Nankyoku Ryourinin (The Antarctic Chef) A story about people and food in the south pole

    I went to a Japanese film festival over the weekend and watched a single film. That film was Nankyoku Ryourinin (Antarctic Chef). Why this film, over all others? Well, for one, I really want to chill in Antarctica for a bit, someday. Second, I love movies about food (especially Japanese ones, they have this genré down). One of my favorite movies of all time is Tanpopo (you should watch it if you haven’t), and from the looks of the trailer, this film had a similar, wonky vibe.

    Nankyoku Ryourinin Trailers

    The trailers do a decent job showing off all the food-related goodness (especially trailer 1). I didn’t find any with subtitles, but you can get the picture even if you don’t understand Japanese. Watch those, and then move on to the story if you’re interested in learning more!

    Nankyoku Ryourinin’s Story

    Nankyoku Ryourinin’s story (which happens to be based off a real story) is pretty simple. In fact, one could argue there barely is a story (as is the case with many Japanese-style films). Nishimura, a cook in the Japanese coast guard, ends up getting sent to Antarctica to be the chef at Dome Fuji Station. To give you an idea of where this is, check out the map below.

    map of Antarctica with Japanese stations marked
    So… cold… looking…

    It’s pretty far away from things, not to mention it’s in Antarctica ( さむい). Showa Station, which gets mentioned in the film a lot because it has penguins (Dome Fuji is too cold for anything, including viruses), a recurring joke in the film, is 1000km (621 miles) away. The average temperature is -54.3°C (-65.74 Fahrenheit), the elevation is 3,810 meters above sea level (which is slightly taller than Mt. Fuji), and its climate is that of a desert… a really, really cold desert. The snow is quite dry, though, which I hear is good for snowboarding?

    Dome Fuji Station is sort of known for its ice core drilling, which they show in the movie too (though it’s not really an important part of the story). Other characters also had various jobs, but the movie focused the most on cooking, because it was about the chef, Nishimura. The Japanese love their food movies, that’s for sure.

    For the most part, the movie consists of the characters at Dome Fuji just doing their thing, waiting for the day when they go home (they’re there for 400-some-odd days). Nothing really happens, and it’s a very character driven affair, but that’s actually what makes it so interesting.

    The movie is never dull, and you go from laughing to crying (or in my case, being really tough and flexing my giant man-muscles, because I’m no crybaby). A lot of the focus is on the food and the chef’s challenge to cook for the people at the station (seriously, they eat 100x better than I do, and probably you too).

    They go day by day, taking little steps at a time. Sure, sometimes someone may break and go sort of insane for a bit, but it’s the food that keeps bringing people together. Nankyoku Ryourinin is about the Antarctic day-to-day with food at its center.

    It’s All About The Food

    movie poster for nankyoku food

    Speaking of food, I think there was something particularly magical about it, especially in this setting. They could only eat things that were canned, dried, or frozen (there were boxes of food just sitting outside, because it’s pretty cold out there, after all).

    The food, like in several Japanese films, is what everything revolves around. The thing that makes this film so special in regards to the food though is the isolate environment everyone shared. It really highlighted the very, very simple pleasures, and I think in a way made the happiness more “pure.” One of the most “moving” scenes was when Nishimura (the chef) learned from one of the scientists that he could put together some make-shift kansui to make ramen noodles for the crew. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so happy about ramen (though after writing the Japanese Fast Food Chains article, I can kind of understand the lust one may feel for ramen).

    nankyoku chef in kitchen holding chopsticks
    Hmm, I’ll have to check to see if I have any of that in the freezer…

    On the chef side of things, it was Nishimura’s happiness that people were enjoying his food that moved things forward. You could tell that making people happy through food was his primary objective, and he got a ton of joy out of it. Imagine a chef doing this at a restaurant. Sure, you might be happy if people enjoy your food, but it’s not the same, at all. The happiness experienced out in the middle of nowhere, in isolation, with a few of your “comrades” is on a whole other level.

    But, all-in-all, it’s food that brings people together. It’s also food that connects you with your home (in this case, connects them to Japan even though they’re way down in Antarctica). That’s why people say “just like mom used to make” and things like that. We remember really well through taste, and so many emotions can come along with that too. Even if you grew up eating crappy foods, you’ll still remember it fondly, I’m sure. Everyone has a food from their childhood that makes them nostalgic. Nankyoku Ryourinin utilizes both of these things really well (connecting with home, connecting with people), making it a joy to watch.

    Like I said, it’s all about the food. Oh, and did I mention how tasty it all looked? These people ate like Japanese kings.

    Should You Watch It?

    group shot outside in Antarctica

    Yeah, I think so. It’s a movie that’s a little more goofy than it is dramatic, though it has quite a bit of both. The goofiness comes from the wide variety of very different characters (some pretty strange, for sure), and the location of the movie definitely helps. I’d say the goofiness is pretty “human” though, if that makes any sense. Everything that makes you lololol is something you can imagine happening in real life, probably amongst your closest friends (perhaps that’s what makes this film so great, it makes you wish you could know a small group of other people really, really well – just like them).

    The “story” isn’t so much a story. There’s a lot of things that happen, and some of them sort of tie together, but most of the progression comes from getting to know the characters and learning more about what makes them tick. There’s no real great climax, and nothing too dangerous or action-packed happens. The focus is on the relationships and the characters, and although I don’t normally like movies that have no story, I enjoyed this one a lot. So, if you’re like me, maybe you’ll like it too. Just don’t expect vampires to come when things shift to 24/7 night-mode in the arctic. Definitely isn’t that kind of movie.

    But, overall, I think it’s great. You really get invested in the characters right from the beginning, you laugh a lot, and, of course, the movie is full of delicious food. I’m just jealous that they get to eat all of it in Antarctica. I bet food tastes 100x better down there.

    The movie was directed by Shuichi Okita. It was based off of two autobiographical novels by Jun Nishimura. How I’d rate it? I’ll give it an unprecedented 34/34 penguins.

    Nankyoku Ryourinin by Shuuichi Okita

    Pros

    • Comedy and drama
    • Wide variety of characters
    • Comedy is very human
    • Episodic plot
    • Lots of food

    Cons

    • Not for everybody

    Overall Rating

    7

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