". . . My parents, my grandfather, my grandmother . . . your real mother, even Eriko. My god - in this gigantic universe there can't be a pair like us. The fact that we're friends is amazing. All this death . . . all this death."
Banana Yoshimoto (1964-) is the pen name of Mahoko Yoshimoto. Her father is the famed poet and critic Takaaki Yoshimoto, while sister Haruno Yoiko is a well-known cartoonist. Yoshimoto describes her favorite motifs as "the exhaustion of young people in contemporary Japan" and "the way in which terrible experiences shape a person's life." Kitchen, her debut novel, was released in 1988 and 1993 in English translation by Megan Backus.
Kitchen actually consists of two works: the novella Kitchen itself and a companion short story called "Moonlight Shadow" featuring different characters but exploring similar themes. In the former, a student named Mikage Sakurai has just lost her grandmother. Already orphaned in early childhood, she finds herself alone in the world until she receives an unexpected invitation. Mikage subsequently moves in with Yuichi and his father, a trans woman named Eriko, and spends several happy months with a new family. Shortly after moving out, however, she hears of Eriko's death at the hands of a stalker and Yuichi's ensuing depression. Kitchen is ultimately a coming-of-age story about the process of overcoming tragedy. For Mikage, this is carried out through the her love of cooking. She had long been fond of kitchens as centers of the home, but has now gained a greater respect for food as both nourishment and a vital aspect of social life. The time and care that go into preparation and the immediate appeal to the senses communicate volumes in a simple, tangible manner. It is through food that Mikage expresses her concern for Yuichi and eventually draws them closer. Kitchen ends on a wiser, hopeful note.
"Moonlight Shadow" centers more on the issue of closure. Satsuki has lost her boyfriend Hitoshi in a car accident that also killed Yumiko, the girlfriend of his brother Hiiragi. Jogging over Hitoshi's favorite bridge one morning Satsuki encounters Urara and is intrigued by both the depth of pain in Urara's face and her promise to show her something wonderful. Unlike Mikage's gradual development, Satsuki's experiences, as befitting the short story format, are revelatory and more immediately transformative. The added element of fate in the meeting between Satsuki and Urara gives the "Moonlight Shadow" a mystical quality that compliments the more down-to-earth feel of Kitchen.
With their straightforward prose and quiet settings, both Kitchen and "Moonlight Shadow" leave an impression of that airiness and precision common to Japanese prose. Unfortunately, Megan Backus's translation reveals the potential only, not Yoshimoto's actual delivery. Not only are her syntax and word choice clunky but several Amazon reviews familiar with the original claim she cut out entire sentences. There are two poignant stories here but they've been underserved. Still, each is short and sweet and easily relatable as expressions of a universal dilemma: how to break the emotional paralysis of grief and continue on.
Banana Yoshimoto's website, including her English journal, may be found here.