Fuel (Japan, 2019) [JAPAN CUTS 2020]

Robatayaki is a centuries old Japanese method of grilling fresh seafood, vegetables over irori, sunken charcoal hearths, originating in Kushiro prefecture on the Hokkaido islands. Even today Kushiro is home to many robatayaki restaurants that uphold this traditional way of grill cooking. A glimpse into one such eatery is offered by contemporary installation artist and short film maker Yu Araki in Fuel. Yu has been labelled an avant-garde artist as his works use a combination of media and open up to wide interpretation. Yet, occasionally, he makes short documentaries that channel a specific theme within their brief running time. Fuel, silent with a sparse, gentle drum based background score, at 16 minutes, is such.

Shot on location at Kushiro Robata, a 60-year-old robatayaki restaurant in Kushiro, Fuel is clear in its narrative and direct in its visual design. The film gently opens to a small window of fire against a darkened background. The scene cuts, to reveal its source, a heating irori and an old woman (Shizuko Nakajima), the sole chef of the restaurant staring intently at the grate of the hearth as sparks fly about. Surrounded by trays of spices and oils and some jars of ingredients for the grilled food, her attention is exclusively on grilling various meats and vegetables that she is given, to their precise tastes.

Yu places his camera static at the empty side of the hearth to capture the chef and the irori in complete and quietly observe her process of grilling. Moving the raw food to various hot points on the grate, spicing them up, she perfectly prepares every culinary item with no word spoken between her and the other women staff, all dressed in their traditional everyday wear, their yugatas, who regularly give her plates of food to be grilled. They take the ready dishes to their leisurely waiting patrons. Time passing at this intimate, lamp lit restaurant, then, takes on a different pace, entirely defined by how the food is made and every person at the restaurant seems be keenly aware of what it takes for the fresh, healthy food to come to their table. They relish their wait, in solitude at times, as Yu focuses on a middle aged man (Satoshi Hata), who smokes and simply sits contentedly at a table, not even seeming to think of his placed order. Small groups at the table around the hearth speak in whispers and eat as and when dishes are placed in front of them.  

There is no intention to rush through, neither for the chef, the women who work at the place, and the patrons who visit and eat in quiet. When Yu cuts to a close-up of a clock ticking away and small metallic and clay collectibles decoratively arranged, he draws attention to historical time as well. Displaying a statue of a wolf, a symbol of Ainu people, a maneki-neko (a cat figurine), an age old good luck charm for the Japanese, and metallic engraved pots dating to the Edo period, the restaurant announces that robatayaki cooking is as ancient and as significant and cherished today.

As the irori flames rise, Yu focuses on the determined, somewhat tired face of the old woman via lingering close-ups. As one who works hard, physical labour for many hours each day, close to intense heat and smoke, Yu is respectful of her, her skills and the culinary gifts she offers to her restaurant customers. Even as the world is literally ablaze, the small television behind the chef broadcasting news of arsonous destruction, she calmly controls the fire of the irori in front of her, preserving the traditional way grilled food is made, to be savoured and eaten well, to good health.

Fuel is streaming as part of JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film from July 17-30.