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BIG IN JAPAN
Banana Yoshimoto

Banana YoshimotoThe biographical blurb inside Yoshimoto' novel N.P. reads: "Banana Yoshimoto was born in 1964. She has won numerous prizes in her native Japan, and her first book, Kitchen, has sold millions of copies worldwide. She lives in Tokyo." Not exactly packed with detail. So who is Banana Yoshimoto?

Yoshimoto Mahoko was born on July 24 1964, and is the daughter of Yoshimoto Takaaki, aka Ryumei, probably the most famous and influential Japanese philosopher and critic to emerge out of the 1960s New Left. (Ryumei's notoriety of late has mostly been due to his nearly drowning a couple of times in the last few years). In addition to having a famous father, Mahoko's sister, the cartoonist Haruno Yoiko, is also a public figure. Mahoko grew up in a leftist, liberal family with significantly more freedom than the typical Japanese teenager and, while she was still in high school, she moved in with her boyfriend. After graduating from the literature department of Nihon University's Art College, Mahoko took the deliberately androgynous pseudonym "Banana" and began to write seriously. One of the chief influences on her writing, both in terms of style and content, was the work of Steven King (particularly his non-horror stories), whom she still greatly admires. Later she developed less populist inspiration from the works of Truman Capote and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

As it turned out, Banana was instantly successful. Her story "Moonlight Shadow" won the Izumi Kyoka Prize in 1986 and she became a publishing sensation the next year with the release of her debut novella Kitchen (published in English with "Moonlight Shadow"). The two stories were written while she was working as a waitress in Tokyo - often she would write during her breaks and slack periods at work - and the book went on to win her the Umitsubame First Novel Prize. There have been two films made of the story, a Japanese TV movie and a more widely released version produced in Hong Kong by Yim Ho in 1997. So far the novel has had over sixty printings in Japan alone. At the 1993 G7 summit, the Foreign Ministry even handed out copies of Banana's book to foreign delegates. One wonders whether anyone at the ministry had read Kitchen, whose two stories concern a transsexual father and a boy who dresses up in his dead girlfriend's school uniform!

Since Kitchen, Banana has sold in excess of six million books in Japan and become an internationally renowned author. She has produced eleven other novels and seven collections of essays, only a handful of which have so far been translated into English. Her most popular works include Sanctuary, Tsugumi (made into films by Ichikawa Kon in 1990), N.P., Lizard (a collection of short stories), Amrita (winner of the Murasakishikibu Prize), the novels Kanashii, Yokan, Honeymoon and SLY, and the collections of essays Pineapple Pudding and Song from Banana.

Despite her phenomenal success, Banana has remained a somewhat enigmatic and down-to-earth figure. She usually appears without make-up and dresses simply. Despite a long-term relationship, and the fact that the characters in her last novel Honeymoon found redemption by marrying, she maintains that marriage is unnecessary. The fact that her own mother fell in love with her father when she was married to another man has undoubtedly influenced her view of relationships. Certainly the majority of her characters enjoy rather unconventional relationships and lead what most would consider atypical Japanese lives.

These days Banana has the security of success. "Banana Mania," it seems, is now impervious to bad reviews, with sales of the unremarkable and simplistic Amrita being largely unaffected by its critics. Now Banana writes to please herself, putting in at least thirty minutes at the keyboard every day, and says, "I tend to feel guilty because I write these stories almost for fun." Certainly her readers would agree that she offers escapism, fun, and a view of modern Japanese life still tinted with a touch of the traditional sense of mono no aware - the pathos of things.


Matt Wilce

BIG IN JAPAN:
299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
Singer/songwriter
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
Comedian
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
Author
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
Baseball player
269: Moritaka Chisato
Model and singer
268: Mukai Chiaki
Female astronaut
267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
Shamisen player
265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
Pioneer careerwoman
261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
Japanese snack food
258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
Conquering the world
256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
Japanese heartthrob
252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
Kabuki actor
251: Rie Miyazawa
Model and actress
250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

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