Hip novelist combines old and new Japan

Banana Yoshimoto isn't buying the party line.

Almost everyone here agrees Japan's mood is lackluster, its prospects uncertain. Words like recession and unemployment dominate conversation.

But Ms. Yoshimoto isn't having any of it. Switching gears on the book she was writing, she abandoned its heavy, contemplative theme and spun out a tale of redemption, love, and renewal - a direct reply, she says, to the gloomy outlook of the day.

That response is classic Banana: contrary, individual, upbeat, much like her books and stories. It's a combination that has made her one of Japan's preeminent young novelists and fed the "Banana Mania" that began with her first book in 1988.

The young people in Yoshimoto's funky novels enjoy American art and English pop music. Indeed, some critics say her relentlessly cosmopolitan tone is superficial. But traditional sensibilities underlie those hip attitudes and this duality drives much of her work.

Yoshimoto's protagonists and readers are seeking new kinds of lives to fit a new Japan, one of growing creativity and individualism. A chat with Yoshimoto provides a window onto those changes and the continuity underlying them.

At first sight, you would never connect Yoshimoto with her books. She is initially quiet, a watcher with a face like a closed door. Makeup-free, her simple outfit is enlivened only by two gold rings on her hands. Neither is a wedding band. Despite a long-term relationship, Yoshimoto insists that marriage is unnecessary.

That might be the heritage of her parents' unusual partnership. Her mother was married to another man when she fell in love with Takaaki Yoshimoto, a famous literary critic. Ask Yoshimoto why the characters in her latest novel find redemption through a loving marriage and she'll tell you fiction has nothing to do with reality.

Until she loosens up, there seems to be little connection between the reality of Yoshimoto the person and the fiction of Yoshimoto the writer. She even forsakes her given name, Mahoko, for her catchy and deliberately androgynous pseudonym.

Her reader-friendly books are chatty, breezy affairs, told in the first person. They are peopled with charming misfits who struggle with individualism, loss, and alienation from traditional values and family, but who often find solace in spirituality and love.

So it is in "Honeymoon," her latest novel, for which Yoshimoto is still searching for an English translator. It tells the story of Manaka and her emotionally scarred neighbor Hiroshi. His parents deserted him to join a fanatic cult in the United States, leaving him with a gentle and caring grandfather.

At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Hiroshi's grandfather and his beloved dog Olive have died, and that he's recently learned of his father's death in a mass suicide. The novel, which follows Manaka's efforts to break through Hiroshi's resentment, guilt, and fear, is ultimately a tale of love and spiritual liberation.

"Before I start writing, I have a theme, before I have the characters even," Yoshimoto says. From there, the actual writing is easy. "I can write anywhere," she says, waving a hand at the restaurant around her for emphasis.

Yoshimoto wanted to be a writer from childhood and is passionate about writing. "I felt like it was my destiny," she says.

Indeed, ask if literature is relevant in an electronic age and Yoshimoto the person, reticent and watchful, vanishes as Yoshimoto the writer, opinionated and assertive, surges to the fore. "A novel is where readers meet the author for one moment and share something together," she says animatedly, leaning forward in her chair. "A novel is a journey."

Her literary journey began after university, when she worked as a waitress and wrote, sometimes during slow work shifts. Her first novel, "Kitchen," sold 2 million copies, won literary prizes in Italy and Japan, and made US bestseller lists.

Now she writes every day, if only for 30 minutes, drawing on influences like Truman Capote and Isaac Bashevis Singer. She writes only to please herself. "For me, the hardest thing is to write my novels with somebody in mind, the editors or the readers," she says. "If I start to think that this is my job, I tend to feel guilty because I write these stories almost for fun."

Indeed, the speed with which she turns out work has drawn charges of assembly-line writing. Reviewers have rapped her for superficiality, for trying to plumb depths her oddball characters are too flimsy to reach, and creating protagonists who are often aimless and depressed. They have criticized her characters' lives, full of foreign influences, as somehow un-Japanese.

But on many levels, these qualities make Yoshimoto's books a perfect reflection of Japan - old and new. Modern Japanese cities are a testament to the US and European influences Yoshimoto writes about. In Tokyo, Italian restaurants are trendy, hip-hop music is cool, and Mariah Carey advertises for English conversation schools.

Yoshimoto's books echo another facet of modern Japanese culture in their use of androgyny, fantasy worlds, and psychic phenomena, all major motifs in Japanese manga, or comic books. Explicitly escapist entertainment for a pressured and workaholic society, manga are the most popular reading material in Japan, accounting for 1 out of every 3 published works.

Yoshimoto's sister is a well-known manga writer. And while critics have decried the escapist quality of Yoshimoto's novels, she says that's exactly what she's after. "I hope my writing will help people to forget everything," she has said.

Underlying this modern sensibility is an older Japanese aesthetic that helps explain the pensive quality of some Yoshimoto characters. Called "mono no aware," roughly translated as "the pathos of things," it is central to Japan's artistic tradition but also encompasses feelings of nostalgia and bittersweet sadness at the fleeting nature of life and beauty.

In "Honeymoon," Manaka finds all this in her garden, a sanctuary where she spends hours watching ants crawl through the moss and clouds billow and wisp away. When she is afraid, she thinks of the garden to comfort herself.

There is a little of Mahoko, as Yoshimoto's parents call her, in Manaka, also in Mikage and Mayu, heroines of other Yoshimoto novels. Like Manaka, Yoshimoto draws great comfort from nature and animals. Like many of her modern heroines, she lives on her own, but enjoys traditional festivals and foods.Like her characters and many young Japanese women, Yoshimoto is interested in spirituality, but says she's not religious.

In other words, the distance between Yoshimoto the person and Yoshimoto the writer is not so great after all. "I do reflect myself on the characters," Yoshimoto admits. Given her popularity, it's clear the fans who have created "Banana Mania" recognize themselves, caught somewhere between tradition and modernity, in her protagonists as well.

* Books by Banana Yoshimoto that you can read in English include 'Kitchen,' 'Amrita,' and 'N.P.'

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