Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Notes from the underground

Young Japanese novelist's message lost in translation

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Hitomi Kanehara’s Hebi ni Piasu, translated as Snakes and Earrings, has won the 2004 Akutagawa Prize, the top Japanese literary award for new writers. Kanehara, a 21-year-old female, shares the award, historically taken by men, with another young woman, Risa Wataya. Much (perhaps too much) has been made of this. But Ryu Murakami, member of the Akutagawa Prize Selection panel, claims Snakes and Earrings was “easily the top choice, receiving the highest marks of any work since I have become a member.” Unfortunately for Kanehara, this may say more about one society’s diversions than the young author’s talent.

In Japanese culture, ethical and personal issues are defined by group philosophy, a sort of hive-mind mentality based on complete consensus. An individual identifies himself according to the familial and the national. Ironically, this interdependence separates people from each other. Kanehara pens a spare and simple tale, describing this existential crisis loud and clear.

Feeling differently than the group, even thinking you feel differently, is a proposition fraught with shame. To circumvent it, a diverse array of subcultures has sprung up. In Snakes and Earrings, Lui (short for Louis Vuitton) is a rootless and disaffected youth living in contemporary Tokyo, an 18-year-old “Barbie girl” with a small body and beautiful face. The story begins at a party, where Lui finds herself captivated by the snakelike forked tongue of a fierce-looking punk boy called Ama. Confused as to why this symbol of self-destruction (or self-mastery) holds such power for her, Lui takes up with Ama. She also begins an illicit relationship with her new boyfriend’s friend, Shiba-san, a talented tattoo artist and dangerous sadist bent on possessing her completely. The three characters attempt to make connections through a shared interest in tattooing, piercing and deviant sexuality. This is a subculture in which violence is routine, sex and friendship are meaningless and murder is something you just try to forget.

Instead of turning away, Lui makes it her goal to “live recklessly and leave nothing behind but ashes.” She has almost succeeded in killing herself with alcohol and risky sex, when Ama is gruesomely murdered, supposedly by a youth gang as an act of revenge. The shock of this loss propels the young girl to advance even further into body modification, stretching a large-gauge stud through her tongue and ripping it in order to finish off her transformation and — like the mythical animals recently tattooed across her back — open her eyes and be free.

Though the subject matter of the story is timeless in the sense that it reflects an important facet of the Japanese psyche (one that is written about repeatedly and more eloquently by other pop fiction writers, like the enormously talented Haruki Murakami) Kanehara’s overly tight focus on the alternative lifestyle feels exploitative. Not knowing the Japanese cultural resonance assigned to the more extreme side of body modification, portrayed graphically by Kanehara, proves to be a disadvantage. For this Western reader, the symbolism lacks power and makes the work seem dated.

This main plot device feels somewhat shabby, and the characters, though engaged in what should be a compelling struggle, fail to inspire sympathy. As they have trouble connecting to each other, this reader has trouble caring about them. The thread of casual violence through the narrative only serves to exacerbate feelings of disgust and disconnect.

This book has received some surprising accolades. Readers interested in the isolation and loneliness implicit in the Japanese way of life would be much better served by another author, such as Banana Yoshimoto. Anyone still titillated by S&M, substance abuse and body-piercing should hop a train back to 1994, when that kind of thing, though short on real meaning, at least wasn’t overexposed.

Katherine Cho reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to


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