Cooking fate and contradictions in ‘Makanai’

A scene from the Japanese limited series The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, which is now streaming on Netflix.

YOUNG girls cooking for other young girls ruled by women who are ruled by men—that should describe Kore-eda Hirokazu’s The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House. But that is not fair to this series, which evokes almost a lost era even when we are reminded that all these events are happening now. There is more density to a narrative that attempts to describe this phenomenon of maiko or geiko, which, when articulated, should be framed within one of the most contentious cultural phenomena in Japanese society: the geisha. Japanologists would tell you the geisha is the most misunderstood being in Japanese culture, second only if not equal to the samurai. Which brings us to the immediate crisis—Makanai the series could suffer through similar contentions. Or misunderstanding.

But first we have to deal with social or cultural boundaries—those unseen lines that bracket certain gestures or plots that not even the subtitles could solve or crystallize. But these are beautiful problems, the solutions to which are part of the magic and power of cinema.  The film is about two friends, Kiyo and Sumire, both from the cold North, Aomori. Their story begins with a long trip to Kyoto, a journey that takes them from the quintessential inaka or countryside, a term that connotes “rural” or “countryside”. It also is used pejoratively. Place that journey against the destination and you have a distinct polarization, for Kyoto is nearly the de-facto cultural center in Japanese social geography while the countryside has nothing of the accoutrement of civilization or lifestyle.

Kyoto is also the place for the geisha tradition, which has persisted from the 17th century up to the present, in particular the Gion area, which has been preserved by heritage-conscious Japanese.

To Kyoto, Kiyo and Sumire travel to become maiko. But what is a maiko? Things are easily lost in translation. Early on, as these two girls begin their training in dance, which is called “mai,” the dance master insists that it be not called “odori.” Why nitpick? Why not? As with any other Japanese artistic pursuit, being a maiko or a geisha means you belong to an “Ie,” (literally a house) which can be translated into a “House” or “School of Thought.” The “mai” is closer to the Noh movement, spare, meditative, while “odori” is compared to the Kabuki dance, brisk and flashy.

The rigidity of the training thus puts a brake to the quick dismissal that a maiko is nothing but a training phase for young hostesses in a bar. In a culture where female prostitution is embedded in histories, it has several terms for a woman: the oiran is the label for the top courtesan while down the tier of exploitation is the yūjo, the mere woman of pleasure. Consider even the function of the women of the night disguised amusingly in the double meaning of mizu shobai, which literally means “water business.” The moralist therefore in this context can always say a geisha or a geiko is nothing but an elaborate cover for prostitution. Perhaps, yes. Perhaps, no.

This is the context of the well-guarded events that transpire in the maiko house: young girls being groomed to entertain men following a training that includes not merely initiating games but moving with a particular grace as to elicit nothing but admiration from men. These customers are not merely clients also; they need to know how to behave before the young girls and the Mother (Okaasan, literally Mother) who accompanies them.

How will Kore-eda Hirokazu, the poet of rawness in Japanese civilization, portray the maiko? Remembering his works like Dare mo shiranai (Nobody Knows), the 2002 film on child abandonment, which broke people’s hearts and questioned the level of humanity in a huge city like Tokyo, what bleakness and mundane cruelty will be in Makanai?

There is an early subtle sign of meanness in this quiet retelling of youth’s quest for dreams, when Kiyo fails to convince the dance teacher she can ever be a maiko, the geiko apprentice. This streak of spitefulness is underscored by the fact that her childhood friend becomes that rare girl who is seen as the next great geiko. And let us not forget Momoko, played with such haute elan by Ai Hashimoto, who cannot be happy because she cannot be in love, and questions all the peregrinations of intimacy, togetherness and security.

This is not, of course, the first time the geisha is adored and problematized on screen by filmmakers. Kore-eda follows an illustrious list of masters—from Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion to Kinji Fukasaku’s The Geisha House. Think of The Sea was Watching, a film by Kei Kumai based on the screenplay by Kurosawa some four years after the latter’s demise. Who can forget the visual splendor in Hideo Gosha’s Yoshiwara Enjo (Yoshiwara was a licensed pleasure quarter set up by the shogunate in the 17th century), where violence and erotica were fused to frame the tragic and sexual character of the geisha. In one scene from the film, Gosha, the exponent of yakuza films, shows a despondent geisha, old and unwanted, as she squirms on top of a pile of futon, red blood against the soft, red mattresses, the brutality of despair glorious even as our senses are assaulted by the mystery of a woman’s allure now an ugly shadow, not even feared but unwanted. Do not expect any of this to be in Makanai. If you feel they exist, they are hidden in the innocence of the maiko apprentice, or you walk past their giggling and ignore the inarticulate resignation of these young girls—a wondrous subterfuge to how indentured slavery has evolved to become part of the unsaid narratives of Japan regarding their women.

Unforgettable is Makanai despite its touchy politics. Or have you missed that conversation between Kyoko and her mother (Mother Azusa to the entire group of maiko apprentices) about whether WHO is looking at the exploitation of young girls in their house? Or when Mother (Chiyo), the older house mother, opens the door from her room to correct the two by bringing in the organization, Unicef?

Who was it who said that cinemas do not comment on histories but rather insert themselves at certain points in the histories of a society? This insertion or filmic intervention appears to be the boon of Makanai. When Kiyo-chan, the makanai or in-house cook, has finished converting bread crusts or pan no mimi (or ears of the bread) into sweet delicacies, and discovered the varieties of bonito flakes and special kelps to make into Kyoto udon; when the cuisines have been consumed and celebrated, there is the Sumire becoming Momohana, the girl into a maiko. But in that rite of passage, we are reminded that men (in this film, a father and son) take care of the dressing for the young girl, even the special oshiroi, the white face powder mixed with water to highlight the main features of the person’s face. Men who are called otokoshi, not women, are tasked with how to tie the darari obi, the long waist sash that can dangle up to 7 meters. Such is the irony of this age-old tradition.

Moments do not make a cinema but what is a Japanese cinema without those breathtaking scenes conducted in silence? I believe I watched with my mouth agape as Momoko, the pride of the maiko house, opted to dance a mai called “Kurokami” or “Black Hair.” She was on a barge, the stage separated from the audience on another boat by the river. As she danced with the stillness of an old pond, she was telling the clients, which included the man she would never marry and was now on his last day in Kyoto, about the story of a woman lamenting how her man never came to be by her side. It was a dance of regret and loss, and it was also a declaration of independence by a woman whose art freed her from a society of families and yet imprisoned her in a different tradition.

The view of the hatsuyuki, the first snowfall, visible from the maru-mado or round window; the performance of four geiko belonging to three generations in the cramped space of the teahouse; and the door opening to reveal the new maiko stepping out to greet and be seen the world, with her father standing with mixed emotions—these images and more stop the world for us and make us believe in the ethos and beauty of the ephemeral. But Kore-eda Hirokazu, true to Japanese tradition, reserves the best for last—when Sumire, returning home as a maiko this time, goes to the kitchen and sees the back of Kiyo, the perfect quotidian in a perfect kitchen. There in the solitude of friendship and childhood memories, the makanai san and the maiko paint a human eternity which may exist only in their simple minds but nevertheless a warm reassurance for all of us.

Outside of Mori Nana as Makanai-san and Deguchi Netsugi, the new maiko and the loveliest in her generation, Takako Tokiwa as Azusa and Keiko Matsuzaka as Chiyo, two of the Mothers (Okaasan, as in mother,  not Mama san, the latter used in regular bars and clubs), can steal your attention and hearts. With them are the other stars of the series, Taneda Yohei, the production designer, and Kondo Ryuto the cinematographer (he worked with Kore-eda on the 2018 Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters).

Makanai is based on the best-selling manga written by Koyama Aiko. The film is directed by Kore-eda with Tsuno Megumi, Okuyama Hiroshi, and Sato Takuma. Produced by Kore-eda and Kawamura Genki, the film is now streaming on Netflix.


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