The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Shuichi Okita, 2009)

If there’s one thing which unites the universes present in the films of Shuichi Okita, aside from their warm and humorous atmosphere, it’s their tendency to take a generally genial, calm and laid back protagonist and throw them into an inhospitable environment which they don’t quite understand. When it comes to “inhospitable”, the hero of The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人, Nankyoku Ryourinin) couldn’t have it much worse, unfairly transferred to a polar research station where the air temperature is so cold nothing, not even bacteria, can survive outside. Still, like all of Okita’s laid back guys, he handles his difficult circumstances with a kind of stoical resignation until, of course, the situation can be handled no more!

Separated from his wife and children, Jun Nishimura (Masato Sakai) previously worked for the Japanese coastguard but has now been transferred (not altogether of his own volition) to a polar research station where he is responsible for all the culinary needs of the seven men who will be working together during the expedition which is intended to last one year. Each of the other men has his own part to play in the scientific endeavours but cooped up as they are, the greater issue is downtime as the guys revert to a kind of high school camp, divided into various groups and activities from the “Chinese Research Club” to a bar being run by the doctor who is also training for a triathlon. 365 days in the freezing cold does eventually begin to take its toll but all of the crazy only serves to remind people how important it is that they all get on and make it through this together.

Based on the autobiographical writings of the real Jun Nishimura, Okita’s isolation experiment has a pleasantly authentic feeling as the titular chef laments the difficulties of the conditions but continues to churn out beautifully presented culinary treats despite the hostile environment. Resources are also strictly limited as the original provisions are intended to last the entire expedition – hence why most of the foodstuffs are canned, vacuum packed or frozen but there are a few luxuries on offer including some prize shrimp apparently left behind, uneaten, by a previous team which proves an additional occasion for celebration just as despair is beginning to set it in. Seeing as the men are all here for more than a year, celebratory occasions do present themselves with regularity from birthdays to “mid winter holiday” and even a good go at the Japanese festival of Setsubun with peanuts instead of beans.

Despite these brief moments of respite, being completely cut off from the outside world for such a long time with little natural light and hardly anything to do outside of research places its own kind of pressure on the minds of these top scientists. As their hair gets shaggier and their beards progressively less kempt, sanity also begins to slip. Each of the guys has their own particular marker, something they’re missing that’s playing on their minds until they eventually break completely. For some this could be realising they’ve eaten all of the ramen which exists in their tiny world and now have nothing left to live for, missing their kids, or realising that their girlfriend might have met someone else while they’ve been busy devoting themselves to science, but this being an Okita film even if an axe is raised it rarely falls where intended and the only cure for mass hysteria is guilt ridden kindness and a willingness to work together to put everything right again.

Of course, the other thing the guys have to put up with is the attitude of the outside world as everyone is very keen to ask them about the cute penguins and seals which they are sure must be everywhere at the South Pole, only to have to explain that it’s just too cold for cuteness though it does lead them to the epiphany that they are the only living creatures in this desolate place and so share a special kind of kinship. Filled with Okita’s usual brand of off the wall humour and gentle humanity, The Chef of South Polar is another warm and friendly tale of nice people triumphing over adversity through cooperation, mutual understanding and sustained belief in the healing power of ramen.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Golden Slumber (ゴールデンスランバー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

golden-slumberYoshihiro Nakamura has made a name for himself as a master of fiendishly intricate, warm and quirky mysteries in which seemingly random events each radiate out from a single interconnected focus point. Golden Slumber (ゴールデンスランバー), like The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, and Fish Story, is based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka and shares something of the same structure but is far less interested in the mystery itself rather than the man who finds himself caught up in it.

