Friday 18 July 2008

Feminist noir, Japanese style

I've been looking forward to Natsuo Kirino's crime thriller Out for a long time and it was definitely worth the wait. It was plot-driving in the best possible ways, being well-paced, tense, and creepy without being nauseatingly bloody like Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup.

I haven't read much crime fiction, however, so maybe that's par for the course and there's some other standard I should be judging the book by. Aw, never mind that - Out was just a really good read. Snakes and Earrings was the leprous, homeless man's Out. That burns, I know, but I think it's an apt metaphor.

Not to give too much away, Out follows the lives of 4 women who work together on the night shift in a boxed lunch factory. One murders her husband and the other 3 end up chopping up his body and getting rid of it. But this is just the beginning, and all 3 of the women who dispose of the body end up in various ways involved in other aspects of Tokyo's criminal underworld.

The main character, Masako, becomes the ringleader (she's the only one who has the chutzpah to chop off the heads) and ends up being forced into a twisted relationship with someone as broken inside as she is...and things really get crazy. Seriously good, if very often disturbing, storyline on this one. I'm REALLY looking forward to reading more of Kirino's stuff.

I can't only say that this novel was a really good read though. I've read a respectable amount of Japanese fiction but this is the first one I've read that really looks at the complicated social and economic position in which modern Japanese women can so often find themselves, particularly in urban centres like Tokyo.

The blood, gore, etc all creeped me out, yes - but so did the claustrophobia of these female characters' lives. They went nowhere but home and work, and sometimes to each other's homes, but usually only in an emergency. Their jobs and homes and entire lives were rendered in headache-inducing, prison-like terms that convincingly made chopping up bodies seem like freedom.

Feminist noir, indeed; in this novel, the horror of everyday life was never really outdone by the horror of the exceptional experience of cutting up a murder victim. But "feminist" is a term that can only very problematically be applied to Out. I can't say why I'm making this assertion without giving away important plot details. If you've already read it, you'll know; if you do read it, you'll know when you get there where the "feminist" in "feminist noir" starts to become broken inside too.

That said, the totally horrifying playing out of gender roles at the end of the book is also central to why the book is good. Like any good book dealing with either crimes or gender, Out never lets you get comfortable. Yes, folks, it's pulp - but it's smart pulp.


Beaman said...

The gore of Japanese movies that I've seen has rather put me off that type of literature completely. Maybe I will try again.

Pen Me A Poem

Bookphilia said...

Out definitely has gore and other horrible things but the emphasis is definitely on the psychological rather than the physical.