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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eriko is a brilliant piece of characterization-warm, loving, fun, though her comments on women can be ambiguous. One day Mikage learns about Eriko’s decision to change sex. When he was still a man, visiting his dying wife in the hospital, he took her a pineapple plant. As she got worse, she asked him to take it away. Leaving the hospital on a cold night, he did not take a taxi because he had been crying bitterly; this prompted the realization that he did not like being a man. Somehow, his overwatering that pineapple plant until it died taught him a lesson:

I realized that the world did not exist for my benefit. It followed that the ratio of pleasant and unpleasant things around me would not change. It wasn’t up to me. It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman.

Such pronouncements on the nature of women parallel the ambiguous meaning of kitchen and, by extension, of food and cooking in the story. Mikage may indeed typify “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,” as reviewer Elizabeth Hanson notes. On the other hand, kitchens and cooking initially save Mikage from despair and then, in a beautifully simple metaphor, become her means of asserting independence and achieving the strength to return the gift of life to her benefactor.

Having recovered some of her balance in the eccentric Tanabe household, Mikage renews her interest in life by taking up cooking with feverish passion. Learning to cook well is a journey of self-discovery for Mikage. With three books on the fundamentals, theory, and practice of cooking, she teaches herself to cook. Like a frenzied artist determined to grasp the mystery of her art, she pores over her books on the bus, in bed, on the sofa, memorizing caloric content, temperatures, and raw ingredients, pouring all of her earnings into cooking. She discovers a simple lesson, “that dishes turn out badly or well in proportion to one’s attention to detail.”

Discovering the patience to correct her mistakes coolly in her eagerness to cook well, she lands a perfect job, as assistant to a famous cooking teacher. Because she has experienced despair and loneliness, Mikage is able to feel deep joy in her work, making carrot cakes that include “a bit of my soul” and loving a bright red tomato “for dear life.” Her passion distinguishes her from the students, young women from good families who live happily because they are content to stay within their boundaries.

The third part of the story is the most delightful and comic. Mikage has by this time moved into her own apartment and has temporarily lost touch with Eriko and Yuichi. A phone call from Yuichi changes her life again: Eriko has been killed by a man who was infatuated with her and followed her to the gay bar. It is now Mikage’s turn to reach out to Yuichi, and the lessons she has learned from cooking stand her in good stead. He has shrunk into despair and loneliness, unable to do much but drink. She spends one night at his house, suddenly understanding how important he is to her. She makes an extravagant dinner, an “international hodge-podge,” and they eat for hours:

deep-fried tofu, steamed greens, bean thread with chicken, chicken Kiev, sweet-and-sour pork, steamed Chinese dumplings, salad, pie, stew, croquettes. Yuichi suggests that she move back in with him, but Mikage realizes that much as they love and need each other, they are still “two lovers looking over the edge of the cauldron of hell.” Their journey toward each other is not complete.

When she is invited to sample the cooking at several inns on the Izu Peninsula, Mikage makes an astute and immediate choice of work over a dangerous relationship. This final section of the story, a picaresque in miniature, shows the modern heroine at her comic best. Repulsed by the vegetarian cooking at the first inn, Mikage sneaks out late at night in search of something heavy and filling. She finds a small, deserted restaurant and orders katsudon, deep-fried pork in broth over rice. While waiting for the order, she thinks of Yuichi, who has gone on a monastery retreat. She calls him and commiserates over the boring menu available to him-tofu (bean curd), the simplest of foods. Refraining from gloating about her own rich meal, she has a sudden intuition that the two of them are approaching a decisive moment. Mikage seems to intuit that she owes Yuichi more than a choice between the excess of her “hodge-podge” meal and the meager monastery diet of tofu.

Her discovery exhausts her, leaving her again feeling hopeless, but her professional acumen bolsters her weakness. The katsudon, when it arrives, is so good that she orders another to go. Hiring a taxi, she takes the long drive to the monastery, only to find it locked up for the night. Cold and puzzled, she looks around the building and instinctively picks out Yuichi’s window. With great difficulty and some pain, she climbs up to his room. Again, in the empathy that has been growing stronger, she senses his nightmare of grief and knows that if she stays she will be lost in it too. Mikage delivers the katsudon and her intuition, that he is trying to escape and does not want to return to his life in Tokyo. “But right now,” she says, “there’s this katsudon. Go ahead, eat it.” As Yuichi eats, her spirits lift; she has done all she can for him. She returns to her inn and continues on the tour. On the last night she receives a call from Yuichi. He is back in Tokyo, waiting to pick her up.

