Hungry for Substance:
Kitchen & Thirst for Love

Banana Yoshimoto and Yukio Mishima.

2,725 words

Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by Megan Backus
London: Faber and Faber, 1993

Yukio Mishima
Thirst for Love
Translated by Alfred H. Marks
New York: Random House, 1999

Kitchen is a 1987 novel by Banana Yoshimoto (surely a pen-name). It is a brisk read — the mundane language and matter-of-fact writing style allow it to be breezed through in a handful of hours by a dedicated reader. What is shocking is how popular and highly approved this book is by both the reading public of Japan, and to a lesser extent the West (who will consume it simply because it’s easy and fashionably liberal to do so). It was nominated for the Yukio Mishima Award a year after its publication, and it reached British shores fairly quickly in 1993. This translation by Megan Backus is the only one so far, despite there presumably being an appetite for the next Kitchen, which is telling of its simplistic writing and vacuous plot. Most editions also include the additional story “Moonlight Shadow,” which involves cross-dressing as a central plot point of existential angst.

At a mere hundred and fifty pages in total, the Kitchen book is comparable to Thirst for Love by Mishima in its length and focus on female sensibility, but otherwise has little to offer. Thirst for Love, in contrast, is a satiating meal full of complex and challenging flavors. This essay will serve as a critical overview of Kitchen’s deficiencies as a counterpoint to the laughable praise heaped upon it.

Despite its short length, Kitchen still could have served up something filling, given the twin deaths that instigate the navel-gazing that makes up the bulk of the book. However, what’s there is spread thin. It follows an adolescent girl’s experience overcoming loss and loneliness following the death of her grandmother, which completes the death of her surrounding family and leaves her an orphan in an empty apartment.

She is taken in by a modern single mother and son, who have an uptown apartment with a lovely kitchen, something the narrator fixates on as a substitute for having a personality. By the end of the book, she and said son have developed a friendship that is foretold as love by one one-scene acquaintance. But even this friendship, developed over a hundred dreary pages of over-exposure to each other, is tentative and requires nonsensical radical action to maintain, like breaking into a hotel in the small hours of the morning to perform an ill-advised delivery of takeaway food.

The entire book fetishizes eating as a bonding experience, yet this critic cannot recall a single description of what any of the udon actually tastes like. It is written from a trite “adolescent funk,” which The New Yorker misleadingly informs us Yoshimoto “transforms into the essential,” but the book is just trite; right down to the transsexuality torpedo it fires into the protagonist and the reader early on: “‘Guess what else — she’s a man.’ This was too much. I just stared at him in wide-eyed silence. I expected any second he would say, ‘Just kidding.’” The single mother Eriko, who works at a gay club, is “dazzlingly” beautiful and used to be a regular Joe (how progressive!), who “became a woman” after his wife died because “she knew she’d never love anyone else” (how romantic!). Yuichi, the only child, explains his real mother “died when I was little” (how convenient!).

All the characters seem to do is worry, chatter, stare out of windows, and watch television. “It really was a marvelous sofa. An entire family could watch TV on it.” (p. 8) “I went back and sat on the sofa, and out came the hot tea.” (p. 10) “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.” (p. 16) “I gave myself permission to be lazy. . . I would clean house, watch TV, bake cakes. . .” (p. 21) ”. . .both us slept into the afternoon. . . I had the strange sensation, while we were sitting in front of the TV, that we really were orphans.” (p. 54) “I’d be watching television with the sound down low in the dead quiet of midnight, and Yuichi would come out of his room and make tea.” (p. 75)

In Thirst for Love, the cast are kept occupied. Etsuko, a widow, moves into her retired father-in-law’s mansion and farm, where she falls in love with the servant boy, Saburo, whilst numbly submitting to the fumbling advances of the aged Yakichi. The rhythm and tension of farming life give the characters something to busy themselves with, allowing their natures to become evident: “Yakichi, however, was out of sorts as he worked at this task — expressionless, silent in his rubber boots, his army trousers tight on his legs as he stooped to pick up the roses. This uncommunicative, expressionless toil was the toil of a man whose blood still bespoke of his farmer’s lineage. Even Etsuko was attracted to the Yakichi of times like this.” (p. 130) In their final meal before the tragic end, they eat huddled around a naked twenty-watt bulb.

