Banana Yoshimoto is a Japanese contemporary writer famous for her best novel Kitchen that sold more than one million copies worldwide. A Hong Kong film and a TV show also feature this novel’s story. Banana received the 39th edition Best Newcomer Artists award for this novel on Japanese government’s recommendation.
Born to a famous poet, philosopher, literary critic Takaaki Yoshimoto, Banana found solace in literature from early childhood, which influenced her desire to become a writer. She is liberal in her views, stands for human rights, and has been an advocate for women rights in Japan.
Most of her novels present an independent woman as a protagonist who overcomes the tragedies and traumas of life.
When she published her first novel Moonlight Shadow she was a student at Nihon University Art College and was waitressing at a country club. The novel was a hit and she received the Izumi Kyoka Prize from her university. She has also won the Umitsubame First Novel Prize and the 16th Izumi Kyoka Literary Prize.
According to Banana, writing comes to her “almost as natural as breathing.” In the literary societies of Japan, Banana is known as Healing-Kei, i.e. a wise healer.
Here are the best Banana Yoshimoto books that you must read and why.
But if a person hasn’t ever experienced true despair, she grows old never knowing how to evaluate where she is in life; never understanding what joy really is.
Banana has unparalleled skill in transforming ordinary scenes into magical moments. This book works as a healer to those who have lost their dear ones to death. A powerful combination of loss, death, love, and hope, this novel is a poetic delve.
This book contains two novellas, Kitchen and Moonlight Shadows, both recounting the personal tragedies faced by two young female protagonists, Mikage from Kitchen and Satsuki from Moonlight Shadow.
Both the girls bearing the loss of their dear ones find relief in true love and devotion from their closest male characters in the novellas.
Mikage takes solace in her kitchen when her grandmother dies, leaving her all alone in the world. Similarly, her schoolfellow, Yuichi Tanabe, also faces the same sorrow. Both lose their dear ones to be left alone in the world and find solace in the kitchen.
They feel an attachment with every object in the kitchen. The vegetable knife, shining tiles of the kitchen, and even the dry and immaculate towels have a special place in their lonely lives. And, in the kitchen, Yuichi and Mikage are on the journey to feel the unintentional yet the purest form of love.
Moonlight follows a similar storyline of grief and loss. Satsuki, a young girl and Hiragi, another main character, both lose their loved ones to death. Both characters try to pull each other out of the destitute and sorrow. All in all, both stories successfully transport us into the lives of young and lonely Japanese city girls.
I agree with Ayushi in her review of Kitchen that we need familiarity with the native context of Japan to absorb much from the novel and not miss minor details.
Nothing exists in this world but me and my bed…
The idea of supernatural epiphany is beautifully exhibited in Asleep that is set in a dream-like world. Although Banana’s novels are set in reality, the events in this novel exhibit enough magical realism to draw her readers into a private and tranquil space.
Asleep is the collection of three contemporary novellas: Night and Night’s Travelers, Love Songs, and Asleep.
The unconventional story of three young women bewitched into a mysterious and spiritual sleepwalking, sleeplessness, and haunted sleep triggered by the death of a loved one. The stories revolve around dead lovers, unrequited love, or unfaithful affairs.
The novel is brimming with loss, a tinge of nostalgia, and loneliness on the surface but just like Kitchen, this novel also ends in hope for human strength, beauty, and transcendence.
Many scenes from the novel depict Banana’s exceptional skill of sowing hope into the readers’ minds despite their circumstances. The true spirit of Yoshihiro in his son, the tender sweep of Haru’s beautiful hair, and the ghost of Shiori on the swings urging the mortals never to lose hope during the dark phases of life.
Ana S. in her review of the novel Asleep credits subtle, introspective, melancholy, and bittersweet narration for the success of the novel instead of plot. It’s not the plot that impressed her but treatment of the subject.
3. Goodbye Tsugumi
Whenever you get something in this world, you lose something too — that’s just the way things work.
Banana has crafted this novel in beautiful poetic diction. A novel that is lighter on the plot but the beautiful description of the scenery; the warm summer sea, sweltering ocean, scenic little fishing town, and refreshing weather gives the novel an ethereal quality.
Goodbye Tsugumi is a melancholic story of the deep and complicated friendship between two young cousins Tsugumi and Maria who spend their last summer in the seaside hometown.
