Kitchen contains two short stories written by Banana Yoshimoto, published in Japan in 1988 and translated to English in 1993. The first story is called Kitchen, and the second, Midnight Shadow.
Mikage Sakurai is a college-aged woman who is struggling with the recent loss of her grandmother. One day, she encounters a boy named Yuichi Tanabe, who knew her grandmother as well. Seeing her pain, he invites her to stay with him and his transgender mother, Eriko, at their apartment. Mikage agrees, and she falls in love with their airy, plant-filled home, getting to know Yuichi and Eriko as she spends countless nights on their couch.
Eventually, Yuichi insists Mikage send out change-of-address cards with his apartment on them. Later, she learns that Yuichi’s girlfriend is extremely upset that a woman is staying at his house for so long. Mikage decides that Yuichi’s girlfriend cannot possibly understand him—he is cold, emotionally withdrawn, and is wrapped up in many interests outside of dating.
While staying at the Tanabe’s, Mikage starts teaching herself to cook. She has many conversations with Eriko about life, love, and death, and becomes a beloved member of the family.
Mikage’s emotional wounds scab over, and she moves out of the Tanabe’s apartment into her own place, having secured a job at a cooking school. Months later, Yuichi calls her and admits that Eriko was killed by a stalker the previous month—he couldn’t bear to tell her right away, thinking she would be upset, and has been drinking a lot since his mother died. Mikage insists on coming over, and she stays the night.
The next day, Mikage cooks a large meal for them, and Yuichi drunkenly expresses romantic feelings toward her. Though he reciprocates, they can’t decide what to do, as Yuichi is terribly depressed and doesn’t want to bring her down. He feels the same as Mikage did when her grandmother died—miserable and alone.
Mikage goes to work and is offered a trip to the Izu Peninsula, which she agrees to, thinking it will buy her time to decide whether or not she wants to be with Yuichi. At work, Yuichi’s classmate barges in and tells her to stay out of Yuichi’s life, insisting that he cannot move on while she is around.
Before her trip, one of Eriko’s coworkers takes Mikage out for tea and notices that she must be in love with Yuichi from the way they talk about each other. She gives Mikage the information of the inn that Yuichi is staying at and tells her to visit him there.
On her trip, Mikage eats the best katsudon of her life and calls Yuichi, who is hungry. She suddenly decides to visit him, taking a serving of katsudon in a taxi all the way to his inn, where she must scale the building to get to his room because the entrance is closed for the night. She gives him the food and finally tells him her feelings, expressing that she wants to be closer to him, and that she will give him time to work through his sadness.
The story ends with Mikage and Yuichi feeling hopeful about the future, no longer lonely.
Kitchen is a simple story about grief, family, and community. The main characters, Mikage, Yuichi, and Eriko, are all touched by grief in various ways, and their shared emotions draw them together.
Although I found Mikage and Yuichi’s budding relationship cute in the beginning of the book, the longer I read, the more confused I became. The two of them bond over the death of Mikage’s grandmother and Eriko, during a traumatic time where they are both extremely vulnerable. In reality, relationships forged out of necessity don’t often succeed in the long run. When the grief and pain fades, the two people may realize they had little in common besides trauma. Mikage and Yuichi could easily be friends, but I was never able to determine what truly bonded them outside of their trauma. Mikage is overly jealous early in the story, and she quickly thinks she is the right person for Yuichi, even though he has a girlfriend. What makes her think she is right for him? Well, because she respects his love of fountain pens, of course. All that jealousy, just for her to be too shy to mention her feelings until the end of the book—it just didn’t sit right with me.
I struggled with Yuichi’s characterization, as well. He is plagued with thoughts of toxic masculinity, avoiding his emotions and staying quiet rather than being vulnerable. He laments that he cannot be enough for Mikage—because he is depressed, he believes he is unable to be the man she deserves. Eventually, with the help of alcohol, he does admit his feelings for her, as well as his feelings about the loss of his mother. I appreciated the male vulnerability, but I felt the arc could have been executed better. It was only near the end of the story, when Yuichi laid everything on the table, that I realized he was struggling with these masculine ideals. Perhaps it is down to a difference in culture, but I would have liked to see more obvious examples of him dealing with his masculinity in the beginning of the story. To me, he seemed like your average studious, quiet boy, so I was surprised when he was concerned with manliness at all.
Gender is a common theme throughout the story, especially concerning Eriko. I realize that the book was published thirty years ago, and I think it may have pushed the boundaries when it was released, but nowadays, the references to transgender life make me cringe. Eriko is said to be fabulously beautiful, which is great, but it is pointed out numerous times that she had a lot of surgery to look this way. Lots of transgender people have surgery, but rarely do they bring it up so often, especially when the surgeries are simply to help them blend in with society.
When anyone, including Eriko herself, talks about her past, they always use the ‘right’ pronouns for the time, rather than sticking with she/her throughout, which annoyed me. Her masculinity is pointed out by Mikage, and Yuichi mentions multiple times that Eriko is ‘actually a man’, including when he outs her to Mikage at the very beginning. I wonder if Yoshimoto knew anyone who was trans, because outing a trans person to a stranger is one of the most dangerous things you can do to them. Eriko also works at a gentlemens’ club, which I thought was reasonable for the time, and her being attacked was fairly realistic, if unfortunate. Transgender women are common targets for hate crimes even nowadays. It is frustrating that the main trans character is killed, leaving us to watch a straight romance unfold, but again, I recognize that many stories about trans people written during this time opted to kill them off. There was an obvious attempt at inclusion and understanding, but it falls short thirty years later.
