Out, by Natsuo Kirino

Out cvr

Natsuo Kirino deftly depicts the complications arising from a domestic murder in this densely-plotted Japanese thriller.  Yayoi snaps because of her husband Kenji’s ill-treatment of her, his gambling, on which he has spent all their savings, and his lusting after a woman who works in a club.  In a fit of anger she strangles him but is left with the problem of what to do with the body.  Fortunately she can call on her workmates, associates rather than close friends, to help her out.  (A similar set-up was used in the later The Devotion of Suspect X (2005), by Keigo Higashino; in that novel an ex-husband is murdered, but the wife is assisted by her neighbour rather than colleagues.)  They work the night shift (because it pays better than daytime hours) at a factory unit in a nondescript area of Tokyo where town and country rub together, producing bento, boxed lunches.

There she is part of a team with Yoshi, Masako and Kuniko.  Each has a very different character, but they are bound together by the economics of their respective circumstances.  There is a good reason why someone ends up working in a place like that, and all four are having a difficult time.  Masako lost her job at a credit union because of her decision to be assertive.  While she shares a house with her husband they live totally separate lives, and her son has not spoken to them for a year since being expelled from school.  Permanently exhausted, widow Yoshie lives in a firetrap house looking after her bedridden mother-in-law out of a sense of family duty, while her teenage daughter exploits her financially though aware of their poverty and Yoshie’s desperate efforts to make ends meet.

Kuniko is self-absorbed, incapable of deferred gratification and saddled with enormous debts.  She represents the downside of Japan’s consumer boom, with her desire for instant gratification and lack of financial prudence; when she comes into some money her first thought is to pay off just the interest on her debts and spend on clothing and accessories, favouring cheap copies of expensive brands.  Her husband has abandoned her, taking all their money.  The least reliable of the four, she falls into the plan to assist Yayoi by accident.

Masako and Yoshi’s down-to-earth efficiency at work transfers well to the task which faces them.  While Yayoi stays at home to establish an alibi, the others cut Kenji up in Masako’s bathroom and dispose of the parts.  Yoshi and Kuniko are in it for the money, but Masako has deeper motives and at first helps out with no expectation of reward.  Unfortunately Kuniko’s carelessness in disposing of her share of the remains leads to the discovery of the bags for which she was responsible.  The victim is soon identified and the police investigate the women.

Rather than being a police procedural, the plot takes an unexpected turn.  The police’s main suspect, Satako, a club owner and owner of an illegal gambling operation, had thrown Kenji out and given him a beating the night of the murder.  Satako had spent time in prison previously for the brutal murder of a madam, and when he is arrested it looks as though the four women are off the hook.  However, Satako is eventually released for lack of evidence and disappears, while the police investigation goes cold.

Thanks to Kuniko’s free spending she has large sums owing to loan sharks.  One of these, Jumonji, gets wind of what really happened and trades her debt for information.  He then approaches Masako, whom he had known in her previous employment at the credit union, and makes her a proposition: that they form a service disposing of bodies for organised crime.  Surprisingly Masako agrees to form a partnership.  For her, it’s a job, unpleasant true, but not a world away from the assembly line in a boxed lunch factory and far better remunerated.

For some readers this may push the bounds of plausibility, firstly that one could run a business like this from home, cutting up bodies in the bathroom with nobody noticing what is going on.  Then, rather than distribute bags around the city, the plan is to ship boxes to an industrial incinerator in the provinces, apart from the head, which Jumonji says he will take separately.  As he has said he will fly to meet the consignment at the incinerator, presumably that means carrying it through airport security.  It seems rather risky, however relaxed Japanese internal flights.  The body disposal business pushes the story along but teeters close to melodrama, saved from it by Kirino’s impassive style.  The butchery, while graphic, is never overdone; this is not a gross-out horror novel.

Masako becomes aware that they are being stalked, and it does not seem to be the police still nosing around.  In fact it is Satako who is the investigator, spending freely to gather intelligence on them.  He is motivated by a desire for revenge, his arrest having wrecked his business, but also a growing obsession with Masako, who evokes feelings about his murder victim that had long been dormant.  Ironically the man on the wrong side of the law is able to penetrate the mystery in a way the police are unable to manage, and his battle of wills with Masako becomes the focus of the novel.  He is psychotic, simultaneously trying to lay, and play with, demons from his past, conflicted between suppressing the urges that caused him to murder and wanting to recreate the intense emotional involvement which he had experienced.  Love and hate, the desire to obliterate and the desire for possession, are subtly intertwined.  This feels a very Japanese form of pathology.

As well as the thriller aspect the novel is a commentary on Japanese society, its rigidities and inequalities, tackling themes of sexism, ageism and to an extent racial discrimination.  Masako is not typical of the submissive women we associate with Japanese society but her individualism  had cost her in the past.  She was disliked by management at her previous job despite being ferociously hardworking.  Even her co-workers despised a woman who fought for just treatment in an environment where pay disparity between men and women was blatant, promotions were denied to women, and they were expected to fulfil menial roles.  This is a judgemental society in which social conformity is prized, even when it is inauthentic and exploitative.

The experiences of Masako, Yoshi and Yayoi show the culture to be deeply misogynistic.  They are living marginal lives, expected to suspend their own desires in the service of others, with no reward or recognition.  Husbands are absent (in spirit if not in body) or abusive.  Children treat home like an hotel, or dump their own children and steal money.  Parents are distant, geographically and emotionally, and have their own problems.  There is little state support and the family is considered the primary source of care.  Notwithstanding Yoshie’s inability to look after her mother-in-law properly, only three hours’ assistance had been offered by the local authority.  For a nation that is seen as highly communitarian, there is actually little concern about how people are expected to cope.  When the police interview Yayoi, they express concern that she leaves her two children, aged 3 and 5, alone at night while she is at work.  They point out that there would be a problem if there were a fire or an earthquake, but there is no hint that the matter should be referred to social services as a case of neglect.

This is a portrait of women taken for granted, living on inadequate incomes but with limited opportunities, in a society where women start to become invisible once out of their 20s.  Even worse is the sexual attraction of some men for younger women, particularly the schoolgirl fetish that borders on paedophilia.  It is all part of the objectification of women in Japan.  The book also touches on the second-class status of Brazilian migrant workers who are ignored by the wider community, and the likelihood of young Chinese women to gravitate to the ‘entertainment’ industry.  For all its economic might, the country is shown as socially backward, prospects for women mainly confined to office work, factory work or, if pretty enough, bar work (in its various forms, some less savoury than others).  The book appeared in Japan in 1997 and one would like to think that conditions for women within Japanese society have improved in the last couple of decades.

The body disposal business stretches credibility, and similarly the ending is disappointingly implausible.  Why would Masako have gone back to that car park in the early morning when she was leaving the country anyway?  She would surely have done something unexpected by Satake: called a taxi or waited until the night shift had finished and dawn had broken.  It puts them together but is a forced situation.  Nor would he in turn have allowed himself to be surprised by her, after all his careful preparations.  That was sloppiness on his part which did not sit well with the resourcefulness he had shown up to this point.  The rape scene is well handled, lacking any prurience, but there is a suggestion that Satake and Masako come to identify with each other, somehow filling a mutual existential void on a plane where hate and desire coalesce and death is the fulfilment of passion, which betrays Masako’s previous determination to maintain her psychological independence.  The description of their thought processes becomes elliptical as the power balance shifts and emotions too deep for words pass between them.  It is a concatenation of love and death, but in the end Masako is more grounded in reality, and proves the stronger of the two.

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