Banana Yoshimoto

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Nick Hornby (review date 8 January 1993)

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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 was shrouded in darkness. I could see the shadowy forms of gigantic, rugged crags against which the waves were crashing. While watching them I felt a strange, sweet sadness", we read at the climax of the title novella. By this stage in the story there is little else going on apart from the quality of the writing, and yet, with its safe, limited and predictable combinations of noun and adjective, this is irredeemably ordinary.

Both Kitchen and "Moonlight Shadow", each narrated by young women, are about loss. In the longer story, Mikage, the female narrator, moves into the house of Yuichi and his mother/father after the death of her grandmother; in the second, the girl has lost a boyfriend in a car crash, and is granted a vision of her beloved by a mysterious lady on a bridge. There are other thematic ties. The interest in transsexuality is given further expression in "Moonlight Shadow" (the dead boy's brother, who lost his girlfriend in the same accident, has taken to wearing her clothes around town); more importantly, both tales attempt to fuse the mystical and the mundane.

It is here, presumably, that Yoshimoto has scored in Japan. Kitchen (the title refers to Mikage's favourite room) attempts to locate a heartbroken, breathy longing where the rest of us find only a kettle and a dirty oven. In the final pages of the story—which for British readers may have unhappy echoes of the television advertisement for Milk Tray—Mikage makes a death-defying climb to bring her beloved Yuichi an unusually good deep-fried pork and rice dish.

One can imagine the langorous, puzzled sorrow that Yoshimoto intended to conjure up ("Moonlight Shadow", shorter and more intense than Kitchen, achieves genuine poignancy), but in the end, the translation only succeeds in summarizing, rather than capturing, a mood.

Scott Shibuya Brown (review date 10 January 1993)

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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...

(This entire section contains 772 words.)

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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 cheerfulness."

Most of all, what becomes her touchstone of healing is the Tanabes' well-maintained kitchen, where Mikage, in her endless preparation of food, steadily fills the vacuum in her existence. Although Yoshimoto's metaphorical equation of food with life is, on one hand, overbearingly apparent, she writes about the kitchen and cooking as if she were in love with food—that is, artlessly and with much enthusiasm: "Every day I thrilled with pleasure at the challenges tomorrow would bring. Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul. At the supermarket I would stare at a bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back."

There are, however, things that Yoshimoto does less well. The dialogue of her characters, while possibly distorted by the translation, is too often banal, hinting at nothing but the obvious, in the manner of bad television. Similarly, Yoshimoto's characterizations are frequently facile and not particularly telling, again calling to mind the pervasive influence of video culture (Yoshimoto herself belongs to the shinjinrui generation, those born in the 1960s under the twin auspices of a strong GNP and explosive technology). Her second [story], "Moonlight Shadow," which also revolves around the death of loved ones, is especially dependent on cliches. In it, a young woman and a young man struggle to carry on after losing their lovers in a car crash; through an other-worldly intervention, they see the continuous path of life, which allows them to accept the nature of death.

Yet, there is also an engaging and deceptive lightness, even slightness, in Kitchen that surprises, given its rather grim subject matter. Indeed, what becomes clear midway through is that while Kitchen ostensibly is about loss, what the novellas truly represent is another turn on the classic Japanese theme of mono no aware, or evanescence: beauty as an ever-transitory, perpetually fading, bittersweet phenomenon (this connection with the classical, I suspect, has generated the book's overwhelming popularity in Japan—57 printings according to the jacket blurb). As a meditation on the transience of beauty and love, Kitchen is often melancholy and lovely, consistently striking a delicate balance in delineating the emotions that surround death without becoming emotional in turn.

In the end, that delicacy remains Kitchen's most beguiling charm. Though its context is matter-of-fact modern and Western (as the buzz of technology hovering unobtrusively in the background reminds us), Yoshimoto in many ways has written a work shaped by the most traditional of aesthetics. Of course, it must be said as well that in the brief tradition of modern Japanese literature, which dates back 120 years, flux and the hardships of transition have been oft-celebrated themes. But so long as the Japanese concept of beauty is defined by ephemerality, the appeal of tradition is not likely to change—not for someone as currently popular as Banana Yoshimoto, nor for future Japanese authors willing to tackle the subject of love and loss.

Todd Grimson (review date 10 January 1993)

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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, tempura—it took a fair amount of work to make these things."

Later on, rather abruptly, we are informed that Mikage has moved out and that Eriko has been dead for a month. Yuichi is in mourning; he and Mikage are both orphans now, yearning for each other chastely, dreaming at one point (amazing!) the same vaguely psychic dream.

The release of information to the reader seems unskilled, or immature, weak in narrative or plot. But that's helpful for establishing and holding the central mood of the very innocent yearning of the two orphans for each other; there's no story to get in the way.

It's entertaining when Yuichi's former girlfriend shows up at Mikage's work (she is suddenly revealed to have had a job for some time now, as an assistant to a famous cooking teacher), although Mikage rather too easily maintains the upper hand in the confrontation. "When I imagined the workings of her mind, the senseless anger that spurred her to come here," Mikage reflects, "I pitied her from the bottom of my heart."

Later on, separated from Yuichi, Mikage decides to surprise him with katsudon pork and rice. That is, she delivers some takeout as proof of her love. It's actually quite sweet.

