Reviews by title
Reviews by author
Onyx reviews: Real World by
Natsuo Kirino returns to a formula that proved successful in her
English-language debut, 2003's Out, a story about four female co-workers who
conspire to cover up a crime. In the third of her eighteen novels to be
translated into English, Kirino again focuses on a small group of females, but
this time they are teenagers, classmates. In doing so, she is able to explore
the pressures to succeed that Japanese teenagers are subjected to by their
parents. As one tutor says, they should "study as if they're going to
The four teenagers who take turns narrating the novel, Toshi, Yuzan, Kirarin
and Terauchi, are as different as any random selection of high school girls
could be in a society where conformity is valued. The one thing they share is a
belief that none of the others understand them completely, that they have
successfully hidden aspects of their personalities, when in fact the others see
right through their thin disguises. One girl feels estranged from her mother,
who is having an affair. They all play with alternate identities (Toshikio is
Ninna Hori, the name she uses when they go out to karaoke), trying on new
personalities the same way they try on new clothes. Yuzan thinks that none of
the others know that she is a lesbian.
The story begins when Toshi hears sounds of violence in the house next door
where the boy known as Worm lives with his parents. When she encounters Worm on
the street shortly after the disturbance, he acts as if nothing happened. After she returns home from school, though, her bicycle is gone from
the train station and with it the cell phone she accidentally left in the parcel
Later that night, she learns that Worm's mother has been murdered and he is
the prime suspect. When questioned by the police, Toshi
arbitrarily conceals the fact that she saw Worm after the murder, and fails to
mention the missing bicycle and phone. These capricious lies of omission are
the launching point for everything that follows, the first in a series of bad
decisions that cascades out of control, leading to a disaster that could have
been avoided many times.
On the run from the law, Worm starts calling the girls' numbers stored in Toshi's missing cell phone. He brags about killing his mother, but Toshi's
friends don't take him seriously until they see the news. Though
they are horrified by the violent crime, they are also intrigued by Worm, who
actually did something they've all fantasized about at one point
in their young lives. The ways they respond to him are as diverse as they are.
They identify with him, flirt with him, engage him in conversation, conspire to
meet with him or refuse to have anything to do with him. And yet they are
deeply curious to find out why he did what he did, and what he plans to do now.
The book's title comes from Worm's belief that the moment he killed his
mother he split apart from the real world—that he now lives on a different plane
of existence from everyone else. There was the world before he bashed the
"total idiot's" head with a baseball bat and the world that began the
moment after. He does not regret his actions, only the circumstances the crime
has placed him in. His mother, who regarded her life as unfulfilled, saw Worm as
her vicarious path to success. She drove him constantly to excel and, when it
turned out that he was only an average student and not superior like she hoped,
she resented his shortcomings. She turned an embarrassing juvenile indiscretion
into full-fledged humiliation in order to force her husband to relocate the family
from the outskirts into Tokyo, a socially upward move.
Under the constant pressure of her goading and chiding, Worm snapped.
Worm gets his own time on center stage as his slow-motion escape takes him
farther from Tokyo's center on a borrowed bicycle. He feels persecuted, like a
war criminal. In his new world, his primary goal is to become as famous as
Sakakibara, another young killer who wrote a manifesto blaming his crimes on the
pressures of Japanese school system.
Worm has little money, so he survives on sparse rations and bottled water
from convenience stores, where he reads comics and sleeps in the shade in
parking lots out of the blistering summer sun. His newfound fame and
quasi-heroic status among the four friends make him garrulous where he has
always been taciturn, especially around women. He even suggests to one
of the girls that murder may be the solution to her angst over an ex-boyfriend.
Novels like Kirino's provide an insider look into a society that is vastly
different from our own and poorly understood in the west—for example, the loss
of face endured by Worm's father, who feels obligated to visit the neighbors and
apologize profusely for the inconveniences they experienced at being questioned by the
police, and from having the media camped out in the neighborhood. One
of the girls attends a prestigious prep school located over an hour from her
home. From a very early age, she endures the crowded Tokyo train system by
herself and is subjected to every conceivable form of humiliation. It's hard to
imagine putting a young girl in New York City in that situation on a daily
basis, for example.
Though adults are present in the girls' lives to a certain extent, the
generations are mostly oblivious to each other. Neither faction understands the
hardships of the daily lives of the other. For the girls, it's all about bowing
to the pressure to succeed. Several of them are spending the summer attending "cram"
school to improve their chances of getting into good colleges when they
graduate. None of them, however, convey any sense they believe they actually will succeed in
The murder and Worm's subsequent interactions with the four friends are
mainly an excuse for Kirino to lay bare the inner lives of these four girls.
It's difficult to evaluate how accurately she creates the jargon of Japanese teens
in her own language, but the translation feels realistic in the alternation
between moments of deep perception and self-absorption. These girls inhabit the
uncomfortable realm between childhood and adulthood. Though they are expected to
behave like adults, they don't know all the rules. What little wisdom they
possess about adult concerns is mostly theoretical.
By the end of the book, though, there will be no turning back to adolescence.
The frivolous and thoughtless choices they make lead to consequences they will
all have to live with for the rest of their lives—which is unmercifully
brief for some of them.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent
2008. All rights reserved.