You Are Where You Eat

by tjmHolden

6 June 2007

Image from Udon 

If that set-up doesn’t start you salivating then we can be certain of one thing: you are not Japanese. Because that is the other part of this story: how food is everywhere and amounts to nearly everything in Japan. This is a theme that I have addressed on these pages before, with food tied to national, regional, and even gender identity. But this is a topic that merits more than one telling, in large part because food is served to media consumers on every channel of ReDotPop: on TV, in cinema, on the Internet, in song.  The subject is “ubiquitous” you might say, although given what we are about to discuss, “udonquitous” would be more accurate.

That’s because this piece is about last year’s theatrical release, Udon, a movie all about the noodle called (big surprise here): “udon”. The movie has drawn some comparisons to the 1986 classic, Tampopo which centered, in large part, on the noodle “ramen”.  However, much like the pasta it is modeled after, Udon the movie is starchier, a bit thicker, less adept at locomotion, and heavier going down. Still, it is worthy of consideration here for all the usual ReDotPop reasons. Namely, its content somehow enables viewers to ponder the modern Japanese condition; above all: the meaning of life, personal liberty, and the pursuit of connectedness. But reader beware: this telling comes with a spoiler warning of a plot which will be fully revealed.

But before getting there, a little background. Udon, the foodstuff,  is one of three kinds of traditional noodle that can be found in Japan (the other two being soba and the aforementioned ramen). There won’t be a test at the end, so we don’t have to get into minute distinctions here—but, alright, since I am marginally in the reporting business, read this and consider yourself edified.  Soba noodles are indigenous to Japan, made of buckwheat or wheat flour (which for my buck amounts to the same wheat!), and is roughly as thick as spaghettioni, while ramen noodles were imported to Japan from China and possess a spaghettini-like thickness. While ramen tend to arrive at your table wriggling in hot broth, soba can come either smothered by liquid or else served separately, for dipping in a small cup of soup on the side.

Udon is generally doused by a hot broth (although cold can also be had).  It is thicker and firmer than both its pasta cousins, and is whitish in hue. Some ambitious and experimental outdoor chefs like to roil udon on a grill, usually after all the slices of meat, pumpkin, onions, mushrooms, and cabbage have been fried. In my hometown, there is a restaurant renowned for udon strands that exceed a meter in length. People actually stand up and dangle the strands between their chopsticks above the floor to measure them out. How more than two fit into one bowl is one of the mysteries of local life.

In just this way, udon comes in all manner of variants—most of these a matter of seasoning and regional style: here a pinch of aburage (thinly cut tofu fried in oil), there a hearty dash of dashi (a broth made of kelp and dried bonito flakes). Luxuriating over these variants is one purpose of Udon, the movie. Again, it’s not quite on the order of Tampopo— where viewers received a comprehensive tutorial in the art of preparing and appreciating a bowl of noodles— but through the plotting we experience the painstaking paces chefs devote to noodle preparation and broth-brewing, and the occasionally ad-hoc, serendipitous nature of blending and savoring ingredients.

Some freshly pulled green onions from the field out back might be standard (although we are also cautioned that there is a particular method to their extraction), but not so with the asparagus contributed by a passing motorist (which is a rather idiosyncratic flourish). All this mixing and mulling is not without purpose: attention to individual recipes and the assiduous chronicling of preparation methods enables Udon to transform itself into a message flick; one intent on urging viewers to follow their dreams, while also reconnecting with their roots, and discovering the essence of their culture. All secured as a by-product of boiling noodles.

That’s definitive ReDotPop.

Photo from Udon

Photo from Udon

Udon, the movie, is the product of the team responsible for the smash “Bayside Shakedown” series: producer Chihiro Kamyama and director Katsuyuki Motohiro. Like Shakedown—which emphasized characterization over guns and a bureaucratized life over high-speed car chases for a group of cops in a fictitious Tokyo ward—Udon focuses on the mundane aspects of human existence in a fictitious hamlet in a real place. For the “heroes” of this tale—an aspiring comedian, the decidedly ditzy woman he meets when his car breaks down in the woods, and the team of marketers she works for at the local advertiser—life may have started out as one thing, but ends up as something else entirely. Like all gripping human interest stories.

