This is the world that Hitomo Kanehara takes us into in Snakes and Earrings. At 15 Ms Kanehara dropped out of high school. At age twenty Snakes and Earrings, her first novel, sold over a million copies and she won the prestigious Akutagawa Price in 2004.
Lui, the lead character, is 19 and she works as a companion and trade show hostess. She goes to prestigious events with business men. At first she denies it then she sort of lets it slip that maybe once or twice she has engaged in more lucrative activities. It beats working in a shop or as a late night noodle seller.
Lui's big goal is life is to have her tongue split so as to look like the tongue of a snake. We learn exactly how this is done and yes it does really hurt a lot and no it is not done by a graduate of Tokyo University Medical School. Lui does not spend a lot of time reflecting how this will come across in a future job interview should she ever decide to enter the corporate world and she for sure does not reflect on how it will look should she ever live long enough to be a grandmother. We get to know a good bit about tattoo parlors in
Tokyo. We find out what is involved in getting a full back tattoo. Lui pays for her tattoo through having sex with the tattoo artist.
Here is her first meeting with one of her two lovers:
"He had piercings in his eyelids, eyebrows, nose, and cheeks. So much so that they hid his expression, making it almost impossible to tell what he was thinking".
Here is her meeting with her second lover:
"The night I met Ama, we had hit it off talking about forked tongues, and he had taken me back to his place.Ama had taken photos of the entire tongue splitting process...after that Ama showed me an underground Web site with video footage of the tongue-splitting process. To Ama's amazement, I watched the footage over and over. I don't know why it excited me so much. Later on that night I slept with him."
The characters of the novel do engage in some philosophical and religious reflections.
If you were God, what kind of human would you create? I asked
I wouldn't change how they look. But I would make them as dumb as chickens. So dumb they'd never even imagine the existence of a god".
Lui is pretty much of a sexual doormat: "I have been with sadists before, and you never know what they're going to do".
Here is the deepest thought in the mind of the tattoo artist: "God has to be a sadist to give people life".
Like several other characters in works I have posted on for this challenge, the world of her raising seems dead to her now. (In my mind she is the daughter of one of the teenage girls in Real World. Her great grandfather returned to a defeated and destroyed Japan but he never adjusted real well and he never wanted to talk about his years in Manchuria).
I recall the great care and attention given to the tradition of the kimono in The Old Capital . At one of her trade shows Liu and the other girls get paid extra for wearing kimonos. The only problem is most of the girls have no idea how to put them on.
Things proceed in the novel. I will not give away too much of the plot. There is an abundance of very graphic sex in Snakes and Earrings. This may help explain why it sold over a million copies Liu is treated in what will seem to many an abusive fashion but she does not seem to mind.
Part of the appeal of this book is clearly from the sensational almost voyeristic mode of the book. We enter a world very different from our own, a world at times dangerous. A murder mystery is central to the plot of the book.
We learn somethings in this book. We learn why tattoo artists prefer the skin of young female subjects for their most supreme works of art. We learn why those inclined to weight gains should avoid tattoos.
One of the pleasures of reading is entering into very different worlds from our own. Snakes and Earrings
succeeds well in this. It allows us to see the humanity in people very different from most of us. If there is a common theme to the eight authors whose works I so far posted on for the Japanese Literature Challenge III it is the detailing of a world of lost values. Old ways are destroyed-old Gods demasked-the Emperor and the imperial army become objects of near contempt but nothing takes their place.
I sort of endorse this book as a quick entertaining read (it is near x rated in parts). If you push it deeper themes will emerge. The full price of this book in $12.95. I paid about $4.00 for it at the Manila Book Fair-you can buy it on Amazon for about that and that seems fair.