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Monday, July 19, 2010

Kampei! Nobu's Sushi and Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog

Posted By on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 4:30 PM

click to enlarge Pieces of sake (salmon) and bonito (a type of mackerel) nigiri from Nobu's - PHOTO BY KEEGAN HAMILTON
  • Photo by Keegan Hamilton
  • Pieces of sake (salmon) and bonito (a type of mackerel) nigiri from Nobu's
Japanese cuisine is remarkably similar to Japanese cinema. Each art form is defined by efficiency of movement (by both the sushi chef and the camera), attention to detail that borders on neurotic and a beauty that's unlike any other type of food or film.

A night at the sushi bar at Nobu's Japanese Restaurant and a screening of Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog as part of the Webster Film Series are the perfect way to experience these two fine contributions to society by Japan.

The sushi chef at Nobu's is the quiet, efficient type. He says, "Hello, how are you doing?" with a thick accent to every customer that walks in -- but little else. We didn't catch his name, but he's a fixture, recognizable by his white, kanji-printed bandana and thick, black-framed glasses. Watching him work is like watching a well-oiled machine. (Thankfully, though, Nobu's has no conveyor belt.)

His talents are summed up by watching him deconstruct an avocado in under ten seconds. He splits the fruit into perfect halves, removes the pit with his knife blade, scoops the pale green contents out with a spoon and slices it into a dozen identical sections. It's almost as if it all happens in one precise motion.

The avocado went into two rolls -- one with salmon, the other with eel. The former was topped with sesame seeds, the latter with tiny, electric-orange fish eggs. He also dished up pieces of salmon nigiri (delectable, especially with the accent of a thin slice of white onion), red snapper (which came topped with a dollop of sweet plum sauce to offset the strong fishy flavor) and yellowtail.
Salmon Avocado Roll, Eel Avocado Roll and pieces of Salmon, Red Snapper and Yellowtail nigiri.
  • Salmon Avocado Roll, Eel Avocado Roll and pieces of Salmon, Red Snapper and Yellowtail nigiri.
A bottle of cold sake (Ginjo brand, clean and crisp but otherwise unremarkable) only whetted the appetite for more nigiri. Another slice of salmon and a piece of bonito (one of the fresh specials of the day, along with the snapper and yellowtail) were enough to sate the hunger. The bonito, a type of mackerel, was deep purple like a beet and had the perfect textural balance of creamy yet firm. It was also backed by a sinus-clearing gob of wasabi that demanded a shot of sake to restore the ability to breathe.

The film is one of Kurosawa's finest. The legendary director is known for his samurai flicks, but Stray Dog is set in post-WWII Tokyo. The story of a rookie homicide detective (played by the incomparable Toshiro Mifune) who gets his pistol stolen by a pickpocket and sold on the black market to be used in a series of crimes, it's the closest Japan ever came to producing film noir.
click to enlarge Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune play two hardboiled detectives in post-WWII Tokyo. - IMAGE SOURCE
  • Image source
  • Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune play two hardboiled detectives in post-WWII Tokyo.
The dialogue between the characters (subtitled, of course) is classic hardboiled detective banter. Mifune describes a female pickpocket as being "as slippery as the eels on the menu" at the restaurant in which she works. The screenplay is also profound, touching on the shared disillusionment of Mifune's character and the criminal he's chasing. Both are WWII vets who came home broken financially and spiritually.

Like the chef at Nobu's, though, Kurosawa's mastery is in his movements. The camera is often set at low, floor level-angles and focuses on seemingly trivial details, like a stick clanging along a picket fence. There's a memorable montage of a baseball game in Tokyo in the late '40s and another of go-go dancers in sweaty repose.

The plot, while straightforward on the surface, is chock full of symbolism and deeper meaning. Combined with the technical mastery of Kurosawa's editing and cinematography, it's just as ornate as a well-made plate of sushi -- though not nearly as easily digested.

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