The Burden of Loneliness: Imagery, Motifs, and Messages in Kitchen
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.
Love—A glimpse into a Cloudy Sky
Set in postmodern Japan, the novella Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is a tale of two young people struggling to find a means of self-expression. Suspended in a fast-paced society that often isolates them in a state of constant restlessness, the main characters Yuichi and Mikage seek solace within each other; their profound love shows that individuals can find a sense of belonging and core identity in life through unconcealed displays of emotion and sincere interactions with others.
The absolute, sincere nature of Yuichi and Mikage’s love shows readers the importance of authenticity in not only building relationships, but also in living life. In one scene of the novella, Mikage compares the conversation she had with Yuichi to “a glimpse of stars through a chink in a cloudy sky”, ruminating that “perhaps, talks like this would lead to love” (30). This comparison of a conversation to a “glimpse of the sky” shows that genuine human interaction allows individuals to identify deeply with others, and leads them to experience ‘celestial-like’ revelations sharing profound thought.
Having experienced death and long, dark moments of loneliness, Yuichi and Mikage understand that conversation is not just trivial banter—it is the vehicle for visceral vivification of emotion, by which individuals can seek spiritual consolation through identifying with others. Indeed, the conversations between them grow increasingly profound and honest. In one of the most memorable scenes of the novella, Yuichi asks Mikage earnestly within the enclosed space of an apartment elevator whether she thinks that “seeing such a beautiful moon influences what one cooks…in a more human sense” (61). In the intimate proximity of an elevator space, the words of Yuichi are laden with a profundity that exposes his innermost love for beauty. The candid directness with which those words are pronounced surprises Mikage, as “[her] heart faltered for an instant” and she confesses, “he spoke as if he knew [her] very soul” (61). Seeking solace and spiritual connection with others, both Yuichi and Mikage unsheathe their pretensions and speak candidly. It is this down-to-earth attitude that brings their love to surpass the ordinary romantic relationship, at furthest remove from that expected of two young college students. Yuichi and Mikage’s love, almost divine in its complete honesty, contributes to the idea of eros, a deep form of love that, when shared between people with a common pursuit or ideal, forms a bridge of immense understanding. The open interactions between Yuichi and Mikage show that ideally not only love, but all emotion, should be without pretense and authentic in nature.
While both Mikage and Yuichi are vulnerable in their display of unmasked emotion, it is Yuichi’s absolute sincerity that elevates their relationship to one profound beyond question. Through Mikage’s perspective, readers encounter Yuichi’s androgynous sentimentality; when expressing his musings on the moon, Yuichi “agreed with himself again and again, carrying on a one-man conversation”, to which Mikage replied, “you’re just like a child” (61). Mikage continues to describe Yuichi’s character as being almost child-like in its complete sincerity, anecdotally commenting on the way Yuichi would look Mikage straight in the eye and speak with the sincerity of “someone trying to persuade a murderer to turn himself in” (37). Here, Yuichi’s emotions are almost palpable as he pours with intensity his reverberating feelings towards his conversations. This characterizes him as a ‘lost child’ who has the naïve conviction that the rest of the world wants to equally share their deepest emotion with him. Yuichi’s deep-rooted trust in the display of emotion often gives the impression of being a vulnerable, ingenuous child, as children’s shameless displays of emotion are often viewed as being ‘unsophisticated’. Howver, it is specifically this heartfelt sincerity that equips Yuichi with an unfaltering strength. Through Mikage’s perspective, she believes that if “[she wanted] to see the moon over Arabia right now, [Yuichi] would say, ‘let’s go’” (75). Yuichi, empowered with his unwavering sincerity, is thus portrayed as being Mikage’s protector despite having experienced agonizing grief. Depicted as “a willow beaten down by the driving rain” (62), Yuichi is compared to the graceful and lithe tree fighting fearlessly against the penetrating, ‘driving rain’ to show both the feminine and masculine traits of his persona. Yuichi is androgynous in the juxtaposition of his unconcealed display of sentimentality, with his healing role in Mikage’s life. Through the androgyny of Yuichi, the author suggests that individuals should strive for absolute self-expression and seek connectivity with others. Just as Yuichi and Mikage were initially confounded by bouts of loneliness, failing to seek connectivity with others would lead to losing grasp of one’s true identity.
