A Tale of Samurai Cooking - A True Love Story (Bushi no Kondate): Film Review

"A Tale of Samurai Cooking" Film Partners
An unflashy three-act romance-drama meal spiced with a smattering of ill-placed political intrigue.

Yuzo Asahara offers an alternative take on the samurai genre with a story revolving around the relationship between a gastronomically gifted young woman and her frustrated, fighter-minded husband working as a chef in a warlord clan.

If the original title of Yuzo Asahara's latest offering is open for some alternative interpretations -- "Bushi no Kondate", literally translating as "The Samurai's Menu," could also be seen as an allusion to a programming of a Japanese warrior's life -- the English version, especially the subtitle, leaves no room in pointing to the film's core. While boasting abundant depictions of gallantry and gourmet, A Tale of Samurai Cooking -- A True Love Story is essentially a romance drama revolving around a gastronomically gifted young woman's efforts in wringing affections and achievements from her distant, self-pitying junior cook of a husband.

Featuring an understated performance from Aya Ueto -- whose role here as a supportive wife of a struggling careerist could be seen as a dialed-down take of her turn in the hit contemporary-set TV series Hanzawa Naoki -- A Tale of Samurai Cooking is a warm and serviceable piece which could easily appeal to international palates, as Asahara (and his screenwriters Michio Kashiwada and Yukiko Yamamuro) steers clear of injecting the histrionics and hysterical humor which sometimes relegate Japanese feature dramas to TV-film status.

Having already bowed at the now commonplace "culinary cinema" sidebars in the festival circuit -- a premiere at San Sebastian was followed last month with a slot in Berlin last month -- the film, which was screened at the Tokyo festival before opening at home in December, will possibly secure interest in East Asian markets (the film is released in Hong Kong, a city with plenty of sushi-sashimi lovers, on April 3) and maybe a niche/home video release beyond the region.

Asahara's film is the latest in line of a stuttering stream of Japanese films looking at the lives of samurai beyond the common caricatures of stoic, sword-wielding superheroes: Yoji Yamada's 2006 film Love and Honor -- the final installment of a trilogy featuring low-ranking samurais struggling for their physical and spiritual well-being -- has at its center the tragic fallout of a fighter's job as a food-taster for his feudal lord. In fact, Samurai Cooking was largely seen as a loose follow-up of Yoshimitsu Morita's 2010 film Abacus and Sword, with which Asahara's film shares a screenwriter (Kashiwada), a setting (the Kaga domain) and a theme (the significance of specialist backroom staff in a ruling clan, with Morita's central character being a bookkeeper).

In a way, Samurai Cooking is similar to Abacus and Sword in its contemplation about an alternative manifestation of masculinity in the world of bushido -- and it's perhaps unsurprising that Asahara's protagonist, Haru (Ueto), first springs to prominence when she manages to correctly point out how modest wheat gluten could be transformed into high-sounding dishes like "mock crane" or used to spice up duck meat. Originally a lowly maid, the young woman finds herself married to Yasunobu Dennai (Kengo Kora, Millennium Rapture) at the behest of his father, the Maeda warlord clan's head chef Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida, A Ghost of A Chance); the aim of the link-up is to see Haru helping Yasunobu improve his culinary skills so that he could one day take up the familial mantle.

But it's an uphill battle for all involved: the young man was entirely unreceptive of spending his life in the kitchen, with his passion being in fencing and one day becoming a proper warrior -- and it's a fascination which poisons his view towards the arranged marriage with Haru, as he constructs for himself a chauvinist veneer (all women are like taros, he would say, "because you peel them and they're all the same"). Inevitably, friction morphs into frisson as the pair slowly and bumpily bond, with Haru striving to help Yasunobu perfect his cooking skills and then also saving him by undermining his attempt in joining a revolt against the conservative rulers of the realm.

The latter stream is set in motion obviously so as to heighten Haru's self-sacrificial traits and also to give the whole narrative a more historically relevant sheen (the quashed rebellion did happen for real, and is now known as the "Kaga Disturbance"; surviving that episode, the Funakis would eventually serve the Kaga daimyos until the end of feudalism in the 19th century, leaving behind several tomes of highly-priced recipes which sit within the Japanese national vaults today). But it's a thread which the screenplay has struggled to resolve fully, especially in Yasunobu's reconciliation with the regime which murdered many of his like-minded progressive friends and associates.

Fortunately for Asahara, this flawed grafting of hard politics into a soft romantic drama never threatens to debunk the whole premise altogether; employing much restraint in driving the story forward and also in developing the relationship between the leading couple -- and also in not resorting to the usual comic antics in films involving cooking contests and culinary connoisseurs --  the director has steered clear of introducing unnecessary ingredients into what is essentially a film of temperate taste. Supplemented by unflashy turns from a supporting cast -- especially from veterans Nishida and Kimiko Yo, who received a recommendation at the Japanese Academy Awards for her supporting role as Yasunobu's mother -- and Tetsuo Harada's engaging production design, A Tale of Samurai Cooking conjures a warm broth of a film.

Production Company: "A Tale of Samurai Cooking" Film Partners, in a Shochiku Films presentation

Director: Yuzo Asahara

Cast: Aya Ueto, Kengo Kora, Kimiko Yo, Toshiyuki Nishida

Producers: Junichi Sakomoto, Hidekazu Tobita

Screenwriters: Michio Kashiwada, Yukiko Yamamuro, Yuzo Asahara

Director of Photography: Yukihiro Okimura

Art Director: Tetsuo Harada

Editor: Kazuhide Ishijima

Music: Taro Iwashiro

International Sales: Shochiku Films

In Japanese

No rating, 121 minutes

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