Kitchen: "Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart."

by Caitlin Howell, 1996 (caitlin at cs dot wisc dot edu)

In this paper, I would like to discuss the novel Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. In preparation for this paper, I read Kitchen in English and reread parts of it in Japanese. I would like to discuss major themes and characteristics of Kitchen and how my perceptions of the novel changed when I read it in Japanese and in English.

The overriding theme of Kitchen is an extremely important one: the idea that we should experience both the painful and enjoyable aspects of life. Kitchen is divided into two stories about people coping with the deaths of loved ones, "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow." By dealing with death and loss, the characters are able to appreciate the sacredness of life.

Because this theme and correlating ideas are related to us through the thoughts of a main female character in both stories, I suspect that Yoshimoto uses characters like these to express her own philosophy. Or perhaps, because I agree so strongly with this philosophy, I want to believe that Yoshimoto takes it as seriously as I do.

The tone of "magic realism" that this novel takes is one that I had neither seen nor expected to see in a Japanese novel. I am more accustomed to seeing this sort of plot treatment from some of my favorite American novelists, like Tom Robbins and John Irving. The juxtaposition of miraculous events with daily life in Kitchen and similar novels reveals a view of life that is more existential than fatalistic. That is, they stress the the unpredictability of life over the destiny of the characters. Until Kitchen, many of the Japanese novels we had read were rather unrealistic because they were neat, episodic, and the characters were shallow stereotypes. This is the first Japanese novel we've read that has characters that realize that the world does not exist for their benefit. (E 81) ("Sekai wa betsu ni watashi no tame ni aru wake ja nai." J 124)

The episodes that contribute to the novel's existential impression never seem entirely impossible, just unexpected. In part one of "Kitchen," Yuichi, a mere acquaintance of Mikage's until her grandmother's funeral, knocks on her door and offers to let her stay with him and Eriko.(E 6) Later, Yuichi and Mikage share the same dream.(E 39) In part two of "Kitchen," we learn that Eriko beats her murderer to death with a barbell minutes before she dies.(E 44-45) Before "Kitchen" ends, Mikage happens upon a famous katsudon shop late at night, and takes a meal by taxi to Yuichi and climbs the outside of the hotel to his window to give it to him.(E 95-102) These unexpected events continue to pop up in the second part of the novel. In "Moonlight Shadow," Urara "appears" behind Satsuki on the bridge where she is resting.(E 115) Later in the story, Urara seems to discover Satsuki's phone number by magic. "I just say to myself, 'I must get this phone number,' and it just naturally comes to me."(E 126) In the climactic scene of "Moonlight Shadow," Satsuki sees the ghost of her deceased boyfriend, Hitoshi, as she stands on the bridge with Urara.(E 145)

The translation we read in class, by Megan Backus, was overall a very good translation. However, certain things did not come through in the English version as well as they did in the original Japanese. For example, there is no easy way to translate the formalities of Japanese speech into English, and the Japanese way of speaking says a lot about the relationship between the people holding the conversation. When Mikage first meets Eriko, Eriko speaks to Mikage informally, and Mikage speaks to Eriko entirely in the formal "desu/masu" form. This gives us a clue about Eriko's open, friendly character, and indicates that Mikage feels slightly awkward and intimidated by Yuichi's beautiful mother.(J 17-18) Later in the novel, in the conversation beginning "It's not easy being a woman"(E 41) ("Onna ni naru no mo taihen yo ne." J 65) Mikage and Eriko both speak to each other informally, indicating that they've grown closer, and have a relationship more like family members.

In Japanese, Yoshimoto's descriptive passages read almost like poetry. These passages, too, are well translated, but some of the rhythm and onomatopoeia are lost. Because this description does not do a comparison of the two versions justice, I have included the following passages to illustrate the cinematic, vivid quality of the original Japanese.

It was raining that hazy spring night. A gentle warm rain enveloped the neighborhood as I walked with directions in hand.

My apartment building and the one where the Tanabes lived were separated by Chuo Park. As I crossed through, I was inundated with the green smell of the night. I walked, sloshing down the shiny wet path that glittered with the colors of the rainbow. (E 8)

Yoru wa ame datta. Shitoshitoto, attakai ame ga machi wo tsutsumu kemutta haru no yoru wo chizu wo motte aruiteitta.

Tanabeka no arusono manshon wa uchikara choudo chuuoukouen wo hasanda hantaigawa ni atta. Kouen wo nukete iku to, yoru no midori no nioide musekaeru youdatta. Nurete hikaru kouji ga nijiiro ji utsuru naka wo pashapasha aruite itta. (J 12)

Just then, with the scratch of a key in the door, an incredibly beautiful woman came running in, all out of breath...

