Genre: Urban Youth Culture - Crime Drama
Author: Natsuo Kirino (2008)
review in one breath
In an urban Tokyo neighborhood, the world of four high school girls is turned inside out when an acquaintance brutally kills his mother and flees using one of their bikes and cell phone. Progressively told from the perspective of each of the four girls and the killer himself, this novel plumbs social and relational depths facing contemporary Japanese youth. This is the latest novel by author Natsu Kirino to be translated into English.
Female author Natsuo Kirino has to date penned 16 novels, 20 short stories and 8 manga tales. Several of her works have been adapted into live-action films, the most prominent of which was Out based on her 1997 novel and directed in 2002 by Hideyuki Hirayama (Gakkou no Kaidan 1 & 2 (1995, 1996), Makai Tensho (2003)).
Real World is Kirino's most recently translated novel (available in the US), released July 15, 2008. Her established literary genre is that of "detective crime". With Real World, however, she takes a couple steps off center and bases the novel in the widely recognized existential conundrum of Japan's contemporary urban youth culture, a topic explored in a number of cutting-edge films including Harada Masato's 1997 Bounce Ko Gals, Anno Hideaki's 1998 Love & Pop, and Sion Sono's 2002 Suicide Circle. Subsequent to these, Kirino published Real World in 2003, making her a rather late addition to this social inquiry.
I've heard Kirino's novels described as "feminist noir" and although I haven't read enough of her work to say whether or not this is accurate, I confess I hope it is. As an award winning and prominent female Japanese author, nothing would be better for readers than to gain new, fresh perspective into otherwise standard scenarios or recurring maladies. And perhaps this is precisely what Kirino attempts here, by tackling an already-introduced theme and adding her own perspectival twist.
This novel is indeed female-centric. In eight chapters the narrative is alternatively presented from the vantage of five high school aged youths, four of which are female, each of whom bring to the reader a very distinct set of contemplations and situation. The fifth, male character adds not so much a male perspective as an angst-filled (re)sentiment toward his Mother and female classmates. Secondary characters also follow this template, with a stern yet personalized female detective pursuing them. For the most part the only male characters appearing (or mentioned) in the novel are weak-kneed fathers too caught up in work to recognize the plight of their children or post-adolescent guys whose libido (or motherly suppression thereof) cause irreparable damages.
This female-centric approach to the topic is refreshing but not quite new. Any one who has seen Bounce Ko Gals (1997) or Love & Pop (1998) might intuit the general conclusion of Real World without a great deal of quandary.
Kirino's primary contribution lies in the multi-perspective narrative. In terms of content and twists, despite Real World being a truly entertaining (and relatively quick, 208 page) read, none of it adds to a deeper understanding of a malady already depicted in prior mainstream Japanese media.
But this is certainly not to say that this book is redundant or simple. The nexus of the multi-layered tension in Real World stems from a generational and even intra-personal mistrust over what the "real world" actually is. In truth, Japanese youth shoulder far greater academic and extra-curricular stress and responsibilities than the previous generation, all in the name of pursuing what adult society has deemed necessary. But unlike their parents, the new generation is steeped in a world of personal and media technology, where communication with peers is possible at any moment, breaking news is disseminated nationally with lightning speed, and where endless other possibilities seem at their finger tips.
Real World opens up the question and subsequent chasm of the "real world" and follows five very different adolescents as they are forced to pit their initial idealism with the stark consequence of "real world" choices.
Natsuo Kirino is one of only a handful of Japanese authors currently gaining traction with Western publishers. Though not wholly within the "crime detective" genre for which she is best known in Japan, this undoubtedly offers a glimpse into her skilled storytelling and perspective on Japanese society. As mentioned above, this is a quick and entertaining read.
If you're looking for Japanese additions to your reading list, I can recommend you check this out.