Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128

Fittingly for an exploration of the need for connection between people as a means to facilitate emotional honesty and allow the public display of affection, Yoshimoto's characters can be broadly divided into three groups: those who grieve, those who facilitate connection, and those who simply represent the voice of judgmental public opinion. This is not to say that the author's characters are stock characters, but these general categories allow the reader to see how Yoshimoto connects the two novellas in order to form an extended meditation on the relationship between mourning, emotional openness, and the capacity to feel joy more keenly through the acceptance of pain.

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The narrator in "Kitchen," Mikage Sakurai, and the narrator in "Moonlight Shadow," Satsuki, are both initially characters in denial, refusing to face the grief and suffering caused by the death of a loved one. Each attempts to achieve the same state of unfeeling through opposite means: for Mikage, through inaction and sleep, for Satsuki, through frenzied activity. The plot development in both novellas reflects a growth of Mikage and Satsuki, a growth towards acceptance of pain, which leads to an ability to grieve and, especially in the case of Satsuki's boyfriend's sudden death, the ability to say a proper goodbye. The novellas end with the protagonists overcoming the emotional obstacle of bereavement. The two characters learn from this an emotional openness and receive a heightened experience of happiness, as well as the sense that, for every ending there is a beginning, that "over and over we begin again."

If the plot development of the novellas focuses on the emotional growth of the protagonists, it is the magical characters in "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow," Eriko Tanabe and Urara, respectively, who are the facilitators who make this growth possible. Both are associated with magic, which is symbolized by the light that seems to emanate from them. In Eriko, the light seems to be a greatness of charm, a light that pervades the Tanabe's flat and allows Yuichi and Mikage to begin to connect. It is her voice from beyond the grave, in the form of the letter that Yoshimoto inserts into the narrative, that forces Mikage to admit her connection to Yuichi and act upon the responsibilities that this brings. Eriko also represents the possibility of refashioning of the self in the narrative, of discovering one's own identity. She has the courage to become a woman in the face of extreme societal hostility, exemplified by her own parents' disownment of her and her death at the hands of an obsessed fan.

Urara's magic is associated with light, but also with a kind of electrical charge: when Satsuki first meets Urara, the air around Urara seems to be charged, which is a result of Urara having "tasted deeply of the sorrows and joys of this world." Unlike Eriko, Urara herself is still coming to terms with loss, as she has arrived at the bridge in order to participate in the Weaver Festival Phenomenon, where she might see her lost partner one last time and release her grief by being able to say goodbye. She is altogether a mysterious figure, summoning Satsuki's phone number to mind by some kind of magic concentration and sensing that Satsuki needs to say goodbye to a loved one, without ever being told. These magical events are not a result of poor plotlines on Yoshimoto's part, but rather a distinctive feature of the mode of magic realism in which Yoshimoto writes.

Like the protagonists, both Yuichi Tanabe and Hiiragi are also people who need to learn how to grieve, but the similarities stop here. Yuichi will be taught to grieve by the example of Mikage's acceptance of her loss. In contrast Hiiragi is able to learn to grieve without the aid of a facilitator like Urara. Symbolically, Yuichi represents the empowering potential of Mikage's newfound emotional receptivity: having discovered this ability, Mikage can now serve as a facilitator to bring out this ability in Yuichi. Thus, Yuichi is saved from his self-destructive solitude by Mikage's visit, which returns the sparkle to his eyes and the happiness to his memories of his lost mother. At the end of the novella, it is Yuichi who phones Mikage from Tokyo, arranging to pick her up at the station, which symbolizes his full recovery and his realization of his connection to Mikage.

In contrast, Hiiragi is lifted from the paralysis of his grief over the loss of both his brother and his girlfriend Yumiko, by a vision of Yumiko, who comes into his room and waves goodbye, taking with her the sailor suit. While Yoshimoto does not present Hiiragi's wearing of Yumiko's sailor suit as being as destructive a form of hanging onto painful memories and refusing to say goodbye—like Yuichi's choice of solitude—nonetheless it does not represent a healthy way of working through grief, as it is essentially static. Perhaps what is most admirable about Hiiragi's choice, in Yoshimoto's eyes, is the fact that he decides on his own unconventional way of mourning and sticks to it in the face of familial and societal objection. Nonetheless, this is a stage that must be moved beyond, and thus Yumiko symbolically takes away her sailor suit when she waves goodbye. The amazing thing that has happened here, Yoshimoto writes, is that Hiiragi, described throughout the work as wiser than his years, has somehow drawn the Weaver Festival Phenomenon, and thus Yumiko's spirit, to him, without any aid or mediator. At the end of the novella, Hiiragi laughs with Satsuki about their previous ways of deferring dealing with grief, through the sailor suit and jogging respectively. Hiiragi's magical nature is underlined by the light that surrounds him at the end of the novella, a light which firmly links him with the other magical characters in Kitchen, Eriko and Urara.

The remaining characters within the work are fairly minor. Of these, the most important are Sotaro, Mikage's ex-boyfriend, and Okuno, Yuichi's friend, who, along with Eriko's murderer, Hiiragi, and Yumiko's family, readers never meet. These two characters represent Yoshimoto's take on the judgmental side of conservative Japanese public opinion. These characters assert that a woman cannot live in someone's house unless she is having a relationship with him, one should never reveal his or her emotions, and that individuals must not transgress the boundaries of traditional gender roles for fear of verbal or physical violence.

Finally, in "Kitchen," there are the characters of Nori and Kuri, the two apprentice chefs with whom Mikage works. As with the public opinion characters, Nori and Kuri are more sketches than characters, representing those girls of good family who have never felt any pain and who live comfortably in a happy, secure life, which is nonetheless lacking in emotional intensity.

Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260

Chika
The head “girl” at Eriko’s club, Chika has more masculine features than Eriko because she is a transvestite who has not had her gender changed surgically. The only thing that Eriko does not leave to Yuichi after her death is the nightclub, which she leaves to Chika. Late in the story, Chika calls Mikage to meet her and tell her something urgent. Chika tells her that she knows that Yuichi and Mikage are in love with one another, even though neither one of them admit it.

Kuri
One of Mikage’s colleagues, Kuri’s sunny disposition gives her “an appealing cuteness.” She is Nori’s best friend.

Nori
Nori is described as “a beauty of the ‘proper young lady’ variety.” She works with Mikage as an assistant to the cooking teacher. Mikage admires her open and loving relationship with her mother.

Okuno
Okuno thinks of herself as Yuichi’s girlfriend. She claims to have been the one who comforted Yuichi when Eriko died, although Yuichi never mentions any such thing to Mikage. When she finds out that Mikage has spent the night at Yuichi’s apartment, Okuno confronts Mikage at work and threatens her, telling her to stay away from him.

Mikage Sakurai
The protagonist and narrator of Kitchen is Mikage, a young student in Tokyo. Her parents died when she was young and she was raised by her grandmother, whose death leaves her depressed, listless, and unable to face the world. When Yuichi Tanabe comes to her door and asks her to move in with his mother and him, she is surprised, because she does not know much about them. Despite this fact, she accepts an invitation to dinner.

At the Tanabe house, she finds comfort, and she falls in love with the kitchen “at first sight.” She is overwhelmed upon meeting Eriko, and the feelings that she has are expressed in terms that border on romance: “Still, she was stunning. She made me want to be with her again. There was a warm light, like her afterimage, softly glowing in my heart. That must be what they mean by ‘charm.’” In spite of this, she is only slightly shaken by the news that Eriko is a transsexual. Mikage discovers that she is able to sleep well on the couch at the Tanabe home, in part because it is next to the kitchen. She moves in with them, partly because of her loneliness over the death of her grandmother, partly because of her enchantment with Eriko, and partly because she recognizes that Yuichi, raised by Eriko alone as she was raised by her grandmother, has much in common with her.

By the end of the novella, Mikage seems to have found the courage to face life again. After Eriko’s death, she moves out of the apartment and finds a job. However, she remains confused about her feelings for Yuichi; are they friends, or are they in love with each other? For all her growth she still needs a third party to tell her what everyone already knows: she is in love with Yuichi. Although the resolution is unclear, the reader does have reason to hope that they will unite and embark on a relationship.

Sotaro
Sotaro is Mikage’s old boyfriend. He has always been very cheerful, and when they were together they made a “picture-perfect” couple, but they broke up when her grandmother became seriously ill. He tells her about Yuichi’s former girlfriend confronting him in the school cafeteria. Reflecting on Sotaro, Mikage says, “I loved his hearty robustness, I thirsted after it, but in spite of that I couldn’t keep pace with it, and it made me hate myself.” She realizes, though, that she just is not attracted to Sotaro, and when they part, they part as friends.

Eriko Tanabe
Eriko is Yuichi’s mother—actually, she is his biological father, but she had a sex-change operation after her young wife’s death, and she lives as a woman. She is the owner of a gay nightclub.

When Eriko was young, she was taken in to live with a family and became very attached to the daughter of the family. They eloped when she was young. After her death, Eriko knew she would never love again, and that was when she decided to change over to the female sex. As a woman, Eriko is strong-willed, active, impulsive, and incredibly beautiful. It is her idea to have Mikage move in with Yuichi and her—in light of her past history, she probably recognized the possibility that they could have a romance like she and her dead wife once had. Her life is not easy, but, as she explains to Mikage, she accepts the difficulties that she encounters as a necessary part of the growth process: “But if a person hasn’t ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is. I’m grateful for it.”

Eriko suffers a sudden, violent death. A stalker follows her on the street and becomes fascinated with her. He finds out that she was once a man and, in a rage, stabs her with a knife. Eriko beats him to death before she dies herself. The letter that she leaves behind for Yuichi is full of humor and selfsatisfaction with the accomplishments of her life. After her death, Mikage remembers a story that Eriko told her about her wife’s death, of how Eriko had brought a pineapple plant to her hospital room to cheer her up but the dying woman, when her time was near, asked that the plant be taken away. Eriko realized from this that the world was unyielding, that nothing could change the unpleasantness we face: “It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman, and here I am.”

Yuichi Tanabe
When Yuichi first comes to Mikage to invite her to live with the Tanabes, she remembers him from her grandmother’s funeral; initially, she wonders if he was the old woman’s lover, because the funeral upset him so much. Then she remembers that he worked at the flower shop that her grandmother had gone to every day.

Yuichi’s mother died when he was a child, and Eriko was both mother and father to him. He attaches himself to Mikage, as he had to her grandmother, with total devotion, although he seems incapable of romantic love; the girl that he went out with for a year and then dropped suddenly “said that Yuichi was incapable of caring more for a girl than he did for a fountain pen.” Yuichi does not contact Mikage about Eriko’s death until a long time after the event because he is so distraught. He does not specifically blame himself for what happened to Eriko, but he does note the fact that there has been a lot of death in his family, as in Mikage’s, and he suggests that they go into business as carriers of death—“destruction workers.”

Even when he realizes that their relationship is not just friendship, or the brother-and-sister bond that it was when Eriko was alive, he does not change his aloof demeanor. Nor does she. But in the end, when he arranges to pick her up at Tokyo station, it is clear to see that they are in love, even though nothing to that effect is explicitly said.

Yuji Tanabe
See Eriko Tanabe

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