- Book: Spark
- Location: Tokyo
- Author: Alison Watts (translator), Naoki Matayoshi
I have read quite a few novels set in Japan recently, all defined by their short length, with a quirky and culture specific take. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami and Convenience Store Woman (Shortlisted for the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2019 – Fiction, with a sense of place) by Sayaka Murata and now Spark (winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize), a cult Japanese phenomenon written by Naomi Matayoshi.
You need to understand what Manzei comedy is. It is a traditional style of comedy in Japan comparable to a double act, where one performer is comedic straight, the other funny. There is also – inevitably, as is so common in Japanese culture – a hierarchy; the sempai is the senior partner, the kohai the junior member. Tokunaga is the young comedian who enlists Kamiya as his sempai partner.
The two young men build up a relationship based around their comedic appearances over several years. There is banter and showmanship as they prepare for the stage and go about their daily business. They drink and eat food, philosophise about their life and art and ponder where their careers might be going. Then drama happens and Kamiya disappears, yet life continues. His return heralds a surprise. The novel is essentially about a friendship that has to withstand work routines and accommodate well defined personalities.
I think when choosing a novel like this, it is really helpful to have some knowledge of Japanese ways of being, an understanding that Japanese culture can at times feel very different – whacky – even, to Western culture. This novel is an acquired taste and for me the humour didn’t altogether translate.
This is an original Netflix series and I think getting the visual interpretation would be interesting, as it was the visualisation in the narrative that felt a little limited and stilted in the novel.