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Snakes and Earrings

by Andrew Lee

Staff Writer

Take a walk through Tokyo’s Shibuya or Shinjuku shopping districts and you’ll soon notice the streets are filled with a certain kind of girl — stylishly dressed, sassy, with heavy makeup and dyed brown or blond hair. These are gyaru, and to get a peek inside their world, “Snakes and Earrings” is a good place to start — though it may not be as pretty as you’d expect.

Snakes and Earrings, Hitomi Kanehara, VINTAGE ORIGINALS

This debut novel by Hitomi Kanehara was the joint winner of the 2003 Akutagawa Prize. Kanehara was just 20 at the time and Ryu Murakami (one of the judges, and whose work “Coin Locker Babies” was reviewed in this column last week) said her work was a “radical depiction of our time” and clearly described “what goes on in the minds of young women today.”

Lui is a 19-year-old gyaru (inadequately translated here as “Barbie-doll”) having an identity crisis. Fascinated by the split tongue of a punk she starts dating, Lui decides she wants one too and gets her tongue pierced. She continues to cast off the “pleasant, polite Japanese girl” she pretends to be, and gets a large tattoo on her back. Lui’s transformation is sexual and violent, involving torture and murder, and as the book’s shocking events unfold she says “I wish I had a greater vocabulary to fully express the extent of my pain and hatred.”

Yet even with its uncomplicated language, this novel expresses the uncertainty of Japan’s post-bubble generation with a panache that will make your skin crawl.

Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.