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.

 

Death

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.

On Dreams

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.

 

Healing

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.


 

Non-biological Families
The non-biological families normally consist of members with unhappy pasts, and they develop an inter-dependency to console each other, share similar past and future experiences, develop new love and friendship and ultimately achieve the goal of healing. Family is portrayed as one of the key elements in the protagonistsí self-rebuilding course and has a significant function in the process of healing.


There are many examples of these non-biological families, such as Mikage's new family with her friend Yuichi and Yuichi's transsexual father in Kitchen.


To Yoshimoto, the concept of family is a symbolic one. She refers to the family as a defensive fort, wherein the family members are ìsymbolsî with different roles. They can enter and leave, without obligations to the family, considering they are merely "a group of strangers." Most of Yoshimoto's protagonists often feel alienated from their
biological families because they discern no necessary link between the obvious fact that
they are derived from their parents and their original families. In Kitchen, the main
character, Mikage, reflects upon her present dislocation of her past family:

"When my grandmother died the other day, I was taken by surprise. My family had steadily decreased one by one when it suddenly dawned on me alone, everything before my eyes seemed false. The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science fiction..."


Mikage's reaction to losing her entire biological family is relatively calm. Words such as "surprised," "amazed" and "science fiction" used to describe her feelings of losing her kin, are exceptionally different in comparison to those who would express extreme grief towards the loss of their deeply loved ones. However, despite a weaker
sense of belonging to her original family, Mikage does yearn for a family life. This can be proved by her confession of love for a kitchen.


In the opening of the novel, Mikage describes the kitchen as her most favorite place:

"The place I like best in this world is kitchen. No matter where it is, no matterwhat kind, if it's kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me."


The kitchen is the place where meals are prepared and served to all family members. Without the function of a kitchen, a home will eventually be a resting place like a hotel room. Thus the kitchen represents a happy family life and a strong bond of its members in Yoshimoto's accounts. When Mikage says she likes all kitchens ìno matter where it is and no matter what kindî it implies that she welcomes a real family life regardless of its
form and family members.

Critic John Treat says in his article that in Japan, a hectic modern life makes the kitchen the modern consumerís nostalgic dream. In the first part of the story, Mikage's kitchen is indeed a place that can only be imaginary. She wanted a family yet did not
have a concrete idea of what kind of family she actually wanted. Mikage was left in absolute despair when she lost her grandmother, the only kin she had. However, her pain of losing her current family was no more severe than the loneliness and emptiness she felt.


The fear of loneliness and disconnection with the rest of the world made her long nostalgically for a family. She said, "I was seized with nostalgia, a nostalgia so sharp it was painful." There was her desire to return to a simple, nostalgic life, even though she was not really clear of what it should be. As John Treat points out, "Yoshimoto's characters" yearning for a family that never existed, such nostalgia would seem to prove that it is indeed a desire without object. It was only after the Tanabes adopted Mikage did she begin to have a concrete idea what a family meant to her. Eventually, she learnt to reconcile her dream with reality and finally found herself a real kitchen and true happiness in life.


Victorians called the family "the place of peace; the shelter, not from all injury, but from all terror, doubt and division." The Tanabe's kitchen exactly fulfills this connotation. It provides Mikage a peaceful shelter where she could grow up as a mature woman. It is also a nostalgic fantasy for Mikage that eventually helps her heal from her wounds. From the Tanabe's kitchen, Mikage starts her first step towards her recovery.

As compared to Like Water for Chocolate, a Latin American fantasy story which also relates kitchen and food recipes with grief relieving, the healing process in Kitchen relies more on family functions and new relationships that the protagonist (Mikage) finds after the tragedy (losing her grandmother). In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita, the heroine of the story had to give up her lover
to her sister, and forcefully prepare the wedding cake for them. Her tears fell into the
mixture of flour, and the resultant was extreme sadness for those who ate the cake. All
her recipes seemed to possess strong magical power in alleviating her affliction. The
genre of Latin American fantasy is more surreal than Yoshimoto's fantasy fiction.

In elaboration, one can identify its fictional nature when reading Like Water for Chocolate they
will know it's a fantasy story. On the other hand, Yoshimoto's story blurs the boundaries between reality and the fantasies. When Mikage and Yuichi felt hungry at the very same time, readers may think that it is just coincidental, rather a surrealistic occurrence. Mikage's remedy is closer to our daily life even though it may be a little
transcendental.

