15:00 - 21st February 2015, by David West

A Tale Of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story

Haru (Aya Ueto) may be beautiful – and a superb cook – but she has also gone through a marriage in which she was rejected by her in-laws for being impertinent. However, Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida) desperately wants her to give domestic bliss a second chance by becoming engaged to his son Yasunobu (Kengo Kora). But the old man is not playing cupid. He is a senior kitchen samurai, a chef who serves up plates for the local lord, and, as his heir, Yasunobu should be following in his footsteps. Unfortunately, the headstrong young samurai prefers the kendo dojo to the kitchen and believes cooking is beneath him. Dennai hopes that Haru can teach his son not only how to cook, but to savour the experience.

Yuzo Asahara’s film is a fairly gentle drama set in the 18th century, and inspired by a real family that helped to spread the recipes of the Kaga region all across Japan. It works best when dealing with the romance angle and the family interactions of the Funaki household, but the inclusion of a subplot about a group conspiring against the local daimyo – the lord appointed by the Shogun to govern the region – doesn’t quite blend with the rest of the movie.

Playing the delicate Haru is a change of pace for Aya Ueto – perhaps best known for slicing and dicing ninjas in the two Azumi movies – but she makes the heroine a warm and sympathetic presence and is remarkably photogenic on screen. Haru’s new husband is far harder to digest, as Yasunobu is prickly and often snooty. Nishida is the archetypal kindly, wise old man as Funaki, while Kimiko Yo is excellent as his wife, avoiding playing her as a battle-axe of a mother-in-law. One of the challenges of the film is that the focus tends to shift from act to act. There’s the relationship between the two leads, the importance of Yasunobu learning to cook before they have to throw a Grand Banquet for the new lord of the domain, and then the plot about the rebels planning an assassination. The romantic element never hits boiling point, mostly due to Yasunobu’s chilly personality.

If anything, it seems a shame that a woman as talented and clever as Haru has no alternative in life but to try to make her marriage to this schmuck a success. The cooking element is better realised, although it follows a fairly predictable arc. Least effective is the conspiracy storyline, which needs much more time and context in order to become compelling. There are passing references to dissatisfaction amongst the younger samurai and their desire to reform the domain’s finances, but there’s no serious attempt here at a critique of the intransigence of the feudal system. Any fighting and dying happens off screen, which makes this thread seem an ever more superfluous garnish in the recipe. Better to stick to the cooking and romance.

The film is beautifully photographed with impressive sets and costumes, while the shots of the exquisitely crafted dishes that Haru creates will have stomachs grumbling before the credits roll.

A Tale Of Samurai Cooking has charm, but it is also a little too light and breezy in execution to be fully satisfying.
SCORE: 3/5
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