Asatte no Hito

Word to the 'vaud

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.

Matt TREYVAUD
November 21, 2007

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

7 Responses

  1. Chuckles Says:

    Dont you just love it that the enfant terrible of yesteryears is now turned todays literary curmudgeon? Since when did Murakami Ryu acquire the cultural capital to call a novel boring – oh wait – his definition of interesting is an endless array of butt sex, pill popping and jejune depictions of youth angst?

  2. M-Bone Says:

    I think that you are being a bit hard on Murakami. Probably not the best idea to judge him on the stuff (your comments match “Almost Transparent Blue” most closely) he wrote in the early 1970s.

    Murakami wrote “Audition”. Takashi Miike has been elevated to the level of living god by some people for his film version. Murakami’s original is an equally compelling act of genre destruction.

    He also manages to envision Japan becoming a North Korea like pariah in “Hanto wo Deyo” one of the few mainstream Japanese works to question official demonization of NK.

    Add to that the fact that he’s done more to get into the heads of Japanese teens (and speak out against the mainstream press depicting them as a bunch of criminals) than pretty much any other Japanese personality in his “Hello Work” books.

    I think that Murakami has been acquiring at least a bit of cultural capital lately.

  3. W. David MARX Says:

    I haven’t read much Ryu, but I think a lot of people have a hard time taking him seriously. My former literature professor said something to the degree of “He is not literature,” which may be equally curmudgeonly but do we celebrate writers who are singularly obsessed with being Ultra-Ero and Ultra-Guro? “Oh my god, I can’t believe he wrote that! What a fearless rebel!”

  4. Joseph K Says:

    I was under the impression that Ryu was one of the Japanese authors who has a little bit of noteriety in among English readers. He has recently become eclipsed, of course, by the other Murakami, but if you hit up any library and look under that last name, an equal amount of work by both authors is likely to show up (although, again, I can’t actually speak for recently).

    Considering the greater percentage of Japanese fiction is never even considered for translation, wouldn’t that constitute a kind of celebration?

    Never actually having read any of his work, either, mind you. So I can’t really comment on the validity argument.

  5. Aceface Says:

    “Dont you just love it that the enfant terrible of yesteryears is now turned todays literary curmudgeon?”

    Happens all the time,Chuckles.Think of Ishihara Shinrtaro.
    Every bit of Ryu reminds me of Tokyo governor.Yikes.

    Ryu’s novels are all messed up one way or another.
    He does have certin journalistic senses and novel like”Hantou wo Deyo” and “Kinou no kuni no exodus” is pretty much a mixture of what he read and researched.
    So he studies like a highschool kid before he writes a novel and everything he learned are reflected in the book.Somehow,I feel it just not the way to write a great novel.But that style works well when he writes introductory books on say,finance.

    “Considering the greater percentage of Japanese fiction is never even considered for translation, wouldn’t that constitute a kind of celebration?”

    He is big in South Korea.I think all of his books have been translated.
    In fact,”Hanto wo Deyo” is planned to be filmed by Kwak Kyung-taek(Friend,Typhoon)

  6. Chuckles Says:

    […I think that Murakami has been acquiring at least a bit of cultural capital lately…]

    Oh, I certainly wouldnt question the fact that Murakami Ryu has a bit of cultural capital – but dissing ANH as not interesting is ridiculous. Of all the adjectives to pick!

    […My former literature professor said something to the degree of “He is not literature,”…singularly obsessed with being Ultra-Ero and Ultra-Guro? “Oh my god, I can’t believe he wrote that! What a fearless rebel!”…]

    Bingo – the disease of our age is that postmodern corruptions have made it impossible to epater le bourgeoise to any meaningful degree – shock is now and ever impossible – our palettes are deadened and overloaded with sweets and spice. I pointed out on Neomarxisme a while back that the disease of realism modified – the magical realism of Garcia et al – its modification, spiritual realism in Okri and the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith and its antecedents in Pynchon, DeLillo etc all the way back to Joyce: that this disease is no more fully ripened than in what passes for contemporary Japanese Literature. Vidals criticism of Pynchon applies with even more force to our Japanese friends. There simply is no there, there. Wagahai wa neko de aru is interesting. Yukiguni is interesting. Dare I say Mizukara Waga Namida o Nugui Tamau Hi is interesting? Murakami Ryu and the other Murakami and the Eimi Yamadas of this world are not. They might be sweet. They might be sour. They might be titillating. But they are not interesting literature – to wit: MR has no requisite cultural capital needed to comment on this account.

    […Happens all the time,Chuckles.Think of Ishihara Shinrtaro. Every bit of Ryu reminds me of Tokyo governor.Yikes…]

    No but seriously, Ishihara did have some redeeming qualities. Taiyo no Kisetsu was brilliant. Admit it.
    But you hit the nail right on the head Aceface. MR is pop, journalistic – eerily reminiscent of Tom Wolfe at his very worst – think of the sex scenes in I Am Charlotte Simmons – Eeeeeeeeeewwwwww!!!

  7. Interesting people « Original in Japanese Says:

    […] translates “Chatty”, a story by Chiya Fujino, for the Japanese Fiction Project; and Matt Treyvaud introduces us to the controversy surrounding Suwa Tetsushi’s Asatte no hito for Neojapanisme. I have also […]