A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”
The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.
What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.
Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.
So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.
Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.
Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)
If I hadn’t met you that day…
I don’t think I would have
Felt this bitterness.
Cried this much.
If I hadn’t met you…
I wouldn’t have known that either.
Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.
Look to the sky.
Chapter One– A smile
“God, I am so hungry♪♪”
Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.
Same as always, Mika put
her lunchbox on her desk and opened it.
School is a drag.
The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.
She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.
It hasn’t even been three months
since she got here.
She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.
And not that pretty
Doesn’t have any special talents.
Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.
Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.
She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.
She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.
She had normal friends.
She had normal crushes.
She dated three guys.
I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.
But, what I know is normal,
is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.
She doesn’t know real love.
All she knows is how to fool around,
Who needs it?
It was right then…
I met you.
Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.
Like always, Mika and Aya and Yuka
wolf down their food.
Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?
The classroom door rattles open,
A guy with one hand in his pocket
to the three of them.
That guy, he stands in front of them
And he starts talking. Casually.
“Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”
The three girls look at each other.
They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.
Just keep eating their lunches.
Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.
It seemed like he was walking around school
with a different girl on his arm every day.
“Watch out for Nozomu!”
“If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”
Didn’t somebody tell me that…?
He’s got a well-proportioned face
on a tall body.
Highlights in his hair,
styled with wax for that “casual” look.
Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.
He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.
The problem is his personality.
Maybe… if he was a little more serious…
With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.
The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.
“Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”
His insistence makes me thirsty.
Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one hand
gulping it all down.
“What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”
Suddenly, Aya breaks it.
Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.
Aya gives him her number
with a smile.
It’s hard to believe this is happening.
I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself.
Then turning to Aya, blurting out:
“Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”
Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.
“What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”
Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.
She’s stylish and her best feature is
her long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.
She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…
That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.
“Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”
To Yuka, with the serious face
Aya turns and lightly replies.
“Don’t worry about it.”
School lets out.
I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.
The ring echoes through the room.
There’s no name on the caller id.
It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.
I wonder who it is…
I pick-up to find out.
I say it with a little more self-assurance.
Beep, beep, beep.
They hung up.
Probably a wrong number.
Again, the ring echoes through the room.
The same number as before.
They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.
So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.
“…lo? Hello. Hello?”
On the other end of the line, I can faintly hear
the sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.
“Who is this?”
The guy on the other end
shouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.
“…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”
The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?
The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?
I start to panic.
I can’t find
the words to reply.
I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?