Ugly Bodies

The Beauty of Ambivalent Distortions in Kanehara Hitomi’s Hebi ni piasu and Charlotte Roche’s Feuchtgebiete

I. Bodily Considerations: An Introduction

In a context in which “femininity is spectacle” (Jeremiah, 2018: 90), one might wonder what is to be found backstage. In her insisting on the difficult project of female embodiment, Jeremiah reveals a trend in women’s writing that intends to “disturb the surface of contemporary norms” (ibid.: 89). This remark, while made in the context of German writing, could also be applied to Japanese modern literature, which impresses by the great variety of female authors working on bodies. Because it wishes to emphasize current discourses on bodies, this paper will focus on two contemporary bestsellers1: one by the Japanese Kanehara Hitomi2 and the other by the German Charlotte Roche.

Kanehara’s Hebi ni piasu [Snakes and Earrings] (2003) tells the story of Lui, a 19-year-old masochistic woman, her relationships with the punk Ama and the sadistic tattoo artist Shiba, her body modifications involving tattoos and split tongues, as well as her eating disorders linked to alcoholism. While developing a triangular relationship among the characters, one that is tainted with death, Kanehara describes Lui’s bodily navigation through, and negotiation with, the contradictory messages of the society concerning ideals of beauty and taboos around ugliness. Roche’s Feuchtgebiete [Wetlands] (2008) draws the portrait of Helen, an 18-year-old woman torn apart by her parents’ divorce and a traumatic, silenced event. Building the story around a self-inflicted anal injury that Helen incurs while shaving, and intensely playing with disgust, Roche displays her protagonist’s struggles to overcome the social pressures concerning hygiene, sexuality, and identity, thereby questioning, in a way that is similar to Kanehara’s, the society’s ugly-beautiful paradigm.

Strikingly, what is considered to be disgusting in each country becomes here a way of life that is both unstable and paradoxical, for the protagonists continue to reach for normative ideals. How can the constant movement between ugliness and beauty be fruitful? What sort of political claim is possible? How should one rethink the ugliness-beauty binarism? In taking these two novels as case studies, this paper aims to analyze, by way of close reading, how ugly bodies can advocate for the beauty of ambivalent distortions. It will juxtapose Kanehara’s novel with Roche’s, so as to bridge the divide between literary traditions that nonetheless hold similar attitudes to bodies and their normalization within the context of a world affected by globalization. That is not to say that these novels are interchangeable; rather, by acknowledging their specificity, this paper wants to participate in a comparative literary analysis that knows no pre-determined borders. In placing bodies at the center of a questioning, a rethinking about binarism/s, it will first focus on the distortion of bodies with respect to norms, then turn to the embellishment of this distortion, thus questioning the distortion’s efficacy, and finally link the ambivalence of the ugly-beautiful paradigm with the idea of personal depression and social decline.

II. Distorting Bodies: Beautiful Ugliness

In beginning with scenes that disrupt the notion of beauty as being synonymous with normality, both Kanehara and Roche present us with distortions: bodies that do not respond to stereotypical representations. While Hebi ni piasu’s first page describes the main character’s encounter with a “forked tongue,” that is, “the tongue of a snake or lizard” (Kanehara, 2005: 1; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 5), Feuchtgebiete starts with the protagonist’s hemorrhoids that are “very unladylike,” for “[a]fter all, only grandfathers get [them]” (Roche, 2009: 1; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 8). The distortions portray body modifications, which are either chosen or adapted to, and which refigure bodies away from ideals. What is not normal and therefore ugly undergoes a transformation: the forked tongue of Ama provokes Lui’s fascination and decision to experience the same modification (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 5-6); the hemorrhoids become part of Helen’s bodily empowerment, especially during anal sex (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 9). This is not to say that these transformations would be a mere bodily metamorphosis, for that would make this transformation superficial only; rather they embody a potential for subverting the preconceived definitions of beauty by rendering ugly beautiful in an attempt to rationalize ugliness.

Initially, it is on the ugliness of norms of beauty that Kanehara and Roche seem to focus. In societies in which women’s bodies are meant to be beautiful according to ideals proclaimed by a male or marketing viewpoints (Buhr, 2007: 129; Hansen, 2011: 54-55, 64-65), Lui’s and Helen’s acts appear to counter these expectations in order to propose a re-appropriation of their bodies: by way of piercing and tattooing for Lui and by way of renaming and sterilizing for Helen.

Hebi ni piasu depicts in medias res the role of piercings, thereby placing body modifications at the center of the novel, so as to insist on a refusal of norms. Lui’s encounter with Ama carries her transformation further and intensifies her “addict[ion] to stretching,” which she developed before meeting him (Kanehara, 2005: 3; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 6). In expanding the holes in her ears, the protagonist deforms the kawaii-myth that Japanese society imposes especially on girls and young women (Gebhardt, 2007: 694). Undergoing the process of acquiring a forked tongue herself, Lui seems to be whispering in one’s ears how that kawaii-myth, which seeks for eternally young, beautiful, accessible women, is condemned to a dissociation. This “tongue of a snake or lizard” (Kanehara, 2005: 1; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 5) symbolizes here a splitting of the self, as the protagonist intends to affirm an identity that is constantly shifting. Not only does she not “conform” to the feminine ideal, but she also subverts “uniform codes” of the society (King, 2012: 209), which define the metamorphosing identity as ugly. Stamped as gyaru3 (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: e.g., 8, 22, 24, 50, 60), which is an identity that eschews the stereotypical body of the Japanese woman, she ignores this label as well while endeavoring to merge with a punk identity by entering the world of tattooing. Interestingly, this body modification, which is more and more ‘fashionable,’ echoes the destruction of the kawaii-myth already begun with the piercings. Inasmuch as Lui’s tattooing stands “in conflict with the traditional Confucian belief about filial piety” and respect of “the body inherited from [the] parents” (DiNitto, 2011: 462), tattooing, together with piercing, provokes a doubling effect: rejecting the kawaii-myth, that is, “the cultural stereotype of ‘cuteness’” (ibid.: 463), as well as the gyaru-stereotype. Moreover, the protagonist’s choice of tattoo does not correspond to the traditional representation of femininity (Holloway, 2011: 33): she does not want “the cutesy stuff” (Kanehara, 2005: 19; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 22), but supports the masculine tradition of irezumi4 while choosing “typically masculine emblems” (Ikoma, 2005: 33), that is, a kirin5 and a dragon, to be tattooed on her back. While this choice could suggest a gender-crossing, it also disrupts the idea of beauty in a Japanese woman. Holloway thus rightly states that “Lin finds that tattoos and large piercings offer an escape from the presuppositions and labels of those around her” (2011: 32). By way of inversion, it is not the fact of being cute – kawaii – that is beautiful, but the act of being ugly – gyaru and then punk, for the protagonist willingly modifies her body in ways contrary to feminine ideals.

