A reflection of Japan's cultural confusion
Book review by Geraldine Sherman

(The Globe and Mail March 8, 1995)

by Banana Yoshimoto
General, 180 pages, $25.95

In the decades following the Second World War, when the Japanese were grappling with military and economic defeat, filmmaking and literature thrived. Kurosawa and Ichikawa directed cinematic masterpieces and writers as different as the embittered militarist Mishima and the intensely personal Kenzaburo created a renaissance in fiction.

That era of literary excellence seems to have officially ended when Oe Kenzaburo accepted the 1994 Nobel Prize for literature. In a recent interview he said, "When I began working as a writer, there was a great generation of independent thinkers - the postwar generation - but today the scene is empty." The same emptiness is evident on international movie screens, from which Japanese cinema has all but disappeared. In literature, we are left with cultural hybrids such as 34-year-old Banana Yoshimoto, whose earlier novels, Kitchen and N.P., were so popular they led to "Bananamania," a phenomenon borrowed from pop music, which is no coincidence. Yoshimoto dedicates Lizard, a slight volume of six stories, to the late grunge artist, Kurt Cobain: "Without his music, I could never have written these stories."

The book is written in the traditional Japanese autobiographical style, equally divided between male and female voices. The first two stories are the most successful. In Newlywed, a discontented, drunken salaryman on his way home sits glued to his subway seat, unwilling to return to his silly wife. He's joined by a familiar Japanese character, The Trickster, an old man who transforms himself into a beautiful, wise woman "smelling like the scent of a place, before I was born, where all the primal emotions, love and hate, blended in the air." This mysterious fellow-traveller understands the narrator's innermost thoughts and gives him the courage to carry out his duties. The prose is as clean and smooth as a lacquered teacup. A charming footnote states that "Newlywed was first serialized on posters aboard Tokyo's Nippon Japan commuter trains."

The title story, Lizard, also told from a male perspective, describes the growing love between two healers, a doctor who treats disturbed children and a young woman aerobics instructor turned acupuncturist. It's a wonderfully sensual portrayal of an intelligent young man's love for a difficult woman. It borrows from Western ideas of developmental psychology, connecting early childhood memories to adult neuroses, with the promise of healing through disclosure. In these two stories, Yoshimoto shows greater ability and confidence than in her earlier work.

Unfortunately, starting with the next story, Helix, Yoshimoto spins out of control. The unconnected thoughts of a hung-over copywriter form a shaky bridge that tries to link the story together: "The image of the blue sky faded into another image, that of the eyelash of a woman friend of mine." The nameless ditzy girlfriend threatens to visit a "radical" retreat, where "they completely clear your mind . . . take you down to zero, so you can start over again." Here, too, memory is the key, but this time the language, in translation, is trendy and awkward; the lovers accuse each other of being "bummed" or "uptight" or of "obsessing." There's a reconciliation, of sorts, and an unconvincing attempt to turn the self-conscious couple into Adam and Eve, "an infinite helix, the dance of two souls resonating, like the twist of DNA." Pop psychology combines unsuccessfully with pseudo-science.

In Japan, visitors are often asked what their hobbies are. Leisure is a rare commodity and its use of great significance. Sex is the hobby of Akemi, the narrator in the final, and longest, story, A Strange Tale Down by the River. For her father, it's ceramics. "If Dad hadn't had his ceramics, he certainly would have had a lot of girlfriends instead."

Akemi is a sexual athlete who becomes an office girl and falls in love with a young man she sees at his father's funeral. "The ritual moved me tremendously . . . too beautiful, the birth, the life, and death of the man portrayed as totally sublime." They become engaged, but something is missing. Akemi tries to understand her angst through Freudianism ("No one can survive childhood without being wounded"), New Age philosophy ("bewitching fields of energy"), and ancient Shinto pantheism ("The river possesses the force to guide fate"). In the end, her hopelessness is explained by a near-drowning experience in infancy, and the overwhelming power of fate: "Everything is intertwined and linked together, and within that mass of forces I have survived and will live on, not because of anything I've decided."

Yoshimoto tells us that all her characters lack hope. That may be true, but it's a video-age, pachinko hopelessness. The writing is both minimalist and sentimental, combining the self-absorbed characteristics of North America's Generation X with the cherry-blossomed wistfulness of the Japanese. The writing of Yoshimoto, and others like her, is primarily of sociological interest, a reflection of Japan's present state of cultural confusion.

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1995

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