When was it I realized that, on this truly dark and solitary path we all walk, the only way we can light is our own? Although I was raised with love, I was always lonely.
“The place I like best in the world is the kitchen”, declares young Mikage, the central character in the poignant and minimalist novella ‘Kitchen’ (originally published in 1988) by Banana Yoshimoto. Orphaned since childhood, 24-year-old Mikage Sakurai was brought up by her grandmother, who also has recently passed away. Withdrawn and alienated, the young woman finds warmth in the corners of kitchen. Mikage’s lingering sadness is dispelled by the hums of a refrigerator or by just glimpsing into a busy kitchen from the bus. Soon after grandma’s death, Mikage is befriended by Yuichi Tanabe, a college student who knew the grandmother, since she often visited the flower shop Yuichi worked part-time. Now Mikage is invited to live with Yuichi and his chirpy transsexual mother Eriko (used to be the father). The Tanabes’ well-stocked and maintained kitchen, the enormous living-room sofa, and their ‘strange cheerfulness’ somehow fill the vacuum in Mikage’s existence.
Banana Yoshimoto was only 24 when Kitchen got published in Japan and she burst onto the Western scene after English translation in 1993 (by Megan Backus). Kitchen and the other comparatively shorter novella (integrated into the book) Moonlight Shadow deal with themes of loss, longing, grief, and companionship. The subjects of both these novellas are weirdly intriguing young women, faced with tough task of mourning for their loved ones. Apart from metaphorical treatment of kitchen, cooking, and food (which is apparent in Kitchen), what I found interesting in both the novellas is the tone of lightness and slow transcendence despite the grim subject matter. Yoshimoto finds beauty in the transitory phases of life and the feelings of melancholia never turns outright sentimental. She portrays the emotions evoked by the death of loved ones without ever getting over emotional (courtesy of Yoshimoto’s compact, haiku-like prose).
Mikage once again goes through the emotions of loss when one day Yuichi phones her to tell about Eriko’s senseless murder. The rest of the story charts the elusive relationship and burgeoning love between Mikage and Yuichi as they console each other (often through gastronomic delights). In Moonlight Shadow, young Satsuki is left inconsolable after the death of her 20-year-old boyfriend Hitoshi (in an accident). Occasionally, she shares her grief with Hitoshi’s younger brother Hiiragi, who has lost his girlfriend Yumiko in the same accident. They both work together to bring some resolution to their sadness and suffering. Adding further to the quirky quotient is Satsuki’s encounter with a mysterious woman named Urara. Although both the novellas seem like a cliched tales of wounded souls healing each other, the book’s appeal lies in the author’s tight description and understated tone. The stories deftly present the difficulties in confronting the emotions of grief without offering any superficial remedies (marked by the beguiling open-ended denouements).
Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow pretty much evokes modern Tokyo and the lives of young Japanese, where traditional Japanese meals like tofu are preferred over Kentucky Fried Chicken. Futons and Kimonos don’t make an appearance. Moreover, Yoshimoto doesn’t equate Mikage’s love for kitchen with womanliness or gender identity. She sees the happiness and peace emanating from kitchen as a source of Mikage’s independence and way to cope with the emotional chaos. As I mentioned, Yoshimoto’s delicate characterizations (I loved how Eriko was portrayed) and prose has the power to gently push readers towards an epiphany or to its robust underlying philosophy. These stories are about lonely people in a very hectic society, yet there remains ample space for love, endearment, and happiness. “We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated, we make dinner, we eat, and we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living is unacceptable”, Mikage soulfully ruminates and certainly we can’t deny the truth in her concise thoughts.