So now we move on from a book that seemingly everyone has read to one that people do not have the foggiest idea as to what it’s about. Seriously, for a bestselling novel, it seems barely anyone beyond Japan seem to have heard of Banana Yoshimoto or her work. Hopefully this review will do justice to her work while bringing her notice beyond that of Japan.
But before we start this review, I’ll just make one thing clear. In this book there are actually two stories, Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow. For the purposes of this review I shall only be reviewing Kitchen as, while there is nothing wrong with Moonlight Shadow, I feel I could say more on Kitchen that would give you an idea of what sort of writer Yoshimoto is. You never know, Moonlight Shadow may be revisited at some point, but for now, it’s time for the obligatory overview!
Mikage Sakurai’s parents died when she was young and was so taken in by her grandparents, but since then her grandfather died when she was in junior high and her grandmother died “the other day”. Realising that she is now all alone a young boy named Yuichi Tanabe, who knew her grandmother from a flower shop he worked part-time and assisted with her funeral, invites Mikage to live with him and his mother so that she won’t be alone and so she can sort finding a place for herself.
Taking up the offer, Mikage moves in with Yuichi and his mother Eriko. From then on Mikage and Yuichi begin to learn about loss, ignorant attitudes as well as the familial nature of a well-used kitchen.
So as you have probably guessed, kitchens are a bit of a motif in this novel. Straight from the off Mikage goes into why she loves kitchens:
‘The best place I like in the world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place they make food, it’s fine with me.’
I, and hopefully you, agree with Mikage that a kitchen is a wonderful place. It may not be your favourite place in the world, but its sure has got to be a close second. The kitchen is the place we all sit down together to eat, to go alone to snack and is almost always the place people seem to swarm to at parties. The kitchen has a universal appeal to us that seems instinctive, something which Yoshimoto is clearly aware of.
Yoshimoto especially clings on to the cooking aspect of kitchens, with Mikage becoming obsessed with learning to cook, buying cookery books and going through them, spending all her earning to full her culinary obsession. Getting things wrong, like portion sizes, temperatures or preparation, Mikage goes through all the trials and tribulations on learning to cook, which Yoshimoto describes in such a way that one can see through the veneer and see how this applies not only to cooking but to many aspects of life. But, through all the burns, scars and upsets, Mikage ends with this:
‘But – that one summer of bliss. In that kitchen.’
We may only get one summer where we enjoy ourselves to euphoria and forget all the qualms, tiredness and frustrations that led up to it, but it is worth it. We go through much and yet we strive on in an almost Gatsby-esque fashion of boats beating against the current. While terrible things may happen, we mourn, we do not forget, but we strive on. And now I’ll move onto something else lest I give in to temptation and start typing the book’s plot for all to read.
I now wish to speak about Eriko, Yuichi’s lovable and seemingly always on-the-go mother, who I can hardly describe better than Mikage herself:
‘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 her life force. She didn’t look human. I have never seen anyone like her.’
Eriko is all this, as well Mikage saying that she had ‘never seen a woman that beautiful’, as well as something else. She is a man. Yes, we have a transgender character. Hooray for diversity and inclusion! For Yoshimoto to include this character in the 1987 story is remarkable as Diet of Japan did not even allow transgender people to legally amend their sex until 2004. To the eyes of the law, Eriko would still be a man yet Yoshimoto barely refers to Eriko as such.
Eriko is a wonderful character as, while accepted and included in her family and work life, working at a gay bar, she is also a source of conflict for ignoramuses. Eriko is a delightful inclusion in this tale as, while Kitchen deals with sorrow and growth, it also deals with family, and for Eriko to be unashamedly included is a brilliant way for people to acknowledge and accept people, whatever their sexuality or gender.
Kitchen is a brilliant short read that would be compulsory if I had my way. Dealing with loss and growth, as well as including a transgender character, Kitchen is truly a modern classic and is most definitely Yoshimoto’s best work. This is the way the world is going, more inclusive and harder to push through, but Yoshimoto is aware of this and makes it into compelling literature.
Thank you for reading this Febookuary review! Sorry it is a bit shorter than the others but I don’t want to give too much away whilst giving you some of the information. If you want to read more from the Chronic Chronicler, follow me here on WordPress as well as on Twitter and Facebook. The next review shall be Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami.