Japan places an enormous importance on food and its culture not only due to the nature and origin of producing it, but because food is seen as an essential process through which human beings form strong bonds with each other. Whether it’s a bowl of ramen noodles, a simple packed obento lunch, or an entire full-course meal, the following movies illustrate the major role food plays in forming connections with others in Japan and how it is traditionally believed in this country that the cooking of one simple meal can have a major impact on one’s life.
1.Noriben – The Recipe of Fortune (のんちゃんのり弁), 2009
Noriben – The Recipe of Fortune is the heartfelt story of Komaki who leaves her aspiring writer but unemployed husband to chase her own independence. Inspired by Kiwa Irie’s popular 1995 manga, Nonchan Noriben, the film celebrates female empowerment through themes of human-connection and symbolic food: in this case, the humble noriben (a packed lunch featuring toasted seaweed on rice).
At 31, Komaki boldly leaves her husband, takes the hand of her kindergarten-aged daughter Noriko, and moves back to her working-class hometown of Kyojima in Tokyo. However, with her lack of qualifications, finding employment in the big city proves extremely difficult. Already well accustomed to cooking with scraps and leftovers, Komaki continues creating her unusual yet delicious layered bento boxes for Noriko which become a huge hit with the other children and subsequently, the school staff too. One day, when Komaki tastes the best meal of her life at a tiny eatery, an appetising revelation sees her inspired and adamant to start a bento shop of her own.
Delicious home cuisine, created by acclaimed Japanese food stylist Nami Iijima, plays an integral role in this tale. From sparking Komaki’s destiny to carrying her through a series of hard-choices, mouthwatering food imagery is at the center of every ordeal. We wouldn’t be surprised if you finished this movie having learnt a thing or two about creating scrumptious obento!
Main cast: Manami Konishi, Rio Sasaki Director: Akira Ogata
2.Mourning Recipe (四十九日のレシピ), 2013
Mourning Recipe is a true soul-stirring story, the Japanese title of which literally translates as “Forty-nine days of recipes.” When elderly Ryohei’s wife Otomi dies suddenly, he is left feeling lost and continuously returning to his last words to her — an irritated grumble about her handmade
croquette sandwiches. Simultaneously, we get to know Yuriko, Ryohei’s daughter from his previous marriage, who fights her own life battle — disheartened at her step mother’s death, she is also undergoing sensitive fertility treatments as she realizes that her husband has impregnated his younger mistress. As she returns home to her father, she gets to know a recipe book of “happy living” wisdom left by the deceased Otomi for her family to study after her death. In the following forty-nine days — a number that also signifies the parting of one’s soul after death in Japan — the two are seen using the recipe book as they get back on their feet and rediscover wisdoms that late Otomi has stored for them as they continue to live and take charge of their lives.
Throughout the film, the recipe book is used not only for recreating heartwarming and appetising foods, but also as a life lesson guide — when Ryohei eventually bites into a croquette sandwich of the same type he had so rudely criticised, he reaches enlightenment that brings every viewer to tears. In addition to high quality cinematic drama, this film is a moving example of how in Japanese culture, food forms the foundations of human connections, love and family appreciation.
Main cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Renji Ishibashi Director: Yuki Tanada
3.A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story (武士の献立), 2013
A Tale of Samurai Cooking – A True Love Story is a dramatic culinary picture set within the Kaga Domain of the Edo Period. It describes the love story of Yasunobu, the heir in the Funaki family, who cooks for the Kaga Domain, and Oharu, a divorced maid with immaculate cooking skills.
The Funaki family are known as “kitchen samurai” — they have swapped their warrior swords for cooking knives. However, as it turns out, Yasunobu is a skilled swordsman but a terrible and frustrated cook who wants nothing more than to be a real samurai of war. As a result, his father approaches Oharu who is known for her extraordinary taste buds to marry his son and turn him into a true kitchen samurai. Though at first, rather unwilling to pursue his assigned role in life, as the story develops, Yasunobu discovers his true heritage and responsibilities through his growing relationship with Oharu — and her skills and dedication to cooking. Their bond of love inspired by the power of food gives way for Yasunobu to uncover his truth. The movie is a sweetly comical drama with deeply symbolic undertones. Our only advice: eat before you watch — the food will leave you inspired and hungry, too.
Main cast: Kengo Kora, Aya Ueto Director: Yuzo Asahara
4.The Chef of South Polar (南極料理人), 2009
The Chef of South Polar follows the adventures and misadventures of eight Japanese men holed up in a research station in Antarctica for a seemingly never-ending 400 days. Based on the autobiographical novel of real-life polar-chef Jun Nishimura, The Chef of South Polar is a light-hearted comedy all about food and human bonds.
When passionate Navy cook, Nishimura is unexpectedly assigned a 12-month term as the head chef of the Dome Fuji Research Station — a part of the Antarctic where the average temperature is -54 degrees Celsius, so cold that nothing lives there — he is forced to leave behind his wife and daughter. Once at the station, the crew’s life is a pure survival and inevitably, during their labor, both our protagonist and the other crew members experience one human crisis after another. But when one falls, the rest help him rise again. Nishimura’s support to the rest of the team comes in the form of cooking — which every member looks forward to every day (sometimes, even more than observing extremely rare natural phenomena). This theme of communal isolation and brotherly support is, therefore, expanded throughout the film with comfort food as its solace. Both the physical food itself, and its shared experience, helps keep these men stay sane — and alive — in the icy cold of the Antarctic. A first-class visual feast, The Chef of South Polar will leave you with a craving for sashimi and ramen — and a hug from a close friend you’ve been through tough times with.
Main cast: Masato Sakai, Kengo Kora, Katsuhisa Namase Director: Shuichi Okita
Food is much more than just delicious in Japanese culture. As evident from the above four films, Japanese food culture is greatly symbolic of human connection. Whether it be sparking fate, healing heartache, enlightening destiny, or enabling survival, food — and the spirit in which it is prepared and shared — is of high importance in a Japanese person’s life.
Text by Anisa Kazemi-Manshadi