I've loved Japanese literature for many years now, but since visiting Japan earlier this year, my fascination and interest has exploded! Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto popped up on several lists as a great contemporary example of Japanese literature.
Kitchen is a slim book containing two stories - Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow - both deal with death, grief, mothering and healing. Kitchen is the longer of the two and I was enchanted from page one. The language is deceptively simple and at times I worried that it was too simple. I wasn't sure if this was a translation issue or part of Yoshimoto's urban grunge charm. Except that somehow, very quickly, with no fuss or bother, Mikage's tragic tale crept into my heart and stayed.
Yoshimoto has created two beautiful, tender tale about loss and how to move forward from it. Her writing is suffused with innocence and warmth. Although her characters experience discontent and confusion, loneliness and urban angst, ultimately there is hope and love.
In her Preface, Yoshimoto says,
Growth and the overcoming of obstacles are inscribed on a person's soul. If I have become any better at fighting my daily battles, be they violent or quiet, I know it is only thanks to my many friends and acquaintances.
Both these stories are testimony to this belief. Friendship acts as a band aid for heartbreak. Being connected and making room for others in your life is what gets you through the tough days. For Yoshimoto's characters, this connection often occurred around the rituals of food, eating and tea drinking.
A dream-like almost mystical element imbued her work as well. Both stories have a dash of magic realism or other-worldliness, that I found to be appealing in a very Japanese way. The emotion is subtle and subdued and the cast of characters quirky and eccentric in a 1980's version of Harajuku style. I suspect that this particular version of Japanese gender fluidity might meet with some raised eyebrows by current Western thinking, however it felt culturally and historically appropriate to my burgeoning knowledge of Japanese society.
Yoshimoto said that her two main themes are 'the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan' and 'the way in which terrible experiences shape a person’s life'.
I'm not really sure that I spotted the exhaustion of which she speaks, but there was certainly an ennui and disconnect with the more traditional values of Japanese society.
I decided to not include any quotes in this post, because when I tried, they didn't work out of context.
If you enjoy minimalist, zen-like Japanese literature, then I think this will work for you. But if Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Hiro Arikawa or Takashi Hiraide are not your thing, they stay away from the Kitchen!
First published in 1988 and translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993.