The Last Recipe (ラストレシピ〜麒麟の舌の記憶〜, Yojiro Takita, 2017)

Last Recipe Poster 2Is it really possible to be “successful” and a terrible person? Some might say it’s impossible to become successful and stay nice, but in Japanese cinema at least success is a communal effort. Prideful selfishness is indeed the reason for the downfall of the hero of Yoijro Takita’s historically minded cooking drama The Last Recipe (ラストレシピ〜麒麟の舌の記憶〜, Last Recipe: Kirin no Shita no Kioku). Adapted from a novel by the director of the Iron Chef TV show, The Last Recipe offers a somewhat revisionist portrait of Japan in the 1930s but, perhaps ironically, does indeed prove that no one gets by on their own and all artistic endeavours will necessarily fail when they come from a place of self absorbed obsession with craft.

In 2002, failed chef Mitsuru (Kazunari Ninomiya) is eking out a living by cooking “last meals” for elderly people desperate to crawl inside a happy memory as they prepare to meet their ends. Mitsuru’s special talent is that he has a “Qilin” tongue which means that he can remember each and every dish he has ever tasted and recreate it perfectly – for which he charges a heavy fee in order to pay off the vast debts he accrued when his restaurant went bust. When a mysterious client in Beijing offers him an improbably lucrative job, Mitsuru jumps at the task but it turns out to be much more complicated than he could have imagined. His client, Yang (Yoshi Oida), wants him to recreate the mysterious “Great Japanese Imperial Feast” as designed for an imperial visit to the Japanese puppet state of Machuria in the late 1930s.

Somewhat controversially (at least out of context), Yang sadly intones that the years of Japanese occupation were the happiest of his life. Through the events of the film, we can come to understand how that might be true, but it’s a bold claim to start out with and The Last Receipe’s vision of the Manchurian project is indeed a generally rosy one even if the darkness eventually creeps in by the end. A perfect mirror for Mitsuru, the chef that he must imitate is a Japanese genius cook dispatched to Manchuria on a secret culinary mission which turns out to be entirely different to the goal he assumed he was working towards. Nevertheless, though not exactly an outright militarist, Yamagata’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) view of the Manchurian experiment echoes that which the state was eager to sell in that he hopes to create a legendary menu that will unite the disparate cultures of the burgeoning Japanese empire under a common culinary banner, building bridges through fusion food.

Yang, his Chinese assistant, is the only dissenting voice as he points out that Japan is often keen to sell the one nation philosophy but reserves its own place at the top of the tree with everyone else always underneath. In any case, Yang, Yamagata, and his assistant Kamata (Daigo Nishihata) eventually bond through their shared love of cooking but the problems which plague Yamagata are the same ones which caused Mitsuru’s restaurant to fail – he was too rigid and self-obsessed, a perfectionist unwilling to delegate who alienated those around him and wasted perfectly good food for nothing more than minor imperfections. Yamagata’s kindly wife (Aoi Miyazaki) is quick to point out his faults, but it takes real tragedy before he is able to see that the reason his dishes don’t hit home is that he was not prepared to embrace the same communal spirit he envisioned for his food during its creation.

Mitsuru, however, is much slower to learn the same thing, decrying Yamagata as a loser who sold out and allowed his emotional suffering to turn to turn him soft, assuming this is the reason that his recipe was never completed. As expected, Mitsuru’s mission mirrors Yamagata’s in being not quite what he assumed it to be, eventually learning a few truths about himself as he gets to know the historical chef through the eyes of those who remember him. Eventually Mitsuru too comes to understand that the only thing which gives his craft meaning is sharing it and that he’s never really been as alone he might have felt himself to be. Though its vision of the Manchurian project is somewhat idealised as seen through the naive eyes of Yamagata, The Last Recipe nevertheless presents a heartwarming tale of legacy and connection in which cooking and caring for others, sharing one’s food and one’s table with anyone and everyone, becomes the ultimate path towards a happy and harmonious society.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

Tampopo (タンポポ, Juzo Itami, 1985)

tampopo posterSome people love ramen so much that the idea of a “bad” bowl hardly occurs to them – all ramen is, at least, ramen. Then again, some love ramen so much that it’s almost a religious experience, bound up with ritual and the need to do things properly. A brief vignette at the beginning of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (タンポポ) introduces us to one such ramen expert who runs through the proper way of enjoying a bowl of noodle soup which involves a lot of talking to your food whilst caressing it gently before finally consuming it with the utmost respect. Ramen is serious business, but for widowed mother Tampopo it’s a case of the watched pot never boiling. Thanks to a cowboy loner and a few other waifs and strays who eventually become friends and allies, Tampopo is about to get some schooling in the quest for the perfect noodle whilst the world goes on around her. Food becomes something used and misused but remains, ultimately, the source of all life and the thing which unites all living things.

Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a middle-aged man with a fancy hat, and his truck mate Gun (Ken Watanabe), younger, tight white jeans and colourful neckerchief, have become ramen experts thanks to their road bound life. Taking a break during a heavy rain storm, the pair run into a little boy being beaten up by three others and, after scaring the assailants off, escort him into the ramen restaurant where he lives with his widowed mother, Tampopo. Goro and Gun get the stranger in town treatment, but decide to sit down and order a bowl each anyway before a getting into a fight with another diner. Despite her skills as a home cook, Tampopo’s ramen is distinctly second-rate which explains why her business isn’t taking off. Goro and Gun spend some time helping her figure out where she’s going wrong leading Tampopo to beg them to stay, or at least come back when they have time, and teach her what it takes to make the perfect bowl.

Essentially a hybrid between a western and a sports movie, Tampopo has its fair share of training montages as the titular heroine tries to improve her stamina by taking intensive runs, carrying heavy pots of water from one place to another, and constantly trying get her cooking time down to three minutes. The lone woman on the “ranch” that is her restaurant, Tampopo may not be contending with boisterous cattle, threatening neighbours, or disapproving townsfolk but she is being mentored to become her own master as much as anything else. Goro is her strong and silent teacher, but, like Shane, he’s a man not meant to be tied down and is essentially teaching her how to survive alone however painful it may be for him to leave.

This is a fairly radical idea in and of itself. Tampopo’s goal is not another marriage and a man to mind the ranch, but the creation of a successful business which will support both herself and her son built on genuine skills and a lot of hard work. Goro, a ramen aficionado, takes charge but ropes in a few other “experts” to help him including a ramen loving former doctor now living on the streets, the private chef of a wealthy man the gang saved when he almost choked on mochi, and the guy Goro fought with in the beginning who also happens to be a childhood friend of Tampopo nursing a lifelong crush on her.  From each of these men, as well as friendly (or not) rivalry with local competitors, Tampopo learns everything she needs to succeed including the confidence in herself to carry it through.

Whilst Tampopo and co. are busy figuring out the zen of ramen, Itami wanders off for a series of strange vignettes examining more general attitudes to food beginning with Koji Yakusho’s white suited, cinephile gangster who vows bloody murder on anyone daring to eat noisy snacks during the movie. The gangster and his moll eventually retreat to a hotel room where they find new and actually quite strange ways of using food to enhance their pleasure but their story leads us to others in the hotel from a young man stuck in a business meeting who shows up his less cultured colleagues with his culinary knowledge and either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that you’re supposed to order the same as your boss lest you be implying his choice of dish is “wrong”, to a group of young women taking a class in the proper way to eat spaghetti. The instructor (played by veteran actress Mariko Okada), goes to great lengths to explain that it’s considered very uncouth to make any kind of noise whilst eating pasta, only for a westerner of undisclosed nationality to loudly slurp his noodles half way across the room.

While these two episodes showcase the ridiculousness of food etiquette, others take a more surreal direction such as in the strange episode of an old lady who likes to sneak into the local supermarket and torment the clerk by squeezing the fruits, cheeses, and pastries while he chases her round the shop. Here appetites are to be indulged, even if they’re strange, rather than suppressed in favour of someone else’s idea of the proper way to behave. Yet that doesn’t mean that food is something throwaway, to be consumed without thought – in fact, it’s the opposite as Goro’s tutelage of Tampopo shows. Skills alone are not enough, achieving the zen of cookery is a matter of touch and sensitivity, of shared efforts and interconnected strife. Like a dandelion blowing in the wind, Tampopo’s ramen shop gives as it receives, generously and without pretension.


Available now in the UK/US courtesy of Criterion Collection!

Original 1985 trailer (English subtitles)

Noriben – The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Akira Ogata, 2009)

noribenIt used to be that movies about marital discord typically ended in a tearful reconciliation and the promise of greater love and understanding between two people who’ve taken a vow to spend their lives together. These endings reinforce the importance of the traditional family which is, after all, what a lot of Japanese cinema is based on. However, times have changed and now there’s more room for different narratives – stories of women who’ve had enough with their useless, deadbeat man children and decide to make a go of things on their own.

