Review by Jantien Abma
This pocket-sized book comprises of two ‘slice of life’ stories, the titular Kitchen and forty-page Moonlight Shadow. Each brief yet peculiarly intimate story is told by a young narrator during the purgatorial period of mourning that comes after the death of a loved one, portraying curiously different grieving processes as the protagonists deliberately or unwittingly search for closure. In her first published book, Yoshimoto achieves the extraordinary feat of gently exploring the depths of human feeling while revealing beauty in the mundane with every turned page. In both stories, appearances of soupy rice, katsudon and soba noodles abound regardless of the scene’s mood, much like in my own hopeful imaginings of Japanese life.
Kitchen follows the directionless teenager Mikage as she figures out how to live life after the passing of her grandmother, her last remaining blood relation. She moves in with Yuichi and his transgender mother, who, with the help of their inviting kitchen, support her in finding her feet, before an unexpected tragedy hits their little home once more. Rather than indulging in sorrow that is plain to see, Kitchen’s narrative paints a life simply and distinctly by honing in on the pleasures and banalities of an average Tokyoite existence. Interestingly, Yoshimoto nonetheless very effectively permeates the story with a sense of grief, using it as a subtle presence that colours Mikage’s and Yuichi’s every action. More than anything, Kitchen highlights the vague unpinnable feelings that go hand in hand with both youth and tragedy.
Moonlight Shadow is the shorter and arguably more poignant novella that follows. It launches immediately into the post-loss stupor of Satsuki and Hiiragi, struggling to cope with the car crash which killed each of their significant others. Satsuki’s deceased boyfriend Hitoshi was also Hiiragi’s older brother, a fact that links the two in a symbiotic healing relationship. Satsuki’s solitary pre-dawn jogs, an answer to her grief-induced insomnia, are slowly whittling her frame to skeletal proportions while Hiiragi, a popular high school student, has taken to wearing his dead girlfriend’s school uniform to school. Satsuki realises that their new habits are different versions of the same thing: an attempt to lend ‘life to a shriveled spirit’. They are what each character clings to to avoid total emotional deterioration.
A mystical turn in Moonlight Shadow’s narrative spoke to my predilection for the gothic genre when an ostensibly cheerful stranger named Urara appears on a bridge during one of Satsuki’s solitary winter jogs. Bidding the bubbly woman farewell, Satsuki jogs away, but looking back over her shoulder, is shocked to see Urara gazing out at the rushing river with a horribly severe expression on her face. The sequence of events that follows is a testament to traditional Oriental storytelling, which so beautifully told, transcends our pragmatic attachment to what is real and what is not.
This little book was as strong an evocation of Japanese charm as I have come across without having had the privilege to have been there. Whether taken from city life or from more remote, traditional regions, Yoshimoto’s details of Japanese society, food and perspective have left me yearning to experience the melancholic Japan from her writing.