One of my favorite documentaries in recent years, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, showed off the incredible skill and impeccable technique that top sushi chefs must master in order to even come close to perfecting their craft. Even the best in the world spend years training (or, in some cases, suffering) as an apprentice, mastering every detail of the work – from properly selecting the highest quality fish and painstakingly making rice to learning the traditions and customs of the work. Still today, the art of sushi is among the most traditional culinary worlds, as much about presence and presentation as it is about food. But as food culture becomes more popular through ever-popular food and cooking shows and broader tastes, traditional cuisine is finding a place for new ideas, crossed flavors and a different language. East Side Sushi explores this cross-section in a light and fun drama from first-time filmmaker Anthony Lucero.
East Side Sushi stars Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana, a young single-mother who has worked a number of culinary odd jobs around the Latino neighborhoods in Oakland, California. After a violent experience while vending her father’s fruit cart, she comes across a Japanese restaurant looking for kitchen help. Juana is unfamiliar with the food, but her great knife skills built up through the years and her great curiosity make it a match. She quickly impresses assistant sushi chef Aki, who slowly gives her more responsibilities when the help is needed.
There are two poles that offer the film’s major conflict. The first is Juana’s father, who doesn’t understand why she can’t find work at a taqueria where she can maintain her cultural identity. As Juana replaces the family’s typical meals with sushi “homework,” Apa is incredibly obstinate to even try his daughter’s creations. He is a loving and supportive father, however, never asking her to compromise on her newfound dreams. Juana eventually co-opts this obstacle into her overall vision as she begins to incorporate ingredients that are more familiar to her father, ultimately finding her place in sushi.
The film’s more classical villain is Mr. Yoshida, the stern traditionalist proprietor of the sushi restaurant. When Yoshida finds out that Aki, who is in charge of managing the food when he is away, has allowed Juana to make sushi (even the most basic and simple sushi), he shuts her down immediately. Juana has not one, but two deficits working against her – she is a woman and not Asian. There is a popular refrain in the sushi world that women cannot properly handle raw fish because their hands are too warm and their natural fragrance affects the taste. Even if she was a man, Mr. Yoshida claims that the customers look for authenticity when they come to the restaurant, and a Mexican behind the counter breaks down this unwritten contract. Juana struggles between the pressure of holding on to her cultural roots while inhabiting a different cultural space that is unwilling to break from their identity.
When she fails to receive validation for her skill, Juana applies for a regional sushi chef competition to gain acceptance and the $20,000 grand prize attached. The competition is seeded throughout East Side Sushi, though it isn’t initially seen as an opportunity for Juana, who suggests the more experienced Aki to apply. The narrative pivots half way through the film working toward inevitable showdown between Juana and the entirety of the traditionalist sushi culture.
This narrative crutch would normally sink most films, but it provides East Side Sushi with great momentum to the end. The most interesting choice, a crucial one, is the presentation in the third act to play exactly like a competition cooking show. Besides a few cut-ins showing Aki attentively watching and the commercial time breaks, we only see what would be presented for the fictional viewers of the competition. It is not only a fun surprise in form, but provides a great opportunity to see more technique and food. The film can easily tap into the surface underdog themes to provide some stakes, and the segment is directed with the same verve as the best real-life competition shows.
Similarly, many films would jump into a romantic set-up between Juana and Aki, but East Side Sushi fights off the urge. The couple’s great chemistry provides enough of a romantic tinge to be satisfying. There is no real original narrative that wouldn’t distract from the film’s larger aims – if the film would have tried for this, it would have likely been sucked into being a romantic comedy first and probably a pretty stale one. The performances of Torres and Yutaka Takeuchi are on point and work well off of each other. While she is a newcomer to this world, Juana has a fiery spirit that counterbalances well with Aki’s quiet, but joyful demeanor. Their budding friendship is exciting and loose and fun, something rare in films these days.
Overall, East Side Sushi is a warm story about cultural identity and really good food. Lucero, who has primarily worked as a visual effects editor for major releases like Iron Man, The Avengers and Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2, puts the explosions away for this small character drama. Even as East Side Sushi strays into well-worn film tropes and recognizable character types, it is able to stay fresh through smart direction, a solid script and good performances across the board.