Femina Ridens Round Table: Kamome Diner (2006)

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Where are we welcome? On a quiet street in Helsinki, Sachie has opened a diner featuring rice balls. For a month she has no customers. Then, in short order, she has her first customer, meets Midori, a gangly Japanese tourist, and invites her to stay with her, and meets Masako, a formal and ethereal middle-aged woman whose luggage has gone missing. The three women work in the diner, interact, and serve customers. A somewhat brusque man teaches Sachie to make delicious coffee, then he returns under other circumstances. Three neighborhood women inspect the empty diner every day; will anything bring them inside? We learn why Sachie serves rice balls; but why Finland?
– IMDb plot summary

Maaike: Hi everyone! I’m super excited to discuss Naoko Ogigami’s Kamome Diner (aka Kamome Shokudo, aka Ruokala Lokki) with you all. It was hard to come up with discussion questions other than “Isn’t this film amazing?” (isn’t it, though?) but I’ve done my best to formulate a few. I’d love to hear about anything else that stood out to you or interested you about the film, too!

  •  Kamome Diner pays a lot of attention to loneliness and isolation on the one hand, and connecting and comforting/being comforted on the other, both on an individual level and on a broader intercultural scale. How did the treatment of these themes strike you? Being that the film is so much about relating, how did you feel it aimed to relate to the viewer, and how did you actually relate to it? I’m really curious about how this film affected you guys, because I personally found it to be such a genuinely compassionate film that I can’t really separate my thoughts on it from the way it made me feel.
  •  I felt like there was another opposition in the film, but find it hard to formulate. I think the closest I can get is that it opposes being hostile to being perhaps intentionally vulnerable? Do you guys get my meaning at all?
  •  What also struck me was the way Kamome Diner treats the preparation and enjoyment of food as comforting and rewarding, and especially stresses the sharing of meals or preparing them for others as important bonding rituals. Isn’t that awesome? That’s a totally fake question, but consider the topic of food broached, because it is an important one.
  •  Also, let’s please talk about the characters! Tell me all your thoughts! I have a friend who couldn’t stand Midori, which I find near impossible to fathom, because I think Midori is so fantastic. I feel like there’s so much to say about the characters in Kamome Diner, their journeys and their relationships with each other. I’d love to hear your take on them!
  • A last thing I wanted to bring up was the relatively small but influential presence of what I would broadly call magic in the film – the coffee charm and the straw dummy curse, but also for example Masako’s shape-shifting luggage. What did you guys make of this? How does it fit into the film, in your opinion?

Lots of text here, but I hope you can all pick out something that you find interesting to talk about – or if your reading of the film was completely different, please do share!

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Emily: Ok, first of all, YES, THIS FILM IS AMAZING. It’s almost a shock to see a film in which women just…are. They’re not positioned in relation to men, not explicitly or implicitly subject to a male gaze, they are simply a group of full and complex people who find community in each other and take up the central space of the film with no sort of fanfare or explicit message — they just own that space and it’s fascinating to watch them in it. NB I also love films with explicit messages about social issues and/or with fanfare around women’s importance within them (yes, let’s celebrate these occasions! fistpump!) but there’s something so refreshing here about not doing that. The women’s power and creativity and resilience is highlighted by the other women in the film and celebrated on those terms, and that’s enough.

The question about relating to the viewer is a really good one. One thing I think about here is the idea of looking into the diner from outside vs coming in and talking with the women. There are those repeated shots of the Finnish women rudely staring at Sachie, basically using the diner as an opportunity to look at this woman behind glass and make judgments about her. Of course eventually they come inside and stop being such assholes by participating in the space and experience of the diner. I wonder if this can act as a kind of metaphor for the experience of watching this film…it invites (indeed pushes) you not to see the women in it as curiosities or entertainment, but instead to (imaginatively) join them. That sounds so cheesy but it’s kind of how I felt? Maybe I’m just mad that I can’t eat those cinnamon buns and trying to imaginatively make up for it because oh my god. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I agree with you Maaike that this film is incredibly compassionate, and I found it both moving and personally restoring.

