Tokyo Damage Report

SEVENTEEN, now downloadable!

No, not the girls' magazine. The Japanese novella that was banned after the first printing, on pain of death!
The novella I just translated into english for your reading-and-or-Emperor-disrespecting pleasure.
The novella you can download here for free! All in one place.
Let me back up a second:

Last year, I posted my translation of Furyuu Mutan (The Dream Of An Elegant Family), a Japanese short-story from 1960 that it set off a huge shit-storm of political controversy and real-world violence. But it turns out, Furyuu Mutan was just the beginning!

 It depicted the execution of the Emperor’s whole family by Japanese revolutionaries, and had the Queen Mother cursing like a sailor.   Needless to say, this story was never allowed to be re-published in Japan, but you can read it in English right here (if you don’t mind my amateurish translation, that is!).  Anyway, it turns out that Furyuu Mutan was just the first shot in an epic cultural battle! The attacks flew back and forth – not only between left and right wingers, but it went back and forth between reality and art. It was basically like the American East/West coast rap wars of the ‘90s, but THIRTY YEARS EARLIER.

Which is amazing if you think about it.

Here is a partial chronology: The government didn’t ban Furyuu Mutan, but the Imperial Household Grand Vizer said the story was just awful, which caused  the right-wing militia groups to send a seventeen-year-old assassin to kill the story’s publisher. Read more about the assassination here.  And here –  in Section Three, no less!

Meanwhile, the right wing counter-attacked in the realm of fiction, too: authors like Yukio Mishima wrote novels with anti-commie themes.

So then what happened? Future Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe steps into the ring to hit back at the right, with a savage fictional satire making fun of the real-life assassin : a short novel called SEVENTEEN. Along the way, Oe delivers knockout punches to right-wing politicians, liberal Japanese parents, and teenagers. That’s right, teenagers: this dead-serious political satire – so dangerous that it, too, is banned in Japan – is written in the form of a Young Adult Coming Of Age story. How fucked is that?

The right then counter-counter-counter attacked by threatening mass destruction if Oe’s ‘seventeen part two’ was ever published. (how did they know Part Two makes Part One look like a Hardy Boys novel?). The publisher got all crafty and changed the title to ‘Death of a Political Youth’ and instead of publishing it in their flagship literary magazine, published it as a tiny, one-shot fanzine, distributed under cover of deepest night, hidden inside a copy of Shonen Jump.

OK, I made that last part up, but shit was hectic back in the ‘60s, and people got hurt over art. You might think, “Well that doesn’t happen anymore so things must have calmed down.” But you’d be wrong: the reason people don’t get hurt anymore is people are still intimidated by the rightist violence from 50 years ago, and don’t even try to break the rules anymore. To be fair, Japanese communists did terrorism and violence too, but nobody is scared of them anymore. If you want to do a doujinshi of Lenin getting raped by Doraemon, nobody is going to hassle you. Just saying.

Anyway, there IS an English translation of Seventeen part one floating around Amazon. For about two dollars. But there is – far as I know – NO English version of the much more bad-ass part two, so I decided to fuck around and translate BOTH of them. Anyway, I’ll post excerpts of SEVENTEEN weekly.

Much props to TOGYO NO KATAMI (紙魚 の 筺) , an anonymously-run website, a sort of WIkileaks for banned books. They post the text of banned books as .html files in Japanese. If you guys are fluent in the ol’ Nihongo, check that shit out.

Things to think about when you read it:

1 –  The author doesn’t like any of the characters at all. This is one of the hallmarks of great fiction: Confederacy of Dunces, Barrel Fever, the Bible, etc.   

2 – The main character, Mr. Seventeen, is always wrong about everything. Every social situation he mistakes the motivations of people he deals with. Every bad thing that happens to him, he learns exactly the wrong lesson from it. So you’re basically reading a bunch of delusions. And yet, Oe always gives you, the reader, just enough clues to see how Seventeen SHOULD have reacted – and lets you know just how badly Seventeen is blundering THIS time. That is a big feat, because the book is written in the first person. Oe doesn’t have an omnipotent narrator to say, “OK, well here’s what’s really going on.” That must have been hard to do!

3 – This story is all about teenagers, delving into every aspect of their lives, but the main teen totally talks like an older intellectual – like, for instance, Oe! I have no fucking idea if Oe is deliberately doing this juxtaposition for comic effect, or if Oe was so into his little intellectual-writer world he didn’t even realize how ridiculous his main character sounds. But trying to answer that question adds to the fun of reading it (especially during the more repetitive parts).

