Full text


Food Therapy in Contemporary Japanese Food Films


Tatiana Farmer

Senior Honors Thesis

Global Studies

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

May 2020

Inger Brodey, Thesis Advisor


Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 3

Introduction 4

Chapter 1: Nature 9

Chapter 2: Companionship 22

Chapter 3: Magic and The Supernatural 35

Conclusion 44



I would first like to express my deep and sincere gratitude for my thesis advisor, Dr. Brodey, for giving me the opportunity to conduct this research and providing me with invaluable guidance throughout the entire process. It was a great privilege and honor to work and study under her guidance and I am truly lucky to have been her student. Thank you for introducing me to the world of “food films” and challenging me to think about food in cinema beyond its superficial purpose. I would also like to thank you for your mentorship, empathy, and encouragement to pursue and complete this project.

I would also like to thank Dr. Bardsley as well for her guidance and helpful perspective, especially in the development of the conclusions of my thesis.



We have all heard the phrase, “eating our troubles away.” Perhaps this does not instill the best image in mind, but what if consuming a well-prepared meal could really be the answer to all of your problems? What if food could heal you? This is what occurs in many contemporary Japanese food films produced during the early and late 2000s. In these films, food is not just a means of satisfying a physical hunger, but goes beyond that to aid characters in overcoming serious problems and obstacles occurring in their lives. The early 2000s was a significant time in Japan’s history because it succeeded a period often referred to as the “Lost Decade.” The 1990s witnessed a drastic economic recession toppled with various societal changes and environmental tragedies (Iwabuchi 547). Although the food presented in these films do not appear to have medicinal properties to heal tangible illness of the body, the psychological and mental health of the characters present in these films improves noticeably through the consumption of food prepared by an understanding chef as well as other significant factors such nature,

companionship, and magic.


The idea of food being a legitimate film genre beyond its popularity in cooking shows where it has an obvious role of entertainment may seem like a foreign concept, but it is actually more common than one would think. Food films as a genre has only recently gained momentum in countries with large film industries such as the U.S, while food’s presence in Japanese films has remained constant and played a valuable role since as early as the 1950s, with notable films such as Tokyo Story (1953) and Tampopo (1985) (Hertweck 97-100). Food film is a broad genre and in my opinion, the only real requirement to be considered a part of it is using food beyond a basic role. When food is no longer seen as just a prop and has actual purpose, the film can then be considered a food film.

With this broad definition in mind, one could categorize seemingly unlikely films such as Ratatouille (2007) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), two popular children’s films produced in the U.S.A, as food films and regard them with the same rigor as more notable western and non-western food films. In The Sacred Foodways of Film: Theological Servings in 11 Food Films, Antonio Sison notes that food films have “been helpful in offering creative spaces for deeper insight on food and eating” (4). In Like Water for Chocolate (1992), Babette’s Feast (1987), Big Night (1996), Mostly Martha (2001), and many other food films, food and the dining experience itself are used as the centerpiece for the film to tie more complex and harsher themes dealing with culture, identity, family, etc together. Although Sison takes a religious approach to food and film in his book, one could agree with his belief that food plays a

significant role in the human journey. Using cinema as a medium, the various representations of food is able to be experienced in a way that audiences are not just passive onlookers, but


James Keller states in Food, Film and Culture: A Genre Study, that “food can only ever be a metaphor in film because an audience can never actually consume what they are seeing” (Keller). Filmmakers are faced with a difficult challenge of creating a dining experience without the most important elements of eating: smell and taste. Instead, they must rely on visual and auditory stimuli to “invoke appetite and desire” (Keller). To further enhance the dining experience, actors are used to convey the appeal of the food being consumed. Through facial expression, eagerness or willingness to eat, and delighted sounds of satisfaction, the filmmaker is able to show that the food is delicious. In the same fashion, the food in question could also be coded as unappetizing, unappealing, and deserving of disgust. It is through this way that the director of the film is able to control the dining experience and has even more power than an actual chef because they are not hindered by actual human tastes. They rely on the imagination and notion that the food being seen is delicious, whether or not it would be in real life to the person watching.

In this essay, I will be conducting a detailed analysis on four Japanese food films ranging from 2006 to 2012: Kamome Shokudo (2006), Rinko’s Restaurant (2010), Shiawase no Pan (2012), and The Chef of South Polar (2009). In these four films, food becomes a source of healing for illnesses caused by the mind rather than the body. By noting common themes and symbols presented throughout the films, I will be able to explore how food is used as a


Japan, specifically in big cities such as Tokyo, is known for its fast-paced and bustling life. As of 2016, data collected from the World Data Atlas states that 93.9% of Japan’s

population lives in urban areas, which explains why the country seems so crowded upon a first look. Japanese cities are crowded and people are literally living on top of each other. Every day, people are sandwiched together on subways, buses, or sidewalks. This mass urbanization can be attributed to Japan's efforts to rebuild its society after World War II. After the war, Japan worked towards economic growth as its model of development. Although Japan’s economy prospered from this approach and life was seemingly stable, this all proved to be wrong when the economic bubble burst occurred in the 1990s (Aoki 104).

The 1990s in Japan is often referred to as “The Lost Decade” because it was a time of economic stagnation and prominent societal changes. With the crash of Japan’s economy, Japanese citizens had to come to terms with the realization of the limits of their economy. Along with the financial crisis during this time, Iwabuchi states that Japan “witnessed an apparently decisive structural breakdown that corresponded to changes in such Japanese institutions as the state bureaucracy, corporate organization, the education system, and family relationships” (547). Although I do not talk about all of these societal changes in this essay, it is important to know that these changes were occurring to understand why there was a sense of crisis and pessimism within Japan during this time.

From an outsider’s view, Japan’s society may appear to be functioning harmoniously. What sets Japan aside from other industrialized countries is the fact that everything is so


kui wa utateru”, which translates into “the nail that sticks out gets hammered”. This phrase is often used to encourage conformity when someone attempts to stray from the norm, which in turn keeps the society running smoothly. The system in play works so effectively that many people who visit Japan consider it “to be one of the most stable places in the world, where people harmoniously conform to norms and social expectations” (Kawanishi 5)

In the city, there are many signs and recordings telling people what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. On the subway or bus a person may hear a recorded voice letting them know where the next stop will be, or telling them to stand back from the subway platform. Signs may remind people to not litter and since it is considered that “most Japanese people are law-abiding” citizens, it is no surprise that Japanese cities are also relatively clean, the presence of graffiti or litter is little in comparison to cities in western societies (Kawanishi 5). Under this pretense of a perfect society lies a growing problem.


Chapter 1: Nature

In order to understand the role of food in Japanese food films, we first need to understand the significance of traditional Japanese food within contemporary Japan and its connection to nature and the past. In this chapter, I will briefly go over the history of “washoku”, native Japanese food, to explain how food has strong ties to culture, values, and tradition. By

maintaining washoku, Japan is able to maintain their heritage within and outside of Japan. Next, I will discuss solitary eating and how it is one aftereffect of The Lost Decade and present it as the main problem with eating in Japan today. Lastly, I will end this chapter by discussing the importance of nature in healing, specifically the aspect of “furusato”, and present the remedy that these four films find in it for healing problems caused ultimately by modernity.


nostalgia to times when life was seemingly better and simpler, when you knew exactly where your food was coming from. With processed foods, came an increased pace of life and less time to enjoy a well-cooked meal. This is one of the many “losses” of The Lost decade that Japan is trying to obtain back.


If we take a deeper look into the word “washoku” itself, we can further see the subtle cultural connotations within it. The word is still relatively new, not emerging until the late nineteenth century to make distinctions in opposition to the rise of western culture and food in Japan during this time (Cwiertka 92). The “wa” (和) comes from a kanji denoting something

that is “Japanese” or “Japanese-style” and is used frequently in contrast to “yo” (洋) which

denotes something that is western in origin. The kanji for “shoku” (食) means meal or food, so

together they roughly translate to “Japanese meal”as opposed to yoshoku for a non-Japanese meal. Today, the word is closely linked to a traditional Japanese home-cooked meal, but when it first appeared to be used, it referred to food enjoyed at a restaurant (Cwiertka 92). This is

because before the introduction of western food, there was no need to have clear distinctions to what was or was not native Japanese food. When western food became popular in restaurants however, these terms started to appear together.

There has also been a steady push for washoku to be taught in Japanese schools to pass on tradition and healthy eating habits. This is a part of a much larger campaign called


diets of Japanese people” (Assmann). Shokuiku teaches Japanese children how to have a healthy lifestyle amidst a dominant food culture of easy-made instant meals.

The first taste of washoku that Japanese children are exposed to is within their home. Japanese mothers spend an excessive amount of time preparing a bento, or boxed lunch, for their children to take with them to school. It is a rite of passage, for both the child and mother. As Allison writes in Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus, both mother and child are being judged by society. Mothers are tasked with the challenge of preparing a bento appeasing enough to “please their children and to affirm that they are good mothers” (Allison 195). Likewise, the child is taught in nursery school that they must finish their meal enitirely in return for their mother's efforts, as well as the efforts of the people who helped to cultivate their food. “Itadakimasu” is a phrase said before you eat in Japan. It is roughly translated to mean “I humbly receive” or “Let’s eat” and is said to be tied to the Buddhist principle of respecting all living things (Theophil). When you recite this phrase, you are giving thanks for every step of the meal. From the plants and animals that were used to create the meal, to the farmers and other workers whose collective contribution brought your meal to the table. And of course, the person who prepares your meal as well. This phrase is to remind you that it is wasteful to not finish your plate when you consider the entire process as a whole.


The Lost Decade and the Rise of Solitary Eating

The Lost Decade was a time of drastic economic recession topped with various societal changes and environmental tragedies that can be said, to be broadly speaking, the result of problems with modernity (Iwabuchi 547). These problems can be seen in the preparation and consumption of food. A popular figure that emerged as a “savior” after this time was Kurihara Harumi, often referred to as Japan’s “Martha Stewart,” for her “joyful and “relieving” recipes. She brought with her the “message of sustainable, traditionally Japanese cooking to relieve the pain and reduce tension” that was created from the hardship of rebuilding the nation after the economic recession and series of natural disasters that occured shortly along with it. (Goldstein-Gidoni 108). Harumi was a role model for Japanese housewives and women, and although her “domestic savior” appearance could speak heavily on the shift in gender roles that was occurring during this time, I will not go deeply into them in this essay. It is just important to note that during a time of great tragedy, Japan turned to food, specifically traditional Japanese food, to help heal the nation.


In contemporary Japan, it is very common to witness people purchasing a quick meal at the convenience store or eating dinner from a local ramen shop before heading home because they do not want to eat too late. Japan has perfected the art of solo eating with the help of technology. Most restaurants and even convenience stores have solo dining seats, some even with wooden dividers or booths so that customers do not even have to see each other and give the further illusion of being alone. Taking it a step further, you do not even have to have much contact with your waiter or chef, as some places operate via tickets from vending machines or are completely digitalized and customers have to simply press a few buttons to have their meal delivered to them. Some may see this as technological advances, but we cannot ignore how isolating all of this can be.

The rise of solitary eating has become a trend in Japan. I myself have had the chance to partake in it on multiple occasions while studying abroad. I will admit on my first few tries, it was hard to enjoy my meal as the feeling of awkwardness made me hyper-aware of my


could not help but notice that the diner was relatively empty besides a couple of grown men in business suits eating alone. As time passed, they would get up, shout “gochisousama” (a phrase said at the end of a meal) and leave the diner. More men would come and take their place and the scene would repeat. Gradually, I no longer felt so awkward in my position and found my trips to that Matsuya much easier. As a foreigner in Japan with no family and few friends, it is not unusual for me to find myself dining alone, but many Japanese people seem to be facing the same problem.

Healing through Furusato and Nature

The four films that I have chosen to conduct my analysis on are: Kamome Shokudo, Rinko’s Restaurant, Shiawase no Pan, and The Chef of South Polar. All four films were

produced during the early 2000s and focus on the way food is used to cure whatever troubles and worries a client may have. A common “illness” present in each film seems to be loneliness, something that many Japanese people are said to be suffering from. In fact, “an estimated 6.24 million Japanese people over 65, and a total of 18.4 million adults live alone” (Prosser). It is estimated that by 2040, 40 percent of the country will be solo dwellers (Prosser). In these films, it is through the help of a knowing chef who meticulously prepares food for their clients that enables them to overcome this “illness” or a variant of it and be healed.


from rice, seaweed, and usually some type of filling. She serves this dish to her clients with a smile and over time, they all seem to have found what they were looking for. Even Sachie herself has solved her own problem of loneliness as her diner is filled with various people enjoying her meals by the end of the film.

In Rinko’s Restaurant, we have our most unusual chef Rinko, who only serves one customer at a time in her make-shift diner she creates from an old shed. Rinko’s loneliness is apparent at the beginning of the film. She was an outcast as a child and has an estranged relationship with her mother that results in her being sent into the city to live with her

grandmother, who she learns to cool from. However, her life takes on a turn for the worse when her grandmother passes away and she finds out she was betrayed by a person she loved. The shock from it all causes her to lose her voice and she moves back to her rural village to start her culinary career, and in a way cope with all the misfortune that has happened to her. Rinko’s dishes are special and are personalized to cater to her customer’s needs. When they consume her food, their problems are indirectly solved. Her clients also vary between people wishing to find new love to others wanting to mend broken relationships. Rinko is able to make all of their wishes come true. It is through her healing others that ultimately she is able to heal herself. In the last scene in the film, Rinko finally makes her own self a meal and is able to get her voice back.


missing her absent mother, Rie and Nao are able to help them all obtain their own happiness. At the end of the film, Rie and Nao are finally seen sharing a meal together, and Rie confesses that she too has realized she has become happier since moving away with Nao.

In The Chef of South Polar, we are again faced with another interesting set up of characters. Eight men are sent to complete a project in Antarctica and are separated from their families and civilization for months. Nishimura is a young chef and his recipes become what keeps the sanity of these men intact. The days drag on and the men miss their lives before their appointment. They feel isolated, anxious, and find their lives unbearable. The breaking point seems to be when they run out of ramen, a meal it was discovered many were partaking in as a late night snack and comfort food. Nishimura, despite his own unhappiness from being away from his family, becomes a source of support and happiness for the men. Moments when they are all able to share a meal together is when they are able to forget their reality and enjoy the

momentary bliss from the food prepared by Nishimura.


Furusato means “old village” and scholar Jennifer Robertson defines its English equivalent to be “home” or “native place” and gives a detailed description of how it is often represented through physical space:

As a landscape, the quintessential features of furusato include forested mountains, fields cut by a meandering river, and a cluster of thatch-roof farmhouses. Furusato also

connotes a desirable lifestyle aesthetic summed up by the term soboku, or artlessness and rustic simplicity. (194)

Immediately we can take from this that furusato is a physical space set apart from a more urban and industrialized area such as a city. In a sense this space is pure and untouched by large-scale human interaction. This space is also generalized, not a particular village or old town. Although there is a physical space, its existence is really imaginary. There is not just one “old village” when furusato comes to mind, but a general idea of what this space should be.


