Natsuo Kirino and Japanese Noir



Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino (a pen name) is generally categorized as a crime fiction writer, though given the range and depth of characters she writes about, crimes are incidental to the designs of her plots. Given the social and personal forces her characters struggle against, murder, robbery, or fraud are inevitable, even necessary. She’s as much a crime writer as, say, Jim Thompson is a crime writer, though her tendencies are more those of Flannery O’Connor, as Kirino herself admits.


Of the sixteen novels she’s written, four are available in English translation: the award-winning Out (1997), Grotesque (2003), Real World (2003), and What Remains (2004). She’s also co-written a nonfiction book on Japan’s love-motels, which show up in at least two of her novels-in-translation. Her milieu is the vast middle-class of Tokyo—both the shiny, ordered exterior, and its darker, more frightening underbelly. Out (translated by Stephen Snyder) and Real World (translated by Philip Gabriel) are primarily about the overlap between these two worlds and the chaos that ensues when one crosses over into the other.


In Out, the deadening drudge of a quartet of women who work the graveyard shift, packing bento boxes at a factory, is disturbed when one of them murders her abusive husband in a fit of uncharacteristic rage. The crime itself is brutal, involving a belt and considerable traction, and it’s rendered in calm, straightforward third-person narration that belies the savageness of the act. Coming to her senses, she realizes what she’s done and enlists the help of her friends at the factory. Before long, they’re putting their carving skills to use and disposing of body parts separately all over Tokyo.


The novel shifts focalization among these four characters, as well as a few more who become enmeshed in the crime and its consequences. Before long, the women are being blackmailed by a loan shark with Yakuza connections, hunted down by a club owner out for revenge after being falsely convicted for the crime, and stalked by a lonely Brazilian immigrant whose father had been a Japanese overseas worker in Sao Paolo. That each of these characters becomes sympathetic no matter how repugnant they are revealed to be demonstrates Kirino’s powers of observation.


Halfway through the novel, after the initial problem of the husband’s corpse is resolved, the plot begins to zero in on one of the women, the acknowledged leader of the group, and the vengeful club owner, as they play cat-and-mouse games with each other. Doing something illegal and dangerous has awakened the woman’s darker qualities, and in her the club owner recognizes a kindred spirit.


Fans of ultraviolent Japanese movies will recognize the seedy locales of Out and the people who inhabit them, but it’s still a shock to encounter bloody violence in such calm, measured prose. This style ties Kirino to the tradition of naturalistic fiction in Japan, dating back to the Meiji restoration of the 19th century. Hundreds of years of being closed off from the rest of the world say Japanese fiction turning on itself, relying more and more on crude, sensationalistic retellings of famous crimes and scandals. When Japanese writers encountered Western realism and naturalism, they fused these foreign movements almost naturally with the didactic Confucian and Buddhist traditions in Japanese literature, producing novels that were equal parts sociological case study, cautionary morality tale, and true-crime story. To this mix, Kirino adds a healthy dose of American noir, and an eye for telling contemporary detail.


Real World is structurally similar to Out—four female characters, a domestic murder, and the blossoming attraction between two people who respond to the darkness in each other’s souls. But this time, Kirino casts her eye on the younger set—bored Japanese schoolgirls suffering through an oppressively hot summer. Unlike the factory workers of Out, these girls ought to still have a sense of hope, given that they still have time to make something of their lives. But the disaffected tones in which they tell their sides of the story betray their creeping realization that their lives are not going to amount to much in the larger scheme of things. The title alludes to the girls’ growing awareness of life beyond adolescence, which rolls relentlessly towards them with each passing day.


Told in interlocking first-person chapters by the four girls and the creepy, possibly insane boy they become involved with, the novel easily calls to mind the multiple perspectives of Rashomon. Here, though, the device serves only to heighten suspense, as the characters, although friends, are mostly apart from each other as events spiral into disaster. The first-person narration should bring readers closer to these people, but it oddly has a distancing effect, in contrast to the third-person narration of Out, which heightens our investment in the characters’ fates. The teens of Real World are unsatisfied with their lives, but cop to a blasé “whatever” attitude as a kind of defense mechanism. Their boredom is arguably what makes them capable of deceit and crime without a clear sense of their own wrongdoing.


Kirino doesn’t take a moralistic stance towards her characters, thankfully, and doesn’t allow even the faintest hint of judgment to creep into this novel. Having these teens tell their own stories also prevents the novel from becoming an apologia for the new lost generation of the Tokyo suburbs. What she manages to do, in these two novels, is tell a gripping story while allowing us a long, detailed look at aspects of contemporary Japanese life that manage to elude the purview of popular culture.