The morgue-like, air-conditioned lobby of Tokyo’s Keio Plaza Hotel is the haunt of businessmen in crisp black suits who sip $10 coffees and nod along to conversations that never rise above a murmur. But the studied cool is broken when Novala Takemoto swishes in, drawing faces in his direction like sunflowers to the sun and in his wake a faint whiff of Christian Dior perfume.
The 36-year-old cult novelist cuts quite a figure: willowy frame draped in a Comme des Garcons jacket and wrapped in a black Vivienne Westwood dress; designer jewelry hanging off long, bony fingers that keep fluttering up to his bird’s-nest hair. Think bastard offspring of Oscar Wilde and Vlad the Impaler, with a pinch of Keith Richards, and you’re probably at one with the rest of the wide-eyed Keio Plaza clientele.
“I like beautiful things,” he says, by way of explanation.
Cult success abroad
Takemoto’s striking ensemble likely cost the same as the health budget of a small failing state, but he has the money now with the success of his novel “Shimotsuma Monogatari (Shimotsuma Story),” which has sold 130,000 copies and was this year made into a movie directed by Tetsuya Nakashima which sports the English title, “Kamikaze Girls.”
The book has solidified a burgeoning writing career that began in the early 1990s and includes nominations for the Yukio Mishima Literary Prize in 2003 and 2004.
Meanwhile “Kamikaze Girls” is proving a big hit in Japan and a cult success abroad, where some critics are saying it could bring Japan’s “Lolita” subculture to wider shores. Not to be confused with the erotic fascination with schoolgirls evident in much Japanese porn, the concerns of “Lolitas” are essentially aesthetic: an exaggerated appreciation for childish or feminine things such as corsets, frills and ribbons, dolls-house chic, “Hello Kitty” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
In a country never slow to capitalize on the latest fad, the “Lolita” style has become something of a growth industry, with clubs, pop groups and specialist shops catering for enthusiasts, who have splintered off into sub-genres: Victorian Maidens, Gothic Lolitas and even Mary Magdalens.
If the Lolita enthusiasts share a philosophy, it might be best understood as a reluctance to embrace the “dirty world” of adulthood. Motifs featuring orphans, angels, innocent cartoon animals and lost princesses are popular; Tatemoto’s small Tokyo apartment is a shrine to them. Unsurprisingly perhaps, he acknowledges that his readers are often troubled, alienated souls who spend a lot of time alone in their bedrooms.
“The people who read my books are mostly female high school and university students, and I suppose compared to other writers, a lot of them are otaku [obsessives] and young people who have withdrawn from society.”
Like most of his readers, Takemoto grew up the son of a hardworking sarariman who found it difficult to accept that his son was different.
“I offended his sense of what was normal. He used to hit me and try to force me to wear the clothes he bought me and so on, but I always followed my own muse,” says Takemoto. “My mum despaired, but just shrugged and said: ‘What can we do.’ “
He happened on writing in 1992, after being asked to pen a series of short essays for a free monthly arts newspaper in Osaka. Narrated in the voice of Otome (the maiden), the columns were, he says, “love letters to his readers”; letters urging them “to look for the beautiful in life rather than focusing on the ugly, and to stand above the fray and ignore the petty snipes of less enlightened souls” — even if that meant being alone during school lunch hour.
“There are so many awful things in this world, but I wanted readers to share with me the small, beautiful, enjoyable things,” Takemoto explains. “Things like cute clothes, beautiful art and pretty flowers; items that are overflowing with beauty. If you just become obsessed with your own problems, you miss these things. When you discover them, you become happy.”
Much to his and the publisher’s surprise, the essays were an instant hit, and after six years, were eventually compiled and published as “Soreinu: Tadashii Otome ni Narutemeni (Soreinu: How to Become a Proper Maiden).” The hit novel, “Mishin,” followed in 2000, which harnessed these themes to the story of an eponymous “Lolita” heroine who sings in a punk band. Many readers were surprised to learn that the author was male, and heterosexual. “I could never do anything with a boy,” says Takemoto. “They’re too sweaty.”
Recounting his surprise at the scale of his own success, he explains, “When I started writing, I thought nobody would understand the things that I liked. Then I began getting a lot of letters from people who said they were waiting for me to express what they felt they couldn’t, so I kept writing.
“They probably experience a lot of uneasiness in this society, but when they read my book they know they are not alone, that I talk to them. I don’t tell them how to deal with this uneasiness, but I say ‘if we experience it together, maybe it will feel a little better.’ “
Hostess and a yakuza
Takemoto’s frothy and light themes of the struggle to find love and beauty in dull contemporary Japan are clearly in evidence in “Kamikaze Girls,” which tells the story of 17-year-old Momoko (Peach-child), the product of a drunken encounter between a bar hostess and a yakuza, who lives with her useless dad in rural Ibaraki Prefecture.
Momoko soars above this grimy world by living in her imagination, dreaming of French rococo and dressing in lacy, Victorian-doll chic from an expensive city boutique — all the while ignoring the taunts of those around her. Then she meets another rebel spirit, biker Ichigo (Strawberry), and together they embark on a quest to find a legendary embroiderer.
Screenings at this year’s Cannes Film Festival have generated a lot of interest abroad, and “Kamikaze Girls” is now scheduled for release in the United States, Spain, Italy and a number of other countries.
“Takemoto seems to have started something. He has found a way to connect with readers who believed themselves odd or disconnected from society — and he’s told them they are not alone in this world,” says Tomoya Sugawara, Takemoto’s editor at publishers Shogakukan Inc. “This quality, and his unusual, conversational and fast-paced writing style, explains his popularity at the moment.”
As well as talking about the movie, Takemoto is promoting his new book, “Mishin2: Kasako,” the sequel to “Mishin,” which is expected to be another best seller.
With all these achievements already racked up, and more most likely to follow, Takemoto — the shy, bullied Kyoto boy who spent much of his childhood drawing pictures and watching TV cartoons for girls — has become an unlikely success, although his family refuse to acknowledge it.
“My father and mother have never read my work,” he says a little wistfully.
“I know that many people kill off their real personality just to fit into this society,” he continues, “but why do we have to compromise? I never understood that. I decided to try to be myself and to live by my own values rather than those of others.”
With that, he gets up and walks back through the foyer, turning heads again — but this time exuding a faint whiff of defiance along with the Dior musk.