Mikage and Yuichi’s sincere self-expression in their profound love helps them find a sense of core identity to bring spiritual gratification. The connectivity that they sought for shows that in the absence of profound love, the individual’s sense of identity may be lost. Given the rampant consumerism gripping modern day Japan, the younger generation is plagued with an incessant restlessness, leading to feelings of isolation in the postmodern society. As Mikage observes, “Yuichi hated spare time”—the characters initially try to seek the ‘Other’ within themselves, but to no avail and the loneliness remains uncured (28). Unable to bear the time spent alone, Yuichi’s inner mind lacking the connectivity with another individual is presented as a gloomy, maze-like structure, directly mirrored by the sinuous makeup of the hotel Yuichi escapes to. Yuichi’s room is described as “another world…the covers on the futon from which [he] had risen still bore the shape of his body” (98). The futon still in the tangible shape of his figure provides evidence that his ‘escape’ is only a physical one, and that without the spiritual connection to another person—the sincerity of love—the sense of self-identity will be lost in a consumerist society that only nurtures self-absorbed people who seek solitude through tangible objects. Ultimately, Yuichi fails in escaping the lonely calls of his own mind, and realizes that the solution towards finding himself and his true identity is through the meaningful interactions with Mikage, a profound relationship that will efface the emptiness.
The sense of identity provided by modern Tokyo’s affluent culture is bestowed upon the young generation through participating in the consumer culture driven ‘utopia’, rather than through seeking the abstract breakthrough within themselves. Thus, Yuichi and Mikage must find a more personalized sense of identity, and do so through profound love. By candid self-expression in their relationship, both characters find connection with something dynamic and positive, bringing purpose into their lives.
While the simplicity of Yoshimoto’s novella Kitchen may seem to confine it to consumerist writing like Shojo manga, its core values, such as candid love, are indeed counterculture in their immediate authenticity. The sincere relationship shared by Yuichi and Mikage transcends the idea that through unconcealed display of emotion and interactions with others, individuals may find a sense of belonging and a core self identity. Yoshimoto shows readers it is human nature that we seek raw emotion and self-expression. Even though the society we live in today is perhaps excessively capitalistic, it is not a dystopian world—the authentic love found in Kitchen suggests that in every human being lives the small echo of raw naivety, a natural predilection of emotion over reason.
There are certain foods that evoke emotions inside everyone. Some people, when they inhale the aroma of a warm soup, are taken back to cold winter evenings snuggled by the fire. Others, when taking the first bite of a PB&J, are reminded of childhood sandwiches, with the crust carefully sliced off. In the Japanese novel Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus, food and the emotions it evokes play a major role in helping the two main characters, Mikage and Yuichi, recover after immense loss. For the two, sharing a meal conjures up comforting feelings of emotional solidarity – the light and warmth captured while eating together in happier times. Yoshimoto draws parallels between the seemingly simple act of sharing a meal, and developing a deep emotional connection that allows people to feel joy again, even when faced with tremendous grief. During the events following Eriko’s death, the symbolism of food becomes apparent as Yoshimoto depicts Mikage and Yuichi eating together, and, simultaneously, “flavor” slowly returning to their lives. In the scenes when Mikage and Yuichi are drinking tea at the café, talking on the phone while Mikage is at the restaurant, and eating katsu-don in Yuichi’s apartment, Yoshimoto’s development of the two characters’ bond through food symbolizes the importance of emotional connection in surviving through grief.
Soon after Eriko’s death, Yoshimoto establishes a parallel between sharing food and creating emotional connections in the scene when Yuichi and Mikage are in the café, drinking tea. As they drink their tea, Yuichi says to Mikage, “nothing, nothing at all has any flavor for me now…when your grandmother died you were like this too” (Yoshimoto 76). Almost immediately after both characters have experienced loss – Mikage with her grandmother, and now Yuichi with Eriko – Yoshimoto establishes a symbolic relationship between grief and “flavorlessness” in life. Yoshimoto’s connection of Mikage and Yuichi through their inability to “taste”, or feel happiness, after loss conveys the idea that shared experiences lead to emotional connection. Later, Mikage thinks “may the memory of this moment, here, the glowing impression of the two of us facing each other in this warm, bright, place, drinking lovely hot tea, help save him, even a little bit” (Yoshimoto 76). Yoshimoto’s parallel between Yuichi and Mikage drinking tea together and forming a memory that is “glowing” reinforces the idea that sharing food is symbolic of a happy moment of companionship – a memory that is able to “save” people from the darkness of grief. Finally, right before Yuichi and Mikage part ways, Mikage has a moment of realization that “the two of us, alone, were flowing down that river of light, suspended in the cosmic darkness, and were approaching a critical juncture” (Yoshimoto 77). Immediately after Mikage has this acute realization, the last thing that she says to Yuichi is “we’ll go out for tea again, okay?” (Yoshimoto 78). Yoshimoto’s symbolic importance of sharing food in Mikage’s promise to eat with Yuichi again in the future is representative of the idea that shared food, or shared emotion, is necessary to maintain that emotional connection which creates happiness in the midst of grief.
