BREAKING OUT OF JAPAN

Few Japanese novelists--and fewer of those women--have been widely read in English. Natsuo Kirino looks set to change that with "OUT," her controversial six-year-old best seller, just released in the United States (368 pages. Kodansha International. Translated by Stephen Snyder). The novel tackles disturbing themes: the subjugation of women, domestic abuse and a woman's murder of her husband. Yet Kirino, 51, one of Japan's most popular crime and mystery writers, says she wrote "OUT" to create a vision of normality. "I wanted to read a novel about an ordinary, middle-aged housewife, but there weren't any," she says. "The only ones I could find were about wives in rather well-off families or housewives fretting about their husbands' infidelities. So I decided to write one for myself. Every character in my book would have some flaw in her makeup; everyone would have something on her mind."

That's putting it mildly. "OUT" is the story of four women who work nights in a box-lunch factory in Tokyo, filling containers with fried chicken and curry sauce. One day, driven by long-simmering anger and hatred, the petite and pretty Yayoi, 34, strangles her husband, a gambler and philanderer who physically abuses her. When she comes to her senses, she turns to Masako, a smart and strong-willed co-worker, who recruits two other women to help cover up the crime. Together they cut up the body and dispose of it. Though the story line may be chilling, Kirino depicts the four women as plausible and entirely sympathetic. She also paints a brutally realistic picture of contemporary Japanese society and the despair of the low-paid workers who make it run.

When it was published in Japan in 1997, "OUT" struck a raw nerve. One talk-show host condemned Kirino for "moral laxity" and found it "appalling" that a wife would murder her husband. But her ordinary, underprivileged characters won the hearts of many women. It has since sold 600,000 copies--huge for Japan--won the country's top mystery award and been made into a TV series and a movie. Critics declared Kirino the country's first hard-boiled female writer, and her subsequent works ("Soft Cheeks" in 1999 and the recently published "Grotesque") have earned high praise and swarms of fans. "Though ["OUT"] left a bad taste in the mouth, it was very interesting," says Mari Sato, a 21-year-old anthropology student. "I don't think this is a mystery book at all. It is a psychological novel."

Although this is Kirino's first appearance in English, women everywhere should be able to relate to her characters' frustrations on some level. Yayoi, a hardworking mother of two children, feels vindicated when she finally kills her abusive husband. "It feels so good, she told herself," writes Kirino. "It was odd that she never knew she had this cruelty inside, but still she found the whole thing thrilling." Masako, the ringleader, is virtually estranged from her husband and son. Yoshie, a widow known at the factory as the "Skipper," has to take care of her bed-ridden and incontinent mother-in-law. And Kuniko, who ultimately betrays her co-workers by telling their dark secret, is obsessed with shopping though she is deeply in debt. Kirino remains a detached observer of their exploits, writing in a spare, unsentimental style.

For Kirino, producing "OUT" was a liberating experience. "I myself was filled with a terrific feeling of release and freedom," she says, remembering the last chapter when Masako sets out to buy the airplane ticket that will help her escape her past. She immersed herself in her characters, studying part-time foreign workers in Japan and the night life in Tokyo's Kabukicho district--even working the night shift at a box-lunch factory so she could get the details just right. But she doesn't consider herself "hard-boiled" at all, insisting she is merely "penetrating the waves of reality." Indeed, her best-known character in Japan--the wildly popular female detective Miro Murano--is featured in a series that focuses less on cold blooded murder than on urban loneliness and other modern-day concerns. "If I weren't a writer, I'd probably be one of those [housewives] living in one of those small houses," she says. Thankfully for readers everywhere, she closed that door and found another way out.

BREAKING OUT OF JAPAN | News