The United States of America is a diverse country. In less than a decade, there will be no clear ethnic majority among children under the age of 18 in the US, and by roughly 2042, no clear ethnic majority for the entire population. (Hence the title of comedian Hari Kondabolu’s debut album, Waiting for 2042. when there will be more people of color in America than whites.) In spite of these demographic realities, when US diversity is presented on screen, it is almost always shown in relation to the present European American majority. Off the top of my head, I can only think of a couple films where the plots primarily work off two non-white demographics interacting with each other. There’s Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1992) and Chi Muoi Lo’s Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (2000). In both those films, it was about African Americans and a different Asian American community, Indian and Vietnamese respectively. This lack of cross-cultural narratives without whites, this lack of diverse diverse narratives, is another example of who holds power in Hollywood and even who holds power in indie cinema. (As further evidence, Mira Nair, the director of Mississippi Masala said she faced pressure from financial backers to cast white leads even in lieu of her casting “The Greatest actor All Time Period”, Denzel Washington.)
East Side Sushi can now be added to what will likely be a growing canon as we head towards 2042. The film is the debut feature for Anthony Lucero, a visual effects specialist for George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic where he’s worked on films such as Star Wars Episodes I & II (1999 & 2002). In East Side Sushi, we follow Juana, a food service worker (played by Diana Elisabeth Torres, who, in the reverse of most Hollywood unhealthy expectations of actresses, gained weight for the role), as she engages in a path to self-discovery via sushi. She lives with her father Apa (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) and her daughter Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre). Each day, Juana has to wake herself and her daughter up at an ungodly hour to prepare the family’s fruiteria cart. While woman-ing the cart one day, she is mugged, what she takes as a final straw to move on to another job. Stumbling on a help wanted sign in a sushi restaurant, and mesmerized by the rolls prepared within, Juana is hired as kitchen prep. Sushi chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) notices culinary skills when he sees them and begins to teach Juana Japanese basics, such as how to properly cook sushi rice. Like any entrepreneur, Juana begins to teach herself how to make sushi and presents her advancing skills to Aki on a night when the restaurant is short-staffed. However, the owner of the restaurant, Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), is an unmovable force behind the ‘traditions’ of sushi, one tradition being that women are discriminated against in the industry.
Has anyone ever tested the sexist rationalization put forth by sushi traditionalists that women’s hands are too warm to prepare sushi? I myself have been told by women whose hands I have held over the years that my hands are very warm. These women’s hands have always been very cold. I’ve never believed that sexist rationalization to exclude women from the sushi chef profession and look forward to an actual study of the claims. That old husband’s tale comes up in East Side Sushi, as do many other references to ‘authenticity’ and tradition. Beyond traditions for gender, there are also ethnic traditions. Juana is not Japanese. But, as she points out, one of the other sushi chefs is Chinese. (Juana being Latina also presents the socioeconomic issue of how many of our restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area are full of Latinos in the back, less often seen out front.) Lucero, who also wrote the script, works in some Latino food authenticity parallels, such as Juana’s refusal to use bottled lime juice on her fruits. She is open to retaining traditions that make the food taste better. It’s just assumptions on how chefs need to look where she calls bullshit. East Side Sushi, in its title, implies a refashioning of traditions to embrace rather than exclude, questioning which aspects of traditions need to be kept and which need to be tossed aside like day old sushi.
The film has problems in parts where the dialogue and presentation seem poorly paced and less natural. Yet the campy feel of the sushi contest follows the intended campy feel of shows like Iron Chef. There are lovely moments of watching characters do things without dialogue that I found as refreshing as patrons of Juana’s cart likely found her fruit. In addition to the need for more of these stories of communities interacting on screen we don’t normally see, Oakland-native Lucero has shown a part of the Bay Area that blockbusters and rom-coms from Hollywood ignore. (There are more Asian and Latino Americans in this film than those shown in the recent supposedly San Francisco-based Planet of the Apes (2011), Godzilla (2014) and Terminator (2015) installments combined.) When the Golden State Warriors recently met my Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals, the ABC network often defaulted to showing the San Francisco skyline when the Warriors actually play in Oakland. What was there to signify Oakland for the masses? (They did occasionally have images from Lake Merritt.) Lucero’s scenes of Frutivale street festivals is a place for future broadcasts to consider. Oakland has a long history of diverse neighborhoods and the stories within them have yet to be fully realized on screen with Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station (2013) being the exemplar exception. Lucero’s film is a welcomed part of this start for Oakland, and for the future U.S. of 2042.
East Side Sushi opens through the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California on September 18th.