In the Spotlight: Natsuo Kirino’s Real World

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They impact people in sometimes unexpected, even tragic, ways. To show this ‘ripple effect,’ let’s turn today’s spotlight on Natsuo Kirino’s Real World.

Early one hot summer afternoon, Toshiko Yamanaka, a senior in high school, is preparing to go to cram school to help her prepare for college entrance exams. She hears some loud crashes from the house next door; but, when nothing else happens, she decides to go on to cram school. On her way, she sees Ryo, the boy her age who lives next door. He seems to be fine, and that relieves Toshiko. Later, though, she returns home only to find that the woman next door has been murdered, and that two detectives want to speak to her.

It’s soon clear that the police suspect Ryo, whom Toshiko and her friends have nicknamed Worm, of the murder. But when they question her about what she saw and heard, Toshiko decides to lie. In an odd way, she has a sort of sympathy for Worm:


‘I wasn’t so much afraid of him as curious to know what he’d been thinking. I was sure he would never tell adults how he felt then…I think I know how he feels.’


It isn’t that she condones the murder, but she does feel a sort of bond with Worm as a fellow teen. What’s more, she’s afraid that if she admits she saw the boy, she might be considered some kind of accomplice.

That feeling is strengthened when Toshiko learns that Worm stole her bicycle and her telephone and is on the run. Now she is afraid that it looks as though she helped him. Then, Worm uses her telephone to get in touch with her and with her three friends, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama.

Each of the four girls interacts with Worm, and each has a slightly different reaction to the possibility that he killed his mother. Each of them also decides not to report anything to the police or to other adults in their lives. As the events of the next few days play out, we see, from five different perspectives (Worm’s plus those of the four girls), how things spin out of control.

As the story goes on, each of the girls makes some choices that have a profound impact on what happens. Put together, the result ends up being tragic. And in the end, we see how even a simple choice, sometimes made almost impulsively, can have far-reaching consequences.

One of the important elements in this story is the ‘if only’ phenomenon that many people feel when tragedy such as murder strikes. Each of the characters believes that some of the awful events that happen could have been prevented, ‘If only I had told someone/made that call/tried one more time/hadn’t said ____,’ etc.. As one character puts it:


‘All the what ifs and if onlys…Anyone who says I should stop thinking about these kinds of things doesn’t have burdens himself. Or else is a person who never had a decisive moment in his life. I’ve been thinking about all kinds of things, and I’ve decided I’m going to live with this burden for the rest of my life.’


That sense of guilt and self-recrimination both draws some of the characters together and keeps them apart.

The main characters in the novel are teenagers. So another important element in it is the world they inhabit and the way they think. These teens face an entirely new world, as they see it – one their parents don’t understand and don’t seem interested in understanding. They don’t really feel safe, and even those who have caring parents don’t really feel they can depend on them. So they need to depend on themselves and each other.

Since the perspectives shared are those of teens, we also get a sense of teenage angst, short-sightedness and risk-taking. This situation is more than any of them can really manage; yet, they would rather try to do that then admit their helplessness. Each of the characters is different, so we also get to learn something about them. Toshiko is serious and thoughtful. Tarauchi is the smart one with a bold, brave side, but hides her own share of deep pain. Yuzan is struggling with coming out as lesbian; and Kirari is a ‘nice, properly brought up’ girl who isn’t willing to allow herself to be vulnerable around boys. One thing they have in common is that the adult world has a kind of ‘otherness’ for them. They each have a different relationship with their families, but in each case, there’s a barrier of immaturity that makes it impossible for them to really take their parents’ perspectives. And there’s a generational barrier that makes it difficult for their parents to have a sense of what these young people face.

The story takes place in Tokyo, so the reader gets a sense of modern life there. Some things, such as the media frenzy about the murder, will be familiar no matter where one lives. But other things are distinctly Japanese and distinctively Tokyo. Culture, daily life and so on – even students’ required readings lists – reflect life there. To put it another way, it’s a look at Tokyo through teenage eyes.

This is a bleak story without much of a happy ending. That said though, there are characters who, as you might say, survive and get through it. We get the sense that these characters are forever changed by what happens, but that they will go on. Still, readers who prefer endings where everything works out in the end will notice that that doesn’t happen here.

