Wednesday, May 6, 2009
BOOK REVIEW: Outlet
Randy Taguchi (Glynne Walley trans.)
Originally published: 2000
Reviewed by Eric Evans
Randy Taguchi (below left) took a less-than-direct route to becoming an author. After a decade or so working in advertising, in 1996 she began writing online. Over time her blog attracted huge readership, due in no small part to her frank tone and outspoken opinions on societal issues. This built-in audience made her a safe bet to the publishing industry, so when she pitched a novel with a vaguely supernatural theme it was quickly accepted. The book sold well, and was optioned for a film adaptation. (That film, "Concent" [sic], was produced and released in 2002.)
"Outlet" is based on the suicide of Taguchi's real-life brother by "hikikomori": essentially, he stayed in his apartment nearly all the time and died of self-neglect. This serves as a galvanizing event in our protagonist Yuki's life. The absence of a suicide note strikes her as odd, so she looks for a clue, something her brother left behind to indicate why he would starve himself to death. She finds the end of a vacuum cleaner's power cord--an electrical plug, cleanly cut off--and pockets it, the start of the puzzle. It's also the start of a journey of self-discovery: Yuki starts to see a ghostly image of her dead brother, and can seemingly smell undiagnosed illnesses on people. Are these hallucinations, ghostly tricks, or the manifestation of a supernatural power she's had all along?
Taguchi's primary strength as a writer is her readability. Like other popular (or maybe I should say populist) authors--think Stephen King or Dan Brown--her work is page-turningly paced and stylistically understated. There's no syntax or structural experimentation that would scare off a young adult or working-class reader. It's ideal beach or airplane fodder in that it's quick and engaging, but it isn't vapid or shallow. As far as the subject matter goes, you could do worse than a detective story with supernatural overtones; think of a standard whodunit (or rather whytheydunit) mixed with "Ringu", with liberal doses of casual sex thrown into the mix. Taguchi's heroine unlocks aspects of the puzzle as she goes from lover to lover, and the result is a guaranteed page-turner.
The only place Taguchi's amateur status really becomes apparent is in the third act, which could charitably be called a mess. without giving too much away, she walks a tightrope between "Ringu"-style ghost story and conventional thriller reasonably well but because the story lives in both worlds it can't fully utilize the conventions of either one. As a result the book doesn't close with anything like a conventional, audience-pleasing climax. That said, such an ending would feel somewhat artificial given the unique flavor of the story, so credit to Taguchi for not taking the easy route.
"Outlet" should appeal to anyone who enjoys stories about contemporary Japan, supernatural subject matter, or well-paced fiction. If you go into it with few expectations you'll have a better time of it; If you're looking for a ghost story or a straight-ahead thriller you'll find much to like here, but the book doesn't quite satisfy if you're reading it solely for those elements.
"Concent", dir. Shun Nakahara, starring Miwako Ichikawa
There are two ways to adapt a book to the screen. One is to slavishly follow the original author's story, note for note; the other is to interpret the work and make whatever changes are deemed necessary by the filmmakers to create an engaging cinematic experience. Either can be done well (think Snyder's "Watchmen" and Cronenberg's "History of Violence") and either can be done poorly (any film made from Hemingway's books, and the Demi Moore disaster "Scarlet Letter"). Unfortunately the creative team behind "Concent" made all the wrong choices.
The film adaptation of Randy Taguchi's "Outlet" is surprisingly faithful to the source material--perhaps a bit too faithful, in that it's nearly literal. Casting "All About Lily Chou-Chou" and "Nightmare Detective 2" actress Miwako Ichikawa (above right) as Yuki is also problematic, since Yuki is a fiercely independent woman, a twentysomething freelance writer of finance stories for newspapers and magazines, and Ichikawa reads as a college freshman onscreen. She's cute as a button and not untalented, just too lightweight for a role that demands introspection, aggression, and other emotions beyond her range.
Despite following the narrative as closely as he does, Nakahara misses the boat stylistically by not aping the visual tropes of horror and suspense films at least a little. The film progresses is an even, direct way that recalls TV movies and other such hackwork, and this story in particular would have benefited from an infusion of style. As a result the film drags almost all the way through, always seeming a beat too slow. Most disastrously, the adaptation remains faithful to the book's third act difficulties, leading to a confusing and unsatisfying final 20 minutes. The film doesn't create any kind of ending, it just sort of stops.
Taguchi's book wasn't a classic, but it was a kernel of a film idea that would have blossomed under the eye of, say, the aforementioned David Cronenberg. The ability to sniff out cancer on someone's breath like a trained drug dog? That's right up his alley, and he would have conveyed it visually. Well, he would have conveyed the whole thing visually, but not before he'd crafted the story into one which worked as cinema. Nakahara and crew weren't up to the challenge.
Trivia note: The music for the film is by avant-garde jazz musician and noise-creator Otomo Yoshihide, who also scored Miwako Ichikawa's sister Mikako's first film, shojo-comic adaptation "Blue".