I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’. First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993.
Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’ The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.
Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author. She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system. This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’
The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her. She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false. The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left. It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’
After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter. This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart. I was thrilled.’ I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination. ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again. Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet. I will not be defeated. I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’ To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself. Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.
I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different. Much of her writing is searching and lovely. In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place. If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely. Still, it just might be the life for me. When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene. In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’
As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts. Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one. However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence. Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.
Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone. Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories. Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways. In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget. ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them. This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.