Fiction : Desperate Housewives, Japan-style
Natsuo Kirino, Out (Vintage International, 2005)
Out, the first of Natsuo Kirino’s work to be translated into English, is billed as a thriller—it won Japan’s Grand Prix for crime fiction and was a finalist for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allen Poe Award—but it’s also a bold satire of the lives of working-class Japanese women.
Although Out offers more than its fair share of mutilated corpses, the most appalling crimes described here are the evisceration of the hopes of the female protagonists, and the attempted murder of their sense of autonomy.
The story centers around four women who work the graveyard shift at a boxed-lunch factory located in the seedy outskirts of Tokyo. They stick together, though they don’t even really like each other—a shared bond of poverty and desperation binds them close.
Their misery doesn’t end when they leave the bento factory at 5am, bleary-eyed and exhausted. Yoshie, whom everyone calls “The Skipper,” because of her efficient, take-charge nature at the head of the conveyor belt, is a widow who spends her daytime hours caring for her selfish daughter and her cranky, bedridden mother-in-law. Masako, a cool, no-nonsense chain-smoker, secretly blames herself for driving her husband to sleep in a separate room, and for causing her teenage son to suddenly go mute. The younger Yayoi still has her hopes of a better future with her two little boys, but her abusive husband threatens to destroy everything with his excessive gambling and philandering. Kuniko, who cares only about clothes and food, is the least popular member of the group.
Yayoi is the first to snap. One hot summer night, after learning her husband has finally depleted all her hard-earned savings, she erupts into a vengeful rage and strangles him with her belt. Without batting an eyelash, Masako offers to help Yayoi—a gesture that touches off a gruesome scheme that quickly spirals out of control.
Masako decides that the best way to cover Yayoi’s tracks is to dismember her husband’s body and scatter the parts around Tokyo, and she bribes the other two women into helping her. Just when the women think they’re off the hook, strange characters start popping up, following them and asking pointed questions. Some of these inquisitors turn out to be rather menacing, and as summer hardens into fall, the women realize their own fates may be even worse than that of Yayoi’s sashimi-ed husband.
Out is told through a series of shifting, overlapping perspectives, so we are not only privy to the thoughts of the four women, but also those of the characters they collude with, and those that are hunting for them. There are two sleazy men who are key to the multi-layered plot, and the view into their psyches is truly disturbing. Both view women as toys for their pleasure and profit, and they never stop criticizing our heroines.
The treatment of Kuniko is particularly dispiriting. When she interviews for the job of a bar hostess, the owner tells her she’s too old (she’s 29) because the customers “like them fresh.” A loan shark who comes collecting at her apartment sizes up Kuniko by saying that “she looked repulsive at best—a living embodiment of his belief that all women as they grew older had something grimy about them.” And in the end, when a psychopathic killer connected to the crime chooses Kuniko as his next victim, her “large, bovine body” completely turns him off. Poor Kuniko: even the neighborhood rapist rejects her!
In Out, Kirino depicts working-class Japanese women as slaves to their husbands, children, in-laws, bosses, and society in general. Even Masako, for all her stoniness and self-possession, is a victim: we learn that she was fired from her job of twenty-two years just for asking for a promotion. While at first it seems unlikely that these docile housewives would be able to kill a man in cold blood, or chop up his corpse with their kitchen knives, we later realize that Yayoi’s dead husband was probably a perfect symbol of injustice. Which is why we hold our breath until the very last page of this harrowing tale, hoping like crazy that Masako, Yoshie, Yayoi and even Kuniko will finally come out on top.
Corrie Pikul is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Corrie Pikul is a writer based in Brooklyn.