In our trip to Japan this year, we visited many bookstores throughout the country. I love Japanese bookstores not only because I can see what is popular in literary Japan, but also because it’s fun to read the covers and backs of a bunch of books and figure out what type of book each is. When I select novels to read in English I’m very picky, and this is even more so in Japanese since my reading speed there is much slower.
One book that was prominently displayed at the front of nearly every bookstore we visited was “Hibana” (literally “Spark”) by Naoki Matayoshi. Several months ago during the time of our trip, it was apparently a huge seller to the extent that the author’s face was posted about here and there. They always used the same picture, where Matayoshi had a silly smirk on, which I interpreted as something like being anti-social and awkward. His hairstyle somehow reminded me of musician/comedian Weird Al Yankovic’s curly hair.
Reading the descriptive blurb on the back didn’t convince me to purchase it at the time, and we ended up leaving Japan without Hibana in our luggage.
However, as luck had it we received a package a few weeks later from a relative which happened to contain this very book. It seems that Hibana’s popularity had continued, and it had received several awards including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞). I made up my mind to read it in the next few months, and just finished it today.
I had forgotten what I was on the book jacket, so all I knew coming into this read was that it was an extremely popular novel. The first few pages were a very difficult read, dense paragraphs packed with advanced words, most of them missing Furigana to aid in meaning lookup. Had I been perusing through this book in a bookstore, this linguistic storm of an introduction would have likely caused me to loose interest and put down the book. You can see the first two lines of the intro in this post to get an idea.
However, armed with the facts that the book was a prize-winning work and it was relatively short (under 200 pages), I decided to push on. I eventually purchased the E-book version on Amazon and read it on my Kindle which made word lookup much faster, and allowed me to adjust the font size when my eyes got tired.
As is typical with foreign-language novels for me, after a few pages I got used to the author’s style and my speed jumped, and partway through it improved a bit more. Having said that, there were several places that I had trouble understanding what the author was saying, even after several re-readings of a sentence. In some strange way this feeling was nostalgic, reminding me of when I first starting reading Japanese books and every sentence was a puzzle waiting to be solved. It just goes to show how diverse the styles of various authors are.
This fictional story chronicles several years of the life of Tokunaga (徳永), a Manzai comedian (漫才師). Manzai is a traditional Japanese style of comedy which has been said to originate from the Heian period (794-1185), and usually involves a 2-person team standing on stage and trying to entertain the audience with their amusing conversation. Comedians are very often from the Osaka (大阪) region, and speak the dialect from there (大阪弁). Despite the fact that much of the book is composed of dialogue, which generally makes a faster read, a great majority of this is done in the Osaka dialect which can be difficult to understand. Even if you are lucky enough to grasp the meaning, deducing what is funny (about the parts that are supposed to be funny) is an even greater challenge.
Even though I had experience with this dialect, there still was many times when I didn’t fully understand what was being said. But if you have a good foundation in standard Tokyo-dialect Japanese, you can usually pick up the general gist. I’m not going to go into this dialect in detail here (I may write another post on it if there is interest), but one common characteristic is the “da” sound (especially in the word “to be”) is pronounced as “ya”. For example, ”sou da ne” is said as “so ya ne”.
When reading this novel, the thought “What makes this novel so popular?” was constantly in the back of my mind. Partway through, I had learned that the author was actually a Manzai comic himself, and his popularity may have contributed to Hibana’s success. Until the end I didn’t know whether this book was purely fiction, or a biography of the author himself. I won’t tell you which since it adds to the fun.
After finishing this work I feel I now know the main reason it has become such a hit. Hibana doesn’t just tell of the events of Tokunaga and those close to him; through these people Matayoshi is telling us about the essence of what it means to be a Manzai comedian. Before I picked up Hibana I knew very little about Manzai, but Matayoshi managed to convince me of the depth of this traditional art. Regardless of whether his beliefs are shared by other comedians and how funny Matayoshi himself is on stage (I’ve never seen him), this philosophical outlook on making people laugh was at turns entertaining, interesting, and educational.
For those interested in Manzai, this is a must-read. Unfortunately, as the book was just published this year there isn’t an English version yet. I’ve been toying with the idea of unofficially translating part of the book as an exercise (maybe just a few pages), but no promises yet. If I did attempt this, it would surely be the most challenging translation project yet.
UPDATE: I’ve translated the first few pages of this book here.
You can get this book on Amazon Japan in paperback form for around 1300 Yen (around $11 USD) and E-book version for around 1000 Yen (around $8 USD).