Kitchen

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first section of this volume is the novella Kitchen, which, published in the original Japanese in 1988, sold millions of copies, won prestigious literary prizes, and sparked a cultural phenomenon dubbed “Bananamania” in Japan. The accompanying piece, “Moonlight Shadow,” was the author’s first story, which won a university prize.

Though the two pieces are similar in themes and narrative devices, the first, approximately twice as long as the second, is clearly the focus of interest in this volume. To non-Japanese readers familiar primarily with translations of the major male authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki, Kitchen will come as a fresh addition to twentieth century Japanese literature.

The Japanese fiction available in translation in the latter part of the twentieth century, several reviewers have noted, often rings with allusions to American popular culture. In fact, a certain melancholy tension between traditional Japanese ways and Western influences has been a stock theme of Japanese literature since the first foreigners were allowed into the country.

Banana Yoshimoto’s vastly popular stories suggest, however, that some aspects of Western culture have been so thoroughly integrated that the younger, postwar generation finds such references easy and natural. As one reviewer notes, the choice of the word “kitchen” itself is noteworthy: It is “the trendy English loan-word kitchin rather than the Japanese term, daidokorn” To be sure, some references can be relatively superficial, such as the mention of Kentucky Fried Chicken in “Moonlight Shadow” or Denny’s in Kitchen. A reference to the television comedy Bewitched, a simile comparing the narrator’s calmness to “Joan of Arc before the Dauphin,” and an incident from a Brothers Grimm story lightly touch upon a Westernization so seemingly ingrained that it may be remarkable only to non- Japanese readers.

The vignette of a transvestite character “eating soba noodles with fried bits of tempura batter and wearing what is practically the national costume, a two-piece warmup suit” suggests an author capable of sharp observations of a society in subtle transition with which she herself is completely comfortable. Such cultural observations are the lighter, more amusing aspects of these two stories. Much more remarkably modem are the confused but independent young women who narrate both stories. The feminism of Yoshimoto’s characters comes through subtly, subsumed in the grim universalities of life that the young female narrators must confront and modulated by a web of communal caretaking.

As Kitchen starts, Mikage Sakurai is at a crossroads. Her only relative, a grand-mother, has been dead for three days. Both her parents died young, and she was reared by grandparents; her grandfather died while she was in junior high school. Now, on leave from her university studies, she is drifting aimlessly. All that keeps her going is her love of kitchens. In fact, the only place she can fall asleep after her grandmother’s death is next to the refrigerator.

In both these stories, recovery from the death of a loved one is the major challenge for the young characters. An important component of the recovery is the struggle to risk connecting to others. Mikage’s classmate Yuichi Tanabe is a young man who works in what had been her grandmother’s favorite flower shop. Invited to visit his home, Mikage falls in love with the Tanabe kitchen, and, though still in a fog about her emotions and desires, responds to the warmth and charm of the people in the household.

Mikage’s adolescent narrative voice is appealing, with its intuitive generalizations about the state of humanity and her open, accepting nature. She is struck dumb with admiration when she meets Yuichi’s mother, beautifully made up and dressed and giving “off a marvelous light that seemed to vibrate with life force. She didn’t look human. I had never seen anyone like her.”

The mother, Eriko, proves to be actually Yuichi’s father, who had a sex-change operation when his wife died of cancer. Eriko now owns a gay club and works nights there. She and her son accept Mikage with open arms, and she, having no direction in life, moves in and spends some happy months with them.

Yoshimoto’s stories are marked by skillful reversals of gender roles. To the orphaned Mikage, Eriko becomes the fount of female wisdom. One evening, out of the blue, Eriko tells Mikage that it is not easy being a woman and recommends that anyone wanting to be independent should care for and feed something-a child or a...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)

Kitchen

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For a young novelist (she was twenty-four when KITCHEN was first published in Japan), Banana Yoshimoto delivers two keenly perceptive and profound novellas, KITCHEN and MOONLIGHT SHADOWS.

In the first, protagonist Mikage Sakurai has just lost her last relative with the death of her grandmother. Feeling isolated, she accepts an invitation to move in with classmate Yuichi Tanabe and his transsexual mother, Eriko, who operates a bar for gay, transvestite, and transsexual patrons. Mikage finds great comfort with her adopted family and takes charge of all the kitchen duties; it is in kitchens that she truly finds peace with the world.

Slowly, Mikage and Yuichi grow into each other’s lives, while fiercely trying to maintain independence. Eriko’s death, at the hands of a psychotic killer, throws the balance out of their relationship and leads Yuichi to a breakdown. While Yuichi turns in on himself and uses alcohol as an escape, Mikage moves out and begins a career in the culinary arts. After many painful, lonely nights, the two discover that they are in love.

MOONLIGHT SHADOW, the shorter of the two novellas, deals with themes similar to those in KITCHEN: facing the death of a loved one and maintaining personal independence. Here, Satsuki’s life is embittered by the death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi. Sometimes in her fitful sleep, Satsuki finds peace by dreaming of Hitoshi; but upon waking and realizing the permanence of his absence,...

(The entire section is 506 words.)

Kitchen Historical Context

The Economic Boom
In 1988 the Japanese economy was in the middle of the longest financial boom it had experienced since World...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Kitchen Literary Style

Symbolism
In the opening pages of the novella the significance of the kitchen is explained. Mikage introduces herself and...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Kitchen Literary Techniques

What is most remarkable about the techniques that Yoshimoto employs within the work is her choice to write in the mode of magic realism, a...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

Kitchen Ideas for Group Discussions

Yoshimoto's consideration of the ways in which people deal with grief, and the ways in which this allows them to grow, or scars them, and the...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Kitchen Social Concerns

In the preface to Kitchen, translated into English by Megan Backus, Banana Yoshimoto isolates one of the key concerns of her volume:...

(The entire section is 1264 words.)

Kitchen Compare and Contrast

1988: Hirohito, who had been Emperor of Japan since 1926, fell violently ill. He died the next year at the age of 87.

...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Kitchen Topics for Further Study

What do you think Eriko’s transsexuality adds to this story? Explain how you think Mikage’s and Yuichi’s love affair would have been...

(The entire section is 151 words.)

Kitchen Literary Precedents

In her use of magic realism to attack Japanese culture's repressive effects on expression of grief, Yoshimoto explores similar themes to...

(The entire section is 210 words.)

Kitchen Related Titles

In her work NP (1994), Yoshimoto analyses the ways in which terrible experiences shape a person's life, as opposed to the obstacles that are...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Kitchen Adaptations

Kitchen was adapted in 1997 for a film by the Chinese director Yim-Ho, with the part of Aggie (the character who corresponds with...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Kitchen What Do I Read Next?

Many readers have found that Yoshimoto’s novels remind them of Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s best-selling novel Like Water for...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

Kitchen Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Scott Shibuya Brown, “Adrift in the New Japan,” in Book World–The Washington Post, January 10, 1993, p....

(The entire section is 284 words.)