Shinji Ishii and The Story Behind the Novel

By Bonnie Elliott

As part of our month-long celebration of contemporary writing from Japan this May at Words without Borders, Bonnie Elliott provides an informative glimpse into the provenance of Shinji Ishii's novel Once Upon a Swing. You can read an excerpt from the novel, in Bonnie's translation, in this month's issue. —Editors

Shinji Ishii wrote his first story when he was four years old. The story, "Typhoon," is featured in his novel, Once Upon a Swing, as one which the main character, a little boy, writes as a four year old.

Typhoon

"Heyyyy, typhoon's a-comin'!" said a man in a portside village. A huge typhoon was about to land. It was moving closer to the coastline. The fishermen anchored their boats, fixed their rooftops and hammered wood planks into doorways and walls.

But one Mr. Twisted stood up and declared "I ain't afraid of no typhoon."

And he alone took his boat out to sea.

That night, the typhoon changed course and landed directly on the fishing boats. The boats, rooftops, houses, people and dogs were all blown sky high and away during the night.

The following morning, Mr. Twisted returned to his village.

And there he found that nothing remained.

From that day on Mr. Twisted had to sleep, brush his teeth, and eat all his meals alone. He kept looking up at the sky as one lone thought circled his mind.

The next time a typhoon comes, I must make sure to be blown away.

When you read "Typhoon" for the first time not knowing that a four-year-old Shinji had actually written it, you take the story in as you would any other. Slightly alarming, you may think. Perhaps a bit fatalistic. Only in fiction could a story like that be written by a four-year-old boy. But what a funny little boy. Is it supposed to be funny?

Once you find out that Shinji had actually written the story when he was four, another layer creeps into your consciousness. It is slightly unnerving. How could a four-year-old write that story? you ask yourself.

In fact, this story, though written by a four-year-old Shinji, is a classic Shinji Ishii text. It is the web from which all his other tales are spun. Much like Alice falling down the rabbit hole and into another world, picking up a Shinji Ishii book transports the reader to places surreal and fantastic yet very, very real. It is a touch Gabriel García Márquez and a splash John Irving and Roald Dahl under the direction of Tim Burton. It is fable-like yet epic, sweet yet sinister, heartening yet tragic, tender yet violent, encapsulating life itself, the way literature should. At every turn is a metaphor that resonates deep in the heart of the reader.

I first met Shinji in April 2005. I took the train to Misaki, a small fishing village where he lived part of the year. Having been born in an oceanside town just a few miles from there, the area was both familiar and dear to me. I immediately felt a connection. We were discussing the possibility of my translating Once Upon a Swing when he showed me a pile of neatly stacked construction paper carefully wrapped in a plastic bag. It turned out that the bag held a dozen picture books that he had written as a child.

A decade ago, Shinji was Japan's answer to Charles Bukowski, a self-described functional alcoholic bogged down by what his mind's eye saw as the unbridgeable gap between appearance and reality. Who he was, what he projected and how others saw him were but some of the issues that confounded him. He was going through a rough patch, to say the least, and was struggling to find his true voice when he asked his mother about the stories he had written as a child. "I still have them," his mother replied nonchalantly, and showed him where she had safeguarded them for close to three decades.

Shinji was thirty-four when he reaquainted himself with his four-year-old self. The purity of his voice in "Typhoon," one written in a space unaware of an audience, transported him to a place where he was finally able to reclaim his identity. This was how he came to write his first novel, Once Upon a Swing.

"It became important," he told me, " to always view the world from the perspective of my four year-old self."

The original "Typhoon" was written on a rectangular piece of blue construction paper accordion folded into a book. He had written "First in a Series" on the cover although he never did continue his "Typhoon" series as, perhaps, originally planned.

That is, not until three decades later when he wrote his first novel.


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