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Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In both "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow," there are characters who are almost magical and who serve as facilitators of connection, which is necessary for Mikage, Yuichi, Satsuki, and Hiiragi to accept their grief, and thereby their loss. In "Kitchen," the magical facilitator is Yuichi's mother, Eriko. Eriko is associated with light throughout the novella, a magical glow, a soft luminescence that seems to emanate from within her, described in terms of an innate charm, an ability to engage with, and be engaged by, people immediately and fully. Eriko becomes a surrogate mother to Mikage, a replacement for her lost family. Eriko's ability to immediately connect with people can be seen in the original Japanese, in the tone of her first meeting with Mikage, but is lost in the English translation, according to some critics. While Mikage uses the formal, respectful form of address, Eriko immediately uses the informal and, a little while later, she manages to coax Mikage out of her symbolic formality, which facilitates the growth of intimacy between the two.

Eriko's charm is enhanced in Mikage's eyes by Eriko's phenomenal good looks. When Mikage first sees her, she appears as a fleeting vision, almost an epiphany:

This was his mother? I couldn't take my eyes off her. Hair that rustled like silk to her shoulders; the deep sparkle of her long, narrow eyes; well-formed lips, a nose with a high straight bridge—the whole of her gave off this marvelous light that seemed to vibrate with life force. She didn't look human. I had never seen anyone like her.

Yoshimoto underlines Eriko's attainment of the almost-unreal Western ideal of feminine beauty, which is so idealized in Japan through the popularity of Western magazines and Western cinema. When Yuichi amusedly tells Mikage that Eriko is in fact a man, enjoying her incredulity, the amusement and enjoyment are also those of the author herself, as she deliberately frustrates the reader's expectations. Here, Yoshimoto absolutely and emphatically divorces femininity from biological woman, showing that femininity is a performance, an ideal that Eriko can achieve through surgery. This consideration of transsexuality without a negative authorial moral judgment shows Yoshimoto's departure from the reticence about sex and sexuality, and the condemnation of "deviant" sexualities that characterize a conservative strain of Japanese literature.

In her presentation of Eriko, Yoshimoto destabilizes the linkage between appearance and reality, opening up new worlds for possible self-expression. However, Yoshimoto shows how dangerous it can be to live in defiance of societal expectations and taboos: the violence of outraged public opinion is visited on her physically, as she is attacked and killed at her club by an enraged, obsessive fan. The anger of Eriko's killer represents an extreme version of the reaction of conservative patriarchy to the perceived threat of transsexuality: in choosing to become women, transsexuals disprove the assertion that men are the dominant gender. Worse still, the fact that Eriko is phenomenally attractive as a woman destabilizes the active heterosexuality that underscores patriarchal power systems. The fact that the fan was attracted to Eriko is shown by Yoshimoto to be the source of his anger and revulsion, emotions which he has displaced onto Eriko, rather than questioning his own repressive vision of his sexuality.

It might seem that Eriko's murder problematizes Yoshimoto's presentation of her as a facilitator of connection, which alone will allow the characters in the story to accept their grief and thus feel their joy that much more keenly. "Truly great people emit a light that warms the hearts of those around them. When that light has been put out, a heavy shadow of despair descends. Perhaps Eriko's was only a minor kind of greatness, but her light was sorely missed." After Eriko's death, readers see Yuichi shutting himself off from Mikage, and eventually from the whole world,...

(The entire section is 2,063 words.)