REVIEW: Spark by Naoki Matayoshi

In brief: Tokunaga is trying to make as a comedian. When he meets Kamiya, he asks Kamiya to mentor him. Over the years, Tokunaga learns from Kamiya but it’s not always the lesson intended.

The good: In-depth, shocking and sweet.

The not-so-good: A fairly short read.

Why I chose it: I love Japanese fiction.

Year: 2019 (2015 in Japanese)

Translator: Alison Watts

Pages: 156

Publisher: Pushkin Press

Setting: Osaka and Tokyo, Japan

Rating: 8 out of 10

Spark is a somewhat unusual novel, and one that I came to enjoy overall once I accepted being out of my comfort zone. The novel is not unconventional in form or style, but I just haven’t read many Japanese fiction books from the first-person male perspective that haven’t involved unexplained events. I know even less about Japanese comedy forms but that shouldn’t be an impediment to enjoying this novel.

I must admit that I was attracted to the simplicity of the cover and the Netflix logo. Like everyone, I enjoy adding to my list on Netflix almost more than the watching. I haven’t watched the series yet (note it’s in Japanese with English subtitles) but I think it takes longer to watch than read! The main character of Spark is Tokunaga. He’s a Japanese comedian who practises manzai, a double act with one straight and one funny performer. His group is performing their act in the lead up to some fireworks and the crowd are passing them straight by. The pair after them includes Kamiya, who is a pretty out there comedian and Tokunaga is impressed by how out there his work is. Later in a bar, Tokunaga asks Kamiya if he can be his mentor. Kamiya agrees and here begins a friendship that is outrageous, funny and touching. Through the years, Tokunaga learns about his limits personally and in comedy. He and Kamiya have a relationship that tests both of their minds, with a lot of wit being traded during their conversations and epic walks around Tokyo.

Gradually, the power in the relationships begins to shift as Tokunaga becomes popular, while audiences resonate less with Kamiya. Tokunaga also has comedic ideas that he refuses to touch on, but Kamiya will do anything (stress on the anything) for a potential laugh. Tokunaga can also sense when the game is up while Kamiya will push the envelope beyond borders, as seen in the final scenes. I was definitely not expecting Kamiya to go that far for a laugh (nor misjudge humour so badly) but I think the surprise just adds to the shock in a good way. In between the comedy there is a touching story of friendship, with both men looking out for each other in their own ways.

I found the translation worked really well, especially some of the humour (maybe it helps that Alison Watts is Australian). The story retained the Japanese feel and didn’t throw the Western reader completely in the deep end when it came to manzai. It was a solid read, not particularly long, but that seems to be a feature of many Japanese novels.

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