OUT by Kirino Natsuo

To all outward appearance, Kirino Natsuo is a proper Japanese woman. She holds a law degree. She is married with one daughter. Yet, under a pen name (real name Hashioka Mariko), she writes crime novels that are simultaneously award-winning and controversial, if not grotesque. 

OUT, the first of her novels to be translated into English, won the Grand Prix for Crime Fiction in Japan in 1998. In English translation, the Mystery Writers of America nominated it for an Edgar. She was the first Japanese author to be so honored, and the nomination helped catapult her to worldwide acclaim.

Let's be clear--this is not a mystery. There is no murder to solve in the traditional sense. The novel opens with the killing, and we immediately know the perpetrator. There is no moral order to be restored, for Kirino sees modern Japanese society as amoral. She reinforces this perception with ten different, but skewed, points of view. It is harder to judge the prose because of the translation, by Stephen Snyder, but the plain, blunt structure of the prose makes the abnormality of the worldview seem purely matter-of-fact.

In a 2003 interview in The Japan Times, Kirino said she chose the word "out" for the English title because it "best conveys the sense of hakkiri dame or 'totally worthless'". The characters who drive the narrative are, in the eyes of Japanese society, "totally worthless". They commit a particularly gruesome type of crime, known in Japan as barabara jiken or "mutilation murders". During her research, Kirino found "it's fairly common for women to be involved" in these crimes. The novel's plot is loosely based on an actual event. Kirino's literary attention focuses on the repercussions of the crime on the characters, the majority of whom are female.

A pretty Tokyo housewife with two small sons, Yayoi, works part-time, on the night shift, at a bento box factory. In a blinding moment of rage, she strangles her abusive and irresponsible husband, a gambler who lost all the family's savings. Yayoi turns to her workmates at the factory to help her dispose of the body and to hide the crime. Cold, calculating, compelling Masako--the real protagonist in the novel--takes charge of the problem. She pressures the hardworking, but broke, Yoshie to help her. Materialistic Kuniko stumbles into the situation. She is co-opted into Masako's scheme by the promise of money to ease her debts. The police briefly suspect Yayoi, but arrest Satake, the owner of a nightclub and illegal gambling parlor. After being released, he wants to strike at the people who ruined him. It doesn't take him long to find the women. His vengeance becomes a black, but comic, nightmare for all concerned.

In an interview for BookSense, she said OUT shocked "everybody" and was a "controversial" novel in Japan. It deals with the unthinkable crime of a wife murdering a husband--"very provocative" because "Japanese men felt so threatened". The novel also exposes the burdens under which Japanese women live. Each one of the female characters represents one aspect of those constraints in a society, where, even now, "men still go out and women stay in".

These despised women all step outside their alloted roles and pay dearly for it. OUT becomes a bloody war between the sexes. In the novel's climax, which takes place between Masako and Satake, she "had learned that sex could be a source of deep hatred. At that moment, she hated him as a man as much as he despised her as a woman" (392). 

OUT is both grotesque and scarily, uneasily realistic. While neither the characters nor their social environment appeals, the intersection between them produces, in Kirino's hands, a novel of striking, raw power. 

Copyright KG Whitehurst
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