FOOD! All of the food in this movie is stunning. Like you’re pointing out, Maaike, the idea of food-as-ritual is so important here, and what struck me especially was the way this ritual was linked to other bodily rituals and routines–Sachie’s swimming, the aikido, the act of going to the market, or sitting down together, or even cleaning the diner. Food is probably the most important symbol of community and home in the movie but I really appreciated how preparing and eating food were shown as part of a whole series of practices by which we come to feel at home in our bodies and with each other. I feel like so often representations of food or eating (especially if women are doing the preparing/consuming) are so fraught and performatively laden with our collective anxiety about (women’s) bodies. I really didn’t feel that at all here (which, again, WAS SO REFRESHING), and I think it might have something to do with this attention to how food is something that sustains us not only literally but more generally as part of a series of practices that bring us home to ourselves.

I LOVE ALL OF THE CHARACTERS BUT MY FAVOURITE IS MASAKO AND I CAN’T DEAL WITH HOW MUCH I LOVE HER AND HOW BADASS SHE IS.

Also: “A strange man gave me a cat. So now I can’t go home.”

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Madeleine Lee: This film was very comforting to watch, like having a warm rice ball in your hands.

“A film in which women just…are” — I really love this, Emily, and I completely agree. I think it’s interesting that the major outside-inside relationships this movie navigates all seem to be between women, unless it’s just that all of the major relationships are between women, period. I also agree that the film itself seems very compassionate, so that even the rude Finnish women from the beginning are given a chance to be seen as kind humans — and not just at the end of the film, but only halfway through it.

I did want to talk about one major male character. To be honest, I was really, really worried about Tommi even just from the summary of his role in the film, and every time he entered the diner I pre-emptively winced. Thankfully his expression of interest in Japanese culture never got any more questionable than the geisha shirt (and actually, “Write my name in kanji” was worse than that for me). It took me a while to feel personally comfortable with his presence, but the film is, as is it is with everyone, indulgent of him — so is Sachie, from the moment she attempts to remember the Gatchaman theme — which eventually made me accept him. And he does represent, or is supposed to represent, I guess, a bridge between the oppositions set up by the film, between cultures or even just between the exterior street and the interior of the diner. Did others think about him that much?

I was interested in Sachie’s personality, too. Particularly I was struck by the fact that while she seems very open and accepting of anything, at the same time she continually demonstrates a preference for ritual, tradition, and sometimes even a need for things to be done a certain way — her aikido every night, her insistence that the Finnish fusion onigiri is bad (which is later explained by her story about her father always making her Japanese onigiri), Tommi getting free coffee for being her first customer even when he’s her only customer. Not that I think that openness and a preference for tradition are necessarily opposite qualities, but I was surprised by how strongly the latter came across when the plot would naturally seem to focus on the former.

The food! The food was amazing and so appealingly presented. The perfect crunch of Masako biting into Sachie’s onigiri for the first time gave me a chill. I really like both of your ideas that this movie presents food as ritual and as both literally and spiritually nourishing. (When Masako goes to the Finnish forest to find peace, what does she do? Collect mushrooms.)

I wonder what it means, and I’m curious what others think, that the cinnamon rolls seem to be the turning point for Sachie and the Kamome Diner — it’s their smell that finally lures the three skeptical women in and leads to more customers, and Sachie decides to make them after the failed Finnish onigiri experiment. (Not to mention they also look freaking amazing and I want to bake them and I don’t even like cinnamon rolls that much.) At other times things are coded so definitively as either Finnish or Japanese, but everyone, it seems, loves cinnamon rolls and coffee. Is this a moment “beyond culture”, so to speak? Is this more useful for bridging the cultural gaps than reaching out with one’s own cultural products?