Similarly, Feuchtgebiete straightforwardly portrays a questioning of the female body. In a transformation already implied by her association of hemorrhoids with old men, the gender trait of Helen’s body disturbs gender expectations by turning ugly into beautiful. While the hemorrhoids receive the sweet name of “cauliflower” (Roche, 2009: 2; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 8) and are used for “‘test[ing]’ new lovers by forcing them to physically negotiate her haemorrhoids” (Spiers, 2015: 154), especially during anal sex, they also allegorize an uglinization of beauty from which seems to emerge a re-appropriation of one’s body. Like a snout that would delightfully sniff the groin area of the body, the protagonist willingly takes aim at eating herself as a way of reasserting control over her body and of subverting norms of beauty. Her name reveals an ironical association with food: the first name Helen, which recalls the mythological and legendary figure Helen of Troy who was believed to have been the most beautiful woman in the world, stands in contrast to the last name Memel, which is orthographically close to the dialectal verb ‘memmeln,’ that is ‘nibble.’ While Jones attributes the metaphorical language of food to the critical “representation[] of the female body as an object for sexual consumption, by also manipulating the disgusting potential of unwanted oral incorporation” (2013: 256; emphasis in the original), one could also point to the use of food as the kneading of a body away from norms. This renaming of disgusting anal protrusions echoes the renaming of other repelling parts of the lower body that such names as ‘Schamlippen’ (literally meaning ‘labia of shame’; Eng.: labia) frames as a taboo. By describing her clitoris as “snail tail,” her inner labia as “dewlaps,” and her outer labia as “ladyfingers” (Roche, 2009: 16-17; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 22)6, the main character constructs “original neologisms,” which portray a “meticulous representation of anatomical details of the vulva” (Moritz, 2015: 209; my translation), and play with words from a normative imaginary around femaleness. Desiring to “gain agency through linguistic control of her body” (Spiers, 2015: 156), she thwarts linguistic norms concerning women’s bodies. Ironically reinforcing the empowering uglinization of beauty, Roche thus proposes a beautification of ugliness through this renaming. The author even goes as far as to depict Helen’s sterilization. Albeit the protagonist claims to want children, she also resolutely intends to stop the “recurring pattern in [her] family”: all firstborn women are “neurotic, deranged, and depressed” (Roche, 2009: 35-36; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 40). At first glance, this decision could allude to a stereotypical representation of the woman as hysteric; however, it pertains rather to a re-appropriation of hysteria through the “br[eaking] of the cycle” (ibid.): given that “the word derives from the Greek word for uterus, hystera, which derives in turn from the Sanskrit word for stomach or belly” (Micale, 2019: 19), one is again facing this kneading of a body away from social expectations and stereotypes that Helen’s female ascendants symbolize. This renaming and sterilization then disinfect the body by distorting ideals of feminine beauty.

A reading of Hebi ni piasu and Feuchtgebiete could secondarily advocate for a rationalization of ugliness. Rationalization is here synonymous with normalization: by acting ugly, the protagonists turn their world upside-down and this very act enables them to construct a bubble outside of the norms of beauty by redefining this concept on their terms. It is as if the rest of the world, too unpleasantly beautiful, would not matter anymore. Particularly through their sexuality, the protagonists approach their bodies in a way that is, for them, normal. While Kanehara makes use of Lui’s sexual partners to rationalize ugliness in space and time, Roche offers a scientific perspective on Helen’s body in order to normalize disgust.

With her body modifications, Lui appears as the epitome of the bad girl. According to Miller and Bardsley, ‘bad girl’ functions as a term re-appropriated by women to counter-attack the allegation of a “sexist and male-dominated society” (2005: 1). Bad girls are thus “women who defy patriarchies, whether they are interpreted as liberatory models or serious malefactors, provoke intense concern, censure, and public debate. Visibly transgressive, they direct attention to the borders of propriety even as they threaten to alter them” (ibid.). One can observe this attitude in Lui’s way of inverting normality with strangeness: in so doing, Kanehara proposes another othering. As the protagonist is out with Ama and Shiba, both heavily pierced and tattooed, both clothed and coiffed in a very visible way – a ‘look’ which Lui is acquiring in the novel, “[s]trangers moved out of [their] way as the three of [them] walked along the street” (Kanehara, 2005: 60; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 60). Peculiarly, they form a sort of community that excludes the others, who become ‘strangers.’ Lui’s “impetus of separating [herself] from the conformist, normal people” (Gebhardt, 2007: 689; my translation) rationalizes ugliness in such a way that the disturbance becomes part of her world. Further, being that Ama and Shiba are her sexual partners as well, one could also point out that this spatial conquest on the street echoes a more abstract victory on the level of sexuality that refers to time. In fact, while pursuing a relationship with Ama, the protagonist also gets involved in sadomasochist sexual activity with Shiba. This parallelism disrupts the monogamy praised by the Japanese society with the ideology of ryōsai kenbo. Although this notion was proclaimed by the government as the main goal for women at the end of the 19th century and promulgated again during the Second World War (Fujimura-Fanselow, 1991: 345), it still today “continues […] to be manipulated and exploited for various purposes by Japan’s conservative political establishment” (ibid.: 347). Literally meaning ‘good wife, wise mother,’ “[this] doctrine […] made a virtue of submission by women while also erasing sexual identity from the role of ‘wife.’” (King, 2012: 16) This idealized maternal instinct is transformed into a refusal of the simple reproductive function of women through Lui’s sexual activity with multiple partners that also underscores non-conventional practices.7 The feeling of nausea that accounts for Lui’s strong disgust for children and family (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 45) suggests a disruption of time: not only can one here again notice the inversion of the ugly-beautiful paradigm in the play around emancipated sexuality vs. reproductive sexuality, but one also faces the deformation of women’s linear lifetime as conceived by the Japanese male-dominated society in order to distort the political and governmentalized body.

