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‘Pelican: 74 Years of Japanese Tradition’: A bread documentary that isn’t half-baked

by

Special To The Japan Times

The first thing a customer will say when they walk into Pelican past lunchtime is: “Any left?” That’s how fast loaves sell at this popular Asakusa bakery.

Many a time I’ve walked into Pelican — sorry, ran into Pelican — at 3 p.m. only to be told that there was nothing left. You don’t need to be told, though: The shop is an open book as far as inventory is concerned, consisting of little more than long wooden shelves and steel carts where loaves are left to cool after coming out of the oven. When those are empty, there’s nothing to do but suck it up and resolve to run like sprinter Yoshihide Kiryu the next time. The bread at Pelican is that good.

Things aren’t going to get easier for Pelican loyalists I’m afraid. New owner and manager Riku Watanabe, 29, has decided to mark the bakery’s 74th birthday by agreeing to appear in a documentary by Shuntaro Uchida. “Pelican: 74 Years of Japanese Tradition” pays homage to the shop’s long history and singularly focused product line — and feels as warm as one of those freshly baked loaves.

Watanabe is the great grandson of Pelican’s original founder, Takeo Watanabe.

“I feel a great responsibility,” the current owner tells the camera when asked about being handed the baton for the family business — without taking a pause from his work. He never dives into why he thinks his product is successful, though, both he and the filmmaker seem to take for granted that this point is indisputable — which may be obvious to them, but for the audience it might have been nice, like a smack of jelly on our slice of square shokupan (white bread).

Much like the bakery, “Pelican” is fine with serving us the bread plain. Uchida has reportedly said the point of the film was just to arouse viewer curiosity and get them down to Asakusa to see what the place — nay, the institution — is all about for themselves … which might make you think about what the role of documentary film is supposed to be.

Stylist and essayist Masako Ito is the only talking head in “Pelican,” providing a succinct explanation as to why the bakery has been successful.

“The bread is just like white rice,” she says, seated against a background that’s fit for a late-night informercial. “It’s tailored to fit the taste buds of the Japanese.”

Ah, now we’re closer to the secret of the bread. The average Japanese can’t live without rice and, for a long time, bread was seen as a snack instead of a dietary staple — a second-class citizen when it came to a good, square meal. But the bread here is treated as an essential part of our diets. Perhaps “Pelican” is less of an infomercial and more of a political manifesto — if we were to call a snap election on this, would bread win over rice? If Western-style bread can be a part of our lives, can’t immigration work too?

I’m getting ahead of myself (and hungrier as I write). Uchida focuses less on the “why” and more on the “how” of Pelican: how it’s made, how it came to be called “Pelican,” how it survived the aftermath of World War II, and how it will continue to bring us anshin, a feeling of security that comes from being able to buy the exact same product in the exact same package at the same old spot for decades.

Watanabe stresses his job is to carry on the family tradition and just “keep making good bread.” Hopefully, the fifth generation of Watanabes will be around to say the same.