The novel opens in the outskirts of one of Tokyo's bleakly industrial neighborhoods where the ubiquitous pre-packaged Japanese lunchboxes (bento) are manufactured. In this stark and windowless environment, we are introduced to four of the women on the production line who, after one fateful shift, find themselves, one by one, at the center of a murder.
The blandly standardized, ready-to-eat bento is central to the novel's theme of the impersonal and degraded conditions of a society which has sold its soul for 'convenience' and a nation dependent on technology and foreign imports for its food production. Corporate controlled 24 hour convenience stores provide round-the-clock 'happy meals' for Japan's increasingly alienated population. Mostly reconstituted food stuffs resembling traditional, healthy menu items that were once the staples of the Japanese diet, the convenience store bento is the sordid by-product of Japan's unrelenting development and its continuing assaults on the environment.
The four women factory workers at the center of the novel live in the upside down twilight world of the midnight shift, performing the grim and painful choreography necessary to keep the assembly line moving. Among them are the Brazilian laborers who make up a large portion of the low-wage earners in Japan's dying manufacturing sector -- fellow casualties of neo-liberalism's far reaching grip on the domestic economy. Kirino, to her credit, injects a human element to their predicament - something all too rare in a society which tends to focus on the crime rates among its foreign population and not inclined to view their plight as part of their own.
By daybreak, the women return home to lives even more dead end than their jobs. For the relatively affluent Masako, home is the prefabricated fortress where her son and husband separately sequester themselves behind locked doors, only coming out at mealtimes and retreating again without acknowledging her presence. For the homely, shopaholic Kuniko, it's the cramped, filthy room where designer labeled fashion items are teetering monuments to her massive debts and cruel reminders of her unsustainable, greed-driven lifestyle. In one shrewdly revealing moment, and a tribute to Kirino's keen sense of character, the vulgar and slovenly Kuniko purchases one of her own bentos and gobbles it down without a trace of bitterness, or even irony. The discarded bento's excessive plastic packaging ends up littered among the glitzy imported items she covets and hoards.
The oldest of the group, the widowed Yoshie is a martyr to circumstance, sharing her dilapidated home with an incontinent, bedridden mother inlaw and a teenage daughter whose burgeoning consumerism puts an additional strain on the family's precarious finances. Kirino's scalpel like observations cut deep into the heart of Japan's fictitious welfare state which places the burden of caring for the elderly on the daughter of the house. The drab and ploddingly reliable 'Skipper' is the Japanese everywoman performing her national duty to uphold the appearance of a placid, middle-class existence despite all evidence to the contrary.
Yayoi, the youngest member is the battered wife of a low-rung salaryman who has squandered their savings wooing and later stalking a club hostess in an illegal casino run by an ex-con mobster. After her enraged and drunken husband comes home to deliver yet another beating, Yayoi strangles her much deserving spouse with his own belt and sets the plot in motion.
Yayoi immediately enlists help from her co-worker, Masako, knowing her to be a no-nonsense, take charge kind of woman - and just the right person to leave holding the mop, so to speak. As we soon learn, Yayoi's moral cowardice is not revealed so much in the act of murder, but rather in its aftermath. When Masako realizes there's no other way to deal with someone else's dead husband in the trunk of her car, (the women have placed him there to keep him out sight of Yayoi's young children) she dismembers the body in her own bathtub and carefully parcels up the remains for disposal.
Kirino doesn't flinch from the task of detailing the grisly (and sometimes slapstick) proceedings. In their improvised surgical scrubs, the women (a snooping Kuniko is reluctantly enlisted to help) recreate their roles on the factory floor. This time, though, they have wrested complete control of the process and ultimately find themselves liberated from the tyranny of their everyday lives.
The soundly orchestrated plan begins to unravel after Kuniko fails to keep her part of the bargain during the disposal process. The women, including Yoshie at this point, divide up the flesh filled bags among themselves to dispose of later in shifts. Plastic will once again come back to haunt Kuniko when she decides to dump her share in a neighboring park rather than haul it back to her own house as promised. Within hours, scavenging crows give the police their first clue to the whereabouts of Yayoi's missing husband.
The detectives' trail leads to Shinjuku's crime-infested Kabuki-cho district, home of the mobster club owner and the last place the deceased was known to have been. A convicted murderer with even a darker secret, Satake the gangster becomes the police's prime suspect. After all, he was the one last seen ejecting the deranged patron out of the club and a man known to have done worse things to a corpse than chop it up for bird feed. Without concrete evidence tying him to the murder, the police unwittingly give Satake enough time to carry out his own investigation and exact revenge on the real perpetrator(s).
Yayoi, in the meantime, has become the reluctant darling of the tabloid press. If grief seems glaringly absent from her dry-eyed news conferences, no one seems to notice. No one, that is, except the vengeance seeking Satake - a man who has staked his very survival on his ability to read human nature. One look at idiot salaryman Kenji Yamamoto's cold, young widow gives him enough incentive to track her down to make her pay in the most exquisitely painful way possible for the loss of his livelihood and very likely his freedom.
His focus soon shifts to Masako, whom he correctly assesses as a worthier rival and the one ultimately responsible for the crime the police are ready to pin on him. His pursuit of her becomes an erotically charged cat and mouse game, heightened by an almost cannibalistic urgency to his quest. The sadistic Satake recognizes something of himself in his prey; a woman seeking a way 'out' of the rote, colorless grind of everyday life.
Satake is a man of contradictions; a pimp of sorts who lives a celibate, spartan existence in a cell like room; a flesh peddler with only a paternal interest in the girls on his payroll. In Satake's character, Kirino explores the commodity value of sex within a system fuelled by the demand for renewable sources of flesh. His customers are lured to his baccarat tables by the young Chinese hostesses working in his club – mostly impoverished country girls lured there themselves by the glittering promise of wealth in Tokyo's 'Big Easy'. Satake, however, has his own reasons for keeping his libido on ice despite his complicated feelings for the Shanghai bar girl Yamamoto himself had been pursuing.
It's not long before trouble comes knocking in a cheap, shiny suit when loan shark Jonouchi, who is on Kuniko's trail for outstanding debts, gets a whiff of the goings on in Masako's house and cuts himself into the deal. In the character of Jonouchi, Kirino gives us a rare glimpse into the nefarious workings of Japan's swelling bottom feeder class who prey on the victims at the low end of the economic food chain. With Jonouchi's arrival, the plot reveals more layers than a convenient store bento's elaborate packaging.
Kirino uses the deceptively middle-class backdrop of her "ailing nation" to paint a blood spattered portrait of alienation and the underlying violence of relentless consumerism. More than a mystery, Out subverts the genre to traverse the maggoty underbelly of Japan's "economic miracle" and indeed, globalism itself.
Leilla Matsui is a freelance writer living in Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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