J314 On Yoshimoto Banana’s Place in Japanese Literature

Where does Yoshimoto Banana fit in to modern Japanese literature? She is an extremely popular writer but she is said to appeal to the youth, especially female, who read and enjoy shojo or "young girl" manga, or comic books. Manga appear in thick weekly or monthly editions and are widely read by all segments of society. If Yoshimoto Banana does not write with the same intensity about problems of a deeply personal or even of a social or political nature as does an Enchi Fumiko, Natsume Soseki, or Oe Kenzaburo, she clearly does engage the reader with her storytelling.

There is something very moving and very sincere about her narratives. Although sadness may permeate her story lines, somehow we as readers are left feeling tinged with sadness but not immersed in it as we might be after reading Oe, Soseki or Enchi. However, we may legitimately wonder to what end is Yoshimoto constructing her narratives? Have we just been passing the time with her dreams? Many critics believe that she is putting in narrative form some of the ingredients we find in the stories published in comic books aimed at young women. Is this all there is to it or is there something more?

Her father, Yoshimoto Takaaki (or Ryuumei), was a famous critic—an intellectual to be reckoned with who probed what the postwar experience meant to Japanese. His daughter became a writer while still very young, but a very different sort of writer from her father whose critical essays are deemed to be the epitome of "serious" literature. Banana's works are atmospheric, dreamlike and, as suggested above, seem to share a great deal in common with the shojo (young girl) manga, or comics targeted to young female readers between middle-school and their early thirties. Some of the covers look like this:


Or, like this:


Or, the ever popular "Inu-yasha" or Dog Demon series:

One of the earliest shojo manga may have been Sailor Moon featuring a 14 year old, clumsy, crybaby girlwho, thanks to a black cat Luna and a special brooch,

can transform herself into a fighting, sailor-outfittedgirl, who can further be transformed into a "Super Sailor Moon" version .

Some of the shojo manga are mildly erotic such as Utatane Hiroyuki's Yuuwaku (Temptation):

or Ueda Rinko's "Pump Up":

Others are more in the fantasy or sci-fi genre, like the Matendou Sonata:

A story about Filla, a demon-in-training,who meets the angel-in-training Michael at school and is immediately fascinated by him. When they grow up, they become partners who work together to guide the souls of the dead to Heaven. "Matendou Sonata" is a 20-volume shojo manga by Amagi Sayuri that ran in Princess magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ogura Chikako mentions three characteristics of shojo:

1) because shojo are not adults, they can perceive things that those in control of the society cannot;

2) because they are not young men, they can see things that those who will one day rule society cannot see; and

3) because they are no longer children, they are fully aware of who controls Japan.

(Mitsui and Washida, pp. 69-70; quoted in Ann Sherif, "Japanese without Apology: Yoshimoto Banana and Healing," Oe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan Edited by Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel, University of Hawai'i Press, 1999, p. 282)

For more on shojo manga see "Emily's Random Shoujo Manga Page" where Emily summarizes the story lines of no less than 80-some manga!! Or, see the "S-cafe" site and Zahara's faves as well. Believe me, this just scratches the surface of what is out there on the web when you search under "shoujo manga," where we include the "u" in the spelling because the "o" is a long vowel sound in the Japanese word for "girl."


Commentary from Loftus and others:

Now, I cannot claim to know very much about any of these manga, but these "young girl manga" are evidently very widely read and seriously studied as well. Many would argue that popular culture is well-worth studying and in Japan, there are few things which exceed manga in popularity. See Matt Thorn's very detailed webpage at http://matt-thorn.com/. He has posted many articles there including one where he notes:

In order to make some sense of shojo manga, it is necessary to first frame them within the larger context of manga in general and Japanese society as a whole; in the U.S. there is no counterpart whatsoever to this medium...In the U.S., comic books are stories of the super-powered brawling of muscular men in tights, and are read mostly by young boys and a small but dedicated following of adult men. Only a handful of women and girls read comic books, and a cursory examination of a representative sample of comic books reveals why this is the case: American comics are decidedly masculinist, despite the efforts of some artists and publishers to bring "women's lib" into the world of the X-Men (who are not all men), Batman, and all the other Something-Or-Another-Men. The fundamental premise of the American comic book--superheroes foiling the evil plans of supervillains by means of physical force--is hardly conducive to feminist revision, or even feminine revision.

