By Maureen Tai, 16 February 2022
Sometimes you encounter a story of such ingenuity, warmth and wit that you decide, on the spot, to expand the categories on your book review blog to include “Young Adult” books so that you can rave about it. Colorful by Eto Mori (ages 14 +), translated from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen and originally published in 1998, is, figuratively speaking, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and the first young adult book to be reviewed on our blog.
The novel opens with the narrator – a nameless, shapeless soul with no memory of his prior life – discovering that he has just won the lottery.
This joyful news – together with the attendant terms and conditions of winning – is conveyed by an infuriatingly cocksure angel – or possibly demon – called Prapura, who tells the narrator that he has no choice but to return to earth to inhabit the newly-dead body of fourteen-year-old Makoto Kobayashi. A “homestay” of indefinite duration, says Prapura dryly. Not an opportunity to be taken lightly.
Rather unceremoniously, the soul becomes the “new” Makoto, awakening in a hospital bed in Tokyo surrounded by rapturous parents, a sullen older brother and an incredulous doctor and nurses who have been frantically trying to resuscitate Makoto after his attempted suicide. New Makoto has a second chance at life, an opportunity to do-over what poor, dead-by-suicide Old Makoto never finished. Will New Makoto succeed where Old Makoto failed, having the additional benefit of Prapura’s occasional (and unpredictable) celestial guidance? Or will the crushing circumstances of the schoolboy’s life – as the New Makoto slowly but surely discovers – make it impossible for New Makoto to pull off his “homestay”? This question lingers, like a song we’ve forgotten the name of, even as we are introduced to the two-faced father, the adulterous mother, the malicious older brother, the sexually-precocious first love and the annoyingly perceptive classmate. Not to mention those ridiculous platform boots hidden under Makoto’s bed.
With its witty, humorous dialogue, tautly-paced storytelling, and quirky, memorable characters, Mori’s novel is a jarringly refreshingly and original take on teenage angst, family, friendship, forgiveness and life after death. A cautionary note: the passing references, neither gratuitous nor gritty, to love hotels, teenage sex and pornography – phenomenon that are generally known even to young children in Japan – make Colorful a novel better suited to older teens, or younger teens with parental guidance. Having lived in Tokyo as a teenager myself, Mori’s unflinchingly honest depiction of teenage life in the largest city in Japan is another compelling reason to dive headlong into this young adult novel.