Mio’s Cookbook (みをつくし料理帖, Haruki Kadokawa, 2020)

“Food nurtures like heaven” according to a piece of advice from a local doctor which quickly becomes a catchphrase of the heroine of Haruki Kadokawa’s slice of foodie cinema Mio’s Cookbook (みをつくし料理帖, Mi wo Tsukushi Ryoricho). Adapted from the novel by Kaoru Takada, the Meiji-era drama is at once a tale of a pioneering young woman making her way in fiercely patriarchal society, and a heartwarming exploration of chosen and re-formed families discovering new senses of solidarity in the of wake tragedy while resolving to extend that sense of community to other lonely souls. 

The titular Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) meanwhile has had her share of loss, orphaned during a catastrophic flood and thereafter separated from childhood best friend Noe (Nao Honda) who simply disappeared. 10 years later, Mio and her adoptive mother Yoshi (Mayumi Wakamura) have relocated from Osaka to Edo though their lives have not been easy, Yoshi’s son having run off never to be seen again following the failure of the family restaurant. Mio is now working in a small cafe owned by a kindly older gentleman, Taneichi (Koji Ishizaka), but struggling to adapt to the sophisticated tastes of the capital with customers flatly refusing to eat her overly subtle oysters. A sullen samurai, Komatsubara (Yosuke Kubozuka), points her on her way by explaining that her food lacks “foundation” which is why she hasn’t yet found her groove. 

Mio’s culinary journey is also one of growing confidence as she learns to reorient herself in her new city life eventually realising that the key lies in uniting the tastes of Osaka and Edo as if integrating the two cities into her essential identity. A fortune teller had once told her that she would suffer many hardships but eventually reach “blue sky beyond clouds”, discovering a taste of that in her unexpected success even as those around her marvel at the female chef, a hitherto unheard of phenomenon, as she climbs the ranks of the local restaurants with her innovative cuisine after taking over from Taneichi. 

Yet her success also brings her enemies in the conservative and increasingly greedy Edo society. A rival restaurant rips off her signature dish and charges twice the price, a customer admitting that many will gladly pay more just to be seen doing so, less interested in the quality of the food than what is fashionable (times it seems do not change all that much). Even so “food is only as good as the cook” Yoshi is fond of saying believing that a bad person can’t make good food, something brought out by Mio’s compassionate nature as she continues to help those around her, vowing to “take vengeance through food” in concentrating on perfecting her craft and nourishing people’s souls rather than allowing herself to be beaten into submission by elitist intimidation. 

Meanwhile she continues to wonder whatever happened to Noe, reflecting that she was lucky in having found Yoshi who took her in out of compassion and continues to stay with her all these years later while gaining a surrogate father in the kindly Taneichi who himself lost a daughter. Noe’s prophecy was that she would “rise like the sun” and achieve “world-conquering fortune” though as it turns out she was not so lucky even if the prophecy did in fact come true if ironically. Both women continue to suffer because of the world in which they live each prevented from pursuing their romantic freedom, Mio forced to give up on her probably impossible love for samurai Komatsubara in order to embark on a quest to save her friend through achieving true success with her restaurant while Noe is constrained by her inescapable life as an oiran.  

Even so the film never really digs into the division placed between the women by the existence of the Yoshiwara into which one cannot enter and from which the other can never leave while the open ended conclusion that only advances a hope that the division may be breached perhaps suggests that it may never be, in part because it depends on Mio’s success as an independent woman in a feudalistic, patriarchal society. Meanwhile the two women continue to support each other in ways they can, Mio trying to raise her friend’s spirits with frequent care packages designed to remind her of home and their more innocent childhood smuggled in by supportive friends while each of them have in their own way found new families based on mutual compassion as a means of overcoming despair to rediscover a sense of hope for a better future founded on human solidarity. 


Mio’s Cookbook streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Something Like, Something Like It (の・ようなもの のようなもの, Taiichi Sugiyama, 2016)

something like, something like it posterSadly passing away at the young age of 61 in 2011, Yoshimitsu Morita had been relatively prolific in his 25-year career, leaving behind him a hugely varied back catalogue that ran from zany idol movies to prestigious literary adaptations. His recurrent concerns, however, were relentlessly populist – he wanted to make films that ordinary people could enjoy which intensely reflected the time in which they were made. Five years after his death, one of his early ADs chose to pay tribute to his mentor by drawing inspiration from Morita’s 1981 feature debut, Something Like It. Something Like, Something Like It (の・ようなもの のようなもの, No Yona Mono no Yona Mono) brings the original cast back together with a few new faces from the late director’s more recent works to recreate yesterday’s pleasures for today’s audiences.

Our hero this time round is young Shinden (Kenichi Matsuyama). Well, he’s not really all that young despite being the lowest ranking rakugoka on the roster. Now 30 and beginning to lose hope, Shinden is a former salaryman well known for taking his time. Meanwhile, the 13th memorial service for the late master is fast approaching and the troupe’s patron has decreed she wants to see the return of an old friend – Shintoto (Katsunobu Ito) who abruptly disappeared right after the funeral. Seeing as Shinden is not so hot at rakugo, the other guys task him with tracking down Shintoto in the hope of convincing him to make a return to the stage so the patroness doesn’t decide to remove her patronage.

Rakugo – the traditional art of comic storytelling, is a rarefied affair. It requires extreme rigour from the performer in order to make often extremely familiar tales funny in all the right places. Shinden isn’t very good at it because he’s too stiff all over. Poor at reading social cues, he has an urge to point out tiny and embarrassing mistakes like a slightly frayed curtain or a wonky sign. He might not be best placed for finding and then convincing a sad old man to take back up the career he’d sworn to lay down. Nevertheless, once Shinden manages to find Shintoto and realises he’s made an extremely circular journey, he makes himself his disciple and commits himself to doing all Shintoho’s odd jobs in the hope he’ll finally finish the “Pop-Eyed Goldfish” routine that the patroness so wants to hear.

Taiichi Sugiyama* was an AD on Something Like It but is only making his own feature debut 25 years later. Reassembling the old cast, Sugiyama remains true to an old formula and his genial retro comedy certainly has an old fashioned quality right down to the cutesy jazz score which feels right out of the ‘80s. More modern additions come in the form of Kenichi Matsuyama (who starred in Morita’s final film, Train Brain Express) back on comedy form with a typically left of centre performance as the archetypal “cannot read the air” aspiring rakugoka whose tendency towards literalism as well as that to be distracted by minor imperfections threatens to ruin his career before it’s even really begun. That’s not to mention his nascent crush on his mentor’s daughter Yumi (Played by Keiko Kitagawa who made her feature debut in Morita’s Mamiya Brothers) and mild jealousy over the other various young and good looking men she seems to take an interest in.

Through getting closer to the now somewhat schlubby but basically good hearted Shintoto, Shinden learns to loosen up a bit and his Rakugo perhaps improves even if he also figures out when it’s best to make a sacrifice on someone else’s behalf. Shintoto too rediscovers his talent for comedy, if not the love. Morita never had much of a “signature” style – his films were in a sense tailor made to suit a particular purpose, but Sugiyama remains firmly within the world of early ‘80s comedy, allowing the everyday to brim with silliness as Shinden pursues his roundabout quest before coming quite literally full circle and then finding his feet again. A man pays tribute to his late mentor, mentors someone else, and then absents himself from the frame to let his pupil grow. One generation retreats and another rises – an age old story, but one that like a rakugo tale shines in the telling.


*IMDB and some other sites list his name as Yasukazu but according to the JFDB and Shochiku the official reading of his name is Taiichi.

Chinese release trailer (English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song: