"An Unbearable Sense of Loss:" On Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen and "Moonlight Shadow"


I'm writing this in the midst of depression. I am writing this four days after Christmas and three days after I laid in bed crying because I'll never see my father again. I'm writing this in the dark on a computer; my head is throbbing and my throat is sore because I'm sick. I'm writing this beside a window covered in pink lights. Outside, the rain falls.

I don't know how to start this review, and I probably won't know how to end it. I'll ramble and make very little sense. I'll fail to convey the importance of this book, but I'm going to try anyways because I'm sick and grief-stricken and depressed, and writing about a book that is meaningful to me might liberate me somehow, or comfort me at least a little. So here we go.

Kitchen is composed of two parts: an eponymous novella and a short story called “Moonlight Shadow”. So, I'll review each separately and then weave them together in the end. Needless to say, this review will contain spoilers. So please do NOT read if that bothers you.



Kitchen

Mikage Sakurai is a young woman living in Tokyo, Japan who has lost everyone in her life. Her last remaining family member is her grandmother, but she dies, and Mikage cannot pay the rent for their apartment. Alone and essentially orphaned, she is taken in by a young man, Yuichi Tanabe, and his mother, Eriko Tanabe, who is a transwoman.  The connection between Mikage and Yuichi is instantaneous. He works at a flower shop that her grandmother frequented and even helps at the funeral. When Mikage first meets him, she "saw a straight road leading from me to him. He seemed to glow with white light. That was the effect he had on me.” Yuichi understands loss; his first mother died of cancer when he was very young. Eriko then became a woman. In light of the struggles she has endured, Eriko tells Mikage, “I understand what it's like to be hurt and to have nowhere to go. Please, stay with us and don't worry about a thing.” One of the notable aspects of this book is its complex and nuanced portrait of a transgender character. Eriko's gender identity is respected and, throughout the book, she is referred to by feminine pronouns and called Yuichi's “mother.” Furthermore, Eriko is not constructed as freakish, neither is she mocked. She is a beautiful, nurturing, and generous person who plays a crucial role in Mikage's life.

At a time when she is devastated and lost, the Tanabes take in Mikage and make her feel loved. If this book is about anything, it is about how we save each other, how we need each other. Perhaps, in my position as a citizen of the very individualistic United States, I'm more sensitive to the way that Yoshimoto affirms the value of community and human connection. The text suggests that it is okay to need people, to reach out to them, to be rescued by them. And don't we have an ethical obligation to be there for others when they are in need? The Tanabes did not have to take in Mikage—no one else was offering her a home—but they understood the fear and anguish and grief she felt. Three people—Mikage, Yuichi, and Eriko—who have lost everyone they love come together and create a new family. Their bond is born of tragedy and grief, but that's what makes it so powerful and enduring. They help one another survive.

Soon, Mikage has graduated and landed a position as an assistant in a cooking school. She's always loved food, always been comforted by the space of the kitchen. After her grandmother died, the only place she could sleep was on the kitchen floor, soothed by the lullaby of the humming refrigerator. When she moves into the home of the Tanabes, it's their kitchen she immediately loves. So her passion for food leads her to other places, and she leaves Yuichi and Eriko.

Then, Eriko dies unexpectedly when a man begins stalking her and ends up stabbing her to death.  This part of the book is important because it exposes the very real violence that transwoman experience. The obsessive behaviors of Eriko's stalker seem triggered by Eriko's identity as a transgender person. He is attracted to her, and, when he finds out she was born a man, only then does the aggressive stalking begin. His motive springs from wounded masculinity and is fueled by a desire for revenge.

Eriko's death devastates Mikage. “Never had I felt so alone as I did now,” she says. After the death of her parents, she had her grandmother. After the death of her grandmother, she had the Tanabes. Now, in the wake of Eriko's passing, Mikage feels completely alone. But she does have one person—Yuichi. Their shared knowledge of loss brings them closer together.

Mikage says to Yuichi: “My god—in this gigantic universe there can't be a pair like us. The fact that we're friends is amazing. All this death...all this death.”

I am reminded of Ingmar Bergman's words to Liv Ullmann: “We are painfully connected.”

Similarly, Mikage and Yuichi are “painfully connected” by grief. They know what many their age do not—that we lose what we love, that we ourselves can cease at any moment—but it does not stop them from loving or living. Despite what she has endured, Mikage declares: “No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive.”

Later, she will go to Yuichi in the middle of the night and tell him “We've been very lonely, but we had it easy. Because death is so heavy—we, too young to know about it, couldn't handle it. After this you and I may end up seeing nothing but suffering, difficulty, and ugliness, but if only you'll agree to it, I want for us to go on to more difficult places, happier places, whatever comes, together." She knows he is struggling with his mother's death, that he is isolating himself, that he needs time alone, but she wants him to know that she is there waiting for him when he needs someone and that, with the love and support of one another, they can go on.

I'm reminded of a Virginia Woolf quote: “I meant to write about death only life came breaking in as usual.” That's how I feel about Yoshimoto's text—it's about death but it's inevitably about life, about the ways in which we survive. People can and will be lost but we cannot stop loving them, we cannot stop reaching out to them.

For so long, I've asked myself what is the meaning of loss? What do I do with this permanent, ghastly, unwanted thing? And what is the point of life if it only consists of one devastating loss after another?

The only answer I have is this: Loss is the governing force of our lives. It is the source of everything—of art, community, love, but also of pain and torment. It is the one thing we all share. The one thing that links each of us to every other human being on this planet. What I know more than anything is that what wounds us also connects us.

I think that's how I go on, how I survive. Like Mikage, I have to keep reaching out. I have to create new families through loss.



“Moonlight Shadow”

Yoshimoto continues the theme of connection through loss in her short story “Moonlight Shadow.” The narrator, Satsuki, has lost her lover, Hitoshi, in an automobile accident that also claimed the life of his brother's girlfriend, Yumiko. Satsuki and Hitoshi's brother, Hiiragi, are brought together through their shared grief. She deals with her pain through taking up jogging while Hiiragi wears Yumiko's sailor outfit every day despite the protestations of his parents.

One day, after jogging to a river, where she and Hitoshi spent time together, Satsuki meets a mysterious woman named Urara who has psychic powers. She tells Satsuki to return to the river on a specific day and time during which she will witness a “vision...something that happens only once every hundred years or so.”

Satsuki goes to the river on the appointed day and has a miraculous experience:
There was Hitoshi.
Across the river, if this wasn't a dream, and I wasn't crazy, the figure facing me was Hitoshi. Separated from him by the water, my chest welling up, I focused my eyes on that form, the very image of the memory I kept in my heart.
For a moment, the boundary between life and death is breached. Though the river separates Satsuki and Hitoshi, their meeting suggests that the dead are never completely gone, that we can still conjure them in our minds or even in the spaces where we existed with them. Yoshimoto uses the fantastical to show the power of literature to resurrect the dead. When we read this passage, we not only experience the vision with Satsuki. Through words, we create the resurrection of our own dead. Yoshimoto gives Satsuki a final image of the beloved but, in a way, she gives us a reunion with our loved ones too. She shows us how imagination can be harnessed to bring the dead back into our reality. It makes me wonder: Isn't this a function of the grief text--To imagine the unimaginable? To imagine what was denied us? To create an alternative world? When we write the dead, perhaps we bring them to life if only on the page.

But briefly resurrecting the dead comes with its own kind of pain—the pain of losing them all over again.
Before my eyes, Hitoshi grew faint. When I began to panic, he smiled and waved his hand. Again and again, he waved his hand. He was disappearing into the blue void. I, too, waved. Dear, much-missed Hitoshi--I tried to burn the line of his dear shoulders, his dear arms, all of him, into my brain. The faint colors of his form, even the heat of the tears running down my cheeks: I desperately struggled to memorize it all."
Hitoshi disappears once again, and, while Urara insists that having this final good-bye was a good thing, Satsuki is not convinced. In fact, she is ambivalent about the experience:

Hitoshi waving good-bye. It was a painful sight, like a ray of light piercing my heart.
Whether it had been for the best was not something I as yet fully understood. I only knew that, right now, sitting in the strong sunlight, its lingering memory in my breast was very painful. It hurts so much I could barely breathe.
Yoshimoto complicates our ideas about closure and healing. Does finally saying good-bye erase Satsuki's grief? Not necessarily. Hitoshi is still dead. That fact is as undeniable and unbearable as it was before the vision. As comforting as it might be to, in our daydreams, bring the dead back to life, we must always confront their permanent absence.

Satsuki later learns that Hiiragi also saw his lost lover, Yumiko. She came to him and took her sailor outfit out of his closet. These visions seem to be a way for the dead to tell the living that it is time to move on, to let go of them, and the characters seem willing to do this. Satsuki and Hiiragi's relationship mirrors that of Mikage and Yuichi in Kitchen—they have forged a bond, through grief, that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

Both Kitchen and “Moonlight Shadow” explore the struggle to cope with grief in one's youth. All the characters are young and unprepared for the intrusion of loss so early in their lives. While Mikage in Kitchen and Satsuki in “Moonlight Shadow” express a deep sense of loneliness, nonetheless they manage to connect with other people—Yuichi and Hiiragi—who understand their pain. In the aftermath of so much loss, they salvage what they can from life and affirm the power of love and friendship to help us survive tragedy.