Being a fan of Haruki Murakami has made me become interested in learning more about Japan and reading more Japanese literature. The only other Japanese author I had read until now was Banana Yoshimoto, whose books I’ve also enjoyed a lot, but I would definitely like to discover more contemporary authors. So I am taking part in the Hello Japan! challenge for May at In Spring it is the Dawn, which is on the subject of ‘Mystery and Mayhem’ and has given me a good reason to read a Japanese mystery story! I decided to read Out by Natsuo Kirino, which won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1998, and is a crime thriller about how four women who work together in a packed lunch factory are drawn into a murder.
This novel isn’t a mystery or detective novel in the usual sense, as we know who the criminals are from the start; it is more of a psychological thriller exploring motivation, which is what makes it interesting. The plot is initially about how the women were driven to crime to escape their unhappy and dreary lives, and then follows the aftermath of the murder and the women’s desperate attempts to escape suspicion as their crime gradually comes to light. At the opening of the novel, the four women at the factory already have a strange bond between them, despite the differences in their circumstances and personalities. They are drawn together even more closely when Yayoi, a young mother, impulsively kills her unfaithful, gambling-addict husband, and asks her friend Masako for help in covering up her crime. When Masako confides in the other two women, Kuniko and Yoshi, they also become involved in dismembering and hiding the body. Soon they are all in danger, not only from the police but also from a local nightclub owner, Satake, the police’s top suspect, who has lost everything and wants revenge on the real killer.
What I found interesting about this book was the relationships between the women, their day-to-day experiences and different characters, and what drew each of them away from their mundane and uneventful lives to become involved with such a violent crime. Their motives vary from the urgent need for money to pay off debts, to loyalty and friendship, and a darker, less definable desire for excitement and an escape from everyday reality. Masako is probably the most intriguing character, as she is intelligent, independent and enigmatic. She is somehow able to detach her emotions and cope with covering up the murder, treating it at the start almost as a puzzle she has to solve. Although Masako is quite damaged, I felt the author gets inside her head so that she is also the most sympathetic of the four.
I don’t usually read much crime fiction, and at times I found this book difficult to read because of the explicit violence. The exploration of very dark thoughts was also disturbing (although that must be the point…), especially in the character of Satake, whose psychopathic tendencies and twisted emotional life are quite chilling. What stood out for me in this novel was the very believable depiction of how an apparently ordinary person could become involved with murder, and the juxtaposition of everyday life with the crime, which at times results in black humour. The way in which the women co-operate is also interesting and is a kind of parody of the way they work together on the assembly line at the factory. I felt as if the book was written from a feminist angle, focusing on the way women in particular are worn down by the hard lives they might lead, and the many instances of misogyny they encounter from day to day.