Akutagawa Prize #136: Hitori biyori, by Aoyama Nanae

Aoyama Nanae 青山七恵. Hitori biyori ひとり日和. 2006.

This won the 136th Akutagawa Prize, for the second half of 2006. The title might be translated as “Solitude weather,” maybe.

It’s the story of a twentyish girl and a seventyish old lady living together, and it’s organized in four chapters, called “spring,” “summer,” “fall,” “winter.” That alone was enough to make me roll my eyes, expecting all sorts of clichés. I thought I knew what I was in for: the young girl learns life lessons from the old woman, about valuing the simple things, like the changing seasons, and then the book ends with intimations of the old woman’s mortality and the young woman’s newfound maturity.

And actually that’s sort of what happens. At least, that’s how it ends. But how gets there is surprisingly unsentimental – bracing, in fact. The girl, Mita Chizu, is the child of divorced parents who’s been living with her mother in the far reaches of Saitama. As the novel starts she’s left home to come to Tokyo, and is moving in with Ogino Ginko, a distant great-aunt or something (the protagonist isn’t quite sure) who lives alone in a house on the Setagaya-Chôfu border, on the Keio line (Tokyo, but just barely). Chizu is what’s called these days a freeter, a free-timer, a young person who gets by on assorted part-time jobs and has a lot of free time but basically does nothing with it. She’s a slacker, in American parlance: doesn’t want to go to college, doesn’t think about getting a full-time job for most of the book. Just drifts.

And she has an appropriately tough attitude, which is what saves the book from sentimentality. It’s told in Chizu’s voice. At first her tough tone struck me as bravado – she denies any ill effects from the divorce, as if we’re supposed to believe that her disaffectedness is just a normal attitude toward life. After a while it becomes clear that the author intends us to view Chizu’s bravado with ironic distance – she’s a sometime kleptomaniac, gets used by boys, and has an abysmal relationship with her mother. She’s generally pretty miserable, although it takes her most of the novel to admit it.

There’s a key scene near the end, after she has admitted it to herself, where she kind of asks Ginko for advice. She’s pretty much scorned the old lady throughout the whole novel, expressing horror at the indignities of age, ridiculing her behind her back and almost to her face, but Ginko takes it all with equanimity, and of course Chizu gradually learns to accept living there, and comes to have a grudging, inarticulate affection for the old lady. This is where it could become sentimental, but it doesn’t, because Chizu’s too damaged to really be affectionate, and Ginko has no advice for her. I can’t decide if the portrait of Ginko is very realistic or not – her speech is maybe a little simplified for what a real seventy-year-old would say – but it’s a nice change that she’s so blunt about not having any advice to give Chizu. She speaks in a mix of platitudes and silence usually, and the occasional ironic laugh.

The novel thus focuses on the two extremes of society, in terms of age strata—the youngest of adults and the oldest. The middle, represented here only by Chizu’s mother, is absent. The mother is a secondary-school teacher, and in the beginning of the novel she takes an exchange-teacher position in China. She comes back to visit twice over the course of the novel, but she’s really pretty absent from Chizu’s life. The implication is that she’s been that way all along. Chizu takes a pretty dim view of her attempts at being motherly (thinking with scorn of the way her mother must have stayed up hand-drawing a map to Ginko’s house for her). Chizu’s mother wouldn’t be quite baby-boom generation, but close, and this novel could be read as a criticism of that generation from the perspective of their kids, and possibly their parents.

I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. It’s well crafted, well written, and really quite affecting in its portrayal of Chizu’s misery: she gets near suicidal, before finally finding a way out – she stumbles into a full-time job, and some friends, and ends up moving out of Ginko’s house; the idea is that she’s finally embracing a direction in life, taking her place in society – which may be a very utilitarian, collectivist ending, but sort of rings true for Chizu.

Aoyama’s one to keep an eye on.