It is difficult to resist a documentary about food. Such films tend to make the mouth water with visual presentations of the most delightful restaurants and distinctive meals. This feels particularly the case in Japan, a country that has inspired more than its fair share of cuisine-focused cinema over the years – both factual and fictional. Films like Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) and Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Udon (2006) combined traditional Japanese food with comedy and drama, while David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) was a significant international hit. John Daschbach’s new documentary Come Back Anytime is the latest iteration of this trend, and it is a warm, deeply enjoyable example of the genre.
Masamoto Ueda cooks ramen from his small Tokyo restaurant Bizentei. He is self-taught, and has been serving hot, spicy noodle bowls to local customers for more than four decades. Through observing Ueda over the course of one year (the film is split into four seasons) and interviewing both Ueda and his patrons, Daschbach develops a picture of a fascinating man, his legendary food, and the enormous effect he has had on his customers – and they upon him.
The food is the hook: it captures the viewer’s attention, and is an easy method to promote the film. Daschbach’s film extends beyond this, however, into a touching biography of Ueda and his wife Kazuko, a history lesson on Japanese food culture, and an insight into the lives of Ueda’s regular customers, and how they relate to him. The film reveals charming weekend excursions Ueda takes with his regulars into the country to source locally-grown fruit, naturally grown yams, and other delights. It showcases a relationship that extends well beyond preparing and eating ramen.
A light jazz soundtrack gives the film an upbeat backing – although it does occasionally feel just a little intrusive. Daschbash’s unfussy, straight-forward direction keeps the focus on the people involved, and provides a nice easygoing vibe. It is like comfort food for the eyes and ears.
It is nice to see the film devote time to Kazuko, who by her own admission married young and found her own life rapidly subsumed by the responsibiity of running a restaurant. Now past 60 years old, she is aggressively finding time for her own life and priorities – including becoming a classical art painter. It is also nice to see the film’s honesty: Ueda openly discusses his failings as a younger man, and allows a greater appreciation for the viewer of what his restaurant has brought him.
The modest scope of the documentary is perhaps its greatest strength. It does not purport to profile Japan’s best ramen chef; simply one with a small establishment and an appreciative clientele. Likewise this is not a significant or groundbreaking film. It is wonderfully enjoyable, intimate, and satisfying. Plus – as these films always go – it has left me craving ramen.
Come Back Anytime is screening at the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival on 15 and 24 August 2021 (assuming Melbourne is not in lockdown). It is also available to rent online across Australia from 6 August via MIFF Play. In both cases, tickets are limited.