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Publication Date : 24-12-2013
A 'washoku' film on the heels of the Unesco listing for traditional Japanese cuisine
Last weekend’s release of Bushi no Kondate (Recipes of a samurai) was perfectly timed, as the film about a samurai chef and his wife during the Edo period (1603-1867) features many traditional Japanese dishes that serve as the foundation of washoku, which was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list this month.
The film depicts members of the Funaki family, who descend from a long line of samurai who served as head chefs for the Kaga domain, mainly in current Ishikawa Prefecture. Popular actress Aya Ueto plays the role of the protagonist Haru, the wife of Funaki Yasunobu (Kengo Kora), who is next in line to serve as head of the family, although he lacks confidence in the family business.
The film illustrates dishes for all sorts of occasions—tai no karamushi (steamed sea bream stuffed with a mixture of okara bean-curd lees, pine nuts, ginkgo nuts, lotus root and others) for a wedding banquet; jibuni, which is a local stew containing duck meat or chicken, vegetables and sudare-fu (a type of wheat gluten) with soy sauce, sugar and other seasonings; and a massive banquet comprising numerous dishes on many trays, all cooked and served under strict protocol. In the film, the feast is held to celebrate the assumption of a new domain leader.
Highlighting Ishikawa Prefecture’s mountain and ocean delicacies, the cuisine is elaborately prepared on beautiful Kutaniyaki porcelain dishes, another local specialty.
The scene depicting the feast is one of the film’s most appealing moments, but even more brilliant is the smiling face of Haru and her sincere affection for her husband.
Haru has a superb palette and is a brilliant cook, but is divorced after a year of marriage because she is stubborn.
Funaki Dennai (Toshiyuki Nishida), the head chef for the Kaga domain, begs her to marry his son Yasunobu, and she agrees to do so. However, Yasunobu is a poor cook. Desperately, Haru begins teaching him.
“I practised cutting vegetables and fish before shooting started,” Ueto said. “The scales of crucian carp are as big as ohajiki (small glass discs used to play games), and they were flying through the air as I was descaling it. The bones are also really hard to cut. It’s a labourious task.”
Ueto said she likes to make Japanese cuisine at home on a regular basis. Of the dishes featured in the film, her favourite was kabocha no itoko ni, chunks of pumpkin stewed with boiled red beans.
“You can make it sweet and tasty just by putting boiled red beans on the pumpkin before stewing. It’s not difficult,” she said.
A similar film in 2010 about the everyday life of a samurai accountant, Bushi no Kakeibo (Family bookkeeping of a samurai), was also set in the domain. Both films were produced by Shochiku Co.
For the new film, a script was written based on the real lives of Yasunobu and Dennai, who both wrote recipe books.
The film was directed by Yuzo Asahara, best known for his Tsuri Baka Nisshi (Diary of a fishing maniac) series of fishing comedies.
“I tend to see women in Japanese period dramas supporting men behind the scenes. But Haru is different,” Ueto said. “I’ve never played a woman who is outspoken toward men like that. I enjoyed the role.”
In the beginning of the film, Yasunobu cannot take pride in his work, and Haru is unable to communicate with him well.
A scene depicting the couple walking all the way across the Noto Peninsula in search of fine ingredients also impressively captures the harsh but beautiful nature on the coast of the Sea of Japan.
“Haru has a strong sense of duty," Ueto said. “Also, in one scene, she’s in tears as she cuts pumpkin after learning about her husband’s past. Usually the storyline goes to a kind of ‘Ah, today’s pumpkin is salty.’ But she is told by family members that the pumpkin she made is softer, flakier and tastier than usual. That’s the warmth of this film. The importance of dining, marital love, and affection and consideration among family members—this film is full of these moments.”
A Tokyo native, Ueto was born in 1985.
She made her debut after obtaining the judges’ special choice prize at an all-Japan beauty contest. She won the Japan Academy Prize for best leading actress in Azumi (2003). She also had major roles in such recent films as Thermae Romae (2012) and Oshin (2013), and in the NHK TV drama Itsuka Hi no Ataru Basho de (Someday, somewhere under the sun) this year.
Earlier this year, Ueto also appeared in the popular TV drama Hanzawa Naoki, from which the key line “Baigaeshi Da! (It’s payback time, and you’d better be ready to pay twice the price!) became very popular. She was excellent as Hana, the wife of the protagonist, a bank worker who overcomes many challenges under buck-passing superiors. In the drama, she always provides her husband with gentle encouragement.
“Its ratings had doubled by the end [of the drama], too. I just want to thank all the people who watched it,” Ueto said with a cheerful smile.
The film, in Japanese, is now showing at Shinjuku Piccadilly in Tokyo and many other theatres across the nation.