The title novella is only 105 pages long, so another story is included, "Moonlight Shadow," which shares similar themes with the first. "A lover should die after a long lifetime. I lost Hitoshi at the age of twenty, and I suffered from it so much that I felt as if my own life had stopped … I loved Hitoshi—I loved Hitoshi more than life itself."

OK, so we're young here. Really young. We're no Raymond Radiguet (whose Count D'Orgel is probably the best 20th-Century novel by anyone around the age of 21). There is really no point, either, in comparing Yoshimoto at this point in her development to Haruki Murakami.

The similarly young Japanese-American writer Cynthia Kadohata might be the best reference point. Both share a certain innocent likability in their writing—not to be underestimated or dismissed—along with a certain insipidity.

In Japan, the notion of being an orphan may have different, much more harrowing connotations than it has over here. Early on in Kitchen, Mikage says, "I was tied to no creature in the world, I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying."

In American culture, such a situation, however sad, is often seen as liberating, giving one the opportunity to reinvent oneself, conquer the world. In Japan, the portrayal of Mikage's situation may have satisfied some deep, resonant idealized identification, even longing, in the book-buying public.

Family is everything. But family, whether in the form of relatives, employer or school, may not continue to be everything in the brave new future, and it is this possibility of breaking free, of individuality in the Western sense, that Mikage represents. And yet, Mikage does not choose this fate, she is innocent, and in fact, she spends much of her time bemoaning the loss of family connection. Consciously, at least, she believes she misses this comforting tie. She tells herself (and the reader) she does. The truth may be much more complex. She can have it both ways. And she thus serves as a bridge between reassuring order and frightening disorder (which is not without its allure). She is both as blameless and as innocently subversive as Holden Caulfield was over here in 1951 and has been ever since. The phenomenal success of Kitchen in Japan (published there in 1987) is therefore easily understandable. If "Bananamania" is exportable to the United States, I think it will be largely on the basis of this marketable, pleasurable name, Banana Yoshimoto. It has the sound of fun.

Elizabeth Hanson (review date 17 January 1993)

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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.]

A Japanese maxim warns that "A gentleman does not go near a kitchen." Traditionally a cramped, dingy place—even in an otherwise well-appointed home—the old fashioned kitchen revealed the low status of the women who spent much of their time there. Yet today, though still small by American standards and still largely the domain of women, kitchens are the showcases of Japanese consumer affluence.

Banana Yoshimoto's first novel evokes this modern opulence even in its title, which uses the trendy English loanword kitchin rather than the Japanese term, daidokoro. Ms. Yoshimoto was all of 24 years old when Kitchen was published in Japan in 1988; with its kooky young woman protagonist, Mikage Sakurai, the novel—a best seller that is now in its 57th printing—clearly has spoken to the author's contemporaries.

"The place I like best in this world is the kitchen," Mikage announces in the very first line. "I love even incredibly dirty kitchens to distraction—vegetable droppings all over the floor, so dirty your slippers turn black on the bottom." Left alone in the world when her grandmother dies, Mikage finds that her saddest moods are dispelled by the chance to scrub a refrigerator or even glimpse a busy kitchen from the window of a bus. She is befriended by a young man, Yuichi Tanabe, and his glamorous transsexual "mother," Eriko, and in this household finds some peace—at least for a time.

"Moonlight Shadow," the less satisfying story that fills out this volume, tells of a mysterious stranger who leads the young woman narrator—her voice sounds exactly like that of Mikage Sakurai—to a reunion with her deceased boyfriend.

Unfortunately, the endearing characters and amusing scenes in Ms. Yoshimoto's work do not compensate for frequent bouts of sentimentality. The English text feels choppy—this may be due to the author's style rather than the translation—and the translator, Megan Backus, uses Americanisms that sometimes sound odd coming from the mouths of Japanese characters.

For English-language readers, the appeal of Kitchen lies in its portrayal of the lives of young Japanese. Here are characters who disdain traditional meals made of tofu and pickled vegetables and instead tuck into doughnuts, sandwiches from Kentucky Fried Chicken and pudding cups from the local mini-mart. Yuichi and Eriko offer Mikage a huge sofa to sleep on, not a futon, and gleefully fill their apartment with electronic gadgets. And Mikage herself typifies the confusion of young Japanese women, attracted as she is to kitchens and cooking as symbols of comfort and womanliness, yet trying to live independently.

Observing the women pupils at a cooking school, Mikage feels how different she is: "Those women lived their lives happily. They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing…. What I mean by 'their happiness' is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone."

Deborah Garrison (review date 25 January 1993)

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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 irresistible fanfare of cuteness. There's a photograph on the mint-and-dark-peach jacket of a bright-eyed Japanese girl in a white eyelet dress, her hair stylishly longer on one side than the other—someone it might be fun to know. She's not Banana, but the packaging doesn't entirely lie. The author was only twenty-four when Kitchen was first published, and reading it, along with its less ambitious companion, "Moonlight Shadow," gives you the sense that you're meeting a real young woman, who is, among other things, cute. Both stories are told by a naïve, occasionally goofy first-person narrator, whose bursts of energetic resolve are as girlish as her cries of passionate despair.

