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)

The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Shuichi Okita, 2016)

mohican-comes-homeJapan may be famous for its family dramas, but there is a significant substrain of these warm and gentle comedies which sees a prodigal child return to their childhood home either to rediscover some lost aspect of themselves or realise that they no longer belong in the place which raised them. Shuichi Okita’s The Mohican Comes Home (モヒカン故郷に帰る, Mohican Kokyo ni Kaeru) includes an obvious reference in its title to Keisuke Kinoshita’s colourful 1954 escapade Carmen Comes Home which cast legendary actress Hideko Takamine somewhat against type as a ditsy airhead show girl eager to show off all her city sophistications to the rural backwater she abruptly ran out of some years before. Like Carmen, the hero of Mohican Comes Home makes an unexpected trip to visit his family in the picturesque Hiroshima island village where he grew up only to find not very much has changed but an equally unexpected tragedy prompts him into a wider consideration of his past and future as he faces life’s two extremes in the very same moment.

Eikichi (Ryuhei Matsuda) left his island home some years ago for the bright lights of Tokyo where he fronts a punk band by the name of Grim Reapers. The band has some moderate underground success, but the guys are getting old for the punk scene and finding themselves with real world responsibilities from healthcare costs to the prospects of supporting wives and children. Eikichi, sporting a prominent bleached mohawk, feels this more than most as he’s soon to become a father and is intending to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Yuka (Atsuko Maeda), if only he had the money. He’s been promising to take his future wife to meet his parents for some time but so far they’ve never actually made the trip.

This time, things are different and so Eikichi makes a shocking return after seven years only to wander in during an awkward scene as his mother and younger brother try to manoeuvre his drunken father into a more convenient position whilst protecting his precious white suit from alcohol born ruin. Eikichi’s family own the village liquor store but his father’s passion is for music and he also coaches the local middle school band. A devotee of legendary Hiroshima born superstar Eikichi Yazawa, Osamu (Akira Emoto) insists the kids play his favourite tune ad nauseam to much eye rolling from the youngsters forced to associate themselves with such an uncool and old fashioned song.

Eikichi’s homecoming has not got off to the best start, especially after his father begins to sober up and recommends a hair cut and real job, both of which Eikichi resolutely refuses. Things take a more serious turn when Osamu realises his son is being financially supported by his girlfriend whom he has also got pregnant but is not yet married to. Experiencing extreme moral outrage at his responsibility shirking son, Osamu chases him around the table in what appears to be a scene often repeated during Eikichi’s childhood but the situation soon ends in an unexpected way foreshadowing Osamu’s decline into ill health.

Deciding to stay a little longer than intended, Eikichi and Yuka blend into the family home trying to help mother Haruko (Masako Motai) and boomerang younger brother Koji (Yudai Chiba) adjust while Osamu is in the hospital. The contrast between town and country, traditional and modern is never far from view whether in Yuka’s kindhearted decision to finish off preparing the family dinner though she has to consult a youtube video to find out how to gut fish, or in her astonishment at the very ordinary way in which her future in-laws met (i.e. simple propinquity). While the women begin to bond over their shared concern for their men as Haruko decides to teach Yuka some home style tips and tricks, Eikichi and his father spar with each other warmly as Eikichi takes charge of a band rehearsal and allows them to let loose on the much hated song with an energised punk fuelled twist.

Despite a strained relationship with his father, Eikichi is a good person who also wants to offer some kind of comfort to the old man in his final days. Going to great lengths to track down a particular pizza Osamu suddenly requests (the last time he ate pizza was on his 60th birthday) or eventually pretending to be Yazawa himself whom Osamu is very proud to have made eye contact with during a Tokyo concert in 1977, Eikichi comes to a kind of understanding of the man his father was as well as the man he is. Full of warm, naturalistic humour giving way to two elaborately constructed set pieces, The Mohican Comes Home is a typically well observed family drama from Okita which neatly undercuts its essentially melancholy set up with a layer of stoical perseverance.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)