Real World: Natsuo Kirino’s Take in Teen Psychological Thriller


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I once read a piece of review on Natsuo Kirino’s books that basically said: “she must write novels that are more suitable for women.” I laughed and imagined that reviewer sitting in front of me before I shot back: “let me tell you something: Natsuo Kirino knows her sh*t, and she writes it beautifully, even if she doesn’t make ‘women’s novels’ full of flowers and candies and beautiful star-crossed lovers and cute ukulele soundtrack.” No. Kirino writes books about deeply suppressed darkness that subtly appears in the hearts of regular people with seemingly mundane life. We are so overexposed to fictions full of psychopathic murderers with eccentric behaviors and bizarre fetish that we often overlook the hidden darkness in the hearts of regular people around us: whether they are that housewife who shops for vegetables at the market, that gaggle of school students chatting about homework and crush, or that plain office worker with tired face and boring daily job. Put them in specific situations, and you can see how they snap and do things that might sound unthinkable. That’s what Kirino did with her books. 

Real World is my third Natsuo Kirino’s book after Grotesque and Out. I consider this book a lighter reading compared to the other two, something that you can easily sell as teen thriller. But believe me, there is nothing cute about this book. Real World is about a group of four teenage girls: Toshi, Terauchi, Yuzan and Kirarin, and their interaction with a quiet, studious teenage boy (Toshi’s neighbor) they call “Worm.” One day, Toshi heard a loud crash from Worm’s house, and she found out that the boy had just murdered his mother with a baseball bat before ran away. Worm also stole Toshi’s bike and cellphone. The girls, feeling intrigued about this sudden violent burst of a seemingly unremarkable boy, started to contact and even assist him in his run. One of the girls, Kirarin, decided to meet with Worm in a hotel, and their interaction quickly spiraled into psychological chaos, emotional outburst, and violence.

One thing that I like about Kirino’s book: she writes about Japan that you don’t see in travel blogs, travel websites, and trip brochures. Kirino’s Japan is heartless, stressful, choking, oppressing, and empty, and you see it from her characters. In Grotesque, you meet high school girls whose life has been stamped with “DOOM” because of hierarchy system that exists in Japan’s elite school, teenage world, and later, career world, which make the situation difficult especially for women. In Out, you meet housewives who work night-shift at packed lunch factory, wishing to get out of situations that oppress them from right and left, but they cannot do anything about it until one of them took drastic action by murdering her husband. In Real World, all the five teenagers are described as confused young people who cannot aspire to be anything beside what the society expects from them.

Toshi is a seemingly goody two-shoes girl from “normal” family, but in her heart, she despises the hypocrisy of society and media, including the way educational institutions such as cram school and university pretend to care about all the students’ future. Yuzan is a lesbian who feels rejected by society and misunderstood by her father. While this seems like a cliched trope for “misunderstood young lesbian,” Kirino described her character in lively details that will make you sympathize her, and at some points even scream in your heart: “oh yes, you’re right, I feel that too sometimes!” Kirarin is your typical pretty girl who finds no difficulties in attracting guys wherever she goes, but deep down, she wonders whether she actually hates men because their tendency to see her in superficial way. Terauchi seems like the most grounded and level-headed from all of them, a girl who thinks and ponders about deep things all the time, but she always makes jokes and says “stupid things” because she feels alienated. No-one understands her when she says what she thinks, so she creates mask of shallowness to help her cope.

Finally, when you reach the chapter when Worm tells what happened before he murdered his mother, you probably will feel what I felt when reading it for the first time: downright chill. Not because Worm’s family is abnormal. His family is completely normal, with aspiring father and mother, which in the end becomes their undoing. Worm’s mother was not a bad woman. She was like any other wives and mothers. She wanted their family to be respected; she wanted her son to be successful and made their family proud. Worm’s mother never mistreated him, but Worm felt that her mother showed affection based on this ambition, and he was frustrated by it. Read that part when Worm took the baseball bat and killed his mother; how surprisingly detailed Kirino described what he thought when he swung the bat toward his mother’s head, and you probably will feel chilled to the bone, thinking that something like this might happen anytime near you. In a family that you know. Or probably to yourself.

Despite all the dark things explored in the novel, this is also a coming-of-age novel. The main characters are in the age when they are about to come out to “real world” after the teenage years are over. The murder is a catalyst for series of situations, talks, incidents and tragedy that will change their life forever. Or like The Plain Dealer said on the back cover of my book: “A brilliant feminist noir…. (Real World) Reads like Little Women in an acid bath.”