Grotesque, a crime novel written by Japanese author Natsuo Kirino, uncovers the diary behind the death of a prepossessing prostitute, Yuriko. The novel begins with the autobiography of Yuriko’s sister, whose name is deliberately kept anonymous throughout the entire story. Her narrative gradually reveals the apathetic relationship between the sisters, as she admits: “(…) I also do not care about finding out the truth about her death.” Her hostility towards Yuriko stems from her inferiority complex about appearance when constantly being compared with her gorgeous sister during childhood.
Since her birth, Yuriko has appeared as God’s own creation, standing out among any crowd that has the privilege of surrounding her. Yet, that idiosyncratic beauty embraces an unusually distorted soul. Unlike any unconfident Disney princess, Yuriko is fully aware of her superior appearance. Precocious realization of her gifted advantage – beauty – has fashioned a child with the capability to arouse the “Lolita” blind lust in men. Yuriko’s “career” of riding the flagpole initiated when she was only 12 years old, at her complete will and satisfaction. As the story progresses, Yuriko is murdered after appeasing the sexual appetite flowing in her veins. Coincidentally, the man who killed her is also charged with the death of Kazue Sato – an ambitious classmate of both Yuriko sisters at Q. gifted high school. Now Yuriko is dead, her sister becomes the legal guardian for her son. The novel ends with Yuriko’s sister, a 40-year-old virgin, standing under a street lamp at midnight, craving for “the clutch from a man” for the first time in her life.
Behind the tragic fate of female characters and memorable description of humans’ salacious desire, Natsuo Kirino delivers an in-depth message on modern feminist movement.
The protagonists in Grotesque can somehow be seen to represent typical feminist ideals: Yuriko embodies the rise of third-wave feminism, advocating for women’s utmost liberty to pursue their beliefs, even if their values contradict past movements by objectifying women as men’s possession. On the other hand, Yuriko’s sister is a second-wave feminist who strongly believes in the significance of women’s independent status, which leads to her opposing stance against prostitution. She even goes so far as to refuse any intimacy at the position “beneath” men. Although their mutual high school friend, Kazue, does not directly express her personal viewpoints, the character is built around the ideal model of modern feminists: ambitious, well-educated, and hard-working.
Despite their differences, the main characters suffer almost similar endings: they are forced to submit to male dominance in various forms.
Yuriko takes advantage of her mesmerizing charm to seduce men for materialistic purpose, but when old age arrives and her beauty is fading, she becomes nothing more than a depreciated goods.
Kazue leads a double life. Her white-collar job and social status establishes her as a role model for modern women, but her true-self only comes out when Kazue wears a nubile skirts and stands in a wintry street at night. She views satisfying men’s sexual desire as a means to assert her femininity and attractiveness based on social standards. Even her brilliant academic achievements cannot dispel the inferior perception of self-worth, which has penetrated in her mind since high school. From Kazue’s eyes, the value of a woman is determined by her appeal to men. As a matter of fact, excellent student awards can never attract as many boys as a two-second wink from Yuriko.
Yuriko’s older sister, who spend her entire life living under her sister’s shadow, tries to conceal her insecurities by separating herself from men (or even the whole world) and labelling that lifestyle as rational. She looks at life through the most negative lens, she only sees the ugly parts in humans. She avoids nearly every social interaction, not even bothers to tell her name and vice versa, no one recalls her name. But in the front of her unimaginably beautiful nephew, she is willing to work as a prostitute – a job she used to detest – in order to “save money for the future.” After struggling to establish the independent role of women, the anonymous lady gives up her belief, ironically because of a young man, and allows the objectification of women to continue.
The endings of three characters partially depict the dark side of feminist movement, which can hardly be acknowledged in today’s media. The submission of female characters to invisible suppressors implicitly confirms the immaturity and lack of cooperation among feminist movements. Three women suffer under the same regime but instead of uniting for a common cause, they choose to let personal enmity and jealousy prevail. Why does pop culture associate genuinely intimate comradeship with “brotherhood” but fake smiles and back stabs with “sisterhood”? Can frail internal structures, and isolated branches divided by ideology gather enough power to change social prejudices?
Behind the exploration of dark aspects within women, Grotesque left us pondering over the misogyny that takes a deep root, even in modern society…
Phuong Mai Nguyen is a student, movie critic, cartoon artist and part-time drummer from Hanoi, Vietnam