The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
The Asian Reporter's
A WRITER WITH APPEAL. Pictured above is Banana Yoshimoto, author of Hardboiled & Hard Luck. The book of novellas is currently available online and at local booksellers. (Photo courtesy of Jayne Wexler)
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #40 (October 3, 2006), page 16.
Delicate, compressed stories of love and loss
Hardboiled & Hard Luck
By Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by Michael Emmerich
Grove Press, 2005
Hardcover, 149 pages, $21.00
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
The serious Japanese writer with the comic name, Banana Yoshimoto, burst onto the Western scene with her 1993 book Kitchen (published to wide acclaim in Japan in 1987), comprised of two novellas, "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow," each about a young woman dealing with the death of someone close to her. With Kitchen, Yoshimoto’s fan base quickly spread beyond Japan as readers were drawn to her dreamy storylines and familiar but unique characters, all told in highly distilled, compacted prose. Yoshimoto’s books often deal with themes of love and loss, and her newest book Hardboiled & Hard Luck follows this same trend, telling the stories of two young women coping with death while searching for love.
"Hardboiled" has the title of a gangster film, but its subject is far more tender, focusing on a young woman on a hiking vacation and the memories that flood back to her in different forms. After finding a mysterious wilderness shrine of smooth black rocks, the unnamed narrator becomes disoriented and stumbles into town to find her hotel. At the hotel, she is disturbed by a strange reappearance of the smooth black rocks from the shrine, along with dreams of a former lover, reminding her that today is the first anniversary of her death.
She awakes from her troubled dreams to pounding at her door, and finds a half-dressed, emotionally distressed woman there, locked out of her room by an angry lover. Together, the two women share their experiences, but when the narrator goes to the front desk to get the woman’s key, she finds that all is not as it appears. The mystical collision of strange events, from the rock shrine to her nocturnal visitor, help the narrator come to terms with her former lover’s life and death, and the odd coincidences that can define both.
"Hard Luck" also tells a story of death and odd coincidences: the narrator (also unnamed) meets Sakai, a man who appears to be her soulmate, during extremely unfortunate circumstances. The narrator’s sister, Kumi, is on life support in the hospital, an edema in her brain slowly swelling to strangle her brain cord and kill her. She has no hope for recovery, and her family gathers around the unconscious Kumi, trying to come to grips with the situation.
Sakai is the brother of Kumi’s fiancé, who broke off the engagement after Kumi went into the hospital. Ashamed of his brother’s cowardice, Sakai becomes a fixture at the hospital, full of philosophical wisdom for the narrator (he is a master of his own school of tai chi) and comfort for the family. Torn between grief for her sister and affection for Sakai, the narrator struggles to navigate a course between these two extremes. There are no true ghosts in this story, but Kumi is a kind of specter, her empty body as omnipresent as her spirit.
Fine examples of Yoshimoto’s storytelling talent, these two stories succeed through tight description and understatement, confronting difficult emotions without glib panaceas. Neither of the narrators achieves dramatic closure on her situation; there are no comforting scenes of reconciliation or moving on. And yet Yoshimoto gives us the sense that these women have changed and grown as a result of their experiences, in part due to the female ghosts around them.
Ghosts are accorded more power in Japanese culture, where they are not always immaterial, evanescent spirits but can be indistinguishable from humans, interacting with the living and changing events (for better or worse). The spirits animating Yoshimoto’s tales do just that, affecting the living through action and memory; whether their appearance is literal or metaphorical is far less important than their substantial impact on the character’s lives.
Yoshimoto’s compressed prose, too, suggests more than it tells, the way tiny, well-trimmed bonsai imply the larger trees around us, yet are beautiful in their own miniaturized perfection. In Yoshimoto’s stories, the words seem perfectly placed and never superfluous, achieving a greater impact by her careful, almost cautious, use of them. To Yoshimoto, words do indeed weave spells, and she is delicate with her power, prodding her readers gently towards epiphany or realization without dragging us to it. Though their subjects may suggest a readership that is female or grieving, the stories in Hard Boiled & Hard Luck are indeed universal. Yoshimoto offers compartmentalized, delicate reproductions of life, showing the world in compressed miniature, her stories’ impact undiminished by the brevity of their telling.