Grotesque – Natsuo Kirino

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In “Grotesque”, Kirino tells a haunting tale of sexual violence, power and the loss of innocence. The writer unapologetically tackles taboo subjects and graphically describes the dark side of society and sexuality. The women’s stories are raw depictions of tensions in Japanese society regarding sex and gender equality.

The first striking female lead of the novel is Yuriko, a Lolita-like nymphomaniac. Her brutal quest for sexual fulfilment dictates her life’s fate as a prostitute. Yuriko not only embraces her life choice, despite knowing society’s judgement of herself, she also wields unyielding power through her pursuit of sex as a commodity. She demonstrates immense intelligence by recognizing the men who are interested in her only for lustful pleasure, and also by using this knowledge to control their actions in her favour. In this regard, she irreversibly affected the lives of Johnson and his family, her uncle and her own family, as well as Kijima and his father. She undeniably has a drastic impact on everyone who comes across her, not only by her striking beauty, but also by her ability to manipulate others. Therefore, Yuriko is able to control her own fate, gain power through sex and predict her own destiny. In this sense, her death is not tragic – it had been foreseen by Yuriko herself and she died unyieldingly, unapologetically and unashamed of herself.

Kazue, on the other hand, though also recognizing the power of sex, did not use it to the same extent that Yuriko did. Her choice of prostitution is driven more because of a need to be accepted and a longing for intimacy. In this regard, her life is more tragic than Yuriko, because ultimately she could not find those in her sexual quest. During her narration, Kazue reflects on the impossible expectations that men have over women: “They want a woman to be educated and to have a proper upbringing an a pretty face, and they want her to have both a submissive character and a taste for sex. […] And yet women have no choice but to try to manage, searching as they go for some redeeming value to their lives.” Kazue struggles through her life to conform to these expectations, by becoming a good student, getting a seemingly good job at an architecture firm and pursue prostitution, sometimes engaging in submissive sex. Eventually, she still fails to find comfort and acceptance, and dies at the hands of the only customer that gave her a sense of intimacy and emotional connection. Her death is tragic. Her life is unfulfilled. At the end of her narration, she still yearns for her love to be returned from Kijima – an impossible wish.

Finally, the unnamed narrator, Yuriko’s sister, is a grand depiction of complete loss of identify and innocence. Growing up under the shadows of Yuriko, she never found her own sense of purpose and hope in life. Growing up, she has to confront jealousy, society’s judgements and expectations, as well as the ugliness of suicide. Her narration is drenched with jealousy, insecurity and a sense of lost youth. She is the sole character to have a total lack of sexual experience, lack of name and motivation. Only towards the end of the novel does she find a purpose in life, to take care of Yuriko’s son, and only then does she search for her own sexual fulfilment. This character also feels out of place in society as Yuriko and Kazue, but fails to recognize why and could not reconcile who she wants to be and who she is.

Yuriko symbolizes sex as power and survival instincts. Kazue depicts restrictive gender expectations in society and isolation due to lack of emotional fulfilment. Yuriko’s sister’s narration is a tragic coming-of-age story.  Mainly through the voices of women, “Grotesque” depicts a story of struggle for identify, equality, acceptance and love. However, although the novel focuses on the ugliness of human nature, the main characters’ strong will to survive and fight for a place in the world ultimately give the book a sense of hope and sympathy.

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