The centerpiece of this tale, Kosuke Matsui, is not only a comic wannabe, he also happens to be the only son of an udon chef who has pounded out noodles from scratch beginning at 5am every morning for over 30 years, then cooking them up for a family-like collection of regulars in the kitchen attached to his home. Dad’s shop, we are told at the outset, is but one of 900 such establishments serving Kagawa Prefecture, (or what was once known as “Sanuki”),  a province containing a mere one million residents. Given the extraordinarily large proportion of udon establishments per capita, Kagawa/Sanuki is considered the ReDot’s udon Mecca: a place whose noodles entice Japanese from across ReDotland to embark on pilgrimages to slurp. As one promotional piece put it: “a $400 trip just to purchase a $4 bowl of noodles.”

For Kosuke, though, it is pilgrimage out of Kagawa that is sought. He seeks escape from the claustrophobic one-trick town that is home to his father’s ways, and his father’s incomprehensible ambitions. Inexplicably, Kosuke surfaces in New York City as a linguistically-challenged stand-up. Not surprisingly, lacking skill in the verbal arts, Kosuke lays an egg in the joke trade. Amazingly, though, he manages to persevere for six years. Success comes, if at all, in his ability to accumulate debt. Ultimately, having run out of clubs and cash, he is forced to return to Kagawa with his tail between his legs. There, he is met by his caustic, unsympathetic father whose first words of hello parodies Kosuke’s shrill, parting words of years before: “There’s nothing for you here. Just udon.”

What goes around comes around, eh? Kosuke’s words coming back to haunt him. But, thanks for the welcome back, anyway, Dad . . . good to see you, too.

Despite the father’s bitter disappointment with his son, he has actually quietly paid off Kosuke’s many creditors, unbeknownst to the boy. However, once the lad learns from his sister of this bail-out, he flies into a rage. How dare the old man cut his legs out from under him! Worse, now he will have to stay and repay the old guy. But doing what? No way will it be cooking up udon, the boy resolves. And here is where tension is born and the story actually begins.

Kosuke gets roped into working at a publishing company, where he makes a commission on every weekly advertiser sold. Unfortunately, bad businessman that he is, the economics of the local market elude him before he says “yes” to becoming a sales rep. What he then discovers is that he’d have to sell about 10 times what is normally published in order to make any kind of subsistence salary. Under any other circumstance this would have transformed Kosuke into an indentured servant for life, but thanks to being at the right place at the right time, an idea forms that transforms the humble advertiser into an indispensible, mega-selling local Bible. It strikes him as he is in the process of (vainly) imploring a bookstore owner to buy a bushel more of the unwanted advertisers; just then he happens to overhear a trio of out-of-state udon pilgrims lamenting the lack of information on local noodle shops. Behold: the birth of a service; voila, the burgeoning of a business.

Photo from

Photo from

Kosuke and his pals (the erstwhile, though muddle-headed maiden, Kyoko, and a few bowling buddies) form a group they dub “The Noodle Gnostics” and begin reports they file under the heading “Udon Pilgrimage”. These treks are packaged in the form of maps with clues to help readers (that is, buyers) of their advertiser find the obscure, often remote, noodle shops tucked in amidst lakes, beneath groves, and around over-grown bends in narrow dirt paths. What the Noodle Gnostics create is first a local parlor game, then, in time, and with the complicity of the national media, an “udon boom”—played out behind the mud-splattered windshields of copious cars careening through the countryside trying to locate the next stop on the gastronomic mystery tour.

These developments exert a measurable impact on Kosuke. Suddenly the thing that he has detested all these years—that object he fled so far from— has come to provide meaning to his life. It has also managed to bring him closer to his father, at least in his own heart. The game of locating new udon shops, sampling their menus, and reviewing their fare, spurs a new-found appreciation of udon and even a grudging respect for his father. In time, Kosuku even breaks down and spotlights the udonshop “run by the cranky old man with the simplest of menus.” It is this newfound respect that impels Kosuke to enter his father’s shop one evening and offer his dad a heartfelt apology.

