Running Man – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Running Man” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (走る男), 1973

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: With only a few other foreign runners in the Olympic race, one man feels that he has victory sealed. The objective: Run to a cigarette vending machine and back while winding through the city without a pre-determined course. Losing his way due to a road closure, the man takes to an underground sewer by advice, only to be attracted by a woman who lives in a house in the same sewer. He stops for a shower, chat, love-making, marriage, work, and child-rearing. Nearing the autumn of his age, he begins to reflect on his Olympic non-glory.

Analysis: Yasutaka Tsutsui is known to be an advocate of the acceptance of public smoking in Japan. I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that he’s a life-long smoker, but I can’t find the source anywhere in English. In Japanese, however, “As being a smoker, he criticized the recent ‘smoking fascism’ and has participated in a smoker group ‘Go smoking‘”. How about for a platform! Smoking Fascism? Anyway, the author has also written an absurdist story titled “The Last Smoker” (1987/2006 by Andrew Driver in Salmonella Man on Planet Porno [2006], also 1987/1995 by Andrew Rankin in Kyoto Journal, November 1995). The story is summarized in my previous review:

A well-respected and widely-published writer is irked by a reporter’s business card that reads “Thank You For Not Smoking”. As a chain smoker himself, he denies them the literary interviews and becomes the butt of growing scorn over everyone who smokes. Tobacco smokers become persecuted, then ostracized and, finally, they are lynched and burned. The writer remains one of the last smokers still standing in a smoker’s haven.

Yasutaka has a penchant for tobacco and it’s odd that it plays such a small role in “Running Man”; actually, it plays such a small, mundane role that it piqued my curiosity: What if the story were viewed in reverse polarity? In my opinion, the reverse-polarity perspective of the story quickly took it from an absurdist story to a possibly autobiographical one, a inkling of which I cannot confirm even after Google translating the Japanese Wikipedia page for the author. So, it might be biographical of someone the author knowns, but again, this is just speculation on top of absurdity.

For a side-by-side comparison, the “real” biographical story is in bold while the fictional story above is in italics. Spoiler alert, to boot.

The setting: The biographical story would go something like this: In 1972, the Winter Olympics was held in Sapporo, Japan. (In the story, the Olympics are an unheard of event, unknown to nearly everyone). The hype around the hosting of events caused a social push for smoking reforms in order to better reflect the international opinion on the matter. (No one cares about the Olympic participant in the story). With the proactive prosecution of smoking, smokers felt under the strain of fascism. (The runner feels the opposite: totally abandoned).

The character: He meets a girl, stops running, gets married and has a child. (In the biography, perhaps the man divorces his wife). Regretting his long absence from the sport, he returns to complete his race. (After a long divorce and absence from smoking, he again gets married only to return to smoking). He finds that he’s the only runner left and, therefore, claims the Olympic prize. (In reality, he finds that all of his smoking friends had died and his prize is solely loneliness). Happiness after regret. (Sadness after abstinence). Life (Death).

Review: It’s easier to appreciate this story when considering “The Last Smoker” as I feel that they diverge from the same source of motivation: the author’s habit and advocation of smoking. It’s absurdity not the point of pushing the extreme like “The Last Smoker”, but taking a biographical or fictional portrayal to the obverse of the situation: in the story, substitute the Olympics with smoking and vice-versa. It’s clever in this way, but it can also make you appreciate the opposing view (if anti-public-smoking is your stance).

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