Out is a crime thriller novel by Natsuo Kirino, published in Japan in 1997.
Masako Katori works the night shift at a bento factory, making boxed lunches in a cold, sanitized warehouse with a group of other women who need the cash bonus and shorter hours that the day shift doesn't offer. Each of these women have unique home lives that compliment their disposition at the factory. Masako is a strong, harsh woman whose husband and son have completely disengaged from their lives with her, leaving her feeling lonely even in her own home. Yoshie is known as The Skipper—a dependable single mother who works herself to the bone taking care of her disabled mother-in-law, only to be taken advantage of by her two daughters, who constantly ask for money she doesn't have. Kuniko lives a life of faux luxury that drives her into debt, adorning herself with knockoff designer clothing to appear high-class and desirable to even the most loathsome of men, who nonetheless see right through her facade. Yayoi is a mother to two small children, whose husband Kenji has gambled away all their money playing baccarat at a local nightclub, and has recently become violent.
The meat of the story begins when Yayoi gets into a fight with drunken Kenji and strangles him before work one night. At the factory, Masako agrees to help her get rid of the body so she can play the role of a distraught wife, and Masako persuades Yoshie to help her cut the body into pieces at her house later that day. Feeling left out and desperate for cash, Kuniko stops by the house to ask Masako for a loan, and she is pulled into the crime with the other women.
With Kenji's body wrapped in dozens of plastic bags, the women set off to distribute them around town to be picked up with the garbage. Kuniko, looking for the easy way out, drops her share of the bags in trash cans at a local park, where they are picked apart by crows and later identified as human body parts by the police. An investigation follows, and the women are scrutinized closely, but they convince the police that Kenji never came home that night and the police arrest the owner of the nightclub Kenji was playing baccarat at—a man named Satake, who had already been improsoned for the brutal rape and murder of a woman years ago.
For a while, the coast seems clear, but after a month, Satake is found to be innocent and is released from prison, only to find that his business has crumbled in his absence and his secret has spread through town. The life that he built as a free man is gone, and he vows to make Kenji's real killer pay. He quickly determines Kenji's wife is to blame, and sends spies to gather information about her, as well as the other women in the factory. When he has enough information, he gets a job as a security guard at the very factory they work in and moves into an apartment near Kuniko, whom he easily seduces and probes for information before strangling her.
Concurrently, Masako teams up with an old colleague—a loan shark named Jumonji who has ties to criminal circles. He convinces her that her skills as a butcher are profitable, and they get into the business of body disposal, pulling Yoshie in with the promise of money. The first job goes well, but they are horrified when the second body turns up—it's Kuniko, and they have no choice but to dissect her as well, terrified for their own fates.
As they try to keep themselves safe, Satake ties up another loose end. He pays Yayoi a visit and intimidates her into handing over the money she was given from Kenji's life insurance policy, and Yayoi is too ashamed to admit this to her peers. Satake begins his hunt for Masako, whom he realizes reminds him of the woman he killed so many years ago, and he wants to recreate the disturbing night he had with her.
It is all too easy for Satake to grab Masako in the factory parking lot in the middle of the night. He brings her to an abandoned factory nearby and begins his slow, passionate assault on her, beating and raping her in the freezing warehouse. Masako struggles until dawn, when she retrieves a scalpel from her discarded jacket and slices open Satake's face. They share a solemn moment together while he bleeds out on the factory floor.
A few days later, Masako decides to leave the pieces of her life behind and uses Satake's stolen money to buy an airplane ticket. The end of the book leaves us wondering what kind of life Masako will lead and where she will go.
This book cannot be described easily. It is slow at times, thrilling at others, and intriguing the whole way through. I found myself immediately interested in the idea of working at the bento factory, and Kirino describes the day-to-day activities with perfect detail, making me feel like I was working alongside the women. Each of the main characters has an intricate backstory that perfectly explains their motivations throughout the novel, and I never felt that anyone acted out of character. The plot was logical and methodical, and though some characters are very emotionless (Masako, Satake), others are brimming with emotion, encompassing a wide range of reactions to the despicable content depicted in the story.
It is important to note that this crime novel was written by a woman in Japan in the 90s, and that in itself was taboo at the time. In Japan, women were (and potentially still are) expected to be subservient to men, and Kirino makes this more than clear in her writing. Though the book is a feminist story, she does not make her female characters perfect, which I appreciated for the most part. OUT tackles many feminist topics, such as: the role of women in heterosexual relationships, motherhood, the male gaze, being a career-driven woman, women as caretakers, and many others.
