There is much to be said about the Japanese culinary culture. Not only is it thriving in variety and taste, but it is heavily symbolic and meaningful in nature. The following five films give viewers great insights both on famous Japanese foods, and the context in which these foods are typically made and eaten. From the commonality of having various versions of the same dish and the patience and dedication when preparing traditional Japanese cuisine, to the need to hand down skills from generation to generation and the true meaning of the Japanese obento, we can learn much about the core values of Japanese culture — while getting hungry over the exquisite dishes we get to see over and over again.
1. Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky/あかね空
Based on the award-winning novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (2007), is a dramatic culinary picture set in the mid-1700s in Edo (present-day Tokyo). It is the story of the 25-year-old tofu maker Eikichi traveling from the old capital to a new one with the intent of launching his own business.
Having learnt his craft from a distinguished master in Kyoto, Eikichi is stubbornly adamant on how tofu should look, taste, and sell: “the Kyoto style.” But unfortunately for Eikichi, his tofu does not fit the local taste — it is smaller and fluffier than the Edo-style tofu. It is here where we witness the notion of the “same” dish having different characteristics based on the locality it is prepared, a common feature of Japanese culinary culture. While the hallmarks of traditional cuisine can be found throughout Japan, every neighborhood has its distinctive specialities, inspired by local history. These differences can be widely evident — as is the case with okonomiyaki, the Japanese savory pancake — which is noticeably unalike between Osaka and Hiroshima prefectures. It is for this reason that Eikichi’s Kyoto tofu is unsatisfactory for the Edo dwellers pallet.
Akanezora educates viewers of the significance of tofu in Japan, and the importance of the creation process. Just as Eikichi’s wife, Ofumi, at one point passionately proclaims: “it’s not all about tofu!,” Akanezora tells of not only of the art and labor of tofu making, but of the importance of staying true to one’s craft and calling, the opportunities and challenges a family-run business can bring, and the result of visible sweat and determination.
Main cast: Seiyo Uchino, Miki Nakatani Director: Masaki Hamamoto
2. Sweet Bean/あん
Sweet Bean (2016) is an emotionally rewarding drama about the acceleration of contemporary culinary culture and the need to hand down skills from generation to generation. It is the story of an uncommon friendship between Sentaro, a lonely male confectioner, and Tokue, a 76-year-old woman. Sentaro runs a dorayaki shop frequented by locals and with the help of Tokue he manages to succeed — until he has to let her go. This decision leads to a life lesson for him that is also key to maintaining a prosperous business and leading a happy life.
Dorayaki is a Japanese pancake in which two round patties are held together by a generous dollop of an (sweetened azuki bean paste). An, or anko, can refer to all kinds of sweet bean paste (white, green or red beans). It derives from the word “filling,” and plays a significant role in sweetening Japanese confectionary called wagashi. In fact, azuki bean paste is so common in Japan that Japanese simply refer to it as an.
Sweet Bean reminds its audience of the pivotal themes of perseverance and patience when it comes to food preparation in Japanese culinary culture. Utterly disappointed with Sentaro for using supermarket-bought, mass-produced cans of an, Tokue teaches him how an should really be made: with respect and tolerance. Each time Tokue adds sugar to the boiled bean mixture, she instructs Sentaro to let it sit for two hours because “it’s like a first date.” This analogy is a perfect insight into the Japanese food culture, where chefs and confectioners spend a tolerant lifetime immersing themselves in their work, falling in love with it, and forever aspiring to perfect their craft.
Main cast: Masatoshi Nagase, Kiki Kirin Director: Naomi Kawase
3. The God of Ramen/ラーメンより大切なもの
Ramen yori taisetsuna mono, is a heartfelt documentary focusing on the life and legacy of Kazuo Yamagishi, a world-renowned ramen chef. The documentary centers not only on the success of Yamagishi and his modest (yet incredibly famous) shop, Taishoken, in Tokyo’s Higashiikebukuro, but also delves into the personal life of the celebrated master himself.
Yamagishi is globally referred to as “The God of Ramen,” largely due to his invention of the legendary tsukemen, ramen noodles served alongside a bowl of soup for dipping. The idea of tsukemen first came to Yamagishi at the age of 17 when he happened to witness a colleague enjoying his noodles by dipping them in a cup of hot soup. In 1961, he added tsukemen to Taishoken’s menu under the name “special morisoba.” It was an immediate success. Everyday people from across Japan would queue for hours to taste his ramen. Unlike most chefs who keep their recipes secret, Yamagishi gladly shared his knowledge with his many apprentices (and customers) who proceeded to freely replicate his flavors under the Taishoken name. Many believe it was this cheerful and generous demeanor (in addition to delicious ramen) which attracted multitudes from all over Japan. Today, there are over 100 Taishoken branch restaurants in Japan.
