When The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo leaped to the top of the bestseller lists, it felt like vindication of a theory I'd long held. There's a market for thriller and mystery fiction from most any country in most any other country, because marketing trumps origins. People care little about where something is from, more about what they think it'll be like to experience it. And it's not as if thriller/mystery fiction displaces the market for "literary" fiction; if anything, the best of the former fits comfortably into the latter category, because of the way they use crime and punishment as points of departure for insights into grimy truths about life.

Case in point: Natsuo Kirino's Out. The plot and writing style set it firmly in noir-thriller territory, but the themes it tunnels under and burrows into are cap-L literary: sin, redemption, female power in a nominally male world, and the ways capital and labor become ends in themselves and poor substitutes for culture and society. And despite being originally published in 2003, it's still one of the best places to begin for those curious about modern popular Japanese fiction.

The gang of four

Like Georges Simenon's brutal little novels about weak people who fall from what little grace they had, Out begins with people too close to the bottom of things for their own comfort, then pulls the bottom out from under them.

Masako Katori, formerly in finance, now grubs away on the third shift at a boxed-lunch factory in a post-bubble Tokyo, avoiding her now-distant husband and uncommunicative son. Her friends at the factory all have their share of problems: Kuniko, vain and materialistic, swims in debt to keep her life lined with chintzy luxuries; Yoshie struggles to deal with an aging, invalid mother-in-law; and pretty but meek Yayoi, in thrall to her abusive, compulsively gambling husband Kenji. The work is miserable, the pay is crap, and the women are fast aging out of the few other jobs Japanese society would be willing to give them, which start at "bar hostess" and go swiftly downhill from there. Something has to give.

One night, something does. After Kenji comes home from a gambling binge that erased their life savings, Yayoi yanks Kenji's own belt around his neck and strangles him to death. In a panic, she calls Masako; at a loss for what else to do, Masako enlists (or rather, blackmails) Yoshie into lending a hand. The plan is simple enough: Carve up the body, and dispose of the pieces by splitting them three ways. Then Kuniko comes knocking with her hand out, as her husband's ditched her and run off with their nest egg, and she needs fast cash to tide over the loan sharks threatening to kick in her front door. And just like that, she's implicated in the whole scheme as well, with her own batch of body parts to scatter.

At first, despite their infighting, despite the gnawing guilt and the feeling that one tiny mistake on any of their parts might screw their collective pooches, it seems like they might get away with it. There's a scare when some of Kenji's body parts turn up in a park and the police come sniffing around — turns out Kuniko got lazy as she always does, so who's the bigger fool, Kuniko or Masako for trusting her? But the cops figure they have their man — Satake, the operator of the illegal baccarat club where Kenji blew his dough.

Satake is about three different grades of trouble, all mashed together. His gambling club and hostess bar were his toehold on legitimacy after having spent years in prison for a rape-and-murder that horrified even him. Ever since then, he's been simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by his own capacity for sexualized violence. After the cops bleed him dry and turn him loose, he's itching to get even. And when he finds out the ones responsible for his mess are a quartet of women who're now being blackmailed by Kuniko's loanshark to serve as a dead body disposal service for the mob, he fixates on their ringleader, Masako, and prepares to bring her and her friends trouble of a kind that makes everything up until then bulk very tiny indeed.

Well-behaved women rarely make it out alive

When I mentioned Dragon Tattoo up at the top of this review, that sparked some further thought about whether noir stories with feminist leanings deserve their own special labeling. For much of noir's history, women were Madonna/whore'd into being either victims or femmes fatale. What's more, the way noir dealt with people one-downed by life rarely dealt directly with the way society typically keeps women one down by default. If they were screwed, it was only because we were all screwed — an attitude that conveniently ignores the very specific ways women end up getting dealt a bum hand.

Out starts with those very specific ways. When we meet Masako, she's not from any of the common classes of female noir characters — and she's not a Lisbeth Salander, either. She's a middle-aged housewife who cycled into a dead-end job after an equally dead-end double-decade-long career at a financial institution. The only future she has is as one form of cheap-to-unpaid labor or another; the only thing that's kept her from dropping completely into the abyss is her marriage, and that's so far on the skids at this point it might as well not count. For her, a life of crime is if not a step up, than certainly a step away.

The way another common noir element, money, figures into Out is another reflection of its women-first POV. Japan has a notorious subculture of shady lending that puts our storefront payday-loan outfits to shame, and Kuniko's dependence on fast debt to "keep up appearances" becomes one of the many elements that contribute to both her downfall and her friends'. The book does not try to argue that Kuniko's problems are not of her own making — only that even those who aren't as impulsive or stupid as she is can barely keep their heads above water, either. And if the impulsive and stupid are first to fall, it's not because the diligent and prudent have better odds; the main difference between Kuniko and the other women in this story is that she's just a little further to the front of the line.

The book's largest flaw is, I suspect, a matter of taste. It's in how it handles the final clash between Masako and Satake, a cesspool of sexual violence (albeit by way of a creative multi-POV presentation) that seems more suited to a stalk-and-slash serial-killer story. Some part of me gets what Kirino was aiming for — that this is in some sense the culmination of all the vulnerabilities that women have to deal with in this world — but it's repellent in the wrong ways. It feels too much like an obligatory ingredient found in "novels like this". And it's also an inelegant handling of an idea that is not easy to approach in even the best constructed of stories, the shaky business of making the heroine and the villain share morally ambivalent territory. A better way to do it would have been to just show it to us; this one elects to put words into the mouths of its characters that hit us over the head with the idea.

Opening this week in theaters across the United States is a movie that commanded my attention for many of the same reasons Out did. Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (Fourteen Years A Slave) and starring Viola Davis, sports a premise that could sit comfortably next to Out on the same shelf: Four women, their career-criminal husbands dead after a heist gone wrong, band together to finish a job when the kingpin who got robbed comes to collect what's his. I have yet to see how Widows plays out, but one common theme seems clear — the way, in modern society, female power manifests under duress as a reaction to the way male power and institutional/societal power tend to reinforce each other. If these ladies are doing it for themselves, that's as much a tragedy as it is a a triumph — it's because they have no choice.

Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.