As a die-hard fan of grittier movies, it is sometimes nice just to tune into something gentle and pure. This movie is a marvel in its simple plodding but also evil because now I can’t stop thinking about crispy salmon skin and california rolls.
East Side Sushi (2014)
Single mom Juana can slice and dice anything with great speed and precision. After working at a fruit-vending cart for years, she decides to take a job at a local Japanese restaurant. Intrigued by the food, she learns to make a multitude of sushi on her own. Eventually she attempts to become a sushi chef, but is unable to because she is the ‘wrong’ race and gender.
Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) hasn’t exactly got it easy as a single mother living in Oakland, Cali. She lives with her widowed pop and daughter in modest surroundings, forever trying to make those pesky ends meet with a series of jobs that amount to little. One of those jobs is running a fruit cart which one evening gets held up at gunpoint.
Majorly fucked off and tired, not only of the injustice of being robbed but also of the shitty part-time hours she’s scrabbling around for at a gym, Juana takes a chance on a Help Wanted sign in the window of a Japanese restaurant, Osaka. Due to her extensive kitchen experience, Mexican Juana is quickly offered an interview but her pop is a little wary of his daughter taking this direction. Why would she want to work with Japanese food? And what will she bring home after her shifts?
Uh, only the best food ever invented, Dad. No biggie.
Regardless of this mild negativity, Juana gets stuck in and finds that she really takes to it like a duck to… a Japanese dish? Juana falls not only in love with the cuisine itself but with the challenge of getting really fucking good at making it. There might even be a spark between her and Aki, the head chef (Yutaka Takeuchi) who is infinitely patient and also pleasingly impressed with everything she does.
Unfortunately, the restaurants big boss Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama) isn’t stoked about Juana having ideas above her station because she is Mexican but I suspect more so because she is a WOMAN. He bans her from being out front, insistent that she was hired to work the kitchen and in the kitchen she will stay, away from the actual sushi cheffing action. Even though she’s bloody good and the restaurant has started serving several of the fusion dishes she has invented.
Nothing Juana says or does will swerve Mr. Yoshida’s traditional way of thinking, even when Aki gets involved. Especially when some of his (male) customers make comments about keeping the restaurant authentic. In the end, Juana loses her cool and quits the job. She also applies to be a finalist on reality TV show Champions of Sushi. Can you see where this is going?
Will our determined young sushi ingénue win the competition and therefore get offered her rightful place behind the sushi bar at Osaka or what? Will she flip one sticky rice covered middle finger up at the patriarchy at the same time?
Although this movie might not set your world alight, it is a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon and if I’m honest, there was something really satisfying about it. It would definitely fit well into Feminist February because Juana is a dreamy character with an impressive work ethic and a thirst for learning who takes on the stuffy ideals of her boss head on. She doesn’t quit and isn’t afraid to follow her dreams and I frankly loved her for it.
An aside but this film in its themes reminded me a little bit of The Ramen Girl. In it, an American girl (Brittany Murphy) gets stranded in Tokyo and ends up training to be a râmen chef. It’s lovely and I recommend that too.
Juana is played by the beautiful Diana Elizabeth Torres who brings such a warmth to her character, and although there are no bodices being ripped or sexy times going down in the kitchen, there’s something good and genuine about the chemistry she shares with Aki. You root for them to get it on but it’s all implied and I liked that too. Juana’s true love is being a sushi chef and everything else is secondary.
I did find myself a little bit annoyed by her stubborn father at times but his reluctance to embrace a new culture did lead to the concept of tailoring traditional Japanese dishes to his very Mexican tastes and thus was the secret to Juana’s success.
Good pick, Jill.
3.5/5. I’m starving.