Tilting at Windmills

By Tara CheesmanDecember 24, 2018

Tilting at Windmills

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama

ON AUGUST 12, 1985, 45 minutes after take-off from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, Japan Airlines (JAL) Flight 123 crashed into Mount Takamagahara. Of the 524 people on board only four survived. Today, 33 years on, it remains one of the deadliest single aircraft accidents in history.

As he explains in the prologue to his novel Seventeen, Hideo Yokoyama was a young investigative journalist when, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, he made the eight-hour trek up Mount Takamagahara “with no routes or climbing trails” to guide him. He walked through the wreckage (“it was the rare lucky reporter who didn’t inadvertently step on a corpse”) and filed stories on what he witnessed. Just five years after CNN introduced the world to the 24-hour news cycle, this experience reinforced what Yokoyama had already begun to suspect — that “the kind of information we call news will always eventually evaporate, fade from memory,” even a story of the magnitude of JAL Flight 123. Soon after, he gave up his journalism career to write fiction. The crash would inspire his 2003 novel Climber’s High, which has been translated by Louise Heal Kawai and retitled Seventeen for English readers.

Seventeen is Yokoyama’s second novel to be translated into English. Like 2018’s Six Four, which was actually written and published in Japan nine years after Seventeen, it is difficult to classify. It’s not a thriller, per se, in the way that American fans might understand the genre (as a scan of the reader reviews on Goodreads confirms). There’s no crime. Most of the cinematic action occurs off the page. A mystery is introduced and wrapped up in approximately 10 pages. Seventeen is best described as “newsroom noir,” and put in the same category as films like The Post and Spotlight, but minus the scandalous exposés. What Yokoyama has written is, ultimately, more than your standard thriller. True to form, he has created a meditative and multilayered narrative that is as much about a man at a mid-life crossroads as it is about journalism or a plane crash.

Alternating between 1985 and 2003 (a span of 17 years) Seventeen is told in the close third person and follows Kazumasa Yuuki — a middle-aged, investigative reporter at the North Kanto Times (affectionately referred to as NKT by those employed there). In 1985, he’s the paper’s longest serving investigative reporter, having refused offers of advancement. All the men he started out with have been promoted, and his refusal to take on more responsibility is something of a problem for his boss. Which is why when, on August 12, Yuuki is told he is being made JAL crash desk chief in charge of NKT’s coverage of the disaster, it’s clear he has no choice but to accept.

Looming deadlines, disgruntled reporters, inadequate technology, the tension of competing with larger papers for stories and scoops while navigating feuding factions at NKT … it all makes for surprisingly riveting reading. For those who enjoy geeking out on esoteric procedural details, there’s plenty of that as well. Yokoyama puts his past to good use, extracting an impressive amount of tension from descriptions of a newsroom in which “war had broken out.” He relays essential information quickly and concisely, establishing the stakes early on. For example, when Yuuki sends his brightest young reporters to the crash site, he attempts to mitigate some of the danger by sending members of the NKT office climbing club with them. But the ascent proves treacherous for even seasoned climbers. Yuuki, and with him the reader, remains in the newsroom anxiously awaiting updates.

Time was steadily creeping up on Yuuki.

Anxiety was stalking him, too. Since night had fallen, there had been one piece of bad news after the other. Mount Osutaka was a formidable mountain indeed. The reporters who’d struggled their way up to the top had been lucky to make it. Far more of them had gotten lost en route, found their path blocked by a cliff face, or collapsed from sheer exhaustion, the NKT party included. Out of the twelve staff members dispatched to the site, Sayama and Hanazawa were the only ones who’d made it.

Sayama and Hanazawa call their story in, unaware that the deadline to print was moved up without their, or Yuuki’s, knowledge. In the end, an eyewitness piece from an NKT reporter won’t make it into the first issue about the crash due to petty jealousies. And when Yuuki tries to get it into the next day’s issue, he finds himself thwarted again, this time by the political jockeying of his superiors. Seventeen is a roller-coaster ride of small triumphs and larger defeats in which Yokoyama keeps his readers entirely invested.

