Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most well-known Japanese authors in the Western world, with over 10 novels translated into English. Because I generally try to read, review, and translate authors which are not yet very well known in the West, it might seem odd that I choose to read and review one of her latest books. But I had a good reason––Banana Yoshimoto’s classic novel “Kitchen” (キッチン ) was actually one of the very first books I read in Japanese from cover to cover. While I don’t remember too many details about the story, I know I did like this author’s writing style and how the main character’s feelings and thoughts were described.
A few weeks ago I had made a visit to the Kinokuniya store in Beaverton, shortly after they reopened after a long shutdown due to Covid-19. I saw the first book of “吹上奇譚” (which I am translating at “The Legend of Fukiage”) on the shelf for hardcover fiction, and even though I didn’t really like art style of the cover illustration, it somehow stood out. Furthermore, the book was a reasonable length (200-300), which made it easier to make another reading commitment.
This book is very different from the other Banana Yoshimoto books I had read because the setting and story are less about everyday life, and more about a fantasy world involving aliens, dimensional portals, spirits, and special abilities. This may sound like a dramatic, action-packed manga series, but Yoshimoto leverages these fantasy elements in her own unique way, with a slower pace and a focus on internal dialog reminiscent of “Kitchen”. The result feels to me a little like “Urban Fantasy” (though I’ve only read a few books that are formally in this genre), or perhaps it’s better to say this book is more about the human elements, given that supernatural things exist, as opposed to focusing on the supernatural things themselves. In the afterword the author talks a little about why she chose a fantasy setting, which I found intriguing.
The basic premise of the story involves two of the main character’s close family members, to whom bad things have happened to, and her quest to find out if she can do anything to help them. Much of the book takes place in the mysterious city of Fukiage (which is where the title comes from); to be honest, the city and how it was described was one of my favorite parts of this book. For some reason I tend to enjoy books where a city or a place itself is one of the main characters (or can be interpreted that way). To give you a good example, China Mieville’s “The City & the City”, which contains a very creatively constructed city, is one of my favorite books.
As usual I will not give too many details about the story, but I will say things resolved well enough to feel some sense of closure, while keeping me interested in the world enough to consider buying the next book in the series (which came out in 2019). While this book is part of a series, it can be enjoyed in isolation.
For the majority of Japanese learners I would not recommend this book because of the difficulty level. There were a few kanji I had to look up, but the sentence structure used by the author in this work (especially for the descriptions and internal dialogue) was much more complex than usual, with longer sentences such that sometimes I had to reread a sentence once or twice to figure it out. I had difficulty with a few of the shorter sentences as well because of the somewhat abstract concepts involved––though I feel the average native Japanese speaker wouldn’t have much trouble understanding things. I also got the sense that the author was trying to stretch the limits of commonly accepted grammar by frequently using techniques like ending sentences in the “te” of “nagara” form (which technically makes a sentence fragment).
In particular, the first 40-50 pages was somewhat hard for me to follow because there was a good amount of wordy dialogue about the predictions given by a certain pair of fortune tellers. (While a bit unorthodox, I did like how the fortune tellers were integrated into the story.) As you can imagine, fortune tellers don’t always speak in simple terms, and there was a lot of information about the setting exposed early on for me to have to learn. But later in the book are more typical conversations which I found refreshingly natural and were pretty easy to follow.
Having said all the above, I found the prose to be beautifully written and was actually considering looking for an audio book so I could sit back, close my eyes, and enjoy the atmosphere. As a non-native Japanese speaker, grasping things like atmosphere, complex emotions, or tone is especially challenging, and part of me regretted not being fluent enough to fully grasp these things as well as a native speaker would. By the way, it appears that neither of the books in this series have been translated to English yet. I’m guessing once the series is done they will decide based on the sales of the series as a whole.
I mentioned above that I was not a big fan of the cover, but I was referring to the removable outside jacket. I actually really liked the cover on the book itself because of a very “special” effect that I will leave up to your imagination (:
There were only two minor problems I had with this book: a little too much explanation in the last few chapters (leaving less up to the reader’s imagination), plus how the author blatantly advertised the next book in the series in the afterword.
In summary, I think this is a great book for those who like atmospheric, slow-paced stories that focus on the character’s internal state. If you don’t consider yourself an advanced student of Japanese (roughly 3-5+ years of intensive study), I think you can still try this book out if you are willing to be patient and parse through the sentences little by little. But I’d recommend starting with something easier like “Kitchen” first (which, if I remember correctly, has much simpler grammar).
You can find “The Legend of Fukiage” (Book 1) here on Amazon Japan.
To close, I wanted to give a brief excerpt to illustrate the writing style and unique atmosphere of this book, taken from pages 86-87. I will also provide an English translation, but please keep in mind this is not official and only listed here to give a rough idea what the book is like. This passage refers to one piece of information that is mentioned early on the story, but if you are sensitive to spoilers you may want to stop here.
When Kodachi disappeared, my way of living until now that I had thought was so simple and so logical suddenly became twisted into an intricate shape, like a beam of light passed through a prism. Nothing offered any answers about how I should continue living: not the sky, not the ground, and not the trees.
Everything simply existed there, in absolute silence, gazing at me with looks of indifference.
I’m sure that if I could only open my heart and focus on something other than myself, then all the little inner workings of daily life and nature around me would shower kindness upon me.
Even now, I dearly miss those happy childhood days when I could simply stare out at the sky, touch the earth and feel the sweetness of the lingering sunlight within, or sleep in the shade of a tree where specks of light danced and the leaves rustled gently in the wind, and just take in everything as it was.