Is it possible to get Out? Neoliberalism and the problem of freedom in Natsuo Kirino’s “Out”

Natsuo Kirino’s dark and eerie novel Out is set in Tokyo, a global city to focus on four women who work the graveyard shift in a factory which makes boxed lunches for the commuters travelling into the centre of the city to work. All of these women are trapped working in the factory due to financial necessity. Masako has been forced out of a financial institution because she asked for a pay rise. Yoshie’s husband has died, leaving her to look after her grandson and elderly mother-in-law. Kuniko is trapped in a cycle of working to pay off the debt she has accumulated by spending money on expensive things. Yayoi is working to keep her family afloat because of her husband’s philandering and gambling. Therefore, as suggested in the introduction of Globalization and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction, Kirino concentrates on people who are “on the losing end of global neoliberalism” (11).

Neoliberalism as suggested, by an article in the Guardian is a reductive economic idea that assumes that all human activity is a form of “economic calculation” and as a result “strips away the things which make us human”. The space of the factory is one in which individuality is stripped away through dress, or “white uniforms” (5). Through the contrast of the stark, white uniforms and the “mulitcoloured street clothes” (7) which the workers were wearing, and the repeated use of the collective pronoun “they”, Kirino depicts the factory as a place where individuality is erased. Therefore, from the outset of the novel, the factory is presented as a microcosm of neoliberal society, reducing human workers to an indivisible mass of “bug-like” (7) creatures.

A bento factory conveyor belt- From Facebook

Therefore, Kirino introduces a crucial theme within the novel, capitalist control over the individual, which is taken to greater extremes as the factory is described in greater detail, “they had to take turns going to the bathroom […] You had to announce that you wanted to go and then wait your turn, which sometimes took as long as two hours in coming” (11). The natural bodily functions of the workers are halted so as material production isn’t impacted. The factory then, is a space in which the processes which are required to produce commodities overrule bodily processes, trapping the women in place “from midnight until five-thirty […] at the conveyor belt” (1).

Similarly, Kuniko’s character is representative of the larger trap or cycle within a neoliberal, capitalist city, conspicuous consumption which is the idea that “expenditure on or consumption of luxuries on a lavish scale […] enhance[s] one’s prestige.”. Breu notes that the, “emergence of the city centre as a space of luxury and consumption” means that there is a stark divide, “between economic winners and losers.”. The author’s conflation of the factory and the consumerist hub of the department store, “crowded rows of sturdy hangers, like those at a department store sale.” (7), further emphasises how workers are trapped in a neoliberal environment by pervading ideas of economic worth and societal prestige. Kuniko’s car and her “designer accessories, and her clothes [which are] obviously expensive” (2) are attempts to prove her value within a system which is driven by money. However, she is deeply in debt and must come to work in the factory in order to pay off that debt and so the cycle continues.

For these women, the global city is not place of opportunity or progression, as factory workers they are doing repetitive work which allows them to make just enough money to survive on. Even in the city, working in a credit and loan company Masako’s status as an (aging) woman, meant that, “No matter how hard she tried, or how well she did her job, she played no more than a supporting role” (202). After asking for her pay to be raised in line with what her male co-workers were being paid, she is harassed and chastised until she is forced to leave and enter the part-time workforce. Masako hits what the Japan Times calls the, “glass ceiling [that] women continue to hit in their careers.”. Therefore, Kirino’s portrayal of the workplace in general within the novel challenges notions that neoliberalism is progressive.

The turning point in Out is the moment when Yayoi kills her husband, Kenji and the other women are drawn into her criminal activity by helping their friend to dispose of the body. Breu argues that, “Kirino suggests that the criminal acts undertaken by the women are both enabled by, and a response to, the material conditions in which they work.”. Yoshie and Masako are the two women who dismember the body and it is repeatedly likened to working in the factory, “Now that it had become a job, Yoshie was once again in charge, as if she were directing operations from her place at the head of the assembly line” (98-9). In fact the rationality of the processes which the women learn in the factory help them as Masako “found that concentrating on the process helped to deaden her jangling nerves” (100) and by dismembering the body, they are helping Yayoi to get away with killing her dead beat husband.