So it is that Banana Yoshimoto transforms kitchens and cooking from the mundane to the heroic. It is a comic and touching modern twist to an old romantic tale-the confused, intuitive young woman, armed with a bowl of pork and noodles, roaming the countryside and climbing up monastery walls in the dead of night to rescue her young man from despair.

“Moonlight Shadow” explores similarly tragic situations without the humor and whimsy that lighten the tone of Kitchen. It is an interesting companion piece, however, because it gives greater emphasis to mystical experiences-sudden flashes of insight, telepathic communication between lovers. Together, these stories establish Banana Yoshimoto as a young writer of considerable achievement and exceptional promise.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. VIII, Spring, 1993, p.43.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVI, May 20, 1993, p.44.

Japan Quarterly. XL, April, 1993, p.226.

London Review of Books. XV, January 28, 1993, p.20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 10, 1993, p.3.

The New York Review of Books. XL, August 12, 1993, p.29.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 17, 1993, p.18.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, January 25, 1993, p.109.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 8, 1993, p.18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, January 10, 1993, p.8.


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

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

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

MOONLIGHT SHADOW, the shorter of the two novellas, deals with themes similar to those in KITCHEN: facing the death of a loved one and maintaining personal independence. Here, Satsuki’s life is embittered by the death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi. Sometimes in her fitful sleep, Satsuki finds peace by dreaming of Hitoshi; but upon waking and realizing the permanence of his absence, she finds no reason to go on living. Unable to sleep well, she rises every morning at dawn and goes for a run. Along her route she stops at the bridge where Hitoshi was killed in a car crash. Gazing out, drinking hot tea she has carried along in a thermos, Satsuki finds enough respite during her brief time alone on the bridge to carry her through the remainder of each torturous day.

One morning she meets a mysterious woman, Urara (Yoshimoto’s play on “Aurora,” the Greek goddess of dawn), on the bridge. Urara tells Satsuki that something that only happens once every hundred or so years will occur in a few days and be visible from the bridge. Satsuki’s curiosity and excitement about this foretold event keep her going. She realizes that even if nothing happens at the bridge, at least she still has enough hope left within her sadness to prove that there are things worth living for. When she meets Urara on the assigned morning, she does in fact witness a miraculous sort of event that enables her to cope with her life and move on with peace of mind.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. VIII, Spring, 1993, p.43.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVI, May 20, 1993, p.44.

Japan Quarterly. XL, April, 1993, p.226.

London Review of Books. XV, January 28, 1993, p.20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 10, 1993, p.3.

The New York Review of Books. XL, August 12, 1993, p.29.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 17, 1993, p.18.

The New Yorker. LXVIII, January 25, 1993, p.109.

The Times Literary Supplement. January 8, 1993, p.18.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, January 10, 1993, p.8.

Historical Context

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The Economic Boom
In 1988 the Japanese economy was in the middle of the longest financial boom it had experienced since World War II. After Japan lost the war, the American army occupied the defeated country, taking control of the government and steering it toward a new political and economic structure. The Emperor remained on the throne because the Americans wanted to use his presence to oppose the rise of Communism in southern Asia, but political control was shifted into the hands of elected officials. A new Japanese constitution came into effect in 1946, renouncing war forever and adapting a parliamentary democracy. Sovereignty was restored to the Japanese in 1952, in exchange for Japan’s withdrawing from countries it had invaded during the war and paying reparations.

After that, Japan grew in economic stature. The first big boost was the Korean War (1950 to 1953) during which Japan provided the U.S. Army with many of its vehicles, from jeeps to tanks. Japan established itself as a leader in electronics in the late 1950s and early 1960s, becoming almost synonymous with transistor technology. By the time that Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, the year Banana Yoshimoto’s birth, Japan led the world in economic growth.

Much of its growth was due to foreign trade; in fact, by 1971 Japan was the world’s thirdleading exporting nation in the world. The Japanese automobile industry expanded even as the rest of the economy suffered in 1973, when a cartel of Arab oil-producing countries raised gasoline prices around the world dramatically. Almost overnight, American-made “gas-guzzlers” went out of fashion and smaller, fuel-efficient models by Nissan, Toyota, and Honda were in demand. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Makasome, who held office from 1982 to 1987, oversaw an economic surge that made Japan a feared economic rival to many Americans.

