Let’s Talk About Japanese Books: 火花

152 pages

Hello, before we go into the actual book itself, I like to talk about this new column I’m starting on みみドしま.

I’ve always been interested in writing about general Japanese literature for a while. There’s a lot of misinformation when it comes to Japanese books because barely anything is translated and people who read them tend to be in small circles. It’s also understandable why people would not write about them because book reviews and discussions that aren’t part of a subculture tend to be quite dull. And most of these books, people won’t be able to read them because they don’t know Japanese.

I’ve thought of doing a Siskel and Ebert styled show with two personas to make it more entertaining for people to read. I’ve done this before with Mahoyo, so I know it would be successful. But I stopped midway because I didn’t feel like doing Japanese books another disservice. The discourse on them, if they exist and sometimes they do, has been bad. I think it will be wrong to do it as the editor of tanoshimi.xyz since the blog is all about exposing untranslated Japanese media to people.

I’m not sure if people will read this column, but I’d like to have it out there. It’s one way to disseminate knowledge and I hope it inspires people to check these books more, maybe learn Japanese.

Some people might wonder why I’m not writing the column on that blog. I see that place as a literary magazine of sorts where writers (well, Makkusu and me at this point) can praise everything they love in media. I don’t think it’s a place for negative criticism, even if such pieces exist in the Today’s News in Stealth Marketing section. I also believe I can’t write pieces as in-depth as any of the posts I write in Tanoshimi. For many books, all I want to do is have a review and ponder about it. Not have crazy researched posts that define subcultures. Sometimes, a review is fine for the purpose of discussing the book.

And that’s what I will be doing in this column.

So, 火花. Pretty interesting book.

I’m actually surprised few people in the West know this book, despite topping the Oricon book charts, Amazon bestseller lists, and others for a long time. It is arguably the only bestselling Japanese “literary fiction” published now. It seems almost everyone who reads Japanese books has one or two opinions about it. The Western equivalent to its success will be something like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

But it’s bigger than that. This debut book about the struggle of manzai performers has captivated and pissed off a whole nation. People argue on Amazon reviews that this isn’t Japanese literature. It’s more like a “light novel”. It’s not “fun” to read. It’s an Akutagawa awarded book, so it has to be boring. Actually, it’s “too fun to read”. No, it’s way too complicated. I have to read a dictionary. Stuff like that forever and ever on Bookmeter (the Japanese version of Goodreads).

I very much can’t help but pick up this book to see what is going on in the world of Japanese books.

火花 is about a guy named Tokunaga (徳永) who wants to become a manzai comedian ever since he has seen these performers on television. He thinks it’s his fate, at least the only route after flunking college, and believes that’s his Artistic Dream. The book begins with him and his buddy in a manzai duo called the スパークス (火花 translates to Sparks) trying to make people laugh in the midst of a fireworks (花火) festival. The manzai performers before them have taken their sweet time and this affects their performance because who in the world would watch anything when fireworks are going on? Beaten, Tokunaga steps down from the stage with little applause. He watches the next performers, あほんだら, out of boredom. The あほんだら has the same problem — the largest fireworks festival is happening — so one of the comedians, Kamiya (神谷), starts pointing fingers at the remaining audience and passerbys and shouting, 「地獄、地獄、地獄、地獄」He does this even to a little girl and tells her she is going to hell as well. As the fireworks are happening, Tokunaga stares at Kamiya and is amazed by Kamiya’s 地獄 spam onto the world. He wants Kamiya to be his manzai teacher.

And this is how Tokunaga and Kamiya, our two protagonists, meet.

The whole book is about their interactions together as they learn from each other what it means to live and struggle in life and the brutal world of manzai comedy. But really, this book is about what it takes to be an artist and why most artists who fail are still artists. They have no other means to approach life except their own passion. And they become really stupid as a result.

Comedy — or art — isn’t a world for Tokunaga as he realizes this truth as time passes in the novel. He has to learn that people are going to laugh at him. It takes a genius — or an insane guy like Kamiya — to resist being under the pressure by people laughing at him. When you don a persona like the idiot, you are making yourself intentionally vulnerable to the audience. Not many people can show themselves bare naked and let people see them in the name of art. But that’s what comedy is all about.

Kamiya makes interesting observations about the world around him. For example, he compares critical theories to the withering branches on a tree and argues that the best tsukkomi/boke comes from typical conversations between a buyer and seller in a market. Kamiya lets nature lead him to the way of the art.

If this doesn’t sound like a typical novel, it isn’t. That’s actually a huge complaint some people have that the writer of this book has taken note. Early on the book, Kamiya tells Tokunaga that since Tokunaga flunked college, the latter must have a bad memory. So Tokunaga is tasked to write a 伝記 (biography) on Kamiya’s actions and what he has learned.

This is why the novel is episodic and all observation-centric — also unsurprisingly, as with many books, this is serialized in a magazine. Tokunaga is the Watson to Kamiya’s Holmes. Everything written in the book comes from Tokunaga’s own writing. Every event he records, he is there and he looks in everyone’s faces to see what they are thinking. He is also opinionated and gets annoyed by Kamiya later as Kamiya begins to self-destruct — like any artist would — in the face of trouble.

