J314 Notes on Yoshimoto Banana's Fiction
We have talked about Yoshimoto's style and tone and I would like to share some more thoughts on this topic. Below are some comments from an author's dissertation from the National University of Singapore but the author's name was not provided by their website: (scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/bitstream/handle/10635/.../Chapters(revised).pdf?)
Yoshimoto is said to be a writer of Japan's generation X. It is assumed in Japan
that the majority of her readers are women from high school goers to approximately thirty
years of age. Shojo manga is often indicated as the major influence on the themes and
style of Yoshimoto's fiction. As John Treat has pointed out,"Yoshimoto's stories, given their idiomatic kinship with billboards, television commercials, pop songs and fashion magazines, appear to those critics as an unconditional capitulation to the forces behind the production of popular culture and commercialization." Yoshimoto does not discredit Treat's comment as she herself readily categorizes her writings as commodities
that can be removed from store shelves after one has read them. She has been labeled as
a perfect pop-cultural disposable author as some even wonder if she is able to continue to
write and enjoy popularity with her simple, manga affected narrative style.
Yoshimoto admits that her writing is largely inspired by manga and her favorite
manga writers are Oshima Yumiko and Iwatate Mariko. As a result of manga influences,
Yoshimoto's books are normally written in a simple style, and are usually told in the first
person. This has made her plots and characters more approachable and animated. As
affected by manga, her narration is short and clean, with voluminous dialogues. This
style has been criticized as "too light and sweet" and her plots are said to be cliche.
However, it can be argued that Yoshimoto's writing should not be compared to that of Mishima
Yukio's, Kawabata Yasunari's, and Tanizaki Junichiro's in terms of its literary value,
because Yoshimoto wrote from a completely different era, without the intention of
writing high literature. Most of her readers are high-school girls and office ladies who
have attended two-year college. Her fans are reportedly attracted to her works because
they are easy to understand. She tells her stories in a more casual-speaking language style
(shaberite) rather than a formal narrating style (katarite). She uses numerous onomatopoetic and mimetic words, which are also inherited from manga books to describe the inner world of her protagonists and nature. Writing in a style that is both "colloquial and real" has helped her books to sell by the millions.
...[T]here are several consequences to her simple writing style. Firstly, the colloquial narration serves as an easier form of communication for readers and therefore makes it more acceptable to a larger population. Secondly, its explicit way
of writing has a lively quality and gives readers a deceptive sense of reality. Thirdly, big,
voluminous conversations in the first person narration makes her writing more vivid, akin
to having someone talking directly to readers, helping them release their tensions and
thus achieve a better result in healing.
In her first novel Kitchen, Yoshimoto portrays an unconventional family which the narrator, orphan Mikage, runs into. Even without blood relations Mikage seems to be very comfortable in her new home and develops a close relationship with both the son (Yuichi) and the father/mother (Eriko). Mikage achieves her mental maturity not only by
practising her cooking skill in their kitchen but also finds herself a family and true love.
The family in Yoshimoto's writing is never a generic one, as writer Fujimoto points out: "there are only unconventional, abnormal families (in Yoshimoto"s works)." Indeed there is nearly no permanent family (biological family with its fixed members) in Yoshimoto's fiction. In her article "Family" she explains:
"Wherever I go I end up turning people into a family of my own. That’s just the way I am, for better or worse, and I've got to live this way. What I call a family is still a group of fellow-strangers who have come together, and because thereís nothing more to it than that we really form good relations with each other. Itís hard for us to leave each other."
Here, Yoshimoto suggests that family can be formed by a "group of strangers" if they could build up good relations, exhibiting mutual care.
The topic of family is hardly something new in literary writings. However Yoshimoto has given a new meaning to the familiar subject by connecting it with the main theme of healing. Families in Yoshimoto's novels provide shelters for members to heal their wounds.
When reading Yoshimoto's novels, readers may be perplexed by one element, which always appears in her plots, i.e. death. Death is one of the notable themes in Yoshimoto's writings. There are always staple scenes of death (both physical and virtual) in her writings although they are sometimes being described very casually. Normally, the protagonist has already lost her/his beloved one before the plot starts. In the very beginning of her story, Moonlight Shadow, Yoshimoto writes:
"Whenever he went, Hitoshi always had a little bell with him, attached to the case he kept his bus pass in. Even though it was just a trinket, something I gave him before we were in love, it was destined to remain at his side until the last."
This is a typical introduction of Yoshimoto's stories. A girl who loses her lover falls into absolute despair and loneliness. Satsuki, a university student, becomes sleepless after her boyfriend, Hitoshi, perishes in a car accident. She keeps mourning over his death until one early morning of Tanabata, she witnesses his soul waving her goodbye from the other bank of the bridge where they last separated. She is emotionally healed and resumes her normal routine after that.
Although Hitoshi dies in the beginning of the story, Yoshimoto does not waste time elaborating on his death itself or on the detailed memories of their love story, but focuses more on the victims (Satsuki and her boyfriend's brother, Hiiragi) who are left to face reality. Death is painful yet it becomes a fantasy journey for Satsuki and Hiiragi because they eventually manage to overcome it.