Rural areas surrounded by nature are often considered supportive to convalescence from long-term illnesses because of the slower pace of life, the clean air and water, the

availability of fresh local produce, and the peaceful and tranquil atmosphere. (Fujiki 153)

This is why a popular setting among these films is a rural area or at least an area outside the city. The proximity to nature and being able to obtain natural ingredients is obtained through location, which is an important aspect in each film.

Location, or separation from metropolitan Japan, plays a significant role in the healing process in each film. Rinko’s Restaurant and Shiawase no Pan are both located in rural villages (seen in figures 1 and 2). The Chef of South Polar is in Antarctica and although Kamome


common for fathers in Japan to spend significant amounts of time away from their families at work.

Setting, more specifically how the shops are decorated, seems to evoke the simplicity of nature and gives them a calm and intimate feel about them. Each diner or restaurant’s color scheme seems to follow a pattern of mostly light or earthy tones. None of them venture into harsher tones of red and orange or adopt darker colors. Sachie’s diner is mostly white with a light blue trim to complement it. Rie and Nao’s café is mostly cream-colored, which Rinko’s

restaurant is as well. Nishimura’s small dining space is also well-lit and painted with neutral tones. Each place has a lot of wooden or natural elements to it. Bedside’s Nishumra’s space, the table and chairs are all wooden, some decorations are also made of wood. The walls are also all wooden, and some are left unpainted to emphasize the woodsy, natural effect. The windows in the shops all seem to be large enough to let the places be illuminated by natural light rather than artificial. Although Nishimura is in a very cold area, he even has a small greenhouse in the kitchen to grow plants to use in his cooking. All of these decorating strategies seem to point to one thing in particular: an emphasis on nature.


are from the experience (Yumiyama and 弓山 277). This in turn creates a longing to be near


The reason lies in a desire for the peace that comes with harmony. As isolated as we may have become from the world of nature, there is not one of us who does not seek a state of natural harmony. Put the other way around, as comfortable as our human environment

may be, we cannot accept the tension and pressure that go with it. (Tatsuya and 弓山 277)


Figure 1 Scene from Shiawase no Pan


Chapter 2: Companionship

In the last chapter, I discussed the connection between food and nature and how food is able to become a bridge between values, traditions, and other cultural aspects seemingly lost in the pursuit of modernity. I introduced loneliness as the most common “illness” displayed by characters within the films and offered chefs as the solution to this problem. In this chapter, I will expand more on this point; first by exploring mental health within the context of Japan and presenting it as another aftereffect of the Lost Decade. I will then explain how chefs in the four films I have chosen--Kamome Shokudo, Rinko’s Restaurant, Shiawase no Pan, and The Chef of South Polar-- use food as a way to unite people. What other cure for loneliness works as well as a companion? I will argue that chefs act as both community builders, companions, and in a way, therapists to their clients. Chefs take on a supportive role in the absence of other support in the lives of their consumers, which further aids in the healing process.

Mental health in the Lost Decade

Loneliness can be considered a disease. When defining it, it has been described as a “state of mind” in which a person feels isolated and disconnected (Tiwari). In an article

published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, Tiwari writes that loneliness “frequently results in a decline of well-being and may cause depression, suicidal behaviour, sleep problems, and disturbed appetite” (Tiwari). Its ability to not only affect a person’s mental health, but also predispose them to other physical ailments caused by stress and anxiety makes it an especially dangerous illness.


not until the 1990s that depression was even considered a legitimate condition by Japanese people (Gates). Before that, it was rarely talked about and considered a purely physical rather than psychological condition or just a source of shame. The only treatment prescribed for it was to rest. According to reports in 2017, from a company named Tell, a counseling service offered in Japan, about 60 people commit suicide every day in Japan, which averages about 21,000 a year (Gates). Keeping note that these numbers do not include failed attempts of suicide, these are very concerning rates for a country. There was never a strong stigma associated with suicide within Japan like there is in many western countries. While suicide is largely thought of as a cowardly, sinful, or dishonorable act in other countries, it is actually seen as a noble way of dying in Japan (Russell et al). With this in mind, it is more easily understood why it is often used as a form of relief from pressures derived from society.


are expected to be “happy” and provide utmost service at all times and whatever the cost, which as one can imagine, puts enormous strain on people already under a lot of pressure.

Japan’s population as a whole seems to be suffering from loneliness, with experts estimating that by 2040, 40 percent of the population will be living alone (Prosser). There are many factors that contribute to this number such as Japan’s aging population, declining birthrate, and overall change in household order. A word called kodokushi was even created to describe the public health concern of people dying alone, with no one knowing of it for a period of time (Prosser). In the past, Kodokushi was mainly used to discuss the problems emerging with Japan’s rising elderly population. The elderly are a vulnerable group and with Japan’s gradual societal changes, many of them are finding themselves alone rather than living with their children which was once a common household set up. In a report published in 2015, it was found that about 6.24 million people aged 65 and older were living alone in Japan (“Seniors Living Alone”). Many of these people are not in frequent contact with their families, friends, or neighbors, which not only puts their mental health at risk, but also their physical well-being since they will largely go uncared for or forgotten when illness strikes.


