Natsuo Kirino

(Jump down to read a review of Out)


(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 28, 2007)

"I want to be number one.  I want to be respected. I want to be someone whom everyone notices.  I want people to say, What an awesome employee Kazue Sato is."

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

The Japanese describe their own culture by saying, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," and that aphorism forms the underpinning of this consummately Japanese novel.  The four speakers of the novel, three of them women and one of them a foreign-born man, are all "nails" that "stick up" in Tokyo, people who have a great need to be recognized for who they are but who have failed to find even minimal success in the culture in which they live and work.  With little sense of self-worth, all are unhappy and frustrated— and more than a little neurotic.   

For the women, there's an additional barrier to personal happiness, described by one of the speakers:   "Men live by rules they've made for themselves.  And among those rules is the one specifying that women are merely commodities for men to possess.  A daughter belongs to her father, a wife to her husband.  A woman's own desires present obstacles for men and are best ignored."  To be happy and successful in this world, a woman needs to be cooperative, working hard for the good of her family, school, or workplace, while remaining submissive to parents, school administrators, and employers, nearly all of them men.

What makes this odd, but utterly fascinating, novel particularly unusual is the fact that two of the "nails" trying to avoid being "hammered down" are prostitutes. Another is the pathologically jealous, and homely, older sister of a prostitute so beautiful as a teenager that people gaze at her in awe, and one is an illegal Chinese national who murdered one or both of the prostitutes--not the typical cast of characters for a novel written by a Japanese author to be published for an English-speaking audience.  This novel takes the reader inside aspects of society which are usually hidden, certainly not generally featured in Japanese novels.  Told by characters who feel they have little to lose, the novel is dark, often raw, and sometimes sexually graphic.  The characters are who they are, however, and the author makes no value judgments about them or the culture which produced them.

The novel opens with an unnamed speaker, the studious sister of the gorgeous prostitute Yuriko Hirata, describing her own world.  The daughter of an abusive Swiss father and a subservient Japanese mother, the speaker is forever in the shadow of her "diabolically beautiful" younger sister.  As she describes her own enormous efforts to succeed in school, we also observe her failure to be accepted by the "in" group or to be selected as a member of one of the "elite" clubs.  Her inability to form friendships, somewhat colored by her abuse at home, her pathological hatred for her sister, and her resentment of students whose success at the school is far greater than her own, make her a frustrating and unlikable main character.

When the novel opens, the speaker is thirty-nine.  Her beautiful sister, who became a prostitute, has been dead for two years, murdered by a customer and left in an abandoned apartment.  The speaker's classmate, Kazue Sato, also a prostitute and also murdered, has been dead for about one year, and the trial of Zhang, the Chinese national accused of their murders is about to start. 

Soon the point of view changes to that of Yuriko, the beautiful murdered prostitute. In her diary, she describes how she became a prostitute while she was still a student in an "elite" high school, and how she used her beauty and ability to control the men around her, including some in her own family and anyone in a position of power, by bending them to her will through seduction.  She is unrepentant as the diary ends, regretting only that she is now very old at thirty-seven--and considered fat--her "career" nearing its end.

Zhang, the next speaker, admits in a long statement he writes for the court that he killed Yuriko Hirata, but he denies he killed Kazue Sato, whom he also knew.  As he tells about the poverty-stricken life he led in rural China, where his family had to live in a cave, and the extraordinary efforts he made to escape the countryside with his sister, the reader develops some admiration for his determination and resourcefulness, even as he is telling about his crimes, before and after he reached Japan.

The final speaker is Kazue Sato, the second prostitute, and (to me) the most interesting character in the novel.  In her journal, Kazue tells about attending the same "elite" high school that Yuriko and her sister attended, a school where she was bullied, even by the first speaker, for being different.  An extremely hard worker, she eventually graduates from an "elite" university, and gains a full-time job at a "high-ranked" business, where she is a researcher.  She fails to get promotions she thinks she deserves, however, and as family pressures grow on her to earn more money, she becomes frustrated and angry.  At age thirty, she finally rebels against the confinement of her day job and "liberates" herself by doing something she can control at night—prostitution. 