What makes this girlishness palatable—what counterbalances it—is the author's preoccupation with grief. "When my grandmother died the other day, I was taken by surprise," Mikage, the twentyish heroine of Kitchen, explains at the start of her strange tale. "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." An only child whose parents died when she was little, Mikage was brought up by her grandmother. But her musings on her plight are mostly uplifting and practical in nature. She acknowledges, for example, the relief: "To live alone with an old person is terribly nerve-racking, and the healthier he or she is, the more one worries." She confesses the battier aspects of her search for comfort: "Steeped in a sadness so great I could barely cry … I pulled my futon into the deathly silent, gleaming kitchen"—and she sleeps there, curled like a forlorn family pet at the base of the refrigerator. "However!" she continues. "I couldn't exist like that. Reality is wonderful." She's the opposite of the depressive who masks pain under a noisy (and transparent) cheerfulness: she keeps telling you she's depressed, listless, and tearful, but she can't hide her essentially sunny nature.

Yoshimoto's writing isn't itself very complex; it skips lightly over the surface of even Mikage's darkest hours. But what she's trying to describe—happiness—is complex, and is much trickier to evoke convincingly than misery, maybe because the sources of true contentment are more obscure. Obviously, reality isn't as wonderful as Mikage claims: she is utterly without family, and she has to find a way to manage on her skimpy inheritance. But she is graced with the stubborn happiness of the survivor, which can crop up out of nowhere after a death in the family and thrive like a weed.

What also crops up out of nowhere for Mikage is an invitation to live, rent-free, at the Tanabe residence. Yuichi Tanabe, a reserved young man about Mikage's age, visits her after her grandmother's funeral and proposes that she come to live with him and his mother. (Yoshimoto's way of effecting this and all transitions is so matter-of-fact you can't decide whether it's charming or dopey. "Dingdong. Suddenly the doorbell rang," she writes.) Mikage's reaction to Yuichi's polite appearance on her threshold—"I couldn't take my eyes off him. I think I heard a spirit call my name"—is a bizarre blend of teeny-bopper and Zen: love at first sight, non-Western style. Mikage also takes an instant liking to Yuichi's stunningly pretty mother, who turns out, to the reader's baffled delight, to be a man. Yuichi delicately introduces the subject to Mikage with "Guess what else …" His mother was his father—before plastic surgery. This is a wonderful touch, not because it's played for laughs (it isn't) or because it's a big surprise (strangely, it's not that, either) but because it's a piece of superfluous inventiveness on the author's part; it lends everything around it an air of cheerful unreality that mirrors Mikage's state of mind.

Yoshimoto, for all her narrative exuberance, understands the one-step-forward, two-steps-back emotional indirectness of a young person in crisis. The death of Mikage's grandmother is only the prelude to the more shocking, untimely death of Yuichi's mother, and the news of it causes Mikage, who has since moved into her own place, to appreciate the powerful solace of her days at the Tanabes': of sleeping on their couch and hearing Yuichi's mom clatter in on her heels, humming a tune; of perfecting her cooking skills in their underutilized kitchen; of waking up in the middle of the night at the same time as Yuichi and comparing dreams with him. The reader learns of these moments only in retrospect because it is only in retrospect that Mikage comes into full possession of their significance. Most of Kitchen occurs not in real time but in mental hyperspace—the virtual rather than chronological aftermath in which events are digested and understanding is gained.

But the story finally seizes on a down-to-earth matter: whether Mikage and Yuichi, in their shared orphanhood, should become lovers or remain fast, sibling-like friends. Yoshimoto can't render it a very compelling question: the intimate rapport between Mikage and Yuichi simply fails to be as interesting as the lively, perfectly achieved completeness of Mikage taken by herself Her outburst following a good long cry over her grandmother ("I implored the gods: Please, let me live"); her remark at the sight of clouds blowing around in a strong wind ("In this world there is no place for sadness")—these rarities will stay with the reader.

Mikage is, throughout, a little bit weird, and so are the other characters. 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. (Two novels and two collections of essays have come out in Japan since Kitchen.) And Banana Yoshimoto herself seems an odd one; it's hard to know what genus to put her in. She can't be called a Japanese counterpart of members of the American literary brat pack. She's not jaded enough—she's too adorably nerdy, and she's way too friendly. She's not a brat. In fact, she makes you wonder if bounce-and-shine is still a standard feature in the artistic youth of other nations; you just don't see too much of it around here. Yoshimoto even includes an afterword to the American edition of Kitchen, in which she expresses the hope that the book will be a balm to those who have known setbacks in their lives; there's a generous, therapeutic impulse somewhere inside this fiction writer. "Surely we will meet someday," she closes her message to the reader, "and until that day, I pray that you will live happily." Such graciousness feels weird, too—it's foreign, anyway. But why be wary of a kind wish?

Penelope Fitzgerald (review date 28 January 1993)

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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 [Kitchen], dedicating it to her publisher, and thanking the manager of the restaurant where she supported herself while she was writing it and the professors who voted her a prize—'it made me so very happy.' This dutifulness sounds traditional. Traditional, too, when you get to the novellas themselves, are the violent emotions restrained within cramped but manageable limits and the compelling need for analogy between the human predicament and the natural world. 'I understood it from the colour of the sky, the shape of the moon, the blackness of the night sky under which we passed.' 'The sky outside was a dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness.' 'The scratching of our pens mingled with the sound of raindrops beginning to fall in the transparent stillness of evening.'

