Snakes & Earrings, Hitomi Kanehara


translated by David James Karashima

Snakes & Earrings (2004), a novella which is Japanese and punk (and which “won the top Japanese literary award, the Akutagawa Prize in 2004”) is a bit outside my usual reading and more particularly, my reviewing. The only Japanese novel I can think of is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (2009) which I really enjoyed, though William Gibson’s cyberpunk SF reflects a time, not so long ago but now largely forgotten, when it was thought that Japanese would be the dominant culture. Still, I came to adulthood reading William Burroughs and enjoyed Australia’s brief (and disputed) ‘grunge’ movement and wrote about it here in a post on Justine Ettler’s The River Ophelia (1995).

Perth’s Crow Books is in the Victoria Park cafe strip so ex-Mrs Legend and I picked up Snakes & Earrings, which I had on order following Kim’s recent review in Reading Matters, on our way to dinner last night (as I write) – we had ‘Asian tapas’, very, very good. Ex-Mrs Legend was taken by the introductory info:

Hitomi Kanehara is a twenty-one-year-old new writer who stopped attending school at the age of eleven. After she left home as a teenager, she sent her stories by email to her literary translator father who helped her edit them.

We’ve had some experience of unhappy teenagers, so this resonated. My first thought was that the important thing was that the father stayed in touch, x-ML was worried about how he dealt with the material he was receiving – alcohol, sex, self-mutilation, body modifications. We breathed a sigh of relief that those risks were all behind us now. Then we thought about the grandchildren. No, I thought about the grandchildren, x-ML is infinitely optimistic.

Snakes & Earrings is a very quick read, probably only about 30,000 words, which is why I knocked it off overnight. And yes, I enjoyed it, though I found the actual writing (or translation) a bit flat, without any of the literary flair of the works cited above. There are just three characters, Lui who is the first-person narrator, her boyfriend Ama, and Shiba who runs a tattoo/piercing shop. Lui and Ama are both ‘minors’, less than 20 years old, though neither knows that about the other until it comes up in a conversation about something else. Shiba is a little older, 24 or 25. Lui in particular, is entirely careless of her own safety and knows nothing about Ama, with whom she lives, except his first name, and even that is probably invented.

Lui and Ama don’t do drugs, they’re not mentioned, but they drink, and Lui drinks heavily and eats less and less as the story progresses, her weight dropping to 34kg. Interestingly Ama and Shiba see Lui as a ‘Barbie-girl’, a definition derived from her dyed blonde hair and the way she dresses, a definition she rejects. She sees them as ‘punks’, for their tattoos and piercings. When Lui accepts casual employment as a ‘companion girl’ – serving drinks to suits – she must wear a dark wig and remove her ear studs, to go with the traditional kimono.

The story, which begins with a discussion of Ama’s forked tongue, is really Lui’s little ‘odyssey’ to achieve this, and a spectacular tattoo, herself.

A few days later I went with Ama the snakeman to Desire – a kind of punk/alternative store in a side-street basement just off the shopping and entertainment district. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a close-up shot of a vagina with a pierced vulva, and the walls were lined with photos of pierced scrotums and tattoos too. Further inside, there was a range of standard body jewellery and various accessories on display. There was also a selection of whips and cock-cases. Basically, it was a store for perverts.

There is a lot of technical talk about piercings and how to enlarge them, and how tongue splitting begins with a small piercing which is gradually forced wider and then, finally, a cut is made from the piercing to the tip of the tongue. Lui gets her tongue pierced almost immediately.

Once we got back to [Ama’s] room he kissed me for what felt like an eternity. He ran his forked tongue along my tongue-stud and the pain that vibrated through my body felt good.

For Lui, Ama is a series of contradictions, a punk and a store clerk, an inconsiderate lover but a thoughtful boyfriend, weedy looking but sometimes seriously violent. He bashes to death a tough who deliberately bumps into Lui when they are walking home late at night. The next morning Lui sees a report of the bashing in the paper and dyes Ama’s bright red mohawk to alter his appearance, but without telling him why, or what she has read.

While Ama is at work Lui goes back to Desire to talk to Shiba about a tattoo. They decide on a dragon and a Kirin

‘I want it to be about the same size as Ama’s and I want it to be just on my back. How much would it cost?’

He pretended to think about it, giving a theatrical pause, then said ‘Hmmm … how about  … one fuck,’ looking at me from the corner of his eye.

‘That’s all?’ I shot him a sideward glance, and saw him glaring at me, the sadist in him coming to the surface.

‘Take off your clothes,’ he ordered.

It goes on from there. There’s another death. Lui keeps working on her tongue.


Hitomi Kanehara, Snakes & Earrings, Vintage, London, 2005. translated by David James Karashima


9 thoughts on “Snakes & Earrings, Hitomi Kanehara

  1. Yikes! I mean, I know people do these things, but until I read this I had no idea how it was done. I’m not sure that I’m grateful to you for enlightening me.
    Have you read The Story of O? The sadism in that is really creepy.


  2. Thanks for the link… and chuffed you decided to read something out of your comfort zone based on one of my reviews. I’ve read quite a few Japanese novels now (mainly in the crime genre) and that flat monotone you mention is a characteristic of them all, so I suspect it’s not merely a translation thing, it’s simply the style of contemporary fiction from this part of the world.


  3. I’ve had this on my TBR for well over a decade. One day I will get to read it. I’m currently trying to declutter the TBR pile because there are books there I know I’ll never read BUT this is not one of them. I’ve read a bit of Japanese literature but not for a while.


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