In the story, Satsuki always sees Hitoshi off to a bridge, and the bridge is also the venue of their last meeting. After Hitoshi's death, Satsuki becomes sleepless in the early morning and starts her morning jogging. The returning point of her routine jogging is the bridge. Thus, in the realistic world, the bridge is a watershed separating death and life. However, in the fantastic world, the bridge is a magic milieu for Satsuki to confront death and rebuild herself with a mature personality. When Satsuki witnesses Hitoshi's spirit standing on the other bank of the bridge waving her goodbye, Satsuki realizes that Hitoshi's love is always with her and he wishes her to be happy. Satsuki decides to accept the fact and lead a more positive life. Instead of living in the shadows of the tragedy, she is determined to stand firm on the grounds of reality.
A similar tone is expressed in Yoshimoto's masterpiece Kitchen. There are issues of life and death in the story, which we can all relate to. On the first page of the novel, when Mikage was alone in her kitchen, she expresses her pain and loneliness. "Now only the kitchen and I are left. It's just a little nicer than being alone." On the next page, she tells the reader that her parents had passed away when she was very young and recently she lost her only kin, her grandmother. After losing her grandmother, Mikage feels utter emptiness. She is lost, lonely and depressed. Her soul longs for the comfort of another soul that is able to understand her torment. The other person who shares the same loss is Yuichi, another main protagonist in the story. In the second part of the story, Yuichi's mother, Eriko, (actually his transsexual father) is killed by a deranged individual.
Therefore, Yuichi faces identifiable pain and depression, which Mikage has gone through.
The two orphans feel as though death surrounds them and they cannot escape. However,
the death of their beloved ones also makes them bond closer to each other. Both of them
achieve personal growth by sharing the same experience and mutual support. The novel
Kitchen is a model of Yoshimoto's healing process, which opens with death/loss, goes through the process of finding love/family and finally achieves healing. In the quest of finding new love and family, Mikage meets with caring people, Yuichi and Eriko who not only provide her shelter but also support her mental recovery. With their help,
Mikage's personality strengthens as she grows up to be an independent person (she gets a
job). At the same time she finds hope, as she knows that even without her grandmother,
she is not going to be alone.
Both Satsuki and Hiiragi encountered fantastic events: Satsuki met her dead boyfriend saying goodbye to her and Hiiragi's uniform was taken away by his dead girl friend. After the two events, Satsuki and Hiirage started trying to put their beloved death in the past. They are finally able to piece themselves together and start for new life.
Mikage, the narrator and her friend Yuichi have the same dream on the night when Mikage goes back to where she lived with her grandmother to take some of her personal items. She spends the night in the kitchen, and dreams of the two of them mopping the kitchen floor. They are both exhausted but are very satisfied with their cleaning work - the kitchen has been tidied up and looked like what it used to be when her grandmother was still around. The dream is a significant sign that the two of them will be sharing their lives together, and will be finding happiness through the same sufferings and tough experiences. This implication is well articulated in the second part of the novel, Full Moon. Yuichi's father, (transsexual mother) Eriko is stabbed by a crazy man, which makes Yuichi an orphan just like Mikage. When Yuichi losses Eriko, he begins to truly understand the loneliness and despair, which Mikage had gone through. The shared pathos solidifies their relationship and becomes a force for their mutual recovery.
Yoshimoto earns her fame not only through the fantastic elements of death, dream, and supernatural powers but also by telling stories of unusual relationships and families. Both family and relationships are critical in Yoshimoto's healing process. Normally after tragedies, the protagonists will try to form or assimilate themselves into new families and relationships that would help them to cure their emotional wounds.
In the 1960s, the structure, function and interaction of typical Japanese families, saw a drastic transformation as a result of the nation's high economic growth and rapid urbanization. That was the era in which Yoshimoto was born. In her growing up days (throughout late 60s and 70s) the shrinking of the Japanese family size to 3.5 meant a compositional change from the traditional family (extended family) to the nuclear family. That suggests possible alteration of family relationships and lifestyles. Through the course of modernization, urban immigrants, in the midst of striving to adapt to the new environment, and seeking material pursuits, witnessed the dissolution of familial connection and ties.
Along with the drastic modernization and change in lifestyles especially in urban areas, families are more than sentimental references to the past. "Going home" is a kind of nostalgia for those seeking greener pastures in new cities and other parts of the world. All hopes are tarnished when they return home to a "lost" family, failing to merge their fantasies with harsh realities. With reference to chapter two, the narrator in Newlywed, found himself lost in bustling Tokyo and unconsciously looked back on his natsukashii (nostalgic) tranquil hometown. This is proof enough that the sustainability of family ties, fail to preserve in the face of work pressures and lifestyle transformations and people can only relish the good old times, not being able to relive them again.
Yoshimoto's writing often contains this sense of nostalgia especially when she talks about special families. Her debut novel, Kitchen, is well-known for its unconventional family structure. In her subsequent novels, this became one of the main themes. There are at least two characteristics that can be identified in Yoshimoto's family structure: non-biological families and the absence of a father.