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.
In Grotesque, the narrator is nameless. Did you write the book with a name for her in your head?
No name. I wanted to leave her an anonymous, representative person, so I left the name out. I wanted to lend her an anonymity that would make her more of a general person, a kind of anonymous subjectivity. A kind of hidden side to her personality. If she had a name, that feeling would be lost.
You’re represented here by CAA literary superagent Amanda “Binky” Urban. How did that come about?
Apparently, Binky read the original translation of Out and really liked it and decided to seek me out in order to inquire about other work. I was extremely surprised to get this call from her because she’s famous even in Japan. I was like, “What? Isn’t that the agent for Haruki Murakami?” I was surprised and thrilled. Then I went to New York and I hoped that Soft Cheeks would be translated because I thought it was a really good book. But Binky did her own research and found out through a Japanese connection that Grotesque might be a good option. After hearing a little bit about it, she decided that that would be the next one.
You’ve said that you’d like to see your novel Soft Cheeks published in the U.S. Why that particular novel?
I hoped that Soft Cheeks would be translated because I thought it was a really good book. But the story involves the kidnapping of a child. America has too many taboos to generate enough interest in the subject.
A million tabloid newspapers that have cashed in the JonBenet Ramsey story say you’re mistaken.
Based on my brief description of Soft Cheeks, it may seem like there are parallels. Actually, it’s quite a different kind of story. In this one, it’s about a woman having an affair, and when her daughter is kidnapped there’s a suspicion that it might be the lover who did it. The woman kind of loses her grip on reality and has a series of three visions, each one dark and ambiguous. It doesn’t have the same sensational aspects of the Ramsey case. It probably wouldn’t be the sort of thing people would enjoy.
What Remains will be your next book published in the States.
It’s a pretty dark story of kidnapping, and appears to be well received [in Japan], but I have my doubts about how it’s going to be received over here because of the sexuality. The narrative is structured in kind of a sandwich form, where you’ve got the author in the present, who’s reflecting on this time in the past when she was kidnapped for one year and held captive by a guy who said he wanted to be her friend. It’s a dark remembrance with these sexual scenes in it, so I feel a little skeptical about how it’s going to be taken here.