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Kitchen Paperback – March 1, 1994
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Two stories, "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow," told through the eyes of a pair of contemporary young Japanese women, deal with the themes of mothers, love, transsexuality, kitchens, and tragedy. Reprint. NYT.
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As Mikage is contemplating what to do next, Yuichi Tanabe, a classmate who helped out at her grandmother's funeral, visits her. He invites Mikage to come stay with him and his "mother." Yuichi's mother Eriko turns out to be a transgendered former male (Yuichi's father). She works in a nightclub. With no particular plan or direction, Mikage decides to take up the offer and spends long days alone contemplating the ceiling while Yuichi is at class and Eriko away at work or sleeping.
Mikage adjusts to life at the Tanabe's and comes to value the friendship of these odd, nonconforming Japanese. Yuichi is moody and depressive, a needy soul who becomes deeply attached to Mikage's friendship. Eriko's style is high camp. She loves making frivolous purchases, especially electronic gadgets. Eriko loves Mikage with a kind of offbeat quasi-maternal affection. The household is shocked when Eriko is killed, murdered at the nightclub where she works.
While she is staying at the Tanabe's Mikage purchases a set of instruction books on cooking and immerses herself in a serious attempt to become a skilled cook. After Eriko's death, when she comes back to the Tanabe apartment and spends a few days with Yuichi, she prepares an enormous meal of numerous courses, which they devour over several hours.
Not long after Eriko's death, Mikage finds a dream job as an assistant to a well-known culinary author and television personality. She is asked to accompany the sensei and other staff on a trip to Izu Peninsula to sample the local cuisine. Mikage jumps at the chance.
Mikage leaves for Izu, but once there she phones Yuichi who has gone to an inn not far from Izu to be alone. He complains about the food at the inn, which consists entirely of tofu dishes. Mikage happens on a katsudon shop where the specialty is exquisitely prepared. On an impulse, she orders an extra portion to go, hails a cab and makes a lengthy trip to Yuichi's inn. He is surprised, eats the katsudon and declares it to be the best he has every tasted. Before she leaves to ride the waiting cab back to Izu, Mikage tells him obliquely that she would like their relationship to grow and deepen.
When she returns, Mikage receives a phone call from Yuichi who has gone to great pains to find out where she is staying. He asks her for her time of return to Tokyo and the platform where her train will arrive, promising to meet her. On this upbeat, optimistic note the story closes.
Kitchen is a GenX novel, its youthful characters severed from traditional relationships: family, marriage, career. In their place, they form deep, if not necessarily permanent, bonds of friendship, based on mutual help and acceptance between people struggling to get by in a fragmented world.
The kitchen serves as a symbol of peace and comfort, a place where Mikage can forget the difficulties that she faces and lose herself in her artistic creation. It also brings together the disparate personalities in a union based on shared enjoyment of food. Banana Yoshimoto handles this with great warmth and sensitivity. Her short debut novel makes for a touching, uplifting read.
She turns to her kitchen. But she is also invited to live with the family of a young man she has known since childhood. Now here’s a modern family: just two people, the young man and his mother. But did I tell you his father is his mother? Or, to phrase that more correctly, his mother is his father? It’s a transgender situation. The two young people are drawn to each other but then he is hit by loss. They grapple with trying to help each other, maybe love each other, or maybe just pity each other, and try to stop each other from jumping over the edge.
This very short novel has a short story appended at the end: Moonlight Shadow. This story, also about loss, and it could be the same woman, takes us into magical realism. Maybe they do come back, at least to tell you they’re ok.
I found the two stories very moving and fascinating to read. Translated from the Japanese.