The publication of English translations of the work of Japanese crime writer Natsuo Kirino has garnered for her a loyal English-speaking readership. Her readers appreciate Kirino’s stark, laconically told tales of evil spreading out against the dark backdrop of a modern Japan that is in the grip of economic stagnation and social alienation. As rendered by her translators, Kirino’s style is cold, detached, yet observant, painfully direct, and to the point. The reader is instantly reminded of the classic American hard-boiled detective stories.
Kirino is part of a wave of Japanese female crime writers whose focus on women and crime has invigorated the mystery genre beginning in the early 1990’s. By making women active agents in their crime stories, these writers bring new experiences and insights to the genre. Kirino’s crime novels all place stylistic emphasis on a remorseless and relentless revelation of the dark side of modern Japanese society. Kirino’s key interest lies in revealing the psychological and social makeup of outsiders, or grotesque characters. Her narratives favor ambiguity and multiplicity.
Those whose profession it is to solve crimes figure only marginally in Kirino’s translated mysteries. In Out, one of the perpetrators remarks of Detective Imai, the police officer who comes closest to figuring out the first murder, that he draws the wrong conclusions from correct observations, in part because of his gender bias. In Grotesque, the police are a mere trigger to force the prime suspect to tell the story from his point of view. Significantly, the crimes of Out are never solved or punished, nor is the perpetrator of the second murder in Grotesque revealed by the end of the novel.
At the heart of Kirino’s literary mysteries are modern Japanese women who choose, for a variety of reasons, to drop out of respectable society. In Japan, this is perhaps the most shocking aspect of Kirino’s crime fiction. Her female characters forcefully reject the social tradition of being meek, subordinate, conciliatory, and willing to suffer for the sake of peace and harmony in family and society and at work. For them, crime becomes an alternative to a bullying, harassing, and discriminatory society.
A central theme of Kirino’s crime novels is the utter loneliness of her characters. Generally, this loneliness comes from a total lack of love that begins in the family and continues in the realm of sexuality. Indeed, both Out and Grotesque describe modern Japanese families that resemble war in hell. At the root of the breakdown of the family, Kirino’s narratives suggest, lies crass materialism, egoism, and relentless selfishness not tempered by any moral or ethical standards in the age of abject consumerism.
This idea that money has permeated and destroyed the family and romantic love alike is a strong theme in Kirino’s crime fiction. In the absence of love to govern intimate human relationships, money becomes the medium through which characters seek to define their status and power in their interactions with each other. In an economically stagnant capitalist society, the fight for money becomes bitter and quickly turns violent. Not surprisingly, once money replaces love in human relationships, the issue of prostitution appears. Prostitution figures centrally in Grotesque. In this work, at least one of the two murders of prostitutes occurs because one sex worker demands more money for the extra work of letting a client indulge in his incestuous fantasy.
Kirino’s mysteries also openly reveal the persistent nature of severe gender discrimination in contemporary Japan. Masako Katori, the strongest personality of the criminal quartet of Out, experienced job discrimination firsthand for more than twenty years at her former banking job. Even the extraordinary beauty of Yuriko Hirata in Grotesque fails her professionally as a fashion trend passes her by.
When Kirino’s women leave ordinary society, these departures are far more self-destructive and less glamorous than those made by the...
(The entire section is 1697 words.)