Sabiru Kokoro: Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino is one of those authors that always manages to surprise me while still having a strongly identifiable voice of her own. Ostensibly a mystery author, she’s always struck me more as a painter of portraits. I mean, the mysteries she writes tend to start off with the solution to the mystery, like in Out or Grotesque, and she manages to zoom right in on the salient features of each character, deftly giving them depth and making them interesting with a few words on the first page. But she also has this distance from them, she steps back. She tends to tell her stories in the third person, although she did use the first-person to great effect in Grotesque (the hatchet job of the English edit/translation of which still makes me stabby).

Her use of the third person doesn’t mean she doesn’t get inside her characters’ heads, though. She creates opportunities for omniscience, moments to sneak in and see what they are thinking. But it always feels like she is watching from the sidelines, which is what makes her so effective at creating that haunted atmosphere you see in so much of her work. I’ve only ever read her novels, though, where she has plenty of time to build and create that atmosphere, so when I came across Sabiru Kokoro (roughly “Rusted Heart”), a collection of six short stories, at Book Off for only two hundred and fifty yen, I snapped it up, eager to see what she would do within the confines of the short story.

Maybe it’s her reputation for mystery, or the fact that gruesome things do happen in her books, but in every single story in this book, I was half on edge, expecting something terrible at the turn of every page. And terrible things do happen, but they are not the obvious kind of terrible. They’re the dark, corners-of-your-heart kind of terrible. She stands off to the side and watches her characters’ shameful secrets, and narrates them to the reader dispassionately, but with a nuanced understanding and acceptance of why they do the things they do. I think this is why she is so excellent at depicting balanced and realistic characters, and especially women. Her ladies are always so compelling and real, and not just cardboard cutouts to prop teh menz up.

The first story, “Churan no hairetsu” (Insect Egg Array), starts off so innocuously, a woman running into a friend she hasn’t seen in a while, that murder seems just around the corner. But the two women go to a cafe, and Morizaki tells her friend about her failed relationship with an artist. Mizue tries to encourage Morizaki not to give up on the relationship, and recounts her own romantic difficulties, which involve the wife of the playwright she is seeing coming to her house and leaving a box of insect eggs. The insect egg thing is just such a strange and perfect detail, and makes Mizue’s story seem only too real. But when Morizaki joins Mizue at the theatre to see a performance of this playwright’s new play, she discovers that every single bit of it was in Mizue’s head.

This is the thing that comes up over and over in these stories, how we perceive our situations, ourselves, the people around us; how we are to the outside world; and the strife and disappointment that slams us in the face when the two collide somehow. In “Jason”, a man has a sort Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on when he gets really drunk that he has absolutely no idea about until he wakes up after a night of drinking and finds that his wife has left him. He goes from friend to friend, pushing and probing until they tell him stories about himself that he’d rather not hear. He is utterly horrified to learn that he has this opposite self inside that he’s been blind to all these years. Which yeah, that is a pretty horrific discovery to make.

The shorter length is clearly no obstacle for Kirino in creating that haunted atmosphere you see in her novels. She perfectly evokes the nightlife of Kabuki-cho in Tokyo in “Neon”, one of the shorter pieces in the collection. This story also feels like a sort of testing of the waters for the fuller portrait of the criminal underworld that she brings to life in Grotesque (again, don’t bother with the English translation of this one).

Sakurai is a former bosozoku bike gang leader trying hard to establish himself as a real yakuza boss. He’s carved out a little turf and is followed by a group of loyal friends from his bosozoku days. But he is always thinking bigger, and when a young man comes running up to him one night begging to join his gang, he sees something in his eyes and decides to give the kid a trial run, even though the kid has clearly watched too many yakuza films. The thing I really love about this story (in addition to it being a story about yakuza that has no real violence, although Kirino makes you feel as if it could come at any moment) is the dialogue. Characters in the other stories have conversations and chat with each other, but the focus is largely internal, watching the world through the main character’s eyes.

“Neon” has that internality as well, but there is a lot of conversation and Kirino is such a genius with dialogue. The kid speaks in this great rural dialect, and it instantly gives him a whole backstory. As soon as he opens his mouth, you’re picturing rice fields and ramshackle farm houses. The other members of Sakurai’s gang speak in varying levels of politeness, but always with a sort of hooligan-y edge. And while Sakurai’s internal dialogue is in standard Japanese, his spoken dialogue is rough and abrupt, but often affectionately so when talking to the members of his gang. It’s such a treat to see an author pull off so many different voices. When a character is given such an identifiable way of talking, you don’t need much more to create a full portrait of them in your mind when you’re reading.

This collection is from 1997 near the beginning of her career, so it’s clearly not representative of the work Kirino is doing now. But all the hallmarks of her style are here, and it’s fascinating for me to see how sure she has been in her voice for so long. I’d like to pick up her most recent work now and see how that voice has changed. But that will have to wait for my next trip to Japan.

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