The plot for the film revolves around a team of Japanese scientists stationed at the Dome Fuji Station in Antarctica for one year. The main character is Chef Mr. Nishimura who was unexpectantly assigned with the mission and had to leave his wife and daughter to go and cook in Antarctica. It is through his eyes that the story begins and the characters are developed through the way they eat and their interactions with each other.
The opening scene sees food laid out on the table which consists of zensai (appetisers); suimono (clear soup); sashimi (raw fish); yakimono (grilled food); mushimono (steamed food); kimono (simmered food); age-mono(deep fried food); sunomono (vinegared foods) or aemono (cooked salad). This style of eating is similar to a banquet or possibly a wedding ceremony in Japan where all the food is laid out before hand.We see the Chef (Nishimura) observing each character in the movie whilst they eat. The audience then moves to a split screen of each character eating and their background is described with a voice over by Nishimura. The way they eat food, the looks on their faces and their habits and rituals all play a part in developing their character for the film – perhaps even more than the voice over.If an audience can identify with the media text they are subjected to they gain something called ‘pleasure of the text’ (Barthes 1975)
Of course different viewers interpret text differently based on their own experiences and cultural values. In the opening scene it is very easy for a Japanese audience to identify with the text. The food is predominately Japanese as are the people who are eating it. The only foreign thing that the audience has come across so far is the Antarctic cold that is outside of this setting.
But it is in this cultural setting where the sub textual meanings and cultural values need to be understood if one is to understand the underlying themes of the film.
“Culture is the collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from those of another. Culture in this sense is a system of collectively held values.” – (Geert Hofstede 2001 p.23)
Apart from smaller intertwining stories about their lives at Dome Fuji Station the underlying theme for the whole movie is one of being away from home and missing their families and friends.
Food in this film signifies a sense of ‘belonging.’ It reminds them of home and acts as a chance for them to get back to their own world where they are safe within their own ideologies. The binary opposites of good and bad (Saussure in Hartley 2002) are represented in this movie through the temperatures of hot and cold. The good is the heat of being inside and eating food that reminds them of home, it is their normality. The bad being the Antarctic, something that is cold and foreign.
The plot relies heavily on inherent social connotations to make meaning from certain scenes. The scene where they pour red flavouring onto the ice to make the Japanese traditional summer dessert of ‘Kakigori’ which dates back as far as the Heian Period (798 -1185) would not have the symbolism and same meaning to someone who was not from Japan.
The one thing that was missing from the chef’s table was Ramen and this was due to the fact that he could not cook the noodles properly given that water boils at 90 degrees C in Antarctica. When he makes a special kind of noodle from scratch using a different flour mixture he finds that he can cook them properly at a lower temperature. His surprise lunch delights the crew who choose to eat Ramen as opposed to viewing the southern Aurora (something that they had been excited about seeing for a long time) In Japan ramen is the ultimate home food especially when its winter.
When the group finds out that there are boxes of ebi (prawns) buried beneath the ice which have been left over from previous Antarctic mission sees them set a mission of their own. The scene in which they are digging into the ice chanting ‘Ebi Fry’ (Fried Prawn/Shrimp) only to find lobster instead again lies within a hidden cultural context.
Ebi in Japanese is used to describe both Crayfish or Lobster and also prawn/shrimp with various kinds using the suffix ebi in language. The crew have their hearts set on ebi fry even though the chef is against it and the scene with everyone sitting down to eat fried lobster is another comedic grasp of the characters search for the natural and for normality.
Food in this film acts as a ‘representation of ideology” (Althusser in Evans/Hall) in that it ‘naturalises’ their time in Antarctica. Naturalising is an interesting term in which I mean that the depiction of food and the search for the normal enforces ideologies.
This ideological viewpoint within Japanese culture spills over into Japanese food culture and it is that makes it inherently unique.
In the next film Jiro Jiro Dreams of Sushi of Sushi we will look into ideology and culture within Japanese food in more depth.
• Althusser L (1969) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (notes towards an investigation) in Evans, Jessica & Hall, Stuart (ed.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
• Barthes R (1973/ 75) Le Plaisir du Texte – The pleasure of the text, translated by Ricahrd Miller, French Pub. Farrar, Straus and Girox (Eng ver. Harper Collins)
• Hartley, John (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies – The Key Concepts Third Edition Routledge Key Guides, Oxon.
• Hofstede G (2001) Cultures Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. 2nd Edition. Sage London.
• Nankyoku Ryorinin, 2009, Feature Film, Japan, Director Shuichi Okita.