It’s a little known fact that though all samurai carry swords, some of them hang them up when they get to work and serve their lords with meat cleavers and skewers in the relative safety of the kitchen rather than the noisy chaos of a battlefield. Of course, a retainer’s job is to serve the lord in whatever capacity is expected of him, though some maybe happier with their dictated fates than others. In A Tale of Samurai Cooking - A True Love Story, it’s not only a conventional romantic tale between two initially mismatched people that the title alludes to, but also how one may fall in love with a path in life that was once deeply resented.
Back in feudal Japan, Haru (Aya Ueto) is an orphaned maid servant to a prominent samurai house. She was briefly married, but embarrassingly enough was “sent back” because her new husband and his family found her far too headstrong for their household. The daughter of a pair of restaurateurs, Haru has a keen sense of cooking of her own which sees her catch the attention of a visiting famous cook, Dennai Funaki (Toshiyuki Nishida), when she is the only person able to guess the real ingredients in his “mock crane” dish. Instantly smitten, Dennai makes her a proposal - albeit one for his son who is set to take over the family business but has no real aptitude for cooking. Yasunobu (Kengo Kora) is his second son whose fate was sealed on the death of his elder brother and though he would rather be a more conventional kind of samurai, he is the only heir to this kitchen empire. Can Haru’s cooking skills raise a fire in Yasunobu’s heart for his unwanted destiny or will they both be subjected to a lifetime of cold dinners?
A Tale of Samurai Cooking is definitely much more “period drama” than “samurai movie” though it does share a little of the historical intrigue of your typical “jidai geki”. Set in the Edo period of feudal Japan, there are plenty of sudden reversals of fate where one house jumps ahead of another which then falls out of favour, sometimes with tragic consequences. However, though those these events inform the drama they are really just the backdrop to the true story of the very grown-up (though extremely chaste and innocent - this is U rated movie!) slow-burning love story between Haru and Yasunobu. Though it’s a very charming and old fashioned sort of romance, it’s also true that Kengo Kora and Aya Ueto don’t have a tremendous amount of chemistry and their love story is pretty subtle and one-sided until very late into the film. Of course, the audience knows how this sort of film has to end, but the film does rather rely on this fact.
Yasunobu is at heart a kind man undergoing very difficult circumstances. Having had to let go of the life he wanted that was so nearly his following the death of his older brother, it isn’t a surprise that he’s generally sullen and extremely resentful that his father has arranged this marriage for him with a slighter older woman who’s already been married once before, not to mention the fact that it’s all because she’s better than he is at this thing he’s now supposed to do for the rest of his life. Yasunobu doesn’t even like cooking; he thinks it’s “woman’s work” and had devoted his life to the art of the sword. Luckily, Haru’s perspicacity extends beyond her palate and she’s quickly figured out what’s going on with Yasunobu so she can turn him into the ace cook his father needs him to be. Haru’s influence opens up his wilfully closed eyes to the rewards of both good women and good cookery, which is part way to saying that food cooked with love can heal a broken heart but it’s equal parts changing times and a young man growing up.
As films about food go, A Tale of Samurai Cooking certainly has a fair few mouth watering dishes on display but perhaps lacks the hearty fare of something like the comparatively more sensual, though equally comic, Tampopo. In truth, its overwhelming quality is a kind of inoffensive niceness and perhaps for some tastes could have done with a little more spice, though like the best Japanese cuisine offers its own rewards precisely because of its subtlety. It’s a perfectly nice light meal, but you’ll probably wishing you’d gone for something more substantial come bedtime.
A Tale of Samurai Cooking - A True Love Story is on limited theatrical release in the UK right now and will open in Dublin from 9th January before receiving DVD release from Yume Pictures in 2015.