Sunday, 3 March, 3:30 pm
Rainbow Cinemas, Northumberland Mall

zen diary posterWriter Tsutomu lives alone at a mountain cabin in Nagano. He collects fruits and mushrooms from the mountain. He also raises vegetables in a field. Every day, he cooks his meals with these natural ingredients. Doing that, he can feel the flow of the seasons and he writes his book. Sometimes, his editor/girlfriend Machiko visits him. They cook with seasonal ingredients and eat together. They have a good time together. Tsutomu seems to be enjoying an easygoing life, but he is still unable to bury his dead wife's ashes in a grave. His wife died 13 years ago.

Cast: Kenji Sawada, Tomoko Naraoka, Takako Matsu, Koharu Kusumi
Genre: Drama
Original Language: Japanese
Director: Yuji Nakae
Writer: Yuji Nakae
Runtime: 1h 51m


By James Hadfield

We’re living in an era when many people spend as much time gazing at images of food as they do actually eating it. All the same, good food movies are as rare as a last-minute reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro: The alchemy that goes into creating a perfect meal doesn’t typically lend itself to the narrative requirements of a two-hour drama.

Maybe that’s why some of the most satisfying foodie fare to come out of Japan recently has been TV series such as “Midnight Diner” and “Solitary Gourmet”: episodic, gently paced shows in which the story is mostly just an aperitif for whatever is on the menu.

ZENFans of these offerings will probably appreciate Yuji Nakae’s “The Zen Diary,” a serene and nourishing adaptation of a 1978 nonfiction book by the late author Tsutomu Mizukami. In spirit and sensibility, it’s hard to imagine a more Japanese film, rooted in an unsentimental — and yes, very Zen — outlook.

Kenji Sawada gives an agreeably rumpled performance as Tsutomu, who has turned his back on the conveniences of the modern world in favor of a more rustic existence. Living alone in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, he spends his days immersed in an ascetic lifestyle that revolves mainly around food: tending his garden, foraging for ingredients, then returning to the kitchen to turn them into something scrumptious.

The movie was shot over the space of a year and pays close attention to the passing of the micro-seasons, each of which brings its own treats: bamboo shoots, ume plums, eggplant and daikon. (The title of Mizukami’s book literally translates as “12 months of eating dirt,” though “living off the land” would be a more palatable alternative.)

Tsutomu’s preparation of these ingredients is shown with meticulous attention to detail, reflecting the involvement of esteemed gastronomy expert Yoshiharu Doi in the film’s production. Although the dishes are a model of simplicity, the process that goes into their creation — further elucidated in Tsutomu’s narrative voiceover — is clearly a full-time vocation.

zen diary“The Zen Diary” is a richly realized introduction to the fundamentals of Japanese cuisine, then, but Nakae can’t seem to decide if he’s making a movie or a feature-length episode of Netflix series “Chef’s Table.” His screenplay does manage to craft a narrative of sorts from Mizukami’s writings, but it’s seldom as absorbing as what’s happening in the kitchen.

Over the space of the year, Tsutomu will have to deal with a death in the family and straighten out his not-strictly-professional relationship with his editor, Makiko (Takako Matsu), who turns up periodically for a good meal and to pester him for his next manuscript.

He also has to reckon with his own mortality, which is an even less appetizing prospect. Though Tsutomu has devoted himself to a routine that’s as predictable as the passing seasons, he’s getting older, and a close brush with death will force him to decide on what he values most in life.

The choice that he ultimately makes, during the film’s hushed and contemplative final act, may not be particularly satisfying in dramatic terms. However, it’s in keeping with the overall philosophy of “The Zen Diary”: that living at one with nature also means accepting that all good things, like all good meals, must eventually come to an end.