Five years ago I read Banana Yoshimoto’s (1988) debut story Kitchen (which also contained the short story Moonlight Shadow). I enjoyed the two stories with some reservation about how deceptively simple they appeared. I think what I was trying to articulate back then is how it is possible for a story to be written simply, in an undemanding way which can still get under your skin.
Which brings us to Dead-End Memories – five stories by Banana Yoshimoto originally published in 2003 but only just translated into English in 2022. Five stories that engage you despite their simplicity.
Florentyna Leow in a 17 July 2022 article forTokyo Express, titled ‘Banana Yoshimoto’s ‘Dead-End Memories’ is the literary equivalent of a lo-fi playlist‘, summed up the collection perfectly with this:
The protagonist experiences trauma or loss and tries to come to terms with it and move on. Their suffering is often lyrical – messy but in an aesthetically pleasing way, and their story typically ends on a poignant note….The dreamy, sometimes surreal stories explore emotionally heavy-hitting themes like life, love, death, happiness, identity, loneliness and grief, delivered with the author’s characteristic light touch.
In 2003, Yoshimoto was in her late thirties. Fifteen years after Kitchen, she was still focused on writing about the younger generation and their experience of living in modern Japan. She has been quoted as saying that her work is about ‘the exhaustion of young Japanese in contemporary Japan‘, a form of urban existentialism if you like. It would seem that all twelve of her books plus short stories and poems revolve around this one idea.
In a 1990 essay by Kenzaburō Ōe (Nobel laureate for literature 1994) about the parlous state of Japanese literature, he declared that,
Murakami and Yoshimoto convey the experience of a youth politically uninvolved or disaffected, content to exist within a late adolescent or post adolescent subculture.
He believes that ‘serious literature‘ and ‘literary readership‘ in Japan have declined. It’s hard for us to know if this is the case or if the often political stories he wrote post-WWII, that once resonated with readers, simply no longer reflect the lives or attitudes of the modern generation.
Certainly, Banana Yoshimoto has been both celebrated and dismissed by reviewers as a ‘shōjo’ writer (a demographic term used for adolescent and young adult women to describe their consumer habits). Her writing is not particularly literary, or at least the English translations are not, and the stories themselves are easy to read and unpretentious. That is their charm, of course.
I decided to read the five short stories in Dead-end Memories one at a time over the entire month of January – basically one story a week. They are all about young people coming to terms with their adult lives and responsibilities. Broken hearts feature prominently.
In the first story, House of Ghosts, a story about two young people destined to inherit and run their parents restaurants, I had to reseacrh omurice.
Secchen’s grandparents opened a Japanese diner ‘in the next town over‘ that was now being run by her parents. Her older brother had made it clear he did not want to join the restaurant. Instead Secchen had been ‘trained from a young age to make things lilke omurice, pilaf and demi-glace‘ – also known as yōshoku, or western-influenced Japanese cuisine developed at the beginning of the 20th century. Omurice is a mash-up of omelete and rice. The dish consists of tomato sauce flavoured fried rice wrapped in an omelete. The fried rice usually has chicken or ham in it but can also be meatless. It is topped with a Japanese demi-glace.
Her boyfriend Iwakura lives in a house haunted by an elderly couple who died suddenly. Both Secchen and Iwakura find their presence comforting rather than disturbing, watching them prepare meals together. The sharing of food is an act of love for both couples.
I confess the idea of the Japanese roll cakes made by Iwakiura’s family in their ‘famous‘ bakery holds far more appeal than omurice!
There was a desperation about him that spoke of a lifetime of baking cake rolls that awaited him by default unless he forged his own path.
Mama – references the July 1998 Wakayama curry poisoning incident.
During a community summer festival in Wakayama, Masumi Hayashi was charged with lacing the communal curry pot with arsenic which killed four people and made another 63 very ill. Hayashi and her husband Kenji were also charged on suspicion of insurance fraud. According to Wikipedia, “the crime inspired a wave of copycat poisonings“.
In Mama, a worker at a publishing/editing company suffers a poisoning event consisting of ‘a massive amount of cold and flu medicine‘ after a disgruntled employee laced the vegetable curry in the staff canteen. The toxicity of the poison plus her subsequent time in hospital triggered unwelcome childhood memories and feelings in our protagonist.
I had no idea that there was a sad and murky swamp biding its time in me, which an unexpected trigger could bring even in a small way to the surface.
The title of the story gives away where her main problem lies. The story gently describes how she comes to terms with her past and learns a few things about herself as a result, ‘we are all nourished and cherished by our families, and at the same time limited and defined by them‘.
Not Warm at All reads like a memoir as our narrator takes us through her writing life before remembering the tragic tale of her childhood friend and the influence his memory has had on her. I also learnt about ‘wagashi’ ( a Japanese sweet often served with green tea).
Naturally Tomo-chan’s Happiness is not all sweet and light. Tomo-chan’s father left her and her mother to be with another woman when she was young and then she was raped as a teenager, yet somehow she goes through life ‘safely held‘. This was the least convincing or satisfying story of the five.