But at the same time the two novellas in Kitchen are the work of an original, a truly determined individual. 'For a very long time,' Yoshimoto says, '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.' When it first came out in Japan five years ago (the publishers tell us) the country was swept by Bananamania and Kitchen spent a year on the best-seller list. They also suggest that it recalls the early Marguerite Duras. This I don't quite see, although both writers are concerned with the formidable barriers of loneliness. Loneliness for Duras, however, is a personal disability which leaves her characters not communicating, but talking endlessly to themselves. For Yoshimoto, to feel lonely is to share the universal sense of mortality. 'Someday, without fail, everyone will disappear, scattered into the blackness of time,' she writes. 'The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person are living together—the deathly silence that panting in a corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shudder. I felt it very early, although no one told me about it.'

Mikage Sakurai, who tells her own story in Kitchen, is in fact left alone, when her grandmother dies, in their Tokyo apartment. She quits college to train as a catering instructress, and from this point of view can manage her life well enough, but feels she 'was tied by blood to no creature in this world'. Enter, with a ring on the doorbell, an unexpected saviour, Yuichi Tanabe, a college boy a year younger than herself. He works in the evenings at the shop where Mikage's grandmother had often bought flowers; he had adored the old lady, and now invites Mikage to come and live for as long as she wants to in his own home. The delicate relationship between the two, which never quite defines itself, is described, day by day, with a kind of touching persistence, as though the narrator's life depended on the reader understanding it exactly. Meanwhile the translation, with what accuracy I can't tell, alternates rather bewilderingly between the (more or less) contemporary and the magical. 'It sounds like I was possessed. His attitude was so totally "cool", though, I felt I could trust him. In the bleak gloom before my eyes (as it always is in cases of bewitchment), I saw a straight road leading from me to him. He seemed to glow with white light.'

Although she is anxious to govern her life by free will and choice, Mikage accepts his invitation almost without giving it thought. Yuichi, however, does not live alone, but with his mother, a dazzlingly beautiful woman, too strikingly dressed for any ordinary daytime job. She works, it turns out, in a nightclub, and, as Yuichi tells Mikage with barely concealed amusement, she is really his father. 'After my real mother died, Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself: "What do I want to do now?'" What 'she' decided was to 'become a woman'. With the help of a plastic surgeon she had 'everything done' with singular success, and with the money left over from the surgery she bought the nightclub. Here then is willpower in action. Eriko is presented as having true greatness, with the physical attraction of greatness. Whatever Mikage feels, or doesn't feel, about Yuichi, she is certainly in love with Eriko. Both of them lie awake in anxiety until they hear the sound of humming and the click of high-heeled shoes as she comes back, sometimes drunk, in the small hours. But Eriko is murdered, stabbed by one of the club's unbalanced customers who fancied her as a woman. She manages, before she dies, to beat this man to death with the bar-bell. 'That makes us even.' Yuichi is proud that his mother (or father) died fighting. If the Tokyo police make any sort of enquiry, we don't hear about it. Violence, for this novelist, is not significant either socially or morally. Like everything else, it is a matter for the emotions. Both Yuichi and Mikage, left without their protector, experience a sickness to the depth of the soul, and the rest of their story is concerned with the ordeal of rehabilitation.

When Mikage first comes to live in the Tanabe household, she sleeps on an outsize sofa ('a dog too big to keep in Japan could stretch out across it sideways') next door to the kitchen. This kitchen is not the traditional 'Japanese room' of the apartment—that is kept for the TV. On the contrary, it has fluorescent lighting, a Silverstone frying pan and a German-made vegetable peeler, while in the fitted cupboards 'all kinds of plates silently awaited their turn'. To Mikage all kitchens are of importance. 'A kitchen,' she says, not at all ironically, 'represents some distant longing engraved on my soul.' She would like, when the time comes, to die in one, so that she could feel 'How good'. And from its opening paragraphs this novella proposes food and cooking as a metaphor for love. English readers got used to this device in Dickens—the supreme example is the fowl which Captain Cuttle cooks for Florence Dombey—but not to this strangely obsessive effect. Even in the depths of her grief for her grandmother's death (although she has the feeling that she isn't weeping for one sad thing, but rather for many), Mikage feels soothed by the sound of knives clattering and the voices of people at work the other side of a brightly-lit kitchen window. At the sight of it she implores the gods, after all, to let her live. During her stay at the Tanabes' she teaches herself to cook, driving herself to make her dishes resemble the illustrations in the book, or staring sometimes at a single red tomato, 'loving it for dear life'. When she is left living alone in the apartment with Yuichi, now an orphan like herself, they don't make love, they buy enormous quantities of food from the supermarket and eat for many hours. 'Deep-fried tofu, steamed greens, beanthread with chicken (each of them with various sauces), chicken Kiev, sweet and sour pork, steamed Chinese dumplings …' Much of one's life history, Mikage reflects, is etched on the senses. A nightmare banquet (Yuichi gets very drunk) cannot resolve the situation between them, but she has been right to recognise food's power. She is selected for her job as assistant to an august cookery instructress, in preference to the other candidates, for the singular reason that she lives on the edge, whereas the rest have been taught, 'probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of happiness'. When Yuichi goes missing and takes refuge in a country inn, Mikage climbs into his room by moonlight to bring him a pork-and-rice katsudon from the take-away. In this way, and in no other, she touches the springs of his grief. The katsudon is excellent, and 'the darkness no longer harbours death.'

