The Lake (2005)

Published in 2005 as Mizuumi みずうみ, translated 2011 by Michael Emmerich.

Yoshimoto Banana is a penname.  Her real name is no big secret:  it’s Yoshimoto Mahoko.  But in fact her penname is no longer Yoshimoto Banana.  It’s Yoshimoto Banana.  That is, it’s no longer 吉本ばなな, but よしもとばなな.  Let’s break it down.  Banana is of course a loanword (and I’ve got a whole riff that I give my students on what’s behind it:  not just her professed love for the banana flower, and her obvious affinity with the fruit’s pop qualities – bright-yellow-cheerfulness, an innocent phallaciousness, but also, I suspect, a canny reference to Andy Warhol’s famous image for the Velvet Underground & Nico album, an image that basically defined pop art for her generation and mine), and as such it’s usually written in katakana, like so:  バナナ.  She wrote it in hiragana, giving it a softer, friendlier vibe;  her choice of this as a penname already put her in the same league as TV entertainers and manga author/artists, the kind of people who routinely took (and take) this kind of pseudonym.  What happened about ten years ago was that she changed the writing of her surname from kanji to hiragana.  The official explanation (you can find it on her website, under Q&A) is superstition:  that the total number of strokes was unlucky.  However, it can’t be a coincidence that this all-hiragana style is something used by, as far as I can tell, basically kids, mostly girls, and the manga writers who try to appeal to them.  In short, it can be seen as another attempt to remain relevant.

If you wanna be cynical about it.

This is the most recent book of hers translated into English, as of this writing.  Whatever else I may think of her writing I’m glad so much has been translated – English, strangely, lags behind German, French, and Italian when it comes to translating J-lit, so it’s kind of rare to have so much translated by one author.  A rare opportunity for the non-Japanese-reader to take the measure, or begin to, of a Japanese author’s career.

So, almost twenty years into her career, six years on from Hardboiled, eleven from Amrita, what’s changed?  At first blush, almost nothing.  Her concerns are still love and loss, her narrative strategy is still one of near-constant epiphany, her prose is still straightforward and conversational to the point, almost, of pain.  Her narrator is still enmeshed in a difficult family situation marked by death and instability, and a romantic relationship that is anything but normal.

She’s in her comfort zone here, in other words, and it’s a little disappointing to find that, I have to admit.  There are some differences, however.

The narrator is a mural artist, living on her own.  We explore, mostly through flashbacks and reminiscences, her relationship with her dead mother and her father, who wasn’t married to her mother, but who acknowledges his daughter and tries to do right by her.  At the same time we follow the narrator as she falls in love with the guy whose apartment is just opposite hers in the neighboring building. Their windows look directly into each other and so they get to know each other that way – looking before they speak.  Kind of Rear Window-ish, but not done creepily.  As she gets to know the guy, she gradually realizes that his dysfunctional upbringing has given him a lot of baggage.  He was, we learn in the big revelation at the end (which is by way of a trela reliops), kidnapped as a child by a bizarro religious cult that brainwashed him and, it’s implied, sexually abused him.

Introducing the religious cult makes it sound like she’s ready, eleven years after Amrita, to engage with social issues again.  The jacket-flap copy on the English hardback certainly wants us to think so:  it invokes Aum.  But, just as with Amrita, if you go in expecting social commentary or historical analysis, you’ll be disappointed.  The cult is here mainly, I think, to give a plausible origin-story for the kind of savant that Banana seems to be fascinated by, periodically.  Not only do we have the narrator’s boyfriend, whose haunted past shows up in the present as a striking gentleness of character, but we have two of his childhood friends from the cult, fellow survivors, who we meet twice and who are presented as prophet- or god-type people, removed from the dust of mortality and the hurly-burly of the world.

In short, her main interest here seems to be the idea of a childlike purity that not only survives the most hellish upbringing, but that paradoxically seems to survive precisely because that hellish upbringing arrested the children’s development.  So, okay.  We’re still within the precincts of the territory she marked early on – this purity has its echoes as far back as “Moonlight Shadow.” Still, this might be its fullest expression in her fiction.

And there is something new (-ish) about the way she’s presenting it.  The narrator is the narrator, a fairly typical Banana speaker, a shōjo grown up.  But for a change it’s not her epiphany, her enunciation of self, that’s the object of the story.  Rather, the climax of the story is her boyfriend’s story-within-a-story, and once it’s told, the book more or less ends. The focus is on his troubles, his development, his heart.  I think it’s less significant that the book is focusing on a boy than it is that it’s focusing on someone other than the narrator.  She’s talking about other people.  At least, so it seems.