Unofficial English translation of the first few pages of Hibana (火花) by Naoki Matayoshi (又吉 直樹)

By | January 17, 2016

In December of last year I had published a review on Naoki Matayoshi’s book “Hibana”, which has been very popular in Japan, winning several awards including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.

As part of my training to get more into translation, I decided on translating the first few pages of this novel into English. The book does not have any concept of formal chapters, just sections which are divided without a name of number, so I just went until I got until a good stopping point.

For those fluent in Japanese or studying the language, you can see the an excerpt of the book here which includes everything I translated.

Just to be clear this is a completely unofficial fan translation, and when/if the official English version comes out I highly recommend buying it. If you want to get the full Japanese version now you can get it here on Amazon Japan.

This was a very difficult translation project, not only because the source material is so advanced, but because fully understanding this story requires some knowledge of the Japanese comedic style “Manzai“. In particular, the first few pages are in a very strong “literature”-type style, which means there are words and expressions you don’t normally see. I’ve even read some people commenting on how the style of the first paragraph is very unique, even to the point where it uses grammar that is borderline unusual. I don’t hold this against the author at all, since this sort of style is what helped him become such a success. The only minor complaint I have is that this heavy literature style doesn’t really continue that much throughout the book, which reminds me somewhat of one of my favorite novels, Dhalgren.

Even though the translation and editing of this took me quite some time, I think that the more I translate the easier and faster it would get. So if you are interested in seeing more of this translated, please show your interest by liking this post.

Since this novel is so great I really hope eventually they publish an official translation. But that may be years away, assuming that someone decides the novel will sell well in English-speaking countries.

Anyway, I’ll stop talking now and let you read it. Enjoy!

(Warning: this portion contains sections which are not appropriate for children, including cursing and violence)


=== Unofficial translation of “Hibana” by Naoki Matayosh ===

Shrill flutes rang out above the rhythm of Earth-shaking Taiko drums. Summer kimono-clad couples and families bustled along Atami bay, straw sandals trampling the grass, while the last vestiges of intense daylight melted away in the night air. In a small space near the road was a makeshift stage made from yellow beer cases turned upside down, upon which laid several layers of plywood. We  performed our comedy routine there, facing the people who passed us by on their way to the fireworks.

The stage’s center microphone wasn’t designed for this type of performance and didn’t pick up sound well from the sides, so my partner Yamashita and I brought our faces up close on either side of it as if we were about to stuff the mic into our mouths, spit flying each time we spoke. Meanwhile, our all-important audience simply flowed by the stage without stopping to listen to our performance. It was all too clear that the myriad smiles in the crowd were not directed at us. The festival’s music was unreasonably loud, such that a one-meter radius around us was the only place our voices could be properly heard. If we didn’t say something funny at least once every three seconds, we became just two guys having a random conversation. However, forcing out a joke every three seconds carries with it a high risk of having the opposite effect–being seen as hopelessly boring–so instead of attempting a futile fight we elected to let our allotted time pass by with expressions that made no attempt to hide our disappointment.

Since things didn’t turn out too well that day, I don’t remember exactly all the material we ended up using. But I do remember my partner asking me, “What could your pet parakeet say that would really piss you off?”, to which I replied, “You need to put some money into your pension! It’s all about accumulation!”. I continued with a few more: “You still haven’t taken advantage of all the wasted space in your home!”, “I have something very special to talk to you about”, “You’ve been avoiding eye contact with me. Is that because you’re thinking of eating me for dinner?”, and “Don’t you feel like an idiot?”, all phrases which a parakeet would never actually say. My partner responded to these by either simply nodding or expressing his opinion on the matter, but for some reason “Don’t you feel like an idiot?” seemed to resonate with him, and he broke out into laughter. I’m pretty sure that the people who were passing by at that time could only hear his laughter, or would have except for the fact that he was mostly chuckling to himself quietly. So we must have looked like two guys just standing there. My partner’s laugh was the only redeeming thing that day. Without a doubt, if you return home after a long day’s work and your parakeet says to you “Don’t you feel like an idiot?”, you may very well have the urge to light his wings on fire. But no, I’d feel bad for a bird who had his wings burned off. Scorching your own arm with a lighter might be a better way to freak out the fire-fearing bird. But from the bird’s point of view, watching you burn your arm might be nothing more than a dazzling sight to stare at dumbly. As I ran these thoughts through my mind I laughed a little to myself, but the crowd had a surprising disinterest in our jokes. On occasion there were a few who expressed something you could call “interest”, but they were all of the terribly unpleasant sort that gave us the finger while bearing expressions of scorn. Overtaken by feelings of isolation in the midst of the large crowd, I started thinking about how I’d probably break out into tears if my pet bird told me now, “Don’t you feel like an idiot?”, when an explosion rang out from the sea behind us and reverberated through the mountains.

