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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Matayoshi Naoki

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To purchase Spark

Title: Spark
Author: Matayoshi Naoki
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 156 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Spark - US
Spark - UK
Spark - Canada
  • Japanese title: 火花
  • Translated by Alison Watts
  • Hibana was made into a TV series in 2016

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Our Assessment:

B : curious slice of contemporary Japan

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 27/3/2020 Louise Lucas
Irish Independent . 7/3/2020 Darragh McManus
Sunday Times . 8/3/2020 David Mills
TLS . 21/8/2020 Till Weingärtner

  From the Reviews:
  • "What to make of it ? At just 160 pages, Spark is a slim novella, economically written, and with warmth, too, although Matayoshi's wit does not always translate -- a reflection more likely of manzai humour than Alison Watts' translation from Japanese. (...) Yet the overarching theme is more desolate: the mess we make of our lives, whether through compromise or by following a true calling to the utmost. No one individual can advise another on how to live their best life. It is all too easy to fall short of even muted ambitions. (...) Tokyo is an omnipresent backdrop (.....) Spark does the city credit." - Louise Lucas, Financial Times

  • "So the story is fine; unfortunately I just didn't find the book to be funny, at all. This is something of a problem in a novel which is about comedy, and intended to be at least partly comic in tone itself. I also didn't get most of the jokes in the manzai routines. Not only did I not laugh, I couldn't actually see what the joke was supposed to be. (...) It's not quite culture shock, more like cultural bewilderment." - Darragh McManus, Irish Independent

  • "While there are undoubtedly some funny moments, its general atmosphere is serious, even gloomy. (...) Spark allows an international audience to appreciate how seriously comedy is treated in contemporary Japanese culture." - Till Weingärtner, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Spark is a novel of the manzai (漫才) life -- a Japanese variety of stand-up comedy featuring a team of two performers. The novel is narrated by Tokunaga, one half of the 'Sparks'-comedy duo, and more or less chronicles his decade as a manzai performer, and then some.
       Coming out of high school, Tokunaga was determined to make it as a manzai performer: "I'd wanted to be a manzai comedian ever since I was a kid". He met his partner Yamashita in junior high, and together they set out on the manzai-path -- signing up with an agency and performing where they could, including often in competitions. Early on, when Tokunaga is just twenty, he is taken on by a slightly older manzai-performer, Kamiya, who becomes his sensei and mentor -- a sempai to show him the ropes and give him advice. Kamiya's act is as part of the Doofuses. He is also (or rather: really) completely dedicated to comedy -- but has a more extreme vision of it: "The essential thing, Tokunaga, is to disrupt things. Disrupt the colourful, beautiful world, and another unreal, more awesomely beautiful world will appear all on its own." He really is willing to do practically anything for his art, in a way that appeals to Tokunaga but that Tokunaga also seems to find to be beyond him -- but he realizes it is useful to have Kamiya pushing him.
       Sempai and apprentice don't spend much time together honing their skills -- "We hardly ever had any worthwhile discussions either" --; mostly they just drink a lot together. Though Kamiya is pretty much always broke (or worse), he nevertheless insists on always paying, as a sempai should. For a while Kamiya is involved with a woman, Maki, who generously takes care of him, but that relationship falls apart; Kamiya remains an outsider -- and eventually gets in difficulties because of all the money he owes. But he always makes an effort to be a mentor of sorts to Tokunaga.
       Tokunaga's career doesn't flourish, but Sparks slowly establishes itself and he and his partner enjoy some small successes -- enough that Tokunaga eventually doesn't have to work at a convenience store to make ends meet any more, and he can live a bit more comfortably. He long remains under the sway of Kamiya, but it's probably not the ideal mentor-apprentice relationship:

