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Cooking is a universal language. It is wordless communication between people who can experience the ecstasies of a good meal. It brings people together in such a way that nothing else can. In Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, cooking plays an extreme role in the life of Mikage Sakurai, a young woman who has recently begun a new life with Yuichi and Eriko Tanabe because of the death of her mother. Mikage immerses herself in cooking, making it a part of her soul, so that she might bring the multifarious family together from their very different lives. Another notable effect of cooking for Mikage, though, is the way it heals her heart. Mikage finds that cooking brings the Tanabe's together, but the communal experience of sharing meals and enjoying them with others that bring happiness and comfort to all the participants is what really helps her overcome her grief.
The kitchen is a source of nourishment not only in the physical sense for Mikage but also in the emotional sense. Mikage starts out by telling us that she shares an intense affiliation for any kind of kitchen. "The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it's a kitchen, if it's a place where they make food, it's fine with me." (3) The kitchen is a place where Mikage finds comfort, a place where she can grieve. She finds peace there, the hum of the refrigerator keeps her from thinking about her loneliness. Mikage spent a great deal of time in her grandmother's kitchen in search of comfort. By being in the kitchen, she is dealing with her grief in the same way another person might grieve with another person. "Steeped in a sadness I could barely cry, shuffling softly in a gentle drowsiness, I pulled my futon into the deathly silent, gleaming kitchenâ€¦There the long night came on in perfect peace, and morning came." (4-5) That is where she feels most comfortable, therefore that is the place that she goes to. She has no where else to go because her last living relative has died. She has no one, or nothing, to turn to except the kitchen. The connotation and denotation of a kitchen is a source of nourishment and making the body healthy. Being in the Kitchen is Mikage's from of therapy because it helps her replenish her strength to get up and move on to make life better for herself, which she does by going to live with the Tanabes.
When Mikage goes to the Tanabe's house, she knows she is in good hands because of the way that the Tanabe's take care of their kitchen. When she arrives at the Tanabe residence, the first room in the house that she inspects is the kitchen. It's only natural because of the affiliation she already feels for the kitchen. "I looked around, nodding and murmuring approvingly, 'Mmm, mmm.' It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight" (10) Mikage had no way of knowing the kind of people that the Tanabe's were but she placed her total trust in the amazing kitchen, and her instincts turned out to be correct. Mikage's thoughts were along the line of no one who was bad could have such an amazing kitchen. The comfort she feels from the kitchen transcends to her feelings about the Tanabes. She begins to feel this way because of the fact that whenever she cooks the rag tag family get together and communicate. There are many instances from which cooking not only helps Mikage but also helps the Tanabes too. Many important things happen while they are eating such as Eriko convincing Mikage to stay with them, the dream conversation, Yuichi's feast, and Eriko's story of how she became a woman. All of these intense moments were brought on over food. Food makes it that much easier to talk about serious things because it's hard to remain stoic when you are slopping up noodles. When a meal is made, people will come together and bond, sharing many important things. It's only natural that this would be the same in Kitchen.
Cooking in itself is a metonymy and a symbol for Mikage. During one summer, Mikage works really hard to master cooking. She buys three books that she uses to teach herself. She tried to make everything perfect, throwing things away and starting over if it doesn't look exactly like the picture in the book. When Mikage says "And it's true that for the whole summer I went about it with a crazed enthusiasm" (57), this suggests the undying passion that consumes Mikage. She works tirelessly to master the art of cooking. She has no choice, it's a calling that she has to obey. By mastering cooking, is also able to make it her own. "Memorizing the recipe, I would make carrot cakes that included a bit of my soul." (59) This is a sort of nonverbal communication with those who ate her food. By putting bits of her soul into the cooking, Mikage makes it hers and she gives little bits of herself as presents to the Tanabes. Mikage holds a great love for the little detail and this helps her make food her own. "At the supermarket I would stare at a bright red tomato, loving it for dear life. Having known such joy, there was no going back." (59) Her word choice shows that she really pays attention to cooking, thus reinforcing the idea of her passion for cooking. She observes that the quality of one's work depends on how much detail was put into it. If one was not passionate about something why would they pay attention to all the miniscule details? Her passion helps in the healing process because through cooking she is relieving all of her pent up grief and she shares it with others and, in the case of Yuichi when his mother dies, in making him feel better she is able to show him that she feels the same grief that he does. Mikage knows grief; she has seen it a lot in her life. This experience also helps her realize that to help ease the pain she needs to talk about it. That is how she is able to heal herself and help Yuichi eventually heal himself as well.
Yoshimoto's writing reads like poetry. It is easy to read on flows off the tongue. This kind of writing makes it easy to read and it really grabs the attention of the readers, making them get lost in the words. Yoshimoto originally wrote the story in Japanese. This language is very complex in the way it relies upon syllabic structure, which makes it hard to translate. One word in Japanese could turn into ten words in English. So some of the rhythm and imitations that go along with the Japanese language literally get lost in translation. For example, in Japanese, the way people talk to each other determines their relationship with one another. It's hard to see this in the English translation, but in the original Japanese, Eriko is using informal language when she first meets Mikage. This says a lot about her open personality because she immediately treats Mikage like family even though she just met her. Mikage though speaks entirely in the formal Japanese, which indicates her uneasiness about Eriko. We see how their relationship developed during Eriko's speech about how she discovered she wanted to be a woman. They both talk to each other with such informal language that it is plain to see that they both consider each other family. Since each of the family lead different lives and they only see each other over the meals brought on by Mikage's cooking, their relationship really develops over the food and Eriko helps Mikage get over her grief.
Mikage's food really is the definition of soul food. She puts so much into her cooking that it draws in those around her to eat it, thus making it possible for them to bond when they otherwise might not have seen each other. She leaves bits of her essence in the food and others can see her personality through the food they eat. The time spent cooking and the time spent with those who eat her food are very therapeutic for Mikage and she is able to overcome the loss of her grandmother and eventually help Yuichi do the same.