As apologies go, it amounts to a rousing reconciliation speech. In return, Kosuke’s father offers up only stubborn silence. Kosuke is deflated by the lack of response . . . until he realizes that the reason his father is unmoved is because his father no longer can move. He’s been lying stone cold dead on the shop floor for any number of hours. Proving that ReDot movies don’t always have Hollywood endings.  Then again . . .

Seeking to cope with his father’s death, Kosuke rededicates himself to appreciating the meaning of his father’s life. Mechanically this takes the form of painstakingly seeking to reproduce his father’s udon—the precise texture of the noodle, the exact tang of the broth. And while his body is carrying out the exercise, his brain is spinning no less. Pondering, churning the conundrum of his father‘s humdrum existence over and over in his head: “what does it actually mean to have been a one-trick pony? And not just a one-trick pony, but a simple plow-horse at that. A beast doing nothing more than reproducing the same paces each day, tilling the same soil in the same way. Over and over. For 30 years or more?”

Thinking about it this way, Kosuke comes to realize that the life lived may actually have been quite meaningful after all. And here’s why. One day, shortly after the father’s death, clusters of young boys begin to show up at the shop window for what Kosuke comes to realize was part of a daily ritual when the father was alive. The boys have arrived to receive free bowls of noodles after school. Trying to make sense of these hand-outs, Kosuke visits the boys’ school, where he discovers an even greater curiosity: his father had been freely supplying noodles for school lunches for years. And why? The answer comes to Kosuke one snowy night as he lies in front of the shrine he and his sister have erected in tribute to the departed family head. With his father as guide, Kosuke is transported to witness a lunch-hour classroom feast. What he spies are the unaffected, infectious smiles of joy elicited by his father’s noodles. What he learns is that the dour curmudgeon that he thought was his Dad lived for those few minutes of warmth he kindled inside the schoolchildren each day.

Yes, in the end, Udon is nothing more than a sentimental piece of film-making. Sentimental in the way that the American classic It’s a Wonderful Life is. For, it speaks of the power of one person to make a difference in the lives of those around him. Sure, the daily offering of noodles may not be on the scale of difference of a George Bailey, without whom lives would have been irrevocably (and negatively) altered. Nor even is this contribution on a par with that of Kanji Watanabe, the mid-level bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s classic, Ikiru. Doggedly kneading noodles may not be comparable to the uncompromising, final act of a dying man who fights for a park on a precious parcel of land; a well-seasoned broth may not be the same as a play-space that exerts a life-conferring influence over an entire community. No, Kosuke’s father may not have lived a life on the order of George Bailey who single-handedly injected life-blood into “wonderful, old . . . cheap, penny-ante” Bedford Falls, but his minor place in the orbit of hundreds of local lives turned out to not go unnoticed. Viewed from outside the boisterous classroom door at noon, “there is nothing here, just udon” comes to adopt a more positive nuance; it assumes a more profound vector of meaning.

Udon is not a classic on the order of Ikiru or It’s a Wonderful Life. But it does have a vital message, no matter how imperfectly articulated or executed it may be. Like Kosuke, ReDotPoppers today wish to live unfettered lives; on their own terms, without apologies or explanations to anyone. For them, this is the epoch of being unbeholden; the moment of the unjustified lifestyle. Still, their freedom is not anchorless or rudderless. Home is still a site of meaning for them, not one of renunciation; rather than a spot for rebuke. In its most extreme incarnations, home can be a site of escape or else pathological refuge. Among Japan’s contemporary social problems are what are called “parasite singles”—young single adults who continue living with their parents, whether or not they are active in the work force— and “hikkomori”— teenagers and young/er adults who refuse to leave their room or else their home. But in cases such as Kosuke’s home is a place for reconnection with selves discarded, with truths possibly long-forgotten. For the Kosuke’s of contemporary Japan, a return home is merely for respite. Home is merely a way-station for the brief moment necessary to channel into past selves and retrieve kernels of awareness before venturing forth into the greater “out there” once again.

In the final frames of Udon, Kyoko has flown the Kagawa nest. She arrives in Times Square, dragging a large suitcase; come to join Kosuke, who has resumed his stand-up career to much local acclaim, under the stage name “udon-man”.  Proving that there is value in return . . . after the return.

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