Kitchen, the debut novel by Banana Yoshimoto (1964– ), was a phenomenal success, catapulting the young author into instant celebrity status in her native Japan. The novel quickly won three literary prizes: Kaien magazine’s New Writer’s Prize, the Umitsubame first novel prize, and the Izumi Kyoka literary prize, which established her presence as a serious new voice of late 20th-century Japan. The book became extremely popular among young readers, first in Japan, then globally as it was released in more than 20 foreign translations. Kitchen has also been filmed twice, once by Japanese television and also in a more widely released version directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Yim Ho.
The novel comprises two seemingly unrelated stories: the longer “Kitchen” and the much shorter “Moonlight Shadow.” The protagonist of “Kitchen” is Mikage Sakurai, a young girl who finds herself alone and disoriented after the death of her grandmother. With no other relatives to turn to and unsure about her future, Mikage continues to live in her grandmother’s house, cleaning and delaying the advent of her relocation. Her solitude is unexpectedly broken by the arrival of Yuichi Tanabe, a college classmate who had befriended her grandmother. Concerned, Yuichi offers to take Mikage in until she can pull herself together and find a new place to live. Together with Yuichi’s transsexual fatherturned-mother Eriko, Mikage finds an odd but emotionally generous surrogate family.
Eventually Mikage overcomes her grief while living with and happily cooking for Yuichi and Eriko. Her days in the kitchen provide not only therapy but also a future as she takes a job working for a famous television chef after leaving them. Though they grow apart, Mikage and Yuichi are reunited after the tragic murder of his mother/father. The tables turned, Mikage sustains Yuichi through his grief, aided by the culinary skills she had first honed in his home.
“Moonlight Shadow” also takes up the theme of sudden bereavement and grief though with a slightly more supernatural flavor than the first story “Kitchen.” The protagonist Satsuki has lost her teenage sweetheart Hitoshi in the same automobile accident that killed his sister Yumiko, the girlfriend of Hiiragi. Satuski and Hiiragi find comfort in each other’s presence despite developing very different rituals to assuage their sorrow: Satsuki takes up early morning jogging, while Hiiragi finds solace in wearing the dead Yumiko’s schoolgirl uniform.
Satsuki meets a woman while resting during her usual morning jog over the bridge where she and Hitoshi used to meet. The rather strange Urara tells Satsuki about a mystical experience, the Weaver Festival Phenomenon, which happens only once every hundred years near a large river. The event may allow the living a parting glance of the dead and thus emotional closure, something Urara senses that Satsuki needs. When the day arrives, Satsuki is granted a final vision of Hitoshi and makes her peace with his death. Though not at the river, Hiiragi too is seemingly visited by Yumiko, after which he can no longer find her school uniform in his closet.
Upon reflection, the two initially unrelated stories in Kitchen mirror each other thematically and also in term of plot details: Both deal with the emotional devastations of love and loss and both contain instances of a character’s cross-dressing. Both stories revel in sensually rendered descriptions, particularly the smells of food like Mikage’s katsudon and Satsuki’s Pu-Arh tea. Loss sits at the dead center of Kitchen, and while the novel is written in the hyper-deadpan style of modern Japanese pop culture, this is a quintessentially traditional Japanese theme: the impermanence that is the defining condition of human life.
Yoshimoto Banana. Goodbye, Tsugumi, a Novel. Translated by Michael Emmerich. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
———. Lizard. Translated by Ann Sherif. New York: Washington Square Press, 1996.
———. Kitchen. Translated by Megan Backus. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.
———. N.P. A Novel. Translated by Ann Sherif. New York: Grove Press, 1994.