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Review: Kitchen

August 5, 2009

Title: Kitchen
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Published: 1988
Pages: 158



Kitchen juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan. It is a startlingly original first work by Japan’s brightest young literary star and is now a cult film.


In this short tale of love and death, Banana Yoshimoto delivers an impressive début that features some heartbreakingly and tender moments. It is essential two novellas: Kitchen and Moonlight Shadows, both of them exploring similar themes.

Both novellas are about death; they both deal with the death of a loved one but they’re more than that, it’s about death and rebirth, love and new beginnings. In Kitchen, the first novella, the narrator Mikage Sakurai has to deal the death of her grandmother, the last remaining link to her family, effectively making her an orphan. It’s this loneliness that drives the story; she is alone in the world until she meets Yuichi Tanabe, a boy who knew her grandmother. This meeting sets in motion the tale. It is through death that they meet.

The first part of the novella deals with Mikage moving in Yuichi’s house. He lives with his father, Eriko, who is a transsexual. What is the significance, if any, of the father being the mother? Is it another example of someone beginning again; as Yuichi explains, “After my real mother died, Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself, ‘What do I want to do now?’ What she decided was, ‘Become a woman’.” So, the catalyst for this new beginning was the death of her wife.

There is a fair amount of distance; the reader never is able to feel quite at ‘home’ in the first part. Written in the first person, Mikage seems to be as much apart from people as she is with them. She’s emotional fragile, only beginning to find her feet.

The novella is very preoccupied with food, cooking and kitchens. As Mikage says ‘The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.’ The kitchen is often the centre of life in a house, you eat there, you dine there, communicate and come in contact with other people. The preparation of food is intrinsically tied to life, with people and there is something intrinsically saddening when you cook just for yourself. Cooking and eating is a community thing and it’s not meant to be done on your own. It’s as if Mikage has chosen the kitchen because it cements and reminds her of a community, of her family and makes her less lonely.

The second part deals with another death, the death of Eriko, who was killed. This sets in motion a new beginning of Yuichi. The entire novella is very much about how death does not mean the end but only the beginning, and while it can make life seem dilapidated and grief-stricken it can be overcome.  Kitchen is about the aftermath of death and how life goes on afterwards. It is an endearment to the human spirit that after death and grief we still manage to go on. As Beckett famously wrote, ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’. Kitchen is a love story where the two characters never announce their love, never consummate their love but it’s there. It’s about two kindred spirits; both of them orphans and because of this they are drawn together.

In the second novella, Moonlight Shadows, it’s about having a finality to death. It’s a lovely, slow, meditative story that has a quite bittersweet ending. The narrator, Satsuki, seems to be still grieving over Hitoshi, her husband, who died in a car crash with the girlfriend of Hiiragi, Hitoshi’s brother.

The story is about her acceptance of his death, this is juxtaposed with how Hiiragi deals with the death of his brother and girlfriend. They both cannot truly move on until they get closure.

Ultimately, these two tales manage to deal with universal themes with maturity. Yoshimoto writes some beautifully poignant pieces but can switch back quickly to silly and mundane moments as well.

I’ve read another Banana Yoshimoto book, which deals with death as well. I shall have that review up soon.

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