Friday 5 October 2012

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

'Kitchen' is Banana Yoshimoto's first novel and was first published in 1987 in Japan, before later being translated into English. 

The book is actually comprised of two separate stories, 'Kitchen', and a novella titled 'Moonlight Shadow' and while both stories feature different characters, they both explore similar themes of loss and grief in a startingly original way. I have to say straight off that I loved this book. It was my first time experiencing Yoshimoto's writing and already I am hooked, eager to read more. Here's Banana;

And in case you're wondering; no, Banana is neither a typical Japanese name or in fact even the author's real name (that's Mahoko). 

The food obsession is a theme that continues throughout both stories, with the main characters often eating as they interact, often out of comfort. Furthermore, the central character of 'Kitchen', named Mikage, is fixated on kitchens and is working for a culinary teacher as she deals with the death of her grandmother, her last living relative. Luckily for Mikage, one of her grandmothers friends, Yuichi, offers her the chance to stay with him and his transgender mother Eriko, while she deals with her loss. 

This unusual set-up is explored through Yoshimoto's incredible writing style, which evokes the poetic lyricism of Japanese art in its beauty.

The most complex emotions and interactions are conveyed in a deceptively simple way, where every word has been succinctly chosen and not a single letter is wasted. I only wish I could read and understand the text in its original Japanese form. 

Another motif that recurs throughout both 'Kitchen' and its companion piece, 'Moonlight Shadow', is the appearance of the moon. The protagonists in both stories often fixate on the moon and during some of the book's stranger moments, it becomes a key focal point.

At one point early on in 'Kitchen', Mikage struggles to cry over the death of her grandmother until she notices noticing the moon overhead during a bus journey. As soon as she steps off into the street, Mikage immediately lets go of all the pain, unable to stop crying. What makes this scene so strangely uplifting however is that by releasing her grief, Mikage is left feeling so much happier and more content. I believe that Yoshimoto wanted the moon to represent the light that can shine even in the darkest moments of our lives. This ability to savour life in the face of death seems to be a key philosophy of Yoshimoto's, who often focusses on characters coming to terms with the deaths of those closest to them.

The moon appears again in an even more bizarre moment where Mikage and Yuichi somehow share the same dream, singing a song about the moonlight. The inclusion of these surreal moments never seems completely out of sorts with the more realistic aspects of Yoshimoto's writing, just occassionally taking the reader by surprise. In both stories, I was often reminded of Haruki Murakami's work, such as 'Norwegian Wood', which takes a similarly dream-like approach to events mostly grounded in reality. 

Both Japanese writers use poetic language to describe the everyday lives of their characters but whether this is due partly to their shared nationality and culture is difficult for me to say, as they are the only Japanese novelists I have read, besides the British born Kazuo Ishiguro, author of 'Never Let Me Go'.

The second story in the book, 'Moonlight Shadow', is half the size of 'Kitchen' but had even more of an emotional impact on me as a reader. It really is the perfect companion piece to 'Kitchen', with a variety of similar themes running consistently through both stories.

The basic premise of 'Moonlight Shadow' features another woman suffering from the loss of a loved one. Satsuki is recovering from the tragic death of her boyfriend who died in a car crash. While trying to come to terms with the accident, Satsuki becomes closer to her dead boyfriend's brother Hiiragi, whose girlfriend also died in the same crash. The story's focus begins with the development of their relationship but soon transforms into something far stranger, involving a chance meeting with a stranger named Urara who helps Satsuki through supernatural means.

What I found particularly interesting about each story is how a key source of comfort for both protagonists comes in the form of a transgendered character. In 'Kitchen', it is Yuichi's 'mother' Eriko who allows Mikage to stay in their home. Mikage is surprised at first to hear that Eriko was actually Yuichi's biological father but the two quickly become close. In 'Moonlight Shadow', it is Hiiragi, the brother of the dead boyfriend, who begins to wear women's clothing. The dress in question actually belonged to his dead girlfriend and for him, it is a way of feeling closer to her.

I love how both transgendered characters are far removed from the usual stereotypes; Yoshimoto simply writes them as men who are struggling to find a way to cope with their pain. Neither Eriko or Hiiragi is ever made out as a freak or someone to be pitied in that sense and in many ways, I actually found them to be the most relatable characters, due to Yoshimoto's honest depiction of their suffering.

Reading both stories in close succession left me feeling saddened yet also uplifted, which seems to be the whole point of Yoshimoto's writing. I also found it strangely comforting, like I'd just finished a satisfying meal and I know that sounds cheesy but it really did leave me feeling quite content. It's quite hard to explain so all I can suggest is that you read this book and you read it now. For the more lazy readers out there, there have been two film adaptations of 'Kitchen' but I'm not sure how good either version actually is. If you do read 'Kitchen' and end up enjoying it as much as I did, then there are a whole load more books out there by Banana Yoshimoto which I fully intend on reading soon and I suggest you do the same. If you're already a fan, then I can't emphasise how much you would also enjoy the work of Haruki Murakami. 'Norwegian Wood' is his biggie but 'Kafka On The Shore' and '1Q84' are also worth a look too.  

Feel free to comment, plus and like if you would like to share some Banana love! And come back soon for more book reviews across a whole range of genres. 


  1. Love the insight. Forgot that yoshimoto used the moon as juxtaposition to contrast mekages emotions as well as other characters... loved this storry and lookinf foward to your recommended norweigan wood

    1. Thanks for commenting, I'm glad you liked the review. Let me know what you think of Norwegian Wood, I love it so much!