Dead-End Memories

Japanese Title: デッドエンドの思い出 (Deddo endo no omoide)
Author: Banana Yoshimoto (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Year: 2003 (Japan); 2022 (United States)
Press: Counterpoint
Pages: 221

Dead-End Memories collects five short stories whose purpose is to comfort and uplift the reader. None of the characters are bad people, and none of them does anything wrong. When people suffer, they do so off-camera, and only then in rose-tinted hindsight. Banana Yoshimoto’s fiction occasionally contains elements of darkness, and this is undeniably the case in Dead-End Memories. Nevertheless, the five stories in this collection are filled with light and sweetness.  

The opening story, “House of Ghosts,” is classic Banana Yoshimoto. A young woman who aims to take over the management of her family’s restaurant falls in love with a young man whose parents are forcing him to inherit a local bakery. The couple bonds over home cooking, but the young man must leave soon to study in France. Also, his apartment is haunted. Thankfully, the ghosts of the former tenants, a long-married couple, aren’t bothering anyone, and they indirectly inspire the young woman to move forward without regrets by reminding her that life is long and full of opportunities. It’s all extremely wholesome.

The second story, “‘Mama!,’” is equally wholesome. The narrator, a junior editor at a large publisher, is poisoned at the company cafeteria by a man who was targeting a former lover. As she recovers, the editor remembers how she was rescued from her abusive mother and raised by her kind and loving grandparents. This early childhood trauma makes it difficult for her to recognize her fatigue, and she returns to work only to break down in tears on the job when she visits a writer’s house to collect his manuscript. The narrator’s boss is very understanding and grants her a month of paid leave. Having realized how precious life is, the narrator uses this holiday to marry her boyfriend and go on a honeymoon in Hawai’i. As in “House of Ghosts,” the most intimate and harrowing moments of the narrator’s suffering are glossed over in order to emphasize the process of healing.

The theme of healing carries through the other three stories in Dead-End Memories. In “Not Warm at All,” the narrator looks back fondly on a childhood friend who was murdered by his mother, while the narrator of “Tomo-Chan’s Happiness” finds herself nurturing a quiet attraction to a co-worker despite being sexually assaulted as a teenager. Meanwhile, the narrator of the title story, “Dead-End Memories,” is attempting to come to terms with a partner who seems to be doing his best to ghost her out of a serious long-term relationship. Perhaps because her situation is relatable to so many people, Yoshimoto is more comfortable allowing this story’s narrator to describe her emotional pain, albeit only with the support of the kind and handsome manager of the bar where she works. The jilted narrator ultimately decides that she has the right to move on and find her own happiness:

Maybe this has been a good thing after all. What I’m going through is only like being perched on a soft cloud and peering through a small gap at other people’s lives. The important thing is to keep your eyes open, because what you choose to pay attention to defines your world.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories in Dead-End Memories are about how painful experiences help us grow and mature as people. This may sound cliché; and, to be fair, it is. That being said, I would argue that Yoshimoto’s ability to address serious trauma with such a delicate touch is precisely why her writing continues to resonate with readers. Spending time with Dead-End Memories is like being assured by a close friend that bad things happen to everyone, but that everything will be okay in the end. Banana Yoshimoto’s stories are gentle and comforting and healing, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder

The Lonesome Bodybuilder
Japanese Titles: 嵐のピクニック (Arashi no pikunikku) and 異類婚姻譚 (Irui kon’in tan)
Author: Yukiko Motoya (本谷 有希子)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Years: 2015 & 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Pages: 209

The Lonesome Bodybuilder collects eleven stories originally published in two books by the celebrated author Yukiko Motoya, whose writing has been winning prestigious awards in Japan for more than fifteen years. I’m a fan of Motoya’s work, and I was looking forward to the day when it would appear in translation. I couldn’t have asked for a better rendition into English than Asa Yoneda’s lively and engaging translation, and The Lonesome Bodybuilder is a wonderful introduction to the work of a fascinating writer.

The title story, “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” is an eighteen-page journey. The protagonist feels as if her husband is ignoring her, so she takes up bodybuilding. She ends up becoming serious about it, but her husband fails to notice the dramatic changes of her body. After a traumatic incident in which she’s too afraid to use her physical strength to stop a dog from attacking another dog outside the home goods store where she works, she begins to embrace the idea that her training has no practical purpose other than to make her feel good about the way she looks. This sense of agency leads her to confront her husband, who finally makes an effort to be a better partner. At the end of the story, the narrator has started to build her self-confidence as well as her muscles, and she’s even beginning to consider adopting a dog of her own.

While the narrator of “The Lonesome Bodybuilder” learns to strengthen her connections with the people around her, “The Dogs” is a surreal celebration of self-imposed isolation. The narrator lives in a cabin in the woods that she’s borrowing from a friend while she does a vague sort of work that involves tweezers and a magnifying glass. She lives with dozens of bright white dogs that emerged from the forest and now share her space and sleep with her at night. When she goes to a nearby village for groceries, she learns that people have been going missing, and she fantasizes about what it would be like if everyone were to disappear. Her wish comes true as winter sets in and snow begins to fall, leaving her alone with dozens of mysterious dogs. The narrator treats all of this as if it were perfectly natural, and it’s clear that she couldn’t be happier.

