Food in Film (Part Three): Japanese Cuisine

With the Tokyo Summer Olympics underway, it seems fitting to write about how certain Japanese cuisine is captured between food and film.

Japanese food varies considerably between the eight regions that make up Japan, the numerous prefectures that make up those eight regions, and even the cities and towns located within those prefectures. You can travel from the Michelin food capital of the world, Tokyo, which has 226 starred restaurants in the 2020 guide, to Hiroshima, which specializes in the savory, “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” pancake called okonomiyaki (meaning “cook what you like”), to Hokkaido, home of the red king (and many other types of) crab.

Keep traveling and you will find the famous marbled beef, cut, and cooked over coal (yakiniku), of Takayama in the Hida region, or the balled, battered, and skewered octopus (takoyaki) of Osaka in the Kansai region, and for dessert, the sweet cakes and parfaits made with green tea powder (matcha) that are found throughout Kyoto.

With all this variety, the two types of Japanese cuisine that draw the most screen time, however, are the two probably most familiar to Western audiences: ramen and sushi. Hard to fault such a choice when they are captured so poetically in the three films below.

Tampopo (1985)

This cult comedy classic makes the best use of an egg yolk since Sylvester Stallone cracked five eggs into a glass and chugged them before dawn in the original Rocky (1976). The film is generally a love letter to food, but it is ramen that feeds its heart and stomach.

Tampopo, the widowed owner of a small roadside ramen shop, labors to create the perfect ramen. She is supported by a cast of quirky characters, including two truck drivers who enter her shop to escape a downpour. They help Tampopo discover the pluses and minuses of the neighboring ramen shops, including cleverly prying away some of her competitors’ recipes, and introducing her to an old master to improve her broth and a chauffeur who specializes in noodles.

Meanwhile, as Tampopo strives to make her ramen shop the best in town, the plot slips around like a noodle to include: young women breaking the rules of etiquette and slurping their spaghetti; a junior worker upstaging his bosses with his superior culinary knowledge at a fancy restaurant; and a yakuza gangster and his girlfriend bonding over the egg yolk (as well as a few other inventive uses of foods). The film ends with a shootout and another gang fight in which the loser remodels the interior of Tampopo’s ramen shop. As customers fill the new shop, Tampopo has achieved her goal, with a little help from her friends.

Ponyo (2008)

A quick name check to this animated fantasy, written and directed by the famed Hayao Miyazaki and animated by the equally famed Studio Ghibli. The plot revolves around a goldfish named Ponyo who wants to be a girl and is rescued and befriended by a young boy, but the scene that earns the film a place on my list is when Ponyo excitedly eats her first bowl of ramen (with ham). Animated ramen never looked so good. Click here if you are interested in an easy recipe that tries to recreate this cartoon cuisine.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Far more than just highlight the meticulous crafting of mouthwatering sushi, this documentary demonstrates why the preparation of food deserves to be called “the culinary arts.” As with Tampopo’s fictional quest to create the perfect ramen, 85-year-old Jiro Ono has embarked on a real lifelong journey to create the perfect piece of sushi, each and every time he serves a piece at his ten-seat only, three-starred Michelin restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. As Jiro relates in the film, “All I want to do is make better sushi.”

In seeking to enter the realm of the artisan, Jiro is striving to become shokunin, one who not only has technical skills but the self-motivation and commitment to continually do his/her best to serve others and thereby achieve life satisfaction. And so day after day, week/month/year/decade after another, for almost 70 years, Jiro labors to place the finest cut of the freshest raw fish on top of a perfectly steamed and hand-shapened ball of rice and then plated and served for immediate consumption to his customers seated before him.

As we see, such demanding perfectionism is not without its cost. The film also captures the generational conflict between Jiro’s practice of shokunin and the impact on his two sons, both of whom are sushi chefs themselves struggling to follow their father’s lead. One son leaves to open his own sushi restaurant while the other stays, but both remain under their father’s long shadow.

Jiro dreams of sushi. By the end of the documentary, so will you.

Danilo Diazgranados is an investor, collector, and lover of fine wines and a member of the prestigious Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a fraternity of Burgundy wine enthusiasts.

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