Butter by Asako Yuzuki follows journalist Rika Machida through her investigation of convicted serial killer Manako Kajii, notorious for luring in wealthy men to pay for her expensive cooking classes, only to murder them and find another. Kajii refuses to cooperate with the press until Rika, at the suggestion of her kitchen-savvy friend Reiko, writes Kajii a letter asking for her recipe for beef stew.
The ensuing correspondence and series of meetings is closer to a masterclass in cooking than journalistic research. Rika, the only woman in her Tokyo office, works late and subsists on convenience store fare. At home, she rarely cooks more than a cup of ramen. Initially, she uses these gastronomical dialogues to explore Kajii as a subject, but soon her role takes on aspects of method acting, as Rika transforms physically into something similar to Kajii, gaining weight and tapping into stores of confidence and strength.
Butter depicts a vivid, panoramic view of contemporary Japan, as seen by a cast of very different Japanese women. The novel focuses almost entirely on relationships between women, especially how they engage and challenge one another’s decisions and beliefs. Asako Yuzuki uses this dynamic framework to explore contradictions and complexities of the female experience. In a poignant example, Kajii proclaims that there are two things she “can’t abide, feminists and margarine,” even as she warms up to Rika and enables her growth as a feminist.
The overlap between guilt and learning to cook—a core theme of the novel—is apparent on every page. Starting from the commanding title (which is simply the English word “Butter” in the Japanese original), the book pervades with gourmet imagery, but the delectable descriptions are often tinged with criminality, taboo, or foreignness.
To Kajii, waiting on death row, food is literally to die for; whereas for Rika, the supermarket is not a cornucopia of possibility, but an alien expanse “smelling of cold apples and wet cardboard.” Exemplifying the list of impossible expectations imposed on women—be pretty, but not too pretty; succeed, but don’t go too far—the act of cooking in Butter takes on a sinister precariousness and destabilizing power, linked with the potential to both nourish and destroy.
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