Posts Categorized: Banana Yoshimoto

Review: Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is a novella with a fresh voice and unique perspective.  The main character, Mikage, finds herself orphaned as she’s either finishing high school or early in her college career.  It’s hard to tell, and ultimately not that important to the story.  What is important is how Mikage deals with her grief.  She takes solace in the kitchen.  The novella begins:

The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.  No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s find with me.  Ideally it should be well broken in.  Lots of tea towels, dry and immaculate.  White tile catching the light (ting! ting!).

I love even incredibly dirty kitchens to distraction–vegetable droppings all over the floor, so dirty your slippers turn black on the bottom.  Strangely, it’s better if this kind of kitchen is large.  I lean up against the silver door of a towering, giant refrigerator stocked with enough food to get through a winter.  When I raise my eyes from the oil-spattered gas burner and the rust kitchen knife, outside the window stars are glittering, lonely.

Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.

Mikage sleeps in the kitchen at night, and finds some small comfort amidst her loss.  Yoshimoto then explores the notion of family.  A teenage boy, Yuichi, who is around Mikage’s age, stops by unannounced, days after her grandmother’s funeral.  He worked at the flower shop where Mikage’s grandmother shopped at least once a week.  Yuichi invites Mikage to come stay with him and his mother, Eriko.  It’s a strange request, but Mikage agrees to visit as there is something disarming and natural about Yuichi’s disposition.

What follows is a story about creating happiness in a world full of loss, seeking to define relationships and identities based on love and need, and not on cultural norms.  As Mikage and Yuichi struggle to make sense of the world, they also attempt to understand one another and what their relationship means.

If you are new to Banana Yoshimoto, I suggest starting with Kitchen.  There is a life to the writing that fills the page, and it seems to be the point from which her other work emerges.  Hardboiled and Hard Luck seem like re-writes of the same ideas, but without the energy or originality that makes Kitchen special.

Review: Hardboiled and Hard Luck – Banana Yoshimoto

I always feel a lack when I read translations.  The words, so lovingly put in place, feel out of place.  Sentences strung across the page, at times, fall short.  They have communicated a message, transferred their intent, but lost some beauty along the way.  It is as if once the writing is outside it’s natural language, it is all business, focused on the task.  Hardboiled and Hard Luck, two novellas by Japanese writer, Banana Yoshimoto, are two works of fiction that slide into the group of translations which may not do the writer justice.

Both of the novellas revolve around loss and death.  Each one has a young woman as the narrator who is reminiscing and saying goodbye to a loved one who has died.  In “Hardboiled,” the narrator remembers a former love, Chizuru, with whom she had a falling out, and whom later died.  It takes place in the span of one night, in which the narrator is visited by a forlorn ghost in an old, countryside hotel.  Through this encounter, the narrator learns of the ghost’s story from the hotel manager.  It’s a sad tale of love and suicide.  The ghost of Chizuru also visits the narrator and protects her.

In “Hard Luck,” a family is grieving the passing of their daughter, Kuni.  Kuni has minimum brain function and is being kept alive through machines.  Eventually, her brain shuts down and the family makes the decision to disconnect the machines.  The family, and more specifically the narrator, fears their own connection with Kuni will be severed when she goes off life support.  They spend hours visiting her in the hospital, because it feels as if part of her is still there.  Kuni is a young woman who had everything before her, she was cheerful, in love, and to be married soon.  Unable to work through the grief in a public manner, her fiancée retreats to his parent’s home while she’s dying.  This action brings the narrator into contact with the fiancée’s brother, Sakai, who visits the hospital in his brother’s absence.  A love, of sorts, begins.  Sakai is an outsider; he teaches Tai-Chi, has a long hair, and is quiet in an inward way.  The combination of death and love is too much though, and the characters resolve to explore the feelings in the future, after the pain of Kuni’s death has diminished.  The narrator will move to Italy for her studies, and Sakai vows to stay true to this feeling.

In exploring loss, the novellas also play with time.  How do we remember people?  What makes us forget moments?  Time bends and intertwines with memories as the narrators slip in and out of the present.  The novellas go well together, because they act as before and after images of grief.  In “Hardboiled,” the narrator has moved on and forgotten about Chizuru, even though Chizuru was so important to her.  “Hard Luck” though occurs while the pain is at its sharpest.  The narrator is locked in her grief.  Toward the end of the novella, after Kuni has died, the narrator is able to glimpse into the future.  She can see that grief will not always dominate her life.  There will be a point when her family can share in laughter again.  There will be a time when she can fall into love.  She will never be as tough as the narrator in “Hardboiled,” but she will move on.  We all will.