For the past several years, the Japanese public has been wringing its hands over the new phenomenon of 13- and 14-year-old killers. However, an evocative portrayal of a group of ordinary, young boys, “4teen,” by Ira Ishida, was selected as cowinner of this year’s Naoki Prize, showering money and fame on the rising author, who was featured on the cover of Aera earlier this month.
Ishida, 43, made his literary debut in 1997 with “Ikebukuro West Gate Park,” a story of youth and street violence set in Tokyo. But Ishida now deplores the public’s preoccupation with teen crime and is calling on people to put more faith in today’s youths.
In an interview in All Yomimono (September 2003), Ishida recalls being a voracious reader from childhood and dreaming of becoming a writer. After graduating from college, however, he spent two or three years doing various part-time jobs, reading, and listening to music. At 25, he finally took a regular job at an ad production company but continued to move from one company to the next, until he became a freelance copywriter.
Although he was enjoying the easy pace of life in Tsukishima, where “4teen” is set, by his early 30s he was starting to feel vaguely bored. Then one day he happened to come across his horoscope in a women’s magazine at a convenience store. The horoscope advised him that during the next two years, something would crystallize within himself, and that he should take up a new challenge during that time. That was the push he needed to actually try writing fiction. He immediately entered writing competitions, winning one the very next year for “Ikebukuro West Gate Park.”
The judges for the Naoki Prize, in their written comments in All Yomimono, agreed that with “4teen,” a series of eight, interconnected short stories covering a year in the lives of four 14-year-old boys, Ishida had succeeded in capturing the essence of youths on the verge of adulthood. The boys, while clearly the creations of present-day Tokyo, are recognizable across different eras and national boundaries. Indeed one judge characterized “4teen” as a modern-day, urban “Huckleberry Finn.”
The judges praised Ishida for his humor and light touch. But they especially liked his choice of setting. Tsukishima, an area where expensive high-rise condominiums share space with shitamachi-style streets little changed from a century ago.
I found this book to be a very readable collection of stories about four well-defined characters: the intelligent Jun, who acts as the emotional anchor of the group; the chubby Dai, a somewhat stereotypical fat boy; the ailing Naoto, who goes swimming and bicycling with the others despite having rapid aging syndrome; and Tetsuro, the group’s commonsensical but sensitive narrator.
“Bikkuri Present (The Surprise Present),” for example, has a nice mix of humor and sentiment. In this story, the friends research Naoto’s illness, discover its early mortality rate, and decide they have to get him a really good birthday present while he is in the hospital, finally deciding to pool their savings and buy him an hour of sex. The three venture rather fearfully from their neighborhood to Shibuya to find an enjo kosai girl. But after walking around for more than an hour without daring to approach anyone, Jun decides they’ll have to attempt it in turns, and they play jan-ken-pon to see who will go first. Finally, Tetsuro successfully negotiates a liaison with a girl sitting bored on the stairs of Sony Plaza in the 109 building. She turns out to be unexpectedly kind to Naoto, who is unable because of his illness to fully take advantage of her services.
I especially liked the story “Tobu Shonen (The Flying Boy)” for its vivid portrayal of the character Yuzuru, a classmate who is determined to be a future TV star but continually embarrasses himself with untalented efforts. One day he performs a self-styled rap song in an attempt to be a cool DJ. His next underwhelming bid comes at an eating contest, where Dai, despite being given a handicap, handily defeats him by devouring 25 slices of toast (donated from everyone’s school lunches) to his paltry 4 1/2.
Under pressure to do something more interesting, he next comes to school in a cape and black gloves, pretending to be a magician who can bend spoons. But bending spoons is also old hat, and when he is asked what else he can do, he blurts out, “I can fly.” Carried away, he runs up to the fourth floor and jumps out the window.
Luckily, he only breaks his legs. When Tetsuro visits him in the hospital, Yuzuru tells him it was just an impulse; he knew he probably wouldn’t die from the fall and decided “Why not?” Then he goes on to say he may have been thinking — in the back of his mind — about his father’s suicide leap. But when Tetsuro recalls seeing his father at school events, Yuzuru admits it was just a story he made up.
While bicycling home, Tetsuro reflects on Yuzuru, but realizes he can imagine any of one of his friends doing the same thing. Impulsively jumping out a window is easy for a junior high school boy.