KAMOME DINER | REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Once upon a time in Finland, Kamome Shokudo made headlines!
Director: Naoko Ogigami
Cast: Satomi Kobayashi, Hairi Katagiri, Masako Motai, Markku Peltola
Studio: Suurkiitos Inc.
Introducing Kamome Diner
Kamome Diner is an oddity for sure. But Naoko Ogigami’s low-key and peculiar filmmaking turned out to be exactly what the film festival circuit hungered for in 2006. The original blend of a Finnish cityscape and Japanese art-house filmmaking soon became a worldwide phenomenon.
Whether it is the Helsinki atmosphere or Ogigami’s filmmaking that connects Kamome Diner to a certain bunch of directors is hard to say. Nonetheless, Kamome Diner has a quality that brings to mind the films of Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson, and Jim Jarmusch.
«Perhaps Japan and Finland have more in common
than hard drinking culture and suicidal tendencies?»
- JCA -
These directors are very different, but at the same time, they appear united by an undefinable quality in their atmospheres and characters. From subtle melancholia springs an understated beauty that connects Kaurismäki, Jarmusch and Ogigami on some level or other.
You might find it hard to believe, but from this peculiar lot of filmmakers, Ogigami is the most lighthearted and down to earth. Kamome Diner is of course melancholic, but it is also endearing, quirky, and more uplifting than both Japanese dramas and Finnish filmmaking is known for.
Background and Consequences of Kamome Diner
After graduating from University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, Ogigami returned to Japan to start her career as a filmmaker. After making two films, she felt constricted and uncomfortable working in the Japanese film industry, and wanted to make a film abroad.
However, filming with a local Finnish film team presented a different kind of challenge, as the tempo was much lower than Ogigami was used to from Japan. In the end, she decided to adjust to how things were done in Finland. In hindsight, she was pleased to realize that the Finnish atmosphere translated to her film as a result.
«There was no point in getting angry. Instead, I changed my attitude,
choosing to adjust myself to the pace things were done in Finland.»
Naoko Ogigami – Tokyo Art Navigation Interview
Kamome Diner brought about Ogigami’s international breakthrough in 2006. The year after she followed up with «Megane», which took her style and low-key concept to a new level. Following the success of these two films, Ogigami went forth and established a production company called Suurkiitos in 2008.
At this point, Ogigami’s films had earned the label «iyashi-kei eiga», or films for emotional healing. Her disregard for traditional storytelling and character arcs, and focus on anecdotal happenings and small joyous moments in life, earned her a solid following around the world.
Once Upon a Time in Finland, there was a Japanese Diner
The story in Kamome Diner is simple, yet deep. Without revealing much about the characters background, we are introduced to three Japanese ladies, all of which are temporarily stranded in the Finnish capitol, Helsinki.
Sachie is the expat proprietor of Kamome Diner. Her goal is to share her love for «Japanese soul food» with the world. Midori is the soul-searching backpacker who prefers an out-of-place existence in a strange land to some undisclosed issue in her homeland.
Then there is Masako, the delightfully eccentric traveler who went to Finland on a whim, and ended up stranded with nothing more than the clothes on her back. The airline lost her luggage, and Finland was quite different from what she expected. Now she has not much else to do than to buy Marimekko clothes and go mushroom hunting in the forest.
Not to forget the plethora of peculiar Finnish supporting actors. Most of them are typically flat and one-dimensional on the surface, but add bucket-loads of color to the story in Kamome Diner. In essence, the movie is an homage to otherness, outsiders, peculiarity, individuality and Scandinavian fashion and design.
To make a short story even shorter: A Japanese lady has moved to Helsinki and opened up a diner. In this diner she cooks traditional Japanese food and interacts with the local community. Soon she learns that strange characters are as common in Finland as it is in Japan. And normal… normal is just a word.
Between the Lines, where Outsiders Reside
As a female director, whose most successful films showcase strong female protagonists, Ogigami is sometimes labeled a feminist director. And yes, she does belong to a wave of post-millennial female Japanese directors, but Kamome Diner does not appear to voice gender issues to any large extent.
«I don’t really like to categorize myself as a «female director», but perceive myself
to be just «a director». I’m making films not as a female, but as a human being.»
Naoko Ogigami – Film International Interview
Others have pointed out that the film is about human connections and dealing with isolation in a foreign place. On the surface, this topic indeed colors the narrative. All three Japanese women are estranged. They all come to realize that connecting with strangers can be challenging no matter where on earth you are.
That being said, an underlying, and perhaps more central topic in Kamome Diner seems to advocate individual freedom. Under the surface it appears to be an ever so slight opposition to normalcy, or the opinions of what it is.
These three Japanese women are as far from confirming Japanese female stereotypes as you can come. One emigrated from Japan, the other is on a soul-searching journey, and the third went to Finland on a whim. In Japan, these are considered the characteristics of outsiders.
Whether Japanese conformity forced these three strong individuals to take their life journeys, is never mentioned. But their otherness is in strong contrasts to the salarymen and housewives of Japan.
To be fair, the owner of Kamome Diner has a fairly typical Japanese demeanor, but the two other ones are far from what would be considered normal in Japan. The three ladies find a peaceful oasis in Kamome Diner, though they clearly have very strong love for their home country.
The café owner is after all trying to make a living by making «Japanese soul food» in Helsinki. She is not interested in peddling sake and sushi to Japan-curious Finns. She is trying to share the food that gave her comfort when she was living in a country that she for some reason decided to abandon.
The shared love for Japan between her and her newfound countrywoman is underlined in one of the most heartfelt moments in the film. When being served a home-cooked onigiri, Midori can hardly hold back her tears from the taste of a home she clearly has not seen in a long while.
The duality in us all, the right to explore our individuality, and to be proud of ourselves are strong messages, but they appear peripheral at best. In fact, the point of Kamome Diner seems not to be concerned, about anything at all.
Kamome Diner, and even more so, Megane, are quite meditative in their expressions. The narratives are built up of small anecdotes, rather than continuous story arcs. The storytelling is rather esoteric, in that the journey is more important than the destination.
As such, one could argue that the message is to appreciate the smaller things in life, a concept that certainly is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Granted, the popularity of this concept in Japan was heavily promoted in the late 1800s, when certain forces in Japan were dead-set on establishing an original Japanese national identity.
Be that as it may, ancient ideas of nationalism and modern-day quirky filmmaking are as far apart as Japan and Finland. The personal anecdotes in Kamome Diner do bring the small things in life to the forefront, though, like the smell of a freshly brewed cup of drip coffee.
The Production of a Japanese Soul-Film
To yours truly – a bonafide Scandinavian – Kamome Diner is very familiar in design and atmosphere. It paints a quite realistic image of Helsinki, with a very evident hipster-drizzle of vintage Scandinavian design.
Minimalist 50s and 60s design is popular in Scandinavia to this day, but rarely does it appear as consistently as in Kamome Diner. Much of the sets felt like stepping into the Norwegian vintage hipster cafe called Fuglen, which incidentally has two branches in Tokyo.
«With Kamome no one was expecting it to be a success. However,
after shooting was finished I knew that it was going to be very good.»
Naoko Ogigami – Film International Interview
On other words, Kamome Diner lives perfectly up to its art-house/festival-film reputation. And it does so with attention to the tiniest details in everything from apartment layout till furniture and clothes.
As for the cinematography, the film technique is very Japanese for the larger part of the film. Meaning that the camera movements are minimal, the takes are long, the lighting is flat, the score is sparse, and the pace is slower than a snail crossing a steaming fresh asphalt road.
Parallels to Ozu, Jarmusch, Anderson and Andersson
Some have compared Ogigami to Yasujiro Ozu, but to be honest, this seems like a stretch. Many Japanese directors of our time apply film techniques akin to Ozu. More than a handful of these are closer to him in style than Ogigami, like Hirokazu Kore-eda for instance.
Ogigami’s slow cinematography might share some features with Ozu’s classic melodramas, like the iconic Tokyo Story. However, her design is way too fashionable, and her characters far too quirky to be comparable with Ozu.
This is not said to talk Ogigami down, quite the opposite. Ogigami did an amazing job with Kamome Diner; she established the foundation for her very own filmic language. Kamome Diner was the film that pointed out her path as a director. Luckily Ogigami held on to her personal style, and took it one step further with Megane and Rent-A-Cat.
The eccentric characters in Kamome Shokudo, coupled with very stylized and restrained cinematography, brings to mind the films of Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Roy Andersson.
Ogigami is a lot more down to earth, though. Her characters might be eccentric, but Kamome Diner never looses touch with reality like Anderson's films tend to do. In this respect, Kamome Diner has more in common with the works of Jarmusch.
Final Verdict for Kamome Diner
When I first saw Kamome Diner I was not prepared for a meditative story and slow cooked character development. In fact, I found the film to be a drag back in 2006. As it turned out, much like the finer things in life, Kamome Diner needed time to grow. Fifteen years later, in 2021, I have come to enjoy the film immensely.
Perhaps the baggage of having seen all Ogigami’s films brought some deeper appreciation of her work. Still, I’d like to think that Kamome Diner stands strong on its own legs. It will probably continue to mature with us, the viewers, as coming of age gradually seems to bring the smaller things in life into focus.
Kamome Diner advocates reflection and appreciation of easily overlooked, yet meaningful mundane matters. Much like the film itself, these things might appear insignificant at first glance, but when taken in over time, they might prove to be the most memorable moments in life.
Calbraith, James: Naoko Ogigami: Obaa-chan saves the world
Cinema Adrift: NYAFF 2017: Interview w/ Naoko Ogigami
Cinema Nippon: An Analysis of «Kamome Diner»
Film International: An Interview with Ogigami Naoko
Frames Cinema Journal: Imaging a Female Filmmaker
Nishikata Film Review: Seagull Diner (かもめ食堂, 2006)
Screen Anarchy: Japan Cuts 2012 Interview: Director Naoko Ogigami