Snakes and Earrings - Hitomi Kanehara | Lost in Translation

I am now experimenting with other nationalities than French and Italian for my Lost in Translation meme (which should be a feature, but I like to share!).

To be perfectly honest I have never read a book by a Japanese author before (I can feel my cultural curiosity cringe at the very thought) and I was introduced to Hitomi Kanehara at an author event with Melvin Burgess. He talked about several YA books by Japanese authors who didn't try to write about adults in teenage disguise but about real teenagers. I was very intrigued and bought the tiny book that is Snakes and Earrings. My friend Sabrina and I read it and we just couldn't stop thinking and talking about this book.

The book has extremely explicit content and I will mention that content in my review, so if you are faint-hearted, please, do not read any further. (I'm talking about tattoos, piercings, sex, alcohol, drugs, self mutilation)
I am not saying that to annoy you at all, but I wouldn't want anyone to read something he/she won't like by accident, so please bear my warning in mind. And please don't read this review only because I put this warning... Like that's not exactly what I would do :)

Summary from Amazon:
A shocking and explicit story about obsessive love and Japanese youth counter-culture that sold over a million copies in Japan. This tale of sex and darkness is narrated by Lui, an alienated young Japanese woman who becomes disastrously involved with two dangerous men. Lui first meets her boyfriend Ama in a bar after finding herself mesmerised by his forked tongue. She immediately moves in with him and begins following him down the path to body modification by having her tongue pierced and planning a beautiful tattoo for her back. Ama’s friend Shiba creates this exquisite tattoo and as he works on it Lui begins an illicit and brutal sexual relationship with him. Then, after a violent encounter on the back streets of Tokyo, Ama goes missing and Lui must face up to her choices...

Lui, self destruction and depression
As my friend pointed out, Lui is possibly suffering from depression. half of the time she feels numb and the other she abuses her body in all possible way, in an attempt to feel something. But the book is extremely surprising and what you feel will happen to Lui doesn't really happen.
You never know if you have to blame Lui for what happens or pity her, and I felt that the book wasn't exactly about this. It is a glimpse into this girl's self destructive circle. She stays with Ama and you can see he has so many feelings for her that she is incapable to share or reciprocate. 
Lui is also a masochist, she enjoys being hurt in sexual relations. I would link this to the fact that she has no respect for her body, but anyone could have these tastes. It is undeniably creepy to read some of the scenes, but it is interesting to see how Lui conceives it in her head. 

Counter-culture in Japan
The depiction of counter-culture in Japan is simply mesmerizing. This is why I love reading translated books from foreign countries, you learn so much! I had no idea that groups like "Barbie girls" and "punks" were so distinctive in Japan. 
It is also always very interesting to read about people living on the fringe. Our lives are so organised and ruled by social conventions that sometimes we might forget who we are. People living on the fringe don't have this need to abide by the rules and are, in a way, much more natural than we are.
The book also shows a new generation. If earlier generations were rebellious or ambitious, we are, if anything, a bored generation. Nothing surprises us or moves us. We have even stopped dreaming. We live in a state of suspension from which nothing can shake us except fake emotions and convictions. When I read about Lui's story, I saw that in her. 

Tattoos and piercing
To which extent are they a form of art? This is an endless question and there isn't one answer. As a fan of the form of art, I would agree with Shiba's vision of them. They are a way to magnify the body, not change it. Whereas Lui doesn't have any respect or consideration for her body. The book is an interesting way to explore this theme and see the two visions. By experience, not two tattoo artist or tattooed person have the same conception of what a tattoo or a piercing is. As widespread as the practice might be, it is a very personal experience.
Lui is first attracted to Ama because she is fascinated by his forked tongue. She decides to do this to herself (the process includes to get your tongue pierced and then to stretch the hole progressively). She also wants a unique tattoo and asks Shiba to design it. The descriptions are completely realistic and people not familiar with them might be a little put off. 

The style of the book
I feel that this book wants to depict reality as it is and not create a false image of teenagers with a conscience or with any sense of responsability. I find the style haunting. This story creeps on you and you find yourself vehemently disliking Lui for what she does to herself and others. But she grows on you at some point.

This is a masterpiece of a book. It is short but will give you a sense of whole which only a 700+ pages book can do. It is simply marvelous and an incredible way to make you discover another culture, another way of life, and yourself - maybe - in the process.

It may be a Young Adult book but obviously not for our standards since it was published as an adult book in the UK and has so much explicit content I cannot even begin to enumerate it. So consider yourself informed!


  1. Ohh... I want to READ THIS! My closest friend and I are just starting to get into Japanese literature and we love it. This is definitely going on the to-read list.

    While I generally don't like books that are too graphic (I'm a bit squeamish), the way that you describe the way that counter-culture in Japan comes across in this book is too intriguing to pass us.

    Thank you SO much for this review. There's not a lot of reviews on Japanese lit. (especially YA Japanese lit) out there, so I was really happy when I saw this!

  2. Thank you so much for your comment Erin!!
    I do agree on the rarity of YA Japanese reviews here! I have also bought OUT by Natsuo Kirino (which is technically YA as well, though very graphic too).
    Good luck for the Japanese literature, and pass on some tips!!

  3. What a thorough and interesting review! I like how you segmented it into the varying themes. I have to say I don't think I would enjoy this. I am not a brave reader. The self-mutliation really puts me off although I do think the exploration of the Japanese counter culture sounds fascinating. I need a watered down version for faint-hearted people. :-)

  4. I really enjoyed it.
    Thank you Caroline for advising me this book.
    I had strangulée feelings when I read it, but after all it's a very good book, with a very original style.

  5. Interesting, will have to read.
    You should read Norweigen Wood - H.M (actually anthing by him) & OUT - Natsuo Kirino - Not YA though.
    They will prolly lead you to the assumption that Jap novels seem to be explicit in content. Not for the squemish though.
    Odd the tongue is stretched - i thought they mainly lasered them nowdays to split.
    Hm...i just read up on your comments and I can't believe that OUT is classed as YA!

  6. Oooh thank you for the tips Anonymous person!I actually have OUT on my bookshelf to read :)
    I think that there is no consensus as to the definition of YA: are they novels *targeted* towards teenagers or novels *about/with* teenage characters. The difference is quite huge!

  7. Oh my - Poor Ama :( what a way to go.
    The first few pages of this book did make me feel abit faint - even though I use to have my tongue pierced.

    I like the no frills way this is written.

    I'm gonna read `Real World by Natsuo Kirino` now and see wha tha is like - brutal i imagine (only 208 pages though so nice n short).