Earlier in the week I wrote about Zhou Weihui and her novels Shanghai Baby and Marrying Buddha. Kanehara Hitomi is the Japanese Zhou Weihui and her novel Snakes and Earrings is similar to Shanghai Baby – about a young woman who’s passive and easily influenced by others.
The themes however do differ. Instead of shopping and sex, the character Lui explores body art (tattoos and piercings) and sex and uses these to explain her life along with other literary themes which litter contemporary Japanese literature (such as violence and death).
The novel focuses around the character of Lui, a young girl who battles with depression and wishes to create feeling in her empty life. Lui meets Ama, who has a forked tongue and immediately becomes obsessed and starts a relationship with him. Ama introduces Lui to the life of piercings and tattoos and she begins the process of getting her tongue forked as well.
Lui is obsessed with pain. Her piercings, tattoos and alcoholism are all a form of self-harm for her. They enable the character to feel. Pain fills up the void Lui is feeling, and it’s pain and the need for physical pain which draws her into a relationship with Shiba-san, a sadist who is often violent towards her.
Lui doesn’t realise that it’s not pain which makes her happy. It’s love which fulfills the void and it’s not until Ama protects her from violent men which she realises this. This feeling is further reinforced when Ama goes missing, and after a few days the police reveal that he was brutally raped and murdered. It is here that Lui recovers from the numbness she was previously experiencing and sets about changing her life.
The novel, like Shanghai Baby, is poorly written and has a sloppy and immature feel, but this adds to the characterisation. It’s not elegant, it’s not perfect – just like Lui.
The novel, by embracing topics such as alcoholism, sex, and the very taboo tattoos (which are still associated with the Yakuza in Japanese society), shows Japanese youth culture changing. It’s breaking away from traditional Japan and becoming radical and rebellious due to the pressures on youth from society. This all creates an unstable youth population who use this new youth culture to vent out its frustration.
Snakes and Earrings is a cry for help on behalf of the young people of Japan.
The novel won the Akutagawa Prize in 2003 which has cemented its importance in Japanese literature. Like Zhou WeiHui’s novels, I am not a fan of Snakes and Earrings, but I can appreciate it in comparison to other Japanese novels.