Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1175

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.

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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, retreating into himself and locking up his emotions tight: Eriko's light is indeed "sorely missed." However, it seems that Eriko's hand stretches back from beyond the grave to guide both Yuichi and Mikage in the form of a letter that Eriko has attached to her will. "Yuichi, think about what I'm about to say. If I should die, you will be left all alone. But you have Mikage, don't you?" Nonetheless, Yoshimoto shows that achieving such a connection is not simple. The distance that has grown between Mikage and Yuichi is not simply a physical distance, it is a feeling that, in the same room, they are nonetheless in different worlds. Therefore, Yoshimoto has Mikage dive into a taxi to take to Yuichi an offering of food. The symbolic aspect of a gift of food is obvious in a work where kitchens are a haven representing the space of peace, symbolizing the continuation of human interrelation and interaction.

While Mikage's taxi ride allows her to cross the gap into the other world in which Yuichi has hidden himself away, in "Moonlight Shadows" a greater gap needs to be bridged: that between the living and the dead. The narrator, Satsuki, feels that as a result of her boyfriend Hitoshi's death she has lost her soul, and so she merely goes through the motions of being sociable as a means of avoiding quiet time and the painful memories and resentments that surface. Like Mikage, Satsuki is unable to bear pain and, therefore, unable to grieve. The frenzied, pointless activity that she takes refuge in is symbolized by her early morning jogging. It is only through a chance meeting with Urara, a mysterious character possessed of a magical glow similar to that of Eriko, that Satsuki learns of the Weaver Festival Phenomenon. This once in a century occurrence allows those who have lost loved ones to see the dead again. It is supposed to happen only at midnight on a bridge over a large body of water and, as is shown by the title of the novella, it is closely associated with moonlight. Here, as throughout Kitchen as a whole, the magical quality of moonlight offers the possibility of happiness after pain, and the increased capacity to experience joy that comes with experience and acceptance of pain. In "Moonlight Shadows," the moonlight bends time and space on the bridge, allowing Satsuki to see her dead lover Hitoshi one more time, and to say goodbye, which allows her to grieve in a more healthy way.

In a similar way, Mikage's crossing over to Yuichi's world in "Kitchen" allows them to connect and to share their pain. Yuichi admits that his emotional coldness was self-destructive. Having done so, both he and Mikage are free to feel the memories of the good times that they had shared, especially the good times with Eriko, emerging from a place in their minds where they had been hidden. They no longer need to fear the pain of grief that remembrances bring back. These memories would keep them going, they realize, and, as Mikage leaves, she describes a sparkling in Yuichi's face, which results from their meeting having touched something inside him, which has banished the darkness of his earlier guardedness.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888

Sex Roles
One of the most notable facets of the story Kitchen is the calm and subtle treatment that it gives to Eriko’s gender. When Mikage first meets Eriko, she is smitten with the beauty that she sees. Her fascination indicates a sexual attraction, but as she explains that she came to understand the word “charm” for the first time, it becomes clear that her attraction is not physical, that it is more like magic. When Yuichi tells her that Eriko is actually his biological father, that she has changed her sex, Mikage expresses some surprise—“I just stared at him in wide-eyed silence. I didn’t know what to say”— but she is not overwhelmed, and her surprise soon fades as she becomes involved in a conversation about Yuichi’s family history.

Raised by Eriko, Yuichi is kind; this can be seen in the way that he treats Mikage and her grandmother. He is a special case, though, and there are only two other males in the book to compare him to: Mikage’s old boyfriend Sotaro, who is sensitive to the beauty of plants but ignorant of Mikage (his parting words to her are “Chin up, kid!”), and the anonymous stalker who murders Eriko, “screaming that he has been made a fool of.” If Yuichi is shown to have a good balance of male and female characteristics, it is because Eriko went before him and blazed a path; if Mikage is also well-balanced, it is because her suffering and loneliness have introduced her to the harsher elements of masculinity.

Death
To say that death is a catalyst for change in this story would be an understatement. This point is made most obvious in the fact that Yuji/Eriko Tanabe, distraught over the death of his wife after a lingering illness, decided to become a woman, to flee what he had been when she was alive. By becoming a woman he feels closer to her.

Mikage’s way of dealing with the loss of her grandmother is similar, if not so extreme; instead, she slides into a state of inertia, unable to respond to the world or deal with the simplest decisions. When Yuichi arrives on her doorstep offering a chance to live in a new place—to in effect become somebody different—it does not take much to convince her to go along.

The first effect of Eriko’s death is that Mikage and Yuichi see themselves marked by death, surrounded by bad luck: “So I’ve become an orphan,” Yuichi says, and Mikage responds with, “That goes double for me.” Their grief brings them together, as Mikage, who suffered through similar circum- stances with the recent loss of her grandmother, takes up the job of nursing Yuichi. She does that by cooking for him but also, less noticeably, just with her loving presence. It is this nurturing relationship that obscures their true romantic love from both of them until the end, when their separation from one another makes their feelings clearer.

Friendship
The issue at the center of this story, from the beginning to the end, is whether Mikage and Yuichi will become lovers, or if the special bond between them is limited to friendship. This question is raised in the story’s first real scene, with Yuichi arriving at Mikage’s doorstep and asking her to come and live in his home. In the absence of any preexisting friendship between them, she is confused as to the source of the bond she feels for him. “I saw a straight road leading from me to him,” she says of their first encounter. “He seemed to glow with white light. That was the effect he had on me.”

She later feels a similar attraction to Eriko, his mother/father, and the delight that all three of them find in each other makes their relationship seem like a very strong friendship. Mikage deflects her old boyfriend’s suspicion that she and Yuichi are having an affair by pointing out that his mother lives with them, as proof that their living arrangement is nonsexual. Still, the supernatural aspect of their relationship indicates that they are more than friends, except that Mikage does not allow herself to see it as supernatural at all. After they both have the same dream at the same time, she acknowledges its implausibility at the same time that she denies that there is anything magical about it: “While what had happened was utterly amazing,” she says, “it didn’t seem so out of the ordinary, really. It was at once a miracle and the most natural thing in the world.” For the purposes of this novel, the same miraculous quality can be ascribed to love, while friendship is “the most natural thing in the world.”

When Mikage returns to Yuichi after Eriko’s death, he asks her to move back into the apartment, and she wonders openly about their relationship for once, questioning whether they would be lovers or friends. He has no answer, though: “You mean, should we sell the sofa and buy a double bed?,” he asks. “I myself don’t even know.” Mikage needs to be told by the transvestite Chika that she is in love with Yuichi, and he with her, before she is able to understand their relationship.

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