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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #25 (June 15, 2004), page 14.
A murder lost in translation
By Natsuo Kirino
Kodansha International, 2003
Hardcover, 360 pages, $22.95
By Mike Street
Special to the Asian Reporter
For the first time in its 48-year history, the Mystery Writers of America has nominated a Japanese novelist, Natsuo Kirino, for its prestigious Edgar Award. Kirino, popular in Japan since the mid-1980s, has published over forty novels there, including Out, the novel that earned her the Edgar nomination. She has already won several writing awards in Japan, including the 1998 Japan Mystery Writers’ Association Prize for Out. Three of her novels (including Out) have also been made into motion pictures. Small wonder, then, that Kodansha International chose this acclaimed book to introduce Kirino to American audiences.
Out tells the story of a group of women working at a box-lunch factory in Tokyo, and the violent way in which they choose to handle the pressures facing modern Japanese women. Masako Katori, laid off from her corporate job after complaining about sexual preferences in promotions, has a son and husband who rarely speak to her. Kuniko Jonouchi, in debt up to her ears, gets no help from her slacker husband. Yoshie Azuma, a widow, must care for her indigent grandmother, her daughter, and her toddler grandson. Young and pretty Yayoi Yamamoto works to support her abusive husband’s gambling habit.
Yayoi strangles her husband Kenji in a fit of rage after he tells her he has gambled away all the family’s finances. She immediately calls Masako for help, saying she doesn’t want to involve the police, evidently because of the shame it will bring her and her family. Masako agrees to help her dispose of the body, and the other two women are soon involved in the conspiracy, ostensibly for the money Yayoi promises them.
Women who work in a foodstuffs factory and also want to dispose of a body suggests a grim solution worthy of Hannibal Lecter. Instead, however, they choose the pedestrian course of cutting up Kenji’s body and depositing the pieces in trashcans around town. After the parts are discovered the police suspect Mitsuyoshi Satake, owner of the casino where Kenji gambled, instead of Yayoi. This suspicion ruins Satake’s reputation and his business and dredges up the violent ghosts of his past; thus, after the police release him, he is determined to find the real murderer and have his revenge. Akira Jumonji, a local loan shark who is suspicious of Kuniko’s sudden wealth, joins him in his search.
Because it features women reacting violently to society’s unfair pressures, Out has been called a feminist novel, and Kirino compared to such contemporary Western authors as Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter. But deeper digging uncovers an image of women that would enrage American feminists. One of the subplots of the book is Masako’s emotional involvement with the factory’s "pervert," a relationship that begins with her thwarting his sexual assault with a passionate kiss and a promise to meet him later — hardly a technique taught in rape-prevention class. Both Jumonji and Satake also develop obsessions with Masako, but her emotions for Satake takes the psychological sympathy between captor and captive to an unbelievable, and decidedly un-feminist, degree.
And for all the miraculous transformations these women undergo, Kirino offers very little explanation of their motives, beyond the financial. These conventional women turn quickly to murder, dismemberment, blackmail, and lives of crime, their consciences evaporating effortlessly at the prospect of making some fast money. The sketchy female characters are decidedly less interesting than Jumonji and Satake, the only real detectives in a mystery novel that holds little in the way of actual mystery. The two men discover the murderers so quickly and easily that one wonders how thick, or lazy, Japanese policeman really are. The transformation of Satake from semi-benevolent club owner to sadistic, obsessed murderer is given more psychological attention than the transformations of any of the four women, and is thus more interesting.
The book’s English translator runs into some cross-cultural difficulties, especially during emotional moments. Kuniko and her husband exchange such heated barbs as, "Keep it down, okay?" in their final fight, while Yayoi kills her husband after he asks her, "Can’t you be nice once in a while?" And Masako decides Satake must die when she remembers that he’d called her a "smart-ass." Undoubtedly these are untranslatable Japanese idioms, but their mildness in English drains the strength out of what should be powerful scenes.
It may be that the themes of the book do not translate well, either. These women may be considered powerful in Japan simply for abandoning more traditional roles to become criminals. But they are rather minor criminals — only Yayoi might be a murderer, and she has the defense of passion — and their offenses seem even smaller by how little they consider them. Japanese women might better understand why these benign verbal barbs might induce strong emotion, or why Kirino’s thinly drawn female characters would commit a crime to help a coworker avoid the embarrassment of a fatal domestic dispute. But American readers will no doubt find these women less than believable, their actions baffling, and the real mystery of Out why it is considered a feminist novel at all.