Each female character has a handful of negative traits, and I was satisfied with all of the characters except one: Kuniko. From the very beginning of the story, we see Kiniko assaulting her live-in boyfriend and humiliating him, and we are told that she leeches money off him to buy expensive goods. She is immediately unlikable, and considering her role in the story, she has to be. The one negative trait in particular I struggled with was her weight. Kuniko is often described as being overweight, which is a physical manifestation of her gluttony, but I found Kuniko to be such a repulsive character (in a good way) from the very beginning that the constant mention of her weight as an undesirable feature became overwhelming. The other characters are thin, and Kuniko is singled out for her weight by nearly everyone, even going so far as to mention her fat when cutting up her body at the end of the story. Kirino touches on womens' beauty standards throughout the book, especially in regard to mens' standards for women, and I had no problems with those passages, but Kuniko being the only overweight character is negative representation, as she is meant to be the most corrupt of all the women.
The male characters are by and large abhorrent in the novel, and while I understand the desire to make every character imperfect, the men are skewed toward truly awful. Satake is the most dastardly of men, working as a pimp and seeking out beautiful women to treat as pets and nothing more, hiding his deep desire to kill another woman while reaching orgasm—his ultimate climax. Jumonji dates high school girls throughout the book, and often mentions how women over this age are disgusting. Though I didn't mention him in my summary, Kazuo is the only recurring male character who is slightly redeemable, but even that can be argued. He is a Brazilian-Japanese foreigner who attempts to sexually assault Masako out of pure loneliness, then seeks her forgiveness for months as he falls in love with her, despite her rejections.
There is no guiding light in this book that is meant to show us what a good man should look like, but there is no such light for women, either, and it left me wondering if Kirino overlooked the role of a strong, healthy male character. Perhaps there was no room in the book for a character like this, but the lack of one may leave the reader with the impression that all men are disgusting creatures that only want women for their bodies. Kazuo is the only man with a positive character arc, but he never lets go of his infatuation with Masako, and the only character who treats women like humans is Jumonji—who only does so because the women in question are too old and decrepit for his taste. Though this did raise an eyebrow for me while reading, I can forgive it, considering none of the major characters are meant to be very likable. They are all morally grey.
One of my major dissatisfactions with the book was the amount of time spent in each of the characters’ points of view. My copy of Out has only 400 pages, and some of the characters are given many pages of backstory in their POV only to come up a few times in the story. Kirino is skilled at creating characters, but I feel the story could have been more succinct if some of these characters faded into the background. We saw the POV of Anna, one of Satake's employees, but we had recently read a chapter from Satake's POV that covered almost every topic in Anna's chapter. We saw a detective's POV, who never comes up again in the story afterwards. We even saw Masako's POV at the end of the story, right after we read Satake's POV describing the assault in the abandoned warehouse, and Masako's chapter was an exact play-by-play of what we just read. If some extraneous POVs and backstories were removed, the book could be cut down by 100 pages—and to me, that would be a good thing.
In contrast, one of my favourite things about the book is the style. Kirino is detailed and thorough in her writing, but she makes efficient use of her words and never lets scenes drag. This is a style I admire, and part of the reason I was immediately hooked. There is no purple prose to be found—instead, Kirino is creative with her word choice, and I often found myself smiling while reading a particularly unique description. She is straight to the point when scenes become gorey, as if the prose comes straight from a medical textbook, or a butcher’s manual. Realism is paramount—even when changing diapers, she spares us nothing, but she doesn’t linger. It is an easy style to read and keeps you turning the pages, but don’t expect to be blown out of the water with meandering metaphors or deliciously imaginative descriptions. Some may see the text as bland, while I see it as fading into the background to allow the reader to immerse themselves in the story.
Although most plot points were tied up through the book, I was frustrated by a few things that weren’t. Once Satake was released from questioning, the investigation seemed to end even though no killer was found. I enjoyed reading about Satake, but I wondered what the police were doing and if they would become relevant again, because they seemed so important in the first half of the book (they never came up again). One of the plot points that was never tied up was something that hooked me on the first page: the threat of a 'pervert' assaulting women on their walk to the factory in the dark. Though we see Kazuo take on this role, in his chapter we discover that he only does this once (unless I missed something entirely), which implies that there is a 'real pervert' who has been assaulting these women, not Kazuo. This plot is used to get Satake a job working as a guard for the factory, but I can see many reasons why the factory might need a guard without this threat, and the whole time I read the book, I was wondering if we would find out who this original assaulter was. We don't.