"How do you do," she said in a slightly husky voice, still panting, with a smile. "I'm Yuichi's mother. My name is Eriko."

This was his mother? Dumbfounded, I couldn't take my eyes off her. Hair that rustled like silk to her shoulders; the deep sparkle of her long, narrow eyes; well-formed lips, a nose with a high, straight bridge-- the whole of her gave off a marvelous light that seemed to vibrate with life force. She didn't look human.(E 11)

Soshite, doa ga gachagacha to aite, monosugoi bijin ga ikisekikitte hashirikonde kita no wa, sono toki datta...

Kanojo wa haahaa iki wo tsukinagara sukoshi kasureta koe de, "Hajimemashite," to waratta. "Yuichi no haha desu. Eriko to moushimasu."

Kore ga haha? Toku odoroki ijou ni watashi wa me ga hanasenakatta. Katamade no sarasara no kami, kirenagano hitomi no fukai kagayaki , katachi no yoi kuchibiru, sutto takai hana suji-soshite, sono zentai kara ka mo shi desareru seimeiryoku no yuremitaina azayakana hikari-ningen ja nai mitai datta. (J 17)

I just had to go back for one more look at the kitchen. It was a really good kitchen.

Then I stumbled over to the sofa that was to be my bed for the night and turned out the lamp. Suspended in the dim light before the window overlooking the magnificent tenth floor view, the plants breathed softly, resting. By now the rain had stopped, and the atmosphere, sparking, replete with moisture, refracted the night splendidly.(E 16)

Petapeta to hadashi de daitokoro wo mou ikkai miniiku. Yahari, yoi daitokoro datta.

Soshite, koyoui watashi no nedoko to natta sono sofaa ni tadoritsukuto, Denki wo keshita.

Madobede kasukano akari ni ukabu shokubutsutachi ga 10 F kara no gouka na yakei ni fuchidorarete sotto ikidzuite ita. Yakei-mou, ame ga agatte shikke wo fukunda toumeina daiki ni kirakira kagayaite, sore wa migoto ni utsutte ita. (J 25)

The moon and light are used as symbols of magic, or life's miraculous forces, throughout the novel. In an early scene on a bus on the way to the Tanabes' house, Mikage's "eye came to rest on the still-new moon making its way across the sky."(E 33) Then, she sees a dirigible "like a pale moonbeam"(E 33)("tsukikage no youni" J 52) and is moved by a related conversation between a spoiled child and her patient grandmother. When she gets off the bus, she bursts into tears and weeps cathartically for the first time since her own grandmother's death. Afterwards, she is "puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful."(E 35) ("Watashi wa doushiyou mo naku kuraku, soshite akarui kimochi ni natte shimatte kao wo kakaete sukoshi waratta." J 55)

This quote is an example of how Yoshimoto uses light and dark to represent magic, ecstatic feeling, and despair, respectively, throughout the novel. This particular example doesn't come through completely in the translation. The word used instead of "wonderful" in the original, "akarui," usually means bright.

A few pages later, a less realistic example of life's magic occurs: Mikage and Yuichi share the same dream. In the dream, they sing a song which makes a reference to the moonlight.

To avoid disturbing the
Moonlight shadows
I brought my boat to rest
At the tip of the cape

A lighthouse in the distance
To the two of us in the night
The spinning light looks like
Sunshine through the branches of trees (E 37-38)
Getsumei kari no kage
Kowasanu youni
Misaki no hazureni
Bouto wo tometa

Tooku no toudai
Mawaru hikari ga
Futari no yoru ni wa
Komorebi mitai (J 59-60)

This must have been difficult to translate. Because Japanese verse usually depends on syllabic structure rather than a rhyme scheme, like most English poetry and popular music, it comes across as a little awkward.

A word that doesn't exist in English, like "komorebi" becomes the unwieldy phrase "sunlight through the branches of trees." Not only is this awkward, but we lose the magical effect of experiencing an entire mental image in one word.

It is also a bit misleading that "getsumeikari no kage" was translated as "moonlight shadow," because although the title of the second section of the book is also translated as "Moonlight Shadow," in Japanese it appears as "Muunraighto Shadou" (in katakana.) We are not sure whether Yoshimoto wanted us to make the same connection that the translator did. If she did, she wanted to give us a clue, not beat us over the head with it.