So it is for the heroine of Noriben: The Recipe for Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁, Nonchan Noriben). Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular manga, Noriben follows the adventures of Komaki – a woman in her early 30s who gets her daughter dressed for school one morning but secretly takes her to the train station instead where they board a train headed for Komaki’s hometown. Having left her husband who has literary aspirations and consequently no job (the couple were living off, and with, his parents), Komaki has no firm plans other than moving back in with mother. Used to living off scraps and leftovers, she knows how to make her food go further and is also an excellent cook so the unusual layered bento boxes she makes for her little girl, Noriko, prove a big hit with the kids, and later the staff, at the local school.

Hooking back up with a former crush and now local photographer, Komaki ends up tasting the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery and suddenly hatches on the idea of opening a mini bento shop of her own. Of course, it’s a steep learning curve especially for a woman in her thirties with almost no work experience and no real knowledge of how to set up and run a business which is completely leaving aside the need to hone her cookery skills. If there’s one thing you can say about Komaki, it’s that once she’s set her mind on something she will make it happen and so her new life in her old town is just beginning.

Noriben addresses a lot of themes which are becoming fairly common at the moment including the “boomerang daughter” who suddenly arrives home following the breakdown of a marriage. Komaki’s soon to be ex-husband is not an enticing proposition and it seems that most, if not all, of what she says about him is true. He’s a layabout whose dreams of becoming an author are very unlikely to come true and, as his parents seem content to go on supporting him, his promises of getting a real job are most likely hollow too. There’s no real idea of the couple reconciling and when the husband suddenly turns up and starts behaving in an irresponsible way the situation ends in a bizarre marital street fight which does at least seem to clarify for the pair that their marriage really is well and truly over.

Komaki begins a tentative romance with her high school crush Takeo who took over his family’s photography studio though with the advent of digital technology and home printing the shop’s days are numbered. However, Komaki’s uncertain marriage status and Takeo’s diffidence both prove stumbling blocks to the path of romantic bliss and the film seems to imply that Komaki’s own headstrong character is also a problem when it comes to building relationships. Here, the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Perhaps wanting to emphasise Komaki’s strides towards becoming a truly independent woman, it has her side step romantic entanglements but it also seems to declare the need for choice where there isn’t one.

In essence Noriben is a perfectly pleasant, if slightly bland, film that meanders its ways towards a bittersweet ending. Presumably intended to be a celebration of female empowerment as this ordinary woman makes a break from an unrewarding relationship to prove that she can do better on her own, the film only partly fulfils this message as it also comes with an air of sadness and sacrifice where Komaki also has to give up on various other parts of life in order to pursue her dream. That said, Noriben does offer a degree of playful comedy and down home style wisdom that make it a fairly enjoyable, if forgettable, experience.


Reviewed as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016.

Kamome Diner (かもめ食堂, Naoko Ogigami, 2006)

wsVs9OWFinland, Finland, Finland. That’s the country for me! Where better could there possibly be to open up a small Japanese cafe than in Helsinki? On second thoughts, don’t answer that but moving to Finland and opening her own diner all alone is exactly what the leading lady, Sachie, has done in this warm hearted comedy drama from Naoko Ogigami, Kamome Diner (かもめ食堂, Kamome Shokudou). As in most of her films, Ogigami has assembled an eclectic cast of eccentric characters who each find themselves turning up at Sachie’s restaurant largely by chance but this time there’s a little added cross cultural pollination too.

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) has learned fluent Finnish and put together a welcoming space serving coffee and sweet goods as well as full meals in a fairly central location though she’s yet to receive a single customer through her doors. Three middle aged women often stop outside and stare making some sort of derogatory comment before scuttling off when Sachie spots them. Then, one day a teenage boy comes in and unexpectedly tries out some of his Japanese. He turns out to be a bit of a Japanophile and asks Sachie to teach him all the words to the Gatachman theme tune though she can’t remember past the opening. The tune gets stuck in her head and starts to drive her so mad that when she spots another Japanese woman in a bookshop cafe she marches up to ask her if she can remember the whole thing and luckily she can. Sachie then offers to let the woman, Midori (Hairi Katagiri), stay at her place in return and the two become friends. Later another Japanese lady, Masako (Masako Motai), turns up after her luggage goes missing and together the three start to make a success of Sachie’s diner.