In an attempt to combat loneliness in Japan, the government has launched a meal program under the already known campaign of shokuiku (dietary education). This program is in the form of small makeshift cafeterias and pre-established community “dining occasions” offering free or cheap meals for the purpose of allowing socially isolated people the opportunity to eat with others. This is because it has been studied that “people who eat with others tend to have a better nutritional balance” (“Japanese eating alone”). These little diners were originally created as a response to growing concerns over reports of children eating alone. Since their establishment, adults and the elderly have also started going to these places to eat.

Chefs Create Community

Food has a way of uniting people together, as the act of sharing a meal is intimate in nature. In the last part of this chapter, I will discuss how Chefs use food and dining as a means of building social interactions among their clients who suffer from loneliness. Dining

establishments are perfect places for human interaction. Even when eating alone, according to an interview conducted by Andrew Dickens in his article about solo dining experiences in Japan. When a man was asked about why he likes to go to restaurants alone, he gave an interesting response:

But it doesn’t have to be a lonely experience. In Japan, the staff are very friendly. It’s important to be a good host and the whole atmosphere is very egalitarian – they are not your ‘servants’. If you’re a regular somewhere, there’s a sense of community, but it’s quite normal to talk to strangers in a restaurant. (Dickens)


Before a chef opens a restaurant, there must be adequate reasoning behind it. In the case of the chefs presented in the films, a common motive for opening their shops was to combat their own loneliness. The presence of death or loss in general and its role in contributing to the mental states of the chefs and customers seems to be the reason or at least one of the reasons why they decide to open up their restaurants. In Kamome Shokudo, Sachie’s mother and Nanao, her pet cat, both passed away when she was a young child. The differences between the two deaths is how Sachie reacted to them. She cried more when her cat died than her mother because she felt happy seeing her cat eat, who was overweight while her mother on the other hand was very skinny. Since seeing people eat made Sachie happy, she established her own diner to be able to fulfil this joy of hers, while also indirectly creating a community space for others. This is seen throughout the film, as Sachie’s diner becomes a meeting place for her new customers to come to and socialize.

Rinko experiences death as a teenager and as an adult. When Rinko moves to the city, she begins living with her grandmother, who is the one who introduces her to cooking. When her grandmother passed away from old age, Rinko decided to become a chef. The second instance of death that Rinko experiences is her mother, Ryuriko. When Rinko returns to her home village, she slowly begins to mend her estranged relationship with her mother through food, in fact, before Ryuriko’s death, Rinko prepares the dinner for her wedding. Although Rinko’s diner is small and can only accept one customer at a time, she too is also able to provide social support for her clients, as her presence alone and careful preparation of their meals creates a very intimate environment.


this is when Nao steps in to help her by asking her to move to the country with him. Rie and Nao’s dining establishment also acts as a little inn for wandering travelers. Their inn is welcome to any far away traveler and local resident in their village. It becomes a place where people visit to relax and enjoy a delicious meal, all while either socializing with the owners, Rie and Nao, or fellow customers.

In The Chef of South Polar, although Nishimura did not start cooking for the group of men by choice, him cooking for the group helped him and his coworkers cope with the loneliness of being away from their families. Nishimura creates community with his dining establishment because it is only at the dinner table that we see the men altogether. Throughout the day, they are all separated, completing different tasks for the overall project they have been assigned to. When they are all settled at the table, they are able to socialize among one another and enjoy a meal. This simple daily routine is something they all look forward to since they are otherwise left alone.

Chefs as Companions


heavily on a “magical” aspect of it that I explain in detail in chapter 3. Since Rinko is mute, she only takes one reservation at a time in her restaurant. She has no menu but does not seem to need one because she somehow knows exactly what each of her customers need. She is able to

construct full course meals without communicating with her customers beforehand and after each meal they seem to have found some sort of peace within. Rie and Nao’s approach is also more direct. They cook food appropriate for the seasons and somehow come into contact with a different customer each season that seems to correspond with it. By the end of each respective season, the customer or customers that seek them out end up finding what they need. Nishimura is able to comfort his small group by generally trying to provide for them what they want. Any requests that they make, he tries to work with what he has to prepare the dish or at least

something similar to it. One particular example of this is when he is able to create ramen from scratch after running out of premade noodles.

In all four of our films, loneliness is presented as a constant problem troubling the lives of many and the way that they are able to overcome it is through interaction via food.


has formed a bond with Tokio, a village local, and they eventually find love with each other. What these people are actually searching for in their lives is a companion. They seek a sense of unity and understanding because when they find that they will no longer feel so alone.

Acceptance is an essential part of companionship, and is also needed in order for one person to confide in another or feel comfortable in a safe place. Throughout the four films the most accepting and welcoming characters are the chefs themselves. Not once was I ever under the impression that a chef did not want their customer to be there, no matter how difficult they might have been (and this welcome doesn’t seem to be dictated by greed or desire for financial gain). This understanding and compassionate nature is emphasized through the disruptive antics of their clients. In Kamome Shokudo, one of Sachie’s customers breaks into her café and tries to steal back his coffee machine and in Shiawase no Pan, Kaori becomes drunk during dinner and ends up making a ruckus in the dead of night. In The Chef of South polar, Nishimura has to break up a dispute between two of the men as they become more agitated over their living situation. Nonetheless, the chefs do not judge them and serve them like everyone else. We can assume this is because the chefs understand them better than anyone else.

