THE MORTUARY-COLD, air-conditioned lobby of Tokyo's Keio Plaza Hotel is home to businessmen in crisp black suits who sip US$10 coffees and nod along to conversations that never rise above a murmur. But the studied cool is broken like a spell when Novala Takemoto swishes in, drawing faces in his direction like sunflowers to the sun and trailing the faint whiff of Christian Dior perfume. The 36-year-old cult novelist cuts quite a figure: willowy frame draped in a Comme des Garcons jacket and wrapped in a black Vivienne Westwood dress; designer jewellery hanging off long, bony fingers that keep fluttering up to his bird's nest hair. Think bastard offspring of Oscar Wilde or Vlad the Impaler with a pinch of Keith Richards and you're probably with the rest of the wide-eyed Keio Plaza clientele. 'I like beautiful things,' he says, by way of explanation. Takemoto's striking ensemble probably costs the equivalent of the health budget of a small African country, but then he has the money, after the success of his novel Shimotsuma Monogatari (Shimotsuma Story), which has sold 130,000 copies. The book has solidified a burgeoning writing career that began in the early 1990s, and includes nominations for the Yukio Mishima Literary Prize in 2003 and 2004. Now, a movie called Kamikaze Girls based on Shimotsuma is proving a hit in Japan and a cult success abroad, where some critics are saying it could bring Japan's Lolita subculture to wider shores. Not to be confused with the erotic fascination with schoolgirls that characterises much Japanese pornography, (and named after the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov's infamous book about a college professor's sexual relationship with a schoolgirl), Lolitas' concerns are essentially aesthetic: an exaggerated appreciation for childish or feminine things such as corsets, frills and ribbons, dollhouse chic, Hello Kitty and Alice in Wonderland. In a country never slow to capitalise on the latest fad, Lolita has become something of a growth industry, with clubs, pop groups and specialist shops catering for enthusiasts, who've splintered off into sub-genres: Victorian Maidens, Gothic Lolitas and even Mary Magdalenes. If the Lolita enthusiasts share a philosophy, it might be best understood as reluctance to enter the 'dirty' world of adults, particularly men. Motifs featuring orphans, angels, innocent cartoon animals and lost princesses are popular. Takemoto's small Tokyo apartment is a shrine to them. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Takemoto acknowledges that his readers are often troubled, alienated souls who spend a lot of time alone in their bedrooms. 'The people who read my books are mostly high school and female university students, and I suppose compared to other writers, a lot of them are otaku [obsessive] and young people who have withdrawn from society.' Like most successful artists, Takemoto's both an antenna for social trends and an amplifier of them, at a time when many young Japanese are struggling with the rigid template for life, love and identity laid down by their baby-boomer parents. As they did, he grew up the son of a hardworking salaryman who found it difficult to accept that his son was . . . different. 'I offended his sense of what was normal,' says Takemoto. 'He used to hit me and try to force me to wear the clothes he bought me and so on, but I always followed my own muse. My mum despaired but just shrugged her shoulders and said, 'What can we do?'' He found his writing voice in 1992 after being asked to write essays for a free arts newspaper in Osaka. The columns - sort of Quentin Crisp-lite - were narrated in the voice of 'Otome' (the maiden) and were, in Takemoto's words, a love letter to his readers urging them to look for the beautiful in life rather than focusing on the ugly, and to stand above the fray and ignore the petty snipes of less enlightened souls, even if this meant being alone during school lunch hour. 'There are so many awful things in this world, but I wanted readers to share with me the small, beautiful, enjoyable things,' Takemoto says. 'Like cute clothes, beautiful art and pretty flowers - items that are overflowing with beauty. If you just become obsessed with your own problems, you miss these things. When you discover them, you become happy.' Much to his and the publisher's surprise, the essays were an instant hit. Six years later, they were compiled and published as Soreinu: Tadashii Otome ni Narutemeni (Soreinu: How to Become a Proper Maiden). The hit novel Mishin followed in 2000, which put these themes to the story of an eponymous Lolita heroin who sings in a punk band. Many readers were surprised to learn the author was male - and heterosexual. 'I could never do anything with a boy,' he says. 'They're too sweaty. 'When I started writing, I thought nobody would understand the things I liked. Then I began getting a lot of letters from people who said they were waiting for me to express what they felt they couldn't, so I kept writing. They probably experience a lot of uneasiness in this society, but when they read my book they know they are not alone, that I talk to them. I don't tell them how to deal with this uneasiness, but I say if we experience it together, maybe it will feel a little better.' Takemoto's frou-frou-light themes of the struggle to find love and nuggets of beauty in dull contemporary Japan are evident in Kamikaze Girls, which tells the story of 17-year-old Momoko (Peach-child), the product of a drunken encounter between a bar hostess and a dim Yakuza gangster, who lives with her useless dad in rural Ibaraki prefecture. Momoko soars above this grimy world by living in her imagination, dreaming of French rococo and dressing in lacy, Victorian-doll chic from an expensive city boutique while ignoring the taunts of those around her. She meets another rebel spirit, the female biker Ichigo (Strawberry), and they embark on a quest to find a legendary embroiderer. It's hardly Apocalypse Now, but the frothy, Manga-esque visual style and witty take on Japanese street fads - the unlikely pairing of a tough, Yankee biker-chick and the beauty-worshipping Lolita, have combined to make the Tetsuya Nakashima-directed film one of the year's biggest hits. Its screening at this year's Cannes Film Festival appears to have generated a lot of interest - the film is scheduled for release in the US, Spain, Italy and a number of other countries. Takemoto seems to have started something. 'He has found a way to connect with readers who believe themselves odd or disconnected from society and told them they are not alone in this world,' says Tomoya Sugawara, Takemoto's editor at publishers Shogakukan. As well as talking about the movie, Takemoto is promoting his new book, Mishin 2: Kasako, the sequel to Mishin, which is expected to be another best-seller. The books aren't available in translation, but the publisher is taking Takemoto's work to the Frankfurt Book Fair next month in a bid to find an international partner. The shy, bullied boy from Kyoto, who spent much of his childhood drawing and watching TV cartoons for girls, has become an unlikely success, although his family refuse to acknowledge it. 'My father and mother have never read my work,' he says a little wistfully. At the end of our interview when I tell Takemoto I'm from Ireland he becomes excited. 'I love Oscar Wilde,' he says, an admission that makes perfect sense; another writer who worshipped youth and beauty, but who was persecuted for denying his true self. 'I know that many people kill off their real personality just to fit into this society,' says Takemoto. 'But why do we have to compromise? I never understood that. I decided to try to be myself and to live by my own values rather than those of others.' With that, he gets up and walks through the foyer again, still turning heads, but now exuding the faint whiff of defiance along with the Christian Dior.