She finds herself in a "strange" apartment, with its suspicious inhabitants, namely, Yuichi and his transsexual father-Eriko. Yuichi introduces everything about Eriko to Mikage in a very casual manner and Mikage also accepts it calmly as if it is nothing unusual. Three of them then form a rather unconventional family, without blood ties (with Mikage) but live happily. The kitchen in the Tanabe household provides Mikage with a golden opportunity to re-build herself. Actually the image of the kitchen is a synonym for the family, the mark of a nostalgic desire for what orphan Mikage never had. In other words, Mikage was presented with the opportunity to recreate (rebuild) herself without the constraints of a traditional family.
Kitchen depicts a changing family structure: no longer "natural" but nonetheless "happy and normal", which means they function just as ordinary families do. Writer Fujimoto notes, "There are an increasing number of such families, in which unlike the traditional family, there are absolutely no kinship relations." Although Kitchen depicts
a non-traditional family structure, it does expose a "classical human problem": the status and function of the home in this new era of "global cultural process." Kitchen presents the solution in which families should be substantial, not functional in the mere site of human reproduction. In fact, as John Treat argues that "the only thing 'produced' in the Tanabe apartment is Mikage's meals - any other kind of reproduction is patently impossible." However the non-reproductive mother (or father)-son and sibling-like (between Mikage and Yuichi) relationship is just an ideal structure for shojo (adolescent girl) Mikage's growing up process and healing.


At the beginning of the story, Mikage, a college student, is defined as a typical shojo by John Treat as, "a complete consumer who is not involved in reproductive sexual and capitalist economy." Through the pain of losing her grandmother and the reforming of her newfound family, she matures both physically and mentally. Not only does she get a job as an assistant cook in a cooking school, she also develops an intimate relationship with Yuichi. They later become lovers and their relationship helps both of them in overcoming the death of their loved ones. The whole summer that Mikage spends with the Tanabes is a crucial period in
Mikage's healing process. She spends all her part-time earnings for cooking. "Angry, fretful, or cheery, I cooked through it all." She is obviously happy to do that, because she has two other members who appreciate her effort. "I lived like a housewife." Her joy is genuine when she watches them enjoy her food. "I cooked for them: she (Eriko) who made a fuss over everything I did; he (Yuichi) who ate vast quantities in silence."
The sight of seeing members gather around a family table and having their meals together
is a harmonious family picture that many people (even from biological families) could only dream of. In today's hectic life, more meals are prepared in the microwave. That makes Mikage's cooking more heartfelt, implying that Mikage has truly integrated into her new family.


Even before Mikage leaves the Tanabes, she already developed intense attachment towards the newfound home. "Some day, I wondered, will I be living somewhere else and look back nostalgically on my time here? Or will I return to this
same kitchen someday?" A strong sense of belonging is revealed. This sense of belonging
never cuts off even after Eriko dies. Upon hearing Eriko's death, Mikage immediately turns herself into a comforter for her family (Yuichi). When Mikage orders katsudon and delivers it to Isehara where Yuichi stays, she binds Yuichi and herself in the "fort" that Yoshimoto calls a family. The healing is achieved when the family provides Mikage the energy for her transformation from a sufferer (of her own loss) to a comforter (to another lonely soul). "In the final pages of Kitchen, Mikage effectively turns the entire Izu peninsula into a kitchen as she races across with her hot dinner-to-go for lover/brother Yuichi" Yuichi asks Mikage,"Why is it that everything I eat when I'm with you is so delicious?" Mikage responded. "Could it be that you're satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?" "No way, no way" Yuichi said,"It must be because we're family."

This conversation between Mikage and Yuichi confirms that even in the absence of Eriko, two
of them now connect on the family level.


The ideal family in Yoshimoto's writing is never genetically based, but is instead a willed construct. As critic Fujimoto notes,"There are only unconventional, abnormal families (in Yoshimoto's writing), but within those families there most certainly exists an individual will and liability in having made those choices." I believe in Kitchen, Eriko is the key character in choosing the "unconventional" lifestyle. Not only did he undergo a transsexual operation but also chooses to live as a woman. This is an unimaginable way for a father to bring up a child, especially when his open communication with his children, contradicts the traditional image of a Japanese parent.