The faces of those in the field gazing up into the night sky flashed a variety of colors: red, blue, and green, so when the second explosion happened we couldn’t help but look behind us, curious about the light sources that illuminated the crowd so beautifully. We nearly missed seeing a firework blossom to fill the sky, colors too vivid to be real, myriad remnants sparkling as they slowly faded to nothing. Without waiting for the cheering that broke out in the audience to end, a firework resembling a massive willow tree appeared in the sky, dangling its glowing branches in the darkness, while thousands of tiny fireworks spiralled around feverishly, lighting up the night as they fell towards the sea, the audience’s roar renewing its vigor. The geography of Atami is such that the sea is surrounded by mountains, and there is a certain closeness to nature. Of all the things produced here by humankind, these fireworks possessed an unsurpassed beauty and scale. A doubt crossed my mind: why were we invited to a place like this which already had everything it needed? The sound of the explosions echoing off the mountains drowned out my voice, making me feel small and insignificant, but the only thing that kept me from being driven to total desperation was an overwhelming respect for the fireworks and nature around me–a feeling surely shared by many people that day.

There must have been something deeply significant about the fact I discovered my new mentor that night, the same night where I had realized how powerless I was against the force of things unimaginably great. It was as if he had waltzed into my house when I wasn’t home, sat down, and refused to move. And thus, I committed to learn exclusively from him.

In front of the crowd who was completely absorbed in the fireworks show, I had stopped caring and began doing a bit where I acted out as the parakeet screaming “You are the Parakeet!” to its owner, shortly after which our 15 minute time slot ended. We had sweat like crazy and didn’t have an ounce of satisfaction for it. According to the official schedule, we were supposed to finish our performance before the firework show began. An act by a senior club got a little out of control and went way over it’s ending time, hence this terrible tragedy. Nobody was willing to delay the fireworks due to a minor slippage, especially for us poor folks at the end of the entertainment program. Had our voices been loud enough to threaten everyone’s appreciation of the fireworks  things might have been different, but in reality we were pitifully short on decibels. Our voices only reached the ears of those who made an effort to listen.

When we left the stage, the inside of the yellowing, shabby tent labelled “Atami young men’s club”  had transformed into a drinking party for senior citizens. The last team of performers, who had been waiting in a corner, exited the tent sluggishly. As they passed us, one of them whispered “We will avenge you!” with a scowl. I didn’t immediately understand what this meant, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the pair, especially the one that had spoken. Hiding among the crowd, I watched their entire comedy routine from start to finish without missing a moment, even when it meant getting in the way of others. The guy who had whispered to me was considerably taller than his partner, so he ended up in a posture where his back was bent as if he was a dog ready to snap at the microphone, all the while glaring angrily at those passing by. After a brief greeting identifying themselves as “The Fools”, he began screaming at the audience as if trying to a pick a fight. Most of his blabbering was incomprehensible to me, and making an accurate record it would be nearly impossible. But, thinking back, I do remember him spraying spit as he yelled in a feminine voice, “Darlings, yours truly has an incredible spiritual sense, you see, and I can tell if someone is headed to heaven or hell just from a glance at their face.” He pointed at those in the passing crowd one by one as he rattled off, “Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell… What the fuck! This crowd is full of sinners, will somebody help me!” He continually screamed out, “Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell,” as those who came to the stage to complain were handled by his partner, who responded to them with a face of a demon, yelling threats without giving anyone chance to speak. “Hey asshole, want to die? Come here!” As before, his partner continued his proclamations, “Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell, Hell,” until he suddenly froze, eyes fixed on a point in the crowd. Wondering what was going on, I looked towards where his finger pointed, where stood a young girl holding her mother’s hand. A pain momentarily flashed through my chest, and I prayed to whoever would listen that would listen that he would stay quiet. If this was what he had meant about avenging the injustice done to us, I wanted no part of it, but at last he grinned widely and kindly whispered, “Happy Hell,” adding as an afterthought, “Sorry, little girl”. Upon hearing those words I realized that this guy was the the real thing. In the end, his performance failed even more miserably that ours had, with the event organizer turning red-faced with anger. While his partner started down the organizer, flashing him menacing looks, the “Hell” guy stared at me with a childlike smile, so pure and defenseless that it was disturbing.

As I went into the far corner of the tent and began changing my clothes, he escaped the barrage of insults from the event organizer and walked up next to me, still smiling. “They paid me in cash, so you want to go drink somewhere?” he offered, face stiffening slightly as he spoke.

