Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693

In Japan, Yoshimoto’s books have earned critical and popular success since her first one, Kitchen, was published in 1988. Western reviewers have attempted to explain her immense popularity when they consider her works. “Like comic books for businessmen and green-tea ice cream,” David Galef wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese phenomenon that Americans find difficult to understand.”

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As much as Yoshimoto’s writing may leave many American reviewers unimpressed, she has made a deep impression on millions of readers around the world. Reviewers trying to account for the fact that Yoshimoto is hugely popular both in Japan and with the book-buying public have frequently adjusted their critical standards to compensate for their understanding of her audience. Some have been able to appreciate Yoshimoto by looking at her from someone else’s perspective, while other critics simply have not been able to see what all the noise around this author is all about.

Nick Hornsby, reviewing Kitchen for The Times Literary Supplement, appreciated the subtlety of Yoshimoto’s work while allowing that it would be easy to misunderstand the true craft involved. “Her stories possess a clarity and simplicity that can seem lightweight,” he wrote, going on to speculate that the difficulty of translating Japanese might account for some of the book’s lack of artistry. Scott Shibuya Brown, writing for Book World, also saw “a delicacy” in the novella that remained ”Kitchen’s most beguiling charm.” He put the book in the context of the past 120 years of Japanese literature, finding it to be, in contrast to the ultra-modern look at contemporary Japan that many reviewers saw in it, a book that instead was “shaped by the most traditional of aesthetics.” To Brown, the Japanese tradition of “beauty as an ever-transitory, perpetually fading bittersweet phenomenon” is something that makes Westerners’ experience of this novella incomplete.

While some reviewers have adjusted their expectations of the book to account for its Japanese roots, others have emphasized the youthfulness of the audience that it is aimed for. A review in the New York Times Book Review identified Mikage as the novella’s “kooky young woman protagonist,” while Deborah Garrison, writing in The New Yorker, appreciated the book as “a tangy, imperfect little snack” that was released in America with “a small but irresistible fanfare of cuteness.” Her review goes on to describe Mikage’s bright personality: “She keeps telling you she’s depressed, listless, and tearful, but she can’t hide her essentially sunny nature.”

The duality that is noticeable in Garrison’s tone—mocking but also fond of the story’s harmless pleasantness—can be found in quite a few reviews by writers who like the story but cannot approve of it as art. There have also been reviews by writers who could see the book’s appeal but were not willing to let themselves be drawn in by it. Todd Grimson held to the hard line in his 1983 review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review: “Kitchen is light as an invisible pancake,” he wrote, “charming and forgettable, showing every sign of having been written when the author was only 23.” Grimson described himself as a fan of recent Japanese literature, but he was clearly no fan of Banana Yoshimoto after reading the novella: “The release of information to the reader seems unskilled, or immature, weak in narrative or plot.”

Throughout the years, as Yoshimoto’s fame has grown, attention has shifted from her works to her celebrity status. In a December 1998 Christian Science Monitor review of Honeymoon, a book not yet available in America, Nichile Gaouette discussed the author, her worldview, and the chronology of her “reader-friendly books” that are “chatty, breezy affairs.” It was only after the celebrity profile was done that the book was mentioned. Yoshimoto’s detractors depict her as a kind of fiction machine, churning out one novel after another by combining and recombining a few standard elements in a mostly meaningless way. Her fans tend to characterize her detractors as the sort of spoil-sports who would find fault with any popular work just because it is popular, regardless of its true merit.

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