Additionally, when Mikage and Yuichi are talking on the telephone while Mikage waits for her order of katsu-don, Yoshimoto further builds upon the parallel between shared experiences through food and powerful emotional solidarity in the face of suffering. Yuichi complains to Mikage that he has eaten nothing but bland and soggy tofu at the monastery, and “feel[s] like an old man”, conveying that he still feels surrounded by death and grief, and reinforcing that bland food is symbolic of grief and flavorlessness in life (Yoshimoto 90). In contrast, Mikage is about to eat delicious katsu-don in a warm, brightly lit restaurant and feels “strangely lighthearted” and “excited” (Yoshimoto 88). The intense contrast drawn by Yoshimoto in this scene emphasizes that Yuichi and Mikage are losing their symbolic connection, as they are growing apart both in respect to their stomachs and their emotions. Yoshimoto’s implication that such a small thing as the food that the characters eat can lead to such major emotional consequences conveys that these bonds are fragile, and easily transgressed. Soon afterwards, Yuichi says to Mikage, “It’s strange, isn’t it? Both of us under the same night sky, both with empty bellies” (Yoshimoto 91). Yoshimoto’s description is symbolic of how Yuichi sees himself and Mikage as deeply emotionally connected through their shared grief. In her description of Yuichi reaching out to Mikage and referencing their shared hunger, Yoshimoto conveys that this emotional bond is key to provide solace in times of sadness. Because Yuichi is sadly eating flavorless tofu, Mikage is reluctant to tell him that she is about to eat delicious katsu-don, thinking, “it seemed like the worst kind of treachery. I couldn’t destroy Yuichi’s picture of us starving together” (Yoshimoto 91). Yoshimoto’s description of Yuichi and Mikage togetherness through hunger emphasizes Mikage’s emotional solidarity with Yuichi. If Mikage tells Yuichi that she is eating good food, symbolic of moving towards a happier emotional state, then their connection will be lost, and Yuichi will be left behind to grieve alone. Through this symbolism, Yoshimoto builds upon the idea that an emotional connection through shared experience is helpful in sharing the burden of grief. Finally, Mikage has another clear realization that is similar to what she experiences in the café, and thinks “we were just at the point of approaching and negotiating a gentle curve. If we bypassed it, we would split off into different directions” (Yoshimoto 91). Here, Yoshimoto stresses the importance of Mikage and Yuichi moving on together, again emphasizing the importance of emotional connection in times of grief. Additionally, Yoshimoto establishes that this “gentle curve” – as simple as eating different foods – can still rip people apart, accentuating both the fragility and the strength within these emotional connections. Therefore, Yoshimoto reinforces the immense symbolic importance of sharing experiences like hunger and sadness, conveying that the seemingly simple idea of being in the same emotional state at the same time is important in creating strong bonds that allow escape from the burden of grief.
Finally, when Mikage brings the same katsu-don that she just ate to Yuichi’s apartment at the monastery, and the two eat together, Yoshimoto again reinforces the parallels between sharing food and deeper emotional connection, and conveys the idea that these connections provide a source of happiness during times of grief. When Mikage first enters Yuichi’s room, she is struck by the “tomblike” atmosphere and Yuichi’s “cold eyes”, which are symbolic of how Yuichi is still overcome by death and grief (Yoshimoto 100). However, when Mikage gives Yuichi the katsu-don and drinks tea while he eats, Yoshimoto describes “even in the absence of Eriko, a lighthearted mood had been reestablished between us…the darkness no longer harboring death” (Yoshimoto 101). The sharp contrast between the previous atmosphere of the room and the light, happy mood that is established when the two eat together conveys how sharing food, and symbolically, sharing grief, with another person can create joyous moments even when surrounded by sadness. To further reinforce these ideas, Yoshimoto states “truly happy memories always live on, shining…the meals we ate together, numberless afternoons and evenings” (Yoshimoto 100). Therefore, the “togetherness” that comes from eating together is representative of an emotional bond that gives life to happy memories that shine eternally, even in the “darkness harboring death” that people may experience during a time of grief.
