Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook
Authors: Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers
Illustrations: Kazumi Nonaka
Publication Year: 2007 (America)
Pages: 147

When a friend gave me this garishly pink little book as a present, I saw the name “Patrick Macias” on the cover and immediately prepared to be disappointed. Macias has authored and co-authored numerous books on Japanese popular culture. Two that might be familiar are Cruising the Anime City: An Insider’s Guide to Neo-Tokyo (2004) and TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion (2001). These books are not only boring but were also outdated on the day they were published, primarily because Macias’s fascination with Japan’s popular culture during the seventies and early eighties fails to hold the attention of those of us who want to know what’s going on in Japan right now. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Macias’s earlier books might have been better served if they were marketed as cultural histories instead of as guides to contemporary popular culture.

While it’s true that Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno is only up-to-date as of around 2005, and while it’s true that this book contains quite a bit of cultural history, I found it to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. Maybe it’s because of all of the bright and eye-popping photography. Maybe it’s because of Kazumi Nonaka’s fun and plentiful illustrations. Maybe it’s because of the concise prose and scandalous quotations. Or maybe it’s because of all the pink. In any case, once I picked up this cute and trim guidebook, I had a hard time putting it down.

One thing that I found especially charming about this book were all the suggestions the authors offer as to how to achieve these schoolgirl looks yourself. Far from being helpful, these sections actually serve to pinpoint how outrageous the fashions are. Another fun, recurring segment are the illustrated “A Day in the Life” inserts, which usually end with captions like “Mom says, ‘Take a shower! You two smell awful!’”

So, if you’ve always wanted to know what’s going on inside the heads of the Gothic-Lolita princesses, or if you’ve always been curious about how exactly the Mamba girls put on their makeup, this is the book for you. Even if you’ve never had the leisure to wonder about those things but have spent time in Tokyo, this is also probably the book for you. And if you really, really love pink, then I honestly can’t recommend this book enough. Go out and get it before it goes out of print. For the win. I’m serious.

Grotesque

Title: Grotesque
Japanese Title: グロテスク
Author: Kirino Natsuo (桐野夏生)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Pages:467

First of all, I would like to say that Grotesque is a very, very dark novel. It’s also filled with descriptions of all sorts of physical and emotional abuse, as well as numerous scenes of disgusting, extremely upsetting sex. In short, this novel is not for the faint of heart.

The novel essentially consists of the nameless narrator’s account of the murder of her younger sister, Yuriko, and her pseudo-friend from high school, Kazue, each of whom were marred by deep psychological imperfections. These emotional deficiencies were exacerbated by the harsh and competitive nature of the exclusive private high school that the two attended. In the end, both Yuriko and Kazue became prostitutes and were both ultimately murdered by the same unsavory client.

Putting the sensationalism of the novel aside, perhaps the most chilling aspect of Grotesque is the voice of the narrator. The reader quickly becomes inured to the sex and violence, but the cold and bitter tone of the narrator, as well as her pronounced disgust with her fellow human beings, continue to add a tinge of horror to the novel until the very last page. The narrator occasionally interrupts herself to present “evidence” concerning the two murder cases: the diary of her sister, the testimony of the murder suspect, and a letter from her old classmate. These stories within the story allow the reader to experience the voices of the novel’s other main characters, each of whom is just as disturbing as the main narrator.

In America, Kirino is mainly known for her first translated work, a massive chunk of a murder novel called Out (アウト, translated by Stephen Snyder). Like Out, Grotesque is long and depressing, and it would be a stretch to call any of the characters sympathetic. Unlike Out, however, Grotesque has a much smoother style, courtesy of translator Rebecca Copeland, and is therefore much easier to read. Also, compared to Out, the characters of Grotesque are much more artistically presented. Namely, in this novel, Kirino chooses to explore her characters’ depravity instead of merely wallowing in it. Moreover, I found the portion of the book that concerns the narrators’ experiences at their high school to be extremely entertaining. As I said earlier, Grotesque is not for the squeamish, but those readers who can deal with the darkness will be pleased to find an occasional glimmer of good writing and entrancing character study.

I should note that the version of Grotesque I reviewed is the British version, which I purchased in Japan. The American version of the book has been edited to remove all references to male child prostitution. Don’t let this deter you from reading the novel, though – the passages that were cut aren’t particularly riveting or important.

