Book Review: Asako Yuzuki's Butter treats the gender debate with the oomph of detective fiction - Hindustan Times
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Book Review: Asako Yuzuki's Butter treats the gender debate with the oomph of detective fiction

ByPriyanka Kapoor
May 22, 2024 05:19 PM IST

Asako Yuzuki's Butter narrates the journey of journalist Rika Machida as she investigates the case of a convicted con woman and gourmet cook, Manako Kajii

Asako Yuzuki's Butter follows investigative journalist Rika Machida's journey as she bites into the apple and liberates her desires at the behest of a silver-tongued convicted cook, Manako Kajii. Packaged like an actual brick of butter (with a cover art that seems straight out of a dairy factory) the novel is an open invitation to those who look at culinary subjects and dismiss them stating, 'I am just not into food.'

Butter is a deep dive into the relationship between women and food (Amazon)
Butter is a deep dive into the relationship between women and food (Amazon)

At first, it seems that Rika shies away from gastronomical matters, simply because of a hectic job that leaves her at the mercy of store-bought ramen and bento boxes. But with increasing visits to Tokyo Detention House, Rika's relationship with food begins to peel back like the layers of an onion. When the convict with ‘black grape eyes’ narrates her euphoria around tasting butter-laced dishes — from butter soy rice to grilled foie with dried persimmons sautéed in butter — Rika is able to understand food as a life force that circulates in society, choreographed by gender roles. "Every night, those women (homemakers) would clean out the toxins that had built up in their partners' bodies," she remarks while observing her friend Rieko serve up a hearty supper to her husband. Without these women, Rika imagines, men die alone like wilting flowers. Recalling Kajii's case, she adds how despite the allegations made against her appearance, the gourmet cook won the hearts of several men who wanted nothing but a "domestic woman" to take care of them.

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Kajji, a fascinating combination of Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991) and Anna Delvey (Inventing Anna), enters this picture as someone who enjoys being a "domestic woman" while despising feminists who shun their duty of catering to men's needs. Despite Kajii's orthodox rhetoric, Rika is overtaken by Kajii's desire for life (exemplified through her love for food). Like a private detective on the trail of a missing person in '60s Japanese cinema, she slides down the buttery slope of obsession to piece together the subject of her article. From visiting Kajii's favourite restaurants to preparing Valentine's Day gifts, Rika enacts Kajii's desire for her as if the latter were no longer a detainee but Rika's portable shoulder devil. But it is not too late when Rika realises the debilitating paradoxes that Kajii contains, the chief being her hedonistic love for food which exceeds her commitment towards ‘womanly duties.’

Although disguised as a crime thriller (potentially in league with international bestsellers like Seishi Yokomizo's The Honjin Murders and Masako Togawa's The Master Key), Butter has no aha moments of detective fiction, where the curtain falls to reveal the whodunit. Instead, it is a tantalising bait into a dialogue about heteronormative relationships as they are panning out in the urban landscape, while the traditional gender roles lurk like adamant ghosts in the background. But most importantly, it is a deep dive into the relationship between women and food that falls on this very axis of transforming gendered roles.

Perhaps, the only sensational moment in the plot (as opposed to the discovery of a criminal in a crime thriller) is when Rika gains a few kilograms to weigh 54kg (her previous weight being 50kg) and everyone in her life begins to treat her as if she has fallen off her rocker. Forget the fact that, despite the weight gain, she was still below the doctor-determined average!

In the end, Yuzuki's approach is excessively refreshing. She treats the gender debate with the oomph of detective fiction which allows the reader to form their own conclusions, granted the fact that the 'criminal' — misogyny — is not subject to perspective.

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