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Food-themed festival serves up tasty films to chew on

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Cinephile foodies, rejoice: The Tokyo Gohan Film Festival kicks off Oct. 6 and runs through Oct. 21. Now in its third year — and with a spinoff event in Osaka held Oct. 6-14 — it’s a showcase of films all related to food. Not just one, lonesome movie such as “Dinner Rush” (though that’s included in the program, hooray!), but a collection of 15 works from Japan and abroad in which food appears as a character, a pivotal prop, or a proud centerpiece. There will also be live music and, of course, plenty to eat.

Some of the films aren’t about food at all (like “Marie Antoinette”), but seen from this festival angle, you start to notice the gastronomical details. A sliver of roasted pheasant here. A plate of macaroons there. Never mind the Manolo Blahnik shoes, what did Antoinette choose for her breakfast dish?

In Japan, gohan (meaning, rice and/or meals) and films have traditionally made great marriages. The biggie, of course, is Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” (1985), which is said to have revolutionized Japanese ramen.

A similar phenomenon happens in “Pengin Fufu no Tsukurikata” (“How to Make a Penguin Couple”), which will premier at the festival ahead of its Oct. 20 opening. Based on the real-life story of a Japanese photographer and her Chinese entrepreneur husband, in it a couple move from Tokyo to Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island to start a rāyu (red chilli oil) business.

Handmade, hand bottled and crafted entirely from local and organic ingredients, the brand went national. Since then, rāyu has been promoted from mere condiment to a side dish with distinction, excellent for pairing with rice, pasta, salads and most anything else. Directed by Katsutoshi Hirabayashi, “Pengin Fufu no Tsukurikata” traces the couple’s uniquely adventurous journey.

If you missed “El Bulli — Cooking in Progress” when it opened here last year (as “Eru Buri no Himitsu”), the festival has picked it up. It’s a wondrous documentary about the kitchen goings-on of Spain’s El Bulli — one of the finest restaurants in the world, where it was all but impossible to get a reservation; 2 million requests poured in every year for just 45 seats. This became exacerbated by the restaurant’s annual ritual of closing down during the winter months so the staff could work on new recipes. El Bulli shut its doors permanently in 2011, but chef Feran Adrià will go down in history as one of the world’s culinary wonders.

“Films and food naturally go together,” says Mari Kojima of the Tokyo Gohan Film Festival. “I’ve noticed that many filmmakers, whether they’re from Japan or overseas, are gourmands, and the subject of food often comes up in their conversations.”

Kojima’s personal festival favorite is the late Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia,” also showing at the festival.

Cinema food calls for cinema food stylists. Take Nami Iijima, the undisputed catering queen of Japanese cinema, who got her big break when she worked on the set of festival pick “Kamome Shokudo (Kamome Diner)” in 2005.

In the film, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) opens a diner in Helsinki and is later joined by two other women (Masako Motai and Hairi Katagiri). The trio make and serve what Sachie refers to as “Japanese soul food” — tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets), korokke (potato croquettes) and onigiri (rice balls). Iijima cooked every single dish.

“Kamome Shokudo” was a raging sleeper hit, and many directors have since lined up to get Iijima to come work on their own sets, wielding her famous frying pan in one hand and a rice cooker in the other.

Food in films can also be a call for awareness. French documentary “Nos Enfants Nous Accuseront” (Japan title: “Mirai no Shokutaku”) tells the story of a district council in the South of France that decided to use organic vegetables on its school cafeteria menus, and to deliver organic meals to the elderly. The English title, “That Should Not Be: Our Children Will Accuse Us,” says it all, and the documentary shows with alarming immediacy how the links connecting people, food and farmland have frayed and corroded.

Cinema buff Mitsuyuki Amano says that food could turn out to be the “final frontier. Almost everything else can be produced on a digital screen but with food, someone has to actually do the cooking, and it actually has to look good. When the food looks good, the movie does too.”

The Tokyo Gohan Film Festival runs Oct. 6-21 at Shibuya’s Image Forum and other venues around Tokyo; the Osaka spinoff is held Oct. 6-14 in Nakanoshima, with a different program. For more information, visit www.tokyogohan.com or www.osaka-nakanoshimagohan.com.