It’s 12 August 1985. Journalist Kazumasa Yuuki is trying to wrap up his work at the North Kanto Times so he can head off for a weekend climbing with his colleague Kyoichiro Anzai. They plan to tackle the demanding Tsuitate rock face on Mount Tanigawa, something far more challenging than anything Yuuki’s attempted before. However, just as he’s about to leave the office, he and his colleagues hear a shocking news report. A Japan Airlines jumbo jet carrying 524 people has disappeared from the radar; soon, news comes that it has crashed into a ridge near Mount Osutaka, with almost complete loss of life. The staff of the paper are stunned into silence. This is on their patch. Suddenly their small provincial paper is on the front line for the deadliest airline crash in history. Hideo Yokoyama’s novel covers the seven days that follow, as the editorial staff struggle to overcome internal factions to deal with the crash. Based on the true story of the Japan Airlines Flight 123, and inspired by Yokoyama’s own experiences working as a reporter for a regional newspaper in Gunma Prefecture at the time, this is a sobering and thoughtful story about rising to meet challenges – both in and out of the office.
The Japanese title of the novel is Climber’s High. You might well be wondering what that has to do with an air crash, but the answer lies in a parallel storyline, which picks up Yuuki’s life seventeen years on from the JAL disaster. We find him back at Tsuitate in 2002, finally making his first attempt on the rock face in company with Anzai’s son Rintaro. The challenge that lies in front of him reminds Yuuki of the last time he was meant to climb Tsuitate, and all the events that happened at the time. And ‘climber’s high’ – the rush of adrenaline which can drive climbers to extraordinary speed and daring, but which can depart just as quickly, leaving them frozen with fear – can be applied equally well to the events of that dizzying week following the crash.
Yuuki and his colleagues at the North Kanto Times simply aren’t prepared for a story of this magnitude. Theirs is the life of a provincial paper: covering the local high school sports teams; reporting the opening of new shopping centres; and delicately picking a path through local political factionalism. The latter is all the more difficult because these factions have seeped into the offices, causing deep ideological divides and pointless enmity. As Yuuki and the rest of the team face up to the JAL disaster, they assume that they just have to produce honest, compassionate, truthful journalism in order to create their paper. But the upper echelons within the newspaper are too busy with political wrangling to let the journalists just get on and do their job. When Yuuki – formerly a free-roaming reporter – is appointed as JAL crash desk chief, he suddenly finds that his new role will require determination, diplomacy and a dogged fight to tell the real story, free of bias or obfuscation. It’ll prove to be a much more demanding task than he ever imagined, not just because the story is so horrific, but because he can’t just do his job.
The newsroom becomes the beating heart of the story, with Yuuki’s colleagues banding around to either support or frustrate his efforts. There’s Kamejima (the chief copy-editor); Kishi (on the political news desk); Oimura (the managing editor; predictably, a bit of a nightmare); Nozawa (copy-editor for the local news, and a rival of Yuuki’s); Kasuya (the editor-in-chief); and Todoroki (the chief local news editor). Even these men, who work at the ‘rock face’ of journalism, aren’t always prepared to let the story be told. For some of them, the JAL crash is someone else’s problem, someone else’s story – a flight that was from Tokyo, heading to Osaka, with only one person from Gunma on board. Why should they give up their entire paper for a national story? For others, including some of the long-standing reporters, the crash threatens to overshadow their own triumphs some years earlier – stories which have kept them well-respected and well-supplied with sake ever since. Motives differ, and Yuuki must find a way to get his story out without offending the powers-that-be, or short-changing the victims of the disaster.
As you can see, this isn’t really a story about what caused the crash, or even the crash itself. It’s about how an inward-looking group of people, used to championing local issues, find themselves called to compete at the national level. It’s about how local and office politics get in the way – one senses that this is much more of a problem in Japan, where clientelism and hierarchy are immensely powerful forces, than it’d be in the UK. And it’s about how one man has to face an apparently insurmountable challenge – whether that’s telling the story of a unique tragedy, or finally climbing a rock face that will challenge him physically to the utmost. Yuuki’s challenges don’t end there. We also watch him struggling to come to terms with the recent death of a young colleague, for which he feels responsible, and wrestling with his role as a father. One wonders whether Yuuki is quite a common kind of father in Japanese culture: often absent, committed to his work at the expense of his family, unable to communicate, often resorting to physical chastisement rather than discussion in moments of stress. Now he has two children, Jun and Yuka, whom he barely knows and who have become shy or resentful of him. His relationship with Jun troubles him particularly, but is it too late to change? Facing all these issues, Yuuki is strangely haunted by a comment once made by Anzai senior: ‘I climb up to step down‘. What does that mean? Can it help Yuuki get some perspective?
The internal politics and office manoeuvring make parts of Seventeen feel very much like Six Four, the other Yokoyama novel I’ve read. But I found Seventeen much more satisfying overall: it feels less detached from its subject (detached storytelling is something that has frequently frustrated me in Japanese fiction). It deals with the JAL crash in a compassionate and sensitive way, and captures the deep frustration of trying to do the right thing, while being hemmed in by red tape. The tight seven-day storyline keeps the tension tightly-wound, as Yuuki must decide how to deal with the increasing flow of information about the crash – quite an achievement, actually, to keep it gripping, because Yuuki is almost entirely desk-bound. All in all, a powerful story based on true events that still have the power to shock (the JAL crash is still the deadliest single-aircraft disaster in history).
Yokoyama’s novel, under its Japanese title Climber’s High, has been released as a film. It doesn’t seem to be available here in the UK, but I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen it and whether it’s worth watching.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review