As the world converted to a global economy in the 1980s, many industrial companies left America in search of a cheaper labor base. Most of these jobs did not go to Japan. American resentment at this situation often focused on Japan and its success in the international economy. In the 1990s, after Nakasome was out of office, the economic expansion in Japan was over. The government was unable to help, suffering through a series of scandals, with the Prime Ministers resigning in 1989 and 1994. For most of the decade, the country was in recession, and in 1998, when the Japanese economy was beginning to stabilize, the collapse of several economies around southeast Asia negatively impacted the recovering Japanese economy.

Literary Style

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In the opening pages of the novella the significance of the kitchen is explained. Mikage introduces herself and explains that she has been sleeping in the kitchen after her grandmother’s death, indicating that the association with warmth and food was what she needed to comfort her worried soul. There is even a reference to Linus, the character in the Peanuts cartoon who carries a “security blanket” that provides him with psychological support against the furies of the world. The symbol of the kitchen makes sporadic, but significant, appearances throughout this novella.

Mikage establishes herself at the Tanabe residence by forming a special bond with their kitchen; her love of the kitchen, or perhaps her love of Eriko and Yuichi, prompts her to understand cooking. This understanding leads her to find her place in the outside world, among the likes of Nori and Kuri and their Sensei, or teacher. Most of the other major symbols in the story have to do with the kitchen too. At Mikage’s moment of lowest despair in the first half, after she has been watching a dirigible float away with all her hope, she is brought back to happiness by the sight of a kitchen outside of the bus window. Later in the story the katsudon that breaks down the emotional barriers is only vaguely reminiscent of kitchens, capturing the sense of nurturing that food has without bringing in the kitchen’s various physical qualities.

Much of the drama in this story is due to the narration of this particular first-person narrator, Mikage. Another narrator would have emphasized different events—the strangeness of the dream that Mikage and Yuichi have simultaneously, for instance, or even the fact of Eriko’s sex change. To Mikage, these events are no more or less mystifying than the juicer that Eriko brings home or the great taste of the katsudon at the late-night diner. She is young enough to be delighted with small, unexpected treats, yet old enough, having lived with her old grandmother, to recognize the joys of traditional, home-based values. She is urbane, both in the sense that she is a product of city life and because she accepts different cultural practices easily, having moved among all of the different sorts of people that compose a metropolis like Tokyo.

Mikage undergoes a huge change from the first part of the novella to the second. In Part 1, “Kitchen,” she is consumed by grief, and so is a more passive narrator, observing the things around her without taking a hand in her fate. The Tanabe household is clearly a happier place than before her arrival—both Eriko and Yuichi say so—but life goes on pretty much as it had before. Something, probably the fading of her grief, happens to Mikage between the first part and the second part, called “Full Moon”: When she reappears after Eriko’s death she is more in charge of her surroundings. She has an apartment and a job. The Mikage of Part 1 may have admired kitchens for their comforting emotional associations, but she would not have trained herself to work in the kitchen the way that the Mikage who appears in the second part has done.

Kitchen does not come to a definitive resolution. The main character’s problem is not solved by the end of the story, at least not in any way that gives readers confidence that she will not wake up tomorrow faced with the same problems that she felt free of today. She does come to an implied realization regarding Yuichi.

Literary Techniques

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What is most remarkable about the techniques that Yoshimoto employs within the work is her choice to write in the mode of magic realism, a mode which is not common in Japanese literature. In magic realism, the "real" and the "magical" are juxtaposed without a shift in narrative tone, giving an impression of a playfulness, which in Kitchen is reinforced by the ingenuous, childlike quality of Yoshimoto's prose. So readers find in the work characters sharing the same dream (Mikage and Yuichi), characters glowing like suns (Eriko), and certain moments in time, which may occur on bridges once every hundred years, where time and space shift and the living can encounter their dearly beloved dead (in "Moonlight Shadow"). However, playful does not equate with frivolous. On the contrary, Yoshimoto employs magic realism to further her assertion that people must experience the joyful and the hurtful in order to experience and enjoy the full range of life's experiences. Only those characters who have overcome their emotional burdens and experience life to its fullest can participate in the magical moments of the work. In this way, Yoshimoto uses the conventions of the mode to suggest that there is more to life than the narrow range of experiences of what is commonly termed "real life,"

The other striking facet of Yoshimoto's technique is her use of symbolism. As was shown above, a person's radiance symbolizes his or her ability to drink deeply of the joys and sorrows of life, and this is linked in the work to the light of the moon, which is only invoked when a character is very happy, especially when that happiness follows immediately after intense sadness, as happens when Mikage first cries for the loss of her grandmother. Other symbols in the work include kitchens, which are places of peace for Mikage. They are also places which represent the unbreakable cycle of human lives and interaction. This cycle ensures that any grief that seems unbearable will become bearable, and that even the loss of one's family does not mean that one is alone.