This ugly personality and behavior allude to a critique of normativity that finds its twin in Roche’s novel. It is not so much in depicting a bad girl that Feuchtgebiete proposes a rationalization of ugliness; rather, the narrative portrays a scientific approach to disgust that plays with the notion of sterilization of women’s bodies. As Jeremiah rightly states, “[f]rom the outset, then, the novel highlights the discrepancy between cultural imaginings of female corporeality and the reality as Helen lives it” (2018: 68). This sterilization, which can be understood as the highly hygienic pressure on women with regard to make-up, hair removal, and so on, echoes Helen’s sterilization that “involves a challenge to idealizations of maternity” (ibid.: 69), which is reinforced by her countless partners. In a context of Demografiedebatten, that is, discussions on German demography since the mid-90s, in which politics tends to put the blame on childless women (Haaf, Klingner, Streidl, 2009 [2008]: 154) and to praise the idealized image of mother as being a complete woman (ibid.: 161), the protagonist’s act not only mocks this conservative association and masculinist control over women’s bodies, but also advocates for a rationalization of ugliness that one cannot consider as belonging to the normative world. The extreme and disparate reactions to Roche’s novel substantiate the fact that Helen’s appeal for normative disgust through an inverting of the ugly-beautiful paradigm still disturbs, as if women could write about sexuality, but “not about body fluids and hygiene in this form, in this way” (Carbeta, 2012: 155; my translation). In fact, the main character eats her own bodily emissions (Roche, 2013 [2008]: e.g., 51, 79, 82, 120), uses her vaginal secretion as perfume (ibid.: 19-20), drinks her vomit (ibid.: 63), exchanges used tampons with friends (ibid.: 114). Helen “presents her attitude – to herself – as one of purely scientific curiosity,” and this approach to the protagonist’s body enables Jones to elaborate on this rationalization of ugliness through a normalization of disgust (2013: 254), disrupting the clean, proper image of, and overperforming the dirty, crude image of women. Interestingly, she even fouls the hospital’s sterilized environment by depositing her periods’ fluids with hygienic articles in her bedroom (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 162-163) and smearing these same fluids in the hospital’s elevator (ibid.: 140). In making the ugly normal, Roche seems to invert the rational, clean environment of hospital with the emotional – perhaps even hysteric, disgusting world of Helen. Blurring the borders of the beautiful world with hers, the protagonist forces this confrontation between stereotypes about body fluids and her “enjoyment of the transgression of learned boundaries” (Jones, 2013: 253).

Not only do Feuchtgebiete and Hebi ni piasu present us with extreme distortions that display the ugliness of beauty as much as the beauty of ugliness, they also rationalize the non-conventional. In so doing, both novels put bodies at the center. However, as Spiers rightly suggests, “the question remains whether highly individual performances such as Helen’s in fact alter anything for women in the wider social field” (2015: 156). Considering Lui’s behavior from this viewpoint, one might wonder as to the existence of a hidden barrier which neither Helen nor Lui can totally surmount and which makes the distortion itself appear distorted.

III. Embellishing Bodies: Distorted Distortions

As they progress through the novels toward an uglinization of their bodies, Lui and Helen also illustrate the difficulty of overcoming norms. As much as they pretend to live outside society’s expectations, they are drawn back in again and again by these same expectations. In fact, Hebi ni piasu and Feuchtgebiete depict the other side of their protagonists’ assumed victory over norms as well. While Lui uses her body to get piercings and tattoos (Holloway, 2011: 33) and to earn money through her work as hostess “because it [is] just so easy” (Kanehara, 2005: 52; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 53), Helen attempts to turn her injury into the means by which “[her parents] see each other and, years after separating, fall head over heels in love again” (Roche, 2009: 97; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 98). She also ends up in a heterosexual relationship. The bodies that are refigured to demonstrate the ugliness of beauty, are embellished: the transformation comes back to where it begins. Both Kanehara and Roche address the persistent vitality of norms that inhabit their protagonists’ lives and that encourage Lui and Helen to fantasize about an ideal of beauty, thereby questioning this very distortion of beauty.

First, as if through a boomerang effect, norms reappear in the novels. It is not suggested here that the protagonists erased these norms; rather one could argue that norms were and still are part of the societies in which Lui and Helen navigate. The bodies of beauty normativity gain in stature again, girdling the main characters’ bodies.