We walked in silence along a street lined with travellers inns as the fireworks illuminated us. He sported a Hawaiian style shirt with a Tiger printed on it and well-worn Levi’s 501 jeans. His slender figure was overpowered by a deep, penetrating gaze; this was not the type of person you wanted to make an enemy of.

We entered a pub whose sign had been battered by the elements and sat down on either side of an wobbly table in the corner. Many of the other customers were older tourists, exhausted from the fireworks and crowds. But not a single person here would soon forget the magnificent show that night. On the wall was a piece of colored paper signed by someone, but judging from its many years of discoloration from smoke and grease, I wouldn’t be surprised if that person was long dead.

“Get whatever you like.”

The moment I heard his kind voice, a sense of relief nearly brought me to tears. It was then that I realized that I truly had been afraid of this man.

“Sorry for not introducing myself earlier. I’m Tokunaga of the group ‘Sparks’,” I said, to which he replied, “I’m Kamiya of ‘The Fools’.”

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14 thoughts on “Unofficial English translation of the first few pages of Hibana (火花) by Naoki Matayoshi (又吉 直樹)

  1. Ken Friesen

    That is really beautifully written. ” Summer kimono-clad couples and families bustled along Atami bay, straw sandals trampling the grass, while the last vestiges of intense daylight melted away in the night air.” It reads like poetry.

    Summer kimono-clad couples
    and families bustle
    along Atami bay
    while straw sandals trample
    the grass
    the last vestiges of intense
    melt away
    into the night

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment and for reading!

      I had spent a very long time translating this sentence to make it sound great, though I have to give most of the credit to the original author of the Japanese prose (:

      Working on a new translation, hoping to get it online in a month or less.

  2. Jo

    Thank you for this! I watched the Netflix show and was so impressed. I absolutely loved it even with having no experience or insight into Japanese life. Your few pages really helped me. I like the show even more now. Again, thank you.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks much for the comment! Actually I didn’t know there was a Netflix show based on this book until you told me (:

  3. Matt

    I’ve just finished the show on Netflix and found your page trying to look for more information about it. Great translation! I’d really love to read the book. Have you read the whole book and watched the whole series? Can you compare the two?
    Keep up the inspiring work!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks very much for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed my translation.

      Yes, I’ve read the whole book, but I haven’t seen any of the Netflix series. Actually, until a few days ago I didn’t even know about the series.

      I don’t have Fetflix but would like to see the series some day, at least part of it. If I ever do, I may write up a post comparing them.

  4. Zaira

    I’ve just finished watching it too! I don’t know about the book but the drama style is kinda slow, and it makes you feel like part of the narrative, emotions, their routines etc, you know the characters by “living” with them. I’d say that watching Hibana is an experience.
    I want to read the book too, my main language is Portuguese but I’d be already satisfied with the English translation since my Japanese still basic. Thanks for the material!

  5. Julio César Restrepo

    I see the show in Netflix twice and I´m very impress with the story and the characters.
    I think is a very good way to see a very diferent side of Japan.
    I would like to read the book too even if is in an english version.
    Thank you for this work

  6. Chris

    Thanks for the post and translation. It reads really well — must have been a lot of work! Like a few other people here I found this post looking for more information having watched the Netflix adaptation of 火花. I’m wondering if you know whether the work is autobiographical? Also, the ending was quite surprising in the TV version but I’m wondering if it makes more sense in context? Would love to know more about the book too if you can tell me. Shame I can’t read 漢字 better so I could read it myself!

    1. locksleyu Post author


      Thanks very much for the comment. This part was indeed a good bit of work, especially the first few paragraphs.

      While I know the author himself is a Manzai comic, I don’t think the book is intended to be autobiographical, however I think it’s fair to say some things in the book were probably based on his own experiences.

      I can’t really speak about the ending in the TV version, as I haven’t seen it. I’ll just say that the ending of the book is a bit ‘surprising’.

      If you have any other questions about the book let me know.

      I wish the entire book would be translated so that all English-speakers could appreciate it in full. I could even do it myself, though I’d probably only do that if they paid me (:

      1. Chris

        Thanks for your reply! Without giving away spoilers here, do you know if there is some cultural context for the ending or reason why it’s supposed to be funny/make sense? The thing Kamiya did to himself was just so odd (even by his standards as he was always eccentric throughout). I wondered if I was losing something in translation and actually there was some meta-gag or significance I was missing.

        1. locksleyu Post author

          Can you please email me at selftaughtjapanese (at), and we can continue this discussion? Even your message is a borderline spoiler, so I will delete it soon (:


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