Confessions, a 2008 Japanese thriller that will appear in English translation for the first time this August, has the captivating quality of a gruesome car crash: As the murders grow bloodier and bloodier, the characters more and more twisted, we find ourselves fascinated and repulsed, unable to look away. The book was a resounding success in Japan, partially, it seems, because it treats us to a deliciously appalling matricide—and partially because its author is such an unlikely suspect. According to the biographical blurb, Kanae Minato is a “housewife” and “former home economics teacher” who dreamt up her tangled web of violence and vengeance “between household chores.” A load of laundry, a batch of cupcakes—followed by a child murder, a matricide, and an attempted school bombing, all with a cherry on top.
Minato’s characters are as unexpectedly brutal as their creator seems to be. In the first few sentences of the novel, the narrator, a female middle-school teacher named Moriguchi, establishes herself as a kindly maternal figure and instructs her students to finish their lunchtime milk. Moments later, we learn that Moriguchi’s four-year-old daughter, Manami, was murdered by two of the students in Moriguchi’s class. Moriguchi believes the authorities will be too lenient toward the culprits, so she spends the rest of the novel avenging Manami’s death herself, first by slipping what she believes to be HIV-positive blood into the killers’ milk, then by torturing them psychologically.
This combination of sweet and savory—milk and blood—is not uncommon in Japanese pop culture. Manga, which accounts for about 20 percent of the reading material printed in Japan each year, overflows with bloodshed in seemingly innocent places. In one acclaimed manga series, Elfen Lied, a doll-like teenager with tear-shaped eyes and long pink hair displays sadistic tendencies, leaving severed limbs and mangled corpses in her wake. In another, Deadman Wonderland, a mysterious villain slaughters middle-school students and transports the sole survivor to a prison that resembles a whimsical amusement park.
Confessions’ origins are also more straightforwardly literary. It recalls “Toddler Hunting,” Taeko Kono’s celebrated 1962 story, in which the female protagonist showers affection on little boys—and fantasizes in private about beating them until their innards spill out. And in Battle Royale, Koushun Takami’s wildly popular 1996 prototype of The Hunger Games, school children are forced to participate in a morbid game in which they kill each other off while fascinated spectators watch the proceedings on television. Readers of Battle Royale occupy a parallel position, simultaneously savoring and shuddering at the work’s brutality.
Why has this particular brand of violence, half cupcake and half decapitation, so thoroughly captured the Japanese imagination? In part it is because there are so many delectable Japanese cupcakes to corrupt. Since the 1980s, kawaii, a cult of cuteness, has overtaken the nation, interring waify girls in layer-cakes of frills. Proponents of “Lolita fashion” delight in tea parties, parasols, and lace, while moë, or “budding,” a term that refers especially to the fresh, nubile quality of pre-adolescent girls, crops up again and again in manga and anime. Small, stylized girls with disproportionately large busts and eyes gaze vulnerably at the reader on almost every page.
It seems inevitable that such a surfeit of saccharin would eventually make Japan sick—and indeed, Lolita Fashion yielded “sex pot revenge,” a dark, punk-inspired reimagining of the original frilly look; the kawaii aesthetic yielded kimo-kawaii, roughly translated as “gross-cute,” which features characters like the cuddly yet homicidal stuffed animal Creepy Bear, who mauls his well-meaning caretaker; and moë yielded Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a manga in which slender, wide-eyed heroines are savagely massacred (some are transformed into the very villains they initially set out to combat, which isn’t much better). All of these counter-aesthetics bear a clear relation to their origins. They are much more interestingly bound up with the phenomena they brutalize than proverbially “senseless” violence, which is senseless because it is random and unrelated to its object. Senseless violence is visited upon the unsuspecting, for reasons we cannot understand. In contrast, kimo-kawaii and “sex pot revenge” are offshoots of their roots. The cuter the victim, the snugglier the bunny, the more depraved the attendant perversion. The hyper-innocence and hyper-helplessness of moë pave the way for the hyper-violence and hyper-corruption that are commonplace in Japanese popular culture.
Confessions, the latest in a long line of clever bastardizations, is no different. The deconstruction begins almost immediately, when Moriguchi performs a gesture typically associated with motherhood, passing out milk to the children under her care. But in her case, the milk is poisoned, the gesture coldly calculating; the traditionally nurturing action takes on morbid dimensions. Our sense of disorientation is amplified when Moriguchi informs us that she identifies first and foremost as a mother rather than as a working woman: “I was never the sort of teacher who thought about her students twenty-four hours a day. There was always someone more important to me—my daughter, Manami,” she tells her class. Moriguchi views her violent crusade as consistent with her motherly duties, perhaps even linked to them.
Tender, sometimes maternal, love continues to breed brutal violence throughout the book. Naoki, one of Manami’s killers, hugs his mother, then “kills her with a single stab wound to the stomach.” In the aftermath of Naoki’s crime, his pregnant sister is so upset that she has a miscarriage. Shuya, the other killer, strangles his love interest to death in a fit of passionate rage. And of course, the book revolves around Naoki and Shuya’s initial crime, wherein the pair lured a little girl to death with a stuffed animal of her favorite character, Snuggly Bunny. These acts are attacks on the institutions of motherhood, romance, and youth, directed assaults on carefully curated symbols.
If Moriguchi and Minato were deviant in a way that had nothing to do with Japanese gender norms, they would simply be curiosities, exemplars of depravity. Instead, they are affronts to a system—recalling it, then decimating it with a dramatic, violent flourish. If we hadn’t expected Minato, housewife and home economics teacher, to write a much tamer book, Confessions wouldn’t undercut our prejudices with such force and ferocity; if we hadn’t regarded mothers as warm and caring, Moriguchi’s cold, almost sociopathic demeanor wouldn’t surprise and enthrall us.
But if these figures must invoke their opposites in order to effectively subvert them, how can an act of resistance ever be separated from the specter of its opposite? Reading Confessions makes one wonder about the inextricability of the extremes it conflates—brutality and eroticism, the pangs of anger and the pangs of arousal, a loving embrace and a lethal one. Locked in the tightest embrace of all are our twin condemnation and enjoyment. This is a romance we don’t dare to interrogate as we read on in horror, guilty and intrigued, repulsed and maybe just a little exhilarated.