In the Japanese novel, Kitchen, translated by Megan Backus, the author, Banana Yoshimoto, manipulates the motif of light in constructing ups and downs in Mikage’s life to show that loneliness leads to despair, while a connection to others induces happiness. Firstly, Yoshimoto indicates times of joy with light, and times of despair with darkness. Secondly, Yoshimoto draws parallels between Mikage being alone and feeling despondent. In contrast, Yoshimoto shows correspondence between a connection to others and pleasure. Essentially, the motif of light and dark is very carefully interwoven with the themes of loneliness and relationships with others in demonstrating the ebbs and flows of life.
Yoshimoto contrasts light and dark to denote the good and bad times in life, respectively, and how swiftly they occur in succession. For example, following her grandmother’s death, Mikage states that she is alone in the “blackness of the cosmos” (Yoshimoto 4). Yoshimoto’s vivid imagery points to the idea that Mikage is in fact extremely in despair over her grandmother’s death, especially since she was Mikage’s last surviving family. However, in contrast to Mikage’s sadness, Yoshimoto introduces Yuichi as someone “glowing with white light” after offering Mikage a place to have dinner (Yoshimoto 7). Yoshimoto’s description of Yuichi as Mikage’s knight in shining armor clearly demonstrates the correlation between light and happiness. Moreover, the chronological juxtaposition of these events shows how quickly life changes. Additionally, when Mikage is contemplating how she is the only one left in her family, she states that everyone will eventually “disappear, scattered into the blackness of time” (Yoshimoto 21). Yoshimoto’s seemingly exaggerated explanation of a person’s fate reflects Mikage’s mood, as dark as the blackness of time. Furthermore, when Mikage returns to her old apartment again, she describes it as “cold” and “dark” after reflecting once more on the fact that when her grandmother died, “time died, too” in the apartment (Yoshimoto 22). Therefore, Yoshimoto’s use of diction that makes the apartment seem very unfriendly perfectly portrays Mikage’s mood, which is represented by the personification of time. In addition, after Eriko’s death, Mikage describes Yuichi’s face as giving off a “dim glow” (Yoshimoto 50). Yoshimoto’s employment of a tempered form of light shows the mood of the scene, as both Mikage and Yuichi are extremely saddened by Eriko’s death.
Moreover, Yoshimoto’s purpose of incorporating a weaker form of light into Yuichi’s description is to display the hope for happiness that Mikage and Yuichi share. Lastly, Yoshimoto contrasts the “light that warms the hearts of those around [Eriko]” when she was alive to the “heavy shadow of despair” that descended upon Mikage and Yuichi after her death (Yoshimoto 54). This contrast dictates the positive moods of those around Eriko with light, and the crushing desolation of them with a heavy shadow of darkness. On one hand, Yoshimoto displays the causal effect of loneliness on despair, and how it causes even more sadness than the death of a loved one. For example, after her grandmother’s death, Mikage realized that she was “all alone,” leading to her being “steeped in a sadness so great [she] could barely cry” (Yoshimoto 4). Yoshimoto further advances Mikage’s grief by having her simply on the kitchen floor “three days after the funeral” (Yoshimoto 4,5). The way Yoshimoto frames the situation, by having Mikage still be completely shellshocked three days, plainly shows the substantial impact of loneliness. In addition, Yoshimoto utilizes the medium of dreams to reveal more of the effects of loneliness, as shown when Mikage, the night on which she cried out all her feelings about losing her grandmother, dreamed that she and Yuichi sang the lyrics “A lighthouse in the distance―to the two of us in the night” (Yoshimoto 38). Yoshimoto’s use of symbolism of the lighthouse and the night help exhibit Mikage’s loneliness, since even though the lighthouse symbolizes hope, Mikage and Yuichi may never reach it because they are essentially all alone in the night. Also, following Eriko’s death, Mikage tells Yuichi, “In this gigantic universe, there cannot be a pair like us” (Yoshimoto 50). In having Mikage state that, Yoshimoto is not merely implying the uniqueness of the relationship between the two, but how alone they are in their struggle, as they are left without any family, a struggle very few people actually know.
However, Yoshimoto is not just stating that loneliness is just a cause for grief―she is actually saying that loneliness trumps the death of a loved one as a cause for despair. For example, after Mikage’s grandmother dies, she states that she was “taken by surprise” (Yoshimoto 4). Thus, Yoshimoto’s choice of using diction that does not imply that Mikage was heartbroken shows how Mikage was not necessarily completely dejected at the loss of her grandmother. This is further shown when Mikage states that her “love for [her] own grandmother” was “nothing compared to [Yuichi’s]” (Yoshimoto 7). Yoshimoto is again implying that Mikage was not necessarily too attached to her grandmother. Therefore, it is not so much that her grandmother’s death was the cause of her despair, rather, the situation she was left in, utterly alone, caused her to sink near the depths of depression. On the other hand, Yoshimoto details the relationship between having a connection with others and alleviation of despair. An example of this is when Mikage says that after she first started living with the Tanabes, on the heels of her dealing with her grandmother’s death, “light and air came into [her] heart” (Yoshimoto 21). Yoshimoto’s metaphor demonstrates just one example of how a connection with other people can take away burdens. Moreover, upon returning to her old apartment and feeling sad when finding it to be akin to a “stranger’s house,” Mikage becomes ecstatic after receiving a call from Sotaro, wanting to “weep with nostalgia” at the “sound of his voice” (Yoshimoto 23). By having Mikage have a somewhat exaggerated reaction just by hearing Sotaro’s voice, Yoshimoto establishes the importance of connections with others, and how they can drag one out of the depths of sorrow. Also, Yoshimoto conveys this message through the motif of food. For example, after grieving about Eriko’s death, Mikage and Yuichi decide to make a “professional dinner,” to which Mikage responds “enthusiastically” (Yoshimoto 54). Thus, simply through the sharing of food with another person, Yoshimoto displays how one can swiftly shift from feelings of sadness to feelings of joy.
When Yoshimoto later has Yuichi be saddened over the lack of food choices at the inn he was staying at, Mikage brings him katsudon, making him happier (Yoshimoto 98). By using food as a mode of communication, Yoshimoto spotlights the connection between Mikage and Yuichi. However, Yoshimoto’s message is not about Yuichi’s disdain for eating tofu―it is about “separating” himself from his “strange life,” which seems to only bring despair (Yoshimoto 99). Yet, through the connection Yoshimoto establishes between Mikage and Yuichi, a “lighthearted mood [was] reestablished,” and Yuichi’s pain was assuaged (Yoshimoto 101). Therefore, through connections with others, dejection can be relieved. Indeed, Yoshimoto’s claim is sound in both the specific sense of the novel and in a more general sense in life. In particular, when one is lonely, there is no one to reach out to, thus creating a sense of despair if there was none before or augmenting the already existing despair. Moreover, when one has connections with others, it becomes easier to alleviate any existing distress.
Plainly, a connection with someone allows one to share their burden, instead of living it all alone. While the argument that most of us currently communicate frequently through online mediums while sitting at home alone exists, it can’t be said that we are truly alone. Even without a face-to-face connection with friends, just communicating can still help to remove any personal load. Therefore, Yoshimoto’s practical argument applies not just in the novel, but in a broader sense. Ultimately, Yoshimoto advances the idea that connections with others brings one away from anguish, while loneliness drives one ever so closer to it.