Snapshots: I Want To Kick You In The Back by Risa Wataya

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Hardcover, 198 pages
Published April 14th 2015 by One Peace Books
English Translation by Julianne Neville

Source: Library

A winner of Japan’s prestigious Aktugawa Prize for rising literary talent, “I Want to Kick You in the Back” follows Hatsu, who is in her first year of high school and having a hard time fitting in with her classmates. She meets Ninagawa, an outcast who is obsessed with a model/pop idol but who has no interest in the actual girls around him. Gradually, Hatsu develops an impulse towards Ninagawa, not of love or infatuation, but one that can best be described as a desire to kick him in the back.This novella does a great job of exploring the ambivalent feelings of a teenager in search of a meaningful relationship.

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Loneliness makes a sound. It’s crisp and clear and loud, like an alarm bell going off between your ears.

Hatsu is reminiscent of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield except, arguably, less obnoxious and more self-aware. Her inability to fit in with her classmates stems from an acute realization of the masks everyone wears in front of other people and her consequent refusal to don a similar mask. She, despite the ensuing loneliness, would much rather be by herself than pretend emotions and make conversations she does not feel and has no desire to make. Ninagawa, she assumes initially, is her comrade in isolation until she realizes that he is much too immersed in his worship of a model/singer/TV personality to even realize his loneliness. The book portrays the relationship between Hatsu who had the dubious luck to meet the object of Ninagawa’s desires once, and Ninagawa. The title refers to the darker feelings that rise in Hatsu every time she is with Ninagawa. The desire to shake him from his fixation, the desire, I dare say, to make him look at her instead.

I Want To Kick You In The Back is remarkable for the authenticity in the voice of its teenaged protagonist. It is also remarkable for the introspection and self-awareness that Hatsu expresses. For instance:

…before I’d realized it, I was in the auditorium from the classroom. Naturally I had walked down the hall and stairway to get here, but I didn’t remember doing it. Because my gaze is so focused inward, I don’t take note of or remember anything passing by me on the outside. At school my inner voice is always talking non-stop and makes the outside world seem distant.

Hatsu’s awareness of her own solipsism aside, there’s a rich skein of vulnerability in the narrative that captures perfectly the turbulent times of adolescence.

It was funny, really. I put all this effort into erasing my existence, yet confronting the depths of my invisibility always frightened me.

I recommend this book both to adult readers and young adults. Apart from giving a window into a different culture, it also gives words to emotions we all feel though we may no longer traverse the hallowed halls of high school. Hatsu is a remarkable protagonist and the book is less a story that neatly ties up its endings and more a tale that will leave you musing long after the last page has been turned.

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Risa Wataya (綿矢 りさ, born February 1, 1984) is a female Japanese novelist from Kyoto.

Wataya graduated from Murasakino High School in Kyoto.
Her first novella, Install, written when she was 17, was awarded the 38th Bungei Prize. She graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo. Her thesis focused on the structure of Osamu Dazai’s Hashire merosu (走れ、メロス Run, Melos!). Wataya rose to fame in 2003 upon receiving the Akutagawa Prize for her short novel Keritai Senaka (“The Back You Want to Kick”), while at Waseda University. The prize was shared between Wataya and Hitomi Kanehara, another young, female author. At the age of 19, Wataya became the youngest author—and the third student—ever to receive this greatly prestigious award, the first two student winners having been Shintarō Ishihara and Keiichiro Hirano. Wataya’s works have been translated into German, Italian, French, and Korean. In 2004, her novel Install was adapted into a film starring Aya Ueto. In 2012, her novel Kawaisou da ne? (“Isn’t it a pity?”) won the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, meaning that the novel will be translated into English and other languages.