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New Akutagawa winners offer hope

by Janet Ashby

It’s been amazing to experience all the excitement surrounding the latest winners of the Akutagawa Prize, a famous literary prize awarded twice a year to promising, new authors. While TV cameras and photographers crammed Tokyo Kaikan, newspapers and magazines wrote breathless descriptions of what the two winners were wearing and asked whether these young women held the key to ending the publishing industry’s seven-year slump.

Media interest started to grow when the finalists were announced, as three of the five were women who were either 19 or 20 years old. When Hitomi Kanehara, 20, won for “Hebi ni pierce (Pierced Earrings for a Snake)” and Risa Wataya, 19, for “Keritai Senaka (The Back One Wants to Kick),” the two became the youngest winners in the history of the Akutagawa Prize. They also represented a study in contrasts: Wataya, a sophomore at Waseda University, looked like a demure ojosan, while Kanehara was dressed like a young Shibuya girl (the newspapers played up her tinted contact lenses, dyed hair, pierced ears and flared miniskirt).

As Minako Saito pointed out in the Asahi Shimbun (Jan. 16), there does seem to be an element of sexism in the media frenzy over the two girls: Why is it considered normal, she asks, for three men in their 30s to be finalists but not young women? She sees the recent rise of female prize winners as due not to a sudden increase in outstanding female writers, but to a change in the attitudes of the older men in the literary establishment.

Literary critic Koichiro Tomioka (Mainichi Shimbun, Jan. 18) also pointed out the generational shift taking place in the literary world. For the past two decades or so, female novelists have been overtaking the male novelists spawned in the wartime generation. Their works often portray the collapse of Japan’s old, established value system — in family, marriage, love and friendship — and how that collapse has become even more obvious with the bursting of the bubble economy in the 1990s.

But the new generation of writers, born in the early 1980s (like the latest Akutagawa winners), Tomioka points out, grew up in just that time of loss and economic uncertainty. If Shintaro Ishihara — who won the Akutagawa prize in 1956 at the age of 23 — represented a new angry generation rebelling against the society of their fathers, then the present generation is one of “damaged youth” searching for new values and ways of living in a materially wealthy but spiritually hollow age marked by isolation, alienation, ijime, and violence.

A brief introduction to other female writers in their 20s can be found in the Jan. 29 edition of Shukan Shinsho.

Whether out of simple curiosity, a desire by the Internet generation to find a voice expressing their sensibilities, or the hope of older readers to better understand the young today, readers have been snapping up the two Akutagawa novellas.

Bungei Shunju, which published the two novels in its March issue, sold out in three days; 1.5 million copies were eventually printed. “Keritai Senaka” is well on its way to being a million-seller, with 800,000 copies now in print. “Hebi ni pierce,” published later, has sold 400,000.

After all the hype, I found the two novellas themselves to be somewhat of a letdown, although this is often the case with winners of the Akutagawa Prize, which is awarded to recognize future promise rather than the works per se. Despite their relative lack of life experience, however, the authors did well in capturing the uncertainties of youth, and the simultaneous yearning for and shrinking away from connecting with others.

Kanehara, a native of Tokyo, effectively became a dropout during her fourth year of elementary school; she became interested in reading Japanese and writing two years later while living with her father, a translator and college professor, in San Francisco. “Hebi ni pierce” is the story of Rui, a 19-year-old who meets Ama at a techno club and is fascinated by his split tongue (like a snake) and dragon tattoo. They start living together and she embarks on ‘body reconstruction,” piercing her tongue and gradually putting in larger studs to aim at a split tongue like Ama’s. She decides on a tattoo combining Ama’s dragon with a giraffe like the one on the arm of Shiba, the owner of an S&M and tattoo shop. Then one night Ama fails to return home . . .

Although reminiscent in parts of a TV or movie drama and having a particularly unsatisfactory ending, Kanehara’s portrait of the depressive and anorexic Rui does have a certain overall power. Kanehara seems more of an instinctive writer, while Wataya is more of a sardonic observer.

Wataya, a native of Kyoto, began writing in high school and won the Bungei literary prize at 17. In “Keritai Senaka,” she does well in conveying the extreme self-consciousness and feelings of estrangement of adolescence.

The heroine, a freshman in high school, starts noticing Ninakawa, a male classmate, in science class. They form a tentative friendship in which she becomes both exasperated by his fixation on a fashion model she had met and confused by her budding attraction to him. These mixed feelings lead her to kick him in the back — her first physical contact with a member of the opposite sex — although she pretends it’s an accident.

Kanehara and Wataya are an interesting pair of sprouting novelists. Let’s hope they can survive the heavy expectations being laid on them.