Kitchen

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)