by Banana Yoshimoto (translated by Megan Backus)
Grove Press, 152 pages $19.95
When it appeared in Japan in 1988, Banana (not-her-real-name) Yoshimoto's first novel, Kitchen, was an astounding success: it won a big literary prize, sold millions of copies, made its 24-year-old writer a superstar, and launched "Bananamania." Western readers of this thin book - the novella Kitchen and a tagged-on short story, Moonlight Shadow - may wonder what all the fuss was about. It couldn't have been the book's artistic merit, which, judging by this translation, is at best marginal. Bananamania springs from the author's ability to reflect a world that is uniquely and flagrantly Japanese.
First, there's the special blend of food and sex familiar to anyone who saw Juzo Itami's film, Tampopo, the story of a young widow lusting to make the perfect noodle soup. Like her, Mikage Sakurai, the young narrator of this story, loves cooking and kitchens. "No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, it's fine with me." After the death of her only relative, the grandmother with whom she lived, Mikage seeks comfort sleeping beside their refrigerator. Then, when her life seems hopeless, an acquaintance, Yuichi Tanabe, invites her to move into the apartment he shares with his mother. Mikage agrees because she likes Yuichi, admires Mrs. Tanabe, and loves their kitchen, with its crisp tea-towels and electric gadgets. She expresses her gratitude by preparing all the meals. "I cooked for them: she who made a fuss over everything I did; he who ate vast qualities in silence."
Predictably, a romance develops between the two young people, but don't expect steamy love scenes. Not that Japanese culture is prudish. Far from it. There is the antique world of prostitutes ("Pictures of the Floating World"), celebrated in the woodblock prints called ukiyo-e and the less well documented live sex shows. (Donald Ritchie in his 1971 travel book The Inland Sea describes a remarkable performance in a remote village involving a young woman and a banana that would alarm most Westerners.) But in Banana Yoshimoto's work, there isn't even a kiss, which is not unusual since kissing is a non-Japanese activity. Eating, it seems, is the best response to oral cravings. "Why is it that everything I eat when I'm with you is so delicious?" Yuichi asks. Mikage laughs. "Could it be that you're satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?" In the end it's the preparation of a sublime katsudon (fried pork with egg and onion) that seals the fate of the two lovers.
There is another sexual conundrum in the Tanabe apartment. It turns out that Yuichi's mother, Eriko, is also his father, a fact the lad accepts with tolerance and humour. Cross-dressing and transvestism have a long and honourable history in Japan beginning with the Shinto Sun Goddess who dressed as a man to meet her unruly brother. After 1629, when females were banned from the stage, Kabuki theatre relied on onnagata, or female impersonators, to portray delicate geishas. So when Yuichi's real mother died, it was not entirely surprising that his father transformed himself into the more traditional single parent, a woman.
Even today, among young Japanese, there's a great reluctance to step into the carefully proscribed and restricting roles assigned to each sex. This explains the existence of the popular cultural figure, the bishonen - beautiful androgynous young heroes of either gender who appear in books and on the pop music scene. It might shock us to read in Moonlight Shadow that a grieving adolescent boy goes to school dressed in his dead girlfriend's favourite tennis outfit, but his Japanese classmates and family understand.
Like many classical Japanese heroes, all of Banana Yoshimoto's characters are the victims of fate, rather than its master. With Eriko's death, Yuichi and Mikage are both orphans. They fall into silence, despair and a hopelessly soppy sentimentality. Yuichi retreats to a mountain inn and Mikage becomes an assistant in a cooking school. Their tears are everywhere - "flowing one after another," "falling like rain," and finally, "flooding out."
Because Banana and her creations live in modern Tokyo, there are references in Kitchen to imported American culture - to Snoopy and Bewitched and all-night minimarts. Moonlight Shadow was written first and tells of a visit from a mysterious stranger and supernatural events reminiscent of older Japanese writing. This story should have been omitted from the book since it's little more than a sketch for the more fully realized Kitchen.
A final word about the "prestigious literary prize" referred to by the book's publisher and most critics. In Japan there is no equivalent to the Canada Council grant. Instead there are hundreds of prizes for artistic work of all kinds. Winning one, unfortunately, is no guarantee of quality.
NOTA BENE From the Afterword to Banana:
"For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system. This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.
Growth and the overcoming of obstacles are inscribed on a person's soul. If I have become any better at fighting my daily battles, be they violent or quiet, I know it is only thanks to my many friends and acquaintances. I want to dedicate this, my virgin offering, to them. . . .
Finally, to all the readers who do not know me personally, who were kind enough to take the trouble to read my small effort, I know no greater happiness than that it may have cheered you, even a little. Surely we will meet someday, and until that day, I pray that you will live happily.