People share their sadness when their stomachs are empty, and their happiness when their stomachs (and hearts) are full to bursting. Yoshimoto’s idea of sharing a meal is deeply symbolic – when people “eat together”, they bare their souls to one another, allowing raw and authentic emotional connections to be formed. Without these connections, people would be like Yuichi without Mikage – trapped in the “tomblike” darkness of grief with no guiding light. Yoshimoto emphasizes that it is the small things, the simple drinking of tea or the sharing of takeout katsu-don, that help people to form these bonds and navigate the “gentle curve[s]” of their lives (Yoshimoto 91). Loss creates a special kind of sadness – the grief that it exudes has an immense, yet subtle power to rip apart emotional bonds and leave people alone in the dark, with no guiding light. As Mikage recognizes, “there will be so much sadness…with or without Yuichi” (Yoshimoto 104). Grief is an inherent component of life, and everyone will be in the dark at some point or another. The tough part is how you deal with it. Will you microwave a flavorless TV dinner and eat alone in the dark, or will you call up a friend and eat together, creating a tasty and happy memory to look back on? The choice, Yoshimoto suggests, is up to you.
Light and Darkness in Kitchen
“We moved deeper into the dead of night.” (page 50) Throughout Kitchen, Banana Yoshimoto uses light and dark to describe the environment around Mikage, as well as assigning these traits to characters whom she interacts with. However, it is not so much the comparison between light and dark that is astounding, but rather how Banana Yoshimoto, the author of the novella, presents both options in multiple variations giving readers an idea of what mood Mikage is in. As Mikage moves through life she is faced with the loss of several of the most important people in her life such as her parents, grandfather, and eventually her grandmother. These losses all take a toll on her, but it seems her luck has changed when she is brought into the Tanabe household; a household that radiates light in the darkness that has surrounded Mikage.
The biggest loss in Mikage’s life, though arguable, was the loss of her grandmother. Losing her parents at a young age, Mikage was raised by her grandparents until the death of her grandfather which left her to spend the rest of her time with her grandmother “together before bed, sometimes drinking coffee, sometimes green tea, eating cake and watching TV.” (page 20) Though one could say that Mikage was equally affected by the loss of her grandfather, his death is not a focus of the novella; instead, the loss of her grandmother caused Mikage to lose so much more. Not only is Mikage’s last blood relative gone, but the apartment she lived in for so long is now no longer an option for her. Mikage recognizes the light in her life while she is living with her grandmother, but she places a caveat on said light. Only after her grandma’s passing does Mikage truly see the glow of her life with her grandmother, reflecting. “Until only recently, the light that bathed the now-empty apartment had contained the smells of our life there.” (page 32) As she moves the remainder of her objects out of the once lively apartment, the light that once held the “smells of our life” no longer contains such memories. Mikage is forced to recognize that her life is changing and, in a way, so is the light that was responsible for casting a glow over her and her grandmother. “In the afternoon sunlight of the kitchen, I found myself feeling immensely tired.” (pg. 74)
Though the setting of the story does hold quite a bit of control over whether or not it is light or dark, Banana does an excellent job of presenting the darkness in multiple lens’. The last time Mikage sees Eriko, the woman who “adopted” her, she describes Eriko as “…watching the city glitter in the darkness.” (page 47) This suggests darkness as something beautiful to watch and, in a way, participate in. There is almost a magical quality to said city in this passage; though, one may question if it is the darkness presenting this magic or Eriko, herself. This question is validated later on in the story as Mikage must face the darkness after Eriko’s murder. She recognizes that “night was just as it had been” yet everything had changed. The light that once filled the apartment had seemingly been extinguished. “Truly great people emit a light that warms the hearts of those around them. When that light has been put out, a heavy shadow of despair descends.” (page 55) Eriko was this light in both Mikage’s and Yuichi’s lives; however, now both are left to discover a new light, whether in themselves or in each other. Mikage had noted previously that Yuichi had a calm, almost zen light about him, but it is in this darkness that we see his light dimmed to an almost invisible level. Comparing the magic of the darkness while Eriko was alive to the darkness that surrounds them in her death, the reader sees that it truly was Eriko who created such a magical property.
