Banana Yoshimoto is a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of fans falling in love with her novels and waiting eagerly for the next one—a circumstance referred to on the many web pages dedicated to her as “Banana-mania.” Her rise to fame came quickly and early in her life. She was born Mahoko Yoshimoto in Tokyo in 1964. Her father, Takaaki Yoshimoto, was a famous literary critic, poet, and commentator; his works were extremely influential on Japan’s radical youth movement in the 1960s. She majored in arts and literature at Nihon University in Tokyo, graduating in 1987. While there, she won the Izuini Kyoka Prize, which is Nihon’s Department of Arts Award, for the novella Moonlight Shadow, which has been published in the same volume as Kitchen.
In 1987, Kitchen was awarded the prestigious Kaien Magazine New Writers’ Prize. Upon the book’s first publication in 1988, it was an instant hit, selling more than two million copies and earning its author literary awards in Italy and Japan. She was twenty-four, and took the pen name “Banana” because she thought it was cute. For the U.S. edition of Kitchen in 1992, her publisher staged a full-out marketing blitz, which turned out to be a great success, landing the book on the best-seller lists. The book has had over sixty printings in Japan since it premiered, and has been adapted into movies twice: the first version in 1989 was quick and cheap, so in 1997 famed Chinese director Yim Ho created an art-house version that moved the story to Hong Kong and made the male lead the narrator.
Yoshimoto has had eleven novels published in Japan so far, and four have been translated into English: Kitchen, NP, Lizard, and Amrita. Her fans are devoted, but so are her detractors, calling her work slick, superficial, and driven by a standard formula. The author herself denies that her novels follow any set recipe in an attempt to keep up with her early fame. Many of the themes found in her books such as androgyny and psychic phenomena are familiar fixtures in the Japanese literary form known as magna, which are graphic novels similar to the comic books published in America. In Japan, magna account for a third of all works published. Yoshimoto explains that she does not write for editors or readers, that she does not really have anyone in mind when she writes her novels. Her influences, she says, are literary, including Truman Capote and Isaac Bashevis Singer.