Asako Yuzuki’s 'Butter': Chewing the fat with a serial killer

Translated by Polly Barton, 'Butter' is loosely based on the real-life case of the famous ‘Konkatsu Killer’ — a talented home cook convicted of poisoning three of her lovers and conning multiple men.
Last Updated : 25 May 2024, 22:31 IST
Last Updated : 25 May 2024, 22:31 IST

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If you’re ever trying to befriend a food lover, the easiest trick to accomplish that would be to ask them for a recipe. Trust me, it works.

“Women who love to cook are so delighted when someone asks them for a recipe, that they’ll tell you all kinds of things that you haven’t asked along with it. It’s a law of nature,” is the advice Rika Machida, the protagonist of Asako Yuzuki’s Butter, receives from her best friend. And that’s how the Tokyo-based journalist manages to get in touch with Manako Kaji, a gourmet cook stuck in the Tokyo Detention House, convicted of killing lonely and affluent businessmen.

Translated by Polly Barton, Butter is loosely based on the real-life case of the famous ‘Konkatsu Killer’ — a talented home cook convicted of poisoning three of her lovers and conning multiple men. Yuzuki uses the gut-wrenching details of this case to explore various themes, including trauma, loneliness, patriarchy, and problematic beauty standards.

The book can be seen as a commentary on society — filled with scathing remarks at the Japanese society which may well be applied to the Indian mindset. Yuzuki manages to keep her characters in a grey space, letting the readers criticise and form judgments on their own.

While the book is a slow burn, it still manages to take the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions. One moment, you’re coiling with disgust at the potential incest hanging over the upcoming chapters, and the very next moment, you’ll find yourself drooling at all the beautifully described food.

From wanting to try freshly cooked rice from Niigata, topped with a slab of butter and a few drops of soy sauce, to sneaking out in the middle of the night to a dingy ramen shop in Tokyo to slurp on some salty ramen topped with plenty of butter, the book is a delight for every Japanese food enthusiast; if you can handle your food with a side of sordid details that is!

Butter, the ubiquitous dairy product in the book, can also be considered one of the protagonists. It is mentioned in almost every chapter. The author uses the dairy product to give readers an insight into the world of Kaji, letting us into her brain to understand the psychosis of a self-obsessed yet self-loathing woman.

The world of Kaji is a delicious, yet lonely one. It is when trying to get an exclusive interview with the convicted serial killer, that Rika gets sucked into her life and ways. As the duo have lengthy conversations, sitting in an empty room separated by an acrylic screen, you begin to see the similarities between the two characters. A rocky relationship with their father, childhood trauma, borderline eating disorders, and fatphobia are just some of the common links.

The star of the show, for me, is Rika. A journalist on the verge of becoming the first woman to make the editorial desk at the Shūmei Weekly, she gets sucked into the world of Kaji with such intensity that her world comes crashing down. That is when Rika discovers herself.

Yuzuki’s descriptions of the daily struggles of modern women, mixed with mouth-watering descriptions of flavour combinations make it all the more clear how food is intertwined with every aspect of our lives, and are a delight to read. She presents all her characters to the readers freshly prepared, topped to the brim with garnishes and individually wrapped. You can delve into the world of each character through their eating and cooking habits. It often makes the reader wonder whether gluttony is a sin or if the gluttonous are the only innocents left in the world.

Jimbocho is a monthly column where we sift through popular Japanese books. Often called the ‘town of books’, Jimbocho is a neighbourhood in Tokyo that celebrates Japan’s rich literary heritage. Send your feedback to asra.fathima@deccanherald.co.in

Published 25 May 2024, 22:31 IST

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