I was so close to him, and so in awe of his eccentric behaviour and talent, that I was blinded: I got to believing that being abnormal was right, the way to go, the path to take. That might be an asset for comedians, and Kamiya sure was good at it, but me, I was just awkward -- so awkward that I couldn't capitalize on it, sell it. And somewhere along the line, I'd confused Kamiya's peculiarity with my own awkwardness. They were not the same.
       While Sparks enjoys some success, they see other up-and-comers at their agency fit in much more readily. Tokunaga is still committed -- "we were never just fooling around. We put it all on the line" -- but the writing is on the wall. Eventually, Yamashita decides he wants to settle down and Tokunaga realizes it's time to pack it in: "Yamashita's the only partner for me. When he decided to quit, that was it for me too". With what seems like very few regrets, Tokunaga adjusts to his new life, first working in pubs, then in real estate.
       If Tokunaga ultimately didn't have the determination to be a comedian, Kamiya can't do anything else. It is his vocation and passion -- even if he struggles to have any success with it. Fairly early on, there's a scene that pegs both performers perfectly: Kamiya and Tokunaga come across a mother with a crying baby in a park, and Kamiya does his comic routine, trying to get the baby to laugh; of course the infant is too young to even understand what he was doing, but it's typical of Kamiya: he doesn't care about his audience, only about the act. Prodding Tokunaga to join in, Kamiya is disappointed that his apprentice can't bring himself to do more than try to play peek-a-boo with the kid: obviously, Tokunaga just doesn't have it in him to embrace comedy to the extent that would be necessary for him to be really successful at it.
       Just how far Kamiya is willing to go is revealed in the book's final turn, when he and a now long retired Tokunaga meet again, and Kamiya reveals his extreme bid for comic attention. To say he went over the top is an understatement: Matayoshi comes up with a great demonstration of just how radically far Kamiya is willing to go. Tokunaga tries to be the voice of reason, explaining why Kamiya is transgressing boundaries he really shouldn't, a nice final demonstration and summing-up of just how far apart the two always were.
       For a novel about comedy acts, Spark focuses relatively little on them. Only at the beginning and then with the final performance of Sparks does Matayoshi really give examples of manzai acts and banter. So also Yamashita is a secondary character who barely figures in Tokunaga's account, with Kamiya the much more prominent presence. There's some description of the logistics of the manzai-life -- working for an agency, the kinds of gigs one gets -- but even that is mostly bare bones.
       Ultimately, Spark is a novel about a man who would like to be a comedian but pretty clearly doesn't have the chops or necessary passion for it -- for all of Tokunaga's claims that this is his dream, he never really seems to throw himself into it with the necessary determination and focus -- and another who single-mindedly seems to be incapable of anything else: Kamiya literally lives for and in his comedy, which proves to be a bad fit with getting by in the world at large.
       Much of Spark is presented as a sort of apprentice-novel, the lessons Tokunaga can learn from Kamiya, but too much of it has the characters wander (literally, often, through the streets of Tokyo) aimlessly. His sort of extreme comedy is such a way of life for Kamiya that perhaps he doesn't need to expound on it for his apprentice -- he leads by example, as it were -- but Tokunaga doesn't seem to get much more out of it than getting really drunk on (many) occasions. The two are so very different that there's never really much sense that apprentice will somehow be able to follow in the master's footsteps -- whereby it's unclear whether that would be the right thing to do anyway, given Kamiya's relative lack of professional success.
       Perhaps if more of the comedy were highlighted -- to convince readers of Kamiya's genius, for one, because it isn't otherwise very convincing ... (save that last inspired if ultra-extreme concept-realization) -- the story would be more compelling. Tokunaga's devotion to the art also never really comes across as entirely convincing -- and he seems to be able to give it up with little more than a shrug -- which also lessens the overall impact, and even if this is ultimately Kamiya's story rather than his, a bit more has to be made with his side of the story.
       It's not uninteresting, but Spark mostly falls a bit flat -- though the wild reveal of the ending is inspired. This book was a phenomenal sales-success in Japan -- and won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, too -- and perhaps the local familiarity with the world of manzai provides the background that foreign readers lack, but it's hard to imagine similar enthusiasm abroad. It's fine, and engaging in parts, but hardly in any way exceptional.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 Augsut 2020

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Spark: Reviews: Hibana - the TV Series: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese comedian and author Matayoshi Naoki (又吉直樹) was born in 1980.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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