Banana Yoshimoto: Moshi Moshi (2016) – Moshi-moshi Shimokitazawa (2010)

Book Cover Moshi Moshi

A few years ago, I used to read every book by Banana Yoshimoto. With the exception of Goodbye Tsugumi, I liked or loved them all. Why did I stop reading her you may wonder? Because her best books are very similar. She returns to the same topics and themes again and again and while these are themes I’m drawn to, I still felt I needed to wait a little before returning to her.

Moshi Moshi tells the story of twenty-year old Yotchan whose father, a musician, has committed suicide together with another woman than his wife. Yotchan and her mother are devastated and trapped in their grief. Yotchan had just graduated from a culinary school and wanted to open her own restaurant. Grief and the realization she might not be ready makes her rethink her plan. Watching Ichikawa Jun’s film ‘Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa, she decides that changing the neighbourhood and moving from Tokyo’s posh Meguro district to the colourful Shimokitazawa neighbourhood might help her.

During the day, Yotchan works in the bistro of a friend, in the evenings she explores Shimokitazawa. One day, her mother stands in front of her door and tells her she will move in. Yotchan isn’t happy about this but she agrees anyway. Yotchan is afraid that her mother might interfere with her life but she shouldn’t have worried. Her mother too, wants to change, shed her old self, find new meaning.

Both women begin to enjoy life again, but the dark mystery surrounding her father’s death still weighs heavy on both. Without telling her mother, Yotchan investigates and finds out that he woman with whom he committed suicide was a very dark person. Charismatic in a destructive way.

It takes Yotchan and her mother the whole book to come to terms with the suicide of their beloved father and husband, but when they do, they have found a way to integrate him into their life and, at the same time, leave their old life behind.

I loved this novel. It’s beautiful and melancholic, a celebration of the transitoriness of life and of what the Japanese call “exquisite sadness”. Shimokitazawa is described as a very lively place. Full of bistros, cafés, restaurants that attract artistic, bohemian people. Since Yotchan is a chef, she’s particularly attracted by the culinary side of this neighbourhood. It was fascinating to read about her trips to restaurants and cafés which included the descriptions of the places and the food. There’s such a wealth of food in this book, none of which I’ve ever tasted. All I know of Japanese cuisine is Miso soup, Sushi and Ramen. Not one of these is ever mentioned. I loved that because it introduced me to what the Japanese really eat.

Yotchan, who is the first person narrator of this novel, is a lovely character. She’s enthusiastic and keenly aware of the people and places around her. Her appreciation of beauty and the fleetingness of things infuses the story with a bitter-sweet mood.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t go into any details, but there a few very beautiful descriptions of locales, places and trees which by the end of the book will not exist anymore.

Banana Yoshimoto has a knack for capturing fleeting beauty, for using unusual, eccentric characters and situations. She’s also known for writing about death and the influence of the dead on the living. This book contains all of that and more. Because it is longer than most of her other books, the reader has time to get fully immersed in this world. I was sad when I finished the book. It reminded me of a time when I was twenty and, like Yotchan, knew that many of the people and places I loved would possibly not stay in my life forever. It’s peculiar to look back and remember this odd clarity. Maybe this happens to most people at that age. Like Yotchan, I enjoyed the company of some people and at the same time I knew, I would move on.

It takes a lot of skill to write about the sad aspects of life but to do so in a way that is uplifting, that doesn’t shy away from describing futility but in doing so guarantees that what is gone is not forgotten but won’t trap you in the past.

Since I liked this so much, I was glad to discover that I had another one of her novels, Amrita, on my piles.

I read the German translation of Moshi Moshi that’s why I didn’t add any quotes. I wonder if the English edition contains as many footnotes as the German translation. I was thankful for those footnotes as they explained the food that was mentioned and some expressions I wasn’t familiar with.

Until now, Kitchen was my favourite Yoshimoto novel, but I liked this one just as much.

japanese-literature-challenge-x

This review is my second contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X

Here’s the review list.

Banana Yoshimoto: Asleep – Shirakawa Yofune (1992)

Asleep

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.