Study Guide

Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto Essay - Critical Essays

Yoshimoto, Banana

Introduction

Banana Yoshimoto 1964–

(Pseudonym of Mahoko Yoshimoto) Japanese novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides criticism on Yoshimoto's works that have been translated into English as of 1994.

Yoshimoto is best known to English-language readers for fiction that features young, offbeat Japanese characters and concerns such sensationalistic topics as incest, suicide, transsexuality, and mysticism. Despite earning a reputation for a hip sensibility, her works are pervaded by traditional themes of loss, love, friendship, and isolation.

Biographical Information

Born in 1964, Yoshimoto is the daughter of renowned philosopher and literary critic Ryumei Yoshimoto. A resident of Tokyo, she attended Nihon University and has won numerous literary prizes. In addition to her works of fiction, Yoshimoto has also published essay collections in her homeland.

Major Works

NP (1991; NP) and the novella and short story that comprise Kitchin (1988; Kitchen) focus on young Japanese women. In the novella Kitchen a young woman named Mikage moves in with her friend Yuichi and his transsexual father after her grandmother dies. Mikage, for whom kitchens, food, and cooking have cathartic properties, studies the culinary arts, eventually using them to help Yuichi cope with his father's unexpected death. In the short story "Moonlight Shadow" the protagonist's boyfriend dies in a car accident on a bridge. Obsessed with his death, she returns daily to the site until a mysterious woman conjures a vision of her lost lover. NP revolves around a woman, Kazami, who befriends a brother, sister, and step-sister whose father, a well-known author, mysteriously committed suicide after publishing a collection of short stories entitled NP. Employing a metafictional approach, Yoshimoto creates an intricate web of interpersonal relationships and coincidences as Kazami's life begins to parallel that of the author and several of his characters. The plot is further complicated by many twists, including affairs involving the step-sister and her half-brother, her father, and Kazami.

Critical Reception

Although Yoshimoto's fiction has been received enthusiastically in Japan, the response among English-speaking critics has been mixed. Detractors have found Kitchen little more than charming, arguing that the dialogue is unrevealing and the protagonists' introspective ruminations about life are insipid and sentimental. Several commentators, however, have expressed appreciation of Yoshimoto's youthful perspective on modern Japanese life, praising her focus on social fragmentation, her blending of Japanese and Western cultures, and her openness to eccentricity. Citing Kitchen's use of fantasy, its lack of conventional parental figures, and its emphasis on androgyny and idealized love uncomplicated by sexual encounters, Deborah Garrison has observed: "Yoshimoto's attraction to weirdness and her unpretentious approach to it—she's not trying to be hip, just faithful to her sense of people as they are—are what might make Western readers want more of her." NP is generally regarded as less successful than Kitchen, with critics mentioning unsympathetic characters and unconvincing treatment of weighty issues as the novel's flaws. Donna Seaman, however, has observed that the events of NP "deepen our wonder at the dangers and idiosyncrasies of love."

Principal Works

Kitchin [Kitchen] (novella and short story) 1988
Tugumi (novel) 1989
NP [NP] (novel) 1991

Criticism

Nick Hornby (review date 8 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Mystical Mundane," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4684, January 8, 1993, p. 18.

[In the following excerpt, Hornby contends that Yoshimoto blends prosaic and extraordinary elements in Kitchen, yet the desired effect of this fusion is unapparent in translation.]

Kitchen comes to us almost bent double with the weight of its success in its native country. Banana Yoshimoto's slim volume, which consists of the title novella and "Moonlight Shadow," a matching short story, has sold "millions" of copies in Japan, and won two prestigious literary prizes. Works like this always appear strangely attractive in translation, promising as they do the contradictory virtues of accessibility and exoticism.

The book is certainly exotic. Indeed, anyone who has been deterred by the self-conscious eccentricity of some recent Japanese writing (particularly the work of Haruki Murakami) might find themselves dispirited by the novella's dramatis personae alone: one of the central characters, Yuichi, lives with a mother who was formerly his father.

