I like Shin-chan. I like Shin-chan because (1) it’s a little strange (2) the Japanese is easy to understand (3) it’s crude (the main character’s butt always seems to play a prominent, supporting role) and (4) It’s not Doraemon, Pokemon, or any of those other Japanese junk-food animation franchises that come out every year that I despise.
If I were to compare it to an American TV show, perhaps I would compare Shin-chan to South Park. Though, certainly not as crude, violent, or adult-oriented as the latter, there are some striking similarities. The animation is unquestionably poorly drawn and somehow the quality decreases even more in scenes that involve action. Its main characters are a group of hodgepodge little kids who often end up getting caught in the middle of some crisis facing the world, the characters speak informally, and the past two Shin-chan movies I’ve seen are steeped in political satire and cultural lessons like socio-economic class relations and nationalism; themes that are most likely more aimed at adults than kids.
The latest Shin-chan movie, 映画クレヨンしんちゃんバカうまっ！B 級グルメサバイバル!! focuses on food culture. The villain is some evil, evil man named グルメポイ様 (Sir Gourmet) who forms an A級 (First Class) Food Organization that functions kind of like an army. Their purpose is to rid the world of anything but first class meals. First class is not just defined by food quality, but also by etiquette. All of the members of Sir Gourmet’s organization must eat properly, the way nobles were probably trained to eat in Europe, and with class. If they, say, drop a fork, they are escorted out of the group and presumably killed or sent for more training.
Sir Gourmet finds out about a B級 (Second class) food carnival being held around where Shin-chan lives. Instead of high-class food, like small portions of nearly endangered species dipped in sauce, the second-class carnival is filled with Japanese festival foods like kushikatsu, and yakisoba. In other words, foods that most normal people in Japan find yummy. However, Sir Gourmet feels it is his duty as a food connoisseur and conquistador to flatten the festival and turn it into a first class dining experience. He must correct the errors and tastes of the lower class, a foodie’s burden.
Meanwhile Shin-chan et al hear about the second-class carnival. They decide that they will make a journey to the carnival without telling their parents. Only later do they find out that the festival is under attack. It is up to the kids to get a legendary, special yakisoba sauce to the yakisoba master before it is too late and second-class food is gone forever!
Through this set up there are all sorts of ways the movie shows the ridiculousness of high-class food and manners. The kids end up fighting off multiple bad guys who try to kidnap them and steal the precious yakisoba sauce. They encounter a woman named Caviar, who, well, loves caviar. In one scene, the kids are disgusted by the caviar she gives them. Shin-chan takes out Japanese mayonnaise and pours it on the caviar because he thinks it will make it taste better. This infuriates Caviar so much that she literally drives off a cliff. She is defeated by her own stuck up-iness. Another one of Sir Gourmet’s henchmen is obsessed with truffles and has his pet pigs sniff out the trail of the yakisoba sauce to trap the kids. Shin-chan releases a fart that throws off the pigs and disgusts the truffles villain to the point that he falls into an onsen. Meanwhile, back at the carnival, security checkpoints are installed to make sure that everyone is dressed appropriately for a first-class meal; and mechanical contraptions hit anyone who is not holding their forks and knives as they should. The machines even hit a baby on the head for not drinking out of a milk bottle properly.
In the end, the kids battle with Sir Gourmet and make yakisoba with the legendary yakisoba sauce. They hope to serve it to Sir Gourmet as a last resort to defeat his first-class army. The adults question if it will work because, after all, they are just kids. The scent wafts through the air and everyone, high class or low, is licking their chops for a taste. As soon as the kids finish the yakisoba and feed it to Sir Gourmet, who was never allowed to eat such lowbrow food, tears fill his eyes and he comes to the existential realization that lower class food can be just as good as high-class food.
All of this obviously pokes fun at people I’m sure we all know: Those who are obsessed with food in a way that is snobby, i.e. people who can’t appreciate a decent meal. Good food is not good enough for them and certainly food made by kids would be unacceptable. The food they eat must be well reviewed and eaten in an environment fit for kings. Eating a meal is therefore considered an art form and not a time to relax and enjoy. Going out to eat with these types of people can be a pain, as their palette is so refined that they will dismiss a food that you think is extraordinarily delicious, while simultaneously throwing out passive aggressive snobby comments.
Besides being occasionally annoying, these types of foodies also represent class, the main theme of the Shin-chan movie. After all, when you are that picky about what you eat and how you eat it, you must have enough time and money to be able to afford such a luxury. Throughout human history this is a privilege that certainly does not extend to the entire population. While certain things like takoyaki, hamburgers, and kushikatsu may be considered lower class and unhealthy, does that mean that they are inherently bad? Or for that matter that they should be held at such a lower standard than a lobster dinner?
