Comedian Matayoshi’s literary win offers hope for sagging publishing industry

Kyodo, JIJI

The success of comedian Naoki Matayoshi, who became the first active comedian to win the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for rookie and rising authors on Thursday, has heightened hopes for recovery in the ailing publishing industry.

Matayoshi, 35, a member of comic duo Peace, was named a winner of the prize for his work “Hibana,” together with Keisuke Hada, 29, for “Scrap and Build.” The award for serious novels was created in honor of prominent writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who was active in the early 1900s.

Matayoshi’s success has prompted the novel’s publisher, Bungeishunju Ltd., to print additional copies.

Bungeishunju said Friday the total will exceed a million after an initial print run of 640,000.

The committee also said it has selected Akira Higashiyama, 46, as winner of the Naoki Prize, a leading award for popular fiction, for “Ryu.”

In “Hibana,” Matayoshi depicts friendship and struggle between two comedians.

At a news conference after the committee’s announcement at a hotel in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, Matayoshi said he was glad to receive the Akutagawa Prize and that he hopes more people will take an interest in both literature and comedy.

“I’d like to write something interesting,” Matayoshi said, while adding that he wants to maintain his image and career as a comedian.

This was first time Matayoshi was nominated for the award, while Hada has been nominated three times.

Referring to Matayoshi’s “Hibana,” writer Eimi Yamada, a member of the committee, said that although there are some weak points, the relationship between the lead character and a senior comedian is well-written, reflecting the author’s experience.

On Friday morning, copies of Matayoshi’s book was selling briskly in Book Express, a bookstore in JR Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.

“It’s good news that (Matayoshi) won the prize. I hope I’ll learn from the book a positive way of thinking that makes me believe I can move mountains if I try hard,” said a man there buying the book.

Sanseido Bookstore’s main store in Jinbocho, Chiyoda Ward, and Kinokuniya Co.’s head store in Shinjuku Ward set up a special section for the award-winning works.

Matayoshi’s award “is one of the biggest pieces of news for the publishing industry in recent years,” said Takeshi Uchida, 46, of Sanseido’s sales planning department.

Because Akutagawa Prize is presented to authors of serious novels, winners are often not well-known among the public at the time of the announcement.

Normally, readers get to see the full content of a winner’s work only after the announcement, when it is printed in Bungeishunju’s monthly Bungei Shunju magazine and later published as a book.

However, in the case of Matayoshi’s novel, which was published as a book before the nominations, hundreds of thousands of copies have already been sold, a rare achievement.

Although winning the prize has helped many rookie authors sell their works, Akutagawa winners’ novels have not sold so much in recent years, while works which won prizes selected by booksellers have become million sellers.

Some people in the industry welcomed Matayoshi’s win, calling it a “counterattack” by the Akutagawa Prize selection committee, which has created a number of best-sellers in the past, to recover its presence in the publishing industry.

Yoshiaki Kiyota, head of Shuppan News Co., which provides information on publishing trends, believes that Matayoshi, with his unique personality, has contributed greatly to stirring up interest in literature among people not generally inclined to read books.

“It’s a huge plus for the industry,” Kiyota said.

Recently, annual sales of publications have declined drastically, with total sales last year estimated at ¥1.6065 trillion, dropping by about ¥1 trillion from the peak registered in 1996. Last year’s sales was down by 4.5 percent from the previous year, marking the steepest drop on record.