s story, is deeply frustrated and depressed. Although he debuted with a first-round knockout, the newcomer has since suffered three defeats and a draw, the most recent defeat being particularly humiliating. The boxer’s trainer, apparently giving up on him, entrusts him to the supervision of a young boxer-trainer at the gym, some four years older than the narrator, whose unorthodox but wholly appropriate guidance over the span of about five months enables the boxer to regain the motivation and confidence necessary to confront his next opponent. The story ends with the narrator’s imagined victory over that opponent early in the first round of their bout, and hence the title. The thematic point, in other words, is not whether he actually wins or not, but that he has attained the necessary level of self-conscious awareness to go on as a boxer despite the sacrifices he is making and is likely to continue to make in the future.

Pretty much a straightforward coming-of-age novel, Ichi raundo is thoroughly convincing in its portrayal of the narrator’s unique yet true-to-type personality, supported by considerable stylistic sparkle. The emotional ups and downs experienced by the narrator as he analyzes his past matches, seeks temporary solace with a “sex friend,” and undertakes a grueling regimen of training are related with an incisiveness that inspires genuine empathy (even if one Japanese reviewer may have sarcastically made note of the condescension involved in being impressed by the introspective self-awareness of a boxer). The idea that the narrator might go so far in his pre-match online research as to form a bond of friendship with his opponent is particularly compelling. It is true that the theme is not especially profound, that the trainer-boxer who supervises the narrator comes dangerously close to becoming a stock character despite his supposed “eccentricity,” and that the descriptions of the relentless training routine and the narrator’s relationship with his trainer tend to grow tedious and belabored toward the end. To refer again to film, if Nimuroddo can be placed alongside such SF-fantasies as Brazil and Blade Runner, Ichi raundo reads like an adaptation of Rocky, with the mentor assuming the role of lover as well. The difference between Nimuroddo and Ichi raundo, however, is that the latter remains on its feet when the final bell rings.

None of the selection committee members were opposed to the choice of Machiya, with Takagi Nobuko and Miyamoto Teru expressing reservations about Machiya merely accomplishing the task he set out to do (Takagi) and demonstrating but not fully exploiting his potential (Miyamoto). Ogawa (who actually supported a third writer), Shimada, Yoshida, Okuizumi, and Horie can be put into the favorable category, while Yamada and Kawakami were unequivocal in their praise. From my point of view, Machiya’s story outclasses Ueda’s, and I think he deserved to be the sole winner.

161st Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2019

Murasaki no sukāto no onna (The Woman in the Purple Skirt), by Imamura Natsuko

A story that attempts to blur the boundary between fantasy and reality by superimposing the image of the narrator, a nondescript woman named Kondō, over that of Hino Mayuko, described as a well-known local oddball referred to as the Woman in the Purple Skirt. Imamura apparently wants the reader to have trouble deciding whether the two should both be considered real people or whether the narrator is at least to some extent simply projecting her own desires onto the title character. In either case, the intent seems to be to offer a penetrating and memorable portrayal of a social misfit.

Hino is introduced by Kondō's referring to her uncanny ability to glide effortlessly through a crowd of oncoming pedestrians and by her resemblance to other individuals in Kondō's life. At the same time, Hino appears to have no friends and no regular employment, taking most pleasure in bringing a cream-filled roll to a local park to eat always on the same park bench. At the park, she is the object of children's pranks as the neighborhood crazy lady, and the narrator -- who wants to strike up a friendship -- regularly places a free newspaper on the bench with hints as to suitable job positions. The narrator, that is, sees a kindred spirit in Hino, and by way of ironically commenting on her own social isolation, gives herself the nickname the "Woman in the Yellow Cardigan."

Kondō's efforts eventually pay off, and Hino lands a job on the housekeeping staff of the same hotel at which Kondō works as a staff supervisor. Hino starts out poorly, but almost immediately undergoes a transformation to become a competent and popular co-worker. The transformation also prompts a change in her relationship to the children in the park, who apologize for their behavior and essentially become Hino’s wards. The reader, in other words, is being made aware that an element of wish fulfillment is involved, especially given that Kondō is as inconspicuous at the workplace as she seems to be in private life (she doesn't like to drink, and her colleagues even have trouble remembering whether she attended a recent drinking party).