In a country where food plays such a large cultural role, I think it’s good of the crude Shinchan series to remind us to stop being so snobby. Tokyo has more Michelin star-rated restaurants than anywhere in the world, as well as more restaurants than any where in the world. By comparison it has at least 160,000 and New York City has about 23,000. Here, people eat out and throw their money at food, preferring to leave their tiny apartments and enjoy the often classier environments of restaurants. While it is an appropriate message that should be sent to places like the US, where foodie culture has also been on the rise among all sorts of class-related groups, such as hipsters, it is definitely a worthwhile message in Japan: Relax. Relax, relax, relax. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Just because it’s expensive and classy doesn’t mean it’s inherently better. Just because it’s cheap, don’t look down on it.
But here’s the interesting thing about the latest Shin-chan movie and the messages it sends: almost all of the villains and all of the members of Sir Gourmet’s first class organization are foreigners. With the exception of a sumo wrestler sent out to retrieve the legendary yakisoba sauce, Sir Gourmet’s henchmen and members all appear to be white foreigners. Caviar is Russian. Presumably the truffles-lover is French. There is another pair of foreigners who make sushi and they are not even slightly Japanese. The regular members of the first class organization are all white with brown hair as though they dyed it together in unison (of course, one might be surprised that they weren’t blonde). And, finally, there’s the main villain, Sir Gourmet. He is definitely white as well, although his origins are rather confusing. From childhood he looks like a muddled combination of a clown, a French prince, and the Bard. He is mysteriously fluent in only Japanese, but as we see from his origin story, he is from a country whose population speaks English…poorly.
To be fair, I have noticed that this is not an uncommon theme. Despite the lack of foreigners in Japan, and its general inaccessibility to those who were not born or raised here, Japanese movies and books often feature foreign characters who are either at fault for some sort of crime or responsible for disturbing or bringing out some negative aspect of an otherwise orderly society. The Shin-chan movie is no different, evincing a nationalistic message that softens its anti-classist theme. But it makes me beg to ask the question: why were the bad guys foreigners?
Of course there are some legitimate reasons. Western culture, represented correctly or incorrectly, is often portrayed as high class in Japanese society. There is a good scene in the movie Tampopo that deals with this theme by depicting a foreigner man slurping his spaghetti noodles like ramen noodles in a restaurant while a prissy Japanese host wearing a very white foundation tries to explain proper Western etiquette.
However, contemporary Japan is quite different than the Japan filmed in the 1980’s. It is becoming more and more isolated and it is questionable whether looking to the West is now as desired as it used to be. Many factors express this change: The decrease in the Japanese population’s foreign language ability, their attempts to internalize demand, and their bizarre mix of both pacifist and nationalist politics.
Creating a dichotomy between Western and Japanese cuisine in the Shin-chan movie and identifying it as A-class versus B-class continues along this strikingly nationalist theme. Would it not have been just as easy to express the class relationship associated with food by using Japanese cuisine and Japanese villains? For example, instead of foreigners serving and fighting with sushi, the villains could have been Japanese sushi chefs (in fact, that would have made a lot more sense). Instead of a Russian villain obsessed with caviar, could they not have encountered a sado tea ceremony master? Or a kaiseki chef who throws an unending supply of courses at the little tikes? What about fugu? Because Japan has such a wide array of food, the possibilities are endless. And yet, the filmmakers decided to make the outsiders the bad guys.
Shin-chan may be for youngsters and probably isn’t taken that seriously by anyone in particular, but perhaps the recent film still gives us a good idea of where Japan stands today. While I constantly find myself defending Japan because it is simply not at all as nationalistic as China or Korea, movies like this remind me of the pervasive presence of a nationalist identity in Japan. Granted, it’s much milder than say, burning Toyotas, it still exists firmly.
While I may grumble about the latest movie’s mixed messages, I still enjoyed the movie quite a lot. Despite the dangers of a franchise movie that is cranked out almost routinely, I’m ashamed to admit that I thought it was quite fun. And nationalistic or not, the most important, universal theme that can cross all borders and all cultures remains—sometimes it’s good to remember that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy your meal. Sometimes you just need something from a grill on a street corner. Thanks, Shin-chan, for showing us the way. In fact, just writing this has made me hungry. Now I think I’m going to go out and get me some yakisoba!