Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Out, to which I was originally drawn because I wanted to learn more about everyday life in Japan through the eyes of one of that country’s best novelists, is my first real experience with modern Japanese fiction. Since I am also a fan of hardboiled detective fiction, I actually had two reasons for getting hold of a copy of Natsuo Kirino’s prize winning novel. But in reality, this is no detective novel; it can, in fact, be more accurately described as a crime thriller and, because of its gritty setting, dark plot and tough characters, a perfect representation of Japanese noir.

Natsuo Kirino has written a story about a segment of Japan’s underclass that is rarely discussed by outsiders, an underclass that has everything in common with its equivalent in this country: people who work full-time jobs for such low wages that they can barely get by from one paycheck to the next. As their desperation grows over time, some in that predicament discover that the everyday struggle for survival has turned them into people they hardly recognize, people willing to do just about anything that gives them a chance to get a little bit ahead in the struggle to carve out a decent life for themselves.

The four women who work as an unofficial team during the overnight shift at a box lunch factory because it pays a few pennies more per hour than the earlier shifts can feel their lives slipping away from them. For a variety of reasons, each has come to prefer the solitary lifestyle demanded of those who return home just in time every morning to see everyone around them leave for their own day’s work. Yoshie, the sole support of an invalid mother-in-law and unappreciative teenage daughter, feels trapped in a situation she can barely afford to sustain. Masako has a husband whose life is so separate from hers that she only sees him at mealtimes and a teenage son who despises her, and she has come to appreciate the way that her night shift allows her to avoid both. Kumiko, youngest of the four, lives only to shop and has gotten so far into debt that she feels physically threatened by bill collectors. And Yayoi has two small boys and a husband who squanders the family earnings on his gambling addiction and the women who work the clubs he frequents.

Of the four, it is Yayoi who cracks first. The almost casual way that her husband discloses to her one evening that he has gambled away all of their savings throws her into such a rage that she finds the strength to strangle him to death. Desperate to cover up what she has done, Yayoi seeks help from Masako, the one person she trusts to keep her secret. The two hatch a scheme to dispose of the body by cutting it into pieces and placing the pieces in garbage cans around the city, a solution that requires the help of Yoshie and Kumiko if it is to have any chance of success.

Tension mounts when enough of the body is discovered to allow its identification and the police begin to suspect that Yayoi may be involved in the murder of her husband. But it is when the group’s weakest link decides to cash in on what she knows about the murder that things really begin to come apart for the women; soon all four are forced to scramble not only to keep their freedom, but to stay alive.

Out is one bloody and gruesome novel. It is filled with brutality, despair, greed and sadism and I can actually only recall one genuinely likeable character in the entire novel, someone I never expected I would grow to admire, a Brazilian/Japanese citizen in Japan to work in the country of his father. It is perhaps somewhat of a feminist novel but only in the sense that the author portrays these women, still very much second class citizens in their culture, as being capable of the same extremes and callous behavior displayed by the worst men in their lives. This is true equality, I suppose.

All four of these women were looking for a way out of their hopeless circumstances. They got more than they bargained for.

Out is an interesting novel, to say the least, but some readers may find its tone and content hard to take for 359 pages. It has certainly given me a view of Japan that I had not considered before, an impression that will haunt me for a good while. I can’t say that I enjoyed this book but I have to admit that I found it morbidly fascinating.

Rated at: 3.5


  1. Morbidly fascinating! Well, that got me in. I think I will look out for this. I too mightlearn something about Japan! Thanks for the review!

  2. You know this novel has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, since before I went to Japan to live for a year (in 2005), in fact. I bought it thinking, like you, that I'd learn more about everyday life in Japan. I've picked it up a number of times since then and never made it past chapter two. I sensed, I think, that it might be too dark for my tastes. Your review certainly confirmed my suspicions. I think I'll still give it a go (someday), I'll just have to hype myself up to do it.

    For something a little less dark, you could try "69" by Ryu Murakami. It was given to me as a birthday present when I was in Japan and came highly recommended.

  3. It is unusual, to say the least, gautami...surprising that it won an award for best mystery in Japan because it's not a mystery at all.

  4. I'm not sure that I was quite ready for this one when I started it, J.S. But I couldn't abandon it once I'd started because I found it fascinating...in a strange kind of way.

    Thanks for the recommendation on something Japanese and a lot lighter...I'll check into that one.