What Lui wants to draw as disgusting and ugly, possesses a strength that seems to thwart her opposition. While she personalizes – one could even say: customizes – herself in negating the kawaii-myth, she responds, at the same time, to its pressure. Thus, trying to switch to a punk identity in getting piercings and tattoos, the protagonist still embodies the gyaru-style. Given that her “damn long [nails]” (Kanehara, 2005: 41; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 43) and “blonde hair” (Kanehara, 2005: 53; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 53) might be ‘traces’ of her gyaru-period, one might wonder as to the reason behind the incomplete change in her appearance. Similarly, the way she acts in public in the company of Ama and Shiba recalls again the label: as Ama claims, “[a] gangster, a punk and a [gyaru]. Together we’re a real fucked-up combination” (Kanehara, 2005: 61; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 60). This strange assemblage, which comprises a sort of community, points to a rejection of the society in general as well as to Lui’s attempt to fit in with this albeit marginalized community. Inasmuch as this constant transformation of identity away from feminine ideals fails to totally overcome the norms, it further underscores an embellishment of her distorted body. It comes as no surprise to see Lui “playing the part of a pleasant, polite Japanese girl” while working for a companion company (Kanehara, 2005: 56; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 56), thereby endorsing the idealized image of Japanese femininity, that is, embodying the kawaii-myth. Not only does “Lui identif[y] herself as ‘Japanese’ only when she is working her temp job as a hostess at business parties” (DiNitto, 2011: 463), she also enters the game of playing the sexually provocative woman in order to get money, so as to stop, for a while, “living off Ama’s money” (Kanehara, 2005: 52; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 53), that is, to stop being the woman who needs a man that provides for her. Although she strives to part with this identity of a kawaii Japanese, she is remembered, in what seems to be a vicious circle, to be a woman. Therefore, one is facing a regression, as the norms return stronger: the protagonist reluctantly has to “play[] the part of [some character] just for the occasion” (Kanehara, 2005: 56; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 56) because she is “fortunate to have been born with a face people like[]” (Kanehara, 2005: 52; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 53). Going as far as to state that her body modifications are based on a sexual exchange only, for one tattooing session costs her “one fuck” (Kanehara, 2005: 34; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 36), Holloway compellingly interprets Lui’s fate as being “expected to be […] a particular woman who is often considered the ultimate expression of femininity” (2011: 33). Distorting the distortion of her body, Lui presents us with an ugliness that becomes again a normative beauty.

The reluctance that the protagonist of Hebi ni piasu feels while acknowledging her need to be this perfect Japanese woman, is shared by the main character of Feuchtgebiete. Both her renaming and sterilization are contradicted by the presence of beauty marketing that pertains to beauty ideals, as well as by her imaginary family construction. While Helen regains a certain power over her own body with her linguistic play, she conforms to the expectations that women be perfectly presentable. She justifies the act of shaving every hair of her body as an erotic play with one of her lovers (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 49-56), yet she finds herself reluctantly continuing this practice because growing hair “always starts to itch worse and worse” (Roche, 2009: 54; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 57), implying a certain binarism: “[e]ither totally shaved or hairy” (ibid.). The embellishment of her body that pertains to a normative injunction on beauty and sexuality nuances the distortion that emerges from the renaming of both her hemorrhoids and genital parts. Juxtaposing the act of shaving with the anal wound, which Helen receives while shaving, Baer compellingly argues that the Venus razor, guilty of the wounds – the wounds being both Helen’s anal accident and conflictual posture toward shaving – “plays a double-edged function […]: the citation of Gilette’s [sic] ubiquitous global marketing slogan humorously and ironically makes visible the power of the beauty industry in the production of contemporary femininities, but Helen’s razor-inflicted injury simultaneously highlights that industry’s damaging corporeal effects” (2015: 168-169). Moreover, the renaming of her genital parts undergoes the same distorted distortion, as Helen “always put[s] makeup on the inside of [her] pussy when [she] [has] a date to fuck” (Roche, 2009: 125; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 124). It is as if the protagonist could not have sexual intercourse anymore without having a neat and tidy appearance. Together with the shaving, this embellishment “creates a paradoxical character allegedly intended to represent her ‘brave, freed alter-ego’, but who simultaneously reacts to social pressure” (Spiers, 2015: 154). The close intertwining of shaving and sexuality also questions Helen’s sterilization: she might not be able to reproduce, yet she reproduces norms – bodily. It comes then as no surprise to see the protagonist’s avocado family. In an attempt to grow avocados, she takes care of the plants, even at the hospital (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 96). This displaced maternal instinct is further enhanced by her using the pit as “[her] organic dildo” to masturbate and thereby getting the closest she can “to giving birth” (Roche, 2009: 35; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 39-40). The tension resulting from “the desire for motherhood and her decision against procreation” (Smith-Prei, Stehle, 2016: 142) echoes the pressure of norms that Helen strives to avoid. The ugly still becomes beautiful, yet this beauty also responds in an ironic way to social expectations.

Second, at the same time that Lui and Helen attest to a rationalization of ugliness that aspires to overcome norms of beauty, in particular those associated with sexuality, they also fantasize about beauty in an implicit way. Inasmuch as “disgust is deeply ambivalent, involving desire for, or an attraction towards, the very objects that are felt to be repellent” (Ahmed, 2014 [2004]: 84), this ugly feeling echoes the return of the norms. It is not the purpose of this paper to elaborate on the affect of disgust as defined by Ahmed; yet the scholar does make an important point in acknowledging the necessity of disgust, which, as she says, “threaten[s] in order to […] maintain[]” (ibid.: 87). Thus, Hebi ni piasu and Feuchtgebiete shed light on “the process of ‘maintenance-through-transgression’” (ibid.), which one can read here as a distortion of distorted bodies. That which is repelling and described as ugly is that which the protagonists seek: in the end though, Lui and Helen perpetuate the normative institution of the heterosexual woman.