The Tanabes, who adopt Mikage, however, are frivolous with their spending. Even the otherwise dull-as-dishwater narrator is taken aback by their consumptive habits: “Unbelievable, these people, I thought.” (p. 30)

One of Kitchen’s astonishing failures is its inability to built any kind of dramatic tension. Mikage and Yuichi exist in a perpetual state of adolescent ennui. The lack of impetus becomes all the more noticeable with Banana’s annoying penchant for repetition: When Mikage is adopted by Eriko and Yuichi, she is disparagingly compared to a dog (“Woofie”) they used to have. Just to hammer the point home, Mikage tells her ex-boyfriend, who calls at just the right time seven pages later, that “they just took me in like they would a dog.” (p. 24)

The same phrasing about never seeing such-and-such again is spread across two-thirds of the novel, insinuating that there’s nothing new to come. In a futile attempt to make stuff happen in a story where the leads desire little besides sleep and sustenance, multiple characters are introduced for a single scene before being promptly forgotten. Even the pivotal mother figure of Eriko is killed off at the book’s midpoint, before her character has any time to blossom (the “blossoming” has presumably already occurred through gender transition). After Mikage’s ex-boyfriend makes the inexplicable phone call, he is never heard from again. Yuichi’s ex-girlfriend demands a futile confrontation and is driven out. A transvestite friend of Eriko’s drags Mikage out to a noodle bar, attempts to convince her that she is in love with Yuichi and vice versa, and after turning on the tears and taking a train home, she disappears from the story.

There is no development or central contention beyond optimism or lack of it. Kitchen reads like a teenage girl’s diary, and is about as interesting: “I took a hot shower while I waited for the tea water to boil. As I was sitting up in bed in my warm, fresh pajamas, the phone rang. When I answered it, the person at the desk said, “You have a telephone call. Please hold.” (This is on the penultimate page.)

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In contrast, Thirst for Love maintains a consistent focus on the family clan living on the farm. The cast makes up a small microcosm of Japanese society: Yakichi the paternal statesman, Etsuko the reluctant consort, Kensuke and Chieko, the middle management, Asako, the domestic mother, and Saburo and Miyo, the servants. It is immaculate in its planning, even if Etsuko’s extended monologues cause the execution to wobble at times. Etsuko, jilted by men and fate, drives the narrative by attempting to resolve the passion that threatens her domestic arrangements; she rests her happiness on shunning her feelings.

The setting is thoroughly detailed, cohesive, and logical; poverty and circumstance confine the characters within its boundary. There the focus rests until the tragic end. (Kitchen, by contrast, takes place across various indistinct apartments.) Background characters are merely incidental or exist to provoke the household; in one instance they are stood up by a dignitary, who announces his imminent arrival but never materializes. Catastrophe is brought about by each of them becoming corrupted by their specific human frailty in turn, causing them to fail in their allotted roles. It leads to the expulsion of one character (“To send a woman four months pregnant out of the house, wicker trunk on her back, is no small thing”) and the murder of another. [1] [2]

Two major criticisms of Kitchen remain. Firstly is the lack of any self-awareness in the astonishingly vulgar liberal pretension it offers — the sanctimony is cloying and suffers from wince-inducing, unnecessary references: “Like Helen Keller when she understood “water” for the first time, the word burst into reality for me.” (p. 12) Helen Keller being, of course, an obscene Bolshevik fantasy about how someone blind, deaf, and dumb can become a famous international socialist writer. A cab tells her that a long journey in the early morning will be expensive, and Mikage acknowledges the fact “calmly, like Joan of Arc before the Dauphin.” (p. 93) It makes one wonder why Mikage did not instead become a welder, who bullies Yuichi into bowing to her Rosie the Riveter emancipation. Instead, she is carried through the novel like flotsam, floating on the basic necessities of maintaining a part-time job and a threadbare relationship as self-justification.

The issue of transsexuality, which handled differently could have added powwow and motive power to the story (possibly by having the son-and-father duo wrangle over differing points of view), is sadly handled without a shred of irony. Yuichi tells us that his father decided to go full-bore on a whim:

“Because she hates to do things half-way, she had everything “done,” from her face to her whatever, and with the money left over she bought that nightclub. She raised me a woman alone, as it were.” He smiled.

“What an amazing life story!” (p. 14)

There is no contemplation of the idea that undergoing extensive self-harm, solely to be seen as a mocking imitation of the opposite sex, might be construed by some as an offensive. Eriko comments in a letter:

There are people who choose to live their lives in filth, this is hard for me to understand. People who purposefully do abhorrent things, just for the attention it draws to them, until they themselves are trapped. I cannot understand it, and no matter how much they suffer, I cannot feel pity for them. (p. 52)

No one tell her about the 41% who felt trapped in their own distorted bodies, though she might not hear you over the nightclub noise anyway. For a novel purportedly about loss, this is a huge missed opportunity to explore how the coin of “becoming” (LARPing) the opposite gender is, on its flip-side, a self-immolation of one’s natural dignity and God-given gifts.

