By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Author Natsuo Kirino is often referred to as “the queen of Japanese crime fiction.” But is that really the best way to classify her work? Her queasily disturbing, gender-political tales have also been called “Japanese feminist noir,” while in Japan, her brainy writing-style mashup is known as “Kirino Jynru,” or a book that borrows freely from several genres but feels beholden to none of their rules.
The difficulty in classifying her is part of the Kirino puzzle: In Japan, she’s published 16 novels, four short-story collections, been serialized in newspapers, and five of her books have been adapted for film and television. But only two of Kirino’s novels have been translated into English: Out (2004), a nail-biting sisterhood-is-powerful tale about four factory workers who must come together to cover up a grisly murder; and her latest, Grotesque, in which Kirino methodically reveals the ties that bind three former high school classmates — a sour, nameless narrator and two slain Tokyo prostitutes. Do these books best represent her oeuvre, or are they just the ones with crossover appeal? We’ll find out over the next three years, as a trio of her books —What Remains, Real World and Metabola— are translated into English and published here.
Recently, a poised and sunglassed Kirino sat poolside at the Beverly Hilton hotel and talked to the L.A. Weekly about Grotesque, how she fared as a factory worker and why she thinks her novel Soft Cheeks is too twisted for Americans. Though she communicated entirely through a translator, what added to her mystery is that she appeared to be bilingual. One of the clues? Occasionally, she’d correct her translator in soft, bell-clear English.
L.A. WEEKLY: You began your career writing bodice-rippers and young-adult novels. Why?
NATSUO KIRINO: I started writing juvenile novels around 1985. I never really thought of it as a career, but more as a way to make a living. I did this for seven to eight years. After a while, my writing started to be recognized. One of my books, Rain Falling on My Face, earned me the 39th Edogawa Ranpo prize. It’s a very prestigious literary prize in Japan, mostly for mysteries and thrillers. After that point, I decided that I had enough credibility to make the change to start writing things that I enjoyed more, but were still entertaining.
Whether it's graveyard-shift gals at a bento-box factory or a prim office manager moonlighting as a hooker, your characters are so precisely observed. What kind of research do you do?
It really depends on the theme, but I love the details of a novel. For research, I like to go to the location of the places in the novels. The first thing that I do is involve my senses: I notice the smells; I open the trash cans and look at what people have thrown away. For example, in Out, I wanted to understand the experience of [working] at a bento factory. An acquaintance of mine happened to know a person who worked at [one]. So for two nights, I worked the night shift. After that, I just had to escape.
Did you have equally exotic adventures doing research for Grotesque?
Grotesque was really a labor of the imagination. A lot of it was stories I just sat and concocted. But about 10 or 15 years ago, there was a scandalous event in Japan known as the Office Lady Murder. It was very similar to the case of Kazuo Sato in Grotesque. I started by researching that. But the major research involved the murderer — a Chinese immigrant, Zheng — going to a hotel in a special economic zone in China where Zheng and his sister, Mei-Kun, end up. This hotel really exists. While sitting by the rooftop pool, I got an idea for this story of a brother and sister reuniting poolside at this hotel before making the journey to Japan. The other thing I did, in researching the Office Lady Murder case, was I actually went to the apartment where she was murdered and went next door to the apartment of the murderer, who was actually a Nepalese man. He’d already been arrested and put in jail, but it still gave me a creepy feeling just to be there and know what happened there. Even now you can see this apartment from the Inogashira Line on the train system. This is the line I ride from home to Shibuya all the time, so I’m constantly reminded of it. And every time I see the place it still gives me the creeps.
You can tell that Out and Grotesque came from the mind of the same author, but they explore such different kinds of desperation.
Out was my real breakthrough, the novel that became a hit in Japan and sold a lot of books, so it was sort of an obvious choice for being the first book to be translated into English. It’s pretty readable: The plot is strong, people are able to get into the book. Whereas with Grotesque, I really enjoyed writing it, but I feel like it’s a bit difficult to get into. There’s this constant issue of the narrator’s ambiguity and the question of whether or not she’s actually reliable. It’s like Rashomon: Can the information she gives be trusted? Or is it a lie? Grotesque was a hit in Japan, but I was really surprised. I thought it was more of a self-indulgent work that would never become popular the way it did.