Terms like genius and renaissance man get thrown around so casually these days, it’s a bit of a shock to run into the real thing. I’m hard-pressed to think of a better example offhand than Takeshi Kitano, the Japanese multi-hyphenate — writer, director, author, TV personality, social commentator and stand-up funnyman — introduced most broadly to the West through his quirky remake of the Zatōichi movie franchise. But he’s been around a lot longer than that, and for a long time I lamented the only things we were getting to see of his creative prowess were his films, and sometimes not even that. (Many of his movies are not even in print on DVD in the USA anymore, and many that are exist only in wholly uncomplimentary editions.)
Leave it to Vertical Inc., magnates of Japanese pop culture in translation, to bring one of Kitano’s books to English-speaking audiences. Which book to give us was, I imagine, the subject of at least some deliberation: he’s written dozens, both fiction and non-, some of which have also been filmed by other parties. I half-expected to see a translation of Many Happy Returns, the story of an unassuming man who becomes indoctrinated into one of Japan’s “new religions” (read: cults). What they chose instead was Boy, which seems to amount to a sort of Kitano taster — a slim book of three short stories. Despite their length, they radiate a lovely combination of affection and nostalgia, the sort of thing Kitano has mined for the best of his own movies time and again, and they both complement and extend on his other work. They show up his genius for what it is.
The first story, “Champion in a Padded Kimono”, seems to be most directly gleaned from Kitano’s own life in some respects, but it’s less autobiography than an open reflection on the kinds of things that every childhood encompasses in some respect. The narrator recalls a school sporting competition which involved him and his brother, as well as a third student (a sort of class pariah), and realizes that thought-clichés like “the child is father to the man” are both true and not true. Neither he, no his brother, nor even the class loon — the “champion” of the title — seem to have any connection to what they were as children, but maybe that’s only because we cannot help but look at ourselves through our own eyes.
“Nest of Stars” gives us another pair of brothers, both united through their love of astronomy, clinging to each other in the wake of their father’s death and their mother’s increasing distance from her own children. When she introduces them to yet another one of what we suspect will be an endless line of boyfriends and substitute dads, the older brother tries to do his younger sibling a favor — “borrow” a large telescope from a school science lab for the sake of a stargazing session — and ends up getting into trouble. Even worse, he indoctrinates his younger brother with a sense that each one of them can only trust themselves from now on, that adulthood has nothing to offer them in any sense.
“Okamesan”, the only of the three stories not told from a first-person POV and my personal favorite, gives us a junior-high-school student who’s made a holiday pilgrimage to Kyoto to indulge in his fascination for history. His own family is dismayingly unsupportive, and he’s barely spent a day in Kyoto before getting into trouble (a biker gang extorts from him the cost of a bar-hopping spree) and getting tangled up with the biker gang leader’s girlfriend. She’s about as alienated from her own family as he is, although in a different way: where he’s immersed himself in the stories of the Kyoto temples, she’s resigned herself to being damaged goods. (The biker gang leader has “screwed” her, in more than one sense.) It only occurs to her after much trouble that he’s being nice to her in the only way he knows possible, and that she’s also returning the favor, however clumsily. When the protagonist looks at the hands of the truck driver next to him at the end and thinks, “People like that — they’re the real adults,” he’s come to understand a little better what it means to be a boy, and what it means to be a man. A shame it had to happen this way.
The book is a fast read — it’s only 185 pages, and there’s very little text on each page — but I suspect that is mostly because Kitano doesn’t put anything on the page that doesn’t need to be there, and not because he’s being skimpy. A lesser writer would have tried to expand something like “Okamesan” into a novella, with comings and goings and incidents left and right. As it is on the page, that story wastes nothing and accomplishes everything it wants to, much like the other two.
It’s a shame the story-story format has gone into such a decline in literary circles lately — not among writers, strictly, but readers and publishers, since the format no longer commands the kind of audience it used to among both of those circles. People now prefer the novel, if only because it’s more economical to buy long-form fiction: paper’s more expensive than it used to be, and a novel guarantees a more consistent experience in the long form than a short story, either alone or in a collection. One of the saddest side effects of this is how a great many authors (especially newer ones) have their most succinct and often most successful works simply get left by the wayside. With Boy, there’s at least a partial chance that won’t happen to Kitano.