Akutagawa Prize #123: Hana kutashi, by Matsuura Hisaki

Matsuura Hisaki松浦寿輝’s story Hana kutashi 花腐し (“Flowers Fade,” perhaps; the grammar is old, since it’s a quote from an ancient poem) shared the 123rd Akutagawa Prize, for early 2000, with Machida Kō.

This is more like it.  The main character, Kutani, is a middle-aged guy who runs a small  design firm that’s on the edge of bankruptcy because his partner and friend cheated him and then ran off.  He’s been asked, by a shady creditor, to do an odd job as a jiageya, a kind of small-time thug employed by landlords to scare off recalcitrant tenants so the landlords can redevelop the property.  (Itami Jūzō lampooned the species memorably in Minbō no onna.)  The story takes place in a seedy back street of Kabukichō, where he supposed to lean on a guy named Iseki, the last tenant in an apartment building.

Iseki resists, and there’s a shoving match, but then things go a different direction.  They end up having a drink, and then basically they spend the rest of the story talking – over beers in Iseki’s apartment, over whiskey at a bar, while walking the mean streets of Shinjuku in the rain.  Iseki’s a wonderfully dicey character – we meet him, at night, an old guy lounging around his apartment in a track suit and sunglasses, and while supposedly the phone service and utilities have been cut off for the whole building, he’s got electricity, water, and internet.  Kutani eventually figures out that he’s growing psychedelic mushrooms in the apartment and selling them on-line;  in fact, there’s a local Kabukichō prostitute in the next room, tripping.

What follows is a little Murakami Haruki and a little Hunter Thompson.  Kutani is having a midlife crisis – not only has his friend betrayed him and his business slipped out from under him, but he’s suddenly being assailed by memories of a girl he used to live with, who betrayed him (with his friend and business partner) and then drowned.  He’s down on his luck and crowded by bad memories.  And Matsuura is careful to make all this resonate with the national situation at the turn of the century:  Kutani’s situation is held up as symbolic of an economy, a nation, that has never recovered from the bursting of the bubble. 

Iseki, meanwhile, is a total cynic, whose prescription is essentially turn on and drop out.  Friendship, business, striving, straight society:  it’s all a mug’s game, a waste of energy.  Why not take a little mental vacation?  Psilocybin is what Japan needs right now, he says.

This story boils down, then, to the seeker-guru pattern.  Kutani’s got a problem, Iseki’s got a solution.  Not just drugs – in fact Kutani never trips, he just rapes the girl who is tripping – but more than that his bracingly nihilistic take on contemporary Japan.  As committee member Kōno Taeko observed, though, this makes the story feel about thirty years old – like a post-Ampo college student’s dorm-room rap.  In terms of message, then, the reader’s take on this story will depend on how well the reader feels a 1967 solution fits a 1999 problem.

As a narrative it’s somewhat redeemed, though, by good writing and decent plotting.  Kutani’s a pretty passive character (shades of Murakami) but his reminiscences of his dead girlfriend are well written, with nice detail.  And the way Matsuura parcels out information gives the story more suspense than it should have – at first we just think Kutani’s a jiageya, and it takes a while for us to realize it’s his first assignment, and that he’s not really a punk.  He’s just trying to get by.

The omake story is Hitahita to ひたひたと (“Pitter-Patter,” as of little feet).  It’s more experimental.  Hana kutashi is told in the third person, while this one switches back and forth between third and first.  In fact, the indeterminability of the protagonist goes beyond that:  it’s a middle-aged guy named Enokida, but he slips around between various stages in his life.  The story is set in a dilapidated old part of Tokyo called Susaki, which once housed a famous pleasure district;  the protagonist is now wandering around the neighborhood, which it seems he has a life connection with.  At some points he’s a man in late middle age, reflecting back on everything, but at other times he’s a young boy living there with his father and a bunch of caged birds, at other times he’s a young man living there with a prostitute girlfriend, and at other times he’s a man in early middle age, revisiting the area as a photojournalist.  It’s not even clear if these are all the same guy, or if any of this really happened, because as the story is presented, these aren’t memories, but actual things happening now.  The protagonist is actually slipping back and forth between these moments/selves in real time.

Like Hana kutashi, there’s a prolix side to this, wherein Matsuura spells out his message pretty clearly.  Here it’s the idea that time doesn’t flow, doesn’t go by, but is actually omnipresent:  our past is always there to be seen and re-experienced, if we just notice it.  But as with the other story, he’s a cagey enough writer that he only says this – only makes it clear that these are all the experiences of a single character, reliving various stages of his life in a kind of kaleidoscopic sentimental journey – near the end, after we’ve already been intrigued by the postmodern decenteredness of his individual consciousness.