Kondō essentially stalks Hino through her first months at the hotel, witnessing a second transformation in Hino as she takes up romantically with the head supervisor, coming to neglect her duties and apparently filching hotel linens to sell for cash at a local bazaar. When the head supervisor comes to Hino’s apartment house one night to ask her to confess to the theft and so exonerate him, a scuffle ensues during which the head supervisor falls through the rusted railing of the second-floor staircase, landing apparently lifeless on the ground. At this point, Kondō intervenes, informing Hino that the head supervisor is dead and advising her to run off before the police arrive. Kondō gives Hino directions to a rural business hotel, along with the key to a coin locker where Kondō has stashed some money and supplies against the possibility of herself being evicted from her apartment (an event which has in fact taken place). Kondō tells Hino to take a bag from the coin locker, re-lock the compartment, place the key in a nearby public-phone telephone book, and then travel to a rural business hotel where Kondō will meet her later. However, events conspire to delay Kondō, and when she finally reaches the business hotel (after finding the coin locker completely emptied), she learns that Hino had never checked in.

Two short scenes are then presented to end the story. The first takes place at the hospital to which the head supervisor has been taken after his fall (it turns out that he was actually only injured) and a small group of co-workers -- including Kondō -- have come to pay a visit. Taking advantage of the momentary absence of the others, Kondō asks the head supervisor (who unaccountably hadn't noticed Kondō's presence in the room) first for a raise and then, when that is denied, for a loan. The head supervisor refuses that, too, but when Kondō says that a loan will ensure her silence regarding the head supervisor's theft of a celebrity's panties, he says that he will give it consideration. This is followed by an even shorter scene in which Kondō wakes up one day, takes a cream-filled roll to the park, sits on the bench formerly occupied by the Woman in the Purple Skirt, and is plonked on the shoulder by a mischievous child.

This abrupt ending -- in which the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan has completely taken the place of the Woman in the Purple Skirt -- suggests a deliberate and even forced manipulation of narrative point of view that caused Takagi Nobuko, in her comments on the story, to refer to the story as “tricky.” Objectively, Kondō and Hino must both exist (it is acknowledged by other characters, for example, that the head supervisor has been more or less pushed from the second floor by Hino). Yet it is also true that the narrator could hardly have shadowed Hino so closely without being noticed, and it is unlikely she would have been able even to list the items and prices on a restaurant bill. In other words, the reader is prompted to identify the narrator directly with the woman in the purple skirt even though the fictional setting itself makes that impossible. Takagi therefore taxed Imamura with bordering on the irresponsible in leaving the ending open to differing interpretations in this way (it only works, Takagi added, if there is deep sense of tragic sadness -- hinting that Imamura had not quite managed to pull it off).

Despite this (to my mind valid) reservation, most of the members of the selection committee took the superimposition of identities to be effective, with Ogawa Yōko, Yamada Eimi, Kawakami Hiromi, Miyamoto Teru, and Horie Toshiyuki squarely in the positive camp. Yoshida Shūichi was also favorably impressed, though he initially voted for another story. Qualified acceptance came from Takagi Nobuko, Okuizumi Hikaru, and Shimada Masahiko; there was no outright opposition. Takagi’s qualified viewpoint comes closest to my own: the narrative “trickiness” finally seems too deliberate, despite the intriguing conceit of observing someone -- a someone much like oneself -- who would normally rather not be subject to such observation.

Takagi, by the way, now 73 years old, has decided to “retire” from the Akutagawa Prize selection committee to devote her remaining life more fully to her own work. She even gave a short farewell address to the other members at the end of the final selection-committee meeting -- something that apparently had never been done before. A new member of the selection committee can therefore be expected to be named in the near future.

162nd Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2019

Setaka-awadachisō (Goldenrods), by Furukawa Makoto

An attempt to “read” an island off the coast of Kyūshū as a palimpsest of the past, centering on a family’s summer ritual of visiting a long-abandoned family property to clear the overgrowth surrounding a barn (this is where the goldenrods of the title are growing). The narrative perspective is that of Ōmura Nami, the adult daughter of the woman whose own mother -- now nearly 90 -- currently owns the house. Much of the background and historical context, however, is actually provided by the author as sort of a communal memory, with past incidents interleaved between descriptive episodes of the weed-clearing excursion. These incidents hark back, for instance, to the whaling of the Edo period, a post-World War II rescue at sea of repatriating Korean workers, and a contemporary event involving a middle-school student from Kagoshima who had left home and reached the island by canoe. The story ends with the party of Kyūshū mainlanders returning home at the end of the day.