Gender dysphoria is thankfully unmentioned. In contrast to medical (and pseudo-medical) discourse about gender identity this and “brain differences” that, transsexuality is couched as a personal choice to simply drop everything, wipe the slate clean, and petition both the gods of plastic surgery and nightclub patrons for a do-over. By involving both a transvestite in Kitchen and cross-dressing in Moonlight Shadow, Yoshimoto implicitly endorses the idea that transgenderism is an extension of playing dress-up, a theatrical performance for a cosmopolitan public.

Secondly, Kitchen is just not a rewarding read. Its vocabulary and descriptive prose are appallingly basic. It should be properly categorized as young adult or even early teen fiction were it not for the subject matter, but the book is marketed as serious fiction. The soaring profundity of Mishima’s offhand observations makes “Banana” look like a brain-damaged Tumblrista.

No one’s words can compete with this mercilessly powerful rain. The only thing that can compete with the sound of this rain, that can smash this deathlike wall of sound, is the shout of a man who refuses to stoop to this chatter, the shout of a simple spirit that knows no words. Etsuko recalled the mass of rose-colour naked figures running before her in the light of the flaming poles, and the sound of their shouting, like the cries of slippery young animals. Only that shout! That’s all that’s needed! (p. 125)

Mikage’s thoughts and conversation are completely banal:

“‘Life can be so hard,’ I said, moved.” (p. 41)

Sentimentalism abounds: “Truly great people emit a light that warms the hearts of those around them.” (p. 55). Do they? Characters oscillate between depression and eye-rolling resolutions to not admit “defeat” (by what?) without rhyme or reason; it is packaged and presented simply as a journey through the ever-changing present of female sentiment. The principal character (Eriko) never rises beyond passivity. “I realized the world did not exist for my benefit [and] things around me would not change. It was clear the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness. So I became a woman, and here I am.” (p. 81)

The final blow to any credible claim this book can have at being “literature” is how consistently slipshod both the writing and (I’m assuming) the translation are. Mikage’s kitchen is both “deathly silent” but also home to “the hum of the refrigerator.” (p. 5) Weather is “springlike” instead of just “spring.” There’s a Diatribe of a Mad Housewife [2] [3] type of slip-up where Mikage refers to Eriko as “Mom” despite having known her for only a single night. Attributes got muddled when the “silence fell with a thud.” (p. 77) Mikage’s heart leaps with an “audible thump,” which if literal, sounds quite dangerous (p. 84). A snowstorm is “cold-looking,” a depressed person is “sadly cheerful,” and characters do not gossip or chitchat, but share “gossipy chitchat.”

I was puzzled as to whether Mikage was actually a boy or a girl all the way until 46 pages in, when Eriko comments she has “a smart-ass for a daughter.” It’s proof that despite the time we spend with Mikage, we barely get to know her, leading her to inform us that “for me, a night owl, this would not do” on page 103 of a story 105 pages long. There’s just no there there. Despite all the tea and comfortable furniture, the emptiness of Kitchen is an embarrassment.

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[1] [5] Ryosuke, Etsuko’s philandering husband, gives in to his sadism. Etsuko witnesses his death and is unable to reconcile her desperation to be desired with the intense suffering she is burdened with, and so seeks out an impossible relationship: her masochism and impracticality lead her into infatuation with Saburo, whom she pursues throughout the novel. Miyo, the servant girl, is gotten the better of by her stupidity and lack of reflection, as she copulates with Saburo the gardener and falls pregnant, endangering her position within the household. Etsuko demands she is expelled out of jealousy, and Yakichi, who is gotten the better of by age, weakness and lust for Etsuko, washes his hands of it and allows it. Kensuke (Yakichi’s languid, lazy son) and Chieko (his wife) are gotten the better of by being know-it-alls, and while they think highly of themselves for being wise to Etsuko’s desperation, they are unable to prevent tragedy and in fact exacerbate things by being reproachful. Finally, Saburo, (“Any internal struggle to vanquish his desires was of no concern to this healthy young man”), is gotten the better of by his inclination to opportunism, and attempts to rape Etsuko. She screams and he turns to run, and she grabs his leg and is dragged along by him, as she is still desperate for his affections. When Yakichi arrives to defend her, Saburo is paralyzed by his lower social status, and Etsuko takes the mattock Yakichi has brought and murders him, thus ending her torment.

[2] [6] The Harpooned Heart is based on Marge’s life (made all the more obvious by the fact that Temperance’s name changes to “Marge” for three paragraphs on page 72).