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‘Bento Harassment’: When words of wisdom won’t help, creative lunch boxes might do

One lunch box a day can help a family wash their troubles away.

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The best ingredient to a delicious meal is the company we share it with — our loved ones, people we look up to; friends who hold a special part in our lives. Indeed, there is nothing more heartwarming than the sight of a loving family laughing together over dinner at the end of just an ordinary day.

But what could one do when this essence of a delicious meal is suddenly lost? When the company that used to make our meals special is abruptly traded for loneliness? When no approach to make things better can turn back time and no wise (and not so) words can help?

Well, one can wait and eventually accept that what’s lost won’t return — or one can add extra spice and cook a brand new menu to initiate a change.

Kaori Mochimaru, the heroine in Renpei Tsukamoto’s heartwarming family comedy, Bento Harassment, is a single mother of two who, having lost her once sweet younger daughter to teenage mood swings, goes for the latter. Exhausted of juggling two jobs to make ends meet, Kaori is increasingly annoyed by her daughter Futaba’s bad attitude at home. The two rarely talk to each other anymore and Futaba spends most of her time in her room decorated with a “Do not enter” sign. Typical attitude for a teenager many might say, but anyone who has been a parent (or an angry teenager for that matter) can agree that this life stage can feel unbearable no matter how prepared we think we are for it.

The opening scene of the movie illustrates Kaori’s struggle to accept her daughter’s change perfectly well: we see her recalling walking hand in hand with her two young daughters talking about what to cook for dinner. Cheerfully, Futaba tells Kaori that she “always wants to be with mom.” Fast forward to the present day, the next scene shows Futaba, now a high school student who hates everything about housework, early mornings — and her mother.

But one thing that still connects this family is food — or more precisely a bento, the packed lunch box that Kaori makes for Futaba daily before she finally manages to pull her out of bed. An essential part of Japanese families’ daily lives, the bento goes far beyond a last minute assembled meal to go. Smiling wieners in octopus shapes, beautifully shaped vegetables, words and characters cutouts from seaweed sheets, hair made of noodles, rice decorated with colorful sprinkles… Japan’s bento is a work of art and a product of many hours of dedicated labor. More than just lunch, it is a form of communication: a daily proof of someone’s love and care. And among the endless kinds of bento that exist in Japan, the kyaraben (short for “character bento”), typically prepared for younger children and the one that we get to drool over in Bento Harassment, is the kind that captures the eye the most: its creativity is beyond measurable and the amount of work put into making one is worth multiple parent awards.

The movie plot unveils when one day Kaori witnesses Futaba acting cool in front of her friends saying she “dislikes cute characters,” which inspires Kaori to come up with a wicked plan: make the cutest possible kyaraben lunches for her daughter until she improves her behavior at home. In other words, embarrass her well enough to catch her attention and make her listen (and maybe even talk again!).

From the next day on, Kaori begins waking up before the crack of dawn making adorable box lunches inspired by folk tales or popular characters. On day one, we see Futaba getting red-faced at school after she opens her Little Red Riding Hood-inspired lunch, while another time she’s spooked by a seaweed-on-rice Sadako from the horror sequel The Ring. Embarrassed to eat those cute culinary creations at school, Futaba demands that Kaori restores her ordinary lunches deemed more suitable for a teenage girl. Kaori, however, says she would only do so after she sees an improvement in Futaba’s attitude. But when Futaba angrily leaves the room in response, Kaori is smiling: “She actually spoke!,” she says relieved.

The lunch battle is now at full speed and the daily treats become increasingly creative, each decorated with a message. “Clean up your dishes!,” “Are you studying?,” “Nothing is meaningless” — the seaweed-cutout words on cheese and rice speak directly to Futaba every time she opens her lunch box.

To Kaori’s surprise, however, Futaba doesn’t fight the lunches and she silently continues to eat every bite of them. Gradually, we witness what started as a passive-aggressive battle turning into a mother-daughter communication routine — one that day by day initiates a change in both of our characters.

Based on a true story, Bento Harassment is set in Hachijojima, an island approximately 300 kilometers south of Tokyo. Our protagonist, the real-life Kaori, made her family story famous after she launched a blog (that was later published as a book) to share her creative lunches cooked for her teenage daughter. “She pisses me off but she’s my precious girl” is a famous line, later incorporated in the movie as well, from the first blog entry she wrote. Kaori’s unique way of dealing with her daughter and, of course, her creative lunches, made her blog a hit in Japan. Sympathetic parents began posting encouraging comments, others who share the same problems began following her footsteps. The blog inspired thousands for its creativity, dedication — and most of all, Kaori’s obvious unconditional love for her daughter.

As in the original story, the film adaptation of Kaori’s lunch battle continues throughout the three years Futaba is in high school. The final bento is given to Futaba on her last day of school, packed in an enormous box. “Commendation to my daughter. For three years, you ate every morsel of the annoying bento. I commend you for your perseverance. Your mother,” the message, made of hundreds of tiny cutout seaweed sheets and arranged in the form of a graduation certificate, reads. Accompanied by decorated weiners and other delicious bites, the prize-deserving lunch calls for applause by Futaba’s classmates — and tears in our rebellious teen’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” we hear her saying as she takes one bite at a time.

Ultimately a story of unconditional maternal love, Bento Harassment is a tale that reminds us not to give up on our loved ones even when life is not always bright. This, and also that sometimes, adding a bit of extra spice in our lives (and food) may take us farther than we think. And maybe, only maybe, even help us turn back time and restore what’s been lost.

Cast: Ryoko Shinohara, Kyoko Yoshine, Rena Matsui
Director: Renpei Tsukamoto

Text by Rose Haneda