Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍, Naoki Segi, 2011)

Ramen Samurai posterSet in the ‘90s, Ramen Samurai (ラーメン侍) is in many ways a post-Showa story or a tale of one man’s reaction to bubble era disillusionment. It’s also in the fine tradition of legacy movies in which a troubled child reflects on a complicated relationship with a late parent and struggles to accept their role as an inheritor of skills and knowledge they’d spent much of their youth attempting to reject. Yet the hero of Ramen Samurai, though he maybe reluctant, is more willing than most to pick up his father’s burden, walking back through family history with his long-suffering mother and rediscovering the heroism which lay behind his sometimes difficult father’s tough guy exterior. Hikaru (Dai Watanabe) does not see himself as a man like his father – he’s no “hero” and bears no natural inclination towards rebellion, but only through addressing his father’s life can he learn to define his own. This is all, of course, a roundabout way to discovering the soul of ramen lies in the confidence of the chef.

In 1990 Hikaru, a graphic designer, gets a call at work from his mum to let him know his father has had a stroke. Hikaru left town in a hurry some years earlier, rejecting the idea of taking over the ramen restaurant for a life in bubble era Tokyo. On his father’s death he assumes his natural responsibility and comes home but customers say his ramen’s not as good as his dad’s, and he has trouble keeping his staff in line because they simply don’t accept him. Try as he might, Hikaru just can’t seem to find a way to replicate his father’s recipe, in the store or in life.

Yet there’s a nostalgia in him that sees him want to try. Kurume, a small town in Kyushu, is defined by its ramen – a local delicacy that once brought tourists and general prosperity to the area, but during bubble era “modernisation”, the “backward” yatai ramen stands with their colourful tarpaulins were deemed too reminiscent of post-war privation to survive. The carts were shunted away from the new sophisticated city centre while the police started restricting licenses to run them, eventually prohibiting their sale and limiting their inheritance to direct family members. Hikaru is at least his father’s son and so has a natural right to take over the business even if he has hitherto rejected it.

Rather than a cooking tale, Ramen Samurai steps back to tell the story of its vicarious protagonist – the problematic figure of Hikaru’s dad who is, in many ways, the idealised figure of the Showa era “hero”. That’s not to say he was perfect – he drank to the point of financial ruin and frequently caused problems for his family, but his heart was always in the right place and so he was mostly forgiven. A salt of the Earth type and cool with it, Hikaru’s dad was the big man around town and the defacto leader of the yatai owner community. He brooked no injustice, stood up to the yakuza (who only had the profoundest respect for him), and sought to protect those who were unable to protect themselves. Seeing a sleazy yakuza molesting a young girl, Hikaru’s dad kicked him out and later offered the girl, who is mute, a job and a place to stay, almost adopting her into his family until another act of random kindness accidentally reunites her with her own long-lost father.

Faced with such an intense legacy, it’s no wonder Hikaru struggled. A sensitive, artistic soul he tried his luck in bubble era Tokyo working in an advertising agency where he found the coolness of his colleagues puzzling and difficult to bear. Hikaru’s boss loudly discusses pub lunches and evenings spent in hostess bars, often throwing away the lovingly made bento provided by his wife. Returning home with an empty lunchbox is, he says, his way of showing love though his refusal to eat it perhaps a reaction against a salaryman’s lack of freedom. Nevertheless, even if they clashed in terms of personal morality, Hikaru’s boss compliments him on his commitment to hard work and growth as an artist even whilst admitting that the work itself is often frivolous and ultimately thankless.

