Tokyo teenagers’ worlds collide
By Christine Thomas
Published 7/20 in the Honolulu Advertiser

Real World
By Natsuo Kirino
Translated by Phillip Gabriel
Knopf; 204 pages; $22.95

Entering the dark, fictional worlds of Japanese noir writer Natsuo Kirino demands total submission to her characters’ inner lives, and her latest novel’s characteristically unflinching study of five suburban Tokyo teens is no exception. Set against the perfectly benign backdrop of a smoggy, mundane summer dedicated to college “cram school” sessions, “Real World” presents a seemingly ordinary cast of characters only to quickly unravel this facade through each teen’s disturbingly intimate, revolving first-person narrations.

Within, the materialistic world of Japanese society is painted as a “fake” and the novel’s teens yearn for a life where they are not constantly “assaulted by commercialism,” and no longer feel “different from our parents, a completely different species from our teachers” and “in a different world altogether.” So in order to keep up appearances they present false personas, from disguises to fake names, to protect their true desires and feelings.

The strongest and most likeable character Toshi arms herself with the name Ninna Hori, and camouflages herself by simply trying “to wear ordinary clothes and not stand out.” In her inner circle of friends are Kirarin, who acts innocent and pure but secretly role plays in chat rooms and fools around with men; Teraruchi who cleverly hides her feelings and never exposes her real self; and Yuzan who acts mannish to conceal her sexuality. All this fakery keeps them, as Kirarin notes, “running back and forth between desire and reality, tossed about by life,” bereft of true identity.

The plot of this hardboiled story rises above predictable teenage angst through its brutal catalyst—the murder of Toshi’s neighbor, a woman memorable only by her red lipstick. Toshi suspects the culprit to be the neighbor’s strange young son, a model student at Tokyo’s prestigious high school and a peeping Tom. Instead of being repelled by his deed, each girl is awed—not the act itself but his courage to act out their shared, veiled longing to escape. And when the boy—whom Toshi and her friends call Worm—vanishes with Toshi’s cell phone, one by one the girls are enticed into the boy’s discrete, movie-like reality, unable to resist the desire for “a taste of adventure.”

Rather than crafting a simply crime novel or painting a grotesque portrait of people ruled by perverse desires and criminal hearts, Kirino’s narrative challenges readers to confront the truth of human nature, to release judgments about violence and see beyond the act to its roots—in this case, each teen’s intense suffering, whether from excessive parental expectations, emotional betrayals, or sexual confusion and objectification. For the teens become accomplices and lie about Worm’s whereabouts not to protect him, but themselves: “[They lie] to protect the truth about how all of us felt when we first heard about Worm. Or to protect what Worm felt in the instant he murdered his mother. Because it was something no one else could know.”

Together they speak as one voice revealing the secrets of youth in an utterly hypnotic, illuminating narrative that exposes the dangerous gap between parents’ and children’s worlds. Only a novel, and only Kirino can “show you the real world with one layer peeled away, a reality you can’t otherwise see.”