Disrupting the ideology of ryōsai kenbo, Kanehara also underpins her protagonist’s reliance on it. Her non-monogamy loses its prestige of resistance once one looks more closely at her relationship both with Ama and Shiba. If one considers Lui’s sexual dissatisfaction with Ama, one may recognize the extent to which her behavior toward this gangster holds on to the ‘good wife, wise mother’ paradigm. In fact, Ama’s “incompetence” of ejaculating on her stomach instead of on her crotch, and breaking each time her “post-coital” feeling, enrages Lui so much that she scolds Ama for it (Kanehara, 2005: 16; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 19). The mothering that can be read from this reaction, is further confirmed by the “kind of pre- and post-coital ritual” (Kanehara, 2005: 18; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 21) of Lui having her nipples sucked by Ama: the protagonist even feels “a hint of a maternal instinct” (ibid.) and her sexual partner “asks [her] for something maternal” (Miura, 2005: 11; my translation). A sort of pseudo-sexual fantasy around this intimacy questions the rationalization of ugliness by putting the normative beauty of the family institution at the center again. This “mother-child-relationship” (ibid.; my translation) refers to the good mother taking care of the children. In addition, the protagonist’s behavior toward Ama could allude to the wife caring for her husband: while the police are looking for him after he has beaten a man to death (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 25-28), she not only protects him by transforming his appearance in such a way that he has less chance to be recognized (ibid.: 47-48), but also admits her love for him after his death (ibid.: 101). As with her illustrating the notion of ryōsai kenbo in her relationship with Ama, Lui also displays the same embellishment of the distortion in her relationship with Shiba, although focusing there only on the wife part of the ideology. It is as if the protagonist were being pushed to become a woman old enough to marry, thereby expanding her role as mother with Ama to one as wife with Shiba. The tattoo artist asks her twice to marry him (ibid.: 42, 85), even giving her a ring (ibid.: 86). Although “th[is] whole idea seem[s] distant to [her]” (Kanehara, 2005: 90; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 87), the main character nevertheless goes on living with him after Ama’s death – an act that could be interpreted as an implicit fantasizing on the couple institution or as Lui’s incapacity to be alone. Moreover, their sexual intercourse also shifts from sadomasochist play to deeply conventional interaction. Interestingly, it is Lui that refuses Shiba’s sadistic advances (ibid.), as if Kanehara would emphasize the return to normality, which does not correspond anymore to ugliness. Yet this beauty hides an ugly face: like a repeated pattern, Lui also protects Shiba from the police, who have collected evidence that could implicate the tattoo artist in Ama’s death (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 106-107). One stands therefore in front of the protagonist’s conflictual embodiment of the ryōsai kenbo. Although this complex nexus among the characters could imply an incestuous connection, it does not expose, as Miura believes, an Oedipus complex, with Shiba as father, Ama as child, and Lui as mother and wife who lets men refuse to share her sexually as a result of their jealousy (2005: 11). Rather, the multifaceted role that Lui has to play with both men suggests that, in fantasizing about a beauty that is fading, Lui might be more than just the wife and mother.

In a similar manner, Helen also clings to the institution of family, distorting the distortion of her body. As is already implied by her avocado family that enables her to sexually experiment and empower herself while metaphorically giving birth and thus continuing the “German mother myth” (Haaf, Klingner, Streidl, 2009 [2008]: 221; my translation), the topic of family disrupts the non-monogamy and non-heterosexuality of the protagonist. Endorsing the role of an emancipated woman, Helen goes to brothels to encounter women without mentioning her potentially bisexual orientation (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 115). This is not so much a “repudiation [of] [the possibility of lesbianism]” that does not acknowledge a true “sexual desire for women, other than her ‘scientific’ interest in their genitals and bodies” (Scharff, 2011: 271); rather one is confronted with a sort of non-permission of labelling. While Scharff is right to assert that the brothel visits aim to “study pussy” (ibid.), she overlooks the fact that Helen sees only women, that is, she “really feel[s] as if [she is] doing something unbelievably taboo, something [depraved]”8 (Roche, 2009: 116; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 116). The insistence on the breaking of taboos with regard to non-normative sexuality appears problematic, as with Helen’s fetishizing of the black female body (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 115, 123-124), which reveals another face of the ugliness of norms. An easy reading would explain “Helen’s female chauvinism as an attempt to beat patriarchy at its own game” (Jeremiah, 2018: 124). However, this controversial depiction reiterates the protagonist’s problem, that of overcoming internalized images of black bodies, as well as those concerning her own body – norms that pertain to an idealized woman (Haaf, Klingner, Streidl, 2009 [2008]: 51). This conflictual sexuality results in the overwhelming presence of male lovers and one can only ask whether Helen is really seeking the family institution. Throughout the novel one incrementally returns to a normality in which the inversion of the ugly-beautiful paradigm loses its power. The description of the male nurse, Robin, who takes care of Helen, seems to advocate for a love-at-first-sight, thereby repeating the clichéd romance: while the “hypnotic ride” derives from the anesthesia (Roche, 2009: 23; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 29), it could also refer to the beginning of a flirtation, confirmed a few pages later (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 44-45). Not only does Helen think obsessively and sexually about Robin (ibid.: e.g., 72, 148), she begins a relationship with him. This stereotype around the ‘beauty of love’ acts as a norm in a context of Demografiedebatten, in which parenthood is based on heterosexuality (Haaf, Klingner, Streidl, 2009 [2008]: 154-155). The “conventionally romantic twist” (Scharff, 2011: 271) at the end of Feuchtgebiete comes thus as no surprise, for it appears easier to heterosexually share one’s life, than to live alone while bisexually experimenting. Although the protagonist cannot procreate due to her sterilization, she still moves in and on with Robin, metaphorically building a family together with her avocado babies. However, because “[Helen’s] nonnormative bodily and sexual practices throughout the novel ultimately eclipse any straightforward subsumption into a heteronormative framework” (Baer, 2015: 170), one might suspect a certain ambiguity in these distorted distortions of bodies.

