Out by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published in 1997 as Out アウト
English translation first published in 2003

The Blurb

This mesmerizing novel tells the story of a brutal murder in the staid Tokyo suburbs, as a young mother who works the night shift making boxed lunches strangles her abusive husband and then seeks the help of her coworkers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime. The coolly intelligent Masako emerges as the plot’s ringleader, but quickly discovers that this killing is merely the beginning, as it leads to a terrifying foray into the violent underbelly of Japanese society. 

At once a masterpiece of literary suspense and pitch-black comedy of gender warfare, Out is also a moving evocation of the pressures and prejudices that drive women to extreme deeds, and the friendships that bolster them in the aftermath.

The Verdict

A dark and gruesome crime story with rich, dimensional characters.


My Thoughts

Out introduces us to a group of four women who work the night shifts at a boxed lunch factory: Masako, Yoshie, Kuniko and Yayoi. These women are not exactly friends but they do rely upon each other, sharing troubles as they work. Masako notices that Yayoi is badly bruised and she reveals that her husband had beat her the previous night during a fight in which he revealed that he had spent all their savings gambling and in a failed pursuit to cheat on her.

The next night, shortly before work, Yayoi calls Masako to ask for her help. When she arrives she learns that Yayoi had impulsively killed her husband and asks her advice. Masako, who is quite unflappable, quickly decides on a plan where they will all go to work and she will dispose of the body the next day while Yayoi returns home to establish an alibi. During that night’s shift Masako ends up asking for Yoshie’s help, calling in a favor to do so, and the pair set about carving up the corpse. Unfortunately the irresponsible Kuniko also stops by while they are at work, seeking a loan, and sees enough of what is happening that they have to include her in the scheme.

From this opening we are clearly in inverted crime territory. We witness the murder, so we know exactly what happened, and we see what the women are planning to do to hide their involvement. The question, at least in this first part of the novel, is whether they have made any mistakes and whether the police will be able to see through what happened.

The circumstances surrounding the murder are such that the reader may find themselves feeling some degree of empathy for Yayoi. Not only has she been betrayed financially as her husband has spent all of her savings pursuing another woman, she has also been bullied and badly beaten. It is certainly clear that her husband is a pretty despicable figure and will likely intend her harm again if she stays in the marriage yet the murder does not happen in self-defense and it seems that she does have other options open to her such as escaping to return to her parents. Clearly she has commited a crime and so we may question what justice should look like.

Though the situation Yayoi and her colleagues wind up in is quite compelling, I did have some doubts regarding the method used to murder her husband. This is portrayed as a sudden and impulsive act but I am not sure that strangulation with a belt that is being worn is something that someone would spontaneously think to do (it’s easier if she was holding it or it was nearby). That said, it does make sense of how she manages to overpower and murder her husband.

While I have some issues with the moment in which the murder is committed, I think Kirino does an excellent job of creating believable reasons for each of the other women to get involved at help her. Each character has their own reasons and they are quite varied, each reflecting that character and the circumstances they are in. Masako is the most ambiguous of the group but by the end I feel the reader will have a clear idea of who that character is and why they get involved, even if the book never directly has the character state that reason.

Each of the group feel credible, in part because of the detail we are given about their lives. From Kuniko, who is drowning in credit card and loan shark debt, to Masako, whose relationship with her husband is impersonal and whose son hasn’t spoken for a year after being expelled from school, to Yoshie, who is caring for an invalid and children who treat her badly, each member of the group feels richly drawn and real. More importantly, several of them change as they respond to the events they have experienced, contributing to tensions later in the book.

In addition to following the actions of the women from the boxed lunch factory, we also follow several other characters in the story. These include a yakuza type who runs the gambling establishment Yayoi’s husband frequented, Anna – the Chinese immigrant who managed that club, a money lender named Jumonji and a Brazilian-Japanese employee at the factory named Kazuo. Some of these characters initially seem quite peripheral to the main story though most eventually cross over and have an impact, in several cases pushing that main story in a different and unexpected direction.

Following the chapters detailing the crime and the efforts made to hide the body we then follow as the police investigation the crime. During this sequence we remain focused on the women and the tensions building within the group but we also get to share in the detective’s guesses about what happened. As with many stories of the inverted type, the reader may well have detected vulnerabilities in the suspects’ stories and part of the tension during this section comes from seeing whether they can correctly interpret the evidence.

