Snakes and Earrings
Cover of Japanese edition
|Original title||蛇にピアス (Hebi ni piasu)|
|Publisher||Shueisha (Japan), Dutton (US), Vintage Books (UK)|
Published in English
Snakes and Earrings (蛇にピアス Hebi ni Piasu) is a Japanese novel by Hitomi Kanehara, first published in 2003 in the literary magazine Shōsetsu Subaru, then published in 2004 as a book. Snakes and Earrings won the 27th Subaru Literary Prize and the 130th Akutagawa Prize. It sold more than a million copies in Japan, has been translated into sixteen languages, and was adapted for film.
A young woman named Lui admires her new boyfriend Ama's split tongue, which she likens to the forked tongue of a snake. Having experimented with large ear piercings, she decides that she wants to try the same body modification as Ama. Lui and Ama visit a bisexual body modification and tattoo artist named Shiba, who begins the process of inserting progressively larger tongue studs. Lui finds herself interested in Shiba, returns to the shop without Ama, and secretly begins a violent sexual relationship with Shiba involving bondage and sadomasochism. Ama subsequently gets into a fight with an apparent gangster, knocking out the man's teeth and presenting them to Lui as a gift. Despite Ama's obvious affection, Lui feels disconnected from Ama and continues to have a sexual relationship with Shiba, who is creating an intricate tattoo that covers her entire back.
One day Ama unexpectedly disappears. His corpse is later found with evidence of torture, rape, and strangulation. After learning of Ama's demise, Lui tries to speed up the process of splitting her tongue by inserting larger studs too quickly, causing intense pain, and she stops eating, instead only drinking alcohol. She then discovers evidence suggesting that Shiba was Ama's rapist and murderer. Lui privately suspects a previous sexual relationship between Shiba and Ama, but when the police investigator asks her whether Ama ever had sex with men, she insists that Ama was completely heterosexual. With Ama gone, Lui and Shiba reveal their real names to one another, their relationship falls into a more domestic pattern, and Lui considers putting in a larger tongue stud.
Publication and reception
In junior high school Hitomi Kanehara was anorexic and engaged in self-harm. With the support of her father, a professor at Hosei University, she dropped out of school entirely and began to write stories, including Snakes and Earrings, that drew on experiences from her personal life. She has described the novel as the story she "had to write".
In 2003 Snakes and Earrings won the 27th Subaru Literary Prize (すばる文学賞 Subaru Bungakushō) for unpublished stories. It was subsequently published in the November 2003 issue of the literary magazine Shōsetsu Subaru. In January 2004 Snakes and Earrings won the 130th Akutagawa Prize, making the 20-year old Kanehara one of the youngest winners in the prize's history. Akutagawa Prize committee member Ryu Murakami particularly praised the novel's "radical depiction of our time". Kanehara appeared at the Akutagawa Prize announcement ceremony wearing gyaru-style street fashion, and the subsequent media spectacle drew significant public attention to the author's personal life as well as the novel's literary merits.
The unusual subject matter and Kanehara's age also drew international attention to the author and novel, including a profile in The New York Times that called the novel "a powerful portrait of this post-bubble generation and the themes that are identified with it". In The Japan Times, Janet Ashby expressed mixed sentiment about the story, acknowledging that "Kanehara's portrait of the depressive and anorexic Rui does have a certain overall power", but expressing disappointment at "a particularly unsatisfactory ending". The novel was published in book form by Shueisha in 2004. It has since sold more than a million copies in Japan.
Shortly after the Japanese book was published, Dutton acquired the English translation rights. In 2005 an English version of Snakes and Earrings, translated by David Karashima, was published by Dutton in the United States and Vintage Books in the United Kingdom. It received generally positive reviews. Kirkus Reviews called the book "fascinating and unnerving" while noting that its contents "will raise a few eyebrows". Writing for The Guardian, Maya Jaggi praised the book as "a debut novel about alienation that is shocking but not sensational" and observed that it "offers more than sociological interest".
Several reviews of the English translation also noted the broader significance of Snakes and Earrings in contemporary Japanese literature. Bookforum summarized Lui's character as "the voice of Japan's postbubble 'lost generation'". The Financial Times praised Kanehara for telling "the dark tale of Tokyo youth with a simple, visceral eloquence", but also cited Snakes and Earrings as an exemplar of a literary trend redefining the "icon of contemporary Japan" from geisha to "the high-school girl". In The Independent, former Japan Times editor Victoria James grouped the novel with similarly explicit work by Ami Sakurai and Mari Akasaka, praising the book's quality but expressing skepticism about any long-term mainstream impact of novels by young women about sex.
