In a famous 1990 essay, one of the most respected living writers in Japan lamented that, “Serious literature and a literary readership have gone into a chronic decline, while a new tendency has emerged over the last several years … a largely economic one … reflected in the fact that the novels of certain young writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto each sells several hundred thousand copies.”
Kenzaburō Ōe, today Japan’s only living Nobel laureate for literature, continued 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.”
This was, perhaps, an overpowered attack by a senior statesman of letters against an author whose work had only been in print for four years. Banana Yoshimoto was in her early 20s when she published Kitchen, her most famous novel in Japan and internationally. Her most enduring stories date to the late 80s and early 90s.
The history of her work in English translation may well create an illusion of eternal youth in the Anglosphere. Unlike many Japanese writers active in the last decade, Yoshimoto’s translations into English tend to lag five to ten years behind their original publication date. For example, Michael Emmerich’s compelling translation of her 1989 story collection Asleep wasn’t released until 2002. Dead-End Memories was originally published in 2003, almost two decades before its English-language debut.
Regardless, the “late adolescent or post adolescent subculture” Ōe held in such contempt is also part of Yoshimoto’s claim to fame. She has been both denigrated and celebrated as a writer in the shōjo tradition. (Shōjo is a demographic, editorial, and consumer category for adolescent and young adult women.) Early in her career, Yoshimoto cited shōjo manga as the greatest influence on her style.
Dead-End Memories was originally published in 2003, almost two decades before its English-language debut.
The short story collection Dead-End Memories retains many of the playful and youthful shōjo traits for which Yoshimoto is famous. Some women are content in casual, aromantic relationships that won’t move beyond the level of platonic or fraternal. Often characters, especially women, must work through traumatic events or heartbreak. Some characters have spiritual encounters or brushes with the supernatural. Most have working-class jobs. Most are young. They all like to cook for each other at home or in restaurants.
But this collection is also the work of a more mature Yoshimoto. The author calls Dead-End Memories the “most precious work of my writing career”. If Kitchen is the work of a shōjo writer, Dead-End Memories is the work of that shōjo writer all grown up. That more adult perspective is maybe most obvious in the volume’s opening story, “House of Ghosts”.
Secchan has become platonic friends with Iwakaura. She describes him as a young man who has “an intriguing mixture of bright and dark about him, like a cloudy midwinter sky”. Secchan wants to take over her family’s restaurant. Iwakura would rather escape his parents’ cake-roll shop.
One afternoon, Secchan visits his apartment to cook him a meal. She also hopes she might catch a glimpse of his ghostly landlord and landlady who occasionally appear in his apartment. They have apparently never noticed that they are dead.
After a dinner that could have turned into a date, Secchan concludes, “the whole evening had been so ordinary, and my feelings so calm the entire time, that I decided then and there this would never develop into a romantic relationship.” It’s for the best anyway. Iwakura has decided the best means to make his own way in life is to leave his small Japanese town to become an apprentice to a Parisian pâtissier.
Weeks later, Secchan and Iawakura have a second dinner. This time, they have passionate sex. Secchan experiences her first orgasm. Yoshimoto’s description of their night together, while not at all graphic, is more detailed than her earliest work might lead readers to expect. (It is, however, characteristically playful: “A thing that was just hard and slippery enough, in a place that was just wet and tight enough—of course there could be nothing better.”) Before she leaves the next morning, Secchan sees the ghosts of Iwakura’s landlords.
A few weeks later, Iwakura leaves for France. Secchan hugs him, and then the two walk away from each other, their “hot feelings now buried firmly in the past,” like Iwakura’s married landlords.
“Well, if we ever get another chance, then …” Secchan tells him.
Translator Asa Yoneda’s Yoshimoto is never overwrought.
This kind of open ending is typical of Yoshimoto’s early work. Many of the would-be romantic relationships between her characters are ambiguous at best and end before they really begin. But, unexpectedly, “House of Ghosts” isn’t over when Iwakura leaves. Yoshimoto returns to the characters eight years later to provide the characters—and the reader—with uncharacteristic closure.
The closure Yoshimoto brings to some of the stories in Dead-End Memories—removing the ambiguity that gilds some of her earlier work—sometimes makes their endings drag. For the most part, though, the conclusions are charming denouements.
This collection is also short on the almost-forced melodrama of some of Yoshimoto’s earlier work. Most of the characters in Yoshimoto’s best-known tales are orphaned or estranged from at least one parent. Yoshimoto’s functional families tend to be found families. In Kitchen, for example, the orphaned protagonist finds a home with a young man and his mother, a transgender woman.
But whole, functioning nuclear families are the rule in Dead-End Memories, rather than the exception. Secchan and Iwakara of “House of Ghosts” both grow up in loving, financially-stable homes. The protagonist of “Not Warm at All” once envied a childhood friend for his extended family, but comes to appreciate her happy home with her two affectionate parents.
Of the entire collection, it is maybe the title story “Dead-End Memories” that best preserves what is quintessentially Banana.
Translator Asa Yoneda adds to Dead-End Memories’ excellence. (She is also responsible for the next-most-recent Yoshimoto work in English, the novel Moshi-Moshi.) Yoneda’s Yoshimoto is never overwrought. She preserves the simple charm and colloquial language that make Yoshimoto such an approachable writer.
Of the entire collection, it is maybe the title story “Dead-End Memories” that best preserves what is quintessentially Banana. It is the story that celebrates the traits that have made the literary elite so reluctant to welcome Yoshimoto into their fold—even though she is a multiple award-winning writer with a career spanning decades and a global reputation. Yoshimoto’s writing style is economical. Most of her protagonists are, at heart, well-meaning people. And her stories assert, unabashedly, that good stories don’t have to have unhappy endings.
The story’s protagonist, Mimi, thought she had her life figured out. Her college sweetheart proposed before he moved away to a larger town. He was going to work for a few years, earn a promotion, and then come home to get married. He proposed before he left. Years passed, and he never came back.
Now Mimi is taking a break from her concerned family, living rent-free above her uncle’s bar at the dead-end of a street in the town where her ex-fiance moved. She has a typical Yoshimoto relationship with one of her uncle’s employees. Nishiyama becomes more than a friend, but less than a lover:
I think it was Nishiyama’s philosophy, or way of living, that I was most attracted to.
All the more so, I think, because I didn’t have romantic feelings for him.
He’s also working through trauma of his own. In a quiet, undramatic way, the two enjoy a respite from life, healing together. Time passes. And then they’re ready to move on.
This is pure Yoshimoto: a protagonist is blessed with an encounter, a relationship. Mimi can now continue with her life with those “dead-end memories”—not memories that lead nowhere, but memories of that empowering encounter, a short time living over a bar at the dead-end of a street in a town she doubts she’ll ever live in again: