By Natsuo Kirino
It’s typical for us to think of school as both an oasis from the real world and a gentle preparation for it. They order these things differently in Japan. For Natsuo Kirino school, and in particular high school, is not so benign an experience. It is, instead, a soul-destroying educational boot camp that pushy parents drive their kids through in the hopes of giving them into the best colleges, thus giving them a leg-up in the cut-throat corporate jungle. Instead of preparing young girls to become successful professionals, school turns them into sex-crazed murderous psychopaths, perversely drawn toward the dark side of human nature.
At least that’s the message delivered in Kirino’s last two novels to be translated into English, Grotesque and Real World. Kirino likes dealing with all-female cliques, and this time out she assembles four suburban teenagers just coming to the end of their time in the grindhouse of the Japanese high school system. On her way to “cram school” Toshi hears a suspicious noise coming out of the house next door. It turns out that Worm, the nerdy boy who lives there, has smashed his mother’s head in with a baseball bat. And since no one loves a bad boy more than a teenage girl, this authentic playboy of the Eastern world soon goes viral among Toshi’s small circle of friends.
These include Terauchi (the serious one), Yuzan (the lesbian), and Kirarin (the party girl). Before long they are all aiding if not abetting Worm, with the novel taking turns telling the story from their different points of view. Each of the characters is disturbed, each inhabiting their own version of the Real World that nobody else can enter into or even understand. When this real world comes into conflict with the stable, objective, and culturally dominant world of school and work, sparks begin to fly.
As always, Kirino is adept at portraying the inner psychological reality of minds coming apart, the quickening slide from casual perversity to self-destruction. And at only 200 pages the story is a remarkably tight and focused expression of her unique brand of feminist-noir naturalism. Her young women, the products of dysfunctional families and a brutal school system, are undone by the pressure to conform to the ways of a world that, as Toshi puts it, are essentially twisted and rotten.
Review first published October 25, 2008.