Contrast this with Japan, where one-third of all publications are some form of manga; where the best selling manga magazine--which is far and away the best selling magazine of any kind in Japan--claims a circulation of over six million; where about a third of Japanese in their thirties, half of those in their twenties, and nearly seventy percent of those between sixteen and nineteen years of age say they like manga; where about forty percent of all Japanese sixteen or older read manga regularly; and where subject matter runs the gamut from history and science fiction to gourmet cooking and golf.

...What distinguishes shoujo manga from the popular shounen, or "boys'," genre of manga, is an emphasis on relationships over action. Even shoujo manga that take the form of science fiction, fantasy or historical pieces are primarily concerned with the complexities of interpersonal relations, romantic and otherwise.

Yoshimoto Banana herself is not writing, or drawing manga, of course. But somehow, her world echoes the atmosphere and/or the values of the shojo world. These values include such things as "cuteness, innocence, naivete, nostalgia, consumerism" (Sherif, p. 283). Relationships certainly come into play such as in "Moonlight Shadow," but Yoshimoto's families are hardly ever ordinary families. Her novel Kitchen brings together some interesting and unique characters in a family-like relationship, yet it is unlike the family that most of us experience. In fact, her families are, as Ueno Chizuko notes, "non-biological psuedo-families created by a young girl otherwise parentless." (quoted in Treat, p. 288) As John Treat notes in his essay excerpted below, Yoshimoto's fiction should be viewed as n "opportunity for studying how an emerging sub-genre of fiction postively affords readers the power to imagine themselves and their place as other than the constraints of everyday life might otherwise dictate."(Treat, 285)

Kitchen was first published in 1987 in the literary magazine Kaien and won that journal’s annual literary prize. The following is an excerpt from John W.Treat’s essay, "Yoshimoto Banana Writes Home: The Shojo in Japanese Popular Culture," in the book, Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture edited by John Whittier Treat (University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), pp. 275-308:

One of the judges for the Kaien prize, senior novelist and critic Nakamura Shin’ichiro, said of Kitchen that

This is a work written on a theme, and with a sensibility, that the older generation of which I am a part could not have imagined. It is the product of an abandon completely indifferent to literary traditions. Its naïve rejection of the very question of whether it does or does not conform to conventional concepts is precisely what makes it strike me as a new sort of literature. (Mitsui and Washida 1989: 143)

Nakamura, while guarded in his praise, is nonetheless generous in thinking of Banana’s writing as ‘literature’, in Japanese more than English a high-cultural appellation. Others have wondered. She has been labeled the cutting edge of the new Japanese ‘minimalism’, ultimate in the sense that she is the perfect pop-cultural disposable (tsukaisute) author, like the manga comic books with which she is legitimately compared. The ‘rejection’ to which Nakamura refers includes the entire high-cultural pantheon: Banana’s debts, she tells us are to horror-novelist Stephen King and manga writer Iwadate Mariko.…

Critics, however, often view Banana and her success as final confirmation of a fundamental shift in how one is to understand ‘culture’ in Japan since the early 1970s, particularly ‘literary culture’. Nakamura’s bewildered and back-handed praise is one register of how Banana represents what older generations of writers have dreaded: the victory of the popular, which is to imply non-oppositional, culture over the critical potential long (if anxiously) associated with junbungaku, or ‘pure literature’. Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo, a prominent critic on the left for intellectual literature committed to social change, has bemoaned nearly two decades or irrelevancy of serious fiction for reading audiences in contemporary Japan. In the widely reprinted essay ‘A Novelists Lament’ that appeared on the eve of Banana’s debut, Oe complained that ‘Japanese intellectuals, including students at the major metropolitan universities, no longer look to serious literary writing for new models of the future’. What Oe means when he uses words such as ‘serious’ and ‘models’ are the discourses of his own New Left generation raised on Sartre, Mao and James Dean and committed to the romance of the artist as high-brow disaffected rebel. Banana and a host of other young writers today such as Tawara Machi, Murakami Haruki and Takahashi Gen’ichiro comprise in the words of pop musician Namba Hiroyuki the ‘pure literature of the manga generation’ in a reference to the comics that fairly dominate the print side of Japanese popular culture today and which raise the ire of many critics.

