Shallowness or a Legitimate Representation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1591

I think that a lot of the critics who dismiss Kitchen as “lightweight” do so because its characters are just too happy, just as a lot of the novella’s devoted fans dismiss the critics as grouches who disliked the story because they have a thing against happiness. The truth, as it always does, must lie somewhere in between.

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There is no denying that there is a tendency throughout the story to break up moments of sober reflection with a cheerful shake of the head, an uncaused burst of enthusiasm for whatever life has to offer next. It is also pretty well established that, for reasons I will get into later, writers cannot have their characters just turn on a pin, go from one mood to another with the start of a new sentence— they can do it, that is, just as they can toss in singing toasters and invisible spaceships and anything else they can imagine that does not exist in the common world, but just because they can think it up does not mean it is good artistry. The suspicious thing about a book that always turns happy like this is that happiness is such a crowd-pleaser. If Yoshimoto had turned to misery at the end of every upbeat scene, we might worry about her mental hygiene, but we would be less likely to think she does it for popularity’s sake than we are when she gives the public what it wants time and again.

On the other hand, this is not a book that takes place in the reality that anybody lives in, even after we adjust for the cultural differences. This is a fantasy land, where people dream concurrently and the dying go down heroically swinging barbells and cab drivers say “Okay, then, let’s get going” when they find out that the hundred-mile trip in the middle of the night is for love. Why should this novella be responsible for maintaining its characters’ emotional consistency when it breaks almost all other rules of behavior without blushing? Isn’t it allowed to set its own rules, as long as it sticks to them?

“Yuichi went to the refrigerator and got out a couple of grapefruits, then happily took the juicer from its box.” That “happily,” among all the other happy actions in the book, gets me most. First, because it seems so superfluous there, thrown into the middle of an action that isn’t, itself, the sort of thing that makes one happy unless one really likes juice and has a really powerful thirst. A lot of what goes on in the story is like this, spiked with a little burst of enthusiasm. I imagine being able to watch from my window as Yuichi or Mikage comes up the street, and I’m certain that neither one of them could walk for half a block without sneaking in a little skip or a shuffle, forgetting for one step that they are not dancing through life. These people are full of joy. But look at the context in which Yuichi happily takes the juicer from its box, and you have to wonder if there’s nothing that can quiet his joy for a few minutes. It is the middle of the night; he has just woken up from a weird dream; he is hungry; and he has just found out that Mikage was experiencing the same dream that he was, at the same time. I think it is fair to say that most of us would be curious about this. I’m not saying that there is an appropriate emotion, such as, oh, terror, required by this paranormal turn of events.

Mikage and Yuichi are so well-suited for each other that they are probably right in being happy to find that they can spend those nighttime, sleeping hours together, eating well and singing, as well as the day. But if there is ever a time when being just “happy” seems like a weak, insensitive reaction, this is it. What is the point of putting something astounding in a novella, if the characters are incapable of reacting to it? When they start to realize that they actually have been experiencing the same When it is confirmed, she tells the reader, “That was strange,” and Yuichi changes the subject. Who is unable to think of the words to address what has happened—the characters, or the author?

The other happy event that stands out is the episode on the bus, with the little girl, her grandmother, and the dirigible. This comes right before the coincidental dream in the story, but it has the opposite structure to it: While Yuichi’s happiness when he is reaching for the juicer seemed like an afterthought, like something Yoshimoto felt she should throw in just in case we were distracted by the possibility of a more complex emotion, the whole point of the dirigible scene is that it dissolves into happiness. This scene is slathered with symbolism: The little girl and her grandmother reflect, of course, Mikage and her recently deceased grandmother; the dirigible is happiness, which Mikage vows to keep in sight just moments before she starts crying. It is the last time that she is leaving the apartment that she and her grandmother shared, and Mikage is torn between grief and that big airborne puff of happiness, and just as grief starts winning, and the tears start falling on her blouse, happiness rallies and presents itself to her in the form of good cooking in the kitchen that the bus is passing at that moment.

Although this scene is sort of adrift in the novella because it could have been wedged in at practically any place in the story, it has a few things going for it that make it more central than the dream. It has a sequence of events—the dirigible causes happiness, the granddaughter causes reminiscence, reminiscence causes sorrow, and food smells cause happiness again—that reflects the general rhythm of cause and effect in this piece. Also, it allows the kitchen to have an integral, active role, while the fact that they ended up in the kitchen within the dream and then after it shows the hand of the author forcing the issue. In the one case, we are led step-by-step to Mikage’s happiness, and we have to take it seriously, while in the other case Yuichi’s happiness is thrown at us, and it doesn’t stick.

In real life, emotions do seem to pop up out of nowhere, although psychiatry is the science of denying this. I’m sure that this would be used as a sort of defense for the incomplete emotional exchanges that take place in this story, usually leading to a hollow happiness. A reader feeling blue doesn’t have to worry, happiness will pop up regularly, regardless of what is going on in the story. It announces itself as the replacement for the ignored, unfinished dream; in Mikage’s exclamation, upon getting her special glass—“‘Wow,’ I said on the verge of tears. ‘I’m so happy!’”; in the sight of Nori and Kuri giggling in their white aprons that makes Mikage happy (“Working side by side with them was a pleasure that put me at peace with the world”); or in its earliest case, where the narrator drags readers to the brink of despair (“Steeped in a sadness so great I could barely cry, shuffling softly in a gentle drowsiness, I pulled my futon into the deathly silent, gleaming kitchen”) and then pops a champagne cork of delight (“However, I couldn’t exist like that. Reality is wonderful.”) Maybe happiness does show up like this—sometimes.

