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.

24 thoughts on “Banana Yoshimoto: Moshi Moshi (2016) – Moshi-moshi Shimokitazawa (2010)

  1. I had to laugh when you said that you used to read every Banana Yoshimoto book but then stopped, because she always tackles the same themes. I had a similar experience (although I read far less of hers, I stopped after the first two or so). But if this is on a par with Kitchen, I might well return to her…

    • You can’t read them too quickly one after the other.
      The description of Amrita makes me think it’s a variation of this one or rather the other way around.
      She’s definitely an author – if you don’t like one, you probably won’t like her at all.
      It could have been a bit tighter but I found it very enjoyable noetheless.

  2. It’s always pleasant when you find unread books by someone you’ve just read and enjoyed sitting, waiting, on the shelf. I have yet to read this author. Still working on Japanese crime novels

  3. You make this author sound so alluring – I think I’m going to have to try her at some point. There is something very appealing about Japanese literature, and this sounds like the sort of quiet, melancholic book that I tend to enjoy. Lovely review as ever, Caroline.

    • Thank you, Jacqui. I like Jaanese Literature because of that. And their esthetic. It appeals to me. This has lovely passages. I’d be so interested to hear your thoughts.

  4. I reviewed this a while back, and I quite liked it. To be honest, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Yoshimoto as her dialogue can be immensely trite and annoying, but she does what she does very well for the most part. I actually quite liked ‘Amrita’ (even if nobody else seems to have read it), and I’ve read all nine (?) of her books in English.

    P.S. As far as I can tell, there are absolutely no notes in the English version!

    • I missed your review. I get the love-hate. Of course, it’s not easy to judge when you read in translation but I’d say she has other qualities than style. I’m looking forward to reading Amrita. It’s only Goodbye Tsugumi that didn’t work for me.
      Maybe she works better in German? I’ll find out as I’ve got Amrita in English.

  5. The first book I read of hers was Kitchen, and I loved it immediately. I, too, went on to read several others by Banana, and then I, too, tired of the same themes. But, I can clearly see how touching this book would be. Suicide is a tricky subject to write about, it’s effects are pervasive in so many lives (I know this from a personal incident within my family). For that reason, it might be too difficult for me to read. But, then again, it might offer important insights. Surely different perspectives, different points of view which can enlighten our own situations, is part of why I read. A lovely review, and I’m off to add it to the list.

    (By the way, Dorian of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau blog, just sent me A Quiet Place which I’m looking forward to reading myself.)

    • Thanks, Meredith.
      I think you’d be able to read this as it’s much more a sort of ritualistic death pact than what I would call a suicide. There’s no history of depression or anything like that. Yotchan and her mother struggle a lot because it doesn’t make sense and because he is dead, far less because if the suicide per se. It’s mysterious. As you know, she likes a touch of the super natural. Before reading your comment, it hadn’t even occurred to me how different from any other story about suicide it is.
      I already finished A Quiet Place. Very different. A much more traditional Japan.

  6. I was interested in your introduction as I, too, read a few of her novels (certainly Kitchen and Asleep) and then stopped reading her – the law of diminishing returns I think as her work seemed very much the same, and what I initially liked became bland by over-exposure. Perhaps it’s time I tried her again.

    • I felt like that about Asleep. If it had been my only Banana Yoshimoto, I would have liked it but after Kitchen, NP and her short stories I felt but didn’t add that much. This was much better and also twice as long as any of her other books.

    • I hope you’ll enjoy it. I liked it very much. Kitchen is shorter and there’s another novella in the book which I liked as well.This is much longer and feels much more like a novel. But Kitchen is wonderful.

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