“Spark” tells the story of two manzai comedians. Manzai is a Japanese comedic form that involves a duo that engage in rapid-fire conversational exchanges involving puns, word play, absurdities, and misunderstandings. [Think of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first” sketch, but set to appeal to the Japanese sense of humor.]
The two comedians in question do not form a duo, but rather are members of their own, respective, manzai duos. While their relationship is one of friendship, to understand it fully one has to have a basic grasp of the sempai – kohai interaction. Most Westerners who haven’t practiced judo, aikido, flower arranging, or taiko drumming, or who haven’t done business in Japan are unlikely to be familiar with this very Confucian idea. It’s sort of like the idea of mentor and mentee, but writ much more broadly, basically into all aspects of life. The sempai is the senior, and the kohai is the junior. In this case, our narrator, Tokunaga, is the kohai (junior,) and Kamiya is the sempai (senior.) Kamiya says he will guide Tokunaga, if Tokunaga agrees to write Kamiya’s biography. The book in question could be taken to be the resultant product — although Tokunaga, himself, is the protagonist of the story – with Kamiya being the Obi Wan to Tokunaga’s Luke.
I think readers should know not to expect a book that is laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Because the subject is comedy, one might expect it to be a laugh riot from cover-to-cover. I remember seeing the movie “Punchline” (1988) and being very disappointed because it was about standup comedians, but the standup comedy in the film was mediocre at its best. The movie had major league talent (Tom Hanks and Sally Field) and I might have enjoyed it more if my expectations about the humor were tempered. “Spark” does have its funny moments, but one wouldn’t want base one’s judgement on that. For one thing, overall, the story is bittersweet. It tends to be lighthearted, but it has its moments of angst as well. Furthermore, the humor doesn’t translate well, and I think there are both cultural and linguistic reasons for that. Much of the humor that plays out when the comedians are riffing (usually off-stage) is what I would call absurdist quips, and the more you like that kind of humor the more you’ll like it in the book, but vice-versa is true, too. If your response to puns is deadpan, I wouldn’t expect to find yourself laughing (or even smiling) much. (Not that the humor is pun-based, but it’s about that level of funny.)
Obviously, I thought the book does something right, even if it’s not its hilarity. For one thing, it has at least as many philosophically thought-provoking moments as it does humorous ones. While there is a lot of silliness in the exchanges between Tokunaga and Kamiya, there is also a philosophy and a psychology that are presented for one’s consideration. At its heart, I think this is a book about what art is exactly, and how one rides a line between the creative and the familiar. Tokunaga wants to be like Kamiya because he sees Kamiya is creative to the point of being so far outside the box that he can’t even see the box. However, as the story goes on, Tokunaga ends up having more success because he (and his partner, who is a relatively minor and unseen character) instinctively keep one eye on what will appeal to audiences. While Tokunaga chides himself for lacking the courage and creativity of Kamiya, ultimately, he gets to see the downside of those proclivities.
I enjoyed this book. It clearly leans toward literary fiction, which is to say it’s much more about characters than it is about story and exciting events. This means that it may feel a little slow at times, but it does have a payoff that ties up the story into a satisfying narrative. It’s also a book that is wisely kept short. Because it’s not that long, the coffee shop and bar discussions that make up much of “the action” don’t overextend into tedium. If you are interested in comedy, creativity, or just tales of friendship, this is a worthwhile read.