Akutagawa Prize #135: Hachigatsu no rojō ni suteru, by Itō Takami

Itô Takami 伊藤たかみ. Hachigatsu no rojô ni suteru 八月の路上に捨てる. 2006.

This won the 135th Akutagawa Prize, for the first half of 2006. The book contains two stories. The title story won the prize; the second story is called “Kai kara miru fûkei 貝からみる風景 (The world as seen from inside a shell).”

The title story (title translates to “discarded on the road in August”) is about a guy named Atsushi who is going through a divorce. The story takes place during the course of a single day, but involves a lot of flashbacks. He works for a vending-machine company, driving a truck and stocking machines in the Shinjuku area with his partner, a divorced woman named Minashiro-san. It’s her last day in the truck before she transfers into the office section of the company; meanwhile it’s his last day as a married man, as he’s going to turn in his divorce certificate the next day.

They’re confidantes, and as we go through the day we learn about the course of Atsushi’s marriage and the lead-up to the divorce. Here’s where it comes through that the theme of the story is employment as much as anything. Atsushi originally wanted to be a screenwriter, and when he and his wife married not long out of college they were scraping by on little income, then she got a real job while he plugged away at the screenwriting. This of course made him feel a bit threatened, but then she got fired and he got a part-time job (or rather, a full-time job but without benefits—however you translate baito) stocking the machines. This makes her feel threatened, and eventually they can’t stand each other anymore.

This makes two A-Prizes in a row, then, where the protagonist is either unemployed or fringe-employed for most of the story—a friitaa, a paato (part-timer), or a shitsugyôsha (unemployed). Add the omake story in Oki de matsu and you have a mini-trend. The economy has supposedly recovered but you wouldn’t know it by the literature. Anyway, it’s an interesting trend.

The other theme is ennui, for lack of a better word. Atsushi and his wife seem to have been attracted to one another at least as much by a shared negative outlook on life as by anything else – they both had dreams of an ideal, creative career, and both kind of slack around looking for it, and their hobby is judging people they know, on a point system, by how cool they are. It’s not presented as hipsterism, which what it sounds like to me, but they’re definitely kind of societal dropouts. And when work starts to get in the way – both the having of it and the needing of it – they find they really don’t have much in common. They don’t communicate well (a common trick in junbungaku, of course – confused, meaningful silences where a real person might actually try to explain what he or she is feeling – believe it or not, Japanese people do that too), and don’t seem to know what it would mean to try.

So it’s about a society in which marginal employment is becoming the norm, and in which divorce is becoming the norm. Atsushi isn’t a terribly likable character, and I think this is intentional – he’s kind of deluding himself, even with the divorce. He had been having an affair with a hairdresser, but when she finds out he’s getting a divorce she breaks up with him- so he’s alone – and at the end of the story he finds out that Minashiro-san, whose acerbic attitude toward life and romance seems to have had him romanticizing divorce, or at least thinking that in her he had a companion in it, is transferring because she’s getting remarried. He’s really alone at the end – like he’s joined a club to be with someone who just quit it. There’s no hint of a romance between Atsushi and Minashiro, but there’s some sort of connection that leaves him feeling, inarticulately, betrayed at the end.

That aspect was, I thought, really well done, and in Minashiro-san we have a type of female character that I think wouldn’t have been possible a couple of decades ago: tough, employed, independent, and sympathetic for it. I don’t know that the story as a whole cuts quite as deep as it could, but it’s good.

The other story I actually liked a little better. It’s about another marginally-employed type, but younger (Atsushi was about thirty). Jun’ichi does free-lance writing for a small editorial office (not a publisher, but an office that hooks up free-lancers and publications). For most of the story it’s just kind of about him and his girlfriend floating through life; they meet at the local supermarket every evening to plan dinner together, and as he’s waiting Jun’ichi reads the customer-comment cards on the bulletin board and fantasizes about other people’s problems. Then halfway through the story his editorial office goes bankrupt without paying him his last four weeks’ fees. He doesn’t really panic, though. We only follow him through the first few hours after he finds out, his first night with his girlfriend after he finds out, and it’s a curious thing. The story basically just ends on this poetic note where they’re lying on their bed beneath the open window and the curtain blows inward and lands on their faces in such a way that it kind of puts their heads in this curtain-world that he says makes him feel like a shellfish. Kind of a weird image, but it seems to be suggesting how sort of isolated and coccooned he feels in their present life. I guess it’s the upside to the marginally employed life. It makes a good pair with the title story, in that way.