…Narratives spun out of speeding sound-bites, this postmodern textuality that Banana was both raised within and now reproduces in her own work cannot be countenanced as fully literary in the view of critics nostalgic for the times when writers believed themselves engaged in the work of a critical introspection that prepares consciousness for the prospect of social change. Banana’s stories, given their idiomatic kinship with billboards, television commercials, pop songs and fashion magazines, appear to those critics as unconditional capitulation to the forces of commercialization so often cited as the nefarious agent behind the production of popular culture, a charge familiar in the west since Theodor Adorno’s famous essay on the depressing predictability of Tin Pan Alley’s music.

The apparent victory of popular culture emblemized by Banana’s success, and with its unsettling postmodernist traits, have produced apprehensive fears among those intellectuals convinced of modernist high culture’s unique stake in issues of human freedom and individual worth. But Banana has clearly generated an enthusiastic response among readers who heretofore lacked a body of fiction with which to empathize, and those readers are not solely adolescent women. One of her critics—both male and nearly middle-aged—has written of his and his wife’s startling, exciting experience of identification with the vacuous (‘nani mo nai’) sense of life represented in Banana’s books. Her fans are reportedly attracted to her works because they are ‘easy to understand’, written in a style both colloquial and ‘real’.( 277-79)

In Kitchen, for example, Mikage reflects upon the present moment and its radical dislocation from the past:

Sometimes I realize that I used to have a family, a real family, but over time it grew smaller and smaller, until now I'm the only one left. When I think of my life in those terms, everything seems unreal. Time has passed, as it always does, in these rooms where I've grown up, but everyone else is gone. What a shock.

It's just like science fiction. This vast, dark universe.

One might speculate that Banana's characters choose to assimilate their experience in terms of popular culture (e.g., 'science fiction') because their pasts are only available in the form of its artifacts. Unlike previous eras, when often only our iconography was taken from the every-day and transported into the legitimated higher cultures we thought our authentic home, we and Banana can now be said to live in the popular. (288)

. . .In an essay pointedly entitled 'Family' (Famirii) she reflects:

Usually the world is a terribly difficult place to be, and lots of times we end up living our lives apart from each other. That's why the family is a fort built for us to flee into. Inside that fort both men and women become symbols, and there protect the home. I like that fact. I really think it's necessary, even when it's hard.

This defensive concept of family, a response to the stresses of a modern life that demands the participation of each person in differentiated, specializded and scattered tasks, is one in which both genders become 'symbols', which presumably means we act out roles (such as 'mother' and 'father') that are certainly useful and expedient in 'protecting the home', but are not by any means necessarily determined or inevitable for 'men and women'. (292)

…It is not unusual to hear popular culture today identified with a kind of macro-nostalgia in which there is no space we authentically occupy, and so that culture tries to fill the gap by manufacturing images of both home and rootlessness. (Banana’s works are an obvious example, but so is Little House on the Prairie.) Yet as Banana’s remarks on the modern family would seem to imply, the attempt can fail due to its sheer eclecticism, for if we can so easily invent and re-invent our cultural representations of ‘home’, then in fact we have effectively eliminated the need for the institution in the first place. Perhaps family values, in Japan as well as the United States, become a national issue only once they are irretrievable. (305)

Is the search for these family values, then, a search for such things as warmth, support, love and comfort? The spaces tht Yoshimoto's characters inhabit are often described in terms of their comfort; we read how inviting is the large sofa in the Tanabe's apartment. And the kitchen. The kitchen is where Mikage becomes passionate about cooking and it is food--the product of her endeavors--that provides warmth and comfort to her characters. All kinds of foods, of course.As Mikage says, "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)

