A Tale of Samurai Cooking
Director: Yuzo Asahara
Starring: Kengo Kora, Aya Ueto, Toshiyuki Nishida, Kimiko Yo, Natsukawa Yui, Takeshi Kaga
Divorced for being too headstrong, Haru (Ueto) serves as the maid to the concubine Shinnyoin (Natsukawa). While attending an official event with her Lady, she draws the attention of the fiefdom’s head chef Funaki (Nishida). Impressed with her sense of taste and natural culinary instinct, he proposes that Haru marry his younger son Yasunobu (Kora), a candidate to be a ‘kitchen samurai,’ those of the samurai class responsible for the banquets and cuisine of the lords and generals. Adverse to the concept of being a ‘kitchen samurai’ Yasunobu is reluctant to take on his duties in earnest and learns techniques from Haru, all the while butting heads with her nature. As Yasunobu and Haru grow closer, they find themselves intertwined within one of Japanese history’s most famous conflicts, drawing closer to danger and destiny with every day.
Being no small fan of gourmet cinema, the idea of a film centered on Edo-era food instantly struck me as interesting. Throw in such great talents like Kaga, Nishida, Yo, and Natsukawa, along with young talent like Kora and Ueto, and I was definitely on board.
Director Asahara crafts a generally compelling romance amidst some historical context resulting in a unique mix of genres. Part jidai-geki, part gourmet cinema, and part romantic drama, the film is somehow able to juggle all these into a very cohesive and entertaining picture. While the film rarely succeeds fully in either of these elements, the sum is still greater than its parts with an absolutely charming performance by Ueto; she certainly stands out among all other talents involved. Kora is quite good for a young talent and while his actions may come off harsh, they are true to the period the film is set. Veterans Nishida, Yo, and Natsukawa bring both grace and ease to their respective roles; Nishida in particular is a very compelling figure compared to the historically tragic character of Shinnyoin, aka Natsukawa’s character.
The food elements are actually considerably light compared to the depiction of it in other more recent gourmet media, instead choosing to use a delicate and simple approach to the cuisine of Edo, Japan. The banquet scene is terrifically done and offers a tantalizing look at traditional foodstuffs beyond anything easily available here in the United States or even to most locales in Japan itself.
In the end A Tale of Samurai Cooking is a very compelling and unique historical drama. It’s dramatic and romantic elements are delicately handled and utilize nuanced performances and choices. While it may not succeed fully in some respects as it does in others (ie. the historical significance of the conflicts depicted), it still tells a surprisingly intimate story about some fascinating individuals. Recommended.