Yoshimoto's writing is much more understated than this isolated example of narrative flamboyance suggests. Her stories possess a clarity and simplicity that can seem lightweight. The reliance on mood and a kind of ingenuous directness means that the author is perilously dependent on her translator. "The endless sea...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Scott Shibuya Brown (review date 10 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Adrift in the New Japan," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 10, 1993, p. 8.

[A journalist, Brown was the 1990–91 recipient of the Gannett fellowship in Asian Studies. In the following review, he provides a thematic analysis of Kitchen.]

In an interview, the architect Arata Isozaki once remarked that Tokyo's massive sprawl rendered the ideas of "center" and landmarks superfluous. One could easily set down in any of its several urban areas and not know (or care) that, in most major cities, geographical meaning was supposed to radiate from a singular locus. While initially discomfiting, for Isozaki, the effects of such decentralization are strangely appealing, when one gets used to them.

This psychological state of living without defining landmarks, of decentralization and dislocation, is also at the heart of Kitchen, [a novella and a short story] that represent the first English translation of Banana Yoshimoto, a young and extraordinarily popular chronicler of the 20-something crowd in Japan. Like the geography of Tokyo, Yoshimoto's characters exist at random, denied any possibility of order by the death of their loved ones. Alienated and withdrawn, they linger in the wake of these deaths, grappling with the transition from order into emotional chaos.

Kitchen, the better of the two [pieces], concerns a young cooking student, Mikage, who loses her grandmother, her only surviving relative. Taken in temporarily by a young mutual acquaintance, Yuichi Tanabe, and his transsexual mother, Eriko (who used to be Yuichi's father), Mikage slowly regains her sense of self by extracting pleasure from mundane things—sleeping on her hosts' enormous sofa, listening to their living noises, and simply finding peace, as she puts it, in the mother and son's "strange...

(The entire section is 772 words.)

Todd Grimson (review date 10 January 1993)

SOURCE: "The Catcher in the Rice," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, pp. 3, 7.

[Grimson is an American novelist and short story writer. In the following review, he perceives a youthful, innocent quality and an emphasis on family life as both the strengths and weaknesses of Kitchen.]

I had been really looking forward to reading Banana Yoshimoto. I've long been a fan of Japanese fiction, from the emotionally cryptic but cumulatively powerful work of Nobel Prize-winning Yasunari-Kawabata to the "most Western," sex-and-violence-obsessed Yukio Mishima, plus Tanizaki, Kobo Abe, Yoshiyuki—almost everything translated has been worth reading, with many surprises to be savored along the way.

Banana Yoshimoto has been mentioned along with Haruki Murakami (author of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and A Wild Sheep Chase) as part of a new generation of Japanese novelists, and Murakami is amazing, just what the art calls for, so I presumed Kitchen, Yoshimoto's first book to be translated would be, well—important.

Instead, Kitchen is light as an invisible pancake, charming and forgettable, showing every sign of having been written when the author was only 23. It starts out engagingly enough, the young female narrator telling of her love for kitchens: "White tile catching the light (ting! ting!)."

Our heroine, Mikage, has recently been orphaned; her grandmother has died; her parents passed on long ago. A boy she knows, Yuichi, asks her to come live with him and his mother, Eriko. Mikage cannot take her eyes off Yuichi; he seems to glow with white light.

When Eriko appears, she is so beautiful Mikage is stunned. As it turns out, Eriko is a transsexual: She is Yuichi's father, and changed sex many years ago when Yuichi's mother died. This circumstance is treated with no particular thought or examination; it just is.

Mikage moves in with them, sleeping on the huge couch. The kitchen passes inspection, and Mikage begins to cook in it the very next day. "That whole summer I went about it with a crazed enthusiasm: cooking, cooking, cooking…. And if something came out wrong I'd do it over till I got it right. Complicated omelettes, beautifully shaped vegetables cooked in broth,...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

Elizabeth Hanson (review date 17 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Hold the Tofu," in The New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1993, p. 18.

[In the review below, Hanson values Kitchen as a work about modern, young Japanese.]

