Banana Yoshimoto: Asleep – Shirakawa Yofune (1992)


It’s been a while since I’ve last read a book by Banana Yoshimoto, who has always been one of my favourite writers, although I can’t say I loved all of her books. There was always the one or the other that didn’t work as well as a whole, but I always loved her themes and certain elements in every story.

Asleep is a collection of two long short stories (65 and 75 pages ) and one shorter story (30 pages). The stories circle around similar themes. Loneliness, longing, sadness, dreams, sleep, loss, and grief. A character, always a young woman, looks back with longing on a time in her life in which she was with someone she felt very close to or had an intense relationship with. At the time when she tells the story she’s in an uncertain situation. Maybe unemployed, dating a married man, grieving. What the characters in the three stories share as well is that they are visited by the ghosts of beloved dead in their dreams. Sleeping is important in the stories, dreaming can be more intense that staying awake.

Asleep is one of Yoshimoto’s books that I didn’t love as a whole. I loved the dreamy mood, the sorrow and loss, the loneliness and exquisite sadness she described but I found the stories a bit repetitive. Looking back, the three stories blend into each other. The one I liked the most was The Night and Night’s Travellers. The other two could have done with some editing. She moves back and forth in time and occasionally it’s confusing.

Asleep, the title story was interesting as well because I knew someone just like the narrator. A young woman who fell asleep constantly. Or slept for days and days. When you spoke to her, you had the feeling she was never really there. She too, like the main character in Asleep, had experienced something very painful and couldn’t come to terms with it. It was like her consciousness was trying to retreat all the time, shied away from fully confronting her situation. That’s exactly what happens to the young woman in Asleep.

In a way, one could say that these are ghost stories. Not that they are scary but they are eerie and the dead people talk to the living. The dream states are just as real as being awake. Reading this collection, I noticed that while atmosphere is a key element of European ghost stories, in most Japanese ghost stories I’ve read so far, mood is more essential.

While Asleep isn’t my favourite of Banana Yoshimoto’s books, I liked a lot of it and really enjoyed getting re-aquainted with her sadness-infused, eerie stories, in which dreams and dead people play such a prominent role and the characters occupy an in-between world.

This is book four of my 20 under 200 project.

35 thoughts on “Banana Yoshimoto: Asleep – Shirakawa Yofune (1992)

  1. I was going ask if these stories were eerie but then I saw the word in the review. It sounds as though this was an interesting concept that didn’t quite work in its execution.

  2. I’ve seen so many of Yoshimoto’s books around but never read any – where would be a good place to start?

    • Kitchen is my favourite and I’d say the best place to start. It’s short as well, 100 pages and toegther with another really lovely story Moonlight Shadow.
      I alos loved N.P. and the short story collection Lizard. I wasn’t so keen on Goodbye Tsugumi. I’d love to hear what you think of Kitchen.

      • I agree with your choices. 🙂 I thought that the English translation of Goodbye Tsugumi was truly terrible – it contains so many inappropriate and outdated American words. The story itself is fairly ordinary too.

        • I’m glad to hear that. 🙂
          I’ve not read Amrita yet. I read Tsugumi in a German translation and it was so bland. I remember thinking “So what?” the whole time.
          Did you read Amrita?

          • No, I haven’t read that one. It does sound a bit like all the others, though. 🙂 Is it just me, or does she seem to have rewritten the same(ish) story over and over? I don’t mind, because I like nearly all of them. I couldn’t see the point of Tsugumi, either.

            • It’s not just you. I thought the same but so far I didn’t mind. I’ve got one that looks really interesting. It’s called Moshi Moshi in German. It’s the longest she’s written. I’m very interested to see what I’ll make of it. Murakami has the same tendency of rewriting, not the story, but the same themes and image.

  3. I’m so glad you reviewed this as Banana Yoshimoto is on my list of writers to try, but I wasn’t sure where to start. I’ve looked at ‘Asleep’ in bookshops and then put it down again because something kept holding me back. I really like the mood you’ve described here, but it sounds like Kitchen would be the one to consider.

