Akutagawa Prize #153: Scrap and Build, by Hada Keisuke

Hada Keisuke 羽田圭介Sukurappu ando birudo スクラップ・アンド・ビルド.  Bungei Shunjū, 2015.

This won the 153rd A-Prize, for early 2015.  Actually, it was co-recipient, with Matayoshi’s book.

Hada was born in 1985, making him 29 when he won the prize.  So:  young.  But he’s been writing since he was 17, and had been an A-Prize finalist several times since 2008.  So he’s moving out of new-writer territory and into the mid-career zone, which traditionally would make him less likely to win it.  But there are no rules, and they’ve given the prize to a number of mid-career writers recently.

The story is told from point of view of Kento, a 28-year-old out of work man living with his mother and grandfather.  The mother is working, and the grandfather is slowly dying.  He’s 88 and in need of serious care;  not quite immobile but close to it, not quite lost to dementia but getting there.  It has fallen to Kento’s mother to take care of the old man, but since Kento is out of work it mostly becomes his job.

The old man hates what’s happening to him, and frequently mutters, “I should just die.”  Kento decides to help him out.  It’s difficult to tell exactly why.  Kento feels the burden of caregiving, but also feels sorry for the old man in the various pains, fears, and indignities of his condition.  The story is in the third person and goes into less detail about Kento’s thoughts than one might expect, so we’re kind of left to guess:  on the surface, Kento’s telling himself that it’s about giving the old man death with dignity.  But he’s also horrified by what’s happening to his grandfather, and so revulsion and fatigue may be driving his actions as much as love.

In any case, he chooses the gentlest possible way of providing death with dignity.  Kento’s mother helps her father as little as possible – forcing him to do as much as possible for himself, on the theory that every little bit of activity the old man carries out will stave off the inevitable that much longer.  Kento buys this tough-love theory of caregiving, and so concludes that the best way to hasten his grandfather’s death is to pamper him as much as possible.  When his mother’s around, Kento lets her make the old man carry his dishes to the kitchen after meals, sort his own clothes, that sort of thing, but when his mother’s at work, Kento accedes to the old man’s every request, fully expecting that as a result his grandfather will hurry into that good night.

At the same time Kento’s revulsion at the decay of his grandfather’s mental and physical faculties leads him to adopt an intense regimen of body-building and study.  The study is an effort to obtain new qualifications that will help him in his job search (he’s constantly going for interviews), but the body-building simply seems to be about keeping himself from declining.  Kento is presented as a fairly mediocre average-guy type:  graduate of a third-rate college, former car salesman, not too smart, not too handsome, average-looking girlfriend.  Seriously in danger of slipping through life’s cracks, if he doesn’t do something about it.  Thus the body (and mind) building.

The book has a happy ending.  While giving his grandfather a bath, Kento leaves the room for a little while.  When he comes back his grandfather is struggling, nearly drowning;  as he saves the old man, Kento realizes that in spite of his frequent statements to the contrary, his grandfather really does want to live.  So he gives up on trying to care him to death.  Cut to the last scene, where we learn that Kento has actually landed a job.

The prize committee commented on the humor in this story.  I take this to mean that the idea of killing the grandfather with kindness is a comic conceit.  It doesn’t elicit laughs, but it is kind of absurd, and therefore gestures toward a satire of the current state of elder care.  It’s certainly topical, focusing both on the graying of Japanese society and the failure of the economy to come through for young people.  Of course, Mobu Norio addressed the same two topics ten years ago in Kaigo nyūmon, but it’s not like the problems have gone away.

Mobu’s book had a lot more literary flair.  This one, despite the successful ironic conceit at its center, ends up as a rather mediocre read.  The style is kind of flat, the story drags (it’s 120 pages, and could have made its point in about half that length;  it’s the only story in the book, by the way), and Kento is just narcissistic enough that he’s hard to really sympathize with.  The book doesn’t have much to offer beyond its theme, it seems to me.