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Maaike:
I definitely agree with you both that it’s amazing to see a film in which women take up their own space, and exist in it so completely and yet so casually. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t even gesture at that in my initial email, because it’s such a huge part of why I love the film!

Emily, I really loved your extension of the idea of cooking and food as rituals to include daily routines, and tying them all to a sense of being grounded in our bodies. I’m wondering how this relates to the point Maddie brought up about Sachie’s preference for ritual and tradition, which I thought was really interesting, too. I personally wondered if this might be a way of grounding her in a place where she not only had no roots, but (certainly in the beginning) no support system, either, nothing that made it hers, so to speak. Performing small rituals in her own personal way could serve, maybe, to ground herself in the space she is claiming, or make it feel more welcoming to her?

Maddie, you are definitely not alone in your reaction to Tommi, who raised my hackles almost immediately. One of the reasons I love Midori so much is that she doesn’t really take to Tommi, and is clearly weirded out by and skeptical of his obsession with Japan. I guess, looking back, I chose to read his trajectory in the film as being a kind of inversion of that of the three Finnish ladies. Where they are initially very suspicious of what Sachie and her diner represent, and let go of this othering throughout the film to become regular customers, Tommi others Sachie & co by seeing them exclusively as Japanese people and subsuming them into his fetishistic thing for Japan (or rather, what he thinks Japan is, cartoons and geisha and samurai) before becoming so involved in their daily lives and upheavals that this isn’t really sustainable anymore. I think the indulgence of the film itself with Tommi, which you pointed out, probably played a big part in my reasoning though, because I was primed to dislike him intensely too.

It’s hard not to reply to all of your points because they’re all so good, but I’m going to step back now and let others respond!

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Dana: I almost didn’t watch the film because I’ve been so busy/stressed lately, but I am SO GLAD I did! I almost exclusively watch horror, exploitation, or long/sad art films, so this was a very welcome change and perfect for my headspace right now.

Some of the scenes – like Sachie rolling out the cinnamon rolls, or Masako staring up at the trees & sky in the forest, were incredibly soothing to me – almost to an ASMR extent. I’ve never been so soothed watching a film as an adult! All the characters are so loving and kind, but in their own special ways – for most of the film, I feel like we didn’t really have a full picture of Sachie, even though we know her as a kind, independent, helpful person, but until she tells the story about her father making her rice balls (tears!!) I didn’t understand her story. Then, it all snaps into place! And I think there’s a moment like that for each of the four main female characters. It’s so refreshing that Ogigami didn’t feel the need to rush all kinds of tragic backstory into the film immediately – instead, it comes out naturally in conversation, just like it would in real life.

The food! I love the ritual of coffee, the rolling out of the cinnamon rolls, the grilling of the fish. It’s so interesting how she was finally able to win over those snobby Finnish women with her cinnamon rolls (I agree with you, Maddie, when you said that that moment is “beyond culture”), and by the end, everyone was eating her delicious Japanese food. Sachie’s food is so clearly made with love and care that it appeals to everyone, beyond cultural definitions. It’s also really an interesting commentary on staying true to your culture after moving to a different place – Sachie doesn’t want to cater to homesick Japanese with the stereotypical foods, which I thought was interesting – instead, she wants to make her own Japanese food, from her home.

I was also primed to dislike Tommi intensely, but he didn’t seem to outwardly fetishize the women and their culture – at least as badly as I was expecting? Plus, I loved the high-five between Tommi and Midori at the end, I thought it was adorable.

Ok lastly! The magic was my favorite part!! As you said, Maaike, the coffee and food rituals, the charms and spells, and Masako finding those mushrooms in her suitcase (which convinced her to stay in Finland!) were all incredibly sweet and magical, but also fit into the world of the film perfectly. My favorite moment like that was when everyone in the pool applauded for Sachie after she had the great night at the diner – so sweet!!

But yes, what a great pick Maaike! Females just being is so refreshing – and being so supportive of one another!!