She cooks for Yuichi that "international hodge-podge" consisting of tofu, greens, sweet-and-sour pork, Chicken Kiev, potstickers, salad, stew, wine (see p. 62), and they create a warm, safe palce for the two of them to inhabit. But after the eat, and Yuichi falls asleep (he consumed a lot of alocohol), Mikage finds herslef washing the dishes and crying. She cries, and cries. "I was crying for having been left behind in the night, paralyzed with loneliness." (67) Once again, loneliness rears its head. When she was talking about learning how to cook and the joy that it brought her, she tells us that she was different from the other women in her cooking class, probably older housewives. Why? 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." (59) So, apparently you have to start there, with the way things are; the human condition. Loneliness is a part of it. Kitchen at times seems to be about those moments when we might feel less alone, more connected to another human being, and warmer and happier becausde of it. Mikage can confirm that "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)Yet there are enar misses, aren't there?

Near at the novel's end, 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) Might they 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"? (179) Mikage wants to avert such an impasse so she travels a geat distance to bring Yuchi a take-out order of "katsudon" or pork cutlet (tonkatsu) served "donburi style" or in a large bowl on top of rice accompanies by an egg and some grilled onions with. It looks like this.

And it is a very nice comfort food. As Mikage reflects when she hands Yuichi the katsudon:

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)

And later she says:

"I came here from Izu by taxi. You see, Yuichi, how much I don't want to lose you..." (101)

Somehow, through food and her journey, she expresses her love. She reaches out to Yuichi, perhaps to save him from himself, from giving up.

Later, a s she walks along the Izu seacoast in the dark, she waxes philosophical:

The endless sea was shrouded in darkness. I could see the shadowy forms of gigantic, rugged crags against which the waves were crashing. While watching them, I felt a strange, sweet sadness. In the biting air I told myself, there will be so much pleasure, so much suffering. With or without Yuichi. (104)

This is the type of language, and these are the kinds of moments that Yoshimoto strings together in her prose that helps us feel whatever it is that we are going to feel when we read one of her works. It seems as though Mikage has learned and grown in this story. She has acted, she has done what she could and she knows it. "I had done all I could." But nothing is really certain; the future may contain pleasure or suffering. Or both. Whatever comes, Mikage seems to have her fallback position, her memories, those memories that "live on, shining...[and can] come back to life." That is nice. Sweet. But are memories enough to sustain un? Is there hope for the future at the end of Kitchen? How did you feel when you finished reading it?

See http://pages.cs.wisc.edu/~caitlin/papers/kitchen.html for an interesting student essay on Kitchen that explores how some key passages sound in the original Japanese, what she calls "the cinematic, vivid quality" of the original.

The article is also copied below:


Kitchen: "Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart."

by Caitlin Howell, 1996

In this paper, I would like to discuss the novel Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. In preparation for this paper, I read Kitchen in English and reread parts of it in Japanese. I would like to discuss major themes and characteristics of Kitchen and how my perceptions of the novel changed when I read it in Japanese and in English.

The overriding theme of Kitchen is an extremely important one: the idea that we should experience both the painful and enjoyable aspects of life. Kitchen is divided into two stories about people coping with the deaths of loved ones, "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow." By dealing with death and loss, the characters are able to appreciate the sacredness of life.

Because this theme and correlating ideas are related to us through the thoughts of a main female character in both stories, I suspect that Yoshimoto uses characters like these to express her own philosophy. Or perhaps, because I agree so strongly with this philosophy, I want to believe that Yoshimoto takes it as seriously as I do.

