At the risk of sounding unpatriotic, Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” remains on my list of least favorite movies. I’m in good company — every woman I know dislikes it, and the passing of the film’s star, Setsuko Hara (at 95 years old), in September was observed by the media with understated obituaries. But then Hara — known as Japan’s “eternal virgin” because she never married — shunned the spotlight during the latter half of her career and disappeared altogether at the age of 43, when she deemed herself too old for the screen.
Hara played daughters, wives and widows (in that order) and generally epitomized the ideal of Japanese womanhood, which involves mainly toiling in the house, caring for the family and having no fun whatsoever. This especially came to the fore in “Tokyo Story” when Hara played the hard-working, uncomplaining young war widow Noriko.
Outside Japan, “Tokyo Story” has been lauded, mainly by generations of Western male critics. But inside the confines of the archipelago, Japanese women were united in a collective “give me a break.” Thankfully, the women of this country have moved on and so have Japanese movies — though they still lag several meters behind.
“Hana-chan no Misoshiru” (“Hana’s Miso Soup”) will open nationwide on Jan. 9 and though at first glance it has some of the trappings of a classic story of Japanese womanhood — sweet, smiling mom, adorable daughter and somewhat clueless dad — it has a lot of pointers that demonstrate how far Japanese women have come on their journey. Based on a collection of essays of the same name by Chie Yasutake and her husband, Shingo, “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” is about how one woman married, worked, gave birth and stayed strong and positive even as she battled breast cancer.
Chie died in 2008 at the age of 33. In the book, she states plaintively that she was aware of the risks she was taking and the consequences of her choices (childbirth ups the risk of new tumors) but went ahead and did what she wanted anyway. Chie says she refused to be a victim of fate and, before her death, wanted to make sure that her 4-year-old daughter Hana would turn out strong, healthy and happy. To this end Chie trained Hana in the kitchen and, within a year, the little girl knew how to cook three things perfectly from scratch: brown rice, nattō (fermented soybeans) and miso soup.
The book became a best-seller, not just because of the rapid rise in the past decade of breast cancer patients, but because it was about a woman who stuck to her convictions and taught her daughter to do the same.
From the mid-1990s, Japanese women have felt under pressure because they have received little societal support should they return to work after having a child. Many responded to this by marrying late (35 is the new 24) or not marrying at all. The movie industry has subsequently been rocked by the box-office successes of the likes of “Kamome Shokudo” (2006), “Hito no Sekkusu wo Warauna” (2007), “Nonchan Noriben” (2009) and others, all of which featured women who sought personal fulfillment on their own terms, with or without male approval (mostly without). There was a crackling undercurrent of defiance in these films — and a kind of resignation. Some six decades after “Tokyo Story,” Japanese women were finally about to liberate themselves from the shackles of domesticity, but at the same time they realized that Japanese men would never understand or offer support. Sadly, very often women scored zilch with their own mothers as well, as there was much misunderstanding and resentment between the generation that spent their best years serving their husbands’ families as in “Tokyo Story,” and the generation who wanted no part of that legacy.
“Hana-chan no Misoshiru” (both the book and the film) offers a different perspective: a reconciliation of the Japanese mom, dad and daughter together in the tiny Japanese kitchen. The real-life Chie (portrayed by Ryoko Hirosue) worked as a music teacher while performing in a band — she was a fun, free-thinking individual who also believed that to live was to eat. After being diagnosed with cancer, she switched from a standard meat-and-dairy inclusive diet to traditional washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine), focusing mostly on brown rice and miso soup, which are deemed to have cancer-fighting properties. The latter she made with quality, organic ingredients, and she even crafted her own miso paste.
Making miso soup from scratch is a skill many Japanese women have abandoned, though everyone is well aware of the soup’s health and beauty benefits. The instant stuff is everywhere, along with MSG-charged versions, which eliminates the hassle of making dashi stock. But the nutritional value is miles away from the real thing, and in the movie Chie tells Hana (Emina Akamatsu) that eating real miso soup is the first step to having a good life.
The main message of “Hana-chan no Misoshiru” is that the Japanese woman now has a choice not to marry, have children or labor in the kitchen. True, they were once the triple ball and chain that bound her to the household, but no longer. Look at Chie, a true heroine who did all three and came out on top.