Thus, one observes a paradoxical posture that navigates between distortion and embellishment of bodies. Although DiNitto argues for a happy ending, seeing Lui “accept[ing] love and marriage” with Shiba, at the end of Hebi ni piasu (2011: 464), Holloway’s account of a disappointing change in the situation is more compelling, for he considers this ending as an open ending, admitting the protagonist to be “different” (2016: 86-87). These concluding remarks could also apply to Feuchtgebiete, at the end of which Helen has given up on getting her parents back together (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 212), yet moves (on) with Robin (ibid.: 217). This open ending in both novels emphasizes an ambivalence, the two sides of which the first two sections of this paper have revealed. It is the meaning of the paradoxical distortion that the following will address.

IV. Embodying Ambivalence: Societies of Depressions

The dichotomy that exists between semantic and corporeal taboos on the one hand and the expression of ideals with regard to beauty and ugliness on the other, mirrors social attitudes that, for instance, praise women’s free sexuality while promoting their hypersexualization. Both Hebi ni piasu and Feuchtgebiete illustrate these mutually conflicting messages. While the latter “accords well […] with a notion of willfulness as embodied and contagious, as well as potentially contradictory” (Jeremiah, 2018: 70), the former lets its protagonist ask if the almost split tongue is “really what [she] had been chasing after[,]” looking at “[a] useless, empty hole surrounded by raw flesh that glistened with spittle” (Kanehara, 2005: 117; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 113). This paradoxical distortion of bodies thus reveals a depressive state. It is not so much about diminishing the overwhelming presence of normative beauty; rather this depression – a very ugly state – puts pressure on the authority of societies by being embodied questionings of these same societies, which Lui and Helen portray.

Bodies firstly serve as sheaths through which depression pierces, so as to suggest a deeply ambivalent performance of the self. In a similar manner, Kanehara and Roche describe this mis/use of bodies to display this depression through the act of overperforming. According to Hansen, “over-performance” “is typical in women who engage in eating disorders and self-harm” (2011: 60). Although the scholar also states that it is “a contemporary strategy for women to perform femininity” (ibid.: 51), she nonetheless compellingly stresses that there is no line to be drawn. While Lui suffers from severe eating disorders and alcoholism, Helen disturbingly harms herself – both embody depression, the ugliness of which puts societies at risk.

In Hebi ni piasu, Lui falls into a dangerous spiral of life and death, which leads Amano to believe that the novel’s main topic is the portrayal of the protagonist’s mental state (2009: 174). Indeed, disillusioned, seeing no point in living, Lui starves herself, “go[ing] from 42 kg to only 34 kg in just six months” (Kanehara, 2005: 106; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 102). The refusal of the act of eating that the almost nonexistence of food in the novel highlights, is balanced by the need for the act of drinking that the countless cans of beer distributed during the novel emphasize. That is not to say that alcoholism symbolizes a sort of a life preserver in this psychological turmoil. Rather, the dizziness provoked by alcohol can be seen as an “escape from reality” (Kanehara, 2005: 105; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 101). Deeply bound up with her eating disorders, Lui’s alcoholism displays an attempt to drown her sorrows and reject any help – even if it comes from Ama (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 77-78) or Shiba (ibid.: 83-84). Noticeably, this slow starvation peaks at the time of Ama’s death (ibid.: 102-103). This sudden loneliness, almost instantly offset with her moving to Shiba’s place, “is the only pain from which Lui does not derive pleasure, because it is the only pain that is not physical” (Holloway, 2014: 119). One can interpret this exchange of emotional pain for physical pain, that is, the exchange of the feeling of grief for self-starvation, as an overperformance that endeavors to negotiate depression. Yet, this negotiation not only intends to dematerialize Lui’s body through this extreme weight loss, but also relies on a materialization of this same body: although Tanaka juxtaposes eating disorders with Lui’s objectification, through which she had no body (2007: 208), and although eating disorders are the results of a normative femininity as “denying oneself food to a certain degree is considered positive and feminine” (Hansen, 2011: 55; my emphasis), this overperformance is nonetheless deeply critical of representations of beauty. Through the uglinization of Lui’s body and through the interchangeability of partners that the replacement of Ama with Shiba underscores, Kanehara seems to point to a more abstract level of depression: the instability in Lui’s life (Amano, 2009: 174) might well echo the over-flexibility asked by societies.

While Hansen considers self-harm as a practice of “individuals […] who intentionally harm their own body by mutilating it,” and therefore a practice “requir[ing] an extreme tolerance of pain […], self-control and self-submission” (2011: 51-52), self-harm could also be considered as the traumatic expression of regulation as seen in Feuchtgebiete. If Helen does not repeatedly harm herself, she nonetheless overperforms injury on two separate occasions. Awakening with tremendous pain after the surgical intervention on her anal wound, the protagonist recalls her “greatest acting job of [her] life” (Roche, 2009: 28; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 33): her faking an appendicitis might have been less an excuse to not go to class because of her poor grading, than a reaching out for her mother – in effect, the revelation of a difficult relation with her parents through a playing with the disgust of the inner body and pain. The self-imagined injury functions here as a strategy for overcoming the extreme regulation Helen faced as a child: for instance, her mother cut her eyelashes (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 60) and almost traumatized her about the disgusting act of defecating (ibid.: 75). Although Helen uses her body to counter-perform her mother’s wishes, she still desperately attempts to get her parents back together, which leads her to proceed with her second overperformance. In order to have the family reunited, she does not content herself with lying about her healing (ibid.: 146), but extends her stay at the hospital by purposely and violently reopening her anal wound, almost bleeding out and provoking an emergency operation (ibid.: 169-176). The repetition of the injury pattern that leaves Helen alone, acknowledging her need to part from her family (ibid.: 185, 212), makes the body “hyper-visible as site[] for emotion, be it pain, pleasure, lust, or depression” (Smith-Prei, Stehle, 2016: 145). However, this depressive state does not solely result from “the mother’s hygiene regimen,” it also stands in deep correlation with the “murder-suicide attempt” of her mother with her brother (Volkhausen, 2017: 73): “I go into the kitchen and lying there on the floor are my mom and my brother. Hand in hand. They’re asleep. […] The oven door is open. It smells like gas” (Roche, 2009: 60; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 63). While Roche makes use of the present tense and short sentences to illustrate the vivid memory of this traumatic event, even suggesting a questioning of reality, she lets Helen confront, in the present, the family silence around it, as if time stopped (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 64). Further, at the end of Feuchtgebiete, the author depicts her protagonist re-enacting this murder-suicide attempt by making use of pillows, clothes, etc. to recreate bodies and thereby materialize silence. Extending Baer’s persuasive interpretation of “Helen’s representation of her childhood trauma” as “mark[ing] her escape from the circuit of abuse and self-harm perpetrated by her family” (2015: 172), one could conclude that Helen uses her own body and those of others to display a depression that she endeavors to overcome.