Tsugumi, regarded as the most powerful character of Banana, is the real focus of the novel and drives appreciation from the readers and critics.
She serves as a surface to Maria’s incessant thoughts and apprehensions. She is suffering from disabling disease, falls ill frequently, and perhaps will die soon. Nobody scolds her for whatever she does. She calls others ‘dimwits,’ ‘morons,’ and ‘assholes.’
One might describe Tsugumi as afrail, sharp-tongued girl because of her horrid attitude, and profanities but behind all this insolence is a strong, fearless human being.
‘Everything will be alright.’ Tsugumi’s goodbye words when Maria is leaving the resort to settle in her new home manifest her unfiltered, relentless, and pure heart. She never apologizes and refuses tears and sympathy because she bears circumstances as they are.
Whereas Maria tries to adjust to her new hometown and university life, Tsugumi ceaselessly flows with the wind of the sea with no care for the world.
Despite the ill-fated fortunes of Tsugumi, Vishy in her review of the novel Goodbye Tsugumi is all praise for her unfiltered, unconventional bold character.
4. The Lake
I love feeling the rhythm of other people’s lives. It’s like traveling.
Life is merciless and unpredictable. But it gives a chance to everyone to be happy if they stay committed to the path. The lake is the story of Chihiro, a muralist who had an unconventional childhood and had to bear the loss of her mother’s recent death.
Unable to adjust to life’s hardships, she moves to Tokyo with determination to overcome her grief and start a new journey. The Lake is brimming with eloquent imagery and plain emotion that sets a fast pace for the novel.
Chihiro spends hours gazing from the window. She feels an emptiness in her heart and is unable to get rid of her past except when she catches the sight of Nakajima, a fragile and brilliant student, from her window.
Hoping to get over her terrible past, she gives life a second chance. Their acquaintance begins with silent, unspoken conversations, sweet smiles, and gestures. A sweet love connection forms between them and finally they start to live together.
As soon as Chihiro starts to feel harmony in her life, she is forced to make a difficult choice. Either she must leave Chihiro and never return or stay committed and solve the haunted mystery of Nakajima’s life.
According to Aths in her review of the novel The Lake, both Chihiro and Nakajima’s grief brings the two closer and this is the best aspect of the novel.
Memories are energy, and if they aren’t diffused they remain to haunt you.
If you prefer traditional stories with a proper beginning, middle, and end, then this novel might be for you. But Lizard is a treasured novel of hope and spirituality, with little snippets of all characters’s lives that you can dive in and out of, with no proper beginning or end.
Lizard is the collection of six short stories of delightful adventures, spiritual yearnings, and familial issues of urban professionals. Most of them had traumatic or disturbing childhoods and now committed to change the fate of their lives, craft their own destinies, and win the independence they always desired.
The stories are about the power of time, healing, karma, fate and ultimately hope that becomes a transforming force in each story.
The characters in the stories are on their journey to realize that there is so much more that the world has to offer. Spiritually inspired, they find the true essence of life; some through religious aspirations, some in marital bonds, and others through peaceful journeys.
In her review of the novel Lizard, Lottie Eve calls for Lizard stories as the guiding hands that lighten the hearts of its readers.
6. Hardboiled & Hard Luck
Interesting things do happen, even in the midst of the blackest nights.
The surreal subject matter and dream-like narration of the novel sets the dark theme of death in a profound and mesmerizing way. Hardboiled and Hard Luck is a novel consisting of two mysterious and peculiar stories.
The young female narrator of Hardboiled is enjoying mountain hiking when she faces weird happenings. She realizes it’s the day when her strange lover Chizuru who “could see things other people couldn’t,” committed suicide and suddenly things start to make sense.
She comes across an unusual and creepy shrine, finds black stones from that shrine in her pocket, a sudden burst of fire while she is eating, and nightmares about her angry lover.
The cautious development of the plot helps readers and Chizuru make sense of all the unsettling circumstances gradually.
Hard Luck follows the same theme of love, death and familial relationship. The unnamed narrator is visiting the hospital where her sister lies unconscious due to slow brain death.
The grieving narrator reflects on nostalgic memories of their sacred time. The effect of the young girl’s imminent death on her loved ones is shown in a light and a matter-of-fact way, in a true Banana Yoshimoto style.
According to Melwyk in her review of the novel Hardboiled and Hard Luck, if you prefer slow, thoughtful, introspective stories then this novel surely needs a place on your bookshelf.
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