Although the Faber & Faber edition you are most likely to find in bookshops is a minimalist jewel in hot pink, the perfect encapsulation of the era in which Kitchen became a literary sensation in Japan is the Washington Square Press translation published in 1994. A young, pixieish, Japanese Kelly Taylor sporting a linen dress accessorized with black socks flashes a smile from beneath the novella’s title splashed in a font straight out of MTV’s golden era. This slim debut launched Banana Yoshimoto (née Mahoko) into Japan’s literary stratosphere, complete with prestigious awards and a brief spell of “Bananamania” in the early 90s.
The US cover is a deceptively YA take on a story whose author saw herself as an explorer of “the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan”. Kitchen is above all a story of loss and loneliness, but also one of family, healing, and the appreciation of a delicious katsudon. The current edition of Kitchen includes the titular novella and a shorter story, Moonlight Shadow, connected by the same theme of bereavement.
“Everyone lives the way she knows best. What I mean by ‘their happiness’ is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. That’s not a bad thing.”
Mikage is a young student who finds herself alone in the world after her grandmother, her last surviving family member, dies. Her struggle with grief is understated but powerful:
“There are many days when all the awful things that happen make you sick at heart, when the path before you is so steep you can’t bear to look. Not even love can rescue a person from that.”
Yoichi, a young man who knew her grandmother, invites Mikage to stay with him and his mother. Mikage becomes a part of a new family with its own joys and sorrows and their bond solidifies around the kitchen. The idea of comfort food and the kitchen as a space of healing is hardly new, but Yoshimoto paints her characters’ cycle of pain and acceptance with elegant brushstrokes that make writing look easy (it isn’t) and engaging (it can be and it is, particularly in Moonlight Shadow).
The thread which connects the characters’ journey from the loss of a loved one to understanding and acceptance is their need to change. Some change clothes, others change gender or address or change their minds. Yoichi’s mother Eriko used to be his father, but after the first Mrs. Tanabe died of cancer, Yuji Tanabe promises to never love another woman and he becomes one. Eriko is a generous, loving and fun mother figure who is treated with respect throughout the book.
Eventually, Mikage’s love of food and kitchens inform her choices in life as she enrolls in a cooking school and leaves her adoptive nest with the Tanabes. Their improvised family is soon affected by death again and they have to once more reach out to each other.
I have read complaints about the translation, but I am in no way qualified to have an opinion. The English does seem less spare than what is often described as Banana Yoshimoto’s signature minimalist style. I am not sure it wouldn’t have bothered me in a three hundred page book. Kitchen is a much shorter work though and it is one which ultimately carries a message of hope; of the importance of loss and pain and learning to deal with it:
“…if a person hasn’t ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is. I’m grateful for it