by Banana Yoshimoto
translated from Japanese by Megan Backus
This novella and short story about grief are an excellent demonstration that you can depict dark, devastating emotion without being hyperbolic or overwrought.
“Kitchen part 1”, “Kitchen part 2” and “Moonlight shadow” each follows a young person (college age ish) who has lost a significant person from their lives. The relationship to the deceased is different and on the surface the reactions are different, but at heart the grief is similar.
One of the keys that Yoshimoto taps into is the comfort of specific places, for example a kitchen or a bridge in a park, in helping the process of grief. In “Kitchen”, Mikage doesn’t even need a specific kitchen to help her feel better – any kitchen will do, though she is particularly enamoured by the kitchen of her friend Yuichi, a young man she barely knew before her recent bereavement.
“When was it I realized that, on this truly dark and solitary path we all walk, the only way we can light is our own? Although I was raised with love, I was always lonely. Someday, without fail, everyone will disappear, scattered into the blackness of time. I’ve always lived with that knowledge rooted in my being.”
Yoshimoto also highlights how grief can appear weird to outsiders. In “Moonlight shadow”, a minor character’s girlfriend has died and to cope he starts wearing her school uniform. It helps him to feel close to her. The suggestion is that this is a temporary situation for Hiiragi, not an expression of queerness, but it echoes one of the main characters in “Kitchen”.
Eriko is a trans woman. She is introduced as Yuichi’s mother and he painstakingly explains that Eriko was his father, but after his birth mother died, Eriko transitioned. (This book was first written and published in 1988 so it perhaps required more explanation back then than a modern story would.) For Eriko this wasn’t a temporary expression of grief, it was a discovery about herself.
These are brief stories and the emphasis is on the lead characters finding the worst point of their grief and then moving on from there. None of them is fully past their grief at the end of the tale, but we are left with the impression that they are getting there. As such, though they are sad tales, they are also comforting.
“Both Hiiragi and I, in the last two months, had unconsciously assumed facial expressions we had never worn before, expressions that showed how we were battling not to think of what we had lost. If, in a flash, we remembered, we would suddenly be crushed with the knowledge, the knowledge of our loss, and find ourselves standing alone in the darkness.”
For me, “Kitchen” was the better story, as “Moonlight shadow” has a supernatural element that didn’t quite work for me. But it had a very similar tone to many a Haruki Murakami novel, so I am sure it will have its fans. Personally, I would have preferred to spend more time with Mikage and Yuichi.
First published in Japan by Fukutake Publishing in 1988.
This translation published by Grove Press in 1993.
Source: Christmas present from my Dad.