Not to be confused with his namesake Haruki Murakami, Ryu is a heralded Japanese cult novelist known for his strange, disturbing tales of violence and insanity, all set to a backdrop of late-night, neon-tinted Tokyo. Think of a Japanese David Lynch. ‘In The Miso Soup’ is perhaps Ryu’s most famous offering, but this short novel is my favourite of his, a twisted brief encounter story about penetration, submission, and blood. Lots of blood.
The construction is effective – the first few chapters introduce Kawashima, outwardly a normal working gent, but inwardly, a man who harbours an intrusive erotic desire to stab a female with an ice pick. So pervading is this fantasy that Kawashima decides he must follow through. So begins the construction of a plan, whereby he deceives his wife, acquires the necessary weapons, sets up in a hotel, and identifies an escort agency to find his target.
The pacing is clever. The sick reality of Kawashima’s plan is normalised by Ryu, so that, although repulsed, the reader is nonetheless immersed in this tale. It is effective noir: our protagonist is disturbed, unapologetic, and holds a dangerous obsession with killing. The fact that this came out a couple of years after ‘Basic Instinct’, known to have its own notorious ice pick deaths, is no coincidence – indeed, that film is referenced early on by Kawashima as one of his favourites. Oh dear. We know this will end badly.
But what lifts the book from standard psycho slasher fare into new realms of quality sado-weirdness is the introduction of female lead, Chiaki. Here, we have an equally unbalanced counterpart to Kawashimi, a self-harming call girl who’s defence from her past seems to be a dissociative tendency to detach from reality, slip into a fugue, and then slice up her thighs with a razor.
When Kawashima unwittingly solicits her to be his murder victim, we know problems lie ahead …enter knives, sliced Achilles heels, hospitals, sleeping pills, sex, paranoia, fantasy, and a bizarre trip into the minds of two equally deranged protagonists. The bulk of the book has the reader head-hopping between them and builds to a suitably unhinged climax which I better not spoil.
This could be subjugated by many as sex-violence, nothing else, the book version of a video nasty, and I get why – but I believe this would be missing the point of ‘Piercing’, and would overlook why I particularly like it. For there is also quite an affective – even moving – story here; if you look closer, bypassing the frenetic trippiness, I think you will find a convincing tale about the long-standing impact that childhood trauma can have on the mind. For both Kawashima and Chiaki share a history of abuse in their respective adolescences, perpetrated by figures of trust. In this sense, ‘Piercing’ is a relevant story about a man and woman with parallel lives, who intersect for a brief connection neither can harness. Thus, they need the razors and ice picks.
Actually, there’s very little real violence in ‘Piercing’, and nobody really dies; however, the fantasy scenes are so visceral and well done that one cannot help getting caught up in the juddering, surreal energy. For example, here’s a quote from the penultimate chapter, and this is fairly tame:
‘He looked down. It was as if his own unconscious had become visible to him in the form of a rising tide. The waves lapped at his feet, then his ankles, his shins, his knees. A tide of swamp-water, sluggishly awash with vomit and flotsam: long-discarded items, all torn, tattered, rusting, bent, scorched, melted, crushed, cracked, oxidised, rotting fermenting, festering with bacteria and crammed with every imaginable horror…’
You get the idea. Overwritten? Quite possibly. Mainstream? Definitely not. But in terms of layering, writing that makes macabre dreamscapes seem all too real, this is pretty high up there in my view. In lesser hands, it would’ve been shoddy and laughable, but Ryu has that strange knack of making the incredible seem credible and appallingly believable.
‘Piercing’ is definitely in the realms of noir, with an existential twist that I like – I think we’re invited to ask some unpleasant questions about violence and sexuality, and how the two overlap. As with most noir, setting is a silent character, and ‘Piercing’ is no exception. Here, Tokyo is seen as a sordid, unforgiving place, where maniacs mingle amidst the conformity and anonymity often associated with the culture.
There’s a movie of ‘Piercing’ I still haven’t seen that came out earlier this year, and which got pretty good reviews. God knows how they managed to adapt something as strange as this? And how the heck did it not get banned for indecency?!?