Wow, it’s been 3 months since I last wrote here and the viewing has predictably taken a dive. Not that I complain, mind you – there really are only so many times someone can look at the same pictures and articles over and over again and only so much time that they remain relevant. In part, my distancing from and disgruntlement with all things “J” in Greece is to be blamed for this prolonged absence and in part, the tasks needing completion “in the real world”, meaning outside of the internet and its particular brand of culture and interaction.
It is only fitting then, that today I am going to talk about a book called Real World, written by crime novelist Natsuo Kirino. It is very easy for people not living in Japan (or never even having gone there) to view the country where manga, anime, cosplay and Harajuku Style originated, through the prism that these hobbies afford (for, make no mistake, outside Japan, hobbies they indeed are). The reality of the matter is, Japan is comprised mainly of white collar workers, people slavering away in the anime and manga industry, repressed and depressed teenagers and a demographic from 16-25, who comprise the “freak” culture we so love to emulate here in the West, a skin that is usually shed on the 25th year, to join the working masses. Even most J-rockers, so highly idolized by girls and girly women, have other, common jobs to support their income. Furthermore, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, flirting around and at times reaching #4 (lowest place I could find being #7 in 2007, I think) in the course of the past decade.
Natsuo Kirino is painfully aware of all these and yet more disillusioning facts about her country, so she sets the scene, events and characters in a way that showcases the many skeletons in Japan’s social closet. The actual crime is – at least in my opinion – just a pretext to talk about the real, sad, gritty world of modern Japan. I am getting ahead of myself though, but I wanted to establish a baseline that explains the structure of the actual story, at least in part.
It all starts on a particularly searing Japanese Summer, when a student of K High School (I assume this stands for an actual school and avoids lawsuits) murders his mother with a baseball bat and turns fugitive. His neighbor, 17-year-old Toshi Yamanaka, hears the sound of breaking glass from next door and sees him leaving his home with a calm, near-stupefied smile on his face, as she makes for her cram class. Although she does wonder about the sound and her neighbor’s expression, the heat and prospect of the day’s work do not let her dwell on it too much. In the course of the book, we learn that the killer’s name is Ryo, but she and her friends basically call him “Worm”, because of his tall, lanky body and listless movements.
After a number of pages detailing her outlook on life and her opinion of her three closest friends (each going by a different nickname, those being Teroki, the no-nonsense serious one, Yuzan the repressed, boyish lesbian still suffering from her mother’s death and Kirarin – after Kirarin Revolution – the happy-go-lucky, beautiful, self-prostituting one), Toshi finds herself crossing paths with the Worm once more, when he steals her bicycle and cell-phone while she is in cram school. This gives him access to her three friends’ numbers, setting off a chain of events bound to end in tragedy. The strange – to the outside observer – thing is that each of the four girls makes a conscious choice to have dealings with the Worm, whether by not giving him up to the police or even sleeping with him.
The book’s chapters each bear one of the five characters’ names and are narrated from their point of view, giving us access to their most intimate thoughts and personal worlds (which word could be easily substituted by “Hells”). None can truly accept who and what they are, trying on a number of masks and facades, thinking to hide themselves even from those closest to them, naturally ignoring the fact that they are not fooling anyone. However, humanity’s deafening silence, exacerbated in the Japanese urban setting, ensures that they never challenge each other, until they reach a breaking point. The Worm is the only exception, as his initial action has set him apart (at least as he perceives it) from the rest of society, so he finds himself freed from its bonds, yet shackled by the lack of structure it offers.
Most disturbing of all is the rampant idolization and apparent identification of his peers, not with him as a person, but as a welcome societal aberration: murdering his mother and the prospect of murdering his father has made him a symbol of freedom and independence. Sadder still Kirarin’s idea that a teenage murderer must be a really deep and interesting guy to date (in sharp contrast to her dull life and the pointless one-night stands in Shinjuku) and when he proves otherwise, an effective way to get back at the boyfriend she still cries over.
My one problem with this book was the fact that the murder was only a pretext: there was no mystery, not even a real fugitive-type story. In that sense, it was completely off mark from what I expected. Its essence was rather that, even faced with the profound event of knowing and/or socializing with a murderer, Japanese teenagers feel too old to trust in their parents’ wisdom of age (which parents, truth be told, have very little rapport with the reality of their children) and yet their naiveté on the implications of events happening outside the norm of their (granted, distorted) teenage lives, borders on idiocy. They are born to and bred for schizophrenia, a fact which was interesting to look at from the viewpoint of a woman living in modern-day Japan.
So I guess the verdict, for something totally different than what I expected, is favorable and next I will be trying her other translated book, Out, which was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award and seems more geared towards blood and grit. Both have been translated in English and Greek (Greek editions by Metaichmio Publications). It is highly recommended for anyone who wants a taste of real Japan, but not really for anyone looking to read a good detective story.
See you around,
P.S. In a number of instances, the book refers to Seito Sakakibara (mainly as the Worm identifies his own, post-murder societal condition with Sakakibara’s), also known as the Kobe killer. Sakakibara was the alias given to then (1997) 14-year-old Shinichiro Azuma, who bludgeoned a 10-year old girl to death with a hammer, then killed and decapitated an 11-year-old boy, leaving his head at the boy’s school’s gate, stuffed with a taunting message to the police. Sakakibara was in fact released on parole 7 years later, under peculiar legal circumstances and there have been a number of sightings over the years, often weird and controversial. You can read more here and here, but what I find most interesting is the fact that he blamed the Japanese school system for his actions, as well as that, people commenting on his actions, believe that may very well be so.