Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama

Review published on March 6, 2018.

A Japanese epic of some force and integrity. Despite the wealth of detail it’s captivating read. Yokoyama has used the fictional format to shed light on a terrible event that rocked the nation in the mid-1980s. The novel is complex, anyone who read Sixty Four, his previous novel, will be familiar with the style. Ultimately, it’s a very rewarding read. Full of compassion and insight.

Seventeen (here translated into English by Louise Heal Kawai) is a very personal novel for Yokoyama, he was a journalist at the time of the incident at the heart of the novel. As a reader you can feel that, not only in the scenes of tragedy but in the tensions in the newsroom and the boardroom meetings. Everything comes to life, the conversations are vivid as if they are lifted directly from memory, it is almost like being there. Clearly, it is the memory of the tragedy that haunts the writer that is played out by the characters. There are times when the emotion felt by the characters is so evident to the reader that it’s painful and that can be a tough read. Yokoyama is a master at drawing the reader into the story which is at times terrible but I have to admit the investigation into the crash is thrilling.

The basis of the story – the real plane crash that happened in Gunma Prefecture, Japan, in 1985. Yokoyama was an investigative beat reporter on the local newspaper at the time. More than 520 people were killed, only four survived. The plane crashed into a remote mountain side. In his introduction, Yokoyama describes how he climbed for eight hours to reach the crash site and spent the night among the wreckage and the unrecognisable human carnage. This novel is his way of reliving the events of the time so that he can finally come to terms with what happened. When he says Seventeen is a cathartic experience it really feels like that, as a reader you get the sense of closure for the character Yuuki and the writer. The novel is called Seventeen in English because that is how long it took for Yokoyama to revisit the tragic circumstances. The novel was called Climber’s High in Japan.

2002. Kazumasa Yuuki is climbing Mount Tsuitate with young Rintaro Anzai, the son of his close colleague during the period of the crash, Kyoichiro Anzai. He is fulfilling a promise he made to himself and to others in memory of the man who founded the NKT hiking club. Kyoichiro was a larger than life character and determined rock climber. Yuuki knows that this climb is a way of putting the past behind him, to finally come to terms with what happened seventeen years ago. As he passes a small village with a memorial to the climbers who have been lost on ‘The Devil’s Mountain’, 779 to date, he ponders the purpose of it all. The rush to be the first, to be able to say you climbed one of the most challenging rock faces in the world. Its about the climbers high, the rush and sense of exhilaration that comes from the danger. Yuuki knows given his age and the difficulty of the climb this will be the toughest climb of his life. All the time, the memory of the Japan Air Line crash is with him. This element of the story is often a relief from the weight of the crash investigation, there is a modern love story in the background, but it is also a chance to see things with the perspective of time. To feel the weight of the accident lift from Yuuki’s shoulders.

August 1985. Yuuki covered the crash for the North Kanto Times. He is in the newsroom when the story comes through on HKN TV news. Flight 123 has gone missing presumed crashed but the initial reports are unsure where the plane may have come down (is it within the NKT reporting area?). Less than 20 minutes into the flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to the city of Osaka the plane issues a distress signal, thirty minutes later it disappears off the radar. Another twenty minutes and a US military C-130 (Hercules) spots a crash site, flames and debris, but the exact location still can’t be pinpointed to a grid reference. The first scenes of the newsroom are very revealing of human character. There is a mix of horror, trepidation, excitement and opportunism but also grief, shame and relief. That is the crux of the novel, the way people behave in the aftermath of the disaster. It’s a story of those who stand up and try to do the right thing by the victims and those who lack empathy or try to exploit the disaster. This is the story of the investigation from the perspective of the newsroom. Yuuki as the most experienced and respected reporter is made Chief of the JAL Crash Desk. The journalists are already working on variations of the headlines, did it happen on the:

Mountains on the Nagano-Gunma border or Mountains on the Gunma-Nagano border.

The detail of the aftermath of the crash is covered sensitively when it is personal and intelligently when it is political. There are sketches of rescue helicopter flights, the emergency airlift of bodies to hospital, the tireless work of the self defence forces to create a passable route to the crash, the presence of volunteers and the family tragedy. But the essence of the story is built around Yuuki and the newsroom. Seventeen explores every conceivable angle within that setting. Daily lists of updates and things to be investigated become the only thing for the journalists over the coming weeks. One list begins:

“121 bodies retrieved, 51 identified
Lamenting and clinging to the coffin
Was underlying cause tail strike seven years ago?
Aircraft had congested schedule….”

The list of the items for that day goes on, the President of JAL rings the Prime Minister to offer his resignation. We see the effect on the newsroom as the investigation unfolds, the loss of humanity, the hunger for the scoop, blasé reaction to the daily body count, but also those who want to help, show sensitivity and ultimately who become victims themselves, suffering genuine pain. The psychological effects on the newsroom are explored through the various characters.

Seventeen is a novel of humanity at its best and worst. There are newspaper politics. The North Kanto Times has been struggling financially. Yuuki removes an advert for the Yamasaki Mall Grand Opening on the day is happens angering the publicity staff and his manager because of the loss of face and revenue. Not everyone agrees that photos of the crash take precedence. It’s the beginning of a battle for Yuuki as crash desk chief; adverts versus news output and the interference of the corporate hierarchy. There is a realism to the inner workings of the newsroom. There is also the issues of national politics, the divide between the parties and the north and south main islands, which have a chilling influence on matters.

Seventeen is an ambitious novel, a poignant study of the psychology of people in a high pressure, emotionally charged situation. Very original in tone and style, unlike the usual thriller in format. It’s enlightening – there is a lot to take in, a huge cast of characters (the list at the back of the book helps), but Yokoyama controls the plot tightly delivering a fascinating read.

Yokoyama caused a stir with a brilliant first novel Sixty Four, which is also well worth catching up with if you get a chance.

Paul Burke 4/3

Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama
riverrun 9781786484604 hbk Feb 2018

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