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Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002

Is life but a walk in the park?


The latest winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for promising new writers of literary fiction, Shu'ichi Yoshida (born 1968), is being lauded for his light touch in portraying the loneliness and isolation of urban life today. At the Akutagawa Prize press conference, Yoshida said that he wanted to portray the gap between the speed of changes in society and in people during the past five years; in particular he wants to capture the moment just before something starts.

His winning short story "Park life" (reprinted in the September issue of Bungei Shunju) deals with the budding relationship between the anonymous narrator "boku" and the "Starbucks woman" (so dubbed because she often has takeout coffee from Starbucks with her), a woman whom he occasionally runs into in Hibiya Park in Tokyo. Boku, a young salaryman working in public relations for a soap company with Ginza offices, is temporarily living in the apartment of divorcing friends and caring for their pet monkey. His mother, in from the provinces for a visit, is staying in his apartment.

The story alternates between meetings of the two in Hibiya Park and his nights in the apartment with the monkey Lagerfeld, plus visits with his mother, walks in a nearby park with Lagerfeld, drinking after work with coworkers and the like. He and the Starbucks woman start eating takeout lunches together in the park but hesitate to ask each other any personal questions, even their names. The story endswith their visiting a photo exhibition together and her saying, "Yoshi. Watashi ne, kimeta" (OK, I've decided now), but without making clear if she's resolved on a relationship with him or not.

In passing, boku reflects on the reason for his friends' divorce, deciding the main problem might well be that there was no big problem, with the wife loving him but having an inchoate desire for something more and the husband being unable to express his emotions to her. The husband blurts out to boku one day that he wanted to be with her but would read in the bedroom while whe was watching TV in the living room so as not to suffocate her and then move to the living room when she went to bed so his light wouldn't disturb her.

Similarly, boku reflects that he stays alone in his apartment on the weekends, not because he doesn't like people but because he needs a rest from wanting to get along well with everyone.

I found such observations, skillfully inserted into the course of the narrative, the most interesting part of "Park Life." There are also several fine passages, as when boku sits on a park bench and idly remembers a trip to New York when he first encountered Starbucks, which reminds him of the Sting video for "Englishman in New York," which in turn makes him think of a high school friend.

However, I felt the characters to be thin and bloodless -- perhaps an inherent problem in portraying passive people (boku even has a Web site take virtual trips abroad for him); in fact Lagerfeld was the most vivid of them all. The inconclusive ending was also irritating, despite hints that boku is finally ready to move beyond his one-sided longing for a girl back home to a real love relationship.

The judges, whose comments are included in Bungei Shunju, were also divided in their reactions to "Park Life, with some feeling that the story lacked dramatic tension and any deeper message. Ryu Murakami felt that its straight portrayal without resorting to movelistic tricks succeeded in converying a very contemporary edgy sense of humor and uncomfortable feeling of imminent change. Shintaro Ishihara, on the other hand, saw a common failure of young authors to fulfill the primary role of fiction, that is, presenting a new world or new insight into human behavior, probably because of a lack of experience combined with a wealth of information undigested by a novelistic sensibility.

As if to highlight the difference in the age sensibility, in a piece on winning the Akutagawa Prize in the Asahi Shimbun (July 25), Yoshida cites a poem by prewar poet Sakutaro Hagiwara in which a man sitting alone in a deserted park thinks of the suffering of the people in his home village and carves the word "revenge" (fukushu) in the park seat. He reflects that if he were to carve something in a park bench it would be more positive, some small words hinting at something starting.

In recent Shukan Bunshun and Bungakukai interviews, Yoshida reveals that before starting to write at the age of 24 he had never felt particularly literary or had literary friends. A competitive swimmer in high school in Nagasaki, he had felt himself to be more of a jock, although he did enjoy reading poetry and thought about various things while swimming long distances in the pool.

He is uninterested in making any distinctions between literary fiction (jun bungaku) and popular fiction but does want to use humor to make his texts readable. He feels writing about loneliness, pain and alienation in a more cheerful way only serves to underline the dark side, in the way that nothing looks sadder than a forced smile at a funeral.

* * * In earlier years Akutagawa prize winners became automatic best-sellers but with the general slump in sales of literary fiction this no longer seems to be the case. According to Nikkei Entertainment (Sept. 2), the top two Japanese fiction best-sellers in the first half of this year were the winners of the Naoki prize for popular fiction, "Katagoshi no koibito" (Lover Over My Shoulder) by Kei Yuikawa and "Akanezora" (Glowing Skies) by Ichiriki Yamamoto. "Katagoshi" had sales at the 200,000 level rather than the millions for Harry Potter or "Who Moved My Cheese."

Of the top 10 fiction sellers, six were by women, which Nikkei attributes to the fact that women, especially women in their 20s and 30s, are the chief buyers of books now. Miyuki Miyabe had two books in the top 10. Nikkei notes that she is a triple threat, writing science fiction fantasy and historical fiction as well as mysteries.

Miyabe's editor cites her fine eye for coming social problems, enabling her books to come out just as their themes are in people's minds, as well as her shitamachi warmth. Her long-selling "Mohohan" (Copy Cat), about a serial killer, has sold 1.24 million copies since its publication in March last year, helped along by the movie version released this year.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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