Summary, from inside flap:
When Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen was first published in Japan in 1988, “Banana-mania” seized the country. Kitchen won two of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, climbed its way to the top of the best-seller list, then remained there for over a year and sold a million copies. With the appearance of the critically acclaimed Tugumi (1989) and NP (1991), the Japanese literary world realized that in Banana Yoshimoto it was confronted with not a passing fluke but with a full-fledged phenomenon: a young writer of great talent and great passion whose work has quickly earned a place among the best twentieth-century Japanese literature.
Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book that juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, kitchens, love, tragedy, and the terms they all come to in a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan. Told in a whimsical style that recalls the early Marguerite Duras, “Kitchen” and its companion story, “Moonlight Shadow,” are elegant tales whose seemingly simplicity is the ruse of a masterful storyteller. They are the work of a very special new writer whose voice echoes in the mind and soul.
Once again, the description directly from the book doesn’t truly discuss the book at all. There are two short-stories in Kitchen, but I firmly believe that their overall tone and meaning vastly varies. I can see how Yoshimoto’s work was briefly popular on Instagram, as they are simple and short, but I think they do have deeper meanings than what once reads at first. I was interested in this book because I am a fervent fan of all things Haruki Murakami, and I wanted to experience more contemporary Japanese literature. In the end, I wasn’t impressed, but I did enjoy the stories.
First, “Kitchen” and “Moonlight Shadow” have some things in common, but I do not think they are overtly incredibly similar. Both stories are about healing after death, and what it means for love and family for the characters. However, “Kitchen” more has do to with the protagonist finding her place in the world, and in “Moonlight Shadow” the protagonist comes to terms with the death of her boyfriend. Casting these stories into one big genre of recovering after loss isn’t exactly the best place. “Moonlight Shadow” is definitely about emotional recovery after a loss, but “Kitchen” is, by far, a coming-of-age story. While the events that lead the protagonists to this place are similar, “Kitchen” has a slightly darker air than “Moonlight Shadow.” The protagonist of “Kitchen” is not as free-spirited as the summary implies- rather, she is very dutiful and bound to the other characters in the story, which leads to her realizing her place in the world and what she needs to do. “Moonlight Shadow” is much lighter, and more full of mystery and hope than “Kitchen.”
Knowing this, I liked the language and style of Yoshimoto’s work. Since I am not reading this in the original Japanese, this is more a commentary on the translation. Over the years, I have become very particular about translators, and I am known to find a new translation of a book if the first was poor. The translation of this book is airy and similar to early Marguerite Duras. However, the style of the work is very close to what I associate “Japanese literature” to be. The protagonists appear to be detached from the world, with astute observations and rambling thoughts. Action is abrupt, but feels natural to the world the characters live in. I often associate this type of literature to being like an out-of-body experience. You can see, hear, and feel everything going on around you, but there is this personal narration that you wouldn’t have, if you were operating completely within your world. Reading Japanese literature is like being at the helm of an out-of-body experience for the protagonist.
Out of the few Japanese authors I have read (primarily Haruki Murakami and Kobo Abe) I feel invigorated in my bookish scramble thanks to Banana Yoshimoto. There’s something so different about Japanese authors. I think it has a lot to do with how different Japanese and American cultures are, and how curious I am about the culture and values held by Japanese people. While not every aspect of a culture can be represented by a single book, reading many different books will help me understand what Japan is like. I really struggle with this as I do not want to be perceived as a weeb, especially after my high school years of being a manga fanatic!
In the end, this book featured two simply written short stories about two women in eerily similar circumstances, and how they grow and change after death in their lives. While the plots may be close, the endings are very different and signify how individuals move on from death in different ways. This book is an interesting peer into Japanese culture, and how citizens deal with death after the fact. The translation is good, and the style of writing simple, succinct, and packing a punch when it needs to. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is a good introduction to Japanese literature, and for once, the accolades are correct.