Our Meal For Tomorrow (Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) fist published in the programme for The Japan Foundation Touring Programme 2020
“Everything in this world is cumbersome and complicated. It’s not easy to get what you really want.”
These words addressed by Ryota Hayama (Yuto Nakajima) to his on-again off-again girlfriend Koharu Uemaru (Yuko Araki) practically define the genre to which Our Meal For Tomorrow (Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) belongs. For in the typical cinematic romance, be it comic or, as here, more dramatic, a pair of lovers is repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to fulfil their desire by a series of obstacles and narrative complications, until they finally come together. Directed and writen by Masahide Ichii, whose Blindly In Love (Hakoiri musuko no koi, 2013) was part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019, and adapted from a 2012 novel of the same name by Maiko Seo, Our Meal For Tomorrow certainly conforms to the expectations of a romance, as it traces Ryota and Koharu’s relationship over several years, from their meet-cute in high school as they are first brought into close quarters in a ‘rice bag jump’ relay event, to their time together and apart in college and their first steps into the adult world of work and family.
At the same time, several factors distinguish One Meal For Tomorrow from its romantic rivals. For a start, there is its inversion of traditional gendered rôles, with Ryota playing meek milquetoast to Koharu’s more assertive pushiness. Amid school classes on Japanese women’s suffrage, it is Koharu who initiates the relationship, and Koharu who, at least at first, takes the lead in their sack-racing, until Ryota suggests that they change tactics and “switch positions”. This negotiation captures in miniature a broader shift in the film, as Ryota ever so gradually learns to stand up for himself and say what he wants (without Koharu’s own strength of character being displaced or undermined).
Secondly, the love that is part and parcel of the romance genre is here offset by an unusual preoccupation with loss and death. Ryota’s self-imposed isolation in high school is a symptom of the grief and guilt he feels for his bigger brother, lost to cancer aged 17 – and while morose, serious Ryota is very different in personality from impulsive, happy-go-lucky Koharu, she is drawn to him in part through her own sense of loss (as an orphan abandoned at a young age by both her parents), and her desire to rebuild with Ryota the ‘picture perfect family’ she lacked as a child.
Related to these grave themes are the film’s philosophical underpinnings, unusual in a romance. Our Meal For Tomorrow opens with a pair of tourist viewfinders looking out from a rooftop to the buildings and ground below – although only one of the viewfinders is in use. Peering through it, before looking up at the blue sky above, the adult Ryota is immediately characterised as being both a contemplative type, and a loner. Indeed, Ryota is a ‘gloomy’, somewhat distracted deep thinker, friendless in high school and always perceiving the contingencies and vicissitudes of life through an abstract, intellectual lens. He is the kind of person who looks at a bowl of rice and immediately wonders aloud how many grains it contains. The erotic journey that he will undertake across the years with Koharu is also, for him, a quest for self-discovery, meaning and happiness. Here romance is a mere peg upon which all manner of observations on the human condition can be hooked – and if Ryota is alone in that opening rooftop scene (despite the presence of two telescopes), the film’s subsequent focus will also be on his solitude – a near existential emptiness which is only ever filled by Koharu, even if the majority of the film’s duration is devoted to times when the two are split up rather than united.
As its very title implies, Our Meal For Tomorrow has an unusual, almost Tampopo-esque fixation with food – whether the meals that Koharu, Ryota and others share, or the metaphors of consumption to which Ryota regularly resorts in trying to think through life’s big issues. “You mustn’t waste even a meal,” Ryota’s moribund brother instructs him. “It may be you unable to eat tomorrow. Eat, drink. Death comes to everyone.” Following this Epicurean injunction, Ryota becomes noted for being an unfussy eater – and yet he is, at least at first, far less open to people. Characteristically he uses culinary terms to describe his fear of personal attachment, which he likens to “a delicious steak” that he’d rather not eat at all than savour knowing that it will soon be finished. The uncomprehending Koharu takes Ryota’s metaphor literally, but her response nonetheless represents the perfect counterargument to his anxieties about finitude and mortality. “A never-ending steak is nothing but a nightmare,” she says, suggesting the benefit of purely transient pleasures in a world of cumbersome complications.
© Anton Bitel