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Japanese books climbed walls, went back to the past in 2003

by Janet Ashby

The particular combination of theme, packaging and timing that produces a best seller is always a mystery, and last year’s top sellers in Japan presented even more of a puzzle than usual. What is it about “Baka no Kabe” by anatomy professor Takeshi Yoro that took it to the top of the chart soon after its publication in April and has kept it there ever since? Its basic premise — that people tune out what they don’t want to hear — hardly seems an earthshaking revelation.

Some commentators cited its catchy title (literally, “the wall of a fool”), low price (680 yen), and unintimidating shinsho format (large print, convenient size, tasteful cover). Others saw a yearning for an authoritative figure to explain the “walls” they were encountering every day amid the shifting relationships between men and women, parents and children, older and younger generations, as well as between Japan and the world’s political uncertainties.

Yoro himself (Asahi 10/28) attributes the steady sales of “Baka no Kabe,” which has topped 2 million copies, to its conversational style, as it was based on his oral answers to questions from a Shinchosha editor. He sees a new style of Japanese emerging from the shukanshi (weekly magazine) writing style and the abbreviated sentences young people use when sending e-mail from their cell phones.

After an absence of several years from the yearly best seller list, two Japanese works of fiction took unusual routes to success in 2003.

In second place after “Baka no Kabe” was “Sekai no Chushin de, Ai o Sakebu (Cry Out for Love at the Heart of the World)” by Kyoichi Katayama, a story about the pure love of teenagers Sakutaro and Aki, who are separated by Aki’s untimely death from leukemia.

This old-fashioned tearjerker received little attention when it was published in the spring of 2001, but sales picked up last year, apparently due to promotions by booksellers and a recommendation by actress-singer Ko Shibasaki.

The other fiction best seller was a new-fashioned cell phone tearjerker, “Deep Love, Ayu no Monogatari (Deep Love, the Story of Ayu)” by “Yoshi,” a former cram school instructor who is scheduled to direct a movie version of the book.

In “Deep Love,” teen heroine Ayu engages in enjo kosai (a euphemism for teen prostitution) in Shibuya, contracts AIDS, and dies. Along the way, she encounters a lonely widow, a dog with its tongue cut out, and a boy who needs a heart operation.

Yoshi first started writing this tale in 1999 to attract people to his Web site, publishing the book himself until he got an offer from a regular book publisher. According to Nikkei Entertainment (1/04), the “Deep Love” series (4 volumes) has sold a total of 1.3 million copies.

The year also saw the continued popularity of Buddhism-related books, perhaps reflecting a return to spirituality in uncertain times, as well as many publications on the Edo Period in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Also commemorated in 2003 was the “birth date” of 1950s manga hero Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), set by Osamu Tezuka as April 7, 2003.

The so-called Japanese cool that has gained fame abroad through manga and anime continued to be a strong export. And cross-fertilization gained prominence domestically as manga were turned into live-action and animated TV shows, and as TV-related works became best sellers, including trivia books (sales of 2 million from four books) and SMAP-related titles.

In the world of literature, critics (Asahi 12/9, Yomiuri 12/9, Mainichi 12/18) saw a trend, perhaps part of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, toward looking back on Japan’s past, especially in the postwar period.

Toshihiko Yahagi’s “Rarara Kagaku no Ko,” which literally means “Child of Rarara Science” — a reference to Tetsuwan Atom, takes a look at present-day Tokyo through the eyes of a former student activist who returns after 30 years of self-imposed exile in China, while Kazushige Abe’s “Sinsemillas” considers the impact over three generations of an American military base at a city in Tohoku. Kazushi Hosaka’s “Conversation Piece” covers 50 years of life in a house in suburban Tokyo, while Natsuo Kirino’s “Grotesque” looks at the pressures that contemporary Japanese society places on educated women. Saiichi Maruya went back to literary classics like “The Tale of Genji” in his “Kagayaku Hinomiya (The Shining Prince),” and Haruki Murakami’s new translation of “Catcher in the Rye” also received much attention.

Literary magazines have long been loss leaders for publishers, but 2003 saw three new attempts to pump life into this genre that take a splashier visual approach, making ample use of illustrations, photos and manga. It remains to be seen how successful “en-taxi,” “Faust,” and “Yasei Jidai” will be in attracting readers.

A younger perspective on last year’s books can also be found in the January issue of “DaVinci,” whose feature Books of the Year 2003 contains many listings based on the votes of its readers.