Real World

A 17-year-old Japanese high school girl is penciling in her eyebrows when she hears a crashing sound coming from next door. At first she thinks it might be a burglar, but when she encounters the boy next door, whom she and her friends have nicknamed Worm because of his “sluggish way of walking,” he looks “happy and excited, like he was going on a date.” He assures her it was nothing. By the end of the day, she will discover that the sound she heard was Worm beating his mother to death with a baseball bat. But instead of turning him in, the four teenage girls in Natsuo Kirino’s Real World turn the matricidal murderer into a sort of antihero, lending him phones, money, and a bike in a twisted attempt to enter another world and to elude the control that adults exert over each of their lives.

Violence and young womanhood are central themes to the work of Natsuo Kirino, one of the best-known writers of Japanese “feminist noir.” At 57, she is the author of 18 novels, four short-story collections, and an essay collection. Only three of those novels have been translated into English. The first, Out — about a group of factory workers who conceal the murder of one woman’s husband — appeared in 2003, followed last year by Grotesque, which begins with the murder of two prostitutes. Those who know contemporary Japan through the cool, Western-inflected prose of Haruki Murakami (who has become, for many American readers, one of the most canonical writers of our generation) will find something entirely different in Kirino’s young women, whose psychological makeup often feels peculiarly, thrillingly specific to the culture in which they live.

“In Tokyo today, young girls are seen either as easy marks for sales or as ‘marketing leaders’ to help companies get a grasp on what new products to sell?which makes us another kind of easy mark, I guess,” says Toshiko, who goes by Ninna Hari, a fake name she has invented to avoid winding up in “some database,” which she and her friends believe would lead inevitably to a situation in which “adults control you.” Women of her mother’s generation — most of whom are in their early 40s — “still believe in beautiful things like justice and considering other people’s feelings” and can’t, according to Toshi, understand the extent to which their daughters have been “bullied” by “commercialism.” On the one hand, the Japanese girl is a sexual fetish that can literally be bought and sold (“When the media was going nuts over school girls getting old guys to be their sugar daddies for sex, that was the time when high school girls like us had the highest price as commodities”). But private school girls like Toshi and her friends are also susceptible to the same academic pressure cooker that can devastate girls and boys alike: As the novel opens, the girls are spending their monthlong summer vacation in cram school, where one college girl tutor cheerfully tells them that at their age she studied till she “spit up blood” and that if they “study like you’re going to die” they too, can earn a place at their top-choice college (where one can presumably earn the privilege to continue to spit up blood). Adulthood, if their mothers are any indication, will most likely consist of a full-time job, children, and marriage to a company man who is out drinking most nights.

Each of the five main characters — narration alternates through the voices of the four girls, as well as that of Worm, the murderer — believes that adults quite literally inhabit another world entirely. Says Toshi/Ninna: “We’re different from our parents, a completely different species from our teachers. And kids who are one grade apart from you are in a different world altogether. In other words, we’re basically surrounded by enemies and have to make it on our own.” Moreover, each girl has her own secret life: Yuzan, whose mother just died, goes to lesbian bars to meet other women (“when she wore her school uniform, she looked like a guy doing a lousy job of dressing in drag”). To her school friends, Kirarin is the cute, cheerful one, but her real best friend is a 21-year-old gay office worker, in whom she confides the details of her sexual exploits with men she meets on the Internet (“Fooling around with guys is thrilling,” she says, “like walking next to a busy highway. If you fall off the curb, it’s all over”). Terauchi, “the smartest and the most interesting,” speaks in a “low, cool voice” and is devastated by the emotional toll of keeping a secret about her mother, whom she adores.

In fact, all four girls speak of their own mothers with genuine kindness and love, which initially makes their willingness to cover up — and later aid and abet — a matricide all the more puzzling. (Of the murder Toshi says: “I suddenly felt like Worm had forced some awful thing into my hands. Now it had liquefied and was dripping down between my fingers.”) But it soon becomes clear that, while they don’t quite approve of Worm’s act, they admire him immensely for, in their minds, daring to create a new world. They mean this literally. Says Yuzan: “Here was this guy who, just the day before, created a new reality, one where he’d killed his mother.” In Worm’s mind, inverting the power relationships between parents and children makes him a kind of revolutionary hero: “I was a colony and she was the occupying force. She created the rubber plantation, made me work from dawn until night, then took away the whole harvest for herself. I don’t know exactly what was stolen from me. But most definitely the old lady continued to steal something.

Again and again, the characters in Real World interrogate each other on what, exactly, is the Real World — who controls it, who can live in it, and who can change it. Says Worm: “Novels are closer to real life than manga, it’s like they show you the real world with one layer pulled away, a layer you can’t see otherwise.” As it is, the girls in this particular novel see through the layers much more clearly than he does. And Kirino’s heartrending conclusion makes a pretty good argument that physical violence pales in comparison to the emotional brutality inflicted on those left standing.