Hikaru eventually learns to channel his artistic inclinations into his ramen, seeing himself as a “ramen artist” incorporating his father’s legacy into a dish which is entirely his own. In a sense, Hikaru retreats into the safety of the Showa era past, or that is the cosy 1970s in which he lived a comfortable, if eventful, childhood under a yatai’s awning while dad made trouble but only for the best of reasons. A samurai’s duty is, after all, to protect and Hikaru has decided to do exactly that in “restoring” his hometown to its former glory, dragging retro yatai culture into the rapidly disintegrating post-bubble world and bringing warmth and community back with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

April Fools (エイプリルフールズ, Junichi Ishikawa, 2015)

april-foolsIn this brand new, post truth world where spin rules all, it’s important to look on the bright side and recognise the enormous positive power of the lie. 2015’s April Fools (エイプリルフールズ) is suddenly seeming just as prophetic as the machinations of the weird old woman buried at its centre seeing as its central message is “who cares about the truth so long as everyone (pretends) to be happy in the end?”. A dangerous message to be sure though perhaps there is something to be said about forgiving those who’ve misled you after understanding their reasoning. Or, then again, maybe not.

Juggling seven stories April Fools is never as successful at weaving them into a coherent whole as other similarly structured efforts but begins with an intriguing Star Wars style scroll regarding alien sleeper agents who can apparently go home now because they’ve accomplished everything they came for. Changing track, pregnant snack addict Ayumi (Erika Toda) decides to ring the still unknowing father of her child after witnessing an improbable reunion on TV only he’s in bed with someone else and assumes her call is a weird practical joke. Overhearing that he’s just arrived at a restaurant for a lunch date, Ayumi takes matters into her own hands and marches over there, eventually taking the entire place hostage. Meanwhile an older couple are having a harmless holiday pretending to be royalty and a grizzled gangster has “kidnapped” a teenage girl only to give her a nice day out at the fun fair. Oh, and the hikkikomori from the beginning who’s fallen for the whole alien thing has made a total fool of himself at school by taking out his bully, kissing his crush goodbye and racing up to the roof to try and hitch a lift from the mothership.

Importing this weird European tradition to Japan, the creative team have only incorporated parts of it in that they don’t call time on jokes at noon and it’s less about practical shenanigans and elaborate set ups than it is about wholesale lying which is frustrated by this famous non-holiday apparently created in celebration of it. All of the protagonists are lying about something quite fundamental and usually to themselves more than anyone else but at least their April Fools adventures will help them to realise these basic inner truths.

Then again some of these revelations backfire, such as in the slightly misjudged minor segment concerning two college friends who are repeatedly kicked out of restaurants before they can get anything to eat. One decides to “prank” his friend with an April Fools confession of love, only to find that his friend really is gay and is in love with him. Awkward is not the word, but then an April Fools declaration of love is about the worst kind of cruel there is and is never funny anyway, nor is the casual homophobia involved in this entire skit but that’s another story.

In fact, most of the other people are aware they’re being lied to, but are going along with it for various reasons, some hoping that the liars will spontaneously reform and apologise or explain their actions. Ayumi, who is shy and isolated by nature, always knew her handsome doctor suitor was probably not all he seemed to be but is still disappointed to be proved right, only be perhaps be proved wrong again in the end. Convinced to take a chance on an unwise romance by an older colleague who explains to her that many miracles begin with lies, Ayumi is angry with herself as much as with her lying Casanova of a baby daddy, and also feels guilty about an incredibly sight deception of her own. As in many of the other stories, now that everyone has figured out the real, important, truths about themselves and about the situation, they can excuse all of the lying. Sensible or not? The choice is yours.

Despite coming from the team who created some very funny TV dramas including Legal High, the comedy of April Fools never quite hits its stride. Weak jokes backed up with slapstick humour giving way to sentimentality as the “good reasons” for the avoidance of truth are revealed don’t exactly whip up the farcical frenzy which the premiss implies. The point may very well be that we’re the April Fools going along with this, but even so its difficult to admire a film which pushes the “lying is good” mantra right to the end rather than neatly undercutting it. Still, there is enough zany humour to make April Fools not a complete waste of time, even if it doesn’t make as much of its original inspiration as might be hoped.


Original 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.