Japanese Literature Challenge 13: The Pain of the Clown

Spark by Naoki Matayoshi

Translated by Alison Watts

Just fitting in at the end of the season of the Japanese Reading Challenge 13, hosted by Dolce Bellezza, here’s my second contribution. (See here for my first.)

In recent times, having read several Japanese novels which are understated but still thought-provoking comedies such as The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Karakami, and the bizarreness of If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura, I was ready to step up for some more out and out Japanese comedy, so jumped at the chance to read Spark.

Or so I assumed…

Spark is, in reality, anything but a comic novel. It’s about comedy, yes–in particular, that particular Japanese type known as ‘manzai‘–but it’s really more about ‘art and friendship’ as the blurb says. I’ll admit, I had to look manzai up; it’s a 1000-year-old comedy tradition, a type of stand-up, usually done as a double act with quick-fire repartee from a straight man/funny man combo. This slim novel won Japan’s Akutagawa Prize in 2016, and has been adapted for a hit Netflix series, the author is a well-known manzai comedian.

Tokunaga and Yamashita are trying to make a name for themselves in Tokyo on the manzai circuit, but their big break onto TV isn’t coming. Twenty-year-old Tokunaga is convinced his chance will still come, and when he meets another manzai comedian, the supremely confident Kamiya from Osaka at a festival, he asks to be his apprentice. Kamiya is a few years older than Tokunaga, and his duo’s style of comedy is rather different, Kamiya and his partner are happy to taunt his audience:

“Listen up, my lovelies, I’ve got the gift. I can tell by looking at you if you’re going to hell!” He pointed at people passing by and screamed “hell!” at them, in a voice sounding for some reason like a woman’s. “Hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell, hell–you’re all sinners, every one of you. Repent!” […] This chanting and taunting went on until, all of a sudden, the tall guy stopped and went quiet, his eyes fixed on one thing. I looked in the direction his finger was pointing and saw a little girl holding her mother’s hand. For a moment my heart missed a beat, and I prayed for him to say nothing. If this was his revenge for us today, then I wanted him to stop. But when I turned back to look at him, a big smile was spread across his face. “A fun hell,” he whispered in a gentle voice. “Sorry, little girl.” I knew then, from that alone, that this guy was the truth.

Tokunaga hero worships Kamiya, seeing him as a genius. Kamiya often rings him to discuss the comedian’s art, suggesting that Tokunaga should read more and write more, including Kamiya’s biography. The pair go out drinking whenever they can meet. When Kamiya decides to move to Tokyo the pair are able to hang out more together, often walking around the city late at night and getting drunk. However, manzai is a young person’s game, so you can see how things might go. Success in this business is short-lived, but Tokunaga will find it for a while whilst pursuing his dreams. Clowns are often portrayed as sad men off-stage, and there was definitely a sense of this in Kamiya’s personality with him using his acerbic humour as medication.

Jap Lit 13

The friendship between the two young men is well written; although complete opposites in personality and outlook, the ‘bromance’ that develops between this pair is quite touching, but their relationship will have its ups and downs, pettiness and jealousies. Kamiya’s friend Maki, who puts him up when he arrives in Tokyo, is the only female character of any significance in the book. I’d have liked to see a bit more of her, but it is really about the two men.

Although the book had its moments, I didn’t find it to be the hilarious comedy I’d anticipated, and to be honest I found Tokunaga and Yamashita’s manzai routine, which revolves around planning to get a parrot as a pet, distinctly unfunny (now I’m wondering if it was inspired by Monty Python!) This was also the case when I watched the first couple of episodes of the series on Netflix (look for Hibana: Spark). The series follows the novel closely and certainly helped me to understand the manzai style.

However bizarre the comedy though, I did enjoy reading this novel for the story of Tokunaga and Kamiya. (7.5/10)

Source: Review copy from the publisher – thank you.

Naoki Matayoshi, trans Alison Watts, Spark (Pushkin, 2020) paperback original, 160 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

3 thoughts on “Japanese Literature Challenge 13: The Pain of the Clown

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The double-yolked egg is certainly a good representation of manzai! I think if I hadn’t expected it to be comic I’d have enjoyed it more, but it just didn’t make me laugh, but the main characters’ story was good.

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