In recent years, there has been an archetype-shattering change in Japan’s literary landscape: J-Horror fiction is now a fast-selling and far-reaching phenomenon, and Western readers will undoubtedly be familiar the work of Ryu Murakami (AUDITION), Koji Suzuki (RING) and Hideaki Sena (PARASITE EVE). But perhaps one of the most compellingly grim, subversively extreme voices in Japanese crime and horror literature is author Natsuo Kirino.
This 65-year-old novelist covers the kind of terrifying terrain her genre peers often shy from, involving desperate, cruel and pathetic women navigating worlds fractured by misogyny, greed and violence, while upending crime scene procedural conventions. Kirino has a knack for getting as under-the-skin visceral as the filmmaking of Chan-Wook Park (OLDBOY) and Takashi Miike (AUDITION). In the television, literary and film industries, it often seems older characters are relegated to a sort of restrictive, stereotypically “Mommy” trope; Natsuo Kirino has broken that mold, writing about ordinary women who gradually become complex and multilayered, and not the kind you’d want to turn your back on.
Kirino delivered her most disturbing first novel OUT in 1997 (published in English in 2004), which was adapted for the big screen in 2002 (to universally bad reviews) by Hirayami Hideyuki. RINGU director Hideo Nakata and New Line Cinema had attached themselves to a new adaptation of the source material — but the project now appears to be residing in development hell.
OUT follows a quartet of women essentially trapped in their own lives: tough-as-nails Masako; debt-ridden and irritating Kuniko; long-suffering Yoshie; and the beautiful and troubled Yayoi, whose deadbeat husband is a gambling drunk. Yayoi’s husband gets his comeuppance after she learns of the gambling and philandering, and proceeds to mercilessly choke him to death. When she confides in Masako and promises she’ll split her husband’s insurance policy, they enlist both Yoshie and the untrustworthy Kuniko to help dismember the body. Things don’t go according to plan, however, and Kuniko panics, dumping some of the remains in a public park, where they are uncovered by a murder of hungry crows. A gangster is called in for questioning, and becomes aware that the wife had something to do with the murder. Upon release, he forces the women to work for him disposing dead bodies. OUT is a weird, demented tale of murder, dismemberment, isolation and madness.
Kirino’s GROTESQUE might not be strictly categorized as horror, but it does have some staples that will be familiar to readers: an ominously gothic setting; a family dynamic that would make Norman Bates’ family history appear tame; and lots of sex and violence. Kirino took the lost and depraved, the vicious and misguided, and led some home to the ecstasy and pain they would discover through the violation of sexual self-destruction — acts that would result in their own doom — and others to the relative safety of watching it all unfold from a distance. A tale of sibling rivalry, underage sex work, murder and female toxicity, GROTESQUE is told from multiple perspectives — beginning with the embittered and misanthropic (also unnamed) narrator following the gruesome murders of her otherworldly sister Yuriko and old-school friend/irritant Kazue, who both worked as prostitutes and attended a prestigious school.
This is where Kirino excels — by taking the reader into the heart of darkness, with a pitch-black examination of the consequences of dehumanization and degradation. Despite the horror visited upon the narrator over the course of the novel, she never emerges as any kind of decent human being; her detached reportage on Yoriko’s bad choices are nauseating and entirely without remorse… and all the more chilling because of it.
The existential slice of horror THE REAL WORLD is a companion piece to OUT, and revolves around a coterie of disturbed adolescents. The controversial central story — ripped from today’s headlines — tackles the growing levels of violence and rebellion within Japanese teen culture. Worm, the teen protagonist, beats his mother to death in the opening chapters, and a group of girls become accessories to the crime. Kirino’s writing is at its most punishing here, as she deftly changes perspectives between the different characters while always maintaining her fatalistic tone. Her characters are well-rounded and even the most abhorrent among them can elicit sympathy from the reader. She also makes great use of the suburban setting, and her evocative descriptions of the leafy area and boxy houses are so soul-numbing that you can almost hear the death rattle of the dying town.
In Natsuo Kirino’s fiction, most characters find their way into damnation; that is the easy part. However, not all can find their way back to the light…