“You have to be open to something different,” says single mom Juana Martinez, played by newcomer Diana Elizabeth Torres, to her young daughter (Kaya Jade Aguirre). And that something is sushi made by a Mexican American woman who dreams of becoming a sushi chef in the award-winning film “East Side Sushi” by director Anthony Lucero.
Juana subsists by helping her father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) at 4 a.m. every morning with a fruit-vending cart in East Oakland, Calif. until she is robbed at gunpoint and must find a more secure job. Juana is lured by the delicately-cut colorful fish she sees in a window of Osaka, a sushi restaurant with a “Help Wanted” sign. She talks her way into becoming the assistant prep cook, puts her quick fruit-slicing skills to good use, and learns quickly.
But Juana is not satisfied with being invisible and challenges status quo notions of who can be a sushi chef. In an emotional moment, she shares that “in every great restaurant, there are great Latinos in the back, prepping the food … I don’t want to be in the back.”
She encounters obstacles such as her traditional boss Mr. Yoshida (played by Roji Oyama) and certain customers view her as not being the right gender and race. But she also gathers unexpected allies such as sushi chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), who comes to respect and befriend her. Her own father views her workplace with suspicion — “that doesn’t sound Mexican” — but her passion eventually wins him over.
Writer-director Lucero wanted to tell an American story but with characters you don’t normally see on the big screen. It started innocently enough, breakfast at a greasy spoon diner led him to wonder about the aspirations of the Latino worker in the back, giving Lucero the idea for his first feature film “East Side Sushi.”
Lucero works as a commercial director and editor as well as in visual effects for companies such as Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic, but has always been interested in slice-of-life stories and cross cultural themes. He wanted to take “…a small leap in someone’s life and make it more epic.”
He liked having the two cultures of Mexican and Japanese as leads in the film, and explored how these two cultures might intertwine. The main character also started out as Juan but soon became Juana. The story became more interesting to Lucero because “…not only are you crossing cultures but now gender bias in the workplace. The double whammy was compelling to me to overcome.”
With the lack of diversity in mainstream movies being highlighted recently in the #OscarSoWhite Twitter hashtag and a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study — that showed that lead characters who are women and speaking characters for Latinas being 5.8 percent and Asians as even less at 5.1 percent, it is no wonder that Lucero felt it was important that he cast underrepresented groups in his films. And he says he will do it again in his next project.
Lucero’s film is the opposite of a blockbuster in that there are no big names and he could find very little financing for a movie about a woman wanting to become a sushi chef, so he took the risk and financed it himself for less than $35,000. He feels that society cannot wait for Hollywood to diversify, and independent filmmakers have to do it themselves and in fact are already doing it themselves.
One benefit is that these stories are getting recognition. “East Side Sushi” has won a slew of film festival awards plus was selected for the 2016-2017 American Film Showcase, which is the U.S. State Department’s film touring program. U.S. embassies will use the film slate for cultural programming around the world to give international audiences a glimpse of American life not offered by Hollywood blockbuster films.
For this film, Lucero did months of research on sushi, online, in cooking classes, interviewing sushi chefs and observing sushi restaurants. In that time, he never saw a woman making sushi and thought that was interesting. He was told that women’s hands are too warm or their perfume would affect the taste. With regard to the thorny issue of ethnic authenticity, Lucero found it interesting that as long as the men behind the sushi counter looked Asian, most people would assume that they were Japanese, even though they might be Korean, Chinese or Thai.
Juana at one point in the film says that she believes that sushi can be adapted to local conditions and people. A thrilling event in the film is when she enters into the Champions of Sushi, a local sushi competition, and rolls out a new sushi roll called the Diablo Roll, made with a poblano chile wrap in place of nori (roasted seaweed). Juana shows how immigrants often adapt to their environments and can sometimes come up with new innovative ideas as well. One might point to the California Roll or Spam musubi as examples of Japanese foods being adapted with local ingredients.
In casting for the Japanese roles, Lucero found Yutaka Takeuchi, a Japanese native and Hollywood, Calif. resident, who played the supportive sushi chef Aki. “He was just a phenomenal actor,” Lucero shared. “I just loved watching him, especially in his quiet moments on set, and I would just let the camera roll… He would play that character and he would keep cleaning the back of the sushi bar like that was his restaurant. He would just be in the moment.”
San Francisco-based Roji Oyama, according to Lucero, nailed the part of Mr. Yoshida, the traditional-minded restaurant owner who resists allowing Juana to work in the front. Mrs. Yoshida is played by Miyoko Sakatani. and Lane Nishikawa also does a fun turn as the Champions of Sushi host.
This heartwarming film of cross-cultural discovery is not one to miss. You might find yourself rooting for Juana’s underdog moments and discover a sudden craving for nigiri sushi.
Following a theatrical run, “East Side Sushi” is now available on DVD or streaming. For more information on this film and where to buy it, visit http://www.eastsidesushifilm.com/index.htm.