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Julia: I wish I had more time to put my feelings into words but here are some:

The thing that struck me the most about the film was how my mind was trying to categorize it right off the bat: where is she? Is it a Japanese movie set in Finland? Is it a Finnish movie, or a Japanese movie? Is it a comedy or a drama? I managed to tune out those feelings relatively quickly, but now that I’m reflecting on it I’m intrigued by what that says about how the film challenges the viewer. Dana describes how conversation between people is what pushes the film forward, and it makes it feel very much like real life in that way.

I’m really glad I had just eaten a big delicious meal before watching the film, because how mouth-watering was it? I’ve never had rice rolls, and OMG have you ever seen such beautiful chanterelles in your life? I don’t know what they are called in english, but those beautiful beautiful mushrooms! I was so very much hoping they would make a delicious meal with them (before their magic properties were exposed) because I love mushrooms. Have you ever been mushroom hunting? Gathering and preparing mushrooms you’ve harvested is so satisfying – but also kind of dangerous and you have to check with all these books – anyway complete aside but yes yes yes FOOD and now I want to make cinnamon rolls.

“A strange man gave me a cat. So now I can’t go home.” YES.

I hadn’t thought about what Madeleine points out about tradition and openness in the main character, but you are very right! Also, Emily’s interpretation of the rude women is totally spot on, and I had the same reflections about the literal “watching someone from behind glass” and making judgments. There’s a lot of shit going on in my life lately, and I’ve been reminded of the importance of kindness in part thanks to this film. Sometimes I get calls from strangers at work who are really unnecessarily demanding most of the time, and am so blown away by how my mood will change (for the better) if the person just says “thank you” or expresses gratitude in some way, shape or form. It’s so simple but so important to me. The kindness Sachie shows people, even though I kept thinking, “dude! Lady is in a high-stress situation!” She’s in a new country, she probably had to take out a huge loan to open her diner…” but her way of moving through the world is ultimately as a kind person. I think this touches on what you were trying to say, Maaike, about hostility and vulnerability.

I have some undeveloped thoughts about age as well – how age is never really discussed, that Tommi is a teenager and they help middle-aged heartbroken person, and how youthful the film feels in many ways even though all the characters are a variety of ages, but mostly older. But like I said, undeveloped ideas there… just jumbled intrigued thoughts.

I also really appreciated the cute aprons and also went on the Marimekko website after I finished watching the movie because that coat. Last but not least, my partner watched this with me and said, “This movie might as well be called ‘Japanese cuteness in Finland.'” Movie review in four words.

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Emily: I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts. I think it’s so great that we’re doing a roundtable discussion of this film–I feel like usually things that are deemed Worthy Of A Roundtable are things we feel we need to roundly critique, things that bring up bad feelings, things that are making our world worse. It’s wonderful to have a space to discuss in a sustained and nuanced way something that makes us happy. (This is also why I love that we are doing a Things We Love feature regularly. META!) In a lot of ways the things that make us happy are often seen as not worthy of critical attention, because they aren’t complex enough, or they are guilty pleasures, superficial, or trivial. This film is none of those things: it brings joy to us while existing as a complicated document of relationships (intimate and global) and feelings (both good ones and very deep, raw, and intense ones…and those that mingle these supposedly separate spheres of feeling), as our discussion has highlighted.

For some reason, Julia, Simon’s assessment of the film wasn’t sitting right with me, and as I was thinking about these things and our discussion I think I realized why: that is, that identifying the film as “cute” brings it back to those categories we associate with things that “just” make us happy without being really serious. Then I was thinking about Sianne Ngai’s writing on cuteness: she says that “Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled.” The thing is, I’m sure that neither Simon nor you meant the assessment as reductive! It’s just interesting that it’s easy to categorize a film that explicitly centers women’s experiences (notably, Japanese women’s experiences) and good feelings as “cute,” a category that, as Ngai explores, is positive, but in a way that hinges on a power relationship in which the cute thing is necessarily diminished.

(The aprons were seriously so cute though.)

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