Tragedy and Toxicity in Kitchen and The Perks of Being a Wallflower
When one reads through Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower there are not any striking similarities. The ages of the characters, the trials they go through, and the culture they are respectively surrounded by do not imitate each other in any way. However, there is a common trait to each of these novels; while Kitchen deals with death and The Perks of Being a Wallflower focuses on teen discovery, both novels find their protagonists stuck in difficult relationships with each other. Furthermore, these relationships are pushed past the bounds of normal friendship, creating difficult relationship dynamics that require the main characters to lean on each other while simultaneously pushing each other away. It is the push and pull seen in said relationships that raises the question of toxicity; though, we must question who is capable of judging said toxicity. These novels are not outright related, but by examining the relationships their main characters develop throughout the plot, the similarities are made clear.
In the novella Kitchen, the two main protagonists, Mikage and Yuichi, are thrust together after the loss of Mikage’s grandmother, her last living relative. Mikage, an aspiring chef who has lost almost everyone close to her, and Yuichi, a young man dealing with the recent death of his father turned mother, attempt to navigate this unexpected relationship while responding to the tragedy that has befallen both of them. As the story begins Mikage and Yuichi have a healthy, almost enviable friendship. Mikage is capable of understanding Yuichi’s true feelings by seeing past his façade, it is “Because I wasn’t in love with Yuichi, I understood that very well” (29). The lack of romance in their relationship provides a space with no expectations, each member is allowed to be themselves without judgement. However, as Dr. Zack Carter, professor of communication at Taylor College, writes in his article 1-on-1 Opposite Sex Friends: A Blind Spot Threat to Marriage, “There is extremely little research or widespread literature on opposite sex friendship that does not indicate attraction and its conceivable consequences.” These consequences are noted when Yuichi’s girlfriend, who believes the relationship between him and Mikage has developed beyond friendship, slaps him in their school cafeteria, thus becoming his ex-girlfriend. In the beginning portion of the novella, the relationship between Yuichi and Mikage is one of pure friendship, and though the two may have small inklings of feelings, there is nothing to suggest an unhealthy relationship.
The death of Eriko, Yuichi’s male to female transgender mother, is shocking to both the reader and the main characters of Kitchen. It is in this tragedy that the true test of Mikage and Yuichi’s relationship occurs and, while they both feel the pain of Eriko’s passing, for Yuichi this is the death of both his mother and his father. While Mikage can relate, as she has lost every blood relation she had, she does not know how to be there for Yuichi in the way he was for her. The grey-area of their relationship has widened with time and tragedy, leaving Mikage and Yuichi on opposite sides. The mental health of both characters again must be called into question to determine if their relationship is toxic. While Mikage is simply refusing to cope by refusing to grieve, Yuichi is truly worrying. Early on in the novella it is noted that “He was terribly, terribly sad.” (29) However, that feeling is most likely nothing in comparison to the amount of grief and sorrow the loss of a parent provokes. With Eriko’s passing came a wave of unsurprising sadness, but this time Yuichi can’t cover it up with his usual jokes and smiles. He instead retreats into depression and eventually hits hikikomori which is, as multiple scholars have noted, “a term that’s also used to describe the young people who withdraw” (Kremer/Hammond). The issue that arises with Yuichi is clearly not healthy for his mental state, but does that qualify his relationship with Mikage as unhealthy as well? While issues in communication are mainly one-sided, Mikage is still willing to travel to Yuichi to drag him out of his funk, repaying the kindness shown to her by both Yuichi and Eriko. This relationship, however, does not rely on a barter system; these two do not trade good deed for good deed. Mikage and Yuichi are friends before anything else, they understand each other on a deeper level and, even when one is sinking into the darkness, they can pull each other back to reality.