The tone of "magic realism" that this novel takes is one that I had neither seen nor expected to see in a Japanese novel. I am more accustomed to seeing this sort of plot treatment from some of my favorite American novelists, like Tom Robbins and John Irving. The juxtaposition of miraculous events with daily life in Kitchen and similar novels reveals a view of life that is more existential than fatalistic. That is, they stress the the unpredictability of life over the destiny of the characters. Until Kitchen, many of the Japanese novels we had read were rather unrealistic because they were neat, episodic, and the characters were shallow stereotypes. This is the first Japanese novel we've read that has characters that realize that the world does not exist for their benefit. (E 81) ("Sekai wa betsu ni watashi no tame ni aru wake ja nai." J 124)

The episodes that contribute to the novel's existential impression never seem entirely impossible, just unexpected. In part one of "Kitchen," Yuichi, a mere acquaintance of Mikage's until her grandmother's funeral, knocks on her door and offers to let her stay with him and Eriko.(E 6) Later, Yuichi and Mikage share the same dream.(E 39) In part two of "Kitchen," we learn that Eriko beats her murderer to death with a barbell minutes before she dies.(E 44-45) Before "Kitchen" ends, Mikage happens upon a famous katsudon shop late at night, and takes a meal by taxi to Yuichi and climbs the outside of the hotel to his window to give it to him.(E 95-102) These unexpected events continue to pop up in the second part of the novel. In "Moonlight Shadow," Urara "appears" behind Satsuki on the bridge where she is resting.(E 115) Later in the story, Urara seems to discover Satsuki's phone number by magic. "I just say to myself, 'I must get this phone number,' and it just naturally comes to me."(E 126) In the climactic scene of "Moonlight Shadow," Satsuki sees the ghost of her deceased boyfriend, Hitoshi, as she stands on the bridge with Urara.(E 145)

The translation we read in class, by Megan Backus, was overall a very good translation. However, certain things did not come through in the English version as well as they did in the original Japanese. For example, there is no easy way to translate the formalities of Japanese speech into English, and the Japanese way of speaking says a lot about the relationship between the people holding the conversation. When Mikage first meets Eriko, Eriko speaks to Mikage informally, and Mikage speaks to Eriko entirely in the formal "desu/masu" form. This gives us a clue about Eriko's open, friendly character, and indicates that Mikage feels slightly awkward and intimidated by Yuichi's beautiful mother.(J 17-18) Later in the novel, in the conversation beginning "It's not easy being a woman"(E 41) ("Onna ni naru no mo taihen yo ne." J 65) Mikage and Eriko both speak to each other informally, indicating that they've grown closer, and have a relationship more like family members.

In Japanese, Yoshimoto's descriptive passages read almost like poetry. These passages, too, are well translated, but some of the rhythm and onomatopoeia are lost. Because this description does not do a comparison of the two versions justice, I have included the following passages to illustrate the cinematic, vivid quality of the original Japanese.

It was raining that hazy spring night. A gentle warm rain enveloped the neighborhood as I walked with directions in hand.

My apartment building and the one where the Tanabes lived were separated by Chuo Park. As I crossed through, I was inundated with the green smell of the night. I walked, sloshing down the shiny wet path that glittered with the colors of the rainbow. (E 8)

Yoru wa ame datta. Shitoshitoto, attakai ame ga machi wo tsutsumu kemutta haru no yoru wo chizu wo motte aruiteitta.

Tanabeka no arusono manshon wa uchikara choudo chuuoukouen wo hasanda hantaigawa ni atta. Kouen wo nukete iku to, yoru no midori no nioide musekaeru youdatta. Nurete hikaru kouji ga nijiiro ji utsuru naka wo pashapasha aruite itta. (J 12)

Just then, with the scratch of a key in the door, an incredibly beautiful woman came running in, all out of breath...

"How do you do," she said in a slightly husky voice, still panting, with a smile. "I'm Yuichi's mother. My name is Eriko."

This was his mother? Dumbfounded, I couldn't take my eyes off her. Hair that rustled like silk to her shoulders; the deep sparkle of her long, narrow eyes; well-formed lips, a nose with a high, straight bridge-- the whole of her gave off a marvelous light that seemed to vibrate with life force. She didn't look human.(E 11)

Soshite, doa ga gachagacha to aite, monosugoi bijin ga ikisekikitte hashirikonde kita no wa, sono toki datta...

Kanojo wa haahaa iki wo tsukinagara sukoshi kasureta koe de, "Hajimemashite," to waratta. "Yuichi no haha desu. Eriko to moushimasu."

