January in Japan: Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino

Ryu Murakami, Piercing (1994/2007)
Natsuo Kirino, Out (1997/2004)

Kawashima Masayuki, the protagonist of Ryu Murakami’s Piercing (translated by Ralph McCarthy), stands over his baby daughter’s crib with an ice pick, testing his resolve not to use it. The full darkness beneath Kawashima’s outwardly happy family life is soon revealed, as we learn that he once stabbed a woman with an ice pick, and he’s afraid he’ll do so again to the baby. He convinces himself that the only way to deal with these feelings is to stab a stranger instead. So he checks into a hotel, calls for a prostitute, and waits.

The young woman who arrives is Sanada Chiaki, who has had her own demons to face in life, and is perhaps more than anything just looking to feel once again. What follows, in a chapter taking up fully half of this short novel, is a tense and fascinating game of power-plays. Our perspective shifts back and forth between Kawashima and Chiaki, as does the upper hand in a battle they don’t (at first) even know they are fighting. Both characters have their strengths and weaknesses, their resources and defences, and one can never be sure how this game will end. Piercing is deeply uncomfortable reading, certainly; but, as a portrait of two deeply damaged individuals, it’s also compelling.

Where Piercing is short and tight, Natsuo Kirino’s Out (translated by Stephen Snyder) is long and (relatively) roomy, but it shares a focus on individuals at extremes of behaviour. Four women work nights on the production lines of a boxed-lunch factory. In the heat of the moment, one kills her husband, driven to her wit’s end by his abuse. One of her colleagues, Masako Katori, takes charge of disposing of the body, gradually drawing the other women into the secret. Then the pressure is on to keep the killing hidden, from the police and other prying eyes.

For me, the character of Masako is the great strength of Kirino’s novel: psychologically, she’s quite ‘blank’ – even she doesn’t really understand what drives her to do what she does – which gives the book a similar sense of uncertainty to that Murakami achieves in Piercing by coming from the opposite direction (his protagonists are ‘known quantities’, but he creates uncertainty by bringing them together). As a thriller, Out has the same narrative momentum, and is perhaps even more dynamic as it shows greater change in its characters’ lives. But I find myself leaning towards Piercing as the more intense reading experience, with a study of character that bit sharper.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List.


  1. A couple of fascinating books here. I tend more towards the aesthetic style of J-Lit myself, so I haven’t read these, but I know that R. Murakami and Kirino write some intense (and bloody!) stories. I think I’d be more likely to enjoy ‘Piercing’ too 🙂

  2. I had wanted to read a R. Murakami book for January in Japan, Into the Miso Soup, which my husband swore was on the shelf, but seems to have disppeared. He said it was harsh – sounds a bit like the one you read. I looked into “Out” aswell, but seemed a bit too long for my liking, but sounds like it is worth it all the same.

  3. Piercing totally sounds like the kind of book I’d love. Maybe I’ll give it a try during the summer although I’ve been quite reluctant to read Japanese works. I think it’s a kind of society so different to us and therefore so difficult to understand, that it takes a huge effort and lots of patience to understand.

  4. I didn’t sign up to ‘January In Japan’ – I’m a big Murakami fan but other than that would have no idea where to start. But we’re only 4 days in and already my wishlist is suffering from bloggers’ reviews. These both sound really tempting, your reviews really convey the tension present in both books. Piercing in particular sounds really dark and uncomfortable, I might have to give it a go.

  5. Hah, just realised my comment above is potentially unclear; I’m a big fan of the *other* Murakami, Haruki! Never read any Ryu Murakami before.

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    4th January 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks for your comments, folks!

    Tony: Yes, “intense” is definitely the word I’d use.

    Sarah: I did see some shorter Kirino books in the library, but went for Out in the end because it was her first title to be published in English, and for some variety of length (all the other Japanese books I had for this month were quite short). It does read pretty quickly, though.

    Elena: I haven’t read much Japanese literature myself – but, for what it’s worth, I’ve never felt that any kind of cultural barrier was preventing my understanding – and certainly not with these two books.

    Marie: Haruki Murakami was one of the first authors on my list for this month, because I’d never read him before… Other than that, I just went to the library and browsed for any Japanese fiction that looked interesting.

  7. Loved both of these books, Out is my favourite by Kirino, loved the way these are the type of characters not normally associated with Japanese Literature, individuals on the margins of society.

  8. PS Favourite R. Murakami is Almost Transparent Blue , he also has a new one released later this year.

  9. I’ve read both of these, but my vote goes for Out. Piercing is powerful, but Out really made me think about what I’d be willing to do to help a friend. Glad you’ve read them both too 🙂

  10. David Hebblethwaite

    7th January 2013 at 10:58 am


    loved the way these are the type of characters not normally associated with Japanese Literature, individuals on the margins of society.

    That’s interesting – do you think this is changing now?


    Out really made me think about what I’d be willing to do to help a friend.

    It never occurred to me to think about that (though it sounds an obvious thing to do now I’ve written it down). Possibly Masako was such an inscrutable character that it stopped me thinking of the plot as something that could really happen.

  11. Yes I think it is thanks to the likes of Kirino, Nakagami & murakami here if interested here’s my take on out

  12. Reblogged this on intense sensations and commented:
    Incisive reviews of some sharp writing 🙂

  13. This is right up my street! 🙂

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