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I honestly didn’t think I’d like Banana Yoshimoto’s hit novel Kitchen since I usually don’t go in for that kind of thing – you know, those “whimsical” books about coping with death.  But after reading about Mikage Sakurai, the university student navigating life and wondering whether to take a step towards love, I realized that this is exactly the kind of thing I go for.

After her grandmother dies, Mikage, a girl with slender arms and legs and long hair, is left all alone in the world until the Tanabes, mère et fils, step into her life and slowly draw her into their world of strange, muddled cheerfulness and compulsive buying habits.  Yuichi, the son, had known her grandmother and even goes to the same university with Mikage, but it isn’t until he invites her to live with him and his mother (who’s technically his father) that they really start to understand each other.  But how will two lonely people navigate the curve between friendship and love?

This is a quiet, gentle book that can be really wonderful if you are in the right mood, and enjoyable even if you’re not.  It reminds me of those movies like Taste of Tea (Cha no Aji) which might not techincally be the best, but can still enthrall you with their calm, leisurely pace.  The kitchen and cooking motif can be a little forced, but it makes sense that a novel about lonely people trying to connect would use the act of making food for others and eating together central to the story.  There are so many little things that I like in this book – like how they become a subject of gossip at the university, or how Mikage satisfies a late night pudding craving (I may be biased with that last one).  And I can’t help but crave life-affirming katsudon after reading it.

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The novel is usually published together with the novella “Moonlight Shadow” and I actually became more fond of this story than Kitchen.  Satsuki is still grieving over the accidental death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi, when she meets a strange woman, Urara, who tantalizes her with the prospect that she might see something on the bridge she frequents on her morning jogs – something that only happens once every hundred years.  My favorite part of the story, aside from the brief history of how Satsuki met Hitoshi in high school, is her relationship with Hitoshi’s 4-D little brother, Hiiragi, who lost two loved ones in the same accident.  Despite the potentially heavy subject matter, both works are lovely slice-of-life stories that give a fascinating glimpse into life in not-so-everyday Japan.

Yoshimoto seems to put a lot of stock in intuition, and the story is laced with doses of the otherworldly, like telepathy, shared dreams (how Paprika!), and spirits.  I’m down with that, but I feel that her books are still interesting even without those additions.  My one quibble is that I don’t really like the English language edition cover (above).  I certainly don’t picture Mikage like that, but I guess that’s not really the point.