Chefs as Therapists


Sachie makes for her (seen in figure 3). The effect this meal had on Midori is telling. Although she appears strong on the outside, in reality she is homesick and tasting the dish reminds her of this. In Rinko’s Restaurant, Rinko also makes a variety of foods but this is because she studied intensely in hopes of opening her own restaurant. Although Rinko makes some pretty elaborate foods in comparison to Sachie, Rie, and Nao, she still has an air of simplicity to it. Her restaurant is relatively plain and she does not go out of her way to make it seem fancy. She simply makes food that she knows that her customers will enjoy. The first meal she makes is for Aosu and it is an easy curry dish. After he eats it, he too begins to cry like Midori in Kamome Shokudo and breaks down about his familial problems (seen in figure 4). In Shiawase no Pan, Rie and Nao both make food for their customers, but Nao’s bread seems to be what is bringing people together. When an old couple comes to visit the café in the winter, it is a simple bean bread that strikes a spark in their dull lives. Over this meal, they are able to confess the problems and worries they have had over time and by the end of their stay, they leave with a new sense of purpose in their lives (seen in figure 5). Nishimura’s cooking is able to keep the sanity of his group intact after the long days in Antarctica starts to threaten it. During one night, one of the men visits Nishimura and tells him that he is not feeling well. Nishimura tells him he should go visit the doctor, but instead the man tells him that he has been craving ramen. It was that


Figure 3 Midori after tasting a meal Sachie prepares for her in Kamome Shokuo


Figure 5 An elderly couple eating the bread Nao prepares for them in Shiawase no Pan


Chapter 3: Magic and The Supernatural


in particular magical ingredients, to affect the lives of their consumers. Through these means, many of those who eat the food prepared by the chefs are transformed or cured through the experience.

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a term that for years has been controversial to define but finds its origins in Latin America literature. The term was first used by art critic Franz Roh to describe work emerging from the post-expressionist period in 1925. He explains that “with the word "magical," as opposed to "mystical," he wished to emphasize that "the mystery does not descend to the represented world but rather hides and palpitates behind it” (Leal 120). In Luis Leal’s essay, Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature, Leal defines and argues what can and cannot be labeled as magical realism amongst it being confused with surrealists, fantastic literature, or psychological literature. Leal argues that it is not even “magic literature” because magical literature is supposed to express emotions and not evoke them. Leal states that “in magical realism the writer confronts reality and tries to untangle it, to discover what is mysterious in things, in life, in human acts (121). Although often this was explored through literature, I will be discussing magical realism within film, specifically in the way food provokes magical reactions within the consumers.


Tita is the youngest of three daughters, which unfortunately for her means that she cannot marry and must take care of her mother until she dies according to an old family tradition. Due to this tradition, Tita’s mother does not allow her to marry her love Pedro, but instead offers Pedro to marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura. Pedro agrees to the marriage to be closer to Tita, but one could imagine the emotional distress this caused Tita.

Like Water for Chocolate is set in the 1900s during the Mexican revolution. It is important to note the historical context of this film because historically, magical realism emerges during times of crisis in Latin America. In The Spirit of Carnival: Magical Realism and the Grotesque, Danow describes the difference between carnival and carnivalesque. According to Danow, carnival is a period of celebration of a “world in travesty” (Danow 3). This is a time where the rules and values of the dominant culture are no longer held as the norm. A change in society that produces a rift in order, leaving chaos and a sense of distortion, can be coped with via escapism. Carnivalesque is essentially carnival in the literary form. It “regards the supernatural as natural, takes fiction as truth, and makes the extraordinary or ‘magical’ as viable a possibility as the ordinary or ‘real’” (Danow 3). In Like Water for Chocolate, in the very first scene when Tita is born, an event that is generally ordinary quickly turns into the extraordinary. The water that was produced from the birth dries up by the sun to form a large amount of salt that was later used for cooking.


discourses in third world countries, while postmodernism is a problem within first world countries. Furthermore, it could be problematic to create a first world iteration of magical realism for a country like Japan, that is largely capitalistic (Bingham). He offers that the complexity of defining and designating what is “magical realism,” and gives it a socio-political valency that offers a different perspective in the context of cinema. Bingham uses film, specifically ones that show the urban vs. rural dichotomy as an example of the first world iteration of magical realism. One film that he mentions, The Bird People in China (1998), tells the story of a man’s journey from Tokyo to a rural village in China. This movement from the urban to rural landscape is a common opposition to modernity that I discuss in chapter 1. Bingham quotes Stephen Rawle as seeing magical realism as a reaction against postmodernism. In my opinion, I see magical realism as further escape from a less-than-ideal reality. As Danow notes in his essay, a “possible mode of self-preservation is to engage in the realm of the creative imagination”, meaning in order to cope with the harshness of life, you distort it and reconstruct it into something fantastic (70).


extraordinary thing. Instead, food becomes one of the only links to normalcy within the film. The lives of the characters are chaotic and all over the place and the only scenes we see them behaving like a typical family and enjoying the moment is when they are sharing a cup of tea together (seen in figure 8).

The Taste of Tea, like the previous Japanese films I have discussed, was made immediately after the Lost Decade, a time of economic and social crisis that left a sense of melancholy and pessimism in urban Japan. Given the conditions of the time, it is not surprising if someone wanted to escape their situation, and what better way to accomplish this through magic and the realm of the imagination?

Chefs as Magicians

Whether the “magic” we witness from the four films I have chosen lie within the chefs or food itself, it is impossible not to feel a sort of extraordinary air arising in the films. Magic can be said to also explain the healing that occurs in the films when considering all other elements (companionship and nature) is just not enough. Wherever the magic is located, chefs become a focal point of the source since they themselves could be magical in nature or simply just produce the magic: the food. Regardless, they are important agents. As we saw in Like Water for


pain. In contrast to Tita’s ability to make others feel her emotions, the chefs in the four films I have chosen helps their customers and clients express their own emotions and ultimately heal through the consumption of the food they prepare for them.

The presence of magic is easier to detect in Rinko’s Restaurant, but it is obvious that it is used in each film to cause or provide the most conducive (and congenial) conditions for healing. Rinko blatantly states that the miso her grandmother leaves behind is “magical,” which is why Rinko is always seen carrying it around with her. This results in Rinko’s restaurant becoming a magical place where dreams come true because once someone tastes her food, their wish or desire seems to come true. The first time that we witness the magic of Rinko’s food occurs when she serves her first customer Aosu. When Aosu consumes Rinko’s dish, he immediately starts to cry and we learn that he has been estranged from his family for years. However, a day or so after he eats Rinko’s meal, he receives a call from his former wife wanting to reconnect with him. Instances of magic are subtler in the other three films because they have a more realistic feel. However, it is unlikely that each character’s individual healing could occur without the aid of something else, perhaps a little bit of magic.


food becomes a link to reality when it is threatened by the extreme conditions the men are undergoing.

Magical Ingredients/Transformations

If the magic is within the food itself, a tangible object for the supernatural and fantastic, then it is easy to see the transformative properties of the food being consumed. In Like Water for Chocolate, the physical reactions caused by food are clearly seen by the viewers. From people crying uncontrollably from sadness to burning up from the heat of passion, Tita’s food provokes these reactions. Similar to this occurrence, is the bodily rejection or problem with digesting food in the film. Tita’s sister Rosaura suffers from digestive problems in the latter half of the film that ultimately leads to her death. I am not insinuating that Tita’s cooking is what slowly killed Rosaura, but it is important to note that Tita and Rosaura are contrasted throughout the film. Rosaura is an upholder of tradition and familial values while Tita is seen as a reversal of it. Rosaura rejects change, so perhaps her problems with digestion stems with her inability to cope with the shift in social order, as well as her failure as a mother and wife.


These magical ingredients are also a connection to the past. Sachie in Kamome Shokudo often links onigiri as “Japanese soul food” and rightfully so because it is a meal that is typically first introduced to Japanese people as children. Japanese mothers prepare onigiri as an easy snack or lunch that their children can take with them to eat at school. Miso, which Rinko attributes to the magic of her dishes, is used in various Japanese foods, the most notable being miso soup. Miso soup is also a flavor that can transcend one’s mind back to childhood, as the taste of miso soup differs by the many combinations of various types of miso and ingredients used to make the soup. These ingredients may not seem extraordinary, but a single bite or taste of them can provoke a range of emotions that can change the entire deposition of a person, and is that not magical in nature?



Figure 7 Sachiko and the "big version" of herself in The Taste of Tea



In the last three chapters, I discussed three reoccurring themes that were prevalent in the films I had chosen: nature, companionship, and magic. These themes, along with a hearty meal, seemed to be enough to help those in need of healing. In this last chapter, I will talk about a hidden theme that works almost simultaneously with the other three: memory. Memory,


Memory itself is very malleable and can be unreliable at times. The accuracy of it certainly comes into question when we try to remember the past. How we remember and what we choose to remember reframes the memory, sometimes creating a false narrative that may have not been all it seemed. As we recalled, the time period preceding these films were the 1990s, which was a sensitive time in Japan. The Lost Decade is how it is often referred to, which brings up the question: what was lost? Family? Tradition? Values? Culture? If we combine all of these, it is an overall loss of a sense of connection with the past that leads to the pessimism and unhappiness felt by many citizens in Japan during this time period.


The problems that accompanied rural life are glossed over or not shown entirely in these films in order to create the image of a peaceful lifestyle free of the aftereffects of modernity. This life is desirable because it is thought to be able to heal and solve the issues of contemporary Japan, but in doing so this time period is being remembered differently. It creates a national memory that does not necessarily correlate with individual memory. National memory is a form of “collective memory”, which is memory shared by a nation. While individual memory is memory from personal experience. National memory is significant in establishing cultural identity because it highlights experiences that are shared within a specific group. In the case of these films, the country-side or the past is being collectively remembered as being harmonious, but also something unattainable in the present.

