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Real World

by Natsuo Kirino

Alfred A. Knopf 2008

208 pgs.

In a brief foreword to Real World the author, Natsuo Kirino, writes that for Japanese kids “…the school year begins in April and ends in March the following year.” In other words, excepting brief interregnums, it’s interminable. And as everyone knows, Japanese kids are expected to study way too much. Occasionally, student failure results in murder or, more often, suicide.

The tableau having been set—picture alienated students in uniform cramming in isolated cubicles—Kirino begins with the familiar trope of students collapsing under the weight of academic expectations that cannot be fulfilled. But what she does with this set piece is unexpected: She indicts modern Japanese society and, by extension American Imperialism, for a shared legacy of soul crushing militarism and misogyny. This novel is deeply political; although it seems no one has figured that out yet.

Kirino employs a first-person, present-tense voice through which we are brought directly into the headspace of five Japanese adolescents—four young women and one young man. As a literary device, attempting to convey the thought-world of teenagers (or anyone, for that matter) through the first person seems a risky conceit. But, S.E. Hinton did as much through her character Pony Boy in The Outsiders. Kirino does the same, adeptly and to devastating effect.

Matricide is at the center of Real World’s plot. The book opens with our first teenager, Toshiko, penciling in her eyebrows as she hears something “breaking” next door where a teenage boy lives with his parents. The loud sound, we find out later, is that of the mother being bludgeoned to death at the hands of the son. Toshiko refers to the boy as “Worm”, the nick-name that sticks throughout the remainder of the novel, even when we switch to his perspective, which reads somewhat like the boy’s one-sided response to an interrogation—the questions, while omitted in the text, are implicit. The remainder of the novel explores the deeply conflicted actions of the four women as they help, in various ways, the young man elude authorities until his inevitable demise.

While the novel is character—rather than plot—driven, it has no central protagonist. Instead, Kirino assembles a composite protagonist from four women, Toshiko, Kirarin, Tarauchi and Yuzan. Emotional attachment to Worm runs the gamut from erotic fascination to revulsion but always shot through with a certain matter-of-factness that suggests a certain shallowness. It is through the response these young women have to what Worm has done that Kirino’s political point comes into relief: modern Japanese nationalism, propped up on the twin pillars of militarism and misogyny, is destroying its youth, and thereby its future.

Worm’s murder of his mother sets in motion the plot of the novel. It is also through Worm that Kirino introduces the ghost of Japanese nationalism. Worm recalls watching a television program where, in revenge for something done “during the war” an “old Filipino woman” savagely attacks a Japanese soldier with a hammer and pointed stick. Worm identifies with the soldier.

The link between nationalism and misogyny becomes more explicit on page 113:

Worm: “I don’t need any women at all. I’ve been transformed. Maybe because I took a bath after we checked into this love hotel. As soon as my salt suit was washed away I completed my new personality. The soul of the former Japanese soldier.”

Elsewhere, Worm’s psychosis becomes more fully developed: “Now that I’d done my mother in, I had to mow down all the rest of the pornographic women in the world. Somebody’s got to give the order. I glanced around the room, looking for an officer. But no one was there.” (p. 114).

And finally: “The reality came to me—I’m alone on the front line, the only one still fighting the war. Before that old Filipino man and woman can torture me, I’ve got to escape into the jungle. And regroup for the next battle. My war has just begun. That’s the world I’m in—my world.” (p.115).

And the world of Worm—psychosis and all—is our world, too; the real world of men free to prey on young girls and a national culture that refuses to acknowledge, much less atone for, the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities. But in this Japan is not alone; the United States has its own national atrocities about which it has never come clean (slavery and segregation, the Vietnam War and other interventions in the so-called Third World, etc.). And Kirino is aware of the willful national amnesia the United States and Japan share. I don’t think it is by accident that she has Worm murder his mother with a baseball bat. While Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport, baseball—that most American of sports—is it’s most popular. As Worm swings the bat at his mother’s head, Kirino has him thinking, “Strike one…Foul ball…Clean hit…” deftly reminding us that the bat is not just a piece of wood, but a loaded cross-cultural symbol, as well.

Later, after Kirarin and Worm die in a car accident, Terauchi suffers the brunt of guilt for her involvement in the events leading up to the death of her friend. Terauchi considers her role so terrible as to be “…irreparable…a horribly frightening feeling that keeps building up inside you forever until your heart is devoured. People who carry around the burden of something that can’t be undone will one day be destroyed.” (p.150). She commits suicide. Through Terauchi, Kirino is clearly saying that a culture that cannot come to terms with its ghosts is doomed to be devoured by them.

Kirino is brilliant when rendering the alienation and terror of adolescent life through these harrowing internal monologues. In this her work suggests the dark cinematic lyricism of Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (2003), itself a profound rumination on the 1999 Columbine high school massacre which shares a certain tone with Real World. Also, Real World clearly owes a debt to Tim Hunter’s 1986 film River’s Edge, a reinterpretation of an S.E. Hinton novel that explores some of the same territory Real World and Elephant do—the remarkably detached, almost sanguine, reaction to murder these kids display. All three efforts explore the normalization of dissociative behavior that hovers somewhere between the sociopathic and psychotic; that is between a coping mechanism grounded in reality and a complete break from that reality.

Kirino, Van Sant and Hunter all have their young people set adrift among failed institutions—most notably the family. But all of this takes place within a broader context of a deep cultural anxiety. In Hunter’s case our protagonists struggle (unsuccessfully) to find meaning in the cultural effluvia of America’s ‘defeat’ in the Vietnam War. Here, the importance of Dennis Hopper’s character (Feck) is noteworthy in establishing the film’s cultural context (he’s a Vietnam Vet obviously experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, newly added to the DSM III in 1980). With Kirino’s Japan it is the Lost Decade of the 1990s, together with the unresolved legacy of the Empire of Japan that provide context. Van Sant’s Elephant was made soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that marked a turning point in the American cultural narrative, from self-sacrificing Cold War victors to “a reluctant, but necessary turn to the dark side”, as Dick Chaney succinctly captured it, best represented by the psychopath Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame.

It doesn’t do Kirino justice to describe her as merely a “feminist noir” writer, although she certainly is that. Aside from being a very well written and creative novel, the book also serves as an unexpected and welcome rejoinder to a growing Japanese World War II historical revisionism. It’s refreshing to see this done through what amounts to a Dystopian Bildungsroman novel leavened with social criticism.

Jonathan Mozzochi