Back of Shadow
Author: Shinsuke Numata
Specifications: ISBN  978-4163907284
96 pages
12.2 x 19.0 cm / 4.8 x 7.6 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Bungeishunju Ltd.
Tokyo, 2017
Awards: Akutagawa Prize, 2017
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Taking place partly in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake, this story focuses on characters who feel marginalized in their communities in today’s Japan. Remarkably, first-time author Shinsuke Numata accomplishes the acrobatic feat of bringing his protagonists and their plight to the fore while giving very little explicit information about either.

The narrator is 31-year-old Akihito Konno. In October 2008 he is transferred to the Iwate Prefecture subsidiary of a company that distributes pharmaceuticals to medical facilities. There he becomes friends with Norihiro Hiasa, a colleague who is about his own age in the Logistics Department, and they spend time fishing nearby mountain streams and going drinking together. In a scene where they encounter a massive tree that has fallen across their path, the narrator describes Hiasa as “a man who is particularly susceptible when something big collapses, and easily affected by it.” This sets a key theme for the story that follows, which is most centrally about the relationship between these two men.

In February 2010, Hiasa disappears without saying anything to Konno, who subsequently learns from colleagues that he quit his job. Konno feels a little hurt, but does not try to pursue Hiasa. Then in June, Hiasa comes looking for Konno as an agent for a mutual aid society in which members pay a premium of ¥2,000 per month to cover the cost of a wedding or burial. They renew their friendship. In August, Hiasa begs Konno to sign up for a plan so he can meet his sales quota. The following month, Konno, Hiasa, and a guest of Hiasa go fishing together, but for some reason Hiasa is on edge and hostile, and seems to find something wrong with everything Konno does. Their friendship once again breaks off.

In March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake causes devastation all up and down the Pacific coast of northeastern Honshu, including coastal Iwate. Fortunately, the city where Konno lives is far enough inland to be spared significant damage. In May, a woman named Nishiyama from the Logistics Department tells Konno that she thinks Hiasa died in the tsunami. Besides signing up for three plans with the mutual aid society (for her husband’s and her own funeral, and her daughter’s wedding) even before Konno, she has loaned Hiasa ¥350,000. When they contact Hiasa’s company, they’re told that he is officially listed as missing. Although the day of the earthquake was supposed to be a day off, Hiasa had gone out to the coast on his own initiative to try to make some sales, and is thought to have been caught up in the tsunami.

Konno conducts inquiries in an effort to find out what happened but fails to turn up any leads. When he visits the inland village where Hiasa grew up and meets his father, he is surprised by what he learns. Hiasa claimed to have graduated from a university in Tokyo, but his degree certificate was a forgery and he had never actually enrolled at the school in question. Hiasa’s father had learned of this when the man who forged the certificate came to ask for money. Enraged at the deception, especially since he had continued to send money for tuition and rent year after year, the elder Hiasa had disowned his son, and he now has no desire to file a missing persons report. At the same time, he says he believes his son is still living, and will eventually cause a major incident of some kind. Hiasa had lost his mother at the age of four, after which he was raised by his father and older brother, but he’d grown up rarely speaking to his father; he’d never had more than one friend at a time, with one short-lived friendship replacing another in quick succession.

With regard to Konno himself, readers are largely left to read between the lines. He apparently had a relationship with a man named Kazuya Soejima, who ultimately underwent sex reassignment surgery and became a woman. Konno initially sees his transfer to the subsidiary in Iwate as a good opportunity for him, but he knows he will return to the parent company in Tokyo in three years, so he makes no real effort to establish local ties. In some ways it appears that Konno is the one “susceptible when something big collapses,” and that he is desperately trying to guard some secret.

The highly polished prose, deeply evocative descriptions of nature, and careful and intricate plotting mark Numata as a newcomer from whom still more great things can be expected.