Out is certainly an inverted crime story but it also could be said to fit into several other traditions or sub-genres within crime fiction. It has some moments of grotesque horror, not just those sequences in which we observe the carving apart of a corpse (which is less gruesomely described than you would expect, though enough that it may make sensitive readers queasy) but also the extremely graphic descriptions of a combined rape and murder that are enough to give you nightmares. It also has some elements I might consider noir – certainly there is no happiness here for any of the characters and little hope for the future, either for them or for society more generally.

There is quite a lot of discussion of the roles and economic expectations of men and women in society. Some of this is explicit, such as when the detective investigating the murder queries why the women would have chosen to work night shifts, but it can also be inferred in much of the plotting and character development. Each of these characters are living close to the edge and their economic choices are clearly limited although the reasons for that differ between the characters. We also see how economic realities are trapping these women and limiting other choices for them.

Strangley the writer who most came to mind as a comparison when I was reading this was Jim Thompson because of the book’s tone and themes. Here we have a group of characters who are in effect losers – characters on the edge of losing everything – who enact a dangerous plan to survive. This book tracks the inevitable collapse of their friendships as they find themselves out of control, turn upon each other and risk destruction. We even have a depiction of brutal malevolence in Satake, our gambling club owner who proves every bit as disturbing a figure as a Lou Ford or Nick Corey.

As the book nears its conclusion, the action and suspense elements increasingly dominate. We know that everything risks collapsing around the characters but it is uncertain how each will be affected. In the end each character’s fate feels pretty appropriate and while I feel that there is a little padding in those final chapters, the tension that the situation generates and the feeling that anything might happen kept me turning the pages to the end.

Which brings me to the point where I have to try and summarize how I feel about this book – an unusually difficult task in this case because I feel rather conflicted. The crime itself is not especially clever – indeed I might suggest that it is fairly mundane. What makes it horrifying and compelling is the exploration of the way it affects these women, both materially and emotionally, and the choices they make to try and survive.

Ultimately it is the novel’s characters that will stick with me most, far more than the premise of this story. I spent 400 pages feeling like I was growing to understand them and the decisions they take. At times that can be a frustrating experience – often we see their mistakes coming – but I think it is always an interesting one.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.

Confessions by Kanae Minato, translated by Stephen Snyder

Book Details

Originally published as 告白 in 2008
English language translation published in 2014

The Blurb

HER PUPILS KILLED HER DAUGHTER.
NOW, SHE WILL HAVE HER REVENGE.

After calling off her engagement in wake of a tragic revelation, Yuko Moriguchi had nothing to live for except her only child, four-year-old Manami. Now, following an accident on the grounds of the middle school where she teaches, Yuko has given up and tendered her resignation.

But first she has one last lecture to deliver. She tells a story that upends everything her students ever thought they knew about two of their peers, and sets in motion a maniacal plot for revenge.

The Verdict

A powerful, fascinating and utterly devastating read. The subject matter is much darker than I typically like but it is handled very well.


My Thoughts

Kanae Minato’s Confessions begins with Yuko Moriguchi, a middle school homeroom teacher, addressing her class. She informs them that she will be retiring from the profession and describes how and why she has come to that decision. The students are already aware that her four year-old daughter Manami had been found drowned several weeks earlier in the school’s swimming pool. What really shocks them is when she tells them that two of their number were responsible for the death. As she puts it, two of them murdered her daughter.

This chapter, delivered in the second person as though speaking to the whole class, outlines what Yuko has discovered in her investigation. She doesn’t directly name names, though the identities of students A and B are easily inferred and confirmed in the following chapter, but she takes us through the core events that led to these two teenagers killing her daughter. Her account is extremely thorough though the one thing it misses is an understanding of why the murder happened.

The subsequent chapters are each told from the perspectives of other characters including, eventually, the two boys in question. An effect of telling the story from these multiple perspectives is that it feels like we are circling ever more tightly around the explanation, getting closer to an understanding with each fresh perspective until we finally hear from the chief instigator himself and see exactly why he wanted to commit such an appalling crime.

