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Friday, Feb. 12, 2010
Dining on magical realism
Special to The Japan Times
Movies about women in crisis who find their mojo through the restaurant/food business are a thriving subgenre in Japanese films, from Naoko Ogigami's Japanese-soul-food-in-Helsinki hit "Kamome Shokudo" ("Seagull Restaurant," 2006) to Mitsuhiro Mihara's "Shiawase no Kaori" ("Flavor of Happiness," 2008) and Akira Ogata's "Nonchan Noriben" (2009).
The heroines of these films, even the talented cooks, undergo an arduous struggle before they can make it as a professional. (All, for some reason, learn tricks of the trade from brusque, if kindly, older men, from how to make a decent cup of coffee to a picture-perfect set lunch.) That is, the narrative arc is that of dozens of local zero-to-hero dramadies.
Mai Tominaga, an award-winning animator who made her feature debut in 2006 with the delightfully fairy-tale-ish "Wool 100 %," uses this arc in her latest film, "Shokudo Katatsumuri" ("Rinco's Restaurant"), but bends it in an imaginatively different direction.
Her heroine, Rinco (Kou Shibasaki), loved cooking as a girl and, once she moved from the boondocks to the big city, trained in various cuisines before opening a curry joint with her then boyfriend, an unnamed gent of South Asian origin. Then one fine day, the boyfriend up and left, taking everything Rinco owned save a few odds and ends, including a pot filled with delicious pickles made with her grandmother's secret recipe.
All this is told in a cute, clever animated musical sequence that lasts maybe all of three minutes. When the story proper starts, Rinco is back home, mute from the shock of her sudden loss and looking woebegone indeed. Her mom, the flamboyant proprietor of a bar for local eccentrics, barely notices the arrival of her bedraggled daughter: All she can think about is her lovely pet piglet, named Hermes.
Undiscouraged by this indifference, Rinco decides to open a small restaurant in what looks to be a glorified toolshed on her mother's property. On hand to help is Kuma-san (Brother Tom), a friendly giant who has known her since childhood, but her business prospects would appear to be nil.
Here is where the film goes promisingly off the rails. Rinco, we see, has a gift for divining what dishes best suit her customers psychologically and spiritually. Her curry, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, sends Kuma-san on a tear-streaked journey of remembrance. Later her multicourse dinner of sinful delights, ending with a scrumptious- looking chocolate cake, transforms a desiccated granny with one mournful foot in the grave into a vibrant, life-loving woman.
This gift, which takes the film into the territory of magical realism, poses a dilemma for Tominaga and scriptwriter Hiroko Takai: What does their miracle-working heroine do from here — recruit disciples and preach to the multitudes?
Instead of ramping up Rinco's story to biblical proportions, however, the film keeps it on a humbler, quirkier course derived from Ito Ogawa's eponymous novel. There are further small crises and triumphs at the restaurant, but the focus of the story shifts to Rinco's troubled relationship with her wacky, neglectful mom, as well as to charged encounters between Rinco and an old school friend (Hikari Mitsushima) as well as Mom's old flame (Tomokazu Miura).
This isn't much to occupy more than an hour of screen time and, despite an all-out performance by Kou Shibasaki as Rinco (she even prepared all the scrumptious- looking dishes herself), the film starts to drift in its second half, as the wonder slowly fades out of the story.
The heroine doesn't change or grow in the usual ways — such as a sudden bursting into speech — or in a more unusual way either. She starts as a shy, odd woman with an amazing gift — and that's the way she stays.
Tominaga finessed a similar structural problem in "Wool 100 %" with her abundant visual imagination, but in "Shokudo Katsumuri" she is working closer to her source material, while truly letting herself off the leash only in the film's opening minutes.
This fidelity may please the book's fans, but it became rather tiresome to this nonfan, save when the food appeared and the characters devoured it with unfeigned joy. If the acting thing doesn't work out, Shibasaki can host her own cooking show — or go into the restaurant business. I would be the first in line, with or without the spiritual healing.