Akutagawa Prize #128: Shoppai drive, by Daidō Tamaki

Daidô Tamaki 大道珠貴. Shoppai doraibu しょっぱいドライブ. 2003.

Winner of the 128th Akutagawa Prize, for late 2002.

The title story (“Shoppai doraibu,” “Salty Drives”), the winner, is narrated by a girl named Miho. For the first half of the story she’s driving around her hometown with her sort-of lover, an old man named Tsukumo. It’s a dead-end Kyushu fishing village, and he’s a semi-retired bureaucrat, so soft-spoken as to be almost invisible, but he’s an old friend of the family, and a soft touch for money. She’s a working-class girl in a dead-end fast food job, no friends, no life, no prospects, no money. She slept with him out of gratitude for lending her some cash; now she sticks with him because he’s a reassuring presence, or lack of presence. Much of the drive she spends thinking about the one other lover she’s had, a local small-time stage actor named Asobu, who used her and discarded her. She doesn’t have any particular illusions about this, but obviously can’t forget him either.

All of this we get in stream of consciousness narration; the story doesn’t have much of a plot. It has three scenes. This drive, another one when she comes to town for the funeral of one of Tsukumo’s colleagues, and the last scene, when she’s moved in with Tsukumo. In this scene, they wake up together, and she just lies in bed, pretending to be asleep, while he gets up to do chores.

That’s kind of emblematic of the whole work: unresolved, full of ennui. I confess I’m puzzled by this story. It’s not particularly evocative of place or time or even character, and the language didn’t strike me as particularly memorable. Is the character a new type in J-lit? She’s not dirt-poor, but she’s certainly got no way out of the claustrophobic towns she lives in; her brother and sister-in-law also figure in the story, and her late father, and all seem to represent her dismal lack of prospects. But she doesn’t seem to aspire to much, either; maybe we’re supposed to see her lack of imagination as the ultimate pernicious effect of such an environment?

Or were the old guys on the prize committee just happy to see a story where an attractive young woman settles down with an old guy? Dunno.

Second story, “Fujibitai” (“Widow’s Peak,” although that sounds a lot more foreboding than the Japanese, which more literally means “Fuji forehead,” i.e., “Fuji hairline”). Only about twenty pages. Covers similar territory, sort of. About a junior-high girl sleeping with a sumo wrestler. She’s one of the chronic truants that have been such a feature of TV news cluck-clucking over the state of Today’s Young People. She’s lied about her age to get a job at the arena in Fukuoka where the tournament’s being held, and now she’s started an affair with the wrestler. Again, not much plot, just a couple of scenes with the wrestler in the love hotel, and after, interspersed with gauzy reflections on home life, her spending a whole summer shut in her room. So it’s hinted that she has problems at home, hinted that she’s kind of a wild child, but nothing’s really spelled out. Disaffected youth, maybe, but she also thinks seriously, or thinks she’s thinking seriously, about her future, opening up a shop of some kind… I actually kind of liked this one. Something about the descriptions or the settings being a little more vivid, and the tone not being quite as depressed. But it’s still pretty thin gruel (not to say thin and grueling).

Third story, longest, “Tanpopo to ryûsei” (“Dandelions and Shooting Stars;” pretty title) We join the narrator, Michiru, as she attends her seijinshiki in Kyushu with her best friend, Mariko. Michiru is a lot like Miho in “Shoppai doraibu,” disaffected to the point of dullness. Not quite as lost, though: halfway through the story she moves to Tokyo and gets a job.

She makes the move largely, it seems, to get away from Mariko, who seems to repulse Michiru, even though they’re inseparable. The relationship between the two, Mariko’s almost creepy pushiness and Michiru’s passivity, is the most interesting part of the story. Even after she moves to Tokyo, Michiru can’t quite escape Mariko; Michiru has a half-hearted affair with a guy at work, and just as it ends, a protective Mariko comes to visit. There’s a definite hint of homosexual tension between them, although the narrator doesn’t seem to be aware of it; Mariko might be. But nothing happens, and Mariko goes home, and Michiru’s glad, and the story just kind of meanders to a close.

There might have been something there, the seed of a real story, in that relationship. But Daidô doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, anymore than in the previous two. This is one of the more disappointing A-Prize results. Based on these three stories, I just can’t see what Daidô has to offer.