"Moonlight Shadow" is the companion [story] to Kitchen. It is set in a provincial university town, so that instead of the skies of Tokyo you look for the soul's reflection at the river and its bridge and the rows of waterside houses 'which hung in a faint mist, as though submerged in an ocean of blue air'. The elements of Kitchen recur—the violent incident which is reported rather than seen directly, the very young protagonists whose emotional life is threatened almost before it has begun, the background of part-time jobs, college classes and tea-houses, the mysterious (and in this case magical) intervention of an odd woman. Hitoshi and Satsuki (still a schoolgirl) are student lovers. 'Children that we were, we hurt each other many times over,' but Yoshimoto effectively shows that for four years this could only be described as true love. They live on op-posite sides of the river; the bridge is their meeting-place. Hitoshi has a younger brother, Hiiragi, who is regarded as eccentric. He, too, has a girlfriend, Yumiko. The four of them are often together. One night, when Hitoshi is giving Yumiko a lift home, both of them are killed in an accident on the bridge. As she does in Kitchen, Yoshimoto shows a brilliant, delicate discernment between the stages of the agonies of loss. These begin 'without a prospect in sight. Day after day went by, like losing one's mind bit by bit.' Satsuki feels that, at 20, she is undergoing one of the things it is 'better not to have to experience in a lifetime—abortion, prostitution, major illness'. (War is not mentioned. Yoshimoto was born in 1964.)

Satsuki's resource, rather than lying awake waiting for the sky to grow light, is an early-morning run. The Japanese national uniform is now a two-piece sweat suit, and she buys one, and a container for hot tea. Her run always takes her to the bridge, the fatal spot of the accident, but also, at the dawn hour, the most beautiful place in the city. Here, one morning out of so many which seem alike, she is 'spoken to' by a stranger asking to share her tea, a woman whose age can't be guessed, and who gives her name as Urara. Yoshimoto's technique in this story is less assured (though even more touching) than in Kitchen, and the reader sees through Urara as soon as her eyes are said to be 'knowing and serene'. She is the wise woman, necessary in many a fairy tale to assist chance or fate.

Since the 18-year-old Hiiragi has also lost his lover in the accident, Satsuki feels an affinity with him, and arranges to meet him in the coffee-shop of a department store. 'In he came, wearing a sailor-style girl's uniform, complete with middy blouse and skirt.' Hiiragi's sailor suit, like Eriko's cross-dressing, is unsettling, but the correct reaction is compassion. His classmates, it seems, are understanding, recognising that the suit belonged to his lost sweetheart. Both Satsuki and Hiiragi, then, are the victims of obsession, in need of deliverance from the dead who captivate them. Urara, waiting again by the bridge, tells Satsuki that, for an unexplained moment, the dimensions of time and space are going to shift: 'Got it?' To which Satsuki can only reply: 'Got it.' What she gets will be the spirit-seeing of the classic ghost story. It doesn't seem out of place. Throughout these two moving novellas Yoshimoto has concentrated less on crowded contemporary Japan than on ninjo, the impulses of the human heart.

Ian Buruma (review date 12 August 1993)

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"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 was a teen-age idol, as was his star, Helmut Berger. The most popular theater company for young girls is the all female Takarazuka, based in a dreamlike little spa near Osaka, with pink bridges and pink houses, and a large pink theater. One of the most popular Takarazuka roles—apart from Rhett Butler and Lieutenant Pinkerton—is that of a young woman at the court of Louis XVI, who grows up as a boy named Oscar. As a dashing military officer, Oscar falls in love with a Swedish aristocrat, who is already in love with Marie-Antoinette. But Oscar in turn is adored by her/his groom, who is unaware of his master's female identity. The play is entitled Rose of Versailles.

All this would be camp, if it were knowing. But it is not. Young Japanese girls appear to find the pink bridges, the gay romances, the rock stars in drag, the girls dressed as boys who fall in love with other boys, beautiful. Akogare, romantic longing, is the term they use for this dream world, far removed from the demands of reality. What would be the highest of camp in another context can become cute in Japan, redolent of childhood. It is rather like the chosen name of [Yoshimoto Banana]. Banana is the kind of sobriquet that would suit a Brazilian drag artist. But the publicity photograph of Yoshimoto Banana, hugging her little puppy dog, is cuteness personified. The fact that her father is the most famous philosopher of the 1960s new left gives her name an extra air of incongruousness, as though there were a young German novelist called Banana Habermas.

Yoshimoto Banana's extraordinary success—more than six million books were sold in two years, and she is still in her twenties—has made her so famous that the Japanese foreign ministry was handing out copies of her book to foreign visitors at the G-7 Summit in Tokyo. They may not realize what peculiar fantasies lurk behind Yoshimoto's cute exterior.

