Akutagawa Prize #159: Okuribi, by Takahashi Hiroki

Takahashi Hiroki 高橋弘希Okuribi 送り火.  Bungei Shunjū, 2018.

This won the 159th A-Prize, for early 2018.

Takahashi, born in 1979, has been writing for about four or five years, and has been nominated for the A-Prize twice before.  He’s also an alt-rock songwriter, and has that affect – showed up for his Prize announcement in ripped jeans and hipster toque, and his money quote was, “in the end, I guess you could say I was glad to get the Prize.”

Okuribi (fire offering, as in religious ritual) is about a ninth grader named Ayumu whose family has moved to a small town in rural Aomori.  Ayumu’s father transfers a lot, and they expect to be moving to Tokyo in a year.  On one level, the story is about how Ayumu learns to fit in with his new classmates;  he’s used to this sort of thing by now, and is self-conscious about his need to adjust to unfamiliar ways.

Unfamiliar is right:  Ayumu is moving in from the big city, and while his mother is from a rural area, Ayumu himself is often puzzled by both language and customs here in the mountains.  They’re living in a hamlet on the edge of a small town, and their community is so tiny that the middle school Ayumu attends is slated to close at the end of the year.  There are only six boys in his class, including him.  Rural depopulation in the age of declining birthrates is the backdrop for this tale, in other words;  key scenes take place in derelict school buildings, and the kids are all aware of a nearby reservoir that has an abandoned village at the bottom of it.  It’s a society that’s on the edge of extinction, but that’s not quite gone, and one of the themes of the story is how Ayumu keeps running into customs that persist, and have done for untold ages.  The house they’re renting has a barn full of ancient tools and toys that Ayumu hardly recognizes;  an old neighbor lady speaks to him in a dialect he can only half understand, and thinks he’s somebody else.

That’s the subtext.  The plot, however, is about bullying.  The boys in Ayumu’s class have a game they play when they get bored:  they play a round of cards (hanafuda), and the loser has to do something unpleasant.  At best it’s something like buying snacks for everybody on his own dime;  at worst it’s shoplifting, or worse.  Ayumu soon realizes that the ringleader and dealer, Akira, is fixing the deal so that the same boy, Minoru, always loses.  Ayumu also learns that this has been going on since before he arrived, and that Akira had once injured Minoru badly in their game;  later in the story we see Akira hazing Minoru in some pretty sick ways.  So there’s this undertone of dread throughout the book, as we gradually come to realize how psychotic Akira is, and wonder why Minoru takes it.  But Ayumu never sticks up for Minoru – he desperately needs to fit into this claustrophobically tight society, and is just glad he’s not being singled out himself.

That description makes it sound like a social-problem novel, and it certainly stages the bullying in a way that helps us understand both the cruelty of it and why Ayumu goes along with it.  But I don’t think that’s what Takahashi’s after.  The catastrophic final scene takes the story into altogether more mythic territory.  Ayumu is lured by the other boys to an abandoned grade school, where they fall in with some older boys, former students at their middle school, who take them up into the mountains and force the boys to play the game.  It becomes clear that this bullying has been going on for several generations of students, and that Akira himself had formerly been the victim.  Now Minoru is once again singled out, and essentially tortured for the older boys’ entertainment.  The scene ends in an explosion of violence as Minoru, bloody and half blind from the torture, pulls a knife and kills one of his torturers, then starts attacking his classmates.  Ayumu is badly injured and staggers away to collapse in the river that runs by the village.  It’s summer, and it’s the night of the village festival, and they’re burning three straw effigies on a boat in the river.  The end.

I.e., I take it that what Takahashi is giving us is middle-school sadism as a form of ritualized violence, a brutal manifestation of old and half-glimpsed customs that involve sacrifice, perhaps even human.  There’s a strange timelessness about the final scene, with its pilgrimage to a secret, deserted mountain hollow, and its lottery-like card game.  The three boys at the center of the scene (Ayumu, Akira, and Minoru) are both the perpetrators of the violence and the victims of it, and in some way perhaps a sacrifice to whatever tradition is at work here.  The older boys, when they find out that Ayumu is an outsider, call him “exile,” a seeming reference to legends that the hamlet was founded by exiles from the political center, way back when.  The story reminds me a lot of The Wicker Man, for instance, with its gradual revelation of depravity beneath the surface of seemingly quaint rural life.  Is there such a thing as Tōhoku Gothic?

It’s a pretty powerful story.  That power is mostly on the level of myth – that spectacularly horrifying ending, and all it seems to imply about Traditional Japan, is an indelible statement.  But the character building is pretty deft, too.  The bullying situation is well laid out, and Ayumu, while in some respects a cipher, is an effective vehicle for exploring a young person’s semi-paralyzed desperation to fit in.  There are also the barest hints of a homoerotic awakening (which, in the context of Young Men and Violent Festivals, can’t help but remind the reader of Mishima), which further deepens the creepy ambiguity with which Ayumu faces life in this community.  Very accomplished.

(Confessions of a non-native speaker department.  I don’t know how Takahashi wants us to read Akira’s name.  It’s written 晃, which is usually read Akira, but also, fairly commonly, read Noboru.  On a first reading, I mentally read it Noboru, as a noticeable parallel with Ayumu 歩 (glossed for us) and Minoru 稔 (not glossed but not very ambiguous);  the other boys in their group are invariably referred to by surnames.  I’ve gone with Akira in this writeup since that seems a more common reading of it in general;  but I could be wrong.)