In "Moonlight Shadow," the sound of the bell that Satsuki gives to Hitoshi comes to signify the experiences and the memories that they share. The sound of the bell heralds his appearance on the bridge during the Weaver Festival Phenomenon, and by that point in the novella, Satsuki can hear the sound and can experience the memories without being overcome with grief. Finally, the bridge paradoxically symbolizes both magic realism's linkage of the real with the magical when Hitoshi comes back from the dead to wave goodbye, as well as Satsuki's division from Hitoshi in death. Yoshimoto's use of symbolism allows her to further blur the boundary between the real and the magical, and to suggest that the world is invested with significances that are often overlooked at first glance.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Yoshimoto's consideration of the ways in which people deal with grief, and the ways in which this allows them to grow, or scars them, and the relationship of dreams to reality sets Kitchen against a backdrop of timeless questions. However, regarding her questions about the conservatism of contemporary Japanese culture and the issue of transsexuality, Yoshimoto's work is grounded in the consideration of contemporary issues in a specific cultural context. Yoshimoto's final message is a hopeful one, as both narrators could be said to have tasted deeply of the full range of joy and pain that life offers. Thus they can live their lives confident that their memories will help them through painful times to come.

1. Look at Yoshimoto's use of the bridge as a symbol in "Moonlight Shadows." How does it function as a symbol of division? How does it function as a symbol of connection? Does Satsuki's dream manage to bring these contradictory meanings together?

2. Compare Yoshimoto's Kitchen with Yim-Ho's film. Which is more entertaining? Which is more moving? Why?

3. Discuss the ways in which Yoshimoto treats the more adolescent feelings and thoughts of her characters. Can readers see a growth in maturity in the narrators of each novella?

4. Why do you think that Yoshimoto included the novellas "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow" in one volume, also entitled Kitchen? Does their juxtaposition allow Yoshimoto to consider different themes, or to consider similar themes in a different manner?

5. In the film, the plotline is driven by the development of the romance of Aggie (Mikage) and Louie (Yuichi). Is there a similar romantic plot in Yoshimoto's work? If so, how important is this plot in Yoshimoto's overall narrative structure?

6. Can Eriko's transsexuality be read as a consideration of the role of performance in gender roles in the book? Do you see Eriko as a good mother? Explain why or why not.

Social Concerns

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In the preface to Kitchen, translated into English by Megan Backus, Banana Yoshimoto isolates one of the key concerns of her volume: "Growth and the overcoming of obstacles are inscribed on a person's soul." The two novellas that comprise Kitchen deal with the loss of loved ones and the response of the survivors to this loss, specifically the forms that their grieving takes. Grieving is complicated by the damaging effects of a culture which sees immoderate public displays of grief as shameful, valuing an emotional restraint and silent suffering similar to that outlined in the Western school of Stoic thought. The danger posed by these constraints is that they deny the characters in each novella the chance to grow, as they have to acknowledge and accept an obstacle such as grief in order to even try to overcome it.

When "Kitchen," the first novella, opens, Yoshimoto's protagonist and narrator, Mikage, is struggling to come to terms with the death of her grandmother, the woman who had been her only living family member. Mikage realizes that she is now all alone, and without a family, even the most familiar of places seems false to her. The mere fact that life continues amazes her. In Mikage, Yoshimoto presents the reader with a character almost paralyzed by her loss, drifting in a grief-ridden lethargy.

The parallels between Mikage and the protagonist in the second novella, "Moonlight Shadow," are marked. Like Mikage, Satsuki has recently suffered a loss, though in her case it was Hitoshi, her boyfriend of nearly four years, who died suddenly in a road accident. In seeming contrast to Mikage's withdrawn lethargy and continual sleeping, Satsuki is afraid to sleep, afraid even to stop moving and doing, as her thoughts, and especially her dreams, are all of Hitoshi, and his repeated appearances renew the pain of his loss. However, despite this opposition, in general Mikage and Satsuki are both seeking to avoid coming to terms with the loss of their loved ones, one through pointless inaction and the other through equally fruitless, though feverish, action. Nothing in either Mikage or Satsuki's lives has prepared them for their respective losses. Also, Yoshimoto hints, certain aspects of contemporary Japanese culture, such as the value placed in emotional reserve, courageous perseverance, and always moving forward, actually inhibit their ability to cope with the emotions aroused in them.

