Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings begins as the young and beautiful “Barbie Girl” Lui finds herself mesmerized by the split, snakelike tongue of a young man named Ama. Although Lui is never quite certain whether it is Ama or his enviable tongue that attracts her, she immediately enters into a sexual relationship with him. The next day Ama takes Lui to a tattoo parlor called Desire, owned and operated by Ama’s friend Shiba-san, who will begin the piercing process that will culminate in a tongue just like her lover Ama’s. The reasons for Lui’s immediate partnering with Ama, as well as the reasons for her fascination with acquiring a snakelike tongue, remain ambiguous. Although Lui’s motivations with regard to a number of situations will, to some extent, remain mysterious, such questions of meaning and motivation are at the core of this novel.
One can interpret Lui’s wish for a forked tongue as part of a desire to feel acute pain, arising from her conviction that there is nothing for her in which to believe and nothing for her to feel. Often detached from her emotions, Lui experiences a desire to have her tongue pierced which can be viewed as an effort to secure at least the reality of her own body, and the pain it feels, in a world empty of any reliable meaning. The pointlessness of her life throughout the story seems to be related to her status as a rootless young woman and part-time “freeter” in the Japanese economy. Her adoption of a counterculture lifestyle, however, leaves her adrift. Despite her efforts to awaken her flesh through the use of pain, she feels strangely disembodied.
Her drinking binges, self-starvation, and peculiar love affairs, along with her obsessional interest in body piercing, seem to amount to nothing of any particular significance. She finds it difficult to attach any actual meaning or recognizable human motive to anything she does. The transgressive aspects of her behavior do suggest, however, that she is determined to identify herself as a nonconformist, in flight from mainstream Japanese society, which would regard her alteration of her body as a violation of the tradition of filial piety. Even as the underworld of tattoos and piercing have a deviance Lui might read as liberating, this world at the same time seems little more than an aspect of the modern consumer industry. Her pursuit of such countercultural symbols acquires some of the banality associated with modern recreational shopping.
After Ama introduces Lui to Shiba-san, she begins a clandestine sadomasochistic sexual relationship with him, evidently motivated by little more than a desire to trade sex for Shiba’s tattoo and piercing services. Like the tongue-piercing, however, sex with Shiba involves levels of pain that shock her out of her apathy. Although Shiba is far more abusive as a sexual partner than Ama, both men have violent tendencies. When a local gangster makes a pass at Lui on one of the dense, neon-lit streets of the Shinjuku district, Ama loses control and beats the gangster to a bloody pulp, pulling out two of the man’s teeth to give to Lui. Lui begins to feel that Ama could one day kill her as well. Even though she is unsure of her feelings for him, she decides to protect him from the possibility of arrest for this crime by making sure he changes his appearance.
Although Ama is increasingly devoted to her and emotionally dependent on her, it is clear their relationship does not awaken any similar feelings in Lui, who instead begins a depressive descent into alcoholism and anorexia, all the while increasing the size of the hole in her tongue by inserting larger studs. Her inability to connect emotionally with Ama is demonstrated in her continued encounters with Shiba, in secret, for brutal sex. Attracted to his violence, Lui also desires the cosmetic alterations of her body Shiba can provide. In addition to Lui’s pierced tongue, Shiba creates an elaborate tattoo on her back that joins the mythical figure of a dragon with that of a kirin, or unicorn. Significantly, Lui asks that the dragon and the kirin both be made eyeless because of a superstitious belief that sightlessness will keep these treasured tattoos from escaping her skin. This reminds the reader that, rather than her...
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