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)

Suspicion (疑惑, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1982)

Suspicion posterBy the early ‘80s, Japan had successfully shaken off post-war desperation for burgeoning consumerism, but even as the nation rocketed into a more comfortable future, social equality proved slow to arrive. Once again adapting a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Yoshitaro Nomura’s Suspicion (疑惑, Giwaku) makes allies of two very different women who are each in one way or another rejected by the conservative, infinitely rigid society in which they live.

Former bar hostess Kumako (Kaori Momoi) falls under suspicion when she alone survives the car accident that takes her husband’s life. A brassy, aloof woman, Kumako does not behave in the way the police might expect a recently bereaved spouse to behave which instantly turns them against her. This becomes a real problem once they discover that her husband, Shirakawa (Noboru Nakaya), was an extraordinarily wealthy man on whom she had recently taken out a number of life insurance polices. Shirakawa’s public profile ensures that the potentially salacious case is taken up by the newspapers who waste no time proclaiming Kumako a gold digging murderess while openly baying for her blood. Intimidated by the public outcry, the police are determined to charge Kumako with her husband’s murder despite the only existing evidence being extremely circumstantial.

After a prominent lawyer declines to take her case, her legal council stands down citing his poor health leaving Kumako entirely undefended. The court eventually appoints her a new lawyer, a woman – Ritsuko Sahara (Shima Iwashita), more practiced in civil than criminal law and just as much of an outcast as Kumako though in very different ways. Ritsuko has divorced her husband and he has custody of their young daughter whom Ritsuko makes a point of seeing once a month. Though the arrangement seems to suit her well enough, her status as a career woman who has “rejected” the roles of wife and mother also makes her one viewed with “suspicion” by those around her.

The central issue is indeed Kumako’s character. A former bar hostess with a traumatic childhood, Kamako has four previous convictions including assault and blackmail as well as an abrasive personality and a tendency to rub people up the wrong way. She doesn’t do herself any favours, but no kind of justice would be served if she were sentenced to death not for her husband’s murder but for the crime of being an “unpleasant” woman in a society which expects women to be docile and polite.

The papers, however, are very invested in the story of the coldblooded, gold digging murderess. Akitani (Akira Emoto), a local reporter, cosies up to the police for insider information, and does his best to root out Kumako’s sordid past including a sometime boyfriend who might have been her “pimp”. Ritsuko makes “trial by media” a key part of her defence strategy, arguing that her client’s case has been unfairly prejudiced by the image the press has sought to construct of her, but is unaware of the extent to which the police investigation has been distorted by the desire to appease the media or the various ways in which a venal press has gently perverted the course of justice in search of a better story.

Cool and efficient, Ritsuko isn’t really sure whether Kumako did it or not but is determined to ensure she is tried by the codes of law and not of conventional morality. A disgraced Akitani later barks at her that he sees no need to defend “a woman like that” in the papers, but Ritsuko’s having none of it – the purpose of the law is precisely to ensure guilt or innocence is assessed rationally on the basis of the evidence presented, as free of personal prejudice as it’s possible to be. An idealistic claim, given Japan’s famously implacable legal system, but one that sits well with a functioning democracy.

Ritsuko’s defence of Kumako is not particularly a feminist exercise, though a grudging kind of mutual respect eventually arises between the two women who have each in one sense or another rejected socially defined gender roles. While Ritsuko proclaims herself happy enough to be a mother once a month on Sundays, her husband’s new wife is a more territorial sort, eventually asking her to stop seeing her own daughter because she would rather raise her believing that she is hers alone. Kumako, however, is entirely unrepentant, even emboldened, vowing that she will continue using men until the day she dies. The two women remain mirror images of each other, both rejected, viewed with “suspicion” for the choices they have made, and forever at odds with a society which has already found them each “guilty” in the court of public opinion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Toru Murakawa, 1980)