Yoshimoto pairs strong emotions with poetic, gorgeous prose that is endearing from the first sentence. Her settings pop with bold colors, scents, and vivid detail that make the prose feel like home as we adjust to Mikage’s new life along with her. She crafts passages of poignant narration, little phrases and sentences that make you stop to think. It is delightful to read, but unfortunately the translation causes issues with the quality of the prose. The English copy I read had many awkward sentences and even grammar mistakes—to my eye, at least—which detracted from the experience. I don’t fault Yoshimoto for this, but rather the English press that allowed it to print without thorough editing.
Similarly, the book was published in English in 1993, when Japanese books weren’t translated as readily as they are now, especially books by female writers. Although the overall style was enjoyable for me, it’s important to consider that the story may be lacking the nuance it has in its original text. For example, I wonder if the translation impacts the relationship Mikage and Yuichi have, since relationships depend a great deal on subtext and minutiae. What seems unnatural and forced in the English translation could be entirely different in Japanese.
Kitchen is a lovely little story, however dated it may be, that desperately needs a new English translation. Even so, it is a worthwhile read for the prose alone.
The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos. — pg. 7
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. — pg. 8
I was tied by blood to no creature in this world. I could go anywhere, do anything. It was dizzying. — pg. 10
No matter how dreamlike a love I have found myself in, no matter how delightfully drunk I have been, in my heart I was always aware that my family consisted of only one person.
The space that cannot be filled, no matter how cheerfully a child and an old person are living together—the deathly silence that, panting in a corner of the room, pushes its way in like a shudder. I felt it very early, although no one told me about it. — pg. 21
In the endless repetition of other nights, other mornings, this moment, too, might become a dream. — pg. 41
To the extent that I had come to understand that despair does not necessarily result in annihilation, that one can go on as usual in spite of it, I had become hardened. Was that what it means to be an adult, to live with ugly ambiguities? I didn't like it, but it made it easier to go on. — pg. 56
Why is it that we have such little choice? We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated-defeated, we make dinner, we eat, we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living is unacceptable. — pg. 82
Hitoshi was killed in a car crash two months ago, leaving behind his girlfriend, Satsuki, and his brother, Hiirage, whose girlfriend Yumiko was killed in the same crash. Satsuki is struggling with grief and depression, and takes up running to keep herself occupied.
On her run one morning, she meets a mysterious stranger named Urara, who insists on seeing her again. Urara later calls her, and despite coming down with a cold, Satsuki decides to meet her. Urara tells her about a mystical ‘something’ that will occur by the river where Satsuki runs, and requests Satsuki to meet her there at a very specific time.
At home, Hiiragi brings Satsuki food and offers her his companionship as a friend—they both want to see each other happier and let go of their grief.
Satsuki meets Urara at the river, where there is a shift in time that allows her to see Hitoshi for a brief moment. They wave to each other, and when the shift disappears, Urara tells her that she lost a loved one too, and seeing them again has allowed her to say goodbye and let go.
Later, Hiiragi tells Satsuki that he saw Yumiko in his room and gave him a sign to move on. Satsuki realizes that she needs to move on, too. Even though she may never forget Hitoshi, he is only one person and there is more to life than just him. Time moves on and so will she.
Following the same themes as Kitchen, Midnight Shadow is a short story about grief, friendship, and letting go. I enjoyed this story more than Kitchen, and I attribute that to its length. There isn’t much room for meandering or repetition, and the message is sweet and relatable.
My biggest frustration with the story is the choice of main character. Satsuki’s boyfriend is killed in a car crash, but Hiiragi’s girlfriend and brother are killed, too. Hiiragi’s grief is exponentially larger than Satsuki’s and it is obvious that he is suffering significantly in the months that follow. I’m not sure if Yoshimoto only writes female main characters, but I really wanted to see this story from Hiiragi’s perspective instead. I assume that writing Satsuki’s story was more straightforward, since she only had one death to overcome.
On the other hand, I liked Yoshimoto’s use of objects in this story: Hitoshi’s bell and Hiiragi’s sailor outfit. They tie the characters to their respective losses in a simple, beautiful way, although I found the sailor outfit to be an extremely strange choice. I liked the idea that Hiiragi defied gender norms by wearing his girlfriend’s old outfit, but it seemed very outrageous, especially for how long he wore it. The clothes are supposed to be a physical manifestation of Hiiragi’s grief, and the outfit is supposed to cause discomfort in the people that see it, because it forces them to think about his suffering. That much, I liked. However, I wondered why it had to be a girl’s outfit. Does Hiiragi really not care about the looks he gets when wearing a skirt? Does he actually feel more comfortable in the skirt? Why does Satsuki point out how weird the skirt is, when she is running for the same reason he wears it? I wonder if a different symbol could have been used, or if the fact that it is a girl’s outfit has a deeper meaning that I don’t understand.
I also enjoyed the surrealism of the book. Urara is a mysterious character who holds substantial wisdom and appears like a dream. She is the magic that connects Satsuki to Hitoshi one final time, and because Satsuki is sick, we aren’t certain that it was even real—until Hiiragi says he experienced the same phenomenon. You can see the fantastical twist coming, but I still thought it was executed well.
For what it is, Midnight Shadow is a good companion to Kitchen, and I would love to read the same story from Hiiragi’s perspective.
I lost Hitoshi at the age of twenty, and I suffered from it so much that I felt as if my own life had stopped. The night he died, my soul went away to some other place and I couldn’t bring it back. — pg. 111
I wished my heart would break and get it over with. — pg. 127
He himself would never speak it. To say it would mean to suffer from it. To suffer terribly. That thing was, “I want her to come back.” — pg. 136
“I care about you so much, I just want to crawl into the same bed with you.” — pg. 143