As the book came to a close, I was quite enthralled with the tension and was excited to see how it would end; unfortunately, the last two chapters left me confused rather than satisfied. As Satake lay dying in the abandoned factory, Masako feels guilty and wants to save him—this much I can understand, seeing as very few people want death on their conscience. However, Masako continues talking about how she and Satake are actually one in the same, and how they could get him help and then run away together.
I pondered this scene for a while and came to the conclusion that Masako and Satake are written in a very similar manner, and it is possible that if she was a man, she may have been very similar to him. Even their names are phonetically similar. This does not line up with any of the themes in the rest of the book and comes out of left field. If Masako is such a terrible person, just like Satake, it would have been more satisfying for both of them to end up in jail or dead, rather than Masako being able to leave and start a new life after everything that happened. Part of me wonders if her Stockholm-syndrome love for Satake at the end of the story is just that, paralleling the abuse Yayoi endured in the beginning of the book, especially considering Masako took the money from Satake's pocket to use in her new life. It is very similar to Yayoi killing Kenji and getting his insurance money, but an argument can be made for Masako feigning love to save herself, or simply mistaking the heat of the moment for passion, which is something she lacks in life from other men.
Nevertheless, confusing the reader at the end of the story is not something to admire, and if Kirino was trying to draw that parallel, there wasn't enough lead-up to it, which is why it fell so flat. Even worse, it seems that other readers take Masako's love at face value, which spoils the entire book for them. I don't believe Kirino meant for the ending to be interpreted that way, but there is no doubt that it needed editing and more thought to leave the reader feeling satisfied.
Despite these grievances, I thoroughly enjoyed Out by Natsuo Kirino, and I encourage anyone interested in crime to read it, especially if you are curious about Japanese culture. Be prepared for a jarring end, but enjoy your time with the characters along the way.
“I want to go home.” The moment the smell hit her, the words came into her head. She didn’t know exactly what home it was she wanted to go back to, certainly not the one she’d just left. But why didn’t she want to go back there? And where did she want to go? She felt lost. — pg. 1
About an hour into the shift, they began to hear sounds of distress from the new woman. Almost immediately, efficiency began dropping on the line and they had to cut the pace. Masako noticed that Yayoi, trying to help out, had begun reaching across to take some of the newcomer’s boxes, though today she’d seemed hardly able to handle her own. The veterans on the line all knew that smoothing the rice was a particularly tough job since it had cooled into a hard lump by the time it left the machine. It took a good deal of strength in the wrists and fingers to flatten the little squares of cold, compact rice in the few seconds the box was in front of you, and the half-stooping position made it hard on the back. After about an hour of this, pain would be shooting from your spine through your shoulder, and it became difficult to lift your arms. Which was precisely why the work was often left to unsuspecting beginners - though at the moment, Yayoi, who was anything but a beginner, was hard at work at the station, with a sullen but resigned look on her face. — pg 11
The woman had gasped beneath his heavy body. He rubbed against her, lubricated by the warm, sticky liquid, but as her body gradually grew cold, he felt as though they’d been glued together. She seemed to be see-sawing between agony and ecstasy, but finally Satake pressed his lips over hers to quiet the groans - of pain or pleasure - that were leaking from her mouth. He found the hole that he had made in her side and worked his fingers deep into the opening. Blood was pumping from the wound, staining their sex a gruesome crimson. He wanted to get further inside, to melt into her. — pg 38
“You ever read Ryu Murakami’s Love and Pop?” he asked.
“No,” said Jumonji, not sure what he was getting at. “I don’t read stuff like that.”
“You should.” Soga put out his cigarette and took a sip of his cocktail, an elaborate concoction in graduated shades of pink. “That Murakami, he knows women.”
“It’s not smut, you dope. He tells it like, from their side of things, really pulls you in. [...] Murakami and these girls, they hate the old men, the ones who run this country. And you might say the kind of work we do starts from the same place - hating those old geezers. They’re misfits, just like we’re misfits. You see what I mean?” — pg. 247
“Sex isn’t the only thing that links two people to one another,” he said. — pg 295
She wondered whether Yoshie herself might simply wear out one day. — pg 376
“Good-bye,” he said, as if it were the saddest word in the world. — pg 381
“I killed Kuniko…,” he said. “And another woman before that - looked just like you… I think I died once, when I killed her. Then I saw you and thought - I wouldn’t mind dying one more time…” — pg 397