The titular story is saved for last. Dead-end Memories is a more traditional break-up story – young love, he goes off to another town to work…and falls in love with someone else but doesn’t know how to break it off with the first girl. She learns ‘each one of us has our own personal rock bottom‘ and that the trick in life is to get the ‘balance‘ right.
Most of these stories read like a self-help manual for young adults.
Given the number of young people I currently know who are struggling to come to terms with their adult life, these issues are not just pertinent to Japanese culture. The themes are universal. Whether they provide solace or guidance though, I cannot say. Thankfully I am well past that phase of life!
Dead-end Memories is sweet confection for Yoshimoto fans, fun while you are reading them, but not particularly memorable in the end. The cover design is divine – I adore gingko leaves – and loved having it grace my bedside table for a whole month.
Japanese Lit Bibliofile:
- If Cats Disappeared from the World | Genki Kawamura
- A Cat, A Man and Two Women | Junichiro Tanizaki
- The Travelling Cat Chronicles | Hiro Arikawa
- The Guest Cat | Takashi Hiraide
- The Cat Who Saved Books | Sōsuke Natsukawa
- The Woman in the Purple Skirt | Natsuko Imamura
- The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart | Chesil
- Tokyo Express | Seichō Matsumoto
- First Person Singular | Haruki Murakami
- People From My Neighbourhood | Hiromi Kawakami
- The Forest of Wool and Steel | Natsu Miyashita
- Strange Weather in Tokyo | Hiromi Kawakami
- Convenience Store Woman | Sayaka Murata
- Kafka on the Shore | Haruki Murakami
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage | Haruki Murakami
- On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho
- The Sound of the Mountain | Yasunari Kawabata
- 1Q84 | Haruku Murakami
From the TBR: Dead-end Memories only made a brief appearance on my TBR stack (two months) but it’s another one gone from the stack.
Title: Dead-end memories | デッドエンドの思い出 | Deddo endo no omoide Author: Banana Yoshimoto Translator: Asa Yoneda Imprint: Counterpoint Published: 15 November 2022 (originally published in Japan 2003) Format: Hardback Pages: 224 Dates Read: 2 January 2023 - 28 January 2023
|This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.|
8 thoughts on “Dead-end Memories | Banana Yoshimoto #JPNshortstories”
*chuckle* Hey Brona, did you catch Louise Adler having a little rant about the fad for what she called Sad Girls novels and misery memoirs, which have followed on from the Gone Girl phase in publishing? It was rather droll.
It’s here: https://www.theage.com.au/national/writers-need-more-government-support-publisher-louise-adler-20230124-p5cf2v.html
Thanks for the link, although I couldn’t read all of it, as it went behind the paywall. But it sounds like it follows on from our discussion on a previous post about family trauma in novels. So many sad & traumatised people, usually women, in our lit right now. As we covered in that thread, novels that put these characters within their social context and something is said about the cultural, societal, political or historical world, then it feels like it was worth the journey.
I got that from The Woman in the Purple Skirt, my previous read.
Time and place seemed irrelevant in this collection, except for the story that referenced the 1998 Wakayama curry poisoning incident. Even then it was only referenced so we knew that this was a copycat incident, but no commentary on what or why this was a phenomenon. Perhaps a Japanese audience automatically understands all the flow-on ramifications, that we cannot?
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I didn’t read any of it, I just listened to the interview. I agree with you that, in some cases, it’s worth the journey, but there’s just too much of it and it’s got to the stage IMO where it’s all been said before, and then it’s a matter of whether it’s well done or not. Most of it is pretty ordinary, I think. Jessica Au has set a standard for others to live up to now, or else write something different!
I’ve read a bit of Japanese literature over the years but more in the 90s and early 2000s, than since I started blogging in 2009. One of the themes that comes through to me, from the contemporary works is that a lot of them are about young people, and a lot of them question the drive for conformity, the homogeneity and lack of freedom to be yourself. In that sense those books I’ve read might be about young people but the subject matter is not coming-of-age but issues relevant to living in contemporary Japan. At least that’s what the literature tells me – I am not actually up on what is happening there politically/socially.
I do know wagashi from having green tea in traditional settings in particular. (Our last experience was at Rikugien in Tokyo in October 2019 – seems like a different life now, travelling like that!). I have heard of omurice, but I don’t recollect ever having it.
That’s my understanding too Sue. The Woman in the Purple Skirt certainly covered all those societal issues. But it’s what I missed with this collection of stories. Maybe reading them at the same time as I am reading William Trevor’s short stories, is not fair!
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Omurice sounds very odd! I will of course get this when I can, as I love her writing (even though I don’t really like books about millennials, diverse millennials or ones from other countries I’m OK with!). It’s so flat and simple and I find you have to give up looking for the hidden meaning and just float along with it!
Kitchen was the first book I read by Banana Yoshimoto, and I remember feeling quite moved by it. I went on to read all that she had published at that time, and just last night I discovered Dead End Memories on sale for my Kindle at $1.99 on Amazon. Amazing! When does what I want to read ever go on sale?! At any rate, I will be reading it, too. Short stories aren’t necessarily my favorite thing, but Banana Yoshimoto and your review make this book most compelling.