Japanese Cuisine in Film: More Than a Visual Feast

By Maria Steinberg

The pursuit of food has turned into a global passion.  We eat, dream, study, blog, take Instagram images, write books, and make movies about food.  Food in film is a genre whose popularity grew as food became a pop culture obsession. To make a film about food is to expect a visual feast, but some films go farther by showing what lies deep beneath the sauce.

Many films have been made about Japanese cuisine. It is not surprising given the reverence that the Japanese have for food as well as its mainstream popularity in many cultures.  Japanese traditional cuisine, called “washoku,” is on UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list – a cuisine deemed worth preserving because it is critical to Japanese traditional culture’s survival.  Japanese cuisine’s foundation relies on elements such as freshness, seasonality, regionality, and presentation of ingredients and dishes.  Throw into the equation the concept of “kiwameru” or the “never-ending pursuit of perfection” in creating these traditional foods and you get a distinctive, impeccable cuisine. Some food films have brilliantly portrayed these elements.

The 2011 American documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about revered sushi master Jiro Ono and his 3-Michelin star, 10-seat restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, highlights this quest for perfection. Jiro’s apprentices train for a decade, and in his kitchen, octopus gets massaged for 40 minutes before cooking.  And there is Jiro’s refusal to retire at the age of 85 in his desire “to reach the top.”  Kiwameru is also reflected in his supplier relationships, like buying the best fish from purveyors at Tsukiji Market who themselves have demanding standards for the seafood they sell.  Seasonality and regionality are reflected in the use of ingredients for his 20-piece omakase tasting menu, where what to serve is decided each day to ensure freshness of ingredients.

The quest for perfection in Japanese cuisine is also depicted in the 1985 Japanese comedy Tampopo where a wacky cast helps Tampopo, the widow of a noodle shop owner, perfect the art of ramen-making. Ramen, many a Japanese’s comfort food with its heady combination of fat and salt, has several versions which are based on Japan’s many regions. There are various ways to make the broth, considered the soul of ramen, as there are to make the noodles. The meticulousness, discipline, and ceremony practiced by masters in Japanese cuisine become evident in the scene where a noodle master rhapsodizes on how to eat ramen (including how to smell it) and describes every ingredient, confirming that there is a ritual and an approach to eating it.  Even in foods as commonplace as ramen, there are quests for the perfect recipe, mirrored in real life by many chefs aspiring to make it big with their own versions.

In the 2015 drama film Sweet Bean, the elderly woman Tokue’s delicious azuki bean filling recipe for dorayaki (small griddled pancakes filled with red bean paste) amazes and inspires her boss Sentaro, the dorayaki maker. Tokue takes her time when she shows Sentaro how to prepare the red bean filling – soaking, simmering, and sweetening the beans — telling him that the labor-intensive process “is about heart,” and reminding viewers as well that slow food is worth the wait. Scenes showing Tokue’s disdain over the industrial version of the red bean paste that Sentaro has been using, and the ease in which he grills the pancakes, point to their dedication to their craft. Although the highlight of the film is the bond that eventually forms between the two characters, there is no doubt that Tokue’s made-from-scratch recipe was what brought them together.

These films all show beautiful food scenes, but their draw lies in the portrayal of Japanese cuisine’s uniqueness, their respect for ingredients and methods of preparation, and the chefs and cooks who make it happen.

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