This was Furukawa’s fourth nomination for the Akutagawa Prize, and he would appear to have won it based on extending the range of his narrative over the twin dimensions of time and space (his previous stories deal essentially with the same family, prompting more than one committee member to remark on the saga-like quality of his work). Miyamoto Teru, who fretted momentarily about whether he was being too generous, came down squarely in favor of Furukawa, pointing to the advance that “Goldenrods” represented over Furukawa's previous attempts. Yoshida Shūichi and Yamada Eimi, also favorably disposed, hedged slightly about what they viewed as minor shortcomings in technique. Ogawa Hiroko initially supported another candidate, but acknowledged the gravitational pull of Furukawa’s story. Shimada Masahiko regarded “Goldenrods” as something of a “spinoff” of the Furukawa saga, but one that was able to range freely beyond the restrictive encompass of one small island; he expressed relief that after an unpromising start to the committee’s deliberations, a suitable candidate had been agreed on. Kawakami Hiromi expressed doubt that the story had been completely successful but professed admiration for Furukawa’s attempt to expand his narrative reach. Okuizumi Hikaru complained that the story seemed easier to read but also flatter than Furukawa’s previous efforts (which he noted that he had praised in earlier comments). Horie Toshiyuki was generally negative -- he considered the story to be weaker than Furukawa’s previous efforts -- but he appears to have persuaded himself that the literary potential of Furukawa’s broader “saga” warranted an investment in his future. Matsuura Hisaki took perhaps the harshest view of the story, criticizing it for being nearly incoherent; however, he also announced to the other members that he would not oppose its selection.

Selection seems to have been an understandably close call this time, probably because of the awkward fit that obtains in Furukawa's story between the multiple levels of past and present. The effect is rather disjointed, although the story is not without appeal -- a sort of resigned account of the diminished significance of the Japanese geographical periphery.

163rd Akutagawa Prize, first half of 2020; two winners

Shuri no uma (A Shuri Horse), by Takayama Haneko

Minako is a woman apparently in her late twenties who spends much of her time indexing and photographing materials in an out-of-the-way local repository of historical materials in Okinawa. The materials in the collection have been acquired by a retired folklorist originally from the Japanese mainland and form a vast hodgepodge the use of which is not immediately apparent but which Minako regards as full of potential significance. Minako also has a part-time job -- located in an empty sound studio where she is the only employee -- administering online quizzes to foreigners which require them to find some logical connection among three apparently random terms. (For example, Minako may say, "Begin with a little boy and a fat man. What is Ivan?" The respondent is meant to answer "Tsar" because the references are to the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan and the nickname of the proposed atomic bomb under development in Russia.) The way in which Minako connects these two workspaces becomes the focus of interest in the story.

Loneliness is the thematic keystone, for besides Minako's solitary work in the repository archives, the quizzes she administers in her one-woman workplace are taken by individuals who themselves have been stranded in situations of extreme isolation. Minako's own solution to the problem of loneliness, especially once the folklorist who owns the repository dies, is to entrust the photographic data she has been collecting to her online respondents -- there happen to be three of them -- in the hope that they can benefit from it and perhaps eventually make it available to others who can discern the necessary connections.

The horse of the title functions to symbolize Minako's personal sense of accomplishment. The horse -- an indigenous breed known as the Miyako pony -- mysteriously appears balled up in Minako's yard on the morning after a typhoon strikes. Minako first takes it to the police, who place it in a local petting zoo, but Minako steals it back and keeps it in a seaside cave, using a trail camera to monitor its movements. Gradually, thanks to the advice she receives from one of her online respondents, she teaches herself to ride it, and the story ends with Minako astride the horse -- which she has named Hikōki, "Airplane," after a famous Okinawan horse the owner of the repository once told her about -- watching from a distance as heavy machinery destroys the repository in which she has spent so much of her time.