  4. I remember the eerie sense of unease I felt as I was reading these stories. They were very atmospheric and emotionally disturbing, and I really liked them. I kind of went off Yoshimoto after The Lake, which was a massive disappointment for me after waiting so long to get my hands on her new book. Thinking about ‘Sleep’ now, I find that I still feel a bit haunted by the first story. It’s so mysterious and dark and intriguing.

    • Yes, I like dthe first one a great deal as well. It was by far the best and it’s haunting. I?m glad you mention The Lake as I was wondering whether I’d like it. I just got another of her newer novels in a German translation. It’s not available in English. I’m curious to find out how she’s writing now. Asleep is quite old already.

  5. Great commentary Caroline.

    Based on your description I think that I would find these tales especially sad. I find that looking back at times of satisfaction from not so good times to be so. Nevertheless such stories often make really good fiction.

    • Thanks, Brian.
      Thry are very sad. Especially the first story in which the sadness isn’t filtered like in the two others. She’s also very good at capturing the magic of some friendships.

    • It still a very good collection, only the stories are similar. If this appeals the yu might really like the novellas Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow (same collection).

  6. Weirdly enough, I actually want to read Asleep now thanks to you. Maybe it’s the words “ghost stories.” I am a horror fiend…

    But I’ll look up Kitchen as well since the consensus here is that it’s the best place to start with Yoshimoto. Were there any other works by Yoshimoto you enjoyed that had an eerie mood?

    • I’m glad to hear that. I didn’t want to put off anyone from this book because it is very good and, come to think of it, when you’re not familiar with her, you’d find the storeis more original. The second in the Kitchen collection (Two long stories) – Moonlight Shadow is very eerie. If you love ghost stories like I do – have you read another Japanese author Taichi Yamada, His “Strangers” is a real ghost story (Yoshimoto is something abit more complex) and so is “In Search of a Distant Voice”. THey are fantastic. If you haven’t read STrangers – you’re in for a treat. I review it on this blog.

  7. I was wondering how your summer reading project was going–or is it a long term project? I have only read her novel Banana, but it was so long ago I recall only that I liked it but nothing else! Which book by her is your favorite? It might be fun to read one of the stories in this volume for a different kind of ghost story this fall (I am already thinking about ghost stories–Sept is just around the corner!).

    • The project goes quite well but I noticed I have so many books under 200 and, of course, I’m more tempted to read those not on the list . . . So, either I just use the under 200 tag of write new lists.
      Do you mean her novel Kitchen? That’s my favourite so far. This is decidedly another type of ghost story but maybe it’s misleading to call it that. Yamada’s Strangers – that’s a ghost story. One of the best I’ve ever reda. Not sure you’ve read that already. We’ve got a few days of autumn weather, which made me think of ghost stories and the like. 🙂 Now it’s warm again.

  8. Nice review, Caroline! I haven’t read a Banana Yoshimoto book yet. Which one of her books is your favourite? Which one would you recommend that I read first? Interesting to know that this book is in some ways a ghost-story book. Japanese authors seem to love ghosts and write beautiful literary works with ghosts in them. Great going on the ’20 under 200′ project!

    • Thanks, Vishy. They write interesting gjost story. Or rather magical realism featuring ghosts. I LOVE Kitchen. I really do. So much that I don’t want to it. And the second story in the book as well.
      I liked N.P. as well. It’s longer. I would pick Kitchen. Since a lot of what she writes is similar, that way you know you’ve read a typical Banana Yoshimto.

  9. Caroline, i do hope you’ll forgive me for completely dropping the ball on this one. I wanted to read this one with you, yet somehow time escaped me in the very difficult season I’ve been having. Still, I enjoyed your thoughts.

    Yoshimoto is such a diverse writer! Loved Kitchen. Felt lukewarm about the others. I hope to read Asleep for the JLC9, but I suspect I’ll feel as you do: like it for the dreamy mood, the rest just blends together.

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