Banana Yoshimoto infuses Kitchen with frequent references to “light” and “dark” to impart her philosophy about the balance of joy and suffering in life. Throughout the story, the protagonist, Mikage Sakurai, struggles to connect with joy while grieving, and worries that life is really just about enduring pain, or dwelling in darkness. Yoshimoto, however, speaking through the voice of Eriko Tanabe—the woman who takes Mikage in at the start of the story—believes that no person can eradicate pain. In fact, suffering is needed to truly understand joy. Yoshimoto argues that a person will only experience true happiness when they accept the presence of suffering, just as Mikage does towards the end of the story.
Yoshimoto argues—through Eriko’s voice—that people who have not experienced true suffering cannot understand real joy, implying that both are necessary in the world. When Mikage is grieving her grandmother, Eriko consoles Mikage by saying, “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. I’m grateful for it.” Mikage struggles throughout the story with the worry that she will dwell in darkness and never be happy because of her encounters with death. It’s only when Mikage accepts that her painful experiences are part of life that she is able to experience a joy that surpasses the happiness of those of who have never experienced pain. For example, Mikage describes the women in her cooking class, like her competitors for the cooking assistant job, as limited in their happiness because they’ve known no suffering. Mikage, in contrast, is able to experience “bliss” through her cooking, because of her experiences with grief.
Yoshimoto uses the symbols of light and dark to capture the balance of joy and pain respectively, illustrating that true peace of mind emerges when the darkness of pain is infused with (rather than replaced by) light. Yoshimoto captures Mikage’s happy moments with metaphors about light emanating from the places and people she loves, such as kitchens, Eriko, and Yuichi. Mikage describes her most painful moments as a feeling of pervasive darkness. For example, when grieving her grandmother, Mikage dwells on the “blackness of the cosmos.” Yoshimoto captures Mikage’s acceptance of the necessity of both pain and joy with the metaphor of dark spaces that are punctuated with sources of light. For example, when Mikage finally makes peace with the idea that life is a perpetual balance of pain and joy, she describes a lighthouse that casts its light beam on the dark ocean waves. Similarly, when Mikage realizes that she can build a happy life with Eriko’s son, Yuichi, even though both of their lives have been marked by loss, she describes a “glittering crystal” that pierces the darkness of her mind with light.
Through Eriko’s voice and Mikage’s experiences, Yoshimoto asserts that suffering is a necessary part of life that cannot be erased. However, this fact is no tragedy, for the experience of suffering is what allows people to experience true joy. In other words, those who have endured suffering are the ones who can truly appreciate something that glitters in the dark.
Joy and Suffering ThemeTracker
Joy and Suffering Quotes in Kitchen
This was his mother? Dumbfounded I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Hair that rustled like silk to her shoulders; the deep sparkle of her long, narrow eyes; well-formed lips, a nose with a high, straight bridge—the whole of her face gave off a marvelous light that seemed to vibrate with life force.
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.
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’.
Yes. 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.
They had been taught, probably by caring parents, not to exceed the boundaries of their happiness regardless of what they were doing. […] What I mean by “their happiness” is living a life untouched as much as possible by the knowledge that we are really, all of us, alone. That’s not a bad thing. […] But—that one summer of bliss. In that kitchen […] Having known such joy, there was no going back.
I realized that the world did not exist for my benefit. It followed that the ratio of pleasant to unpleasant things around me would not change. It wasn’t up to me. It was clear that the best thing to do was to adopt a sort of muddled cheerfulness.
The endless sea was shrouded in darkness. I could see the shadowy forms of gigantic, rugged crags against which the waves were crashing. While watching them I felt a strange, sweet sadness. In the biting air I told myself, there will be so much pleasure, so much suffering. With or without Yuichi. The beacon of a faraway lighthouse revolved. It turned its light toward me, then turned away, forming a pathway of light on the waves. Nodding to myself, my nose dripping, I returned to my room.