Japanese movies tend to portray Japanese dads as male chauvinists who never step into the kitchen if they can help it and have little interest in raising their kids. Consider Yasujiro Ozu’s timeless classic “Tokyo Story.” Sure, Chishu Ryu played a kind and gentle patriarch — but did he once help the women in his family or even get his own tea? That’s a big negative and it applies to countless screen fathers and many real-life ones, too.
But now papaben, or bento made by papas, are trending. There are a lot of recipes out there (online and in bookshops), geared specifically for Japanese dads who have taken the plunge into the world of bento crafting. And now there’s a movie about it: “Papa no Obento wa Sekai-Ichi,” which can be translated as something along the lines of “Papa Makes the World’s No. 1 Bento.”
Directed by Masakazu Fukatsu, “Papa no Obento wa Sekai-Ichi” stars 50-year-old Toshimi Watanabe, who back in the mid 1990s made his debut as one of Japan’s early hip-hop artists and was the vocalist for Tokyo No.1 Soul Set. In other words, he was super cool and back then no one imagined him making bento for anyone. But in 2014, he came out with a book about bento, featuring photos of his own, handmade boxed lunches for his teenaged son, crafted every single day for over three years until graduation. Watanabe’s book caused a sensation as other male artists came out of the bento closet. Hitonari (aka Jinsei) Tsuji, an Akutagawa Prize-winning novelist residing in Paris, published a similar book of chic French bento that he made for his young son after his wife (actress Miho Nakayama) filed for divorce.
“Papa no Obento wa Sekai-Ichi” is based on a Twitter feed that went viral about a year ago, and Fukatsu said in an email interview that he came upon it accidentally while scrolling. Tokikazu Ohtsu, a single salaryman father, had been making bento for his teenaged daughter Midori, and she had posted a photo of his last bento on the day of her high school graduation. The feed included photos of this final bento, and Midori’s own sweet letter of thanks to her dad for looking after her so well. “I think bento is an expression of Japanese aesthetics, the way so much care is put into crafting a little world of food inside a small box,” Fukatsu says. Fukatsu was hooked, though he didn’t know at the time that he would soon be making a movie about it.
Making bento for boys is one thing, but any Japanese parent can tell you that daughters are another story. As a line goes in the movie, “the most important factor in a high school girl’s obento is cuteness. A girl’s bento MUST BE KAWAII!” It’s a fundamental truth, and let me inform you that the quality of her lunch box can make or break a high school girl’s reputation. Indeed, many scenes portray Midori (performed in the film by Reina Takeda) being grossed out by her father’s initial un-cute efforts, before learning to appreciate them.
It’s an uphill battle for Watanabe’s “papa,” but ultimately, he prevails. In real life, the “Papaben” Twitter feed had over 350,000 followers and many salaryman dads wept over their phones as they read Midori’s words. The movie has a limited, one-week release at the Human Trust Cinema in Shibuya starting June 10, but is now crowdfunding for a national release.