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Friday, Nov. 20, 2009

'Tsumuji Kaze Shokudo no Yoru'

Hokkaido food for thought has a surrealistic side dish

Take a quaint European-looking restaurant in a quiet Hokkaido town in the dead of winter. Add quirky regulars who are treated to nightly disquisitions, philosophical and otherwise, by the avuncular owner of a local hat shop. Toss in scrumptious- looking "set menus" of steaks, croquettes and other Western- style comfort food.

Tsumuji Kaze Shokudo no Yoru Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Opposites attract: Norito Yashima and Sarara Tsukifune make for an unusual pairing in "Tsumuji Kaze Shokudo no Yoru," which is set in Hokkaido. © 2009 "TSUMUJI KAZE SHOKUDO NO YORU" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Running time: 84 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Nov. 21, 2009
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Does this sound like a recipe for another heart-warming Japanese film on good cooking and life's Big Problems, with the latter solved by the former?

Partly, but director Tetsuo Shinohara ("Manatsu no Orion," "Metro ni Notte") gives this by-now familiar material, based on a novel by Atsuhiro Yoshida, a dry-eyed, even contrarian spin in "Tsumuji Kaze Shokudo no Yoru" ("The Night of Whirlwind Restaurant").

Rather than hymn the glories of the imagination, his hero, a hardworking writer and self-described "rainfall researcher" (Norito Yashima), is wary of its flights, which he associates with flimflammery. Also, though living in a spacious apartment, decorated in a cozy, retro style, he is just another lonely guy who knows that his lack of height and looks make him a long-shot in the race for romance.

But when he wanders into the aforementioned restaurant one blustery evening, he feels a pull he can't quite explain or resist. Willingly or not, he has found his new spiritual home.

The culinary delights are a big reason why he keeps coming back, of course — just as they are in many a Japanese foodie movie. More important, however, are the regulars, beginning with Sakurada (Atomu Shimjo), the hat-shop guy, who smilingly strolls about that first night, drawing out the other customers on their dream destination in the world. His own choice is Copenhagen — and he produces a pedometerlike gadget that he says will whisk him there, as if by magic.

The writer (who remains nameless) is inclined to scoff — until Sakurada leaves and the writer sees him, out the window, walking along the seashore, with the snow falling. Since the town is land-locked, he must be at the North Sea, near Copenhagen, mustn't he?

Soon the writer is carrying a similar gadget, which doesn't work as advertised — and reminiscing about his magician father (Katsuhisa Namase), whose tricks delighted him as a boy — but made him all-too aware that appearances are not reality.

Then Nanatsu (Sarara Tsukifune), a sharp-tongued actress who is another regular, corners him and asks him, eyes blazing, to write a lead role for her in his next script. Will she, we start speculating, also take a lead role in his life?

Playing the writer, stage and TV veteran Yashima resists geeking up the character to get easy laughs. Instead, he is wary and prickly, as befitting a smart, if socially inept, guy who is used to being patronized and ignored, especially by the opposite sex, but doesn't like it. At the same time, he is his father's son, who has fond memories of magic — and regrets its absence in his present-day life.

The other characters are more like Dickensian caricatures than the bundle-of-contradictions hero. The stand-out is Nanatsu, played by former Takarazuka (all-women revue) otokoyaku (male-role specialist) Sarara Tsukifune as a scary/funny combination of violent mood swings, from glowering irritability to glowing exaltation. Confronted with her volatility, the overwhelmed writer looks as though he is standing in a wind tunnel while being zapped by lasers. But her interest in him and his work is also burningly sincere. He can't help being flattered — and attracted.

Filmed in picturesque parts of Hokkaido, "Tsumuji Kaze" has a gift-shop postcard look, with everything looking more old-timey and Westernized than the usual Japanese cityscape. Also, its speculations about time, space and reality are hardly new or deep. But the relationship between the writer and Nanatsu develops more from the logic of their characters than the necessities of the plot, culminating in a just-right, zinger of an ending.

Or maybe it was Nanatsu mesmerizing me with those huge eyes (that can also turn into gimlets) and the gale force of her personality. The "whirlwind" in this film is not just kicking up snow.

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