Japanese food culture might be ancient, but Japan’s obsession with food in pop culture is relatively recent. The “gourmet boom” of the bubble-era 1980s — when Japanese had more money and leisure to dine in style, rather than simply fill their stomachs — was a big spur. The accompanying proliferation of food-themed comics, TV shows and movies still continues, with no end in sight.
Taking so-called foodie-ism to new heights is “Little Forest: Natsu/Aki (Little Forest: Summer/Autumn),” the first two parts of a four-part film directed by Junichi Mori about a young woman living alone in her family home in the fictional village of Komori (which literally translates as “Little Forest”) in Tohoku.
Based on a manga by Daisuke Igarashi serialized in “Gekkan Afternoon” magazine from 2002 to 2005, the film celebrates the simple life, if “simple” means growing, preparing and cooking your own food: from rice and tomatoes to delicacies (or oddities) such as homemade Nutella and Worcestershire sauce.
Our heroine, Ichiko (Ai Hashimoto, the star of NHK’s “Amachan”), is no ruddy-faced farmer’s wife weeding the rice paddy. Instead, she is a delicately-featured, if strong-willed, young woman who lived in the big city with her then-boyfriend. But she has recently returned to Komori, her hometown, and to the house she shared with her epigram-spouting, practically minded mom, who taught her much of what she knows about food and life. (“Food is a mirror of your heart” was one of Mom’s pearls of wisdom.) Dad is never mentioned, while much else about Ichiko’s past, including her at-times rocky relationship with her mother, is shown only in food-related flashbacks.
Also, Ichiko is not eking out a bare existence from subsistence farming, but making gorgeous-looking and soul-satisfying meals from scratch — starting from the seeds in the ground.
This may sound like foodie wish fulfillment, but Ichiko is a knowledgeable, hard-working farmer and cook, who disdains shortcuts. When she’s told by an older woman to raise her tomatoes in a greenhouse to protect them from the vagaries of Tohoku summer weather, Ichiko answers, “That’s too easy.” (Her real reason, as she explains in a voice-over, is that “owning a greenhouse would tie me to Komori.”)
However, the common setbacks, or outright disasters, of farming only lightly touch our heroine; abu (horseflies) annoy her, but insects do not devour her pesticide-free crops; rains come, but not devastating typhoons. By contrast, the farmer hero of Yoshihiro Nakamura’s 2013 drama “Kiseki no Ringo” (“Miracle Apples”), was hammered by years of failure and dire poverty before he finally mastered the art of growing organic apples. Though blatantly tear-jerking, Nakamura’s film at least reflected its subject’s harsh reality. Mori’s is a mouthwateringly photographed best-case scenario.
The story, which appears in interludes between the food scenes, centers on Ichiko’s conflicted feelings about her return to Komori. Is it, as she tells herself, simply an escape, or the right decision? Pulling her in the latter direction is Yuta (Takahiro Miura), a straight-talking guy she has known since childhood. Another returnee, Yuta has no doubts about his choice. People in Komori, he says, talk about what they know, unlike city folks who mouth empty words about things they don’t understand.
“When I left, I realized that I could respect the people here,” he concludes.
For Ichiko it’s not so simple: She’s unsure if she wants to keep living the life of her now-absent mother.
Then she receives a letter from Mom, but the reunion of mother and daughter, as well as Ichiko’s winter and spring in Komori, will unfold in the concluding two parts, set for release on Feb. 14 of next year. (I am assuming she will not ditch Mom and move to Roppongi.)
In the meantime, there’s much to learn from “Little Forest” about rice growing, jam making and even duck slaughtering, with Ichiko narrating step-by-step explanations. As a drama, “Little Forest” isn’t much, but as an instructional video, with food preparation and cooking scenes supervised by documentarian and Eatrip restaurant owner Yuri Nomura, it is both useful and inspirational.
However, I’m not tempted to follow in Ichiko’s footsteps. I think of my grandfather, raised on a small farm in hilly Noble County, Ohio, with nine siblings. He shot and grew much of what he ate, from quail to sweet corn. “You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy,” he used to say. But rather than return to the ancestral land, he worked at the local steel mill — not wanting to starve may have had something to do with it.