Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is a moving exploration of the processes of grieving. The story, which is divided into two parts, begins with death and explores how people survive painful losses and are able to move on without breaking. At the start of the novel, the protagonist, Mikage Sakurai, is grieving her grandmother, who raised her. The second part opens with Mikage learning that Eriko Tanabe, the woman who took her in after her grandmother died, has been murdered. In describing the aftermath of these two deaths, Yoshimoto captures the physical and emotional sensations of grieving, particularly the feelings of disassociation from the body, uncontrollable crying, loneliness, and, finally, finding the strength to make peace with death and find joy in living once again. Yoshimoto’s ultimate message is an uplifting one: though each of the grieving characters feels lost and sometimes even feels like they want to die, they know that survival is the only option. Yoshimoto argues that the simple act of surviving—of putting one foot in front of the other to keep going—is nothing short of heroic, and, at the same time, the only option a person really has. It’s what leads people through the grieving process and enables them to connect, once again, with life.
Yoshimoto often describes the physical experience of grief to underscore that grieving is as physical as it is emotional. After Mikage clears out her grandmother’s apartment, Yoshimoto shows how physically overwhelming the experience of grief can be. Mikage feels as if she’s “falling down drunk” and her body is acting “independently” of her as tears pour down her face, and she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Similarly, when Mikage learns that Eriko is dead, she can’t see or breathe properly in her grief. The street around her feels “warped,” she feels as if she’s “choking,” and she feels as if she’s lost control of her body. For Yoshimoto, surviving grief entails allowing space for physical processes to happen and requires taking care of the body as well as the mind. For example, when Mikage allows herself to have a proper cry over her grandmother for the first time—a physical expression of grief—she is finally able to sleep soundly. Similarly, when Eriko and her son Yuichi take Mikage in, the soft sofa that they turn into Mikage’s bed is as comforting to Mikago as the emotional support they provide. Throughout the story, eating is depicted as a healing force for those who are grieving. For example, Mikage saves Yuichi from a dark place by feeding him fried pork, which revives his body, and by extension, his spirits.
Though many of the novel’s characters experience grief so painful that they want to die, each of these characters come to the conclusion that the only thing they really can do is press on and keep surviving. For Yoshimoto, pain is a part of life, and enduring pain is part of what it means to live. For example, Mikage wants to die when she learns about Eriko’s death, but she acknowledges that “tomorrow” and “the day after tomorrow” will come, and as hard as it seems, she will still be alive. Mikage concludes that “despite the tempest raging inside me, I walked calmly.” She puts one foot in front of the other and—literally and metaphorically—keeps going.
Yoshimoto describes the feeling of grief as painfully lonely, isolating, and hopelessly full of “despair.” For Yoshimoto, the only way to get through it is with simple, everyday actions that ground people and bring them back into connection with the rhythms of living—something that, in the novella, is often symbolized by kitchens. When Mikage is forced to confront the reality of her grandmother’s death, she says that “there was only one thing to do—humming a tune, I began to scrub a refrigerator.” Similarly, when Mikage is grieving Eriko’s death, she pushes through her despair by cleaning Eriko’s kitchen. The more she scrubs, the calmer and more collected she becomes. Yoshimoto thus shows that sometimes the only thing a person can do in the face of deep pain is complete the immediate task in front of them. Yet somehow, that’s exactly the thing that will get them through. After cleaning her grandmother’s refrigerator, and making plans to meet her ex-boyfriend, Sotaro, Mikage concludes that “In this world there is no place for sadness.” Yoshimoto means that in times of pain, it’s best for a person to focus on something simple and act, rather than letting their emotions break them. As painful as death is for the novel’s characters, their grief doesn’t kill them. They choose to press on, because that’s the only thing they really can do. With this, Yoshimoto sends the heartening message that for those grappling with intense grief, days will come and go, and the bereaved will get through it as time passes.
Death and Grief ThemeTracker
Death and Grief Quotes in Kitchen
Little by little, light and air came into my heart.
I loved the Tanabes’ sofa as much as I loved their kitchen. I came to crave sleeping on it […] I slept like a baby. There wasn’t anything more I wanted: I was happy.
When I opened the door, I shuddered. It was like coming back to a stranger’s house. Cold and dark, not a sigh to be heard. Everything there, which should have been so familiar, seemed to be turning away from me […] there was only one thing to do—humming a tune, I began to scrub the refrigerator.
It was like watching Bewitched.
It was like being falling-down-drunk. My body was independent of me. Before I knew it, tears were flooding out.
Looking up, I saw white steam rising, in the dark, out of a brightly lit window overhead. I listened. From inside came the sound of happy voices at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging. It was a kitchen. I was puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful. I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and started back for the Tanabes’.
For an instant I had a vision of Eriko’s smiling face, and my heart turned over. I felt an urge to get moving. It looked to me like the kitchen had not been used in quite a while. It was somewhat dirty and dark. I began to clean. I scrubbed the sink with scouring powder, wiped off the burners, washed the dishes, sharpened the knives. I washed and bleached all the dish towels and while watching them go round and round in the dryer I realized that I had become calmer.