By Diana Cheng
For Asian American Press
CALGARY (Oct. 13, 2016) — In Koreeda Hirokazu’s newest film “After the Storm” (2016, Oi Promotion, Japan/Film Movment, USA) screened in recent film festivals, we see food is a mainstay, no matter how tumultuous the circumstance his characters are in. Indeed, the Cannes Film Festival winning Japanese director loves to show his actors preparing meals, indulging in food.
Here’s the story in “After the Storm.” Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) used to be an award-winning author. But for years he has not produced any more works. Divorced from his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and sorely missing his 9 year-old son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyo), Ryota is laden with gambling debts and months behind in his child support payments. The once successful writer is now at the lowest point in his life. During one stormy night when a fierce typhoon hits, coincidentally he, his wife and son all happen to be present in his mother Yoshiko’s (Kiki Kilin) small unit in a housing project. They inevitably have to stay overnight under one roof to wait for the storm to pass.
The unexpected reunion, though awkward, is probably gratifying for every one of them. The broken, dysfunctional family has got a chance to reunite, ex-husband and wife get to talk, Grandma can interact with grandson Shingo, who gets to stay under one roof with all the people he loves. Koreeda is, alas, a realist. Life is full of disappointments. However close they have come to bonding once again, the moment is short-lived. But the reminiscence and dynamics of the small family’s once intimate relationship regurgitates enough to spark off a renewal for Ryota.
How does food come into play? At the beginning of the film, we see the unkempt Ryota stop by a noodle place to eat on his own. Interesting to note that these ‘fast food’ Japanese eateries do not offer seats. Patrons hold their bowl of noodles, slurp them up quickly, all while standing up. In no time, the meal is done and they are on their way.
But during the impromptu reunion in his mother’s cramped unit on the night of the storm, we see food is the ingredient that warms and binds. Once knowing they would have to stay in her home for the night to wait out the storm, Yoshiko quickly goes to the fridge and gets anything that she can find to prepare a good meal for all of them. She cooks noodles, with whatever ingredients she has on hand, and opens a new jar of pickled delicacy she has saved up for them to enjoy. Unlike eating on-the-go, that night, Ryota can sit down with his family once again and eat a proper meal.
Food is the sustenance not just for the physical body, but a crucial ingredient in bonding relationships. Director Koreeda is unabashed in shooting his characters close-up eating. Those who have seen his previous film “Our Little Sister” (2015) would have been gratified sumptuously, not that the food needs to be elaborate.
The Palme d’Or nominee at Cannes Film Festival last year, “Our Little Sister” is about three adult sisters discovering a much younger step-sister after their estranged father’s death. Touched by her calm maturity and youthfulness, they welcome her into their home to live with them.
To prepare the four actors for their roles as sisters and get them to bond with each other, Koreeda gathered them the day before in the house where the shoot would take place and had them cook and eat together. Koreeda sure knew how bonding took place.
At the beginning of the film, a scene when two of the sisters traveling on the train to the funeral of their estranged father, we see them each hold a bento box, and with their chopsticks, pick up the food items and savor them as they chat, sharing their thoughts. Koreeda must have known too that eating is a natural form of stage business for actors while they talk to each other.
Often in the film, we see the sisters cook and prepare meals together, their relationship grow through these activities. There are scenes of them making plum wine, their family tradition, shots of frying tempuras, boiling noodles. In one scene where a rare talk with their estranged mother takes place, the camera closes up on the profile of eldest sister as she holds up a large piece of steamed bun with her chopsticks, lifting it high for us all to see, then slowly pushing it into her wide-opened mouth. In an interview at Cannes Film Festival, one of the actors said that they had gained weight while shooting the film. An occupational hazard working under Koreeda?
One can readily ponder the role of food as a cultural ingredient in Koreeda’s films, and many other Asian movies for that matter. I don’t have a ready statistic on hand, or know if anyone has done such research, but I do find meal preparation and casual eating often play a more major role in Asian films than in Western movies, and in Koreeda’s works in particular. As for the movie goer, my suggestion is not to go to the theatre to see his films on an empty stomach. Or, maybe do go on an empty stomach, you just might feel more gratified.