Japn 314 Yoshimoto Banana's Kitchen

Sakurai Mikage loves kitchens, she loves food and the warmth it brings. Her family has dwindled over time down to just her and her Grandmother, and when her grandmother dies, she is alone in the world and has trouble coping with that reality. Yuichi, who worked for Mikage's grandmother, becomes Mikage's friend and out of desperation, she moves in with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, a beautful woman who was actually Yuichi's father. He became transgendered when Yuichi's mother, his wife, died of illness. Eriko lives on the margins, works in a gay bar, and is suddenly murdered by a man who was stalking her. She manages to kill her assailant in the struggle; she goes down fighting. A lesson for us all?

Does Kitchen try to offer us lessons? Is there wisdom to be found in this text? One thing that strikes me is the way Mikage learns. It seems that several of the texts we have read this semester have to do with learning, growing, taking things away from experience. It is how Mikage learns, or how Yoshimoto writes about it, that interests me. She learned to cook one summer preceding Eriko's death in late autumn. The three of them--Eriko, Yuichi and Mikage--lived together and Mikage prepared the meals. She worked as though she was in a cooking frenzy; she tried everything, every kind of dish. That was the only way she knew how to learn. "I tried making anything and everything, and I tried to do it right." For her, "doing it right" meant paying "attention to detail." When she finally learned how to calm herself, and to take note of what she was doing, to learn from each mistake, she became more self-aware, "it was truly as if I had somehow reformed my own slapdash character." (58) This is kind of profound. It is about learning how to be present in what you do, learning how to be centered, to be able to cook the same way that a tea master performs the Tea ceremony--with every ounce of his/her being. With fullnness, with complete attention to detail.

This is how she learned to experience "joy" in her life, a type of joy that others in her cooking classes could not. Why not? Because they had been taught "not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing." For Mikage, "Their happiness," meant "living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone." She understands the value of experiencing the joy of discovery and creativity, of making and doing, and "Having known such joy, there was no going back." (59) She goes on to reflect and utter the following: "No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. That is what makes the life I have now possible." (59-60) To live with the awreness of one's death is very Zen; it is very spiritual and also very difficult. Easy to say, hard to do. Yoshimoto is subtle here; she is not hitting us over the head with a sledgehammer; but she has looked deeply into the darkness that often surrounds us in life and finds the light. She finds a way to act and to be in the world; she finds a way to learn, to grow and to transform herself, to "reform" her "slapdash character." In changing herself and in growing, she has found a way to heal from the wounds life has inflicted upon her. It gives her hope.

One could say that learning how to cook, and learning how to grow and heal is all that we can do in this world, in this life. Supposedly, when Freud was once asked what people should do to make their lives more meaningful, he replied rather succintly that there were two important things one could do be happy: "To work and to love." Sounds simple enough. Find a job and get married, right? But I think he meant something different, something more profound. "To work" means to be productive, to be alive and creative in your work, to make a contribution. "NOT UNTO OURSELVES ALONE ARE WE BORN" says Willamette's motto. And "To love" means not just to experience the rush of powerful emotional attraction, the dizzying heights of being swept up in the tornado like Sumire was; but it means to be sufficiently grounded and centered in your own life that you CAN actually love; you have a real, authentic self which is capable of offering something to someone else. Once again, easy to talk about, rather hard to actually pull off.

Circumstances threw Mikage and Yuichi together; she is not sure what she thinks about him but when he asks her "don't you think that seeing such a beautiful moon influences what one cooks?" Mikage's "heart faltered for an instant. He spoke as if he knew my very soul." She starts to feel that "If Yuichi is with me, I need nothing else." The two of them seem to have forged a bond, "just the two of us...orphans alone in the dark." (61-62)

Though Yuichi asks Mikage to move back in, he cannot decide on what basis. Lovers? Friends? Somehow, without Eriko, they are adrift. "Even though we are standing side by side, even though we are closer to each other than to anyone else in the world, even though we're freinds forever, we don't join hands. No matter how forlorn we are, we each insist on standing on our own two feet...[A]lthough we have always acted like brother and sister, aren't we really man and woman in the primordial sense, and don't we think of each other that way? But the place we are in now is just too dreadful. It is not a place where two people can create a life together." (66) This sounds like a tough deal; they have something: a spark, a bond, a connection. It could be moved forward into a love relationship...but not as long as the place they are in is so dreadful. Can they move forward somehow? Is there an avenue open to them? Can they find it?

