Book review: “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Moshi Moshi (translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda) tells the story of a young woman struggling to move on with her life while she and her mother grieve over her father’s bizarre death. Yoshie’s father, a prominent local rock musician, was found dead in a car with another woman in what looks to be a murder-suicide (or possibly a double suicide, we never find out for sure). The exact nature of the father’s relationship is left as just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Yoshie*, but the story isn’t really about his death as much as it affects those closest to him.

The story begins with Yoshie’s mother moving into her apartment in Shimokitazawa as she feels her late husband’s presence in their old home in Meguro. At first Yoshie is reluctant but they both needed each other’s support, not to mention a change of place. Over time the move helps both of them heal from the wound that was dealt to them both. Yoshie works in the bistro across the street, where she meets the manager of the club where her father often played. He frequents the bistro until the two of them start dating. She also gets a couple of visits from a mysterious woman whose first husband also nearly died when having an affair with the woman who killed Yoshie’s father. Throughout the book Yoshie also seeks information and finally solace from one of her father’s former band-mates.

The change that Yoshie’s life goes through is strongly tied to the sense of place, as exemplified by a passage in which she and her mother down an entire cake in the apartment:

I’d never dreamed that Mom and I could do anything as fun as gorging on an entire cake until our bellies ached. We weren’t being hysterical, or depressed. We’d just thought of something nice to do, and done it together. That kind of thing felt wrong in Meguro, but the new apartment somehow made it possible.

In Shimokitazawa Yoshie gets a job at a successful bistro, becoming more or less the owner’s apprentice. She loves her work and the area where she lives and enjoys that she’s seeing somebody. It all has the comfort of a normal adult life. Yet she still dreams of her father. She’s not repressing memories or feelings—she and her mother constantly have conversations about how they feel and memories of times the three of them had as a family. But Yoshie has trouble processing her feelings, and needs all the help she can get in order to work them out as best she can.

Moshi Moshi has a slice-of-life feel throughout the book. It has a plot and it flows well, but it sets itself up in ways that a reader may feel misleading. The death of Yoshie’s father and the visit from the woman whose husband also had an affair with the dead woman implies that this book could have been a mystery. Yoshie’s mother seeing the ghost around the old apartment and Yoshie’s recurring dreams suggest that it could have been a ghost story of some sort. But these end up becoming fact-of-life occurrences, adding to the story but not taking it over.

That is not to say the book is disjointed or jarring. The light atmosphere the book presents with its grim setup may seem conflicted at first, but it only serves to help make the point. Even when struck by the horrifying loss of a loved one, life moves on. We may need some help and a change of place to help it do so, but it moves on regardless.

*Or Yocchan. Characters in the book refer to her with both names. I’m sorry, in the limited time I had to do research before publishing this blog post I couldn’t find out if one is the common nickname of the other, or if there was some other reason why her names were interchangeable. Perhaps somebody could help me in the comments below?


Monday Book Review: “The Kingdom” by Fuminori Nakamura.

At one point in Fuminori Nakamura’s novel The Kingdom (translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony) when the main character, Yurika, reflects on when another character tells her she’s not a coward, that sums up the tone of the book (and her life in general):

I may not be a coward anymore. But that’s because being a coward is the same thing as having the will to live.

(Disclaimer: The Kingdom is connected to another book by Nakamura, The Thief. I did not realize this until I read the author’s afterward to this book. Thus, I’m reviewing The Kingdom without reading The Thief, and as a result don’t have a comparison to note between the two books. The older book is available at my local library but in interest of following my own deadlines, I’m going to go ahead with this review, taking The Kingdom on its own merits.)

Yurika is a prostitute, in a sense, in Tokyo. However, instead of following through with the sexual fantasies of the men that she seduces she sets them up for blackmail on behalf of her employer, Yata. She often gives them some sort of drug that puts them to sleep, take pictures of them in a compromising position (with or without her in the shot) and give the pictures and whatever other information she may steal from them back to Yata.

At some point both she and Yata realize that some of the jobs she’s been sent on were not assigned by him but somebody hacking into his e-mail. It turns out that the culprit is Kizaki, a rival of Yata’s and also the current owner of the orphanage in which Yurika grew up. With her life on the line Yurika must try to play both sides as she escapes this lifestyle by fleeing the country. Thrown into the mix is a man claiming to be her childhood friend from the orphanage, Hasegawa supposedly working for Kizaki but also trying to convince Yurika to run away with him. Danger, betrayal and underhanded sexual politics pervade Yurika’s life as she tries to escape.

Don’t expect to spend much mental energy interpreting the book’s deeper meanings. The narrative is written from Yurika’s first person perspective, and throughout the story she’s examining her life. That’s common enough, but she sometimes beats the reader over the head with her questions and conclusions. From time to time she reflects on a relationship she had with a friend who died and then her son, whom under Yurika’s care, also died. It was when she was trying to pay for his medical bills that she started working for Yata, creating the person that she is when we read her story. We are constantly witness to her inner struggle as she tries to survive while at the same time maintaining that she has no will to live anymore.

On the other hand, the book is short and a quick read. As a crime thriller, it goes in, does the job, and leaves. The prose is well-written, even if it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. In one sense, that’s fine, especially when Kizaki espouses philosophy to Yurika (usually with a gun to her head) regarding the ways of God and the mechanisms of society. Sometimes, such simplicity in a narrative is all a book needs to serve its purpose to entice and excite the reader. The Kingdom certainly does that. Set aside an hour or two to read it, and enjoy it for what it is.