“International Noir: Breaking Out of Crime Time” appears in PEN America 7: World Voices. This talk was presented, in slightly different form, at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

INTERNATIONAL NOIR: Breaking Out of Crime Time

NATSUO KIRINO: I debuted as a novelist twelve years ago. Before I became a novelist, I studied screenwriting, wrote for magazines, and also wrote books aimed at young adults, including storylines for manga or graphic novels. Since then, I have published fourteen novels, three short-story collections, and a book of essays, which brings the grand total to eighteen books. I have one book out now that has been translated into English, and two books, Grotesque and What Remains, are being translated into English as we speak. It’s my hope that they will be available next year.

Upon hearing that I have written eighteen books in twelve years, some of you may think, “My, does she work hard.” But in fact, among Japanese novelists, this is not an excessive amount of work. Novelists in Japan write a whole lot. Once you are a published professional novelist, work requests become rampant. In Japan, there are a total of seventy thousand published items per year. Literature composes one-sixth of this total, which brings the number to twelve thousand; that includes magazines, paperback books, as well as children’s literature. But even so, there are few countries in the world that can say they publish a thousand literary books and magazines a month. I must point out that foreign books in translation are included in this number as well. Books in translation make up 15 percent of the total, though recently there are signs pointing to a decrease. I believe it’s still quite a significant percentage.

Since modern times, Japan has made an effort to bring many books originating in Western cultures to the forefront. Indeed, a good number of the World Voices participants’ works have been published in Japan, not to mention the fact that most books deemed as foreign classics and masterpieces have repeatedly been introduced over the years. I can confidently say that though the Japanese may not be good at communicating face-to-face, we excel at taking words under careful consideration and have a keen ability to comprehend and express them in graphic form, as in manga or animation. We have a large domestic market and therefore even more competition. This is why even the experimental attempts are highly coveted. It’s my hope that there will soon come a day when the Japanese novel will cross the language barrier to be read by many across the world, and that one day it will not just be Haruki Murakami who is read by fans of Japanese literature.

Out was published eight years ago in 1997. It depicts four housewives who work the midnight shift at the factory stuffing readymade lunch boxes sold at convenience stores. Each of the four women are suffering and have different repressing elements in their lives as they continue to work under the demanding conditions of the factory to make ends meet. One of the women, in a fit of fury, ends up killing her negligent husband and asks her co-workers for help in disposing of the body. The women come together to chop the body up into little pieces and dispose of it as common garbage. After the fact, instead of repenting, the women start a business disposing dead bodies, make a lot of money, and run headfirst into a life of crime. As you can see, the story is quite shocking, and when the book was first published, I received both praise and condemnation. Most of the criticism was from people who could not believe that the wife would kill the husband. Or there were those who were frightened that anybody would chop up a body into little pieces. Though it was nominated for a book award, it did not win on account of its antisocial views.

Since I did my research for Out during 1995 and ’96, it’s fair to say that the Japan depicted in the book is a Japan of a decade ago. Back then, Japan was a lot more prosperous. But on the flipside of the prosperity were the housewives who worked part-time jobs and the foreigners who worked the low-end jobs. Even around me, there were women whose husbands had white-collar jobs, yet still insisted that their wives work for their own spending money, additional household income, or to help pay for a child’s education. These women left in droves to work part-time at menial jobs. When I heard about how much these women made, I was shocked; not only were they making less than the student workers, but also they received no insurance, no social-security benefits. In addition, they had to work knowing that they could be laid off at a moment’s notice when profits slumped the least bit.

This type of circumstance was all too common in Japan. And this was how I came to write Out. Represented in the background of Out are elements of significant Japanese societal problems and issues of gender inequality, family problems, foreign workers, and the political constitution. A novelist takes the elements of life experienced unconsciously by those who live it and tells a very sad story out of it, though exaggerated if you write a novel that has impact. If there are people who felt liberated by my novel, then the novel served one of its purposes, and when those outside of Japan read it, they will see something they were not able to see before: the underbelly of prosperity. They will also see that when it comes to human sadness and hardship, ethnicity and gender make no difference. This is the power of the novel. I research, then write my novels according to what I am interested in at the moment. In other words, it’s my way of contemplating the time we live in.

One of my novels currently being translated, Grotesque, depicts the story of a woman who has a career at a large corporation by day, but who works as a streetwalker at night. It’s the story of how she ultimately meets with unnatural death. The main theme of the book is beauty and its ugly stepsister, and the story is finally a study of female sexuality. The other novel being translated, What Remains, is the story of a young girl who was kidnapped and grows up to become a novelist. The story travels back to address what actually happened and explores what kind of man the kidnapper was. It addresses the difficult theme of how words and the imagination bloom in a person who is robbed of her freedom.

As I depict shocking and disturbing crimes in many of my novels, I have been known as either a noir or crime-fiction writer. Since I also take up women’s issues in my novels, I have also been called a feminist novelist. I must say that I very much dislike being defined by the boundaries of a genre or, for that matter, being defined, period, because I only write about the truths I see using my own imagination. As I mentioned earlier, I take from people’s unconscious and think about the times we live in. I do not know where the novel will take me. When I am defined by a genre, I am defined from one particular angle. I worry that my work will not reach readers beyond those boundaries. That makes me extremely anxious. I write believing that the power of the imagination can change the world.