In a second and concluding step, one can draw a parallel between the protagonists’ depression and the societies’ depression. The mental instability of Lui and Helen illustrates the psychological distortion of the societies in which they live. While Kanehara willingly depicts the dark world of freeter9, Roche fails to overcome the illusory world of pop.

By depicting a freeter with Lui (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 77), Kanehara underlines the economic problems Japan has experienced for decades (Driscoll, 2007: 171). The detachment from any social pressures through economic flexibility does not offer Lui “a neoliberal utopia, where people can exist without complaint but minus any social support” (ibid.: 184); rather it symbolizes a critique of society. Flexibility is here synonymous with instability: Lui’s social status as well as her very depression echo a society which is failing. The protagonist’s name advocates for an interpretation of economic depression, and points to the chaotic state of a society that attempts to beautifully shine, while hideously declining. Explaining “Lui for Louis Vuitton” (Kanehara, 2005: 28; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 31), even though her real name is Nakazawa Lui (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 53), the protagonist refers to a society of consumption, for this identity “is clearly grounded in the high-end European brand so beloved by Japanese women” (King, 2012: 178). Albeit this branding presents Lui as “valuable commodity” (ibid.), it also points to an incommoding position: “starting to forget [she] [has] [a name]” (Kanehara, 2005: 53; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 53) and thereby eschewing her real identity, metaphorically killing herself (Amano, 2009: 174), the protagonist allegorizes a darkness, to which her last name could refer with the combination of 中・‘naka’/‘inside’ with 沢・‘sawa’ [here: zawa]/‘swamp.’ This “dark subculture” typical among young people in Japan, that of denying themselves, aims to counter “their parent culture” (Yo, 2004: online). If one refers to the inversion of the ugly-beautiful paradigm, one will see that the focusing on Lui’s dark, inside world and the absence of any depiction of the surrounding society is a participation in this same process, for the ugliness of Lui’s depression disrupts the beauty of a social, familial, and economic stability, swamping it with ambiguity.

A similar effect can be seen in Feuchtgebiete, albeit an effect that the author herself might not have intended. Inscribing her novel in the pop-feminist movement that strives to revive an interest for feminism in Germany, Roche endeavors to deconstruct the “fallacious belief, made popular by antifeminist German media portrayals of the ‘Emanze’ [women’s libber], that feminism equates with compulsory lesbianism and feeds [her] insistence that heterosexual sex is compatible with their brand of feminism” (Spiers, 2015: 18). Spiers’s choice of words implies the linking of this pop-feminism with pop culture, that is, a branding that advocates for “uniting gender issues, women’s rights, and body politics with elements of popular culture inspired in particular by music, new media, and fashion” (Smith-Prei, 2011: 20). In her counter-attacking the backlash, Roche certainly empowers her protagonist, yet places her in a pop world that does not see its own illusions. The insistence on heterosexuality that one can read from the novel’s ending portrays it as a necessity, so as to emphasize that this pop world is still under the yoke of patriarchy. Helen’s overt jealously toward the female nurse with which Robin takes a break outside the hospital (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 135) enhances the pattern of a disillusioned inversion of the ugly-beautiful paradigm, for that which aims to be exquisitely ugly (non-monogamy) is at the same time that which aims to be hideously beautiful (heteronormativity). It is as if the hysteria from which Helen cuts herself with her sterilization and her parting from her family, cannot be erased. That is not to say that the neurotic family history would hinder the protagonist from being socially independent; rather, coming back to the word’s etymology, hysteria binds Helen to her female body, which is made socially visible by her way of playing with disgust. Further, the loneliness of the main character is a sign of her depression as well as a sign of the loneliness of feminist voices in a society enraged by the Demografiedebatten. Thus, the protagonist claims that “[she]’ll go to bed with any idiot just so [she] do[es]n’t have to be in bed alone or spend a whole night sleeping alone. Anybody is better than nobody” (Roche, 2009: 102; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 103). While inverting the ugly-beautiful paradigm, Feuchtgebiete depicts an implicit disillusion, that is, a sort of social depression, from which even a feminist revival has difficulty to recover.

Hence, the portrayal of a double depression in both novels is a critique that either succeeds or fails. On the one hand, Lui might be a bad girl, yet a “melancholic” one, as the literature of “the dark murder-romanticism” (Gebhardt, 2007: 686-687; my translation) portrays. On the other, “while the narrative voice is most often humorous and sprightly, and Helen’s pride in her body affirmative, ultimately, [Feuchtgebiete] stresses trauma and failure” (Jeremiah, 2018: 69). Further, inasmuch as “[the loud exhalation] that breaks the silence along with the visual representation of trauma through Helen’s own physical body problematizes the reading of Roche’s debut novel as simply obscenely pornographic, in bad taste, or as a pat explanation for childhood trauma” (Smith-Prei, 2011: 30), this breaking of silence can also echo the breaking in of light that appears at the end of Hebi ni piasu, letting no one know what will become of Lui (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 113). Both Kanehara and Roche then put bodies at the center of a reflection on ugliness and beauty and the problematic binarism that societies enforce without considering the ambiguity that inhabits these terms.

