February 2019 Open Book Group – Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto

Thank you to Pat for moderating Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto.

Yocchan and her mother are recovering from the death of their musician father/husband in a murder-suicide by a woman with whom he was having an affair. She drugged his drink and then killed them both. Looking for a fresh start Yocchan moves alone from the family’s condo in Meguro to a small apartment in Shimokitazawa a trendy entertainment district of Tokyo. She takes a job at a local bistro. Before long her grieving mother joins her and together the two struggle to rebuild their lives.

The book’s secondary characters include Shintani-kun, Yocchan’s sometime boyfriend and music venue promoter who she is first attracted to because of the graceful way he eats, Yamazaki-sun, the drummer, who is able to assure Yocchan of her father’s love for her despite his obvious failings and the bistro owner Michiyo-san whose move to Paris in the last section of the novel is the catalyst Yocchan needs to finally move forward with her life.

Yoshimoto also introduces a supernatural element. Moshi Moshi translates as “I am here” and is a common telephone greeting -subtext ‘I am alive, I am not a ghost.” Yocchan has anxiety dreams about her father as we learn that, accidentally or otherwise, he left his mobile phone at home the night he died. In dreamland, Yocchan sees him searching for it and her phone calls to him go unanswered. His ghost haunts the family home in Meguro.

The novel is deeply introspective and painfully honest. It is not plot driven. We only hear Yocchan first-person narration as she explores her own feelings, comes to conclusions, doubts the conclusions and is prone to change her mind all in a few pages. The book isn’t divided into chapters, just one long flow of thoughts. It ends with, mother and daughter having journeyed through all stages of grief and, the hope for their future that comes in death’s acceptance.

The book’s structure opened the discussion and soon we were teasing out its many layers.

Most enjoyed entering Yocchan thoughts and travelling with her inner life. One member positively glowed as she described her reading experience. These members didn’t have an issue with Yocchan going back and forth with her thoughts citing, as an example, her relationship with the boyfriend. It was on a slow burn until inspired by some small mannerism she sees herself marrying him and living with him forever. Has sex, only to find the next day she thinks what was that all about, better dump him. Who can’t relate to that?

Others found such musings dull, at best, and frustrating, at worst. They thought the opening chapter’s murder-suicide an interesting premise and were expecting to find out why it had happened. However, Yocchan only took us down various cul-de-sacs offering no definitive explanation. This is not a murder mystery novel.

We soon back in agreement that it was fascinating to read a book by a Japanese author and we really enjoyed her sense of place. Yoshimoto perfectly captures the dichotomy of Japanese culture –  the younger generation’s love of West, with its designer labels, music, dark nightclubs overlying the ancient formalities and rituals of Shinto. Her descriptions of Yocchan’s pride in her act of service as a waitress in the bistro evoked an Eastern spirituality. We salivated at the food references liberally scattered in the text.

One member raised the timeline in the book of which we are given no inkling. Does the book take place over 5 months or 5 years? Did and does that really matter? Time can travel at different speeds depending on your mental state…….are you awake or dreaming. Yocchan thinks about both.

As we pondered the supernatural elements of her father’s ghost haunting Yocchan. “Who believes in ghosts?” someone asked rhetorically. Well several of us apparently and we digressed into personal stories from serious goosebumps wandering through Sydney Quarantine Station or the Sydney Police Museum, to all-out sighting of apparitions. Just because it hasn’t happened to you, never say never.

Our main criticism was with the translation. It was very clunky and you suspected subtleties in the original Japanese would have been lost. One member commented that a literally translated sentence can give you an insight into how the original language works, but at what cost.

Reading Moshi Moshi on your own could be puzzling so having 15 people to discuss it with left us, Yocchan-style, with plenty to think about. OBG 2019 is off and rolling.

Gillian O’Mulloy.

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