Real World is an uncompromising look at modern teenage life in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas. It depicts the impact of murder on several lives, and features young people who are trying to make sense of it all, and who make fateful choices as they do so. But what’s your view? Have you read Real World? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 16 November/Tuesday 17 November – The Calling – Michael Redhill/Inger Ash Wolfe

Monday 23 November/ Tuesday 24 November – Blanche on the Lam – Barbara Neely

Monday 30 November/Tuesday 1 December – Death in Breslau – Marek Krajewski



Filed under Natsuo Kirino, Real World

18 responses to “In the Spotlight: Natsuo Kirino’s Real World

  1. This one is news to me, but I’ll check it out. Your posting comes at a time when I have been pondering the problem of reading choices. Perhaps your posting is the perfectly timed addition to my “must read” list.

    • This one definitely isn’t ‘standard fare’ (Is there really such a thing?) for those who mostly read classic/Golden Age crime fiction, R.T.. It’s a different sort of book. That said, though, I think it does offer the reader lots to think about. If you do read it, I’ll be interested in what you think of it.

  2. I’ve read other Natsuo Kirino books and … well, I’m not sure if ‘enjoy’ is the right word, as they are all rather grim, but they do paint a very convincing picture of the darker aspects of contemporary Japanese society. I should perhaps get more of an insight into teenagers’ mindsets, as I’m struggling at the moment with my just-about teenager.

    • You’re quite right about Kirino, Marina Sofia. Her work does paint a rather dark picture. But it is in many ways very hard-hitting and real. For me, anyway, that’s part of its appeal: it feels very authentic. And since this one features teens, it does offer an interesting look at the challenges that generation faces, and how they see life. Oh, and I wish you well with your nearly-teen. I’m not saying it’s always fun, but you do get through it, and I’ve found you can be friends again on the other side.

  3. Sounds really interesting Margot, but sounds hardgoing and I think I would really have to be in the right frame of mind for this one

    • I think you’re actually right on both counts, Sergio. It is a really interesting look at modern Japanese teen life. It is also hard going and sad. Something for when you’re in the frame of mind to have that sort of reading experience.

  4. Interesting spotlight again! I haven’t read this or any of the author’s books, but what you describe of the kind of disaffection of Japanese youth really strikes a chord with other books I’ve read. I know we all talk about generation gaps and find the teen years difficult, either as teen or parent of one, but going on the basis of their fiction, there seems to be something uniquely different happening in Japan – a real breakdown between the old culture and the new. It always leaves me feeling quite uneasy, as if there’s a dangerous void there, waiting to be filled.

    • I get that feeling, too, FictionFan – very much. I see this alienation and this disaffection, and it really makes me wonder. As you say, on either side of it, the teen years are difficult. But this is different somehow, isn’t it? And in my opinion, this book really depicts that accurately.

  5. Col

    A new author and someone I’ve never even heard of Margot. Probably a pass – too much already. I’m looking forward to your Breslau spotlight, I didn’t think too much of the couple I read.

  6. This sounds excellent, and I’m always thinking I should read more Japanese books. I just wish it didn’t sound rather dark…

    • It is dark, Moira, no doubt about that. And the ending isn’t one of those ‘Everything will be all right now’ endings, either. Still, if you’re prepared for that, it’s an interesting look at modern Japanese teen life.

  7. Natsuo Kirinos is a new author for me as well, Margot. I don’t mind an occasional bleak story without a happy ending, as long as the story itself keeps me absorbed throughout. This reminds me of Hardy’s JUDE THE OBSCURE. Although I did not like the ending, I absolutely loved the story.

    • And that’s the thing, I think, Prashant. A very bleak story can still be engrossing if the plot and characters keep the reader engaged. Thanks, too, for reminding me of Jude the Obscure; Hardy certainly knew how to create those bleak endings…

  8. This sounds fascinating and once again a book that I haven’t come across before – the ripple effect is an interesting one to explore and one that is often side-lined in fiction

    • There is definitely a ripple effect in this novel, Cleo. And it is an uncompromising look at teen life. It pulls no punches, as the saying goes; and on that score, it’s quite compelling. If you do read it, I’ll be keen to know what you think of it.

  9. This does sound very interesting, Margot, although I am not yet ready for more bleakness. I just finished a very, very bleak book and I can only take so much. I have OUT by the same author, and I hear it is also bleak. I haven’t tried it yet.

    • I know exactly what you mean about bleakness, Tracy. I can’t enjoy an unremitting diet of bleak, either. This one is dark, I’ll admit. When you’re ready for it, I hope you’ll be glad you read it.

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