Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto
Slightness is not an attribute of short books nor profundity a necessary quality of length. Banana Yoshimoto’s Moshi Moshi is a short, beautiful coming of age tale. It seems sappy at times if you are inclined to feel “realistic”. But it also has its antennae up to the subtler background music of everyday life.
Young adult Yocchan has fled to the village-like neighborhood of Shimokitazawa after the tragic breakup of her family. She has taken her first cramped on-her-own apartment over a store and ends up working at a tight-spaced restaurant across the street, making a start at learning the gourmet trade.
Her father, a keyboard player with middlingly successful band, had ended his life in a notorious double suicide with his mistress, leaving his model wife, called a “Madame”, and their only child Yocchan emotionally wrecked.
Yocchan has fled the family condo in a tonier neighborhood where her mother spent her days keeping up upscale appearances, hence the term “Madame”.
Just as Yocchan is settling into her new place, her mother turns up with suitcases and asks to move in. Mom has seen her husband’s ghost walking around the condo. There is a Japanese “ghost tradition” in popular culture and folklore. Ghosts can linger when they have been unfulfilled in life or have unfinished business. They consider having a “cleansing” ceremony someday. But neither wife nor daughter wants to return to the empty condo which has turned into a memorial of their trauma.
It’s essential to the story that Shimokitazawa is such a human-scale neighborhood. It’s sort of like Linus’ blue blanket from Peanuts only it’s a town. When Yocchan is working the evening shift at the restaurant, she can look across the street and see the second story window of her apartment. And if the light is on, she knows her mother is there. She resents her mother’s presence but also wants to support her. They sleep on adjoining futons in the small space. In the middle of the night, when Yocchan has one of her repeating nightmares that her father is trying to call, she can wake up and see the outline of her sleeping mother’s back.
Shimokitazawa has a network of mom and pop stores. There are a few busy avenues which lead off to alleys that also contain shops. You walk almost everywhere. There are taxis, a train station and buses for longer trips.
Yocchan asks her mother what she does all day while she is working in the restaurant. In true Yoshimoto style, her mother tells her in detail about all the shops she visits and errands she runs.
Interacting with a range of small establishments, you get to know all the owners, who are usually on-site providing the service, and they get to know you. Having small meals or tea here and there, Yocchan’s mother explains that she can spend the entire day out making new friends and not spending much.
If you lived in a neighborhood like this in a heavily urbanized region, you would be wise not to publicize it for fear of gentrification or worse, tourists. In an elegiac postscript to her story, Yoshimoto mourns for the lost neighborhood, which in the real world is morphing into a region of big box stores. Moshi Moshi is partly the swan song of a more healing way of living where people make personal connections every day.
Moshi Moshi reads like a series of extended, intimate conversations. If Yoshimoto were a film director she would be one who favored long takes, or maybe she’d be Eric Rohmer, the French New Wave director whose films are so talky. The novel is over 200 pages without chapter breaks. Instead there are occasional double space inserts which are scarcely noticed. It’s a tidal narrative. And sometimes I think that all Japanese literature starts where Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji leaves off.
In Moshi Moshi time is elastic, it both speeds up and slows down. When a beautiful old building is about to be torn down, Yocchan wonders that maybe not everything about the building and its people will be lost. Somehow in the greater network of human association, like in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, something precious can be preserved in time’s amber. Can you understand cleaning the window panes of a beloved building that is about to be demolished?
The evolutionary, conversational poetry of Yoshimoto’s story, reminiscent of the narrative clarity of Kawabata or the family film sagas of Yasujirō Ozu stands out even through the clearing haze of translation.