Kitchen contains two stories - the titular tale which is 105 pages long and a shorter one of only 45 pages called Moonlight Shadow. Kitchen is the story that propelled Yoshimoto to fame in Japan in 1988 upon its publication, and I can certainly see why.
Both stories focus on dealing with grief after the death of someone close to you. Yet despite the sombre subject matter confronted in these two stories, and that they are both quite sad - especially Moonlight Shadow - this is one of the few Japanese books I have read so far that is neither horrendously bleak nor paints Japan as a terrifying, dangerous place full of psychopaths (I would not advise reading anything by Ryu Murakami or Natsuo Kirino shortly before embarking on a trip to Japan!). On the contrary, I found these two stories to be very uplifting, enjoyable and full of tidbits of Japanese culture.
In the first and longer story Kitchen, the main character Mikage is confronted with the death of her grandmother with whom she lived. She ends up moving in with a young man who knew her grandmother and helped Mikage with the funeral arrangements, and his transsexual mother Eriko. One of my favourite things about Kitchen is the talk about kitchens and food. I’m not much of a cook myself, but I loved Mikage’s passion for kitchens and moreover I love Japanese cuisine so reading this made me feel very hungry!
Moonlight Shadow is my favourite of the two though; it has more depth and has a sweet poignancy that is rare is novels. This second story is about learning to move on once a loved one has died. Satsuki has lost her long-term boyfriend, Hitoshi, to a car accident. Likewise, Hitoshi’s younger brother, Hiiragi, lost his girlfriend in the same tragedy. A stranger Satsuki meets on a bridge tries to relieve her grief by supernatural means.
The language is simple and charming, and both stories have a very distinct ‘Japanese’ feel to them; they have plenty of Japanese culture and have a hint of Haruki Murakami’s trademark surrealism.
I really enjoyed this lovely, melancholy book. I thought it sounded pretty boring when I first read the synopsis of each novella and wasn’t expecting much in spite of its acclaimed position in contemporary Japanese literature, but both Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow were very enjoyable reads. However, the abstract nature of the book means that it is definitely not for everyone, and may seem uneventful for some; this is a book about emotions rather than actions. Though this thin book might sound very depressing, it isn’t and has an uplifting feel to each story, as it strives to show that there is hope and a future for those left behind after a death. Both stories hold an incredible beauty that is worth reading a mere 150 pages to experience.