When I bought this last summer [this essay was written in 2012] it was Banana’s most recent thing (ジュージュー, 2011). By the time I got around to reading it, it wasn’t. She’s very prolific.
The story is about a girl in her early 20s who works in her father’s steak-and-hamburger-steak shop in an older district of Tokyo. The shop is called Jūjū (“sizzle,” like a steak), after the steakhouse in the Saramichan manga, which had been the narrator’s mother’s favorite manga. The narrator’s mother was an ex-model who gave it up to marry the narrator’s father, who ran the steakhouse. The narrator’s mother is now dead. The story follows the narrator as she (a) works through her grief, (b) helps her father run the steakhouse, in the process reflecting on her own place in the business and the world, and (c) interacts with various other characters in her life, mostly misfits of one kind or another dealing with their own issues of love and loss.
In other words, the story is absolutely standard Yoshimoto Banana. Complete product. If you haven’t read much Banana before, this will give you the message. If you have, this might be unnecessary. Except.
The one interesting thing about it is how completely intertwined it is with the manga. This is foregrounded in a number of ways: the cover art sports Sarami, Pyonko, and Puramuchan (another character) on the roof of the manga’s steakhouse, while the obi and endpapers display cute little Asakura Sekaiichi goth cartoons; the characters in the novel are aware of the manga; and Banana’s inevitable postscript thanks Asakura for inspiration. You can’t miss it, even if you’re like me and had never heard of the manga before.
And of course the character set-up is similar. Both the narrator and the narrator’s mother have aspects of Saramichan about them. The mother b/c of her past as a model, and her being the one who, like Saramichan, first settles down in the steakhouse; the narrator herself b/c she’s our p.o.v. character, like Saramichan, and like Saramichan has an absent mother. The narrator’s father is like King Ema, although he’s in the kitchen, rather than hell (not an un-hellish place, of course, filled smoke and the smell of roasting meat).
But it’s not like this is in any way a novelization of the manga. More like a meditation on the motifs and themes of the manga, and both how they might be treated in an altogether more sentimental piece of fiction and how they might be meaningful to the characters in an altogether more sentimental piece of fiction. Inneresting.
And: it’s also interesting, to me at least, how this fits into Banana’s latter career. Like her work with Nara Yoshitomo and Naka Bokunen, this is a species of collaboration (if mostly one-sided) with a visual artist: again we find her decorating her words with the images of a younger hip artist. And, in particular, this lays bare what have always been the hidden but obvious manga resonances of Banana’s literature. Like, in some ways she’s always been shōjo manga without the illustrations. Now we see that at work.