Re: RARA-AVIS: Noir is still the color

From: Michael Robison (
Date: 05 Apr 2006

Bill Denton asks:

The article mentions Asa Nonami, Natsuo Kirino, and Miyuki Miyabi--anyone know their books?

*************** Oh yeah! I was much impressed by Natsuo Kirino's OUT.
 Here's a review I wrote on it:
               From Natsuo Kirino comes this grim and gruesome fairy tale. Alternating stark realism with gothic horror, the queen of Japanese crime weaves a spellbinding story of four desperate women working the nightshift at a box lunch factory. Above and beyond the standard fare for the crime and mystery genre, the novel delivers on many levels. At once it is a crime story, a feminist indictment against sexual discrimination, a philosophical treatise on the existential condition, a moral lesson on the dangers of greed, and a bizarre and erotic religious allegory. It is Kirino's special magic that skillfully combines all these elements into a tightly woven shotgun ride to hell.

When Yayoi strangles her scumbag husband, her three friends from work dispose of his body to cover up her crime. Each of the women has a sad and dysfunctional life, and Kirino portrays them in an unflinching manner that is still sensitive and empathetic. Yayoi suffered from an abusive husband who cheated on her, gambled away their money, and beat her. Yoshie struggles to support an invalid mother-in-law and two ungrateful daughters who have gone astray. Kuniko has succumbed to an obsession with consumerism that has swept the nation like a disease, leaving her broke and in debt to some dangerous people. Mosako's family is financially secure but they have allowed themselves to become alienated from one another and the walls they have built are slowly unraveling the fabric of their lives.

Sexual discrimination is a dominant theme in OUT, but Kirino keeps it closely linked to the story. She also avoids the temptation to paint her characters as innocent victims destroyed by discrimination. Masako's ill-fated career reflects prejudice against Japanese women, but rather than the sole reason for her downfall, that prejudice appears more as a corrosive acid that eats away at Masako's weakness, her tendency towards a coldness in her relationships. Kuniko shoulders even more blame for her predicament. She is stupid, shallow, and materialistic, but she is not so stupid as to miss the value that Japanese society places on female beauty, and her self-esteem suffers for it.

In his landmark treatise, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Frederick Nietzsche developed a philosophy dividing morality into a master and slave dichotomy. Nietzsche explained this dichotomy by comparing early Christian philosophy with that of the classic Romans. A Roman expressed his opinions openly and fiercely worked at altering the world to his own benefit. Instead of following rules, he made them, his morals self-serving and ruled by his will. The Roman philosophy, thus, represented a master view of morality.

On the other hand, Nietzsche exemplifies Christianity as a prime example of slave morality, stating that the genius of Christianity is that it deals the oppressed a superior moral hand. Rather than express anger openly at being wronged, which could have dangerous consequences, one is allowed resentful self-righteousness in forgiving them their sins. Rather than struggling to improve one's lot in this world, one looks to an eternal life in heaven. Humility is valued over pride. This, then, is the moral make-up of the slave mentality.

Nietzsche stated that the master and slave moralities employ different definitions of good and evil. Nietzsche proposed a mentality beyond master and slave, beyond good and evil, but he left no doubt that the philosophy of the slave was a defeatist philosophy, a will to death. Passive acceptance of one's lot in life amounts to a negation of the experience that is the essence of life. Kirino mirrors this in OUT's epigraph by Flannery O'Connor:
"The way to despair is to refuse any kind of experience..."

Nietzsche's concept of the two kinds of morality forms a major theme in Kirino's OUT. Yayoi's strangling of her abusive husband and his subsequent dismemberment is not just a crowd pleaser for lovers of the gruesome and macabre. The murder of her husband is a rejection of the slave mentality. In this context, it is not surprising that she is exhilarated by the experience:
"Strange that she'd never known she had such cruelty inside; still, she found this thrilling." She has liberated herself. Yayoi confides to Masako: "I somehow feel as though I've gotten stronger," and later Kirino notes: "Yayoi was overcome with the sensation that she had somehow been reborn, and she could feel a certain courage beginning to stir inside her."

Where Yayoi's emancipation comes hot-blooded and spontaneous, Masako's involvement is more purposeful and calculated. When Masako makes the decision to help Yayoi, she puts her former life, a passive nonexistence of drifting with the tide, behind her. Like Yayoi, she shirks off the slave mentality and chooses to exert her will. No longer willing to accept the poor hand she has been dealt in life, she steps out of the boundaries of the rules that have imprisoned her and fights to be master of her life, trading a will to death for a will to power.

Empowered by her decision to help Yayoi, Masako negotiates a bitter acceptance of her physical and emotional isolation, an isolation she shares with a gangster named Satake. Whereas Masako's predicament has a philosophical timbre, Satake's plight has a strange sadomasochistic religious undercurrent. Considering Kirino's professed influence by Flannery O'Connor, this is not surprising. O'Connor employed disturbing and profane Christian themes in her writing, and Kirino parallels this in Satake's endowment of messianic characteristics upon his victims, with multiple allusions to the symbolism of the Christian crucifixion. Satake's first victim is bound hand and foot, bleeding. She has stab wounds in her side. She finds both agony and ecstasy in her torture. As she dies, he professes his love for her, and he lives his life devoted to her memory. He dies a symbolic death in his first murder, and is reborn. When Masako asks why he wants to kill her, he responds that in her death he would find love. As the story progresses, Kirino draws Satake and Masako together in a spectacular dance macabre.

Stephen Snyder, a professor of Japanese and comparative literature at the University of Colorado, has produced a beautiful translation. Kirino's prose for the most part follows a terse economic style paralleling the American hardboiled patois made famous by Dashiell Hammett, but Snyder is equally adept at translating Kirino's lyrical elan:

"Engulfed in the hot stench of the city, he found that the boundary between his inner and outer selves seemed to dissolve. The fetid air seeped in through his pores and soiled what was inside, while his simmering emotions leaked out of his body into the streets." An economy of style could have perhaps reduced the word count in this passage, but it nevertheless carries spectacular imagery.

Snyder has several notable translations under his belt, including Ryu Murakami's COIN LOCKER BABIES and Miri Yu's GOLD RUSH.

Kirino was born in 1951, the middle child between two brothers. As a result of her father's job as an architect, she lived in many different cities growing up. When Natsuo was 14, her family settled down in Tokyo, and she has lived there ever since. Although she has a law degree, her professional life has always centered around the arts. She scheduled movies at a theater, edited and wrote for a magazine, but did not complete her first novel until the age of 41. Since then she has published 13 novels and three collections of short stories. OUT is Kirino's first novel to be translated into English. It received Japan's Grand Prix for Crime Fiction award in 1998, and was nominated for an Edgar. SOFT CHEEKS won the Naoki Prize, a major Japanese literary award, in 1999. Several of her novels have been made into movies. Kirino's latest book, GROTESQUE, is already targeted for an English translation.

Kirino's OUT portrays the heart of darkness in the land of the rising sun, a powerful and compelling work without easy answers, without comfortable niches. Like Flannery O'Connor, Kirino suggests a heretical redemption through transgression. It is painted in dark shades, hinting at a world and a moral system outside the comfortable confines of what is typically seen as right and wrong. There is no noble hero in selfless pursuit of truth. While laying down an unflinching view of a world awash in apathy, isolation, brutality, and greed, Kirino still maintains a degree of compassion, and in all of this sadness and ugliness, there is an unmistakable note of grace.

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