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Deborah Garrison (review date 25 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Day-O!" in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 49, January 25, 1993, pp. 109-10

[In the following review, Garrison perceives the novella Kitchen as a quirky and oddly upbeat examination of a young person's emotional trials.]

Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen is a tangy, imperfect little snack. The book, though it appears to be a short novel, is really a pair of stories—the first, called Kitchen, is just long enough, at a hundred and three pages, to be classed as a novella. A literary prize-winner and long-running best-seller in Japan a few years ago, it arrives here translated, somewhat doggedly, by Megan Backus and attended by a small but...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 28 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Ninjo," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, January 28, 1993, p. 20.

[An English novelist, biographer, and critic, Fitzgerald is the author of several novels, including The Golden Child (1977), Offshore (1979), and Innocence (1986). She is known for combining a humanistic approach and a compressed, witty narrative style in her fiction to reveal the strength and nobility of her characters as they cope with life in contemporary society. In the following review, she contends that the pieces included in Kitchen emphasize the theme of coping with loss.]

Banana Yoshimoto contributes a respectful preface to her book...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)

Ian Buruma (review date 12 August 1993)

"Weeping Tears of Nostalgia," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XL, No. 14, August 12, 1993, pp. 29-30.

[Buruma is a Dutch-born critic who has written several nonfiction works on Asian culture. In the following excerpt, he claims that Kitchen draws upon aspects of traditional Japanese literature and current popular tastes.]

Japan can easily give the impression of a country of fag hags. Comic books for young girls feature beautiful youths falling in love with aristocratic men, or androgynous rock stars. Japanese girls like David Bowie at his most camp. The film of E. M. Forster's Maurice played to full houses, mostly of young girls. Luchino Visconti...

(The entire section is 2691 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 13 December 1993)

SOURCE: A review of NP in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 50, December 13, 1993, p. 61.

[In the following review, the critic describes NP as "ultimately unsatisfying."]

Japanese novelist Yoshimoto follows her well-received Kitchen with [NP,] an off-beat, intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying tale about incest, suicide and broken relationships. NP (after an old, sad song titled "North Point") is the name of a short-story collection published in America by celebrated émigré writer Sarao Takase. The book seems, as one character says, to be cursed: Takase committed suicide, as did three would-be Japanese translators. Four years after...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Donna Seaman (review date 1 February 1994)

SOURCE: A review of NP, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 11, February 1, 1994, p. 996.

[In the following review, Seaman provides a positive assessment of NP.]

Kitchen was a surprise hit last year for young Tokyo author Yoshimoto, so expectations will be high for this taut little melodrama. Yoshimoto has a distinctively pop, bemused, and telegraphic writing style. Her new novel's enigmatic title, NP, stands for "North Point," a sad old song that was a favorite of a writer named Sarao Takase, who used it as the title of a collection of 97 stories. After his suicide, a 98th story surfaces and becomes, or at least is rumored to be, the catalyst for two more...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

David Galef (review date 27 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Jinxed," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review. Galef argues that NP suffers from superficiality and poor writing.]

Like comic books for businessmen and green-tea ice cream, Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese phenomenon that Americans may find difficult to understand. Though her previous novel, Kitchen, got mixed reviews in the United States, it was a best seller in Tokyo, and she is particularly attractive to the teen-age and young-adult set. Her protagonists tend to be young women adrift, sliding away from family into sensuous romance. The loosely constructed episodes are meant to evoke a mood of what...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Meg Cohen (review date March 1994)

SOURCE: "Top Banana," in Harper's Bazaar, No. 3388, March, 1994, p. 170.

[In the following review, Cohen offers praise for NP.]

When Banana Yoshimoto's novella Kitchen arrived on the American literary scene last year, many readers discovered a new soul mate. First published in Japan in 1987, it was praised for its artful simplicity and whimsical style; Yoshimoto proved to be a master storyteller with a lot of heart. And with the publication of her new book, NP, she has ventured out of the familiar confines of the kitchen and into a more restless, but no less magical, world.

Set in Japan, NP takes its title from a collection of 97...

(The entire section is 400 words.)