I had gotten a recommendation that Jiro Akagawa was a good author so I decided on trying his work “Reserved Seat: Short short oukoku” (指定席〜ショートショート王国）published by Kobunsha in 2012 (digital version in 2015), which is a compendium of 32 short stories. They are generally on the very short side, tending to be under 10 pages each. (“Oukoku” means “Kingdom”)
These stories are a mixed bag, in terms of both their topics as well as how much I enjoyed them. For example, “秘密の階段” (The secret steps) is about a boy that stumbles on a mysterious staircase in a relatives house which leads him to a revelation about his mother, and ”お茶が入るまで” (Until tea is ready) which is a poignant tale about a family’s attempt to end their suffering. One of my favorites is “二級天使” (Second-rate angel) which describes a two-tiered hierarchy of Angels in heaven and the roles of each.
Common themes across many of the stories are everyday life, family, and escaping from some bad situation. The stories tend to be a mix of ironic and funny, and the closest thing I can compare their style to that you might be familiar with is the classic “Twilight Zone” series from the late 50s, early 60s. The main difference is that many Twilight Zone stories end on a sad, or mysterious note, whereas many of the stories in this set end on a more positive feeling.
After I finished reading this book, I did some research and found out that these stories were actually written using input from Akagawa’s fan club, where each topic (お題) was provided by one of his readers. It’s quite impressive that he can write up such creative stories using starting points from others. There is actually two other books in this series which are composed in the same way (see entire series here).
Linguistically, these stories generally have a very terse, simplistic style (文体が簡潔), with short sentences and paragraphs, which is great for those learning Japanese. After plowing slowly through “Downtown Rocket”, which has many difficult parts, this was a a breeze. The vocabulary of “Short short oukoku” is also pretty tame, and nearly all names have Furigana which avoid having to look up the pronunciation of each character’s name.
Due to the societal and family elements of these stories, those less familiar with Japanese culture will also probably learn a few interesting things. Like for example I discovered that there are names for many different Marriage anniversaries in Japan, with the 50th anniversary being called “金婚式” (Kinkonshiki). Their extra short length also makes them good bite-sized stories that you can hopefully read through each in a sitting or two, and then contemplate the significance of the story.
Jiro Akagawa is actually a very prolific writer active since the 1970s, and I am considering trying out one of his novels someday (full list of his books).