Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

Yoshie lives on her own in the Shimokitazawa neighbourhood. She works at a local bistro called Les Liens. She moved there a year after the death of her father. He died in a “love murder suicide in a forest in Ibaraki with a woman who’d apparently been a distant relative”.

Her mother soon moves in with her, saying that she can’t live in their family home. Yoshie is at first hesitant, wanting her independence and own space. But as she watches her mother, looking like a young girl, staring out the window at the street below, a thought comes to her mind: 

“What must it be like for your life to suddenly be a blank page, at her age? I wondered. No young children who needed her energy, no need to scramble to make ends meet. Only the dark, heavy shadow of regret that clung constantly to us both.”

The neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa is actually more important than I expected. The Japanese title of the book is “Moshi Moshi Shimokitazawa”. And the story opens with Yoshie talking about a movie called “Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa” which moved her to tears the first time she watched it. She felt that it managed to put into words something she had been on the verge of grasping. 

“I longed to have the same kind of effect, in my own way – to cast such a wonderful spell over people.”

I was struck by how there’s a lightness in this book, despite it being one dealing with grief and death. A very unusual death at that. But Yoshimoto has this way of talking about small everyday details, like the neighbourhood and Yoshie’s work at the bistro. Life goes on even after the death of a loved one. 

“Our bodies forgot, left things behind, without our hearts meaning to.”

The Lake

Chihiro, a painter of murals, tells the story of The Lake. Her late mother was the owner and ‘mama-san’ of a club and her father is of some prominence in their small rural town. The book opens with her mother’s hospitalisation and death, which leaves Chihiro feeling lost and distanced and eventually she moves to Tokyo, where she meets Nakajima, who lives in the building diagonally across. She finds herself attracted to him.

There’s a tenacity in him that’s beyond all that. The intensity of a person unafraid of death, at the end of his rope.

Maybe that’s how I knew we would get along.

Yes there is an actual lake in this book.

“The water was so still you almost felt like it would absorb any sounds that reached it. The surface might have been a mirror. Then a wind blew up and sent small waves drifting across it. The only sound was the chirping of birds that whirled around us, high and low.”

Nakajima and Chihiro travel several hours to get to it, to a little shack by the lake that Nakajima and his mother used to live in, and which is now the home of Mino and Chii, siblings who make their living as clairvoyants. That is, Mino voices what the bedridden Chii ‘sees’. Mino also makes the most delicious tea, from spring water.

“The tea, made from leaves with a subtly smoky aroma, was so good I could feel my senses sharpening. It had a sweetness to it, and at the end of each sip I’d catch a whiff of fruit.”

And this is that kind of book that is to be read with a pot of steaming tea (lapsang souchong perhaps?) next to you  – and I suppose if you have a view of a lake, that would be helpful. Because this is story that gradually awakens.

I made the mistake of glancing at an interview with Banana Yoshimoto about The Lake which revealed more than I cared to know (at the point of my reading progress). The Goodreads description also reveals just a little too much about the story. So hopefully I’ve managed not to, and if you are interested in reading this book, just jump right in and read it, without reading too much about it! Because Yoshimoto (and her translator) has written a book that seems, at first glance, simple, direct. But there is so much more beneath.

“But sometimes we encounter people like Nakajima who compel us to remember it all. He doesn’t have to say or do anything in particular; just looking at him, you find yourself face-to-face with the enormousness of the world as a whole. Because he doesn’t try to live in just a part of it. Because he doesn’t avert his gaze.

He makes me feel like I’ve suddenly awakened, and I want to go on watching him forever. That, I think, is what it is. I’m awed by his terrible depths.”

Title: The Lake
Author: Banana Yoshimoto
Translated by: Michael Emmerich
Originally published in 2005