Sub-textual Meanings of Food in Japanese Cinema

Written by Jason Adamson on . Posted in food

Sub-textual Meanings of Food in Japanese Cinema

Food in cinema can communicate many things – it can symbolize cultural values, ideas, points of view, social status, ideologies and emotions. Most of the time as viewers, we understand without thinking, the symbolic meaning that a certain sign (or in this case food) has, and we soak it up like a paralyzed media sponge.

However, many of these signs and symbols, and the values that they represent, are highly subjective and can really only be understood properly if we understand the culture and the language in which they are set. Saussurian semiotics and structuralism argues that it is impossible to know ourselves, or our reality outside of language.

Even though language may constitute our reality and the meanings of certain symbols may only be interpreted within our own understanding, there are occasions where the actual language of food transcends cultural barriers and the meaning or message can be recieved as the sender intended (or very close to it anyway). This is particularly true when we look at the consumption of food in an emotional or erotic context within film.

In the following Japanese films we will look at both ocassions; where the underlying themes and subtextual meanings are only understood within a Japanese cultural context; and where the signified meanings of certain texts (in this case foods, or the consumption of it) are not bound to a certain common cultural understanding.

In each of the films chosen below I have tried to take a different angle and approach – sometimes looking at ideologies, cultural values and thought, and sometimes looking at other things such as semiotics and realism.

The video and text links below will take you to another page where each video can be viewed and is accompanied by a written commentary which explores the symbolism and sub textual meanings of food in the film, as well as discussing the film itself.


The film ‘Tampopo’ is a Japanese food comedy cult classic. This is not a film about stereotypical foods like sushi or sashimi that one would associate with Japan, but about Ramen. Ramen is a noodle soup that could best be described as the Monkey Magic of Japanese cuisine, originating in China this widely taken for granted food has since become more Japanese than wooden sandals and ninjas. READ MORE

Nankyoku Ryorinin

Nankyoku Ryorinin (South Pole Chef) is a film that revolves around a team of Japanese scientists stationed at the Dome Fuji

Station in Antarctica for one year. The main character is Chef Nishimura who was unexpectantly assigned with the mission

and had to leave his wife and daughter to go and cook

for a year at the South Pole. It is through his eyes that the story begins and we see the characters develop through the way they eat and their interactions with each other. READ MORE

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro is a sushi chef,  but he is not just any sushi chef – he has given his life to his work and everyday tries to reach a new level in a never-ending quest for perfection. He is 85 years old and with a 3 Michellin star restaurant in a Tokyo Subway, Japan has now called him a national treasure. This documentary was shot over a one-year period by documentary maker David Gelb, and if you don’t have respect for sushi at the beginning of this film you are sure to by the end of it. READ MORE


1.    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.
2.    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)
3.    Fenichel. O. (1954) The Scoptophilic Instinct and Indetification in Evans, J & Hall, S (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
4.    Freud S.(1927) Fetishism in Evans, J & Hall, S (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
5.    Hartley, John (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies – The Key Concepts Third Edition Routledge Key Guides, Oxon.
6.    Hartley, John (2002) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies – The Key Concepts Third Edition Routledge Key Guides, Oxon.
7.    Hofstede G (2001) Cultures Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. 2nd Edition. Sage London.
8.    Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012) Documentary, Preferred Content in association with Sundial Pictures, Directed by David Gelb.
9.    Monaco, James (1981): How to Read a Film. New York: Oxford University Press (Part III, ‘The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax’)
10.    Mulvey L. (1973) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in Evans, J & Hall, S (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: a reader, Sage, London.
11.    Nankyoku Ryorinin, 2009, Feature Film, Japan, Director Shuichi Okita.
12.    Rodowick, David N (1994): The Crisis of Political Modernism: Criticism and Ideology in Contemporary Film Theory. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
Tampopo (1985) Feature Film, Japan, Itami Productions, Director Juzo Itami.

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Jason Adamson

Jason Adamson

Jason lives in Osaka Japan and has an infatuation with raw fish, ninjas and sake. Originally from Australia he has a Masters in Communications and a Le Cordon Bleu Masters of Gastronomic Tourism. He also owns a very old Nintendo.
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