Why Sachie chose Finland remains a mystery, though she has taken the time to learn Finnish to a near native level and also seems to know quite a lot about the various local legends. She doesn’t seem particularly rushed though and is fairly content to wait around for the customers to come of their own accord rather than trying to chase them down herself. In fact she gives her very first customer, the Japanese pop culture enthusiast Tommi, free coffee for life which doesn’t seem like the best business decision.

Likewise, we learn how Midori came to choose Finland as a holiday destination but she seems a little sad and the fact that her stay is open ended perhaps hints at having run away from something though once again we aren’t told much about her backstory. Not that that matters very much, quite the contrary in fact. Masako proves the most eccentric of the three though we actually learn quite a bit about what brought her to Finland.

Other than Tommi who seems most interested in the stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture (to the slight consternation of Midori) with his T-shirts bearing non sensical slogans and illustrations of geisha, the restaurant does start to attract a few Finns albeit mostly ones who are in some sort of trouble. One man teaches Sachie how to make better coffee, a middle aged woman simply stares angrily at them from outside until she comes in one day and downs a few of the local spirit before collapsing, and then there are the other three gossips who turn out to be won over with something as simple as sweet smelling pastries.

Simply put, warmth, kindness and patience eventually break down all barriers. The Kamome Diner becomes a refuge for all the lonely misfits from home and abroad watched over by Sachie & co always ready to pour some delicious smelling coffee for the next needy customer through the door. Wonderfully low-key and filled with absurd yet oddly plausible situations, Kamome Diner blends the dual eccentricities of these two stereotypically “wacky” countries beautifully and just goes to prove there’s nowt so queer as folk wherever you land.


The Japanese region A blu-ray release of Kamome Diner includes English subtitles!

Short (unsubtitled) scene from near the beginning of the film:

Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo, Joji Matsuoka, 2015)

mainvisualYaro Abe’s manga Midnight Diner (深夜食堂, Shinya Shokudo) was first adapted as 10 episode TV drama back in 2009 with a second series in 2011 and a third in 2014. With a Korean adaptation in between, the series now finds itself back for second helpings in the form of a big screen adaptation.

Midnight Diner is set in a cosy little eatery which only opens between the hours of midnight and 7am. Presided over by the “Master”, a mysterious figure himself with a large unexplained scar running down one side of his face, the restaurant has only one regular dish on its menu but Master is willing to make whatever his customers want provided he has the ingredients. Regulars and newcomers mingle nightly each with their own, sometimes sad, stories while Master offers them a safe place to think things through coupled with his gentle, all knowing advice.

The big screen movie plays just like a series of connected episodes from the television drama yet manages unify its approach into something which feels consistently more cinematic. Keeping the warm, nostalgic tone the film also increases its production values whilst maintaining its trademark style. The movie opens with the same title sequence as its TV version and divides itself neatly into chapters which each carry the title of the key dish that Master will cook for this segment’s star. A little less wilfully melodramatic, Midnight Diner the movie nevertheless offers its gentle commentary on the melancholy elements of modern life and its ordinary moments of sadness.

Fans of the TV drama will be pleased to see their favourite restaurant regulars reappearing if only briefly, but the film also boosts its profile in the form of some big name stars including a manager of another restaurant in town played by Kimiko Yo who seems to have some kind of history with Master as well as a smaller role played by prolific indie star of the moment Kiyohiko Shibukawa and the return of Joe Odagiri whose character seems to have undergone quite a radical change since we last saw him.

The stories this time around feature a serial mistress and her dalliance with another, poorer, client of the diner; a young girl who pulls a dine and dash only to return, apologise and offer to work off her bill; a lovelorn widower who’s come to Tokyo to chase an aid worker who probably just isn’t interested in him; and then there’s strange mystery of a mislaid funerary urn neatly tieing everything together. Just as in the TV series, each character has a special dish that they’ve been longing for and through reconnecting with the past by means of Master’s magic cooking, they manage to unlock their futures too. As usual, Master knows what it is they need long before they do and though he’s a man of few words, always seems to know what to say. One of the charms of the series as a whole which is echoed in the film is that it’s content to let a few mysteries hang while the central tale unfolds naturally almost as if you’re just another customer sitting at the end of Master’s counter.

