This post is part of the Japanese Fiction Week, hosted on this blog.
For more information about the week, head over here.
Banana Yoshimoto is one of Japan's greatest contemporary writers alongside Haruki Murakami, and Kitchen is her début novel which became a best-seller in Japan. The English edition of the novel also includes the short story Moonlight Shadow at the end.
Kitchen is divided into two parts. The first part sees a young woman, Mikage Sakurai, lose the only member of her family she has left, her grandmother. She is completely lost and befriends Yuichi, a friend of her grandmother who works in a flower shop and who invites her to live with him and his mother while Mikage sorts out her life. Yuichi's mother, Eriko, was initially her dad before she decided to change sex and we get an interesting insight about what it's like to live as a transgender. Yuichi is also familiar with grief as his mother died when he was younger. The second part, still told from Mikage's point of view, sees Yuichi dealing with grief while Mikage has found a work she enjoys and is finally overcoming her sense of loss. They also both deal with their feelings for each other. The bond they share is quite unique and they're here for each other when they need it.
In Kitchen, Mikage and Yuichi realise that the world doesn't exist for their benefit and sometimes horrible things happen over which they have no control. I found the writing fascinating to read and how Mikage is seen coping with her loss. She concentrates on small things, her love of kitchens and cooking, while inside her a storm is raging. Why does everyone close to her dies? How can she survive if she is all alone? Does she still exist and is she still the same if the people who knew her the most aren't here to see her anymore?
The love and the sense of family she is given in Yuichi and Eriko's home helps her build herself back together little by little. It's always the small things in life which ground you and enable you to get on with your life. Mikage becomes increasingly passionate about food and cooking and is always preparing fabulous meals for Yuichi or Eriko, and later finds a job as an assistant to a cooking teacher. The passages with food and eating are amazingly woven into the story as a lifeline for the characters. Eating is what keeps you alive and the simple activity of preparing and eating a good meal is one of the best pleasures in life. Mikage is obsessed with kitchens (hence the title) and it is fascinating to read why it is her favourite place in the house.
Moonlight Shadow is a beautiful short story about loss and grief and it is very fitting that it's published after Kitchen. A young woman named Satsuki loses her boyfriend in a car accident and is plagued by her grief and the feeling that she could have done something to prevent the accident. She grows closer to Hiiragi, her boyfriend's brother, who is coping with the death of his girlfriend who passed away in the same accident. Hiiragi copes by wearing his girlfriend's clothes to school. Both are lost and it is beautiful to read how a shared grief is a road you often have to walk alone.
One morning, Satsuki meets a strange woman named Urura who introduces her to a mystical experience, which Satsuki believes is linked to her boyfriend's death. I won't spoil the experience but it is amazing. Moonlight Shadow also features food and Satsuki says how much she enjoys eating tasty food in the company of Hiiragi.
Both stories show some of Banana Yoshimoto's trademark themes: loss, gender identity, love and friendship and the small pleasures of life. There is also an undercurrent of magical realism in both stories. Mikage and Yuichi have grown so close that they can (or believe they can, which is roughly the same thing) talk to each other in their dreams and thoughts. Satsuki gets to see something incredible and unique during the mystical experience Urura shows her. The magical aspect is only hinted and appears quite realistic since it's perceived as such by the narrators. The loss of someone close is terribly hard to deal with, and sometimes, a little hope - even if not explainable or actually real - is all you need to get you through another day.
I really loved both stories and I think they're fantastic short reads. The writing is beautiful and the emotional state of the characters is brilliantly portrayed. Even though the book is about loss and grief, the stories are quite hopeful and make you think about life in general and your place in this world. I will definitely be reading more of this author.
Note: You might want to read this book in the vicinity of a Japanese restaurant to order all the food you have been reading about!