LP Soundrack record cover

Yusaku Matsuda was the action icon of the ‘70s, well known for his counter cultural, rebellious performances as maverick detectives or unlucky criminals. By the early 1980s he was ready to shed his action star image for more challenging character roles as his performances for Yoshimitsu Morita in The Family Game and Sorekara or in Seijun Suzuki’s Kagero-za demonstrate. The Beast Must Die (野獣死すべし, Yaju Shisubeshi, AKA Beast to Die) is among his earliest attempts to break out of the action movie cage and reunites him with director Toru Murakawa with whom he’d previously worked on Resurrection of the Golden Wolf also adapted from a novel by the author of The Beast Must Die, Haruhiko Oyabu. A strange and surreal experience which owes a large amount to the  “New Hollywood” movement of the previous decade, The Beast Must Die also represents a possible new direction for its all powerful producer, Haruki Kadokawa, in making space for smaller, art house inspired mainstream films.

Shedding 25 pounds and having four of his molars removed to play the role, Matsuda inhabits the figure of former war zone photo journalist Kazuhiro Date whose experiences have reduced him to state of living death. After getting into a fight with a policeman he seems to know, Date kills him, steals his gun, and heads to a local casino where he goes on a shooting rampage and takes off with the takings. Date, now working as a translator, does not seem to need or even want the money though if he had a particular grudge against the casino or the men who gather there the reasons are far from clear.

Remaining inscrutable, Date spends much of his time alone at home listening to classical music. Attending a concert, he runs into a woman he used to know who seems to have fond feelings for him, but Date is being pulled in another direction as his experiences in war zones have left him with a need for release through physical violence. Eventually meeting up with a similarly disaffected young man, Date plans an odd kind of revenge in robbing a local bank for, again, unclear motives, finally executing the last parts of himself clinging onto the world of order and humanity once and for all.

Throughout the film Date recites a kind of poem, almost a him to his demon of violence in which he speaks of loneliness and of a faith only in his own rage. Later, in one of his increasingly crazed speeches to his only disciple, Date recounts the first time he killed a man – no longer a mere observer in someone else’s war, now a transgressor himself taking a life to save his own. The violence begins to excite him, he claims to have “surpassed god” in his bloodlust, entering an ecstatic state which places him above mere mortals. A bullet, he says, stops time in that it alters a course of events which was fated to continue. A life ends, and with it all of that time which should have elapsed is dissolved in the ultimate act of theft and destruction. His acts of violence are “beautiful demonic moments” available only to those who have rejected the world of law.

Murakawa allows Matsuda to carry the film with a characteristically intense, near silent performance of a man driven mad by continued exposure to human cruelty. Hiding out in Date’s elegant apartment, Matsuda moves oddly, beast-like, his baseness contrasting perfectly with the classical music which momentarily calms his world. Mixing in stock footage of contemporary war zones, Murakawa makes plain the effect of this ongoing violence on Date’s psyche as the sound of helicopters and gunfire resounds within his own head. The imagery becomes increasingly surreal culminating in the moment of consecration for Date’s pupil in which he finally murders his girlfriend while she furiously performs flamenco during an dramatic thunderstorm. Date is, to borrow a phrase, no longer human, any last remnants of human feeling are extinguished in his decision to kill the only possibility of salvation during the bank robbery.

Anchored by Matsuda’s powerful presence, The Beast Must Die is a fascinating, if often incomprehensible, experience filled with surreal imagery and an ever present sense of dread. Its world is one of neo noir, the darkness and modern jazz score adding to a sense of alienation which contrasts with the brightness and elegance of the classical music world. At the end of his transformation, there is only one destination left to Date though his path there is a strange one. Fittingly enough for a tale which began with with darkness we exit through blinding white light.


There’s also another adaptation of this novel from 1959 starring Tatsuya Nakadai which I’d love to see but doesn’t seem to be available on DVD even without subtitles. This film has a selection of English language titles but I’ve used The Beast Must Die as this is the one which appears on Kadokawa’s 4K restoration blu-ray release (sadly Japanese subtitles ony).

Original trailer (no subtitles)