As in Kitchen, the protagonists in The Perks of Being a Wallflower are involved in complicated platonic and romantic relationships with each other. Charlie, a high school freshman and stereotypical wallflower, is “adopted” by Samantha and Patrick, two high school seniors that take notice of his isolation and work to rid him of his wallflower status. Though Charlie is just a freshman, Sam and Patrick force him to actively participate in not only his first high school party, but his life. As the professor of psychology at Hanover College, Dr. Skip Dine Young, summarizes, “it is during adolescence that we really begin to construct coherent, lasting stories about the kind of people we are, what we believe and what we value.” Sam and Patrick could be portrayed as good friends; they are simply attempting to break Charlie out of his shell and make him a participant of the real world. There is evidence of this in the Rocky Horror Picture Show in which Charlie is decidedly made Rocky, the character that has to wear basically nothing. Though this garners Charlie a larger friend group and eventually a senior girlfriend, there is some question about exposing Charlie to such a scene. Furthermore, the introduction to the high school party scene also introduces Charlie to drugs and alcohol being recreationally used. It is not Sam and Patrick’s fault that Charlie has anxious tendencies and shows signs of PTSD, but to introduce him to such vices is a dangerous idea. The toxicity of this friendship, at least at the beginning of the novel, comes into question because of their part in introducing Charlie to these vices; however, it seems there is more of a positive outcome than a negative. A review of the character Charlie reveals that “It is when his support group is the strongest that his symptoms subside.” (Bowman) So, at least in the first few parts of the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie establishes somewhat healthy relationships with his peers, a feat he had struggled with in the past.
“So, this is my life,” Though Charlie attempts to inform the reader of the feelings stirring inside, he is incapable of truly describing what is happening within his brain. “And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying figure out how that could be” (11). Charlie does not have an easy life, neither does Sam, and neither does Patrick, but put them all together and somehow they make their lives work. They have fun and do crazy, high-school things, but they’re all hiding something. As The Perks of Being a Wallflower moves into its depths, we discover that Patrick is in a relationship with a closeted jock while Sam is just trying to find a guy that won’t ruin her life. And then there’s Charlie with issues deeper than either other protagonist can understand. There is no question of healthy relationship in the second portion of the novel; these three don’t have one. At least, there is not a healthy relationship between Sam and Charlie or Charlie and Patrick. They encourage “risk-taking behavior,” a trait that Kalila Borghini of GoodTherapy lists as an unhealthy way of coping. Beyond that, they use Charlie for their own risk-taking behaviors; Patrick kisses Charlie after his boyfriend breaks up with him, and Sam allows him to love her while he’s in a relationship with another girl. Even after they use him, they both have the idea that it is somehow his fault, that Charlie should have known better than to follow the lead of the older friends he thought he could trust. Though Sam and Patrick are good friends in the way that they bring Charlie out of his own head, there is a question of if he is there for his own benefit or theirs. One can argue that if that question needs to be asked, the answer is already clear.
Looking at the novella and the novel examined in earlier paragraphs, perhaps it is still not clear how they intersect. The first parallel to be drawn is between Mikage, the female protagonist from Kitchen, and Charlie, the male protagonist from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both Charlie and Mikage find themselves in some kind of debt to their counterparts; while Mikage owes Yuichi for his invitation into his home, Charlie owes Sam and Patrick for their invitation into their friend group. The point here is not to compare what is done for Charlie and Mikage, but rather look at how these two behave as if they owe the people that care for them. There is a sense of guilt shared between the two, even if their fellow characters attempt to eradicate it. Furthermore, these characters deal with the tragedies of their lives in basically the same manner: denial. The ability to put their head down and pretend that they are okay is a shared ability; however, while Mikage must take care of Yuichi, this ability cracks Charlie and he has a complete mental breakdown.
These two are not the only characters that contain similarities as Sam and Patrick line up in an surprising way with Yuichi. Yuichi is obviously depressed, and one could argue there is more of him in Charlie than in Sam and Patrick; however, Yuichi is the counterpart to Mikage like Sam and Patrick are to Charlie. Yuichi exploits Mikage’s willingness to make him happy and though it is not in a malicious way, it is similar to how Sam and Patrick exploit Charlie’s willingness to be the wallflower friend. Kitchen does not paint Yuichi in a negative light because of this nor does Perks, but it is worth noting that these characters are relatable in their ability to almost manipulate the main character. The biggest difference between these novels is the toxicity of the relationships. While Mikage and Yuichi have a generally stable relationship, Charlie does not have such a friendship with Sam and Patrick. Though this could be attributed to a number of varying factors including age and setting, it is feasible to question if the characters themselves are the driving force behind the functionality of these relationships.
The relationships in Kitchen and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are, at best, somewhat healthy. However, when presented with tragedy we see how these characters and their relationships are quite different. While Mikage and Yuichi evolve with their tragedy, they never lose sight of assisting and being there for each other. In Perks, we find that Sam, Charlie, and Patrick are incapable of evolving together and instead fall apart when things are tough, only reconciling after the true hardship is over. The toxicity of each, respective relationship cannot be determined through simple comparisons, but when truly examining the characters and their interactions we can see how friends should act, and how they sometimes do.