Tsukiji Wonderland (The Japanese Film Festival)
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…a wonderful opus…
Those who have visited Tokyo on a regular basis know how volatile the landscape can be. Where a leviathan block of apartments stands one month, a few months later a multipurpose office block or shopping centre could suddenly emerge, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a fickle city, and often without sentiment when it comes to real estate. Yet one of the stalwarts of the city, The Tsukiji Fish Market, seemed untouchable, serving as the metaphorical heart, both literally and spiritually, of the city’s never ending demand for quality seafood. Then in 2014, at the bidding of Tokyo’s former governor, it was announced that the markets, first established in Tsukiji after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, would be relocated from its current location in central Tokyo, razing the existing buildings for redevelopment.
It was this unprecedented announcement that inspired documentary filmmaker, Naotaro Endo, to craft Tsukiji Wonderland, a wonderful opus with the singular goal of preserving not only the sights and sounds of the markets, but the faces, voices and culture of the place, intangible qualities shaped by generations of families, apprentices and mentors, chefs and fishmongers who have worked side by side for nearly eighty years.
Shot over a two-year period, Naotaro first introduces us to the various castes within the Tsukiji machine, from the stallholders, to the auctioneers and eventually the true stars of his film, the nakaoroshi, also known as the intermediate wholesalers. The nakaoroshi are the guardians of knowledge. These are the guys who can look at a fish and know its value, and understand its purpose in the kitchen. They will always offer their opinion to their clients, whether tabloid TV cooks or three hat chefs. And it’s an opinion highly regarded, with culinary stars such as sushi chef, Jiro Ono, and Noma’s Rene Redzepi singing the praises of both the market and its nakaoroshi.
After the initial introductions, the film turns its focus to the floor itself, a kinetic microcosm of chaotic sound and movement, but which flows with a uniquely Japanese sense of purpose and direction. It’s a flow dictated by the seasons themselves, and the catches that coincide with the changing weather. It’s here that Tsukiji Wonderland will have the ardent foodie salivating, as a number of chefs prepare and present spectacular dishes, including the infamous blowfish, eel, urchin, ice fish, and, of course, the mouth-watering toro, all sourced fresh from the market.
The stats and figures of Tsukiji’s daily hauls are impressive, and Naotaro drops plenty throughout the film, but that’s not really the point. Instead, it’s the people who work the market floor who make this film a joy to watch. Their camaraderie and love for their work is inspiring to witness, if only because it’s so rare to see in today. Tsukiji Wonderland consciously avoids injecting sentimentality into its frames, instead capturing the honesty of the space, be it sombre, funny or even bloody and unsettling at any given time, because in the end, as the market prepares to close its doors this November, it’s a history born of real people, a community now beautifully captured on film and thankfully preserved.
Tsukiji Wonderland screens at The Japanese Film Festival, which runs from October 14-December 4 in Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne. For more on Tsukiji Wonderland and to buy tickets, head to the official website.