Kore ga haha? Toku odoroki ijou ni watashi wa me ga hanasenakatta. Katamade no sarasara no kami, kirenagano hitomi no fukai kagayaki , katachi no yoi kuchibiru, sutto takai hana suji-soshite, sono zentai kara ka mo shi desareru seimeiryoku no yuremitaina azayakana hikari-ningen ja nai mitai datta. (J 17)

I just had to go back for one more look at the kitchen. It was a really good kitchen.

Then I stumbled over to the sofa that was to be my bed for the night and turned out the lamp. Suspended in the dim light before the window overlooking the magnificent tenth floor view, the plants breathed softly, resting. By now the rain had stopped, and the atmosphere, sparking, replete with moisture, refracted the night splendidly.(E 16)

Petapeta to hadashi de daitokoro wo mou ikkai miniiku. Yahari, yoi daitokoro datta.

Soshite, koyoui watashi no nedoko to natta sono sofaa ni tadoritsukuto, Denki wo keshita.

Madobede kasukano akari ni ukabu shokubutsutachi ga 10 F kara no gouka na yakei ni fuchidorarete sotto ikidzuite ita. Yakei-mou, ame ga agatte shikke wo fukunda toumeina daiki ni kirakira kagayaite, sore wa migoto ni utsutte ita. (J 25)

The moon and light are used as symbols of magic, or life's miraculous forces, throughout the novel. In an early scene on a bus on the way to the Tanabes' house, Mikage's "eye came to rest on the still-new moon making its way across the sky."(E 33) Then, she sees a dirigible "like a pale moonbeam"(E 33)("tsukikage no youni" J 52) and is moved by a related conversation between a spoiled child and her patient grandmother. When she gets off the bus, she bursts into tears and weeps cathartically for the first time since her own grandmother's death. Afterwards, she is "puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful."(E 35) ("Watashi wa doushiyou mo naku kuraku, soshite akarui kimochi ni natte shimatte kao wo kakaete sukoshi waratta." J 55)

This quote is an example of how Yoshimoto uses light and dark to represent magic, ecstatic feeling, and despair, respectively, throughout the novel. This particular example doesn't come through completely in the translation. The word used instead of "wonderful" in the original, "akarui," usually means bright.

A few pages later, a less realistic example of life's magic occurs: Mikage and Yuichi share the same dream. In the dream, they sing a song which makes a reference to the moonlight.

To avoid disturbing the
Moonlight shadows
I brought my boat to rest
At the tip of the cape

A lighthouse in the distance
To the two of us in the night
The spinning light looks like
Sunshine through the branches of trees (E 37-38)
Getsumei kari no kage
Kowasanu youni
Misaki no hazureni
Bouto wo tometa

Tooku no toudai
Mawaru hikari ga
Futari no yoru ni wa
Komorebi mitai (J 59-60)

This must have been difficult to translate. Because Japanese verse usually depends on syllabic structure rather than a rhyme scheme, like most English poetry and popular music, it comes across as a little awkward.

A word that doesn't exist in English, like "komorebi" becomes the unwieldy phrase "sunlight through the branches of trees." Not only is this awkward, but we lose the magical effect of experiencing an entire mental image in one word.

It is also a bit misleading that "getsumeikari no kage" was translated as "moonlight shadow," because although the title of the second section of the book is also translated as "Moonlight Shadow," in Japanese it appears as "Muunraighto Shadou" (in katakana.) We are not sure whether Yoshimoto wanted us to make the same connection that the translator did. If she did, she wanted to give us a clue, not beat us over the head with it.

The moon appears again after Eriko is killed in part two of "Kitchen." This section of "Kitchen" is called "Full Moon." ("Mangetsu") Reflecting upon Eriko's death, Mikage shares the theme of Kitchen.

No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. This is what makes the life I have now possible.

Inching one's way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief. Just when one can't take any more, one sees the moonlight. Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that. (E 59-60)

Doushitemo, jibun ga itsuka shinu to iu koto wo kanjidzutsukiteitai. Denaito ikiteiru ki ga shinai. Dakara, konna jinsei ni natta.