Yoshimoto Banana's stories are clearly related to the androgynous teen-age universe of Takarazuka and girls' comics. The characters in Kitchen, a book of two short stories, include a transsexual father and a boy who dresses up in his dead girlfriend's school uniform. Yet there is nothing overtly kinky about these transformations. In the first story, entitled Kitchen, a young girl called Mikage, who is left alone in the world after her grandmother dies, goes to live with Eriko, the transsexual, and his/her son, Yuichi. She more or less lives in their kitchen, cooking delicious food, trying to soothe her lonely heart. In a way, the kitchen is to Mikage what drag is to Eriko: a refuge from loneliness after the death of a loved one. Yuichi explains how his father became his mother:

"After my real mother died, Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself, 'What do I want to do now?' What she decided was, 'Become a woman.' She knew she'd never love anybody else. She says that before she became a woman she was very shy."

In the second story, entitled "Moonlight Shadow," Hiiragi's taste for wearing his dead girlfriend's clothes is equally matter-of-fact. And it, too, is an escape from loneliness. His girlfriend, Yumiko, died in a car crash, together with his brother Hitoshi. Hitoshi's girlfriend is called Satsuki, and the story is told in her voice. She wants to know why Hiiragi insists on going around in Yumiko's school uniform:

When I asked him if he wore it for sentimental reasons, he said that wasn't it. "Things are just things, they can't bring back the dead. It just makes me feel better."

What cooking is to Mikage, jogging is to Satsuki. As Satsuki says: "His sailor outfit—my jogging. They served exactly the same purpose…. Neither recourse was anything more than a way of trying to lend some life to a shriveled spirit. It was a way to divert our minds, to kill time."

The Italian scholar Giorgio Amitrano pointed out the connection with girls' comics in his introduction to the German edition of Kitchen. He wrote that Yoshimoto's stories, with their odd sexual disguises and morbid emotions, are not only like many Japanese girls' comics, but also owe much to horror movies and the impressionistic style of Kawabata Yasunari's novels. This is more weight than the book can possibly carry, but the point is well taken. For a fascination for horror and death is as much part of girls' comics as the cuteness and androgynous fantasies.

The tone of Yoshimoto's stories is strange, for it veers from childlike naiveté to flights of bizarre fancy, which is just like most Japanese comic books for teen-agers. Sometimes her prose is direct and simple, and sometimes it reads like a young girl's diary, filled with poetic sadness: "Suddenly, to see that the world was so large, the cosmos so black. The unbounded fascination of it, the unbounded loneliness …"

Children often dream of flying out the window of their bedrooms, following some fairy or another, to a never-never land without parents, to a new family of children and freaks. Yoshimoto's characters are a bit like the children in such tales—except that they are not children; they just dream like children. Instead of fathers and mothers, there are the surrogate fathers and brothers, dressed in women's clothes.

But neither of her stories celebrates or even suggests new sexual possibilities, as one might assume. Indeed, sex, like real parents and siblings, is absent. Yuichi never becomes Mikage's lover, and neither does Hiiragi in Satsuki's case. Not sex but death permeates both tales: the death of Eriko, stabbed by a mad suitor; the death of Mikage's grandmother; and the deaths of Satsuki's boyfriend and Hiiragi's girlfriend. Death, loss, the melancholy fleetingness of life, these are brooded over endlessly with the feverish sensibility of Victorian children's tales. This is where Kitchen is both contemporary and very traditional—hence, perhaps, the perceived shades of Kawabata, who, incidentally, wrote some of his stories for an audience of young girls. But it is a pop version of Kawabata, as though The Izu Dancer, or Snow Country, were written for the Takarazuka theater.

The two most common phrases in classical Japanese literature, as well as in modern pop songs and in Yoshimoto's book, are sadness (kanashimi), and nostalgia (natsukashisa). Translated into English, this can sound odd: "The sound of his voice made me want to weep with nostalgia." Or: "Somewhere deep in my heart I felt I had known her long ago, and the reunion made me feel so nostalgic I wanted to weep tears of joy." Weeping tears of nostalgia is not something one comes across often in Western literature. Not that the emotion doesn't exist, but it is not usually so histrionically expressed; or rather, what sounds histrionic in English is perfectly ordinary in Japanese. Perhaps nostalgic isn't even quite the right word for natsukashii, but I wouldn't know of a better one.

Nostalgia is closely linked to that other key element of Japanese aesthetics: mono no aware, the sadness of things, lacrimae rerum. Sadness about the transience of life, is, in Japanese art, a thing of beauty. Again, like nostalgia, it is not easy to translate. But you find instances of it all through Yoshimoto's book: "When I finished reading I carefully refolded the letter. The smell of Eriko's favorite perfume tugged at my heart. This, too, will disappear after the letter is opened a few more times, I thought. That was hardest of all."

Nostalgia is one reason why so much in Japanese art is about reliving the past, or fixing the flow of time, as in a haiku. The ghosts of the dead appear in Noh plays, rather as Christ did to his disciples after the crucifixion. Sometimes they return to torment or exact their revenge, and sometimes to liberate the living from being haunted by death. And sometimes just to say goodbye. In "Moonlight Shadow," Satsuki sees her dead boyfriend for one last time, when he appears one night on a river bank: "My tears fell like rain; all I could do was stare at him. Hitoshi looked sadly back at me. I wished time could stop—but with the first rays of the rising sun everything slowly began to fade away."

