Nippon Connection got off to a delicious start last night with Shūichi Okita’s The Chef of the South Pole (Nankyoku ryōrinin, 2009). The film is a visual feast for the eyes and joins the likes of Babette’s Feast (Babettes gæstebud, Gabriel Axel, 1987), Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate, Alfonso Arau, 1992), Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1985) and Eat Drink Man Woman (Yin shin an nu, Ang Lee, 1994) as one of my top ten food themed films of all time.
The film is adapted from the autobiographical writings of Jun Nishimura (b. 1952), a chef from Rumoi, Hokkaido. Nishimura served with the Japanese Coast Guard and was a member of both the 30th Antarctic Exploration in 1989 and the 38th Antarctic Exploration in 1997. His essay Omoshiro Nankyoku Ryōnin received high critical praise for its wit in depicting the everyday life of a group of men living in close quarters cut off from civilization for more than 400 days.
Life at Dome Fuji is filled with equal measures of hard work, good times, heartache and homesickness. Throughout it all, Nishimura’s cooking sustains, and at times confounds, the men. The character of Nishimura is played by Masato Sakai (b. 1973), who won my respect at Nippon Connection last year for his brilliantly understated comedic performance in Two in Tracksuits (2008). Sakai is the master of subtle expression, and his comedic talents are balanced by an amusingly diverse cast of characters who deal with their isolation from home comforts in a variety of ways: the doctor (Kosuke Toyohara) decides to train for a triathlon in undershorts, mittens, and boots in the freezing cold on a bicycle, taichō (Kitarō ) goes hilariously balmy when the station runs out ramen, and the chief of the station (Kanji Furuda) longs for long hot times in the bathroom due to the rationing of water.
One has to suspend one’s disbelief a little at some of the outdoor behaviour at temperatures ranging from highs in the -50s (Celsius, of course, for any Americans reading) to lows in the -70s. I didn’t get a chance to examine the credits thoroughly to see exactly where in Hokkaido the film was shot, but Hokkaido, while heavy on the snow, does not get such extreme temperatures. As the dialogue points out, it’s even too cold for any kawaii doubutsu (cute animals) like penguins and seals. It is most likely that scarves would have been worn over faces at such temperatures, but of course that would not really be ideal cinematographically, and the men all look quite cute bundled up in colourful snowsuits with only their faces showing.
The slow scenes, often unaccompanied by any music, are contrasted with amusing outdoor scenes. Particularly amusing is the scene in which the researchers pose against brilliant blue skies to the score of Ride of the Valkyries (see example in the trailer). Cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa (Loft, Tokyo Sonata) has a great eye for framing. The food scenes were arranged by Nami Iijima, who also worked with Naoko Ogigami on Kamome Shokudō (2006) and Megane (2007).
If it were any other film, I might criticize it for its slow pacing; however, in this film I believe that Okita was trying to convey a sense of what the characters are feeling as their countdown to going home to their families slowly ticks by. Okita has managed to finely balance comedy with pathos, times of harmony with times of discord, and moments of stillness with moments of action. With this being only his second attempt at a feature film, one has the sense that the future is bright for this graduate of the Japan University College of Art.
Directed by Shūichi OKITA
Written by Shūichi OKITA
Based on the writings of Jun NISHIMURA
Nishimura-san = Masato SAKAI
Moto-san = Katsuhito NAMASE
Taichō = Kitarō
Niiyan = Kengo KOURA
Doctor = Kosuke TOYOHARA
Miyuki Nishimura = Naomi NISHIDA
Shunin (Chief) = Kanji FURUDA
Bon = Daisuke KURODA
Yuka Nishimura = Karin ONO
Shimizu-san (the KDD Operator) = Kiori KOIDE
Original Soundtrack (Yoshiharu Abe & UNICORN)
© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2010