Suwa Tetsushi’s Asatte no hito (『アサッテの人』, “Day-after-tomorrow Man”) comes wrapped in a screaming green cover and obi copy to match: “Double winner! An achievement unmatched since Murakami Ryū 30 years ago!” It’s hype, sure, but the facts back it up: Asatte no hito is the first novel since Murakami’s Kagiri naku tōmei ni chikai burū (Almost Transparent Blue) in 1976 to win both the Akutagawa and the Gunzō Prize.
That being said, Murakami — who is now an Akutagawa Prize selection committee member himself — didn’t think it deserved to win because, as he bluntly stated: “It was a boring novel.” Miyamoto Teru also deemed it unworthy of the prize, and Ishihara Shintarō called Suwa’s technique “obscure and annoying.”
Counterbalancing their complaints were the pro-Suwa side, which included Yamada Eimi (who claimed that it was the first Akutagawa Prize nominee to make her laugh since she had joined the committee), Kuroi Senji, and the newly appointed Ogawa Yōko and Kawakami Hiromi. The latter praised Suwa’s quiet portrayal of “the awkwardness that in reality many people feel about having to live and interact with people using words.”
So Asatte is divisive, and it is a novel about words. Not only the work itself but every character within it, from the narrator on down, concerns themselves primarily with the struggle against a common enemy: language. Indeed, the narrator ends the first chapter with an admission of defeat:
The most vexing point is this: is the novel Asatte no hito itself, emerging as it does from a collage of drafts and diaries, in the end a finished product or another draft? This is the question, and of course I do not at the present time have the skills required to answer it. I shall simply rearrange events into their proper order, and what emerges from that shall define itself as the finished product.
This is the frame through which we enter the world of Asatte, in which language manifests itself as a physical as well as emotional presence. The narrator, charged with the task of clearing out his uncle Akira’s apartment after the latter’s mysterious disappearance, arrives to find it full of junk — including a “mountain of books” that fills two-thirds of the upstairs floor and seems to mock his assertion of authority over it:
Most of the books were already in cardboard boxes. But now it was the cardboard boxes that took up space, and the room did not become any less uncomfortable a place to be in.
The narrator’s world is cramped and claustrophobic, and moreover, deserted; the only way out is to dig deeper. So he slips into the earnest, innocent voice of his aunt — “a recreation based on my notes from conversations with Tomoko herself” — and, later, a collage of his uncle’s diaries and his own family memories. Layer upon layer of story is wound around the mysterious absence of his uncle until the shape of his life emerges, defined by his struggles with language and its “artifice” as he gropes towards the titular “day after tomorrow.”
What surprised me was the realization that the words Yukihiko had spoken [in his madness] had been nothing more than clusters of sounds. Once words, they had become empty husks, floating around him like dust. And he himself did not realize how unusual this was… This was a way of being that was as close to death as you could get.
As noted above, Asatte no hito has been criticized for its self-conscious intellectualism, and much of it is indeed artfully ambiguous, distorted by viewpoint and implication. The reader must find their own way through, and every reader’s will be unique. The meaning of the exercise remains unspoken; hidden behind the omnipresent first-person voice of the narrator, Suwa remains unseen and unheard. It is no coincidence that some of Asatte‘s most intense, exhilarating scenes are relayed to us through closed-circuit television — fragmented, grainy, uncannily silent.