The opposite pairing between these two characters is what drives the whole book. If you don’t get into their interactions, there’s barely any reason to read further. It is this strong respect from Tokunaga to Kamiya that becomes the plot than the actual outline of events.

So the writing reflects this. Each sentence comes from Tokunaga’s stream of thoughts. Every pain, every dull moment spent in his part-time job at the supermarket, every feeling he has toward something especially Kamiya gets into the writing. It is smooth to read from one sentence to another. You feel the realism seeping in through the way his mind works.

Which is why it’s bizarre that there is a J-drama adaptation of this book produced by Netflix. Translated as HIBANA: Spark, the show is available in the United States but it sort of misses the point. I’ve seen clips of the first episode and it adapts the plot faithfully. The actors do their best to convey the emotions felt in the narration. But it just doesn’t feel like it does justice to the source. It cuts out internal narration by Tokunaga, which is honestly the wisest decision to do. But you don’t feel what he is feeling as much as you do in the book. And that’s what the book excels at.

In fact, the emotions felt come from the writing itself. Tokunaga begins to form his own opinions on the events surrounding him and Kamiya and you don’t have this objective omniscient view you would typically see in this novel. Watson pities Holmes for his actions.

This makes the few dramatic events in the book powerful. They resonate within him and the reader as we see the situation gets dire for Kamiya. While Tokunaga remains passive and his life problems never change, the mundaneness of it all isn’t what Kamiya lives for. Kamiya’s life is always on the line as he borrows money from debtors. His comedy doesn’t mesh well with the audience.

The respect towards Kamiya develops into a pity toward him. Is this what all manzai performers — all artists — become when all they can do is remain passionate for their goal? Tokunaga snaps out of the dream but not Kamiya. Kamiya remains enveloped in his delusion. All you can do is feel the same as Tokunaga and be conflicted because you’re a “normal person”. Kamiya is a special person. You can’t do anything but let him do whatever he wants.

Basically, 火花 is a great novel for aspiring artists. It’s 152 pages of the madness we pursue in the arts. In a world where Whiplash — a film about a drummer being pushed to the limits by his teacher — is a bestselling film, 火花 would go well with so many people. It is a well-crafted novel with slight doses of sobering realism.

There are problems with the book however. For one, all this craft would not be appreciated if you find it very boring. The pacing is what you would expect from “literary fiction”; it’s slow, eventless, and exhausting. 火花’s use of language is stellar and it’s the only reason why you would read this book. Character interactions, events, and plots all rely on how beautiful the writing is. There is no sense of stakes and drama throughout the book. Just beautiful writing.

I can’t imagine most people getting into the book just because of how wonderful the introspective writing is. It is probably why the book has been called slow to read, boring, and uninteresting. The sense of a plot isn’t there.

I also don’t enjoy the long, long lectures Kamiya gives to Tokunaga. They have interesting ideas, but they drag the pacing down. It’s just Tokunaga nodding to whatever Kamiya says. That’s where the Holmes-Watson dynamic is at its weakest. Zero interactions, just monologues.

火花 is one of those books that grows on you after you finish the book. I thought of the book as an alright read, but writing this review made me ponder about the different elements of the book. It’s disparate when you read it. Sometimes, you don’t agree with the decisions and even wonder what’s with the hype. But actually, I think the book is representative of the Japanese literary culture.

At some point, I want to check out another book by the writer, 夜を乗り越える. People have said this is actually better than 火花 and I can believe it. The writer has a knack at writing lovely Japanese sentences, but 火花’s (lack of) plotting leaves me wanting for more. What’s more: 火花 is his debut, so there is reason to believe the reviews for 夜を乗り越える are right.

In any case, it’s an interesting book. I’m not sure if I would recommend this to most of my friends who are into subculture and cool shit. I personally like it on an aesthetic level and still reflect on it once in a while. But as a book? It’s average. It doesn’t really try to do anything ambitious and the story it tells isn’t memorable. Its themes and story techniques are powerful and that’s it. Very much a “craft” book in this sense.

Nevertheless, whatever I think about the book is, it’s neat to read a book that’s this pretty with words.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Japanese Books: 火花

  1. Kuro (@Kuroricon) January 3, 2017 / 12:51 am

    It’s a cool article about books I can’t read. I’d like for you to translate the titles in Japanese when they come if you may. Perhaps write them in the Roman alphabet.

    • Kastel January 3, 2017 / 1:16 am

      Sure, I’m not a fan of translating and romanizing titles which is why I avoided them. I usually go “well, people can google this if they care” in Tanoshimi because it’s easier to google. Hibana (translated to Sparks) plays on a language pun with fireworks, so I kept it in Japanese. I’ll probably translate the names in the beginning and then use Japanese to refer to the titles again.

  2. Leafさんの夢が。。。 March 27, 2017 / 7:27 am

    Interesting book. I had no idea there was a drama based off of this. Thank you for the review and please keep up the amazing work! How long did it take you to be able to read novels in Japanese?

    • Kastel March 27, 2017 / 7:36 am

      I have no idea. A year? I just went into visual novels head first and never looked back.

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