30 year old delivery driver Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) is all set for a nice day out fishing with an old college buddy, Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka), but he’s about to discover that it’s he’s been hooked and reeled in as the patsy in someone else’s elaborate assassination plot. After grabbing some fast food, Morita takes Aoyagi to a parked car near the closed off area through which the Prime Minster is due to be paraded in an open topped car. Waking up after a brief period of drug induced sedation, Aoyagi is made aware that this has all been a trick – badly in debt thanks to his wife’s pachinko addiction, Morita has betrayed him to a set of undisclosed bad guys with unclear motives and is taking this brief opportunity to give him as much warning as he can. Sure enough, a bomb goes off at the parade and Aoyagi just manages to escape before Morita too is the victim of an explosion.

Aoyagi is now very confused and on the run. Inexplicably, the police seem to have CCTV footage of him in places he’s never been and doing things he’s never done. If he’s going to survive any of this, he’s going to need some help but caught between old friends and new, trust has just become his most valuable commodity.

At heart, Golden Slumber is a classic Wrong Man narrative yet it refuses to follow the well trodden formula in that it isn’t so much interested in restoring the protagonist to his former life unblemished as it is in giving him a new one. The well known Beatles song Golden Slumber which runs throughout the film plays into its neatly nostalgic atmosphere as each of the now 30 year old college friends find themselves looking back into those care free, joyous days before of the enormity of their adult responsibilities took hold. That is to say, aside from Aoyagi himself who seems to have been muddling along amiably before all of this happened to him, unmarried and working a dead end delivery job.

As Morita tells him in the car, it’s all about image. The nature of the conspiracy and the identity of the perpetrators is not the main the main thrust of the film, but the only possible motive suggested for why Aoyagi has been chosen stems back to his unexpected fifteen minutes of fame two years previously when he saved a pop idol from an intruder with a nifty judo move (taught to him by Morita in uni) after fortuitously arriving with a delivery. Those behind the conspiracy intend to harness his still vaguely current profile to grab even more media attention with a local hero turned national villain spin. The Prime Minister, it seems, was a constantly controversial, extreme right wing demagogue with a tendency for making off the cuff offensive statements so there are those who’d rather congratulate Aoyagi than bring him to justice, but anyone who’s ever met him knows none of this can really be true despite the overwhelming video evidence.

Throughout his long odyssey looking for “the way back home” as the song puts it, Aoyagi begins to remember relevant episodes from his life which may feed back into his current circumstances. Although it seems as if Aoyagi had not seen Morita in some time (he knew nothing of his family circumstances, for example) his college friends with whom he wasted time “reviewing” junk food restaurants and chatting about conspiracy theories are still the most important people in his life. Not least among them is former girlfriend Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi), now married and the mother of a little daughter, who seems to still be carrying a torch for her old flame and is willing to go to great lengths to help him in his current predicament.

The film seems mixed on whether these hazy college days are the “golden slumber”, a beautiful dream time enhanced by memory to which it is not possible to return, or whether it refers to Aoyagi’s post college life which impinges on the narrative only slightly when he asks an unreliable colleague for help, aside from an accidental moment of heroic celebrity. It could even refer to the film’s conclusion which, departing from the genre norms, resolves almost nothing save for the hero’s neat evasion of the trap (aided by the vexed conspirators who eventually opt for a plan B). Once there might have been a road home – a way back to the past and the renewing of old friendships, but this road seems closed now, severed by the new beginning promised to Aoyagi who has been robbed of his entire identity and all but the memory of his past. Whether this means that the golden slumber has ended and Aoyagi, along with each of the other nostalgia bound protagonists, must now wake up and start living the life he’s been given, or that the old Aoyagi has been consigned to the realm of golden slumbers, may be a matter for debate.

Though the resolution may appear ultimately unsatisfying, the preceding events provide just enough interconnected absurdity to guide it through. During his long journey, Aoyagi is aided not just by his old friends but new ones too including a very strange young serial killer (Gaku Hamada) and a hospital malingerer with one foot in the “underworld” (Akira Emoto). It speaks to Aoyagi’s character that all of those who know him trust him implicitly and are ready to help without even being asked (even if they occasionally waver under pressure), and even those who are meeting him for the first time are compelled to come to his defence.  An elliptical, roundabout tale of the weight of nostalgia and inescapability of regret, Golden Slumber is the story of a man on the run from his future which eventually becomes a net he cannot escape.


