I don’t usually write about cinema here but I have spent a goodly amount of time thinking about the intersections of food and film, thanks to the wonderful K. Once upon a time, K and I undertook a project called Cinemeat, in which we spent an entire semester exploring the global interstices of filmmaking and foodmaking, to say nothing of film and food consumption. Every week we watched a food-related film and cooked food it inspired. Sometimes K made films: on one memorable occasion she filmed as a local friend killed and plucked one of his chickens, then we watched her footage before roasting and eating the same chicken. I appreciated that bird more than any other I’ve eaten, and it helped us to think about how food and film can be sewn into our everyday lives. What do we document in film, what do we eat, and how do these choices preserve and reproduce cultures? One film we watched which asks precisely these questions comes to mind in these difficult days for Japan: Ogawa Shinsuke’s Manzan benigaki / Red Persimmons (2001).
Ogawa is one of Japan’s most important documentarians, with a committment to social justice aligned to a deep engagement with Japanese rural life and the practices and politics of farming. He began making Red Persimmons in the late 1980s but died before he could finish it, and it was completed by his disciple Peng Xiaolian. The film documents in minute detail the harvesting and drying of persimmons, as well as how that process has changed over the twentieth century. It’s an incredibly beautiful film, focusing on the colours and patterns of the persimmons as well as asking us to look closely at the details of everyday life in rural Japan. We might connect its careful attention to the weight of how things are done both to the slow food movement and to contemporary slow cinema. Both refuse fast and cheap culture, and Red Persimmons argues for the value of creating both food and images with care.
Persimmons are a traditional crop in Yamagata prefecture, and the process of picking, peeling, hanging, and drying the fruit has moved from an entirely artisanal system to a more and more modern one over the decades. A machine cobbled together from old bicycle parts allows for rapid peeling, while a special knife makes exactly the right cut in the fruit’s stem. Today, power equipment is used to process the persimmons more rapidly. The film doesn’t condemn this modernisation outright, but it does trace the fading of a traditional way of life. Backbreaking labour is not necessarily something to be protected, and farmers have good reason to welcome technological advances, but they also seek to protect the knowledge and attention to detail that traditional methods demand. The film connects a way of eating that is specifically Japanese – the love of dried persimmons and the culture of quality that looks for white “bloom” on the surface of a well-dried fruit – to the rural economy and culture that sustain it.
Red Persimmons comes to mind these days in part because it is set in the northeast of Japan, not far from the areas so devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. The village of Kaminoyama is in Yamagata prefecture, just across the mountains from the badly affected city of Sendai. People from the Fukushima power plant are being evacuated to Yamagata and radiation may affect the region. What then for the rural areas whose entire culture and livelihoods are built on traditional fruit farming? Ogawa’s film captured a culture already in the 1980s in danger of being lost to social change. I don’t know how the communities it depicts are faring today, but the film’s impetus to document something before it is lost may be all the more important in the wake of this disaster.
If you are connected to an institution, you can buy Red Persimmons here. You can also find it on Mubi here. And don’t forget to click the link at the top (or here) to donate to a range of charities who are working in Japan right now.