Although it is hard to think of what the follow-up to the story might be, the point -- as becomes clear enough from the long, even wordy, conversation Minako has with the daughter of the repository owner after the owner has been cremated -- is that the various accumulated fragments of individual pasts constitute a community of sorts the meaning of which can only be gleaned from an individual perspective: it is something that we can share in our loneliness. One wishes that the final conversation, which is actually closer to a monologue by the folklorist's daughter, did not seem quite so labored and obvious; but this sort of narrative prolixity -- if such it can be called -- can be counted a relatively minor flaw in an otherwise highly readable story.

No major opposition seems to have arisen to awarding Takayama the prize on this, her fourth candidacy. Shimada Masahiko did complain about a certain triviality in the type of loneliness being depicted; Horie Toshiyuki -- relying a little too cleverly for his own good on racetrack metaphors -- suggested that the language used in the "final stretch" was overly facile (this is similar to the point I made, above); and Hirano Keiichirō found the logic to be rather flat, despite a ready willingness to acknowledge Takayama's creative talent. Yoshida Shūichi recognized a clearer statement of theme than in Takayama's previous stories, and Okuizumi Hikaru pronounced the story worthy of the award despite the flaws he discerned in terms of thematic coherence and the problematic relevance of the Okinawan setting. Ogawa Yōko and Yamada Eimi both noted the strengths of the story while reserving their strongest support for Tōno. The strongest support came from Matsuura Hisaki and Kawakami Hiromi, the former of whom was quite taken by the "thought experiment" of combining elements of science fiction with Okinawan folklore. This was Matsuura's first participation in deliberations for the prize; Matsuura replaces Miyamoto Teru as a selection-committee member.

Hakyoku (Breakup), by Tōno Haruka

The romantic relationship whose rise and fall defines the dramatic structure of the story is the one between the narrator -- a fourth-year college student named Yōsuke -- and a first-year student at the same university named Akari. The two meet at an event for incoming students; Yōsuke breaks up with his current girlfriend because of Akari; Akari turns out to be more than Yōsuke's carnal equal; Yōsuke's previous girlfriend re-seduces Yōsuke; Akari learns of the betrayal and coolly brushes him off; finally, Yōsuke is arrested when, chasing after Akari, he decks a young man who has attempted to intervene.

The real question that is raised, however, is whether the relationship can be called "romantic" at all. Rather, the breakup seems more like physical and mental burnout on the part of Yōsuke, who has actively disengaged himself from emotional involvement in life by encasing his body in what he calls his "armor" of muscle. It is this physicality that insulates Yōsuke from the pain of possible failure, and the evidence for this interpretation is provided both in the form of the volunteer coaching Yōsuke does for the rugby team of his former high school and in the sexual focus of his relationships with his two girlfriends. The result is a kind of fanaticism, with Yōsuke imposing more discipline on the members of the high school rugby team than they can handle and fixating on sexual energy as the essence of relationships with women. Externality takes precedence over internality, as can also be seen in the way Yōsuke continually refers to "manners" as the basis for modeling his behavior and -- in one key scene -- in the way he suppresses his tears by convincing himself that by every objective measure he has no cause to be sad. Yōsuke's external superiority is the obverse side of an inner inferiority, and the outcome can therefore be characterized as more of a breakdown than a breakup.

The path of Yōsuke's psychological and emotional dissociation is expertly traced, and the irony of having a young woman elude Yōsuke's domination by overmatching him sexually is sharp. The abrupt violence of the ending, however, is unsatisfying, and a puzzling ambiguity attends the role of Yōsuke's friend Hiza despite his prominence in the narrative. Selection-committee members opposed to awarding Tōno the prize (Matsuura Hisaki and Okuizumi Hikaru) took issue with the awkwardness of the ending and the intellectual emptiness of the irony. Positive assessments ranged from the qualified support of Kawakami Hiromi to the rather more speculative ("I can see where this might lead") versions voiced by Yoshida Shūichi and Shimada Masahiko to the relatively unqualified approval of Hirano Keiichirō, Ogawa Yōko, Yamada Eimi, and Horie Toshiyuki. The talent is abundantly clear, and this literary near-debut (it is only Tōno's second published work) is a welcome one.

