Japanese Novel Review: “Boy of Civilization” (文明の子) by Hikari Ota (太田 光)

By | February 28, 2018

I’ll be the first to admit that the novel “Boy of Civilization” was a hyoushigai (表紙買い) for me, which basically means I bought it after being attracted by the cover. Not only was it beautiful on its own, but it also reminded me of the cover of “Lagos on a Journey” (旅のラゴス) by Yasutaka Tsutsui. Just make sure you get the cover from the 2017 version, as the cover of the original 2012 version was pretty bad.

In the time between my purchase of “Boy of Civilization” and when I actually began to read it, I learned that it’s author, Hikari Ota, was actually a famous Japanese comedian. This further piqued my interest, partially because I had liked the novel Hibana so much (written by Naoki Matayoshi who is also a comedian).

While I have not seen any of Hikari Ota’s comedy routines, knowing a work of literature was written by a comedian at first made me doubt: Could (another) comedian really write a serious work of literate? To be sure, comedy requires its own set of skills (which certainly include certain types of intelligence), but frankly it’s hard for me to imagine most famous American comedians or actors writing a serious book. The other reason for my skepticism is the possibility that a celebrity would use his or her popularity to get a book out that otherwise would have been rejected (or at least forced to be more heavily edited and revised).

And so, I began the book with a variety of doubts and pre-conceived notions in my head.

The first chapter was an easy and enjoyable read. As usual, I’ll avoid spilling the beans much about the story itself, but this chapter had a nice “folktale” or “children’s story” vibe to it, and there were a few interesting ideas integrated into the tale.

However, the second chapter was a pretty major shift in style as well as story flow. As was the third, and the fourth…

Several times through I was reminded of David Mitchell’s multi-threaded story “Cloud Atlas” (I’ll admit to only seeing the movie, though I read some of Mitchell’s other works). Told out of chronological order, the stories ranged from hard science fiction to more dramatic, suspenseful pieces, and for whatever reason there was pretty heavy use of popular culture in the narrative. Sometimes this was more of a Japanese nature, but more often than not it was clearly a western conception, like Santa Claus (no, I’m not kidding).

To be sure, there were a few funny scenes that made me say to myself, “Yeah, this was definitely written by a comedian!” But those were actually a relatively small part of the book. What was more memorable was a handful of touching scenes, plus the themes that tied together the various chapters (some clearly interrelated, but others less so), especially–no surprise here–the concept of “civilization”.

I can’t really give a deep analysis of the book without giving away much of the story, but I will say it was a book that really made me think. I am even considering reading the book over (someday), and after checking out a few reviews by Japanese readers it seems a few other people felt the same.

I have the feeling this is a love-it-or-hate-it type of book: either you manage to figure out how all the stories fit together and realize you’ve read something deeply significant, or you fail to put together the puzzle and decide the work didn’t succeed in what it was trying to achieve. I’m not going to say which camp I fell into (and to be honest I’m still thinking about some of the connections), so I’ll leave that for you to decide.

If you do end up exploring what this book has to offer, there is an interesting afterword by the author who mentions some of the things that inspired him to make the story, and I feel that these will help readers fit together the pieces.

The Japanese language was all over the place due to the mercurial nature of the chapters, but overall I found it quite readable–in fact more readable than the last few books I read (I’m including both Japanese and English fiction here). While I wouldn’t suggest this for beginning learners, I think it’s a good option for students of Japanese that have a few years of experience and a good base of Kanji knowledge. Assuming you know most of the Joyo kanji, I don’t think you’ll have to look up too many characters here.

In the end, I think that given this was Ota’s second book (and from what I hear the first was a set of less-connected short stories), this was definitely a great achievement for him, and I hope he continues to write. Unfortunately, it seems he may be taking a break from writing since it’s been over 5 years and he hasn’t published another fiction book yet. But no matter how many years it takes, if he comes out with another novel I’ll definitely consider purchasing it. I just hope he uses the same cover artist as the 2017 version (:

You can get the book on Amazon Japan here, though I bought it at Kinokuniya bookstore in Oregon. For some reason it appears there is no E-book version of this yet.



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