Kirino's insights into the psyches of these characters, combined with her considerations of her own culture as contributing to their problems, create an unusual novel, hard to put down.  Some aspects are a bit awkward and the novel might have benefited from pruning.  (The section on Zhang is a bit longer and less relevant than some of the other background sections, for example.)  But the novel provides a rare look at some of the less attractive aspects of this traditional culture and its people, and its detailed inside views of family and school life and how they affect growing children are unforgettable.  Readers looking for an unusual psychological novel will be intrigued, and those planning a trip to Japan will be fascinated by this view of Japanese culture, so different from traditional guides.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Grotesque at Random House

(back to top)


(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie DEC 12, 2005)

"But she'd come this far; where could she go now? She stared at her fingernails, kept short these past two years for the factory. Her hands were chapped from the constant soaking in disinfectants. She thought about her twenty years at the credit union, about giving birth to a son and making a home for her family. What had it all meant? In the end, she was no more or less than the reality of those years, with all the marks they'd left on her. And, unlike Satake, she had faced everything reality had brought her way."

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Four women, co-workers on the night shift at a box lunch factory on the outskirts of Tokyo , form an unlikely friendship based on their mutual desperation - a dissatisfaction with their inattentive, unresponsive husbands and disaffected children, strained economic situations and emotional isolation. When Yayoi Yamamoto, a young wife and mother kills her abusive, philandering spouse, the four come together voluntarily to perform a most grisly act. They dismember the body to facilitate disposal. Although of disparate ages and characters, the women become quite bound to one another through an increasing web of conspiracy, self-interest and suspicion. A series of indiscretions and careless mistakes expose them all to unforeseeable dangers.

Out is so much more than a psychological thriller or a formulaic crime novel. This is fiction that surpasses genre. Although plot driven, much of the story is dependent on character development and change. The characters are portrayed so vividly, even the minor ones, that the reader cannot help but form a strong attachment to them. It really does not matter, ultimately, if the connection is positive or not - one still looks forward to following the various personages forward to their individual destinies. Masako Katori, shrewd and extremely intelligent, is the definite leader among the women and an absolutely fascinating figure. Although she has perfected a cold, detached veneer with which she presents herself to the world, inside she is despondent and in turmoil. Increasingly alone and alienated from her husband and teenage son, she longs for "freedom." "It had started with something in her. Her hopelessness and a longing for freedom had brought her to this point." Masako is looking for a way "out" of her claustrophobic life.

This is definitely a novel noir, with a substantial dose of S&M thrown into the mix - obviously not for the faint of heart. I became absorbed in the story almost instantly, only to have my interest wane after the murder is committed. My attention span was at fault here, not the author's writing. Fortunately I stayed with it; the second half of the novel is even better than the first, I think - really riveting! This is some of the best and most unusual writing I have encountered in some time. It is also very disturbing. Since I do not speak Japanese I can only judge by Stephen Snyder's translation, and for me the stark, gritty prose really accentuates the building tension in the narrative and the oppressiveness of the environment. I found myself thinking about Out long after I had turned the last page. Ms. Natsuo provides a rare glimpse into the bleak subculture of many lower middle class Japanese workers who live on the margins of society, worlds away from the lights and glitter of Tokyo 's Ginza district. Readers also gain access to the grim Japanese underworld. I should note that there is wonderful dark humor throughout to alleviate the oppressive quality of the storyline.

Although Natsuo Kirino is considered one of the best mystery writers in Japan , multiple award-winning novel Out is Ms. Kirino's first book to be published in English. It has also been made into a Japanese motion picture.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 81 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Out at Random House

(back to top)

Bibliography: (with links to


(back to top)

Book Marks:


(back to top)

About the Author:

Natsuo KirinoNatsuo Kirino was born in Kanazawa Japan in 1951. Her father was an architect and thus she grew up in several cities.

After completing her law degree, Kirino worked in various fields including scheduling and organizing films to be shown in a movie theater, and working as an editor and writer for a magazine publication. She married when she turned twenty-four, and began writing professionally, after giving birth to her daughter, at age thirty. However, it was not until Kirino was forty-one that she made her major debut. Since then, she has written thirteen full-length novels and three volumes of collective short stories  

Kirino’s novel Out was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2004. Her other works have won many awards in Japan such as the Grand Prix, the highest literary award -- the Naoki Award --for her novel Soft Cheeks, the Izumi Kyoka Award, and the Shibata Renzaburo Award. Several of her novels have been made into feature films.


She and her husband live in Tokyo, Japan. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014