Interview: Utako Morishita

“People – they all change”. Retrospective Look into the Ruokala Lokki Screening Workshop in Helsinki

Naogo Ogigami’s critically-acclaimed film Ruokala Lokki (“Kamome Diner”, 2006), based on Yoko Mure’s novel, depicts the heartwarming story of three Japanese women who gradually build up a solidarity both among themselves and with Finns to run a diner in Helsinki. The film espouses exotic cultural differences between Finland and Japan as well as emotional confrontations with the country one is born into and another one adapts to.

Utako Morishita, a film industry employee in Japan and a strong enthusiast of Finnish culture, has recently hosted a screening workshop for Ruokala Lokki at Kahvila Suomi, an exquisite café in the heart of Helsinki which previously served as the actual set for the film. As an unyielding fan of Ruokala Lokki, Morishita explains how the screening idea in Helsinki was born:

Morishita: Ruokala Lokki is the first Japanese film that was shot entirely in Finland. Although it was released 7 years ago, it still has a big influence for the Japanese. I held the screening workshop of this film twice in Tokyo. I know it has huge and intensive fandom in Japan. I would like to let Finnish people know the reason why many Japanese tourists come to Helsinki. And also I wanted to show it at the film’s own location. It must be an amazing experience.

Ruokala Lokki revolves around 38 year-old Sachie’s dedicated intentions to bring more customers to her diner in Punavuori, Helsinki: She patiently brews her coffee, prepares rice balls and cinnamon buns and keeps the door open for any customer to join her. The Japanese cuisine diner which she maintains alone in Helsinki is her key to hold onto her native culture and simultaneously integrate into another. She finally has her first customer Tommi Hiltunen, a young Finnish man and a fan of Japanese animes. Through the lyrics of the Japanese animation Gatchaman which Tommi asks and she cannot remember, Sachie develops an accidental connection with the lonely Japanese traveler Midori at Akateeminen Kirjakauppa and asks her help for the lyrics in exchange for accommodation in her house in Kallio. Meanwhile, Masako, a middle aged Japanese woman, loses her luggage at Vantaa Airport and stops by Sachie’s diner in the hope of some company. Sachie, Tommi, Midori and Masako consequently join forces to attract more customers to the diner.

Ruokala Lokki is the first Japanese film that was shot entirely in Finland. Although it was released 7 years ago, it still has a big influence for the Japanese. I held the screening workshop of this film twice in Tokyo. I know it has huge and intensive fandom in Japan.

The screening of Ruokala Lokki was also simultaneously held in Tokyo and the participants of the two events were brought together via a live Skype connection between Helsinki and Tokyo. This interactive meeting, despite the 6 hour time difference between Finland and Japan, certainly added much enthusiasm to the multicultural spirit:

Morishita: I also held the same workshop at the same time in Tokyo. I promoted this event in Helsinki and Tokyo in a number of ways and got a lot of feedback. This kind of screening workshop is not common in Japan at the moment and I will show this new style to enjoy the films for Japanese film industry.

Ruokala Lokki opened up room for much conversation among the attendees about the Japanese cuisine in an intriguing workshop, where the main topic of discussion was “the soul food”. In Ruokala Lokki, “the soul food” represents the food one has good recollections of; in other words it acts as an empowering bridge between one’s past and present. The workshop attendees from different countries (Turkey, Poland, Finland and Japan, to name a few) were invited to think about their soul foods and what meanings they associated them with. The phrase itself might seem self-revealing; however, it most certainly has personal attributions for people of different nationalities:

Morishita: In this film, Sachie serves ordinary and non-touristic Japanese foods in her diner, instead of the well-known Sushi and Tempura. This kind of ordinary food is our [Japanese] soul food, and it connects with our good memories, i.e. our mother’s taste. In my opinion everyone has their own soul food. We talk about our soul food each other and it could be a food culture exchange. Kahvila Suomi, the venue of this event, was a suitable place to consider Finnish food culture, because they serve the traditional Finnish food. And also I have given chopsticks to the attendees: In Japan, Before we start to eat, we always say “ITADAKIMASU” holding the chopsticks. It means we thank to nature, life, work, wisdom and people at the table. Of course we can see the scene saying “ITADAKIMASU” in this film. I hope they will try it, because it’s one of the most important Japanese food culture.

Ruokala Lokki is a fusion of Finnish and Japanese cultures; it brings together the characters of both nationalities and embraces them with different life stories. All things aside, one can say that the Japanese culture plays a significant role in the film, especially in the reception of the Japanese cuisine and traditions in a Finnish location. So, how does the culture exchange occur in this context and what makes Ruokala Lokki such a special topic for that matter?

Morishita: They (especially Finnish people) could know the images of Finland and Finnish culture from the point of view of the Japanese [through Ruokala Lokki.] I think it is rare that one foreign country picked up Finland as a main topic. I hope to let them know about Japanese food culture in this film and also have a good opportunity to reconsider their own food culture.

Morishita frequently visits Finland and collaborates with many professionals in the Finnish film industry.  Much like the Japanese characters in Ruokala Lokki, she loves Finland and she has more than enough reasons to bring her back to Finland:

Morishita: I’ve worked at Japanese distributing companies in charge of marketing for a long time. This is the 5th time I have been in Finland. I’m a huge fan of Finland and always relax and enjoy myself here. I bring the film education of Finland to Japan and help for the Finnish film export to Japan. I’d like to become like a bridge between Finnish and Japanese film industries.

More information about Ruokala Lokki: