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OK, maybe the headline’s a bit of an exaggeration. But like The King of Horror, author Yusuke Yamada, born in 1981, started out young. And also like King, he seems to have his finger on the pulse on that all-important demographic, Japanese teenagers! I’m not a teenager anymore, but many of Yamada’s stories are accessible to me because of the relatively simple, dialogue-heavy prose (translation: Not too much kanji!) and interesting, often twisted situations. I’m not a Yamada expert, but I’ll take you through some of the novels that I am reading and/or have heard about. If reading kanji isn’t your thing, my advice is to wait until the movie comes out! 😉 

Avatar

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 According to this article, Avatar was already made into a movie as of 2011, which doesn’t surprise me. The plot, which involves a high school girl whose obsession with her SNS status turns deadly, was probably ahead of it’s time! Only a few years later, as I look at everybody with their faces practically stuck to their smartphone screens on the train, I think that the issue of spending too much time in the virtual world is more relevant than ever. The brilliance here is taking the problem out of the Matrix-like realm of action and into semi-reality using high school students to highlight it. That, and I guess that everybody loves a good-girl-turns-bad storyline every once in awhile. 

Real Onigokko (Chase World) 

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The Japanese word for “tag” is “Onigokko,” which means “Devil’s tag,” probably from a legend where children were chased down by demons or something. If I thought the of the people playing tag with me as demons, I’d run away as fast as I could, too! Yamada’s book takes this idea out of childhood fever dreams and into its own twisted reality, a parallel Japan where people with the same last name are being killed off by scary guys in suits who chase them all around the city. That’s literally all I know about this ultra-popular franchise, which at my last count has inspired at least 4 movie spinoffs since  it was first published. Check out this article  to get a better idea of the plot! I’ve got this one waiting on my e-reader, but it’s surprisingly dense! It may be awhile before I chase this one down. 

Spin

 

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From what I’ve read so far, Spin paints a fascinating portrait of youthful disaffection today. A young man, with no friends or life goals to speak of, forms a dangerous network with some online buddies. He hijacks a bus in Tokyo and embarks on a journey to meet them–the tension comes from not knowing what will happen to the passengers when he gets there! It is next to impossible for me to imagine this happening in the peaceful Japan I know, but Yamada has once again taken a real phenomenon–the plight of the hikkikomori, or shut-ins, most often depressed young men who can’t leave their homes–and dramatized it in an interesting way. What if these hikkikomori were to turn their pain outward and lash out against the world? Shouldn’t we be doing more to help both men and women in that situation? This is a suspense novel at its core, but it should leave you thinking about larger questions that apply not only in Japan but in the de-socialized, Internet-obsessed world at large. 

Brake 

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Well, I know that “Brake” is a short-story collection. And I’m guessing, at least from the funky post-apocalyptic DVD cover that the movie version focuses on some kind of deadly race. This was popular enough to make it to the screen, but I’m all out of gas when it comes to near-future sci-fi with cars. I feel like we’ve been there, done that with Mad Max, and I almost can’t believe we’re doing it again with Tom Hardy! I just put this in here to show that Yamada also writes short fiction, which as a writer myself, I admire because it’s hard to do. But I looked at this and thought: Give me a brake, folks. 😉 

All!

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This is the story of Kentaro, a down-on-his-luck young guy who’s just quit a job at some prestigious financial something-or-other to do…something-or-other! He really has no idea what he wants, a common plight of the large percentage of baito and freeter (different words for part-time workers) who, in a country where lifetime employment has dwindled, despair of working in a big, boring company. Kentaro comes upon a weird advertisement for a shop that does everything (hence the title); just ask, and they will complete the task no matter how weird–for a price! With nothing better to do, Kentaro takes a job there, and gets himself into an ever-escalating chain of adventures that, while far out, seem as if they could actually happen. This book inspired a sequel, and I can understand why: It really captures, in a funny way, the malaise being experienced by young Japanese men and women in the workplace today. Like many Japanese stories, it’s less aspirational than Westerners are used to–the message, if light, seems to be that we should deal with what we’ve got rather than what you don’t. If someone asks you to clean a trashed-out house for big money in 5 hours or less, you just do it–while holding your nose, of course.  

Puzzle 

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Puzzle is the story of what happens when a young girl’s suicide attempt takes a bizarre turn–she doesn’t die, but other students around her face death as the school is taken hostage. You can read this article for more about this twisted tale, which was evidently popular enough to be made into a manga (above), a drama and a movie. It’s odd to think that in Japan, which I consider to be such a stable, nice and largely happy country, suicide is still such a part of the societal fabric. As in his other famous and beloved novel, When I Pull the Switch, Yamada tackles the issue with dramatic and imaginative flare. As the title indicates, the whole thing is like a game–a game of death! Play if you dare. 

Dust

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This is another book just waiting inside my e-reader for me to devour it–when I have time. I originally bought it because I thought the cover is kind of cool; I hope the story does it justice! According to what I read on the Japanese “Goodreads” site, it’s the story of what happens when a group of Japanese NEET (young people Not in Education, Employment or Training), considered “society’s trash,” are left to survive on an island for a harrowing 500 days, during which they make friends, outrun enemies, and generally discover what they’re made of.  Judging by the cover, I’m willing to bet a cool million yen that the island is also, to stretch the metaphor, also quite dusty. 😉 Whatever the case, the setup–like a deadly game in which only a few survive–is typical Yamada. Also typical, though, is the focus on real issues through the prism of a fanciful tale. According to Wikipedia, the issue of NEETs in Japan really took center stage in 2004-2005, when they were painted simply as lazy and unmotivated. Still others blame the system, which doesn’t support long-term employment, and still others see NEETs as being involved in an active rebellion against the failing system. Whatever the case, the proliferation of part-time or non-working young people supported by their parents is very real here, and their plight deserves to be highlighted in fiction as well as non-fiction. As more and more young people in the US also begin living with their parents, working only part-time jobs if at all, the topic is becoming relevant everywhere.   

 

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