Once more, it’s been a little over three months since I last wrote, but there was in truth nothing relevant to write about, with the exception of having watched Studio MADhouse’s new WOLVERINE and X-MEN anime (IRON MAN is next). However, I decided to do extensive posts on both of those over here. X-MEN still needs doing and the WOLVERINE review is in Greek, so maybe I will endeavor to write something here over the summer.
Prologues, intros ans updates aside, I finally managed to finish Natsuo Kirino’s other book that has been translated in Greek by Metaichmio Publications, entitled OUT (of course, it’s also been translated in English by Vintage Books and Kodansha USA – take your pick). Remember how I had said that REAL WORLD was more of a psychological drama and depiction of the distorted views of Japanese teenagers? Well, the drama element is also present here, but the wealth of different, interesting characters, as well as a number of derangements they have or develop, evident or subtle, turns this book into a celebration of Alfred Hitchcock’s ROPE. But, once again, I am getting ahead of myself…
The book begins as the story of four women (do I see a pattern there? Four girl students in REAL WORLD, four adult women here…) working part-time in the night shift of a bento box factory, in what must have been one of the most glum cities of the Tokyo Prefecture, some time around the 90s (or perhaps as far back as the 80s – clues in the book could not point me to something more). These are, in order of age, Yoshi Azuma, Masako Katori, Yayoi Yamamoto and Kuniko Jonuchi. Their lives, are, to say the least, rather miserable, though at first they bear them with the stoic outlook that is on the surface of most Japanese people: Yoshi, whom they call the Captain (I suspect that is “Kaichou” translated) at thefactory, as she is the eldest, tries to make ends meet while taking care of her half-paralyzed mother-in-law and catering to her adolescent daughter’s monetary needs (usually, as idiotic as most adolescent needs). Masako has to deal with the near-android coldness and routine of her family, her husband drawing ever further away from her and their 17-year-old son, having dropped school, never speaking a word out of some ill-defined spite. Yayoi has to deal with an uncaring, abusive husband who has turned to gambling and escorts, blowing away all their savings, exposing her and their children to the danger of becoming destitute. Finally, Kuniko, a rather unsympathetic character, who progressively became the object of my disgust, is a fat, ugly young woman obsessed with the skin-deep prestige of expensive brands and living with an impotent male partner, who decides to leave her and take all the money he could dig up from their common savings. Meanwhile, not only can she not pay her numerous debts, she also starts to worry about paying of a loan-shark from whom she borrowed to pay them off in the first place.
A rather miserable bunch and yet they somehow find a niche of reality to exist in, trudging along night in and night out; that is, until one of them is pushed over the edge and takes the other three along for the ride. Yayoi’ s husband, as mentioned above, is frequenting a hostess club and gambles away at an illegal casino situated in the same building. Both are owned by ex-yakuza Mitsuyoshi Satake, a calm, rather frugal man with a peculiar, eerie quality about him. In fact, many years ago, Satake had brutally raped, tortured and murdered a woman stealing business from his gang; in a sick manner, twisted beyond all belief, he found the apex of pleasure by puncturing her body numerous times with a knife and raping her at the same time as sticking his fingers deep into her wounds, gaining a sense of their bodies almost fusing through copious amounts of blood. After that, he has never been with another woman, nor has resorted to any violence worth mentioning, his criminal activity restricted to his two illegal establishments. In fact, until his past is revealed by the narrator, Satake seems the perfect underworld gentleman.
One night, after Yayoi’s husband has lost every last yen of their savings, has stalked one of the hostesses to her home address over the past week (a Chinese girl, Anna, who is in love with Satake) and then tries to gamble on credit, Satake ends up kicking him out and having to rough him up a bit. By the time Kenji Yamamoto gets home, Yayoi has been obsessing with the bruise on her stomach, from where he punched her, when she screamed at him for gambling away their savings. Now, feeling like the complete loser that he is, after being thrown out the club and being beaten, he tries to demean her even further, not even turning around to look at her. That is the tipping point, where Yayoi snaps: she wraps her belt around his neck and tightens it until he is dead, all the while repeating to herself like a mantra that she wished him gone and only half-realizing that she is strangling him.
Suddenly, he is dead, she is liberated, a weight lifted from her heart and shoulders. The elation does not last, as she realizes she now has a dead body in her entrance hall and absolutely no idea what to do with it. She decides to call Masako and ask her to help her dispose of it. Masako reacts in an unexpectedly and rather chillingly calm manner, deciding that the best way is to chop him into small pieces, effectively separating all the joints, emptying the organs and removing the head; and feels she should call on Yoshi’s help, who is desperate for money and can make a hefty sum by being paid from Yayoi for the task, who intended to borrow the money from her parents. Masako, on the other hand, initially asks for nothing and even she cannot say why with certainty.
After she convinces Yoshi, she puts the body in the trunk of her car and goes to her shift as usual, waiting for the morning to deal with the gruesome business. Somewhere along the way to the factory, she is attacked by a Brazilian immigrant worker, Kazuo Miyamori (actually, half Brazilian, half-Japanese), who seems intent upon sexually assaulting her and yet she easily talks him down and leaves him in awe of her. His behavior definitely points to something else than your run-of–the-mill sexual predator.
Mind you, all this takes place during the first 100 pages out of a staggering 545 (416 in the English edition). Over the course of the book, with the body being chopped to pieces, Kuniko becoming involved, the pieces being disposed of, the police becoming involved and investigating, Satake becoming a suspect and the four women becoming slowly or rapidly altered from the experience, there’s a lot to chew on here. What starts out as one battered woman’s bid for freedom and dignity and another’s offer of a helping hand, rapidly turns into a spiral (however, not necessarily a downward one) of intrigue, greed and (further) murder. This is definitely not the law’s side of the story, although its representatives are far from two-dimensional, as they were in REAL WORLD.
OUT is more of a crime thriller than a detective story, since any and all truly interesting detective work and maneuvering is done by people who are, both essentially and typically, on the wrong side of the law, some even on the wrong side of humanity. It’s a surreal dance of monsters slumbering as banal people and people finding that, when all meaning is lost in life, not necessarily in the aftermath of a tragedy, there is a terrifying aspect of humanity that does justice to the biblical concept of inherent evil.
All in all it was a very satisfying book, much more carefully planned and laid out, its characters frightfully believable and once more, a portrayal of the sick underbelly of Japanese society, an underbelly that doesn’t hide exclusively in the slums and criminal syndicates, but in the average home where reigns supreme the anguish of a deafening silence and the unthinkable lies just beyond the self-induced numbness. I highly recommend it.
See you around,