Monday, August 25, 2008

Kirino's Real World reviewed by Gary Carden

Darkness in the heart of youth
By Gary Carden

Real World by Natsuo Kirino. Alfred A. Knopt, 2008. 224 pages.

Things are not good in Tokyo. If we are to believe the grim details in current Japanese cinema and novels, the city is teeming with angry teenagers who have rebelled against either their parents or the rigid educational regulations of the schools. The alarming increase of delinquency, vandalism, teenage prostitution and drugs indicate that something resembling a revolution is imminent.

The recent appearance of the “feminist noir” novel, Real World has become the most popular book in Japan and is now on the bookshelves in America where critics are hailing it as a kind of dark manifesto for Japan’s current generation — one which refuses to submit to the old traditional strictures: parental authority, respect for teachers and a reverence for learning.

Kirino gives her readers a glimpse into the “darkness of the youthful heart” by focusing on four teenage girls: Toschi, the “straight arrow” who attends cram school” in a desperate attempt to improve her GPA. Terauchi, the intellectual who sees through her friend’s daily deceptions; Yuzan, the tomboy who is a closet lesbian; and Kirarin, who is reckless and “willing to try anything for a little fun.” These four students spend each day talking to each other on their cell phones, reading manga comics and devising schemes to deceive their parents.

However, when Toschi discovers that the shy and homely boy next door has murdered his mother and fled, she decides not to tell the police what she knows. When the killer (given the contemptuous name, “Worm” by Toschi) steals her bike and her cell phone as he flees the city, she hesitates, uncertain as to what she should do.

In the meantime, Worm has found the names of Toschi’s friends listed in her cell phone and begins calling them. After the four friends confer, they decide that the idea of “aiding and abetting” a murderer could be an exciting adventure.

Step by step, they find themselves drawn into Worm’s world. Yauzan gives him money and food and Kirarin decides to join him as he travels further and further beyond the city, living on “quick food,” and sleeping behind convenience stores. To the four students, Worm may have found a means of escaping rules and regulations. Is it possible that his rootless and dangerous existence is better than “the real world”?

The title of the novel is especially significant. None of the major characters feel that they live in “the real world.”

In fact, they have all gone to considerable trouble to create fantasies that they prefer to reality. At school, many of the students not only create cliques, they even forge new identities. Toschi frequently tells teachers and government officials that her name is Ninna Hori and provides fictitious details about her family, home and school. An especially popular clique is the Barbie Dolls in which all the members dress in accordance. Other groups are more ominous such as the ones who pattern their dress and speech after famous serial killers (The Dahmers, the Mansons, etc.), or characters in the cult film, “Battle Royale.”

All of the students Real World share a common obsession: American teenagers. All spend a great deal of time acquiring appropriate clothing (Nikes and chinos) and miming American jargon. Conversations between the four friends are rift with expressions like “Dude,” and “Babe,” and their favorite nighttime entertainment is karaoke. Certainly, Kirino has a remarkable talent for reproducing the world of Japanese teenagers and has written a dozen books that are bestsellers in Tokyo (Grotesque and Out). Several have been made into films). However, her depictions are not exactly groundbreaking. The futuristic film, “Battle Royale” (2003) and its sequel, “Requiem” also depict the coming of a revolution in which Japan’s suppressed youth rebels.

In addition, Kirino’s vision has much in common with the spate of current Japanese horror films that are filled with murderous teenage girls dressed in school uniforms and armed with machine guns — action in which the battle lines are clearly drawn. The enemy camp is the adult world (parents, school officials, the government) and “anyone over 35” — all are treated as either a different species (aliens/enemies), or they are dismissed as irrelevant. It may be that the worst is yet to come. If so, I’m sure Nasuo Kirino will be there to record it.

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at


  1. I thought the Japanese films filled with murderous school girls were just fictional until I read this review. This all makes Brando & James Dean & Westside Story seem very tame. And to think people thought Elvis shaking his hips spelled the end of civilization! Wow!

  2. It appears that things are bad in Japan. I recently saw a documentary on the rising suicide rate there and read an article about the link between unemployment and suicide. Bread winners take their role seriously and when fathers fail to support their families, they frequently feel a sense of shame that leads to suicide. One of the favorite methods is to simply walk into a national park and not come back.