In Mikage's case, the inertia of her life is broken when a young man named Yuichi Tanabe, who worked at a florist which her grandmother had frequented, calls on Mikage, a visit described in the work as "a miracle, a godsend." He invites Mikage to spend an evening with him and his mother, thus prompting Mikage to venture out of her home. During the evening Mikage accepts Yuichi's invitation to move in. Despite this kind offer, Yuichi is shown in the work to have a disturbing emotional sterility. His ex-girlfriend, readers are told, never aroused any more emotional response in Yuichi than a fountain pen. Later in the novel, after Yuichi's mother, Eriko, has been murdered, Yoshimoto describes Yuichi's lack of emotion as the dark side of the independent streak that Eriko has instilled in him. The self-destructive potential of this independence is underlined by Yoshimoto's hint that Eriko might not have been murdered had she sought help. In Yuichi's case, this independence prevents him from mourning for his mother, and even from admitting that she is really dead. He turns to drink in his solitude, mistaking solitude for strength and self-imposed isolation for moving on.

The depth of emotional repression that Yoshimoto sees as part of Japanese culture can be seen in Mikage's shock when her grief breaks through her reserve and she bursts into tears.

I was surprised. Am I losing my mind? I wondered. It was like being falling-down drunk: my body was independent of me. Before I knew it, tears were flooding out. I felt myself turning bright red with embarrassment and got off the bus. . . . I had never cried like this in my life. As the hot tears poured out, I remembered that I had never had a proper cry over my grandmother's death. I had the feeling that I wasn't crying over any one sad thing, but rather for many.

In Mikage's mind emotional repression has masqueraded as control, as she has refused to allow herself to feel, in exactly the same way as Yuichi. By describing emotions as a madness, a drunkenness, and a source of shame, Yoshimoto shows how completely Mikage is a part of the Japanese culture of emotional repression, which has left her unable to cry over many things. Yoshimoto shows this repression of emotions to be so much of a built-in response that Mikage must be physically overwhelmed by her emotions in order to actually feel them.

In order for both Mikage and Yuichi to accept their emotions and overcome society's demand of carefree happiness in public, they need each other's company as support. However, in the character of Sotaro, Mikage's ex-boyfriend, Yoshimoto offers the reader the voice of judgmental public opinion. Sotaro is characterized by a cheerfulness and a hearty robustness, that is evident in his parting line to Mikage when he meets her for the first time after her grandmother's death: "Chin up, kid." Sotaro presses her for a decision as to when she will move out of the Tanabe's house, which he presents as a necessary step, chiding her for her lack of being practical. Acting with little regard of Mikage's emotional wellbeing, Sotaro accuses her of lying when Mikage implicitly denies his fairly explicit suggestion that she must be involved with Yuichi to be living there. Sotaro's emotional tranquility is really a lack of emotion. His character is an ideal of control. In his desire for control, he makes decisions for Mikage, decisions which Yoshimoto hints are commands, carrying the weight of patriarchal violence.

Yoshimoto's concern with the damage that a judgmental society can do to the process of mourning, and thus to the possibility of emotional growth, can' also be seen in "Moonlight Shadow." Here Hitoshi's brother Hiiragi, who lost both his elder brother and his girlfriend Yumiko in the aforementioned road accident, wears Yumiko's sailor dress as part of his mourning. Hiiragi feels that by wearing the dress he achieves at least a vestige of connection between himself and Yumiko. Regardless of this, both his family and Yumiko's family try to shame him or emotionally blackmail him into refraining from doing this, as both are worried about public opinion.

What is at stake for the characters in their attempts to move beyond the culture of emotional repression is not only the ability to grieve fully for their losses, but also to be able to face life again. Beyond this, Yoshimoto asserts that no life, which has not included feeling and accepting the pain of loss, can ever be a full life. The characters must experience and accept pain in order to be able to properly feel joy, or else they will go through a life lacking in emotional intensity, which will in turn stunt the growth of their soul. To return to the initial quotation, Yoshimoto presents society's repressive attempts to force everyone into a culture of emotional control and adherence to traditional decorum as inhibitions to the growth of her characters' souls. In opposition to this, Yoshimoto's work is full of possibilities and symbols of personal connections, which give the characters the emotional support that they need to be able to bear their pain. These connections represent the hopeful theme in both novellas.