Shot in more or less the same style as the TV series favouring long, static takes the film still manages to feel cinematic and its slight colour filtering adds to the overall warm and nostalgic tone the series has become known for. Once again offering a series of gentle human stories, Midnight Diner might not be the most groundbreaking of films but it offers its own delicate insights into the human condition and slowly but surely captivates with its intriguing cast of unlikely dining companions.


A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Yuzo Asahara, 2013)

A-Tale-of-Samurai-Cooking-teaser

I kind of love this photo because he already looks so annoyed 🙂

Review of period romantic comedy/drama with a side serving of culinary delight A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story up at UK Anime Network.


It’s a little known fact but though all samurai carry swords, some of them hang them up when they get to work and serve their lords with meat cleavers and skewers in the relative safety of the kitchen rather than the noisy chaos of a battlefield. Of course, a retainer’s job is to serve the lord in whatever capacity is expected of him, though some maybe happier with their dictated fates than others. In A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立, Bushi no Kondate), it’s not only a conventional romantic tale between two initially mismatched people that the title alludes to, but also how one may fall in love with a path in life that was once deeply resented.

Back in feudal Japan, Haru (Aya Ueto) is an orphaned maid servant to a prominent samurai house. She was briefly married, but embarrassingly enough was “sent back” because her new husband and his family found her far too headstrong for their household. The daughter of a pair of restaurateurs, Haru has a keen sense of cooking of her own which sees her catch the attention of a visiting famous cook, Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida), when she is the only person able to guess the real ingredients in his “mock crane” dish. Instantly smitten, Dennai makes her a proposal – albeit one for his son who is set to take over the family business but has no real aptitude for cooking. Yasunobu (Kengo Kora) is his second child whose fate was sealed on the death of his elder brother and though he would rather be a more conventional kind of samurai, he is the only heir to this kitchen empire. Can Haru’s cooking skills raise a fire in Yasunobu’s heart for his unwanted destiny or will they both be subjected to a lifetime of cold dinners?

A Tale of Samurai Cooking is definitely much more “period drama” than “samurai movie” though it does share a little of the historical intrigue of your typical “jidaigeki”. Set in the Edo period of feudal Japan, there are plenty of sudden reversals of fate where one house jumps ahead of another which then falls out of favour, sometimes with tragic consequences. However, though those these events inform the drama they are really just the backdrop to the true story of the very grown up (though extremely chaste and innocent – this is a U rated movie!) slow burning love story between Haru and Yasunobu. Though it’s a very charming and old fashioned sort of romance, it’s also true that Kengo Kora and Aya Ueto don’t have a tremendous amount of chemistry and their love story is pretty subtle and one sided until very late into the film. Of course, the audience knows how this sort of film has to end, but the film does rather rely on this fact.

Yasunobu is at heart a kind man undergoing very difficult circumstances. Having had to let go of the life he wanted that was so nearly his following the death of his older brother, it isn’t a surprise that he’s generally sullen and extremely resentful that his father has arranged this marriage for him with a slightly older woman who’s already been married once before, not to mention the fact that it’s all because she’s better than he is at this thing he’s now supposed to do for the rest of his life. Yasunobu doesn’t even like cooking, he thinks it’s “woman’s work” and had devoted his life to the art of the sword. Luckily, Haru’s perspicacity extends beyond her palate and she’s quickly figured out what’s going on with Yasunobu so she can turn him into the ace cook his father needs him to be. Haru’s influence opens up his wilfully closed eyes to the rewards of both good women and good cookery which is part way to saying that food cooked with love can heal a broken heart, but it’s equal parts changing times and a young man growing up.

As films about food go, A Tale of Samurai Cooking certainly has a fair few mouth watering dishes on display but perhaps lacks the hearty fare of something like the comparatively more sensual, though equally comic, Tampopo. In truth, its overwhelming quality is a kind of inoffensive niceness and perhaps for some tastes could have done with a little more spice though like the best Japanese cuisine offers its own rewards precisely because of its subtlety. It’s a perfectly nice light meal, but you’ll probably wishing you’d gone for something more substantial come bed time.


 

I went a bit overboard with the food metaphors, which is maybe what you get when you spend your food budget on movie tickets. I regret nothing.

Anyway this is showing at the Curzon in Mayfair until tomorrow, though they did say it may extend if there’s enough interest. It’s also going to be screened at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End and the Everyman and apparently will open in Ireland from 9th January. Yume Pictures will then release it on DVD in 2015 if you aren’t near a cinema that’s showing it, or you can even watch it on Curzon Home Cinema right now.