Book: Real World

Author: Natsuo Kirino

Original Language/Translation: Japanese, tr. by Philip Gabriel

Genre: Crime Fiction

Page Count:224 pgs

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆


“The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.”

–Dostoevsky from The Brothers Karamazov


One conundrum of man can be arguably reduced to a very simple dichotomy: the real versus the fake. Now, this isn’t some external plague that man and woman must avoid nor does it have some preordained set of symptoms that we can check off for diagnosis. This conundrum is dormant in all and when it is invoked, it meshes perfectly as if ingrained in our biological matter and inherent nature. So then, the dichotomy fails to remain explicitly exclusive and morphs the real with the phony until the product transpires into an artificial reality, and everything from that point onwards becomes destined for an absurd and meaningless end.

This enigmatic problem can be further boiled down to one thing: a lie. It’s the unspoken lie that oozes from every pore, from every breath, from every fiber of our being. It’s the lie that we craft into our many masks to adorn on a daily basis to alienate us from kin, friends, and even ourselves. It’s the lie we lull ourselves into believing that ultimately suffocates who we are into who we create. It’s the lie that waits to cast us all in the middle of a Nihilistic Nightmare. Eventually, the lie becomes so dauntingly grand that the remaining shreds of our real self descends into eternal slumber unfazed by the monstrous illusion it leaves behind.

It is this very puzzle that haunts the characters of Natsuo Kirino novel  Real World .

Set in modern day Tokyo, Japan, Real World grapples with very disheartening truths and falsities that are embedded in the human psyche and the projected world that erects from it. Told through five teenagers in a series of confessional first-hand accounts, Real World is a dark, psychological tale that aspires to dismantle factitious debacle above to show the real world underneath. The story revolves around four teenage girls – Toshi, Terauchi, Kirarin, and Yuzan – and how they act and react to Worm, who happens to be Toshi’s neighbor and is on the run for being accused of matricide.

The catalytic event that triggers the chain of events is indeed this seemingly absurd crime but what Kirino focuses on is not the act but the reactions that follow. This entire novel, although broadly defined within the genre of crime, is beyond that. The crime label is superficial at best, just like its characters seem and are, but when peeled back what Kirino delivers is an intense character study of the lost and phony; of the lying and deceiving; of the real consumed by the fake. This is made clear from the get go, when the book opens up with the first character Toshi, who addresses herself by a pseudonym “Ninna Hori” – a simple lie to ease her conundrum; to shield herself; to be everything except for what she is.

“The first time I did it I felt kind of nervous about lying, but after I’d used the name for a while, Ninna Hori started to feel like a real second name…”

 “…It sucks. It totally and absolutely sucks. That’s why I became Ninna Hori. Otherwise I couldn’t keep myself together, couldn’t survive. It isn’t much, but it’s the least I can do to arm myself.”

As the truth of crime starts surfacing, the masks of the girls start breaking. Each perspective is less about the crime, and more about painting a self-portrait without the filters. Every character is twisted; they suffer from self-induced anguish which lies in their disillusioned reflections and hypocritical ideologies. They are all the personifications of an existential crisis turned up to the max. The silly world or depiction of teenage world breaks at a steadfast pace as these girls want to convince us and them that meaning is lost because the world fosters on misunderstandings, artifices, and illusions, and thus, the actions they take and more importantly support, are justified.

It’s really, really hard at first to fathom these characters which can become irksome. All of them reminded me of badly-attempted characters from a Dostoevsky novel with some morphed qualities of Holden Caulfield in whose world of adults, one can expect the destruction of everything one is (as they grow up), hence birthing the phony rhetoric.

 “I was frightened by the optimism of adults, their stupid trust in science to treat a troubled heart, Afraid of their obsession with believing they have to treat troubled kids. I just wanted them to leave me alone, so how come they didn’t get it? But that’s the way it always is.”

However, as the novel progresses, they evolve and settle deeply somewhere within my sympathy and understanding. These were characters that were trying to break out of a system, an –ism of sorts, a fatalistic philosophy that prescribed the labels and virtues that they couldn’t reconcile. Along with bearing the external burden, they all had internal demons that give way to the aforesaid conundrum in the first place. This is what the novel wants to emphasize and bring forth out of everything else: how the external and internal intermingle and possess the psychological and spiritual matter to give way to the Ninna Horises’ and the Worms’ of the world.

 “When you don’t have the strength to fight against fate, you just have to accept what comes. That’s something that can’t be undone.”

Kirino does a commendable job constructing the how’s of each character and their respective lie, but the problem therein lies in the whys. This is where I thought the novel essentially lacked. This is absolutely crucial in a novel like this, where the palpability and believability of it all depends on dissecting character complexity. By this I don’t mean, “oh is this character complex and explain why”, but rather, the intricacies that go behind the process and bringing each end to a resolution that fits within the paradigm of that given intricacy – and the entity as a whole. And if there are leaps to be made by the reader, they should be logical leaps – not hypotheticals to suit the fancy of the reader – which there was a little too much of  without there being the consistency to do so. This is especially true of Worm and his eventual descent into Nihilism. There were some characters that were fully actualized within this “whys framework”, but it was done in such a heavy-handed, explosive manner that the subtleties of the bigger ideas got drowned out. The novel really just lacked fluidity and connectivity that tied the circuit together.

One thing I feel I need to really applaud Kirino for is being able to craft such dynamic female characters with very real problems and struggles, especially at an age where vulnerabilities are at an all-time high and insecurities are rampant within every cell without turning them into boring, cliché snoozefests. They often felt like commodities, but were portrayed in a very relatable light. They all fell under generic archetypes and initially seemed as fake as the world they complained about, but had beatings hearts and a realness to them that felt closer to home, than initially imagined. Kirino does a phenomenal job breaking her girls out of these generic molds and turning them into girls we could see – for who they were and who they are.

Overall, Real World  is a greatly-attempted character study with some successes and some flaws. There were some strong traces of Dostoevsky, Salinger, and Kafka. I’m sure Kirino must have these guys on her favorite authors because the parallels at points were uncanny. Even then, she is a distinctive writer with a great talent in expressing her own interesting perspectives about human nature and other ontological/metaphysical inquiries.

Real World is just that.

“That’s the way it is for everybody- running back and forth between desire and reality, tossed about by life.”