The unpredictability of life, though, is no excuse for unpredictability in fiction. I often wonder why anyone uses “That’s the way it is in life!” as a defense of something that happens in fiction. Fiction isn’t life. It certainly would be great to turn from any of life’s low points with a feeling that reality is wonderful, the way Mikage does, although to tell you the truth, if I met anyone this happy this often I would bet that they are suppressing something in a most unhealthy way.

I do not think that the constant turns toward happiness in Kitchen reflect life as we live it, nor do I mind that they don’t: Fiction’s job is to reflect the world in an unreal, fictitious way. The problem is that they draw attention to the teller of the tale, making me wonder why Banana Yoshimoto wants so desperately, even when circumstances do not warrant it, for everything to come out okay. If there is anything worse than fiction that announces to its reader that “The world presented here is unlikely,” it’s fiction that seems to have some reason, other than basic, unmanageable truth, for wanting you to think one way or another. I sort of like the idea that Kitchen is promoting happiness—or, rather, I would like the idea if I thought there was nothing else needing to be examined, if I thought that happiness in itself was a good thing. The way that potentially grim situations resolve in this novella, though, leaves me with the uneasy feeling that the author is playing with loaded dice.

Source: David J. Kelly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Kelly is a literature and creative writing instructor at Oakton Community College and College of Lake County in Illinois.

Kitchen: The place I like best in this world

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

This small volume contains two stories, Kitchen, a novella of about 100 pages and “Moonlight Shadows,” a short story of 40. The latter won a prize upon its original publication in 1986, and the former won a magazine prize in 1987 before book publication in 1988. Kitchen has been wildly popular in Japan, selling millions of copies in some 57 printings.

Why is this author popular and why are these tales printed together? Yoshimoto is a young author (b. 1964) with an ear for young people’s issues, conflicts, and yearnings. She also writes in a jazzy and often surprising style. The two stories work well as different ways of talking about love, both romantic and familial.

Kitchen begins: “The place I like best in this world is the Kitchen.” Our narrator, one Mikage Sakurai, is a young woman, an orphan. Symbolically, she is an abandoned child of modern Tokyo, that massive and complex city; a novice, she tries to find her own way, yearning for sustenance of food and love. Fortuitously, Mikage is taken in by a family, who are delighted that she loves to shop, cook, and “make the house a home,” we might say. But what on the surface seems an attractive mother and son soon evolves into yet another urban oddity: Mikage learns that the mother is a transsexual— formerly the father. This unusual parent runs a nightclub, largely staffed by transsexuals, until she is murdered by a deranged admirer.

In this difficult world, young Mikage feels loneliness, anomie, even despair. Overcome by grief for her recently dead grandmother, she cries on a public street, but suddenly hears “the sound of a happy voice at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging.” Yes, it is a Kitchen, that symbol of hope, order, and sustenance. She even gets a job as an assistant to a cooking teacher.

Meanwhile Mikage and the young man circle each other, neither declaring love nor even romantic interest. They attempt to fabricate their lives in the modern mixtures of Japanese and international culture, a world of takeout food, backpacks, warmup suits, Bewitched on TV, computer games, and an international range of cooking. It is the old standard, katsudon (a fried pork dish), however, that our young heroine takes on a taxi ride of some 100 miles to her mourning friend and, later (we assume), lover.

The style is breezy, whimsical, lyric, maybe even a bit goofy, but it is an appropriate style for a young person dealing with disruptions of family, culture, and love. The first-person narration is reminiscent of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but without the trenchant satire. The other story, “Moonlight Shadow,” also deals with young love and death; this time the female narrator’s boyfriend has been killed in a traffic accident. Through a mysterious woman figure— something like a good fairy—the narrator has a vision of her dead boyfriend, a vision that allows her to say a proper goodbye and continue on with her life. She concludes:

One caravan has stopped, another starts up. There are people I have yet to meet, others I’ll never see again. People who are gone before you know it, people who are just passing through. Even as we exchange hellos, they seem to grow transparent. I must keep living with the flowing river before my eyes.

Even this brief quotation suggests the mixtures of realism and fantasy, simple diction and poetic image that give Yoshimoto’s writing freshness and novelty.

Source: Albert Howard Carter III, a review of Kitchen, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 614-15.

Imperfect Little Snack

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1261

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-darkpeach 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 twentyfour 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?

Source: Deborah Garrison, “Dayo!,” in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVIII, No. 49, January 25, 1993, pp. 109-110.

Hold the Tofu

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

A Japanese maxim warns that “A gentleman does not go near a kitchen.” Traditionally a cramped, dingy place—even in an otherwise wellappointed 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 loan-word 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.”

Source: Elizabeth Hanson, “Hold the Tofu,” in The New York Times, January 17, 1993.

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