Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Out

Out by Natsuo Kirino
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's review
Feb 17, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, crime, 2008, favourite, cover-love
Read in May, 2008

There's just something about Japan that produces the grittiest, darkest, scariest, most realistic horror, psychological thriller, and suspense. The seedy underbelly of Japanese society is perhaps so successfully portrayed because so little has been embellished. And with the dark, empty surburban streets, so much is possible, so much can go unnoticed. In Natsuo Kirino's wonderful crime novel, Out, a sharp social commentary on Japan's patriarchal society and the situation for women and foreigners is tangled up with loan sharks, gambling, the yakuza and murder.

Masako works in a bento (boxed-lunch) factory on the night shift with her workmates Yoshi, Kuniko and Yayoi. Together they make a team to get the best spots on the conveyor belt, and because they're housewives with responsibilities during the day, they're more or less each other's only friends. Each has problems: Masako and her husband barely interact anymore and her son hasn't spoken to her in a year; Yoshie is widowed and takes care of her daughter and her bed-ridden mother-in-law in a tiny house that's ready to be knocked down; Kuniko's husband has left her and taken all their money, and she's over her head in debt because she's constantly buying new clothes to impress people; and Yayoi's husband has spent all their savings on gambling and a beautiful Chinese hostess called Anna. Their lives are circumscribed and lonely, and there seems to be no way out for any of them.

Then one night Yayoi's husband Kenji comes home and in a fit of cold rage she strangles him. In desperation she calls cool, sharp Masako, who calmly handles the situation by enlisting Yoshi to help her cut up the body in her bathroom and then get rid of the bags of body parts in the rubbish collection sites around the area. Kuniko, always with an eye out for a way to make money, gets drawn into the mess as well - which turns out to be their downfall. Unreliable and delusional, Kuniko does a poor job of disposing of her bags and the body is soon discovered and identified.

Things seem to be working out though when the police arrest their main suspect, a casino owner and pimp with a scary past, Satake, who punched Kenji and threw him down the stairs after warning him to stay away from Anna, his number one girl. Satake, innocent of the murder, suspects Kenji's wife - and he isn't the only one who figures out what really happened. As things start to unravel, Masako becomes the focus, and the sense that someone is watching her, that a trap is tightening around her, threatens her calm composure and orderly existence.

This isn't a "whodunit" crime novel, nor a formulaic one. This is original literary crime that would not adapt well to any other setting but Japan - Tokyo in particular (where the novel is set). Having lived in the country for three years, I found myself living there again while reading this book: the descriptions, the characters, their reactions and motivations, it was all so very real, so believable. The weather for instance - hot and humid and wet in summer, the smell and the sweat, it all came back so clearly. The attitudes, too, and the urban landscape - rice fields in-between factories, run-down houses squished along allies, bicycles and umbrellas and the rubbish collection spots.

One of the wonderful things about this book is the way it is written. Despite one or two obvious metaphors, the prose has a tight, tense yet steady, patient rhythm, creating more suspense along the way by never hurrying. The chapters alternate in point-of-view narration between the main characters, with their personalities coming through strongly despite the fact that the tone doesn't change. I want to find an example, and really, I don't have to look far:

She could hear a horn tooting somewhere nearby, the sound tofu trucks use to advertise their wares, and, through the open windows around her, the sound of dishes rattling and televisions blaring. It was the hour when the women of the city bustled around their kitchens. Masako thought of her own neat, empty kitchen and her bathroom where the deed had been done. It occurred to her that lately she felt more at home in a dry, scoured bathroom than a busy, homey kitchen. (p.146)

He had been a model of self-control, had worked so hard to keep his dark side sealed away. But he knew that even a hint of what he'd done would terrify other people. Still, only he and the woman herself knew the truth about what had happened, and no one else could understand what he'd been up to. It had been Satake's misfortune to taste the forbidden fruit when he was twenty-six, and he'd been cut off from the normal world ever since. (p.179)

As far as the social commentary aspect goes, it's a biting, unglamorous look at Japanese society, and also a revealing study of the plight of the impoverished, exhausted women like Yoshi, the greedy, superficial consumers like Kuniko, the intelligent, hard-working but discriminated and underpaid "office girls" like Masako had been; and the victimised housewives like Yayoi. The lengths these women go to for some money, for escape, for freedom have devestating consequences for all of them.

The play between genders is also explored, or rather, held up for review - it may come across as old-hat, but don't forget this is Japan, which is still confined by many traditions that see women and foreigners subjugated and restricted to the role of second-class citizen. Despite the deeply flawed characters and the things they do, Masako emerges as a strong heroine, and even the male characters I felt some sympathy for. The blurb describes it as having a "pitch-black comedy of gender warfare", and that's definitely an intrinsic part of this novel. Sometimes, though, it was just too hard to find the irony amusing.

There's a lot more I could say about this book but really I just want to stress how much I loved it. I came across only one typo (an "is" instead of "it"), which is almost unheard of. And if you're put off by the Japanese names, here's a quick lesson: Japanese, when converted into Romaji (our alphabet), is very easy to pronounce. Each "letter" translates into five vowels, an "n" sound and consonant-vowel pairings. So "Masako" is pronounced "Ma-sa-ko". Easy. "Yayoi" is pronounced "Ya-yo-i" ("i" as in "easy", but a short sound). "Satake" is pronounced "Sa-ta-ke" ("ke" as in "kettle"). "Kazuo" is pronounce "Ka-zu-o" or "kaz-u-o". "Shinjuko" is pronounced "Shin-ju-ku". See: easy! There's a great rhythm to it, like those clapping games. Unless there's a double vowel, vowels and pairings are pronounced with short sounds, generally. There's no "r" or "v" in Japanese, so these letters are given an "l" and "b" pronounciation. "Tsu" is the most difficult sound for foreigners to make, and we don't have an equivalent.

While I'm at it, it may be helpful to get the money conversion: 1000 yen is roughly about $10, 10,000 yen is $100 and so on. Just imagine a decimile point, or remove a zero, something like that. So when Yayoi pays Yoshi and Kuniko 500,000 yen for their part in getting rid of her husband, that's about $5000, and when she talks about getting 50 million yen insurance money, she is getting about $500,000. (Hope my maths is holding up here!)
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01/31/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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M.I. Ghostwriter Excellent review... I'm almost have way through this very well written novel. I have always enjoyed many of the foreign film out of Japan. Now I'm starting to read a few good books from this very interesting county.

Thanks again,
M. I. Ghostwriter.

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