The Best Way to Fetishize Food, Japanese Style

Why you should care

Because Jiro Dreams of Sushi left you, well, dreaming of sushi.

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We’ve all done it — inadvertently let our food get cold as we try to capture its deliciousness in a photo. Food porn is a phenomenon born on social media, but you could argue that its roots come from Japan, where a historical attentiveness to culinary aesthetics has created a culture that “eats with the eyes,” from lifelike plastic food models to elaborate kaiseki meals.

Accordingly, Japan has an insatiable appetite for food-focused manga, TV shows and movies. But Japanese food porn isn’t just empty calories. “Food fosters a sense of belonging and community,” explains Erin Schoneveld, an assistant professor in the department of East Asian languages and cultures at Haverford College. “Filmmakers will often use food to investigate issues of truth, beauty, identity and nationhood in an attempt to answer fundamental questions regarding life and death.” And also, watching someone dig into a towering parfait or slurp a bowl of ramen is just plain satisfying.

Feast your eyes on this five-course buffet of Japanese movies and TV shows stuffed with gratuitous steaming close-ups, autonomous sensory meridian response-inducing textures and ecstatic “oishii!” (“delicious!”) moments.

Tampopo (1985)

Whet your appetite with Tampopo, Juzo Itami’s classic Japanese twist on the spaghetti Western — or in this case, the “ramen Western” — and one woman’s wild quest for the perfect bowl of noodles. The cast includes Ken Watanabe in his breakout role, but “with the film’s emphasis on the sensory, tactile and auditory qualities of food (and food consumption),” says Schoneveld, “some might even argue that ramen is a character in its own right.” From a love scene involving live shrimp to an elderly fruit fondler, Tampopo takes food porn to a PG-13 level.

Little Forest: Summer/Autumn (2014) and Little Forest: Winter/Spring (2015)

Junichi Mori’s two-part film chronicles a year through aspirational farmhouse recipes, gorgeously captured from seed to revelrous mouthful. In an attempt to heal her big-city heartbreak, Ichiko returns to her rural roots and throws herself into harvesting produce and cooking seasonal dishes — because, as her mother says, “food is a mirror of your heart.” Everything she whips up looks so wholesome (and each recipe is so effortlessly explained), this movie just might convince you to go back to the land.

Sweet Bean (2015)

An ostracized old woman, a young shopkeeper haunted by his past and a lonely high school girl bond over perfect dorayaki (red-bean-filled pancakes) in this film by Naomi Kawase. “Food becomes an extension of Japan’s natural beauty and landscape,” says Schoneveld, “as well as an opportunity for Kawase to illustrate how the act of making can provide an opportunity for communal understanding and acceptance.”

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (2016)

This series takes place in an all-night izakaya that serves up Japanese soul food with a hearty side of nostalgia. “Through food, the diners experience a revelation of sorts about themselves and their relationships with others,” says Schoneveld. Each episode revolves around a homestyle flavor — like an omurice (omelet rice) that kindles a cross-cultural romance between a Japanese man and a Korean woman — and is sure to inspire some midnight snacking.

Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman (2017)

Finally, dessert is served. Kantaro is a salaryman with a secret: He’s an obsessive food blogger with an almost erotic passion for sweets that he hides from his co-workers. This series retains the energy of the original manga, with fantastical interludes involving swing dancing anthropomorphized melons and cascading showers of syrup pouring over Kantaro’s nearly naked body. The fetishization of sweets may seem over-the-top to foreign audiences, but Kantaro’s secret indulgence can be read as a subtle rebellion against Japanese societal restraint.

More Selections to Savor:

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