The longest story in the collection, “An Exotic Marriage,” appears to be a straightforward account of a mundane marriage, but it gradually devolves into troubled confession regarding a genuinely bizarre situation. Several people close to the narrator have remarked that she has begun to physically resemble her husband, an observation that she finds disturbing. Although he’d already been married once, her husband seemed like an ordinary person until they moved in together, at which point he stopped making any attempt to hide his idiosyncrasies. He watches variety shows on television for hours on end before eventually transferring the target of his obsessive attention to a mobile game that the narrator tries and fails to understand. His unapologetic monomania leads him to quit his job; and, as he spends more time at home and becomes even more eccentric, his appearance begins to shift. The narrator is understandably concerned about what it might mean that she’s come to look like him, but she’s at a loss for how to keep her sense of self intact. At the end of the story, she realizes that her husband’s transformation is more dramatic than she suspected – and that he may not be human at all.

The stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder toe an odd and uncanny line between slipstream horror and emotional comfort food. Although some of the situations the protagonists find themselves in are strange and uncomfortable, Motoya’s writing doesn’t convey any particular sense of dread. The lighter stories play games with popular culture, humorously exploring questions such as “What would it be like to be a generic minor character in a video game?” and “What if your anime girlfriend were real?” As a collection, The Lonesome Bodybuilder carries on a conversation about the tenuous relationships people forge with difference, and most of the narrative tension comes from the ways in which this difference manifests in various identities, ontologies, and communication styles that may not always be compatible or even fully comprehensible.

Each of the eleven stories in The Lonesome Bodybuilder is interesting and unexpected, and Asa Yoneda’s skillful translation of Motoya’s sparkling prose is a joy to read.

Moshi Moshi

moshi-moshi

Title: Moshi Moshi
Japanese Title: もしもし下北沢 (Moshi moshi Shimokitazawa)
Author: Yoshimoto Banana (吉本 ばなな)
Translator: Asa Yoneda
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pages: 209

A year after her father dies in a suicide pact, twenty-something Mitsuharu Yoshie moves to the hipster neighborhood of Shimokitazawa, where she works part-time at a small bistro. Everything is going reasonably well for her until her mother suddenly decides to move in with her. Yoshie had been looking forward to leaving the nest and striking out on her own, but her mother claims that her father’s ghost has begun to haunt their old apartment, so what can she do?

Moshi Moshi is like a glossy lifestyle magazine in the form of a novel. Yoshie and her mother float through their days in Shimokitazawa, eating delicious food, buying nice things, and gradually getting to know their neighbors. Yoshie is serious about her work in the Les Liens bistro, and her mother is serious about pulling herself out of the mire of her former role as a housewife, but they have no money worries and are quite comfortable together.

The only shadow on their bright days is the death of Yoshie’s father Imoto, who played keyboard in a rock band. The official story is that he committed suicide with a much younger woman, but neither Yoshie nor her mother has any idea why an otherwise grounded and stable man would have consented to such an extreme act of desperation. One day, Yoshie randomly runs into a frequent diner at her bistro. The man’s name is Shintani, and he happens to own a club where Imoto’s band often played. Shintani takes this opportunity to tell Yoshie that there was something very strange about the woman her father ran off with. He also tells Yoshie that he’s falling in love with her.

Shintani is a typical Yoshimoto male love interest who could have walked straight out of the pages of a shōjo manga magazine. He is gentle, kind, and attractive in a nonthreatening way:

Shintani-kun still ate beautifully, and the pot-au-feu disappeared into his mouth with dreamy alacrity. As he ate, he looked out the window peacefully. He always wore nice shoes. (96)

Once they start seeing each other, Yoshie and Shintani bond in the same way that Yoshie and her mother do, namely, by visiting cool restaurants and bars and eating tasty and unusual dishes. It is their shared consumption of trendy food and chic clothes and music that brings them together, and Shimokitazawa is the perfect backdrop for this featherlight drama of consumerism. Yoshie’s mother is also healed by her immersion in hipster paradise:

When I saw her reading manga with her belly out, shedding tears while murmuring, “I understand, of course you want to go back and live in the cave,” I was filled up with the thought that this woman hadn’t done anything wrong, and didn’t deserve any of this.

Yes, Shimokitazawa was a little like a mountain cave in the outlands, where people who found it difficult to keep up with the vagaries of the world could live quietly, as they wanted. Even people who’d been left behind, like me and Mom. (88)

This laid-back atmosphere is occasionally juxtaposed against Yoshie and her mother’s former home in Meguro, a pricey neighborhood just south of Shibuya. Meguro is too upscale for the two women to be true to themselves, but they’re finally able to relax and find a comfortable community in Shimokitazawa, which welcomes sweet and slightly quirky people into its patchwork of quaint stores and cafés. The last sentence in the author’s Afterword aptly sums up the message of the book: “I only pray for the survival of all the many fine shops that still quietly continue to exist” (206).

Moshi Moshi has something vaguely resembling a plot, but the story isn’t really the point of the novel. Rather, the reader is bathed in the warm flow of Yoshimoto’s words while experiencing of the charm of the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. The novel is comforting, like drinking hot chocolate on a cold day. Just don’t expect any bold or complicated flavors, and you won’t be disappointed.