The main point that I want to bring up is the idea of remembering through food. What drives people to eat beyond the need to sustain are various reasons, one prominent one being comfort. You could try to eat your troubles away, or as seen in Proust’s Swann’s Way, you could let a particular meal transport you back to the past and relish in the rose-colored memory. This phenomenon is called involuntary memory, and although instances of it are quite subtle in these films, the concept still applies. Involuntary memory occurs when certain cues evoke memory without a deliberate effort like voluntary memory. The memory that is being recalled happens unexpectedly and is consuming. In Swann’s Way, this experience takes place after Proust takes a bite of a madeleine dipped in tea and is seemingly transported back in time to his childhood. The ability of food to invoke memory, perhaps not in its truest form, but as accurate as to the


Whether the past was actually as peaceful and carefree as it is portrayed in these films is subjective. What is certain however is that there is a sense of desire for change that is not for advancement. When reflecting on The Lost Decade, the problems stemmed from modernity and rapid modernization. In a quest for economic prosperity, there were consequences to be made and now that the damage has been done, all that is left to do is heal. These films offer the solution to healing and ultimately reviving a society by reclaiming what was lost and forgotten through food.

Works Cited

A Taste of Tea. Dir Katsuhito Ishii. Grasshoppa, 2004. Film.

Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 4, 1991, pp. 195–208. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.

Anne Allison, 2006. "New-Age Fetishes, Monsters, and Friends: Pokémon Capitalism at the

Millennium", Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life from the Recessionary 1990s to


Aoki, Reiko. “A Demographic Perspective on Japan's ‘Lost Decades.’” Population and

Development Review, vol. 38, 2013, pp. 103–112. JSTOR,

Bestor, Theodore C. "Washoku, Far and Near: UNESCO, Gastrodiplomacy, and the Cultural

Politics of Traditional Japanese Cuisine." Devouring Japan: Global Perspectives on

Japanese Culinary Identity.: Oxford University Press, April 19, 2018. Oxford

Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 15 Feb. 2019

Bingham, Adam. "Postmodernism and Magic Realism in Contemporary Japanese Cinema." Contemporary Japanese Cinema Since Hana-Bi. : Edinburgh University Press, January 21, 2016. University Press Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 14 Apr. 2020

< edinburgh/9780748683734.001.0001/upso-9780748683734-chapter-006>.

Danow, David. The Spirit of Carnival : Magical Realism and the Grotesque, University Press of Kentucky, 1995. ProQuest Ebook Central,


Glionna, John M. "Japan's New Fear." The Ottawa Citizen, Apr 25, 2011. ProQuest,


Goldstein-Gidoni, Ofra. “Consuming Domesticity in Post-Bubble Japan.” Consuming Life in Post-Bubble Japan: A Transdisciplinary Perspective, edited by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka and Ewa Machotka, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2018, pp. 107–128. JSTOR, Accessed 1 Apr. 2020.

Hertweck, Tom, ed. Food on Film: Bringing Something New to the Table. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Hoffman, Michael. “Japan Struggles to Keep Loneliness at Arm's Length.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times , 10 Nov. 2018,

Iwabuchi, Koichi. “Lost in TransNation: Tokyo and the Urban Imaginary in the Era of

Globalization.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, Dec. 2008, pp. 543–556.

EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/14649370802386446.

Kamome Diner. Dir. Naoko Ogigami. Nippon Television Network Corporation, 2006. Film.

Kawanishi, Yuko. “Mental Health Challenges Facing Contemporary Japanese Society : The


Keller, James R. Food, Film and Culture. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. BiblioBoard. Web.

14 Apr. 2020.

Like Water for Chocolate. Dir. Alfonso Arau. Miramax, 1992. Film.

Lindenfeld, Laura, and Fabio Parasecoli. "Introduction." Feasting Our Eyes: Food Films and

Cultural Identity in the United States.: Columbia University Press, September 21, 2017.

Columbia Scholarship Online. Date Accessed 13 Feb. 2019


Luis Leal. "Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature (1967)", Magical Realism: Theory,

History, Community, Edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora, Wendy B. Faris, 1995.

Prosser, Marc. “Searching For A Cure For Japan's Loneliness Epidemic.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 15 Aug. 2018,

Proust, M. Swann’s Way. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff. In Remembrance of Things Past. London: Chatto & Windus, 1922, pp. 52.

Rinko’s Restaurant. Dir. Mao Tominaga. Popular Publishing, 2010. Film.

Rosenberg, Eli. “The Troubling Case of the Young Japanese Reporter Who Worked Herself to Death.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Oct. 2017,


“Seniors Living Alone in Japan Topped 6 Million for First Time in 2015.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times, 13 July 2016,

Shiawase no Pan. Dir. Yukiko Mishima. Asmik Ace Entertainment, 2012. Film.

Tatsuya, Yumiyama, and 弓山達也 . “Varieties of Healing in Present-Day Japan.” Japanese

Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 22, no. 3/4, 1995, pp. 267–282.,

The Chef of South Polar. Dir. Shuichi Okita. Anaheim Entertainment, 2009. Film.

The Bird People in China. Dir. Takashi Miike. 1998. Film.

"The Tragic Story Behind Japan's Work Culture."ProQuest, Apr 26, 2019,


Theophil, Marguerite. “What Does 'Itadakimasu' Mean, Really?”, Speaking Tree, 6 Oct. 2017,

Tiwari, Sarvada Chandra. “Loneliness: A disease?.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 55,4 (2013): 320-2. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.120536






Related subjects :