Every aspect of covering the crash of JAL Flight 123 proves challenging. The unprecedented scale of the tragedy puts the local newsroom in direct competition with much larger and better-equipped news outlets and the internal obstacles Yuuki must overcome only amplify the difficulties. The grizzled veteran NKT reporters have spent the last decade dining out on tales of the Japanese Red Army siege in 1972 and the serial killer Kiyoshi Ōkubo in 1976 (both actual events) — the two biggest news stories, until now, to directly involve Gunma, the prefecture where the paper is located. Having built their reputations on the “Okuba/Red Army” period, these men are loath to cede their positions to a new generation of hungry, young reporters. They’re a little too eager to dismiss Flight 123 as “an inherited accident” because it occurred just over the border of Gunma. This attitude is highlighted in a heated exchange between Kurasaka from advertising and Yuuki, when the latter pulls an important and expensive ad to make room for more photographs of the crash.

“Why? They never pulled an ad in the Okubo/Red Army days. Back then, they used to pull one or two articles, a photo or two, to make room for the ads. Because they understood that advertising’s our bread and butter.”

Yuuki’s expression hardened.

“What’s that face for? Look, Yuuki, you know how much a five-column ad’s worth?”

After years on the job, Yuuki struggles against this strain of cynicism in himself, and mostly succeeds. At one point he offers a colleague his position as JAL desk chief. The man responds, “It’s fine — go ahead and cover it. Your way. To the bitter end, Don Quixote.” Yuuki laughs, realizing: “Nozawa had nailed it.”

While the bulk of Seventeen is set during the week of the crash, we are meant to understand that these scenes are memories. When we first meet Yuuki in the opening chapter, it is 2003 and he is standing at the foot of Mount Tanigawa. He is there to fulfill a promise he made 17 years ago to a friend.

Unbeknownst to Yuuki, as the first information about the crash came into the newsroom on that terrible day in 1985, his friend and colleague Kyoichiro Anzai lay unconscious in a city street. Anzai was the founder of  the NKT climbing club, and the two men had planned a dangerous climb up the vertical rock face of Mount Tanigawa, called Tsuitate, for the next day. Yuuki had been both looking forward to and dreading it for weeks. But, on the day of their scheduled climb, he was at a desk consumed by the JAL crash and Anzai was in a hospital bed, unresponsive, in a persistent vegetative state.

When the tension in the newsroom becomes unbearable, Yokoyama cuts to 2003 and to Yuuki climbing the vertical face of Tsuitate with Rintaro, Anzai’s son. These transitions act like a pressure valve releasing steam, but they also help to propel the plot forward, providing much of the emotional closure in what is ultimately a very sentimental, and occasionally quite sappy, novel.

Hideo Yokoyama writes about human connection, about realizing what is important and not entirely knowing what to do with that information. Yuuki is a middle-aged man in crisis similar to, though not the same as men like Marlowe and Spade. Take away the hard-boiled crime, the atmosphere, the dame — what are they all but emotionally damaged alcoholics, with unstable employment and living arrangements, intent on self-sabotaging any chance at personal happiness? Yuuki, in comparison, is remarkably fortunate. He holds a job. He has a wife and two children. He does not drink to excess or have affairs. But he is haunted by a dark secret in his past. And he carries the weight of at least one death on his conscience. This fear and guilt exacerbates his sense of isolation, causing him to separate himself from his colleagues. And, most troubling for Yuuki, it keeps him from breaching the walls he has built and maintained against even his wife and children, particularly his teenage son, Jun. We learn that he feels intense regret for beating Jun when he was small. He hit the child because, as his wife explains, “you didn’t know how to communicate with him.” She believes they can mend bridges. Yuuki’s awkward and stumbling attempts to reconnect with his son are among the most heartbreaking scenes in Seventeen.

But for all its sentimentality, there is a remarkable amount of genuine feeling to be found in these pages. Yokoyama has written characters everyone can relate to. We all want a chance at redemption; we all long for human connection. And while Yuuki doesn’t necessarily achieve the exact outcomes he hopes for, he does make a strong case for us all to keep tilting at those windmills.


Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large.

LARB Contributor

Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member, and 2018–19 Best Translated Book Award Fiction judge. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, CrimeReads, Guernica, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, and other online publications. She received her bachelor's of fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman.


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