Masako goes one step further and uses corporate rhetoric to convince Yoshie to help her, “She made a proposal […] would you do it If money was involved.”, to which Yoshie replies, “It’s more businesslike that way” (97). This connects to later on in the plot when Jumonji offers Masako a “business proposition” (333), dismembering bodies for money, therefore giving the women financial freedom and therefore allowing them to progress. However, as noted by Julia Ingalls, “ Out of necessity, […]  they need to adapt to the changeable rubric of the corporate mindset. They are loyal to no one [….] Their fundamental motivation is to win”. For example, when faced with dismembering the body of Kuniko, one of the women to which they were once loyal to in the factory, those who “help[ed] each other out” (8), Masako and Yoshie do so citing money as their reason for doing so.

Therefore, Masako has gained economic freedom through dismembering bodies, but is still caught in a cycle in which all of human life, even death, is thought of as a monetary calculation or as Ingalls puts it, “by attempting to subvert the agenda they are now part of it”. As a result, the novel is a narrative of anti-progress and antifreedom because their form of “resistance [or freedom] is figured by and within” (Brown, 3) a neoliberal system.

 

References

Breu, Christopher. “Work and Death in the Global City: Natsuo Kirino’s Out as Neoliberal Noir” Globalisation and the State in Contemporary Crime Fiction. Ed. Pepper, Andrew, and David Schmid. Palgrave, 2016.

Brown, Wendy. ‘Introduction: Freedom and the Plastic Cage’. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1995.

Ingalls, Julia. “Corporate Noir, or This Job is Killing Me”. The Los Angeles Review of Books. August 30th 2014. Web.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/corporate-noir-job-killing/

Kirino, Natsuo. Out. London: Vintage, 2004.

Metcalf, Stephen. “Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world”. The Guardian. Friday 18th August 2017. Web.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that-changed-the-world

“Still a struggle for working women”. The Japan Times.  8th April, 2016. Web.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2016/04/08/editorials/still-a-struggle-for-working-women/#.W8ha6BNKj-a

8 thoughts on “Is it possible to get Out? Neoliberalism and the problem of freedom in Natsuo Kirino’s “Out”

  1. Hi Lara,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog, and especially the connections you made between the boxed-lunch factory as a symbol of neoliberalism and the lack of human expression and economic freedom allowed for the workers under the strict conditions.
    I found the ‘dehumanising’ effect of the workers through their uniforms, labouring work conditions and repetitive nature of the work itself particularly striking when compared to the dismembering of the bodies. In the same way that the four women monotonously prepare the boxed lunches, the dismembering of Kenji Yamamato (and the subsequent bodies that come after) become nothing more that work for them. The power of money and economic freedom over a sense of moral compass is intriguing, but I wonder whether this would happen in real life? Would people abandon their moral values for money this easily, or is this an oversight of Kirino’s?

    Kirino has clearly connected these situations with the desire of money and economic stability at its epicentre, but does it suggest that people under the burdening regime of neoliberalism would also forgo the ‘things that make us human’ for commodity and ‘economic calculation’ if they were the ones in power? If so it seems the only way ‘out’, is to continue within the neoliberal system that repressed them to begin with, which would defeat the purpose of gaining their freedom.

    – Pelin

    1. Hi Pelin,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. I would like to hope that people would not abandon their morals as easily as they do in this novel. I didn’t particularly enjoy the style of Kirino’s writing and as you point out the characterisations are not particularly powerful and do contain oversights. In saying that I have never experienced life in Japan or any of the things which impact these women and the hardships they faced so this is purely from my privileged position. Perhaps Kirino knows more than we do?

      Your point about the condition of neoliberalism is an interesting one. For me, it definitely appears to be a system in which fluctuations in fortune/wealth do occur and once those who have been poor and manipulated the system to gain money often don’t try to change the system! I think Kirino’s novel is an attempt to expose neoliberalism as a trap and open up these important questions about the value we place on human life.

      Best,
      Lara

  2. Hi Lara,

    I completely agree with much of what you’ve written here with regards to the dehumanising effect of capitalism and neoliberal ideals. As you say, that their attempts to disassociate from that system basically amount to further buying into it is an effective twist, I think.

