Keritai Senaka by Wataya Risa

Title: 蹴りたい背中
English Title: “The Back I’d Like To Kick”
Author: 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa)
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 140

Wataya Risa made waves in 2001 when she became the youngest writer to win the Bungei Prize (文藝賞), a prestigious award managed by the literary magazine Bungei. She won the award for her debut novel Install (インストール), written while she was a senior in high school. After graduating from high school, Wataya entered Waseda University and began work on her second novel, Keritai Senaka. This novel would win her the Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞), the single most prestigious literary award in Japan. At the age of nineteen, Wataya became the youngest author ever to receive this award.

So, what’s all the fuss about? In a market dominated by pop fad writers like Yoshimoto Banana and Yamada Amy, it’s easy to be skeptical. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, when I say that Wataya is the real deal. Her prose reflects the background and personality of her high school aged narrator while still managing to maintain a definite literary tone. Her descriptions of people and places are vivid and artistic, and her introspective examination of memory and interpersonal dynamics are sure to resonate with anyone who’s old and yet young enough to be able to look back on high school with both bitterness and nostalgia.

The novel’s plot centers around the lone wolf narrator Hachi, her changing relationship with her best friend Kinuyo, and her developing relationship with a strange boy named Ninagawa. Hachi and Kinuyo have just graduated from middle school, and Hachi is disappointed that Kinuyo has become popular with a new group of friends in high school. Left to her own devices, Hachi is drawn to Ninagawa, a fellow outcast who steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with other people. When Hachi mentions that she’s met the fashion model with whom Ninagawa is obsessed, he latches on to her, and she finds herself introduced to his strange otaku fantasy world, which ultimately provides a means for her to re-affirm her relationship with Kinuyo.

Although it’s debatable whose back Hachi wants to kick, the back that she does kick (twice) belongs to Ninagawa. Don’t let yourself think for one second, however, that this book is about a high school romance between the two. The somewhat twisted relationship between the them is exquisitely complicated and yet imminently understandable, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. One of the main appeals of this novel, in fact, is the challenge of decoding Hachi’s feelings towards Ninagawa. Perhaps the other main appeal is trying to understand one’s own feelings, as the reader, concerning Hachi (and, by extension, oneself at her age).

Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be translated. For those of you studying Japanese, however, you will be pleased to find that Wataya’s prose is very accessible. The book can easily be finished in three or four sittings. If you’ve been looking for a book to serve as a gateway into Japanese literature, please allow me to recommend Keritai Senaka.

Comments
  1. Chris says:

    Hello. I’m in Chicago, and this book sounds like it will fit the bill for my level and interest. Do you know of any way I can get it here in the states, short of dropping $40 on shipping with Amazon Japan?

    • Kathryn says:

      I don’t know much about Chicago, but what I used to do when I lived in Georgia was to call the Kinokuniya bookstore in New York (212-869-1700) and have them send me stuff. They were always super helpful and efficient.

      If you don’t actually need to *own* the book, you’re lucky that you’re in the same city as the University of Chicago, whose library has a really good East Asia collection. I don’t know their procedure for granting library access and checkout privileges; but, if they won’t let you check out the book, request it through Interlibrary Loan through a public library.

      I don’t mean to defend Amazon.co.jp, because their shipping is in fact ridiculous (when you say almost $40 shipping on a ¥399 book, I totally believe you), but what you’re paying for is the tariff for commercial products and well as the fastest shipping available. If you order that book from Amazon, it will get to you, like, yesterday. Also, the shipping is charged at a bulk rate, so you could order a few more things (many more things, actually) and still get the same shipping rate. It might be worth it to you to just bite the bullet and pay Amazon since the alternatives are kind of a pain in the ass.

      If you can figure something out that’s cheaper, easier, and makes more sense, please write me back to let me know!

    • Kathryn says:

      Also, you might want to try: http://www.bk1.jp/

      They allow different options for international shipping, so it’s possible to choose less expensive alternatives.

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