For a writer who was once probably only behind Haruki Murakami in the J-Lit popularity stakes, Banana Yoshimoto has faded from the Anglosphere a little in recent times, with The Lake (back in 2011) her last major work to appear in English. Luckily, for Bananaphiles everywhere, that’s about to change as today marks the publication of another Yoshimoto novel – and I can assure you all that it’s everything you’d expect and want it to be 🙂
Moshi Moshi (translated by Asa Yoneda, review copy courtesy of Counterpoint Press) revolves around Yoshie (or Yocchan), a woman in her twenties slowly recovering from the shock of her father’s death. In what makes for a rather sombre start to the novel, we quickly learn that he was involved in a murder suicide with a lover, leaving Yoshie and her mother to move on with their lives as best they can.
Yoshie decides that a physical relocation is the best way forward, leaving the family home to go live in the hip Tokyo suburb of Shimokitazawa and work in the restaurant just across the road from her flat. However, things don’t go exactly as she imagines. Firstly, her mother follows her and ends up moving in. Then, Yoshie meets Shintani-Kun, a handsome man with news about her father. As she works hard to balance the new elements in her life, she begins to think she can see a way forward, but will she ever really be able to move on if she doesn’t look back and make peace with her past?
While it may sound a little like chick lit (which it is in parts – Yoshimoto’s stories can be a little on the fluffy side), the more I read, the more I was drawn into the story. The writer is still mining the same themes as she was twenty-five years ago, with her main character just as old (or young) as ever, and for those of you playing Banana bingo at home, there’s plenty to fill your card – ghosts, dreams, death and good food all appear early in the piece. However, when you get beyond all this, Moshi Moshi is actually a well-written story, nicely paced after a slow start.
Yoshie’s attempt to make a new life for herself centres around her job at Les Liens, where her graduation from customer to helper is a milestone on her route to normality. As unexpected as it is, even her Mum’s arrival helps with this process. Both women feel the need for a change and soon manage to adapt to a new, slow kind of life far away from their old upper-class suburb.
In fact, Moshi Moshi is very much a book about the location. Shimokitazawa is a community of small shops, cafés and restaurants, and the two women soon come to love their new home:
On first glance, it looked chaotic, and muddy, and ugly, but when your eyes were open, you saw that all the movements and elements wove themselves into a wonderful pattern. What a joyful sight it was.
p.200 (Counterpoint Press, 2016)
It proves to be an oasis of calm amongst the Tokyo bustle, and while it might not be for everyone, for Yoshie and her mother, it’s a safe haven in their time of need.
Apart from the location, Yoshimoto focuses much of her attention on Yoshie’s love life. Two men enter her world, both armed with knowledge of her father’s affair. The young and attractive Shintani-kun and the older, comforting Yamazaki-San represent a way forward, yet provide Yoshie with the knowledge and courage she needs to sort out some unfinished business by returning to the scene of the tragedy. Her father, a musician was entangled with a femme fatale determined to drag someone down with her, and Yoshie is haunted by the idea of his trying to call at the moment of his death with the phone he left behind in their apartment. The title comes from the standard Japanese phone greeting Yoshie makes in reply to these dream calls – sadly, there’s never any reply from the other end…
Moshi Moshi initially feels rather slow, but as the story progresses, the reader adapts to the rhythm of the novel. The deliberate slowing down of the action reflects the new pace of Yoshie’s life, and this is backed up by the dreamy, hypnotic action, with the writer dwelling on minutiae most would skip over. There are places where this can come across as slightly annoying, but on the whole it works pretty well. Even if there’s nothing new for Yoshimoto readers in terms of content, the book does have a slightly more mature feel stylistically than earlier works.
Like many of Yoshimoto’s novels, though, the main theme running through it is the importance of moving on after tragedy, and of living in the moment:
I felt joy. Working at the bistro, Shintani-kun feeling at home there. Seeing my apartment across the street. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever – things changed and moved on, and if you thought they could stay the same, they got ruined, like our family had done. Still, I desperately wanted all of this happiness to stay, just the way it was. (p.96)
This mantra is as true for the setting as it is for the characters. A little research shows Shimokitazawa itself is under threat (from developers) and the life described in the book is unlikely to last for much longer. Yoshimoto’s postscript confirms this, meaning Moshi Moshi reads like a lament for a dying way of life. Still, if all things must pass, she seems to be saying, let’s enjoy them while they last – Yoshie’s certainly determined to give it a try.