Mikage is washing the dishes after the incredible meal that she prepares for them, while Yuichi sleeps off his drunk, and she cries. And cries an cries inconsolably. "I was crying for having been left behind in the night, paralyzed with loneliness." (67) Uh, oh. Here we go again. Loneliness. Two people close, so close, yet they cannot find that bridge to reach out to connect with each other, to become joined; or if it is there, they cannot manage to cross it. Yet.

Mikage must go to Izu for her work and Chika, Eriko's friend, lets her know that Yuichi may be in trouble. "She made me realize," Mikage notes, "that the human heart is something very precious." (86) On her trip, Mikage has a realization: she and Yuichi "were just at the point of approaching and negotiating a gentle curve. If we bypassed it, we would split off into different directions. In that case we would forever remain just friends. I knew it. I knew it with absolute certainty." (91) They could become like Murakami's satellites, "Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep." (179) Unless Mikage can do something.

Death weighs heavily on them; they have seen too much of it in their young lives. They feel the pull of the darkness but know they have the awareness to avoid the abyss and to do what is right. Mikage has learned how to pay attention when she learned to cook. In doing so, she learned how to be herself and to be aware of herself in the world. No small feat.

So Mikage does manage to do something. She acts. Somebody had to do something or the precious moment would pass them by. It falls to Mikage. She is the active force in this drama, she is the agent; she is more yang than yin. She goes to Yuichi by taxi late at night to bring him the most delicious katsudon imaginable. This gesture somehow lifts her spirits: "My spirits began to lift. I had done all I could. I knew it: the glittering crystal of all the good times we'd had, which had been sleeping in the depths of memory, was awakening and would keep us going. Like a blast of fresh wind, the richly perfumed breath of those days returned to my soul...Truly happy memories always live on, shining. Over time, one by one, they come back to life." (100) Two things here are linked. Action; she did all she could and she knows it. She did her part. But, if the results do not turn out as she hopes, she will still be Ok because she has the second thing: her Memories, her shining memories which come back to life one by one. When she speaks of truly happy memories that live on, it sounds like she is at peace. Her wounds are healing. She is wble to reach out to Yuichi and she clearly hopes for the best; but if the best is not to be, that seems to OK, too. She can live with the precious memories if she has to.

She tells Yuichi how much she does not want to lose him. Was he on the brink of taking his own life in his room at his inn? Did Mikage's gesture save him? Mikage knows something. She has learned; she has grown. She was capable of acting in a situation that was otherwise dreadful and fraught with risks. But she takes the risk. She has reached out. Moreover, she accepts what she has discovered to be true.

She accepts that Eriko is no more and that she has to get up and "begin another day. Over and over, we begin again." (103) Can we take comfort in this? Sometimes, the thought of facing thousands of new days without the people you love in them, is daunting. People cannot always face up to that reality. But, each day also brings the chance to learn, to grow, to become whole. Is there enough hope here for us to grab onto?

All we know for sure is that Mikage truly feels. And that is something. At the end, she feels "strange, sweet sadness...there will be so much pleasure, so much suffering. With or without Yuichi." (104) A bit of uncertainty, to be sure. but there is hope that both of them will be healed and become healthy and whole. and be able to love each other.

Yuichi calls her the next morning to say he will meet her train when it arrives in Tokyo and a feeling of warmth permeates her room in Izu. The warmth comes from the tea kettle with the boiling water for her tea. But it also comes from the warmth of her heart. Unlike Sumire's last call to K. in Sputnik Sweetheart, Yuichi is not in some other dimension or on some other plane. He is not part of a dream. He, too, is now in the present. And he has done something. It was not easy to get her number there in Izu but he did. It may not be a huge accomplishment, but it is something.

Like "I" in Kokoro, Mikage will be on a train heading back to Tokyo. But she knows that she did all that she could do; she reached out to Yuichi and whatever happens on the road ahead, will happen. No doubt, both pleasure and suffering lie on that road ahead, as she has indicated. There is no certainty in the ending; we don't know for sure that they will face that road together, hand-in-hand. Perhaps they won't. But there is room for hope. And warmth. And the memory of a wonderful katsudon that they shared. And that is something.