Ex-OL, self-described everyman take Naoki prize

by Janet Ashby

The winners of the Naoki literary prize for the second half of 2000 have been announced. This time, both winners — “Planaria” by Yamamoto Fumio and “Vitamin F” by Shigematsu Kiyoshi — are short-story collections, as were three of the other four short-listed works.

Yamamoto, 38, like Kirino Natsuo and Iwai Shimako, emerged from the world of young adult novels for girls, shojo shosetsu. In interviews in All Yomimono (March issue) and Shukan Bunshun (Feb. 15 issue), she recalls how one day, while riding from her family home in Yokohama to her job as an OL in Nihonbashi, she suddenly snapped. She had been trying to escape into a Murakami Haruki novel on the crowded train but couldn’t, and had to get off the train halfway to work. She burst into tears on the platform and vowed, then and there, that one day she would have a life where she could peacefully read all day in bed or on the sofa.

She ended up entering a competition for Cobalt Novels and writing four of them a year. After several years she moved on to adult fiction, winning the Yoshikawa Eiji prize for new novelists for “Ren’ai Chudoku (Loveholic)” in 1999.

Yamamoto says she wants to continue to write about the difficulty of human relationships and the strangeness of the human heart, about the mix of good and bad in all human beings. Recently she has come to believe that she writes fiction, rather than essays or other forms of nonfiction, because it permits ambiguity and uncertainty.

For example, in “Planaria” — a collection of five stories about women without regular jobs — she wanted to explore her mixed feelings about work. While understanding the joy that women of her generation feel at being able to go out into society and be part of the world of work, she wonders if they haven’t unwittingly gone too far along the road to becoming moretsu shain, company slaves.

The title story is a vivid portrait of a 26-year-old woman adrift in life, unable to reconnect to family and work after losing a breast to cancer two years earlier. A difficult person even before the operation, she sabotages her relationships with both her boyfriend and a slightly older woman who has given her part-time work at a confectionary store.

In a memorable line, she says, while out drinking with friends, that she would like to be reborn as a planaria, a small creature living in pure streams that can regenerate itself when a part of its body is cut off.

The other winner, Shigematsu, 37, is known for his writings on current problems involving youth, school and the family. After many years as a freelance writer of magazine articles and a ghostwriter of celebrity books, he made his fiction debut in 1991. He has won prizes for “Knife,” a short-story collection dealing with ijime (bullying), and for “Eiji,” a novel about a 14-year-old boy.

In an interview in All Yomimono (March), he admits that he is not a natural-born novelist in that he is not particularly given to self-analysis. He says he tends to be part of the mainstream rather than a marginal presence shaking up the shared conventions of established society. However, he feels that the age itself has made possible his career in fiction, saying that in recent years the foundations of Japanese society have become shaky and that those struggling to live within it have become “lost souls.”

In another interview in Chuo Koron (March), he remarks that the general media previously covered few stories about family problems. It was the changing society, he says, that caused him to be labeled as a writer about social problems.

Shigematsu seems not to have been grievously offended by being termed an “average hitter” by Atoda Takashi at the Naoki announcements. Rather, he says he had been aware that he must no longer be content with safe bunts but must expose himself to the risk of a magnificent failure, that he must swing strong even if it results in a foul.

“Vitamin F” consists of seven short stories loosely tied to current family problems and told from the viewpoint of the father. I enjoyed “Setchan,” in which Kanako, a junior high school girl, suddenly starts talking to her parents about the problems that a new transfer student, Setchan, is having fitting in at school. At first they think nothing of it, but when Kanako makes excuses about why they shouldn’t come to her school undokai (sports day) they start suspecting that Setchan is Kanako herself.

The mother consults her daughter’s teacher, who assures her that there is no problem. But late the next month they are called to school and told their daughter is in fact the target of ijime. Not sure what to do, they decide to wait and not confront Kanako directly about what is going on.

Then the father happens to come across a paper doll in a store, a nagashibina to be set afloat at the Doll Festival to rid a daughter of sickness for the following year. The three of them go on a Sunday drive to a nearby river, and Kanako sets the doll afloat in the water. For the first time she openly admits to the ijime, saying it won’t end just because of the doll. He agrees, half-laughing and telling her that reality is hard for adults and children alike.

Two stories from “Planaria” and three from “Vitamin F” can be found in the March issue of All Yomimono.