The beautiful sadness of things is linked to the Japanese cult of purity, of uncorrupted youth, of the cherry blossom in full bloom. It is the fleetingness of the cherry blossom's life (about a week in Japan), and the speed at which decay and corruption spoil the pure beauty of a young boy or girl, that bring on the sense of exquisite sadness. Here is where classical Japanese aesthetics meets the world of Takarazuka, girls' comics, and Yoshimoto's stories. For in all these instances, there is a deep nostalgia for the purity of youth, before sex roles are clearly defined, before social hypocrisy corrupts, before the rot sets in. In Japanese fiction of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, homosexuality was often celebrated for this reason: boys' love was considered to be purer than the heterosexual kind; it was uncontaminated by the demands of reproduction and other family duties.

Since family duties are (or at any rate were) particularly onerous in Japan and the sexes so rigidly defined, it is no wonder that young girls so often long to stop time, and retreat into a fantasy world of purity, androgyny, and prepubescence. Yet, of course, women have written about sexual love. Lady Murasaki wrote about little else in her Tale of Genji. But even she, who still enjoyed a high status in the rarefied sphere of the Heian court, was filled with sadness: she pined, she longed, she was nostalgic. Since then the status of Japanese women steadily declined and women's stories, whether written by women or men, became sadder and sadder. Love so often ended in tragedy, because there was no room in Japanese society for love. Marriage had nothing to do with romantic love. And women who loved outside the home, in fiction and in fact, overstepped their social borders, and their passion had to end in death. Sex, in the fiction of the Edo period (1603–1867), was almost entirely confined to the licensed quarters. But only men wrote about this floating world of paid love. Ihara Saikaku's The Life of an Amorous Woman (1686) is one of the masterpieces of this genre. Women, being confined to the brothel or the home, hardly wrote anything at all. They were the sacrificial victims of love in the male imagination, and often in reality too.

Love, wrote Tanizaki Junichiro in 1932, was liberated for the Japanese by European literature. He meant that romantic love in modern Japan had become a serious subject, not an excuse for dramatic suicide. Before there was only sex, with prostitutes, actors, boys; now sexual love would strike a blow for individual freedom. Women writers took up this theme too. But it is interesting that one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the early modern period (and indeed of modern Japanese literature tout court) should still be so traditional, in content and in form. It is a novella, entitled Growing Up, written by Higuchi Ichiyo and published in 1895. It is the story of a young girl growing up in a licensed quarter of Tokyo. What makes her sexual awakening, her growing up, so sad is that we know how she will end up, in the brothel with her elder sister. Freedom, as this story shows, belongs to the child. The loss of innocence means bondage not freedom. To become a woman is to enter the prison that society has provided, in this case a whorehouse, but it could just as well have been the home.

Things have changed since 1896, to be sure. Japanese women have more freedom than ever before. One of the most remarkable statistics of modern Japan is that since a few years ago, more women than men initiated divorce proceedings. (In Higuchi Ichiyo's time, a woman did not even have the right to ask for a divorce.) And yet, as far as sexual love is concerned, things have not changed as much as it may seem. For the alternative to pure sex is still very often a sad nostalgia for lost innocence.

What has changed is that the description of sex, from a predatory point of view, is no longer a male preserve. A young woman writer called Yamada Emi made her reputation by writing novels about working as a dominatrix in an SM club, and her passion for black men. In Bedtime Eyes, she describes her lover, a black GI, as a sweating sex object. His character is as flat and featureless as the courtesans in pornographic wood block prints of the Edo period. Foreigners, and especially black men, have taken the place of prostitutes in the Japanese erotic imagination. A recent nonfiction best seller, entitled Yellow Cab, by Ieda Shoko, featured examples of wild sexual adventures enjoyed by Japanese women visiting New York. This is not the love that Tanizaki talked about. But at least it is women doing all the talking.

Sex with foreigners, in fantasy or in fact, is a long way from the pink dreams of innocent gender-bending. And yet there is a connection. Just as the licensed quarters were a traditional escape for men from the duties of family life, sexual adventurism overseas has become a modern escape for many independent women. Marriage for most Japanese women is still a social trap, commonly known as "the graveyard of life." It means the end of a career, of economic independence. And since heterosexual love in Japan usually means marriage, an increasing number of career women are stuck with celibacy, with or without trips abroad.

The alternative is of course the sexless intimacy of the fag hag and her chosen friends. The heroines of Yoshimoto's fiction are not exactly fag hags, nor are they innocent. Mikage and Satsuki are young women. But grown-up sexual relationships are still beyond their grasp. Instead, in the security of their private kitchens, they dream nostalgic dreams, and shed melancholy tears about the passing of time. This is the stuff of great Japanese poetry, and absolute kitsch. Yoshimoto Banana is not yet a mistress of poetry, but she is a past master of kitsch.

