One of the many appeals of Banana Yoshimoto’s novella Kitchen is that it deals with feelings everyone can relate to. Everyone has been hungry, and images of hunger, food and meals are plentiful in the novella. Other common feelings also come up, especially sadness and loneliness.
Early in the book, the reader discovers the protagonist, Mikage Sakurai, was orphaned as a child, and that her family had decreased until she was the only one left. Mikage feels she is truly “all alone.” At one point, she says, “We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated¾defeated we make dinner, we eat, we sleep. Everyone we love is dying.”
Despite the many sad events of the book, though, its tone is not generally one of sadness. This is because, despite all the negative turns of events in their lives, the characters know how to deal with unhappiness. Mikage, Eriko and Yuichi know how to be happy.
At first, Yuichi doesn’t seem to have a good way of coping with things that trouble him. This fact is first mentioned by his mother, Eriko. Eriko tells Mikage she knows she hasn’t been the perfect parent to Yuichi, because although he’s “a good kid,” there are some things she wasn’t able to teach him, things that “slipped through the cracks.” Eriko knows she didn’t teach Yuichi an effective way to deal with other people, and as a result “he’s confused about emotional things and he’s strangely distant with people.”
Yuichi shows this in the way he reacts to Eriko’s death. He avoids calling Mikage to tell her until a month after it happened. His reasoning was that telling Mikage would make Eriko’s death real for him. Yuichi didn’t want to have to deal with Mikage’s reaction. When he finally does call her, and they sit down to talk about it, Yuichi is drunk. In fact, he’s been drinking often in the weeks since Eriko died.
Yuichi learns to be happen when, still feeling terrible about his mother’s death, he goes to see Chika, a close friend of the family. Chika sends him off to an inn where he can be alone to think. Yuichi had been thinking about living with Mikage, but felt as if he needed to “pull himself together” first. While at the inn, Yuichi realizes he really does want to be with her. Yoshimoto ends her novella with Yuichi’s cheerful declaration that he’s going to pick up Mikage at the station. Readers get the sense he’s finally pulled himself together and can be happy with Mikage now.
Eriko had also gone through a time in her life when she was sad and confused about what to do. Yuichi tells Mikage that his “real” mother was another woman and that Eriko, who is transgendered, is Yuichi’s biological father. “After my real mother died,” Yuichi says, “Eriko quit her job, gathered me up, and asked herself, ‘What do I want to do now?'” After the death of his wife, the man who would become Eriko felt the same confusion Yuichi felt after Eriko’s death.
This man then adopted the life the would allow him to be happy. Yuichi explains, “What she decided was, ‘Become a woman.'” It was this decision that allowed Eriko to become the person she really wanted to be. She wrote in the letter to Yuichi, “But I have cheefully chosen to make my body my fortune. I am beautiful! I am dazzling!…I have loved my life.” The way Eriko chose to live did make her happy.
Another aspect of Eriko’s happiness was her philosophy of life. She believed one could be happy despite bad things happening. She tells Mikage, “The ratio of pleasant and unpleasant things around me would not change. It wasn’t up to me. It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness.” She also expressed this philosophy in her letter to Yuichi. There are “people who do abhorrent things,” she told her son, and so there was the possibility that something might happen to her. In spite of that, she wrote, Eriko was going to go on living her life.
For Mikage, the key to happiness is remembering what is good about life. Often what Mikage delights in has to do with food. She makes her living working for a magazine about cooking, but more than that, she genuinely enjoys cooking. Her idea of paradise is “living like a housewife.” She enjoys the sight of food well-prepared as much as she enjoys eating.
Mikage also loves kitchens. Yoshimoto opens her novella with Mikage’s words, “The place I like best in the world is the kitchen.” In the scene in which Mikage breaks down and cries on the bus, she gets comfort from the sight of a kitchen. She goes from despair to happiness in that scene simply by looking at something that gives her pleasure.
The three main characters in Kitchen have all found out how to be happy in a world that doesn’t always make happiness easy. Yoshimoto never allows her characters to become hopeless. “If a person hasn’t experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life, never understanding what joy really is,” Eriko says. Yoshimoto lets just enough despair into Kitchen to create dramatic suspense. Will Mikage and Yuichi end up alone, or stay together? Because Yoshimoto has left her characters well-equipped to deal with life’s quirks and unpleasant surprises, the reader has every reason to be optimistic.