4 – Repetitive parts? Yeah! Boring parts! The endless self-pity and narcissism is SUPPOSED to be boring. Oe is deliberately lampooning the obsessive way that teens think.

5 – In America (also England? Anyone?), anyone who tries to write about teenagers is basically pre-pwned  by Catcher In The Rye.  They know everyone will judge their novel relative to Catcher. Even if they didn’t like Catcher, they are reacting to it in some way. But Oe doesn't care Catcher at all, which is liberating. It’s fun to see what parts are similar to Catcher ANYWAY, and what parts are totally different, because it teaches you about how Japanese teens are different than / the same as Western teens.

Those of you who want to buy more books by Oe can click here.
15 comments Tags: , ,

15 Comments so far

  1. Mark June 15th, 2010 10:37 pm

    Thanks for the backstory, I've had this on my bookshelf for 10 years or so (mere inches away from Barrel Fever and Confederacy of Dunces) without successfully making it past 20 pages or so. I try again.

  2. William June 16th, 2010 2:48 am

    Looking forward to it. Sounds like the term you want for (2) is 'unreliable narrator'. Kazuo Ishiguro also used that technique in The Remains of the Day.

  3. Mark June 16th, 2010 4:35 am

    and in The Unconsoled…and in Never Let Me Go….

  4. sakana June 16th, 2010 5:59 am

    What? No english translation of one of the most wellknown japanese novel of postwar japan? Hard to believe… Seventeen is not a banned book, it's very famous, Oe was  Akutagawa and Nobel prized,so… Excuse-me but I'm just very surprised.

  5. Maria June 16th, 2010 2:29 pm

    Oh, I'm pretty excited! sounds great…
    Every time I read his novels  I'm impressed by  Oe's style of writing (also Mishima, by the way…)
    Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

  6. admin June 16th, 2010 5:42 pm

    @sakana: you’re a pedantic twit. I said no english translation of PART TWO of the story. And if a book is famous, it can’t have been banned? Really? That explains why I’ve never heard of Huckleberry Finn!
    @mark: you got the ‘real’ english version of seventeen? Rad! If you get around to reading it, please let me know how it’s different than my version.

  7. sakana June 16th, 2010 6:16 pm

    No, I'm not a pedantic twit, I'm JUST SURPRISED. Translation of  two, I KNOW, but anyway, if it's not complete, you can say there's no translation at all. Whatever, the complete version does exist in several language, and you can buy it in random library in a lot of developed country. So how pedantic is it to say ''I give you the translation of a banned and rare book I made just for you'', while this book is an ultra-classic you can read in french, spanish, german,…???

  8. catoneinutica June 16th, 2010 7:16 pm

    On the topic of lese majeste 'n shit, what would happen if, at one of those long, smelly club nights, you were to shout, "Fuck Akihito," or "Hirohito's being pissed on by satan in hell."  Would everyone suddenly get all subdued, as if to say, hey, this is punk, but there are limits.

  9. Sarah June 17th, 2010 12:30 am

    catoneinutica: that reminds me of the expression 'language that would make a sailor blush.' How bad would it have to be?
    also, blushing sailors would be cute.

  10. […] Kenzaburo’s SEVENTEEN, part one June 17th, 2010 | Category: translation What is SEVENTEEN?? CHAPTER ONE, part one.    Today is my birthday. I turned juu-nana-sai. In English, they […]

  11. Mark June 17th, 2010 10:32 am

    I don't know if it's the "real" version, but it's the one you've linked to with the great stylized cover, same intro by Masao Miyoshi, which I wish I'd read sooner. I'll try to compare the first chapters as soon as the weather turns to shit again here…

  12. z.v. wheels September 30th, 2010 7:50 pm

    Sweet! Thanks for the hook-up.

  13. admin September 30th, 2010 8:52 pm

    @z.v. : Part Two coming in about a week, homegirl!

  14. François September 30th, 2010 9:56 pm

    >On the topic of lese majeste 'n shit, what would happen if, at one of those long, smelly club nights, you were to shout, "Fuck Akihito," or "Hirohito's being pissed on by satan in hell."  Would everyone suddenly get all subdued, as if to say, hey, this is punk, but there are limits.

    Well, considering most Japanese people don't know the Emperors' first names, it probably won't raise much reaction.

  15. admin September 30th, 2010 10:08 pm

    @francois: good question. I saw the singer from Crow slap some girl just because i told him she liked Torihada Minoru. She slapped him back harder.

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