    Having said that, I would question whether the novel’s latter half doesn’t undermine that message somewhat, as the plotlines relating to the women’s financial situations are dropped (or at least, de-emphasised) as Satake becomes the more pressing concern. I particularly don’t know what to make of Masako’s relationship with him, or how her story ends with the conviction that “She couldn’t live her life as someone’s prisoner…” (Kirino, 520). It seems she’s expressing an awareness of how she had been dehumanised – but then nothing is said of how she intends to break from that tradition. Your title sums it up quite well I think, in that I don’t think the novel itself has fully decided whether it’s possible get out.

    These aren’t so much complaints as me just thinking out loud, but I enjoyed reading your post nonetheless, it’s helped me articulate some of the problems I had with Out towards the end.

    – Hugh

    1. Hi Hugh,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on this post. I was similarly puzzled (and disturbed) by the part of the novel dominated by Satake.

      Yes, I 100% agree that the novel has not decided whether it is possible to get out. The moment which cements that for me is the end of the novel when she’s on the bus with the bag of money. As an ending, it’s not one which I am personally a fan of, I like closure. However, it is a perfect representation of the trapping effects of neoliberalism. Either Masako has escaped to make a new life with the money she has earned and she emerges on the ‘winning side’ of neoliberalism as it were, or she will be trapped in the same cycle again. I am not sure either are freedom, but there is a greater degree of freedom in the former than in the latter.

      Best,
      Lara

  3. Hi Lara,

    I really enjoyed reading this post as it is interesting to see the comparisons you made between the novel and neoliberalism itself. I agree with what you have written in regards to the dehumanisation of the characters; not only the four women, but of the murder victims as well. On that note, do you think Kirino has exaggerated in any way when writing this novel? By this I mean, the situations and events within the novel are not something which would often happen in real life and I wonder do you think that this use of exaggeration on the unreal elements is to highlight the bigger picture? In other words, to make us question and consider the affects that neoliberalism has on the real world? Was that the intention of this novel or are we as readers looking too much in to the reasons underlining it? This would explain the oversights and inconsistencies throughout: what do you think?

    I also wonder what your views are on Masako leaving with the bag of money at the end. I ask this because throughout your post, you have emphasised the desire for money and that the women literally kill and dispose of dead bodies for money. By the end of the novel, Masako gets what she wants; she is able to leave with money and never come back, with no apparent consequences for her actions. In this sense, do you think that Masako did get ‘out’? Was she able to free herself (albeit through drastic means) from her own life and if this is the case, is Kirino emphasising what an individual can do themselves, thus separating from the collective notion throughout the novel?

    I look forward to reading your reply!

    – Stephanie

  4. Hi Lara,

    I couldn’t agree more with your interpretation of the factory and your condemnation of capitalist and neoliberal ideas. However, I feel like the post fails to address the latter part of the novel and its conclusion. And whether we feel that Masako has truly gotten out after the murder at the end of the novel? Is the only way to get out of a capitalist system to give up any semblance of human decency? Which is a pretty horrible way to look at things I must admit. But I was wondering what your thoughts were on this. Is that the only way to escape? To let go of morals and decency, just doing whatever it takes?

  5. Hi Lara,

    I really enjoyed your post as it helped to situate the novel’s obsession with material and monetary concerns within a neo-liberal framework.

    Your comparison between the factory and the dismembering of bodies is particularly astute, as it is the lunch box work that gives the characters the idea of how to dispose of Kenji’s body to begin with. I think these links are furthered again and again throughout the novel as they continue to treat the dismembering of human bodies as a product of labour.

    I was wondering what you made of Satake’s contribution to the ending? Was he a necessary character to begin with? I think he, along with the other businessmen, do give some insight in to the treatment of aging women in Japanese culture, but his rape of Masako didn’t seem to provide any kind of point or outcome. In fact, I think it deters even further from any notion that she got ‘out’ in the end as she talks about living and moving forward for him. Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Best,
    Chelsea

  6. Hi Lara

    I really enjoyed reading your blog! I couldn’t help but wonder if the women desire to ‘get out’ out this increasingly capitalist, constraining society, where can they go? The endless cycle of poverty clearly dictates these women’s lives.

    Also, you speak of ‘economic winners and losers’ in the novel. Do you think that there is anyway that a prominently neo-liberalist society can ‘win’, so to speak, overall? That is, can a society thrive in this envronment? Or only a select few individuals.

    Your discussion of Kirino is really insightful and thoughtful.

    Sophie

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