Yami no naka, kiritatta gakeppuchi wo jirijiri aruiki, kokudou ni detehotto iki wo tsuku. Mou takusan da to omoinagara miageru getsumei kari no, kokoro ni shimiiru youna utsukushsa wo watashi ga shitte iru.(J 91)

Mikage experiences these thoughts while waiting for Yuichi to return with food so that she can make dinner. When he returns, Yuichi comments that such a beautiful moon must influence her cooking, (E 61, J 93) and Mikage is startled. The fact that this startles her indicates that the moon means something more than just the moon to her, otherwise his comment could have been easily attributed to coincidence. From the passage, we gather that the moon is a symbol for the nearly magical, happy moments in life that make it worth living.

Mikage notices the moon again, by this time completely full, as sets off to deliver katsudon to Yuichi. "The moon shown down from high above, crossing the sky, erasing the stars in its path. It was full." (E 94) Instinctively, she knows which window in the hotel belongs to him, and she climbs to him. She tells Yuichi how important he is to her, and as "Kitchen" ends, it seems likely that they will be together for a long time.

In "Moonlight Shadow," the main character, Satsuki, pauses on the bridge to rest and watch the river. She notices a half moon hanging in the sky. (E 114) Then, Urara suddenly appears behind her. She startles Satsuki by asking for a sip of tea, and Satsuki drops her thermos into the river. We see the moon again when they meet on the bridge to see the miracle which only occurs every hundred years, right before Satsuki sees Hitoshi's ghost.(E 144)

Light also symbolizes a certain kind of character in Kitchen.
Truly great people emit a light that warms the hearts of those around them. When that light has been put out, a heavy shadow of despair descends. Perhaps Eriko's was only a minor kind of greatness, but her light was sorely missed.(E 54) Ijinna jinbutsu wa iru dake de hikari wo hanachi, mawari no hito no kokoro wo terasu. Soshite, kieta toki ni dou shiyou mo naku omoi kage wo otosu. Sasayakana ijin sadatta ka mo shirenai keredo, Erikosan wa koko ni ite, soshite inaku natta.(J 86)

There are a few wonderful people in the novel that make the lives of those who are suffering more bearable. Eriko and Yuichi help Mikage when she needs them, and she says "Even though they didn't look alike, there were certain traits that they shared. Their faces shone like Buddhas when they smiled."(E 15) ("Sore ni nite inai kono oyako ni wa kyoutsuuten ga atta. Waratta kao ga shinbutsu mitai ni kagayaku no da." J 23) Urara plays a similar role in "Moonlight Shadow." She helps Satsuki resolve her suffering by showing her where she can have a vision of Hitoshi. Satsuki gives a Buddha-like description of her, as well: "Her eyes were too knowing and serene; the expression on her face hinted that she had tasted deeply of the sorrows and joys of this world."(E 115) ("Amari ni mo kanojo wa chiteki de saeta hitomi wo shiteite, marude kono sei no kanashimi mo yorokobi mo suebete nomikonda ato no you na fukaifukai hyoujyou wo motte ita." J 172) These characters are also associated with the appearance of light and the moon in Kitchen.

These "Buddha-like" characters express the message that loss, pain, and suffering are an important part of life. Eriko says, "...if a person hasn't ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is. I'm grateful for it."(E 41) ("Maane, demo jinsei wa hontou ni ippen zetsubou shinai to, sokode hontou ni suterannai no wa jibun no dokonanoka wo wakannai to, hontou ni tanoshii koto ga nanika wakannai uchini ookkikku nacchau to omou no. Atashi wa, yokatta wa." J 66)

Kitchen is an extremely enjoyable novel, and by reading parts of it in Japanese, I think I gained a clearer perception of the writer's skill and the relationships between the characters. Kitchen has interesting characters, as well as a strong underlying philosophy, which forces the reader to think long after she has finished the story. I intend to recommend this book to my friends, and I look forward to reading more of Yoshimoto's work in the future.


Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchen. Translated by Megan Backus. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. (E = English Version)

Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchin. Tokyo, 1991. (J = Japanese version)