Keritai Senaka

Keritai Senaka by Wataya Risa

Title: 蹴りたい背中
English Title: “The Back I’d Like To Kick”
Author: 綿矢りさ (Wataya Risa)
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan)
Pages: 140

Wataya Risa made waves in 2001 when she became the youngest writer to win the Bungei Prize (文藝賞), a prestigious award managed by the literary magazine Bungei. She won the award for her debut novel Install (インストール), written while she was a senior in high school. After graduating from high school, Wataya entered Waseda University and began work on her second novel, Keritai Senaka. This novel would win her the Akutagawa Prize (芥川賞), the single most prestigious literary award in Japan. At the age of nineteen, Wataya became the youngest author ever to receive this award.

So, what’s all the fuss about? In a market dominated by pop fad writers like Yoshimoto Banana and Yamada Amy, it’s easy to be skeptical. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, when I say that Wataya is the real deal. Her prose reflects the background and personality of her high school aged narrator while still managing to maintain a definite literary tone. Her descriptions of people and places are vivid and artistic, and her introspective examination of memory and interpersonal dynamics are sure to resonate with anyone who’s old and yet young enough to be able to look back on high school with both bitterness and nostalgia.

The novel’s plot centers around the lone wolf narrator Hachi, her changing relationship with her best friend Kinuyo, and her developing relationship with a strange boy named Ninagawa. Hachi and Kinuyo have just graduated from middle school, and Hachi is disappointed that Kinuyo has become popular with a new group of friends in high school. Left to her own devices, Hachi is drawn to Ninagawa, a fellow outcast who steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with other people. When Hachi mentions that she’s met the fashion model with whom Ninagawa is obsessed, he latches on to her, and she finds herself introduced to his strange otaku fantasy world, which ultimately provides a means for her to re-affirm her relationship with Kinuyo.

Although it’s debatable whose back Hachi wants to kick, the back that she does kick (twice) belongs to Ninagawa. Don’t let yourself think for one second, however, that this book is about a high school romance between the two. The somewhat twisted relationship between the them is exquisitely complicated and yet imminently understandable, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why. One of the main appeals of this novel, in fact, is the challenge of decoding Hachi’s feelings towards Ninagawa. Perhaps the other main appeal is trying to understand one’s own feelings, as the reader, concerning Hachi (and, by extension, oneself at her age).

Unfortunately, this novel has yet to be translated. For those of you studying Japanese, however, you will be pleased to find that Wataya’s prose is very accessible. The book can easily be finished in three or four sittings. If you’ve been looking for a book to serve as a gateway into Japanese literature, please allow me to recommend Keritai Senaka.

69

69 by Murakami Ryū

Title: 69
Japanese Title: 69 (シクスティナイン)
Author: Ryu Murakami (村上龍; Murakami Ryū)
Translator: Ralph F. McCarthy
Publication Year: 1993 (America); 1987 (Japan)
Pages: 191

Who wrote Holden Caulfield? The truth is, many aspiring young writers have given it a shot, and the infamous literary bad boy Murakami Ryū is not exempt from their numbers. Murakami’s early novels, such as Almost Transparent Blue (限りなく透明に近いブルー) and Coin Locker Babies (コインロッカー・ベイビーズ) are filled with dissatisfied young men violently striving to bring meaning into their lives, so what makes 69 special?

For one thing, it might have actually happened. The plot concerns nothing more than the vitally important matter of the protagonist’s budding attraction for the lovely “Lady Jane,” a member of his high school’s prestigious English Drama Club. For a high school student living in the boondocks of Japan, the means at his disposal at first seem to be limited. The year is 1969, however, and anything can happen. Considering Murakami’s well-publicized admission of the autobiographical nature of this work, some of it more than likely did happen. The nature of this work as being well-grounded in reality not only gives it an interesting historical flavor but also exacerbates the outrageousness of the lengths to which the protagonist will go to get laid. Simply put, this book is hilarious.

Translator Ralph McCarthy renders the narrator’s young yet jaded voice into perfect English idiom, and the translated slang doesn’t feel dated in the least. My favorite aspect of the translation is the way that McCarthy chose to emphasize some of the novel’s key phrases in huge bold print. For example:

It’s also a fact, however, that in 1969 there was a convenient tendency to describe people who studied for college entrance exams as capitalist lackeys.

“Look, you fucking asshole, we’re here on a sacred mission, and you want to peek in the girls’ changing room? If that’s where your head’s at, man, the whole thing’s a failure before we’ve even started.”

Although 69 seems somewhat juvenile and inane compared to Murakami’s later work, such as In the Miso Soup (インザ・ミソスープ), I feel that it’s almost required reading for anyone interested the background behind the insane and disturbing world of Murakami Ryū.