V. Shining Ugly Bodies: A Conclusion

Both Hebi ni piasu and Feuchtgebiete portray young women whose actions constantly navigate between resisting the institution of beauty and conforming to it. Particularly on the topics of identity, sexuality, and body, the novels make use of the ugly to disrupt norms. While this act is not as successful as one could have imagined, it nonetheless advocates for a rethinking of binarism/s. Perhaps what is striking is less the insistence on ugliness through the inverting of its relationship with beauty than the inconclusiveness of this act. The distortions, together with their embellishments, illustrate the societies in which they are de/constructed, so as to signify that there is no pure ugly and no pure beautiful. Because of the authors’ attempt to subvert norms, a political claim toward a more ambivalent idea of beauty can be seen. Deeply affective, the perceptions of ugliness and beauty are relational. This relationality that Ahmed attributes to emotions, “involve[s] (re)actions or relations of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’ in relation to such objects” (2014 [2004]: 8). Thus, the very conceptualization of ugly bodies does not solely pertain to a binarism with beautiful bodies, but also to a need for a critical rethinking concerning the ambivalence of the notion of ugly and beautiful bodies within modern literatures, one that acknowledges how this constant movement between them can be fruitful.

In lieu of conclusion, one could well return to the titles of the novels, from which one may infer this ambivalence, even before one has opened the books. Hebi ni piasu, subtitled ‘Snakes and Earrings’ on the front cover of the Japanese book (Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: title page), alludes to the punk identity (蛇・‘hebi’/‘snakes’) as well as to the kawaii-myth (ピアス・‘piasu’/‘earrings’). While the grammatical word に・‘ni,’ translated into ‘and,’ could easily refer to binarism (as in: and/or), it also implies a departure from, or arrival at (i.e., に・‘ni’ and its locative function), and so, a constant movement. Feuchtgebiete, rendered as ‘Wetlands’ in English, also indicates a location that is both slippery and sticky (‘feucht’/‘humid’; ‘Gebiete’/ ‘place’) – a subversive yet clear pointing to the genital area (‘feucht’/’wet’; ‘Gebiete’/‘area’). The title then insists on the difficulty of writing about ugly taboos as well as on the ease of talking about beautiful ideals. At the end, one is confronted with bodies that are exquisitely ugly and hideously beautiful, all shining with and from dirtiness and cleanliness.

  1. 1With “nearly one million copies [sold] in its first six months” (Holloway, 2014: 97) in Japan for Hebi ni piasu, winner of the prestigious Akutawaga Prize in 2004, and with, as of today, more than two millions copies in Germany for Feuchtgebiete, number one on the Spiegel bestseller-list soon after its publication (Krumrey, 2014: 545), both novels can be considered as bestsellers.
  2. 2In this paper, the names of Japanese authors, scholars, and protagonists will be rendered in the Japanese way of naming, that is, by stating first the family name and then the given name. The transcription of the Japanese language will be rendered with the Hepburn romanization (Hebon-shiki rōmaji).
  3. 3Gyaru is a term derived from the English word ‘girl,’ mostly re-translated in English as ‘gal.’ For King, it represents “young women who dress in a manner regarded as ‘trendy and sexy’,” are “heavily tanned […] with bleached hair” and have a “thin body” (2012: 208). This paper does not approve Karashima’s translation of gyaru into “Barbie-girl” (Kanehara, 2005: e.g., 5, 19, 22, 49, 61), for it does not depict a Japanese phenomenon, but sticks to a Western-oriented representation of women, even if this translation could indeed better resonate in the ears of a Western audience. Therefore, all references to this trait of identity will be made with the Japanese word ‘gyaru.’
  4. 4Irezumi is the Japanese word for tattooing, specifically referring to traditional tattoos (Ikoma, 2005: 32).
  5. 5A kirin is “a sacred animal” that has “a single horn,” and “is a legend that comes from China” (Kanehara, 2005: 31-32; Kanehara, 2006 [2003]: 34-35).
  6. 6In the original text, the clitoris is renamed “Perlenrüssel” (pearl/bead/gem + snout/gap), the inner labia, “Hahnenkämme” (cock/tap + comb/crest/neck), the outer labia, “Vanillekipferln” (vanilla + croissant) (Roche, 2013 [2008]: 22). The significant association of food, animal, sex – an association that plays with ugliness (here as disgust), reveals even more the construction of one’s body by a deconstruction of norms and a re-appropriation of stereotypes.
  7. 7This paper does not suggest that sadomasochism is a practice in which women can be objectified, but refers to feminist re-evaluations of such non-conventional practices that deprive women’s sexuality of its reduction to its reproductive function (see Rubin, 2010 [1984]).
  8. 8This paper does not agree with Mohr’s translation of “Verruchtes” into “crazy” (Roche, 2009: 116; Roche, 2013 [2008]: 116). The translation might have mixed “verrucht” (depraved; immoral) with “verrückt” (crazy; wild; insane), or have relied on the meaning of “wicked” that one can find in both “verrucht” and “verrückt.” However, in so doing, the translation disregarded the moral connotation of “verrucht.”
  9. 9The Japanese word furītā (freeter) is a portmanteau word from the English ‘free’ and the German ‘Arbeiter’ (worker). Quoting the annual publication Labor White Paper of 1991, Driscoll explains that freeter are “between the ages of 15 and 34, unmarried women or men who had never stayed in the same job longer than five years, and who understood themselves to be part-time workers” (2007: 170).