`Goodbye Tsugumi': A teenager's remembrance of things past

Japanese youth culture gets a philosophical treatment when Banana Yoshimoto muses nostalgically on young romance, shopping and death

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Feb 23, 2003 - Page 19

A word often used when writing about the strange fictions of Banana Yoshimoto is "kitsch." With its implication of pseudo-art, of something masquerading as literature but which is in reality relatively mindless and tawdry, it's not a flattering description. In this case, is it fair? And if not, what is these books' true character?

One point to bear in mind with this author is that her books occupy a territory somewhere between the literary and the popular. She is published in England by a very fastidious publisher, but her books are frequently concerned with what is often seen as "popular" subjects -- ghosts, young love, the dreams of adolescence. Yet there is a distancing from her subject matter -- in other words, she holds teenage infatuation at arm's length and muses on it, albeit in wistful fashion. Banana Yoshimoto is Marcel Proust meets Hello Kitty.

An example that illustrates this occurs early in this novel. The narrator claims to sense the presence of the sea in central Tokyo. "I feel like hurling away the bags I'm carrying from Yamano Records or Printemps or wherever, and dashing off to stand on that dirty concrete embankment beneath which the tide is forever dawdling ... . It occurs to me that this is what people mean by `nostalgia': the pain of knowing that this powerful yearning will eventually fade."

Here, the references to designer stores is a nod in the direction of youth fashion. But the interest in her own unfocused longing, and especially the thought that it won't last, is pure Proust. (But that this is not by any means the usual meaning of "nostalgia" may allow us to remember not to take Banana in her more philosophic moments too seriously).

Goodbye Tsugumi centers on a teenager who suffers from a number of physical disorders. They're unspecified, but the upshot is that she won't live long. But this girl, Tsugumi, is the last person in the world to want sentimental sympathy. She knows she can look forward to less life than her able-bodied friends, but seems to live more vigorously as a result. She's unpredictable, plays practical jokes, and is aggressive almost whenever she speaks. But she also has the power to charm, and fools around with every good-looking boy in town.

The action mostly takes place in a Japanese coastal resort. The narrator, Maria, "named after the Virgin Mother," is Tsugumi's cousin, and she and Tsugumi spent their childhood living in the town's Yamamoto Inn which Tsugumi's parents owned, and where both their mothers worked. But while Maria is at college in Tokyo a decision is made to sell up. As a result, Maria goes back to her childhood home to spend one last summer in the house she grew up in.

The gist of the plot is that Tsugumi falls for a boy called Kyoichi. His father is constructing a big hotel in the area, and as a result Kyoichi is victimized by local teenagers whose parents stand to lose by the new development. When they kill his dog, Tsugumi plans her grotesque revenge.

This "new" novel is in reality not new at all. Although the English translation (by Michael Emmerich) is new, the novel itself came out in Japanese in 1989. This suggests something else about Yoshimoto. She has in fact published far more books in Japanese than have appeared in English. It's as if she turns them out effortlessly in her native language, and as a result they are considered in Japan as relatively ephemeral entertainments. But abroad they are released more selectively, and so seem more special. At home she's a dispenser of romantic adolescent dreams. Abroad, she's literature.

The book reads oddly as a result of this time lapse. No one has a mobile phone and no one sends e-mails. This is perfectly natural for 1989, but the English translation is clearly intended to appeal to today's teenagers and is awash with contemporary American teenage expressions.

So -- is this novel really kitsch? Does it exist in a world of plaster saints and teen fashions, T-shirts bearing meaningless slogans, pink socks and schoolgirl hats? The answer has to be "not entirely." Such a culture avoids reality. It doesn't want to know about war or politics, and not much about disability either. It wants to know about how many little bears you have hanging from your backpack, not George W. Bush and Iraq. And when real people get killed in such wars, it looks only at its own tears, and whether they reflect the sunlight as they trickle down the cheek.

So what does Goodbye Tsugumi have beyond this? A little, but not much. When the novel opens, Maria's father is married to someone else and Maria's mother is only his lover. He eventually gets a divorce and marries Maria's mother. The relationship between Maria and her father is one of the better things in the book, but not a lot is made of it and it's never developed.

It could also be argued that Banana Yoshimoto has missed a major opportunity here. She's set up someone with a heightened perception of her own mortality, but the things she does in this foreshortened life are neither particularly interesting nor very significant. This turned out to be the last summer of Tsugumi's life, but all we have are the feelings of the narrator, and these don't add up to much. How sad it was! How alive she seemed! And that's about as far as it goes.

Good novels have characters who are brought to life in engaging and credible ways, not least by the way they speak. This is true of Tsugumi herself, but not of the others. And although Tsugumi is a memorable character, she doesn't develop. It's true teenagers see the world like this -- even though they themselves mature fast, they aren't old enough to have much conception of change.

Banana Yoshimoto was 25 when she wrote this novel, so for her to adopt this adolescent perspective then was understandable. But perhaps Faber could now give us a sample of what she has been writing in more recent years. It would be interesting to know if she is able to evolve beyond what we have here, the limited sensibility of adolescence.