Compare and Contrast

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

Today: In part because of Hirohito’s participation in World War II (1939–1945), the Emperor of Japan, Akihito, has mostly symbolic powers, with the real governing done by an elected democracy.

1988: George Bush, who was vice-president for eight years during the administration of Ronald Reagan, was elected President of the United States.

Today: Bush’s one-term administration is remembered as a time of economic weakness, due in large part to the economic troubles that were inherited from the Reagan administration.

1988: Polish workers went out on strike to demand the return of the labor union Solidarity, which had been outlawed since 1981. After three weeks their demand was met.

1990: A new government was elected in Poland, with Lech Walesa, a leader of the Solidarity movement, as president.

1991: Following Poland’s lead, a number of countries in the Soviet Union demanded independence. The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 31, 1991.

Literary Precedents

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In her use of magic realism to attack Japanese culture's repressive effects on expression of grief, Yoshimoto explores similar themes to those considered in Anthony Mingella's film Truly, Madly Deeply (1990), which follows the progress of a protagonist who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her partner and suffers great difficulties when he reappears as a ghost. In more general terms, Yoshimoto could be fruitfully compared with modern writers as diverse as Angela Carter and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, both of whose works use magic realism for the purpose of social and cultural commentary. In terms of her playfulness within the mode of magic realism, there is a parallel with the works of Salman Rushdie, especially The Satanic Verses (1988). In this work, Rushdie uses the genre's juxtaposition of the everyday with the magical to parody most of the world's organized religions by depicting miracles of a ridiculously banal sort. While Rushdie's ridicule is more scathing than Yoshimoto's, there is also a quality of childish playfulness and humor that link both works. While on the subject of humor, one could contrast the moments of magic and gentle humor in Kitchen with Angela Carter's equally magical, but far darker humor in The Bloody Chamber (1979), a collection of rewritten fairy tales.


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Kitchen was adapted in 1997 for a film by the Chinese director Yim-Ho, with the part of Aggie (the character who corresponds with Mikage in the film) played by Yasuko Tomita, Jordan Chan as Louie (Yuichi), and Emma (Eriko) played by Law Kar Ying. In adaptation, the film does away with the specificity of the Japanese setting and instead focuses on the growing possibilities for romance between Aggie and Louie. Their flirtation becomes an exquisite dance that gives shape to the plot, and the book's focus on the need to learn how to grieve and accept pain to fully experience joy becomes merely a stage in the movie that both Aggie and Louie must pass through so their romance can blossom.

The differences between book and film, with the exception of the film's male narrative voice, can be explained by the strengths of each medium. It could be said that, in terms of narrative, little happens in Kitchen the book, as most of the action takes place in the psychological development of the characters, as shown in calm passages of introspection. Furthermore, in the book the style of narrative, which lends extreme weight to seemingly trite issues, is a major force. Neither of these effects would be easily rendered in film, and so Yim-Ho opts to introduce a more standard romantic plotline, attempting to recreate the style of the original narrative through the use of art house camera shots.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

David Galef, “Jinxed,” in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 23.

Nicole Gaouette, “Hip Novelist Combines Old and New Japan,” in The Christian Science Monitor, December 10, 1998, p. 13.

Deborah Garrison, “Day-O!,” in The New Yorker, January 25, 1993, pp. 109–10.

Todd Grimson, “The Catcher in the Rice,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, pp. 3, 7.

Elizabeth Hanson, “Hold the Tofu,” in The New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1993, p. 18.

Nick Hornby, “Mystical Mundane,” in The Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 1983, p. 18. For Further Study

Further Study
Anne Allison, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, The University of Chicago Press, 1994. This sociological study provides a wonderful understanding of Eriko’s character.

Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, Columbia University Press, 1988. Keene is considered by some to be the leading interpreter of Japanese literature to the West, a frequent translator of criticism and literature. This recent, short book gives a good background on the culture that produced Kitchen.

Jonathan Rauch, The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan, Harvard Business School Press, 1992. The author of this book was young, still in his twenties, when he traveled to Japan in 1990. His insights into the culture provide wonderful, intelligent background.

Edward Seidensticker, Tokyo Rising: The City since the Great Earthquake, Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. The earthquake of the title is the one that destroyed most of the city in 1923. His research is thorough, but academic.

Rex Shelley, Culture Shock: Japan, Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co., 1993. This book, part of a series of guidebooks aimed mainly at business travelers, gives a good sense of contemporary Japanese lifestyles, customs, and expectations.

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