Photo by Mike McGregor
Natsuo Kirino is not your typical Japanese housewife; she has spent less time on gossip and recipes and more time uncovering the monster beneath Japan’s infamously rigorous politesse.
Her latest English-translated novel, Grotesque, published by Knopf, is a merciless indictment of the modern Japanese woman’s condition—incest, coprophilia, and statutory rape all play a part in the story about the murder of two prostitutes.
Born in 1951, Kirino has written 16 novels and won the Naoki, the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer. Theme had the honor of probing Kirino’s trenchant mind, discovering her take on the failures of modern society and Japan’s imbalanced sexual politics.
You portray some unique troubles and obstacles Japanese women confront. What is the biggest problem facing Japanese women today?
There is an apparent sense of freedom, but in fact, the underlying infrastructure [gives rise to] poorly paid temporary employment: part-time, temp, or contract employment.
Approximately half of Japanese women are temps. I worry that a lot of women are just going to wind up enduring poverty. There is gender inequality, but I also think that women are sexually unfulfilled. Japanese men don’t see women their age as equals. There is a fascination with very young girls. So for adult women, there isn’t a sense of parity.
What has been your female readership’s response to your book?
My core readership is female, and they say, “Thank you for writing what I feel.” There’s a great sense of relief.
What was the inspiration for Grotesque?
A real crime. A woman, a graduate of elite schools, made it into an elite company. Something inside of her broke and, even as she worked in that corporation, she became the cheapest kind of streetwalker and was murdered. I wondered what was behind that.
There is no reliable narrator in Grotesque. You can’t latch onto anybody’s story. Did you have one truth in mind while writing?
I wanted to make something along the lines of [Kurosawa’s] Rashomon, where you never know who’s telling the truth. Each of the central characters has their own truth. I aimed for a collective consciousness. I don’t think novels are written to portray the truth. They portray something that hovers near the truth.
You depict the underbelly of Japanese society. Is the Japanese public aware of these seamy, fringe lifestyles?
Many young people are right on the cusp of that world. For a while, it was very popular for young teenage girls to go out on dates with middle-aged men for money. I don’t think it’s as far away as people would like to think. There are all these eruptions of bizarre, unexplained violence committed by young people. It comes out of nowhere.
Do you think it’s because of social pressures?
That’s part of it, but there’s also the otaku [super-geek] culture, where [they live in complete isolation with their obsessions. In extreme cases,] they live completely without sex. When that became okay, then things got wacko. These geeks are either infatuated with young girls, a Lolita thing, or they fall in love with female anime characters.
What’s the biggest barrier to communication?
Cell phones and the Internet. In Japan, everybody has a cell phone and conducts their life on it. So you can have this communication that’s [only] virtual. The Internet allows us to do whatever we wish, from our homes. There is no voice or physical contact, like sex.
You started writing relatively late in your life, at the age of 30. How did you get started?
When I was writing for magazines, I went to a screenwriting school, but I realized that novels are more interesting because I can portray psychological, internal aspects.
What projects do you have coming up?
A story about a young Japanese boy who is a temp worker. He loses his memory and goes on a road trip to figure out who he really is. The young people [now] aren’t the kind of young people that were around when I was young. I wanted to try and understand them.
Do you think you came closer to understanding them in the process?
No. It further confused me.
You have a 24-year-old daughter. Do you think she has a brighter future?
I don’t think so.
Top 10 Books of All Time
1. Uigumo by Hayashi Fumiko
No one quite matches the writing of Hayashi Fumiko in portraying the isolation and despair of women.
2. Hourouki by Hayashi Fumiko
Hayashi Fumiko has the genes of a wanderer. She never butters up to anyone, and she refuses to belong to any category. Her courage and grace is quite impressive.
3. Shi No Toge by Shimao Toshio
A Japanese masterpiece. Portrays a soul heading for destruction caused by romance.
4. Kagi by Tanizaki Junichiro
Exquisitely written. Tanizaki makes many new attempts in this piece, which makes it my favorite Tanizaki work.
5. Koto No Oni by Edogawa Ranpo
Edogawa Ranpo is a genius. The disturbing atmosphere in this work is terrific.
6. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Most interesting foreign work I recently read. I enjoyed it more than The Remains of the Day.
7. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
No one does it better than Tyler when it comes to writing with a rich amount of detail and depicting life that never turns out the way one wants it to. An ingenious work and my favorite.
8. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
Although there are other masterpieces by O’Connor, this work stands out in illustrating the bitterness and cruelness in her work. It shows that the world of O’Connor is quite horrific.
9. A Widow For One Year by John Irving
I haven’t read his works for some time, but I found this one more freely written and interesting than his prior works.
10. Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas
The breath of life and death that fills Cuba is quite overwhelming.