Publishers Weekly (review date 13 December 1993)

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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 death of her boyfriend, who was the last of these translators, narrator Kazami Kano becomes involved with Takase's children, the twins Saki and Otohiko, and Otohiko's girlfriend, the willowy, messed up Sui Minowa. All three of them are obsessed with NP and particularly one story about a man's affair with a young girl whom he later discovers is his daughter—a thinly veiled description of Takase's affair with Minowa. With the ghostly figure of Takase, the four young people make for a messy stew of incest, lust and obsession that is eventually brought to a head by Minowa's shattering discovery that she is pregnant by Otohiko. Yoshimoto weaves some lyrical writing and philosophical intimations of the hand of fate into her minimalist prose, but on balance this story and its narcissistic characters fail to evoke much sympathy.

Donna Seaman (review date 1 February 1994)

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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 suicides. Those deaths, and the 98th story's incestuous theme, set the fateful tone for several tense little romances. The narrator, a pretty young woman named Kazami, is amusing, sensitive, and high-strung. She becomes fascinated with Sarao Takase's children: the twins, Saki and Otohiko, and Sui, their half sister and, problematically, Otohiko's lover. Kazami finds herself attracted both to Sui, which surprises her, since she has never been in love with a woman before, and to Otohiko. Moments of telepathy and extravagant behavior lend a kooky air of mysticism and spontaneity to the proceedings and deepen our wonder at the dangers and idiosyncrasies of love. Yoshimoto's fans won't be disappointed.

David Galef (review date 27 February 1994)

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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 Japanese call "aware," a contemplative sadness akin to the original meaning of melancholy. In between are pregnant conversations, strange coincidences, erotic interludes and lyrical passages on the weather.

N.P., described as a novel, is actually a series of stories. A Japanese writer named Sarao Takase has completed a collection of 97 stories, also called N.P., before committing suicide. But a 98th story is discovered after his death, and whoever translates it seems as doomed as Takase. The protagonist and narrator, a young woman named Kazami Kano, had a boyfriend, Shoji, who died in the attempt.

Drawn into Takase's world, Kazami is haunted by Takase's twin children, Otohiko and Saki. Also involved is Sui Minowa, an illegitimate daughter of Takase who embodies an odd mixture of mysticism and eros. The characters and incidents are light constructs meant to support a yearning for a return to some primal innocence; unfortunately they more often evoke childish wistfulness, a much shallower emotion.

Ms. Yoshimoto updates what is actually a traditional evocation of "aware" with a hip sensibility. In Kitchen, the twist was that the mother figure was really a father after a sex-change operation. In N.P. the underlying dynamic is incest, which also is the subject of Takase's 98th story. Takase turns out to have slept with his daughter Sui, who eventually gets pregnant by her half-brother, Otohiko. Kazami herself is also more than a little in love with Sui, a feeling eventually reciprocated—and the source of even more wistfulness, as Kazami recounts the strange events of this one summer.

Complicating the plot, and adding another metafictional layer, is the existence of a 99th story by Takase. This sketch concerns a man who cannot communicate with the wife and children he has abandoned. Kazami's father, it emerges, ran off with another woman, one reason that Kazami feels such an odd affinity with the Takase ménage. The desertions are in a sense balanced by new unions, though, ultimately, a sense of longing remains.

The problem with these otherwise serious matters is the lack of depth in the narrative. Repeatedly, Kazami will describe a simple coffee-shop scene or a brief conversation and exclaim over the sadness or strangeness of it. For instance, after Kazami and Saki agree to meet again, Kazami encircles the exchange with an air of pseudo-mystery: "What had just happened, mental telepathy?" Glances always spell volumes. Too often, the mood seems prepackaged.

A more serious flaw is the prose itself. There are too many banalities like "a chill ran down my spine" and "some cruel, twisted fate." The translation by Ann Sherif is not entirely at fault in finding English equivalents for this Japanese mass-market version of melancholy. As for the origin of the title, we are told only that "N.P." stands for "North Point," the name of an old song, "a very sad one." Giving it pop lyrics is no improvement.

Meg Cohen (review date March 1994)

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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 stories penned—in English—by a celebrated Japanese writer living in Boston. When a 98th story surfaces after the author's death, so does a distressing pattern: Anyone who tries to translate it into Japanese dies inexplicably. Kazami Kano, the novel's central character, is one of two people in possession of this cursed chapter (it was left to her when her boyfriend committed suicide while attempting the translation). "When I'm reading it," she confesses, "I always get this feeling of a thick, hot liquid brewing in my heart. A new universe enters my body, and takes on a life of its own within me."

Through the writings Kazami befriends the dead author's two children and his tragic young lover. As their lives become irrevocably intertwined, their friendship is challenged by powerful emotions: love, grief, need, dependence, fear, and passion. These four friends are bound to a common destiny through their shared knowledge of NP.

The novel's strength lies in Yoshimoto's insightful prose; her ability to make everyday events seem romantic is a rare gift. Her characters possess a discerning maturity for people in their early 20s, which lends a fantastical, almost timeless quality to the narration. Since Kitchen put America in such a state of Bananamania, it's not surprising that Yoshimoto has chosen to infuse NP with numerous American elements. However, it's ironic that the book centers around the danger involved in translating English into Japanese, when, in fact, Yoshimoto herself writes only in Japanese. But NP, with its eccentric plot twists and charming superstition, proves not only that Yoshimoto has broken the language barrier but also that there's plenty more where this came from.

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