The moon appears again after Eriko is killed in part two of "Kitchen." This section of "Kitchen" is called "Full Moon." ("Mangetsu") Reflecting upon Eriko's death, Mikage shares the theme of Kitchen.

No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive. This is what makes the life I have now possible.

Inching one's way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief. Just when one can't take any more, one sees the moonlight. Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that. (E 59-60)

Doushitemo, jibun ga itsuka shinu to iu koto wo kanjidzutsukiteitai. Denaito ikiteiru ki ga shinai. Dakara, konna jinsei ni natta.

Yami no naka, kiritatta gakeppuchi wo jirijiri aruiki, kokudou ni detehotto iki wo tsuku. Mou takusan da to omoinagara miageru getsumei kari no, kokoro ni shimiiru youna utsukushsa wo watashi ga shitte iru.(J 91)

Mikage experiences these thoughts while waiting for Yuichi to return with food so that she can make dinner. When he returns, Yuichi comments that such a beautiful moon must influence her cooking, (E 61, J 93) and Mikage is startled. The fact that this startles her indicates that the moon means something more than just the moon to her, otherwise his comment could have been easily attributed to coincidence. From the passage, we gather that the moon is a symbol for the nearly magical, happy moments in life that make it worth living.

Mikage notices the moon again, by this time completely full, as sets off to deliver katsudon to Yuichi. "The moon shown down from high above, crossing the sky, erasing the stars in its path. It was full." (E 94) Instinctively, she knows which window in the hotel belongs to him, and she climbs to him. She tells Yuichi how important he is to her, and as "Kitchen" ends, it seems likely that they will be together for a long time.

In "Moonlight Shadow," the main character, Satsuki, pauses on the bridge to rest and watch the river. She notices a half moon hanging in the sky. (E 114) Then, Urara suddenly appears behind her. She startles Satsuki by asking for a sip of tea, and Satsuki drops her thermos into the river. We see the moon again when they meet on the bridge to see the miracle which only occurs every hundred years, right before Satsuki sees Hitoshi's ghost.(E 144)

Light also symbolizes a certain kind of character in Kitchen.
Truly great people emit a light that warms the hearts of those around them. When that light has been put out, a heavy shadow of despair descends. Perhaps Eriko's was only a minor kind of greatness, but her light was sorely missed.(E 54) Ijinna jinbutsu wa iru dake de hikari wo hanachi, mawari no hito no kokoro wo terasu. Soshite, kieta toki ni dou shiyou mo naku omoi kage wo otosu. Sasayakana ijin sadatta ka mo shirenai keredo, Erikosan wa koko ni ite, soshite inaku natta.(J 86)

There are a few wonderful people in the novel that make the lives of those who are suffering more bearable. Eriko and Yuichi help Mikage when she needs them, and she says "Even though they didn't look alike, there were certain traits that they shared. Their faces shone like Buddhas when they smiled."(E 15) ("Sore ni nite inai kono oyako ni wa kyoutsuuten ga atta. Waratta kao ga shinbutsu mitai ni kagayaku no da." J 23) Urara plays a similar role in "Moonlight Shadow." She helps Satsuki resolve her suffering by showing her where she can have a vision of Hitoshi. Satsuki gives a Buddha-like description of her, as well: "Her eyes were too knowing and serene; the expression on her face hinted that she had tasted deeply of the sorrows and joys of this world."(E 115) ("Amari ni mo kanojo wa chiteki de saeta hitomi wo shiteite, marude kono sei no kanashimi mo yorokobi mo suebete nomikonda ato no you na fukaifukai hyoujyou wo motte ita." J 172) These characters are also associated with the appearance of light and the moon in Kitchen.

These "Buddha-like" characters express the message that loss, pain, and suffering are an important part of life. Eriko says, "...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."(E 41) ("Maane, demo jinsei wa hontou ni ippen zetsubou shinai to, sokode hontou ni suterannai no wa jibun no dokonanoka wo wakannai to, hontou ni tanoshii koto ga nanika wakannai uchini ookkikku nacchau to omou no. Atashi wa, yokatta wa." J 66)

Kitchen is an extremely enjoyable novel, and by reading parts of it in Japanese, I think I gained a clearer perception of the writer's skill and the relationships between the characters. Kitchen has interesting characters, as well as a strong underlying philosophy, which forces the reader to think long after she has finished the story. I intend to recommend this book to my friends, and I look forward to reading more of Yoshimoto's work in the future.


Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchen. Translated by Megan Backus. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. (E = English Version)

Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchin. Tokyo, 1991. (J = Japanese version)

caitlin at cs dot wisc dot edu

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