Compared to Mikage, Yuichi’s growing up experiences are unusual ones. Yuichi’s mother died when he was very young, and his father went into a depression over his mother’s death. He vowed never to love another woman, and thus decided to go for a sex change operation to become a woman. By doing this he believed that he could
perform his responsibility well as both a mother and father. He changed his name to a typical female one, Eriko. Eriko is one of the most attractive characters in the novel Kitchen, and her philosophy of life does a great deal to outline Yoshimoto’s thoughts on femininity. Her motivation for becoming a woman was the death of Yuichi’s mother; when Eriko (she was then called Yuji) lost his beloved wife to cancer, he was tormented by the restriction to cry openly. “He took his desire to become a woman – and thus was
allowed to express a greater range of emotion.”
Eriko raises Yuichi in such a way that “allows his (Yuichi’s) true self to emerge.


The son (Yuichi) inherits the qualities of gentleness and self-awareness that were hardearned by his father (Eriko).” Although it is mentioned by R. W. Connell that “hegemonic masculinity” still prevails as an ideology in the Japanese societal landscape, in the private sphere however, women control the household and have more power over family expenses and children’s education. They play a more important role in passing down traditions, social values, and moral codes to their children. The reason Eriko wants to bring up Yuichi in the role of a mother instead of a father, is thus worthy of our attention and further elaboration. Through the character Eriko, Yoshimoto expresses her views on femininity and refusal to conform to gender expectations.


Although this is a very exceptional case and only happens in fiction, the concept in the
story is supposed to be relative to the social environment in the late 80s as it was
widely read and enjoyed by a large segment of readers in the late 80s and early 90s. Eriko
intended to foster Yuichi as a gentle and considerable man with a caring personality.
Yuichi cooks and does housework. He is a sensible boy and always allows his true feelings to be expressed openly. This is quite unlike typical Japanese men (even nowadays), who refrain themselves from domestic involvement, and shield their inner most feelings, with little or no outward expression. Yuichi’s character accurately reflects
Nin’s androgynous ideal that consists of “being an organic whole as a human being, large enough to encompass being a ‘man’ in some areas and a ‘woman’ in others.”


In Kitchen, Yoshimoto intimately describes two young people who forge a twinship similar to that which Anaïs Nin had outlined. Yamamoto Toyoko commented, “Yoshimoto depicts Yuichi as an androgynous figure. He is comfortable weeping in front of Mikage, and provides quiet sympathy for her suffering and so does not conform to
traditional ideas of masculinity.” Mikage also notes his gentleness, which stems from his self-awareness and sensitivity. Although such a trait is interpreted by the masculine society at large as a sign of weakness, Mikage evaluates it positively from her own perspective. Kitchen’s androgynous twins are exquisitely aware of ambiguity and pain.
They suffer a great deal (for the death of their beloved ones), but soon move through their
difficulties and confront life again. For them, “suffering is a forge that furthers their individual quality of strength, gentleness and humour.” Both Mikage and Yuichi find their positions in society, and also confirm their relationship after braving through the obstacles.


Another notable fact is Yuichi’s readiness to accept Eriko as his mother. The way he introduces Eriko to Mikage shows that he actually adores his “mother’s” femininity. Mikage also notices this and she uses many words to portray Eriko’s charm. Mikage is very much attracted to her when they first met. She regards Eriko as the most beautiful
woman she has ever known. “She (Eriko) had long silky hair, deep sparkling eyes, wellformed
lips, and a high, straight nose.” Her beauty was so breath-taking that Mikage could not get her eyes of Eriko. Mikage’s final evaluation was, “She did not look human.” The next morning, when Eriko was preparing breakfast in the kitchen in the background of warm morning light, her greeting to Mikage with a cheerful smile made her seem even more goddess-like. Eriko’s kind, peaceful image and voice have a magical power in warming up Mikage’s heart, and she feels really welcomed and accepted by the new family. The feminine power and charm Eriko possesses attracts Mikage. It evokes a nostalgic sentiment of her lost home, and it becomes a remedy in aiding Mikage’s recovery.

***

Most of Yoshimoto's books seem to be deceptively simple-sounding yet profoundly resonant. She brings up a lot of issues about living in today's world, with all of its loneliness, loss and moral ambiguities. Her books speak about confusion and desperation and recovery. The common thread of healing runs throughout each of her tales that somehow the protagonists manage to celebrate life.