However, behind Yamagishi’s always smiling face, there’s a hidden colossal pain. After losing his wife to cancer at the age of 52, he sacrificed everything and dedicated his life to making ramen. This staunch dedication resulted in the deterioration of his health. Yet, he kept going. Illustrated as one of the key themes, the movie shows that this perseverance is essential for the Japanese teacher-disciple relationship. Throughout his career, old age, deteriorating health and death, Yamagishi’s many apprentices stood by their highly respected master. This is illustrated in the movie title: although the film’s English name is The God of Ramen, the direct Japanese to English translation of the title is “The more important things than ramen,” — dedication, passion, hope, and human-to-human relationships.
Main cast: Shosuke Tanihara, Kazuo Yamagishi Director: Takashi Innami
4. Papa’s Lunchbox is the Best in the World/パパのお弁当は世界一
Papa’s Lunchbox is the Best in the World is an indie parent-child story about a father, a daughter, and numerous lovingly prepared obento (Japanese boxed lunches). The movie was initially inspired by a heartwarming true story which first came in the form of a Tweet. The indie narrative follows the story of a single father and his determination in preparing obento lunches for his high school-aged daughter, Midori. The movie educates viewers on the true nature of the Japanese obento culture — it is nothing about food, it is about love, friendship, communication, and families.
Obento, typically prepared by the female of the household for her husband and/or her children, represents lunch in Japan. It is tasty, healthy, eye-catching, and served in a boxed container called obento-bako. The rules of obento are simple: rice is always present (though it can be substituted with bread or pasta), it contains one main dish and several smaller side dishes, and it is well presented. Kyaraben (character obento) is an excellent example of this. It is an elaborately arranged obento containing food decorated to look like characters, animals, and people for the sheer enjoyment of its recipient. Regardless of style, obento is always prepared with much love and effort. Instead of focusing on the food itself, Japanese obento is all about the love and dedication of one individual to another. The father’s many kitchen struggles and visible sweat and tears in adequately preparing Midori’s lunches clearly illustrate this concept. It shows family love expressed through things the Japanese do everyday. In Japan, it is believed that deeds are more important than words — an everyday early wake up, kitchen struggles, and assurance that that special someone has eaten well, is just as equivalent to saying “I Love You.”
Main cast: Rena Takeda, Toshimi Watanabe Director: Masakazu Fukatsu
5. There is no lid on the sea/海のふた
The movie adaptation of renowned Japanese author, Yoshimoto Banana’s novel of the same name, There is no lid on the sea (2015), is a drama telling the story of Mari who, exhausted with urban life, decides to move back to her small hometown of Nishiizu, Shizuoka prefecture to open a shop selling her favorite childhood treat, kakigori (shaved ice dessert). Though faced with various challenges, Mari’s desserts win the hearts of customers and the heroine begins to come to terms with herself through the process.
Kakigori is a popular summer Japanese dessert made up of thinly shaved ice flavored with artificial syrups, sweeteners, and often, condensed milk. It is a symbol of the Japanese summer and a common treat at local festivals and stalls on hot, humid days. Mari’s kakigori is unique, made with actual ingredients, including raw sugar which she diligently prepares by hand. She sells only two types of kakigori, none of which contain artificial colors.
The film educates viewers of the pressing economic and demographic pressure that hits small towns when their inhabitants migrate to larger cities. It delves into the very real trend of young people leaving the city and returning to the countryside for a simpler life, and some of the opportunities and challenges such a shift brings — a slower more peaceful pace of life vs. running a business in an ageing, economically struggling town. There is no Lid on the Sea is also about accepting change, and trusting that going back to your family home does not mean failing at life, a dilemma that many young Japanese are facing as a result of Japan’s stressful city and corporate life.
Main cast: Akiko Kikuchi Director: Keisuke Toyoshima
As evident, there is much more to just food when it comes to the Japanese culinary culture. How food is prepared, eaten, and treated, also has great significance. The five movies mentioned provide an excellent lens on the complexity of the Japanese food culture — and its impact on people’s lives.