Original trailer (English subtitles – select via menu)

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2010)

•Žm‚̉ƌv•ë•The stories of samurai whose soul is placed not in the sword but in another tool are quickly becoming a genre all of their own. Coming from the same screen writer as A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, Abacus and Sword is a similarly structured tale of penny pinching samurai accountants and a pean to the undersung heroes of the admin department without whom everything would fall apart.

Abacus and Sword (武士の家計簿, Bushi no Kakeibo) could almost be titled “a story of my father” as it begins with a voice over by the youngest adult generation seen in the film, Nariyuki Inoyama, who is at the time of speaking a naval accountant in the new post restoration world. As good an account as he is (and he must be, given his position), he feels he pales in comparison to his father, Naoyuki, whose skills with the abacus were somewhat legendary even if his people skills were often not on the same level.

Dubbed an abacus fanatic by his colleagues, Naoyuki’s top maths abilities get him into trouble right away when he notices an extreme discrepancy in the accounts details for the imperial rice dole. Around this time there are riots from farmers who are being squeezed to deliver more grain to the authorities during a time of famine but not seeing enough returned to them as well as starving people petitioning for food in the streets, so when Naoyuki asks why around a third of the rice is disappearing from the accounts or listed as “reserved” his superiors start getting nervous. As a mini underling, Naoyuki is not in a position to stop his bosses from exploiting their authority in the most devious of ways – creating a food panic and then profiting on the side through black market trading, and is simply instructed to “ensure the final accounts balance”. Unwilling to falsify his precious calculations, Naoyuki finds himself facing the possibility of exile from the imperial centre but eventually finds his persistence rewarded when the scam is finally uncovered by a higher level.

Accountants are often not respected in this era of samurai warriors who place an almost religious faith in the power of the sword. Their pay is low, hours long and taxing, and they have little prospects of advancement. After hearing the story of Naoyuki’s career Nariyuki returns to the subject of himself a little more as the conflict between austere father and wayward son takes centre stage. Naoyuki is a pragmatic man, he sees their family debts are unsustainable and embarks of prolonged plan of austerity in which he forces the entire extended family to sell all their non essential possessions and live as cheaply as possible until the debts reach a more manageable level so they can at least keep the social position their larger family home affords them rather than being moved to something less prestigious. This is an unusual move in status driven samurai circles and proves embarrassing for the rest of the family such as in one episode where Naoyuki can’t afford to buy fish for his son’s coming of age ceremony so simply puts a painting of a fish at each place setting. Creative accounting at its finest!

Nariyuki, however, can’t quite give up on the idea of the sword and goes off to fight in the various civil wars which erupt during the Meiji Restoration causing great worry to his parents, wife and children. He too becomes an accountant and is at first disappointed that it’s his skills with an abacus that can best serve the country rather than those needed on the frontlines but later comes to understand the tactical importance of maintaining the smooth financial functioning of an army.

A late career effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Abacus and Sword is an uneven experience which is more or less devoid of the director’s usual attempts at experimentation pushing for a more general, sometimes even televisual approach to storytelling. At heart the film praises the virtues of living a thrifty, honest, and balanced life in which hard work is always fairly rewarded in the end and even when not provides its own set of rewards. However, virtuous as it is to live honestly and simply in tune with the clack of an abacus, it can prove fairly dull which is unfortunately also true of Abacus and Sword which despite brief episodes of light humour never quite engages with its twin dynamics of father son conflict which echoes that of the changing world as it emerges into the new Meiji era, and of shining a light on the forgotten admin workers who keep the world turning when everything else is falling apart. Morita’s anti-consumerist, transparency in government sympathies come to the fore and are once again timely, but like Naoyuki he fails to make his complaints sufficiently engaging to ensure his messages are received by those with the ability to take action.


English subtitled trailer: