Banana Yoshimoto’s English translators have never been able to keep up with the Japanese author’s prodigious literary output. Indeed, her Japanese critics have sometimes charged her with “assembly-line writing”; since the release of her 1988 hit debut Kitchen she’s published work almost every year.
Anglophone readers don’t have the same luxury; less than a dozen novels and short story collections are available in English translation. Her latest, Moshi Moshi, was first published serially from 2009-2010 in the Mainichi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. As her latest novel in English translation, it offers all the usual appeal — and criticism — of Yoshimoto’s unique literary style.
Yoshimoto’s novels follow a typical formula: a character experiences some form of trauma or loss, and spends the novel trying to come to terms with it and move on. Her novels are exquisite at chronicling suffering in the face of loss, and the effort to move beyond. There’s often a vague hint of the surreal or the supernatural; never so much as to render the story unrealistic; always just enough to hint at the blurred edge between reality and dream. The stories usually have a poignant, if slightly upbeat, conclusion.
The formula emerges in most of her translated works in English. Kitchen tackles the death of the narrator’s grandmother and the healing that ensues; N.P. and Amrita deal with the loss of the protagonist’s boyfriend and sister, respectively, to suicide. Her previous translated work, The Lake, features a protagonist struggling to recover from the death of her mother, meeting a man who was abused by a cult as a boy.
In Moshi Moshi, all the familiar elements are there; the only change is the premise that gets it all rolling. Here, the narrator, Yoshie, and her mother are recovering from the death of their father-husband in a murder-suicide with a woman with whom he was having an affair (she drugged his drink and then killed them both). Yoshie moves from the family’s upscale condo in the neighbourhood of Meguro into a small apartment in Shimokitazawa and takes a job at a local bistro, but before long her grieving mother follows her. Together, the two struggle to rebuild their lives, both as mother-and-daughter and also as individuals, and come to terms with their shared suffering.
Yoshimoto probably first struck a chord with younger readers in part because she wrapped her novels in the youth cultures of urban Japan. Her books unabashedly name-drop the bands, clothing brands, styles, shops and clubs that are familiar with younger readers, and this helps Yoshimoto blend her timeless (and timelessly repeated) themes with contemporary life. In Moshi Moshi it’s the indie culture of Shimokitazawa, from the izakayas (pubs) to the rock clubs to the struggling independent shops, that shape the backdrop to a story of redemption and healing. For North American readers, it offers a warm depiction of life in a Tokyo neighbourhood; that phenomenon which can make life in one of the Japanese capital’s sub-districts sometimes seem like life in a self-contained town.
Yoshimoto excels at connecting with her readers through the strange comfort which emerges from a sense of shared suffering. Her exploration of themes of suffering invariably strike a chord with the reader — who hasn’t experienced some form of suffering, after all? — and she plumbs this resonance for maximum effect. The books are deeply introspective: first-person narrators explore their own feelings, come to conclusions, doubt their conclusions, change their conclusions and often feel deeply contradictory things at once. It’s not at all surprising in a Yoshimoto story for a character who’s just fallen in love to sleep with a new boyfriend, decide a couple pages later that their future is hopeless and they ought to break up, and then a couple pages later be inspired by some small mannerism to conclude that she wants to get married and live with him forever. It sounds trite, but Yoshimoto’s deeply introspective and painfully honest first-person narration actually makes it work.
It’s hard to be critical of this: there’s certainly no shortage of suffering in the world for a writer to tap into; no shortage of the need on the part of readers for the soothing touch of a writer’s healing fiction. Yoshimoto’s tapped into a formula that works, and offers something important for readers. What she does, she does incredibly well.
Which is not to say that the formula of her works, as a whole, isn’t over-used. Her repeated tapping into the theme of suffering and soul recovery means that veteran readers of her works immediately put the pieces into place, and recognize the familiar themes. It’s sort of like watching the remake of a television show you liked 20 or 30 years ago, rebooted in a different context but repeating the same familiar themes. It’s comforting, but not challenging. A quote near the end of Moshi Moshi could be inserted just as easily and seamlessly into the conclusion of most of her books, and the reader wouldn’t know the difference: “Sure it was ambiguous, and annoying, and frustrating, and murky, and worrisome, and none of us were doing anything right, but maybe that was okay. It was fine, I thought. It didn’t really matter, it was all fine.” Indeed, that sums up the essential message of most of her works. Then again, sometimes that’s the message people need to hear.
One gets a glimpse of a different, deeper side to Yoshimoto in her short fiction. Here, the surreal often takes the narrative in a different direction, and she still has the ability to surprise the reader. It’s a shame so few of her short stories have been translated into English (there’s Lizard, a collection of short stories which is probably my favourite publication by her in English translation, and Asleep, which is really a set of three novellas, along with the scattered short story tacked onto her novels). But it’s in these short stories that one gets a glimpse of a more challenging, less formulaic Yoshimoto which would be truly exciting to see applied to her longer works.
Some critics can be harsh. A 1998 article by Nicole Gaouette in Christian Science Monitor aptly sums up the critics: “[T]he speed with which she turns out work has drawn charges of assembly-line writing. Reviewers have rapped her for superficiality, for trying to plumb depths her oddball characters are too flimsy to reach, and creating protagonists who are often aimless and depressed. They have criticized her characters’ lives, full of foreign influences, as somehow un-Japanese.”
“But on many levels,” adds Gaouette, in an equally apt rejoinder, “these qualities make Yoshimoto’s books a perfect reflection of Japan — old and new.”
Yoshimoto acknowledges the critique. In a moving afterword to Moshi Moshi, she writes “People often criticize my work for being unrealistic and full of ideas that sound good, but which they wouldn’t be able to keep believing in if they were faced with the death of a loved one. They also tell me that adults have various responsibilities and obligations that mean they can’t live by just following their feelings as I do.”
Yoshimoto, editing the proofs for a paperback edition of the book shortly after the sudden death of her own father, found her critics wrong. “But it turned out that actually, when I found myself in that situation, what I’d written felt very natural and even healing, so I felt confident that I hadn’t been on the wrong track after all.”
Music, Rhythm, Magic
There’s another way of reading through what critics decry as the superficiality of Yoshimoto’s work. There’s no doubt that the dialogue presents an often uncanny aspect, some of which may be attributed to the natural difficulties of cultural and linguistic translation, but some of which is criticized on its own terms.
Shintani-kun still ate beautifully, and the pot-au-feu disappeared into his mouth with dreamy alacrity. As he ate, he looked out the window peacefully. He always wore nice shoes.
I felt joy. Working at the bistro, Shintani-kun feeling at home there. Seeing my apartment across the street. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever — things changed and moved on, and if you thought they could stay the same, they got ruined, like our family had done. Still, I desperately wanted all of this happiness to stay, just the way it was.
Unlike some novelists, Yoshimoto doesn’t rely on dialogue and plot to carry her narrative forward. Dialogue and plot emerge, rather, as expressions of the novel’s broader themes. The everyday conversations; the unexpected tempo shifts; the internal reflections which are the most unpredictable element of all; they all serve to generate the emotional tenor of the work, rather than construct the sort of self-contained logic which some novelists pursue.
To put it more directly, Yoshimoto’s prose has an almost musical quality about it. The novel is like a piece of music, generating mood and atmosphere through descriptive and introspective narration. Dialogue serves a lyrical function, meaningless on its own, making sense only insofar as it moves forward the ambient tenor of the piece.
The literary output of Yoshimoto’s contemporary, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, has often been analyzed in musical terms. Jay Rubin, in his literary analysis Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, writes of that author: “Rhythm is perhaps the most important element of his prose. He enjoys the music of words, and he senses an affinity between his stylistic rhythms and the beat of jazz.” He quotes Murakami himself, from a speech given at the University of California at Berkeley:
My style boils down to this: First of all, I never put more meaning into a sentence than is absolutely necessary. Second, the sentences have to have rhythm. This is something I learned from music, especially jazz. In jazz, great rhythm is what makes great improvising possible. It’s all in the footwork. To maintain that rhythm, there must be no extra weight. This doesn’t mean that there should be no weight at all — just no weight that isn’t absolutely necessary. You have to cut out the fat.
Yoshimoto is not Murakami — and thank goodness for that. She never tumbles into such depths of magical realism, toying with the fantastic while lingering much closer to the edge of reality; and while her characters might be mistaken for suffering from a similar emotional ambivalence to Murakami’s, in fact it masks a deeper and more authentic emotionality than Murakami is usually able to express. Murakami has other merits; the point is the two contemporaries write very different stories. But if Murakami’s work should be juxtaposed with the music that pervades it, so too should Yoshimoto’s. The author who proudly signed off on the Afterword to Lizard with “I’m on my way to a Sonic Youth concert!” (the American edition’s afterword is dedicated to Kurt Cobain — “Without his music, I could never have written these stories”), and who injects so many musical references into her stories, writes with deeply musical qualities herself.
Murakami says his sentences must have rhythm; for Yoshimoto, the rhythm is felt in the totality of the piece; each story like a song or symphony. If Murakami’s great influence is jazz, Yoshimoto’s work exudes a more deeply personal and emotional quality, a literary expression located somewhere between the layered introspection of shoegazer and the quirky integrity of postpunk. Yoshimoto, too, has tapped into the musical magic of words. Or so I would argue, in response to her critics.
Either way, Yoshimoto’s books continue to appeal and heal with their poignant and warmly soothing touch. The message she conveys — ‘I understand’ is what the novels seem to whisper to the reader — is gradually built up through a combination of gentle dialogue and deep introspection, all reinforced with the warm realism of contemporary urban life. Her books are sad, but insofar as they force readers to confront scars and pain in their own lives, the healing processes through which she brings her characters also help to heal the reader.
While its themes are present in many of her works, Moshi Moshi also brings us almost full circle with the work that first made Yoshimoto a sensation almost 30 years ago. Kitchen put front and centre the twin themes of suffering and food; a kitchen is central to the characters’ healing. Likewise in Moshi Moshi: suffering and food come to the fore once again, and the bistro at which Yoshie takes a job becomes central to the healing which she and her mother struggle toward. Yoshimoto wrote her first novel Kitchen during the off periods while working at a club and one would not be surprised to see some of her own life experience reflected in the bustling work shifts of her latest book’s protagonist. The bistro and other venues in Moshi Moshi have real life counterparts, as well.
Moshi Moshi is a poignant, often painful, yet ultimately warm and soothing book. For readers who are familiar with Yoshimoto, it brings the tried and true formula back for another round. For those who haven’t yet experienced Bananamania, it’s as good a place to start as any.