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.
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