164th Akutagawa Prize, second half of 2020

Oshi, moyu (My Fav, in Flames), by Usami Rin

Yamashita Akari is a hapless high school student whose chief purpose in life consists in being a devoted fan of Ueno Masaki, one of a five-member, mixed-sex idol group that call themselves Mazama-za. Ueno is Akari’s “backbone,” as she says more than once -- her main support in an otherwise drab world that leaves her feeling hopelessly weighed down by her very materiality. Akari follows Ueno’s every move, collecting photographs, CDs, and mementos to install on the private “altar” she has raised in her bedroom, and posting a blog in which she can share her thoughts with other like-minded devotees (disrupted from time to time by disaffected trolls), believing that in this way she achieves an epiphanic empathy with her idol.

The dramatic conflict that drives the plot is the contrast between Akari’s initial image of Ueno as a Peter Pan figure -- a forthright, self-confident, and self-reliant young man who willfully rejects adulthood -- and the reality exposed by a scandal in which Ueno is reported to have struck a female fan (causing the SNS flaming referred to by the story’s title). In the world of fandom, this departure from the expected norms of idol behavior is enough to end a career, and indeed, Ueno eventually announces to his fans -- first privately in a video feed and then at a press conference -- that his group is going to disband, displaying at the press conference a ring on his finger that indicates he has gotten married, thus essentially casting him down into the mundane world of ordinary humanity (it is even rumored that his bride is the fan he struck). Akari’s dilemma over this turn of events is compounded by her being forced to drop out of school to avoid being held back a year, resulting in an ultimatum from her parents that she find a job and support herself. At a loss, and temporarily receiving an allowance from her parents while living alone in her recently deceased grandmother’s house supposedly looking for work, Akari is able to use clues from Ueno’s last video feed to seek out the condo building in which he has started his new life, but when she does, the sudden appearance on one of the balconies of a woman carrying a few articles of clothing to hang out sends Akari scurrying off, even though she cannot be sure that the apartment is actually Ueno’s. Akari then returns to her unkempt home, where she throws down a container of cotton swabs that scatter over the floor. The story ends with Akari down on her hands and knees picking up the swabs, comparing the act to gathering up the bones of her body and wondering if the posture was not one she was always destined to assume.

The Sisyphean existentialism of the ending was remarked on by Hirano Keiichirō, for whom the story was the only one of the five candidates he really found appealing, even if for the same reason he confessed that he found it rather trite. Still, he praised the author’s obvious talent and said that he had the premonition that should Usami venture into uncharted territory, a masterpiece would be the result, a position that seemed to be shared by an admiring Shimada Masahiko. Indeed, all of the selection-committee members seemed cognizant of the extraordinary stylistic skill on display in the third-youngest writer ever to have won the Akutagawa Prize, even if, like Hirano, other members voiced qualifications about the story’s freshness (Horie Toshiyuki and Yoshida Shūichi, with Yoshida expressing the most clearly negative view) or had different first choices (Kawakami Hiromi, Okuizumi Hikaru, Yoshida) or found the generational gap to be a bit wide (Matsuura Hisaki). Ogawa Yōko was a strong supporter, noting the compellingly physical quality of Akari’s pain, and Yamada Eimi also expressed the opinion that Akari was the only character among the nominated stories -- four of which had young women or girls as main characters -- to actually come alive for her, although she hoped that in the future, stories would have more adult appeal.

In short, it was fairly smooth sailing for Usami, although this reader wonders why it was not noted that Akari herself seems tantalizingly on the verge of confronting the fact that her idolatry is something of a delusion when, during Ueno’s last video stream, she notices a stuffed animal in the background even though, as a devoted fan, she remembers an interview in which Ueno said that he was traumatized so much as a child by a costume-wearing TV character that he suspects even stuffed animals would repel him. And perhaps it is overthinking things to point out that the date of Ueno’s birthday, August 15, happens to be the day Japan commemorates the end of World War II. The first point in particular is a nuance that does not get fully drawn out as Usami moves toward an ending that attempts to integrate images of burning, death, bones, and disillusionment. So the story does indeed have a slightly forced ending, but the layering of a very contemporary sort of fantasy over reality -- with visible rents in the fabric of fantasy -- is impressively achieved.