The book’s title, Confessions, is extremely apt. Each of the chapters is told in a slightly different style though in the second person. The intended audience is different each time – one account is written as a letter, another a diary, another a spoken confessional with the last being a blog entry. This gives the text a really direct feeling, involving the reader in the events and making them feel that the two guilty boys might be someone we know or that we might be complicit in some of what happened.

This second person approach is unusual in books for a reason. It is extremely difficult to do well and sustain but the creation of these multiple viewpoints makes it work. It is particularly effective when read aloud so I can certainly recommend the audiobook version of this book which is read by Elaina Erika Davis and Noah Galvin. That first chapter in particular feels quite arresting and while I wish a different narrator had been used for each chapter to really drive home the effect, I think simply having a male and female reader works well enough and both performers read skillfully.

While there is a certain amount of revisiting of the same events, these multiple perspectives are skillfully crafted to avoid repeating points too frequently. Events are often discussed tangentially or reframed as parts of different discussions based on what is most important to that character. To give an example, four of the accounts mention an incident in which Yuko had refused to buy an item for her daughter and yet only her own account describes that exchange. The others pass judgment or see an opportunity in that moment but without recapping most of what actually happened.

These chapters flesh out motivations and our understanding of each of the characters. In some cases we can see how and why one character comes to believe or interpret an event in a particular way, even though we possess information that would suggest something different. The strongest examples of this come in a chapter narrated by the mother of one of the boys which is full of statements that fundamentally misinterpret what she is witnessing. The reader has information that she does not which allows us to see the flaw in her thinking, but those flawed assumptions are just as important to our understanding of what happened as the truth.

Confessions does not encourage us to have any sympathy at all for these two boys. What they do is awful and terribly upsetting. I have mentioned before that I find stories featuring violence towards children difficult to read and this was no exception, probably explaining why it has sat for quite some time on my TBR pile. I expected to find this a difficult read and it was. There are no happy endings here which is appropriate – if there were it would feel horribly contrived or misjudging of the mood – and I think the reader may well reach the end and question whether every action taken was appropriate. Whether there was any justice, if not, and whether there could have been any justice.

These two boys are clearly to blame for what happened and yet what this book does encourage us to do is see the forces that made them who they are. After learning the facts of the case we see how easily this scenario could have turned out very differently. Their guilt does not preclude the possibility that others may be guilty too.

Nor are there any heroes. I can think of just two characters depicted in a positive or noble light. One is the murdered daughter Manami who is a very typical four year old – occasionally petulant or naughty but also sweet and loving. The other is a man who remains in the background throughout the story, frequently referred to but never really active in what goes on. Everyone else we encounter is rendered in shades of grey and be prepared – Minato presses down pretty hard with her pencil at times to give us some pretty dark renderings.

In addition to exploring the characters she creates, Minato also explores a variety of themes relating to justice, punishment, parenthood, collective responsibility and the glorification of criminals. While the details of these issues are often specific to Japan, the broader discussions are universal and I think most readers will be able to draw easy parallels to similar issues or cases in their own cultural experience.

The one theme that may be less accessible to western readers is its discussion of hikikomori, adolescent and adult shut-ins and, in particular, the way society perceives that group. I think Minato describes the anxiety and social judgment around this topic well enough that readers who are unfamiliar with the idea will get the jist of what is being discussed but some may find it helpful though to have an understanding of the term to better understand that anxiety and characters’ responses to it given how important it is to the second and third chapters of the book. This 15 minute English-language report from France24 offers a basic overview, as does this much shorter overview from Crunchyroll aimed at anime viewers.

This richness of theme coupled with interesting and complicated characters makes for a really potent read that left me rather shaken. Indeed I can’t help but note that it has taken me longer to write my thoughts about the book than it took me to read it – a mark of when a book has really made an impression on me. It is in my opinion a rather fine example of the whydunnit type of inverted mystery story, exploring how multiple influences can come together to create a truly devastating situation.

Confessions will not be for everyone. It is a really dark book that offers no hope or positivity for the reader to really grasp onto. At its end I was left feeling uncomfortable and terribly sad about what I had just read. Still, in spite of that darkness and that sadness, I think the book was fundamentally about something big and important: our notion of justice, punishment and how we choose to assign blame for crime. This book does not offer answers but it does pose some difficult questions that will linger with me for some time to come.