Academic analysis of Snakes and Earrings has focused on themes of subcultural resistance, gender roles, and commodification. Writing in the literary studies journal Cultural Critique, scholar Mark Driscoll argued that the book's portrayal of freeters, or part-time workers, as "consumerist, closed-off, and unwilling or unable to communicate with people outside their tribe" reinforced popular stereotypes, effectively subverting the impact of any subcultural BDSM and self-harm content. David Holloway, writing in Japanese Language and Literature, came to a similar conclusion, noting that despite the depiction of Lui as a fringe character rejecting society's rules, she ends up turning toward the "domestic life and propriety" expected of Japanese women in mainstream society.
In an article in Japan Forum, Rachel DiNitto argued that expecting the subcultural elements of the book to express resistance actually reflects a Western literary bias. Instead, she proposed that Kanehara's novel expresses resistance through Lui's experience of her own physical body in a society emphasizing commodification and virtuality. Reuben Welsh offered a similar interpretation, pointing to a specific episode in the book in which Lui crushes and eats the teeth that Ama gave to her as an "act of osmosis" that "can be taken as an example of finding something lasting and valuable amidst the transient commodity culture".
A film adaptation of Snakes and Earrings, directed by Yukio Ninagawa and starring Yuriko Yoshitaka, Kengo Kora, and Arata Iura, began shooting in November 2007. Ninagawa changed the location of the story to Shibuya from its original Shinjuku in order to film a panoramic opening scene at Shibuya Crossing that he claimed was inspired by the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo. He also required lead actress Yoshitaka to perform nude in several scenes as a condition of taking the role. Yoshitaka was involved in a serious car accident while the film was in production, spending several days in intensive care before returning to the set. Most of the tattoos and piercings in the film, including Lui's tongue piercing, were achieved through makeup and computer-generated effects. Kanehara wrote original lyrics for the film's theme song, which was performed by Chara.
Release and reception
The R-15 film was released in Japan in September 2008. It ranked 15th at the box office in its opening weekend with approximately US$100,000 in gross receipts, and eventually grossed approximately US$510,000 in domestic theatrical release. Yoshitaka received a Best Newcomer Award at the 32nd Japan Academy Prize ceremony for her performance, as well as a Best Newcomer Prize at the 51st Blue Ribbon Awards and a Best Newcomer prize at the Japanese Movie Critics Awards.
The film was also shown internationally at film festivals, including the 2008 Pusan Film Festival and the 2009 New York Asian Film Festival. Writing for Variety, Russell Edwards panned the film, criticizing the "timid helming" and the male leads who "posture almost comically", while calling Yoshitaka an "alluring actress" who nevertheless "lacks the chops to carry the role". Charles Webb, writing for Screen Anarchy, also gave the film a negative review, calling it "the worst kind of art film that is unable to stimulate given its vacuous characters and inane situations".
- 뱀에게피어싱 (in Korean). Translated by Chong Yu-Ri. Munhak Tongne. 2004. ISBN 9788982818547.
- Serpientes y piercings (in Spanish). Translated by Makiko Tsujimoto. Emecé Editores. 2005. ISBN 9788495908353.
- Serpenti e piercing (in Italian). Translated by Alessandro Clementi. Fazi. 2005. ISBN 9788881126200.
- Snakes and Earrings. Translated by David Karashima. Dutton. 2005. ISBN 9780525948896.
- 蛇信舆舌環 (in Chinese). Translated by Xiao Shimei. Jiānduān chūbǎn gǔfèn yǒuxiàn gōngsī. 2005. ISBN 9789571029696.
- Serps i pírcings (in Catalan). Translated by Albert Mas-Griera. Columna. 2005. ISBN 9788466406512.
- Slanger & piercinger (in Danish). Translated by Sara Koch. Hr. Ferdinand. 2006. ISBN 9788791746130.
- Hadi a náušnice (in Czech). Translated by Jan Levora. Argo. 2006. ISBN 9788072037902.
- Slangen & piercings (in Dutch). Translated by Paul Wijsman. Prometheus. 2006. ISBN 9789044607567.
- Tokyo love (in German). Translated by Sabine Mangold. List. 2006. ISBN 9783471795385.
- Η γλώσσα του φιδιού (in Greek). Translated by Giannis Spandonis. Oceanida. 2006. ISBN 9789604104147.
- Języki i kolczyki (in Polish). Translated by Witold Nowakowski. Albatros A. Kuryłowicz. 2007. ISBN 9788373593350.
- Pirszinget a kígyónak (in Hungarian). Translated by Mónika Nagy. Magvető. 2007. ISBN 9789631425567.
- Cobras e piercings (in Polish). Translated by Jefferson José Teixeira. Geração. 2007. ISBN 9788560302123.
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