‘Oyakodon’ captures a Japanese restaurant heartbreakingly on the brink

A MAMA’S LOVE ­— In “Oyakodon,” Mama’s love (Hira Ambrosino) extends not only to her daughter Aki (Jessica Kemejuk), but to her restaurant. still courtesy of Roxy Shih

“Oyakodon” (2022, 17 min.), a short film directed by Roxy Shih, is a quiet and somber look at a Japanese restaurant in decline. Mama, the owner, opens up the dark eatery and puts out a sign with the day’s special, oyakodon, on the sidewalk outside.

The titular dish is appropriate for the film: Oyakodon is a meal of savory simmered chicken and egg served over rice. “Oyako” translates to “parent and child,” and “don” is short for “donburi,” a bowl of rice that serves as a bed for any number of traditional ingredients.

The film’s name reflects a couple of other meanings, including Mama’s love for the restaurant, which has been her living and in a way, her child that she has cared for over the years. “Oyakodon” is also about Mama’s relationship to her daughter Aki and her loyal employee Hiro, who is like a son to her. “I worry about everyone,” Mama tells Hiro when he tells her she doesn’t have to worry about him.

“Oyakodon” opens with Mama cutting flowers for the kamidana altar where she lights a stick of incense and prays. Praying doesn’t help. She struggles to stand up from the altar, and takes pills for pain. Early in the film, we see that she’s worried about the financial state of the business, looking over bills and flipping through an envelope of cash. In the mail is a business card from a project manager who writes a note to contact him when she’s ready to sell. We see only one customer come in to dine — is it during the pandemic? — and he’s a regular who is excited that oyakodon, his favorite, is the day’s special.

He provides a few minutes of a lighter mood and normalcy. After he pays (leaving a large tip, presumably to help out), Mama returns to worrying until a big order is called in and she sends Hiro out to deliver it. Later, Mama sees a young white woman perusing the menu at the entrance. She rushes out to invite her in, and the woman backs away, put off by Mama’s air of desperation.

Mama then sees a vandal tagging the outside of the restaurant and she rushes out and gets knocked down and spray-painted in the struggle. Her spirit is shattered. She cleans up, and Hiro returns from his delivery with her daughter Aki in tow.

The “oyako” dynamic helps ease Mama’s mood again. The two are close, and though Mama doesn’t find out, Aki, played by Jessica Kemejuk, is the one who called in the large delivery order. She’s been worrying about her mother and helps Mama think through the difficult choices and decisions she faces.

The three main characters are played by Hira Ambrosino as Mama, Kemejuk as Aki and James Kyson as Hiro (if he looks familiar, he’s best remembered for his recurring role as Hiro Nakamura’s friend Andoh in the 2006 TV series “Heroes”). All three play their characters with powerful emotion, and Ambrosino perfectly captures the soul of a concerned older Japanese woman weighed down by a lifetime’s worth of responsibility. She’s a familiar character for any Asian American whose parents have worked hard all their lives for their children’s benefit. Oyakodon, indeed.

Except for the brief scene outside when Mama puts her sidewalk sign out (and when she gets attacked), the entire movie takes place inside the restaurant. We see the sign: it’s called Oomasa, and the name is mentioned in the dialogue. Shih shot her film, which is co-written by Theresa Chiu and Kemejuk, inside an actual restaurant named Oomasa, which viewers who have been to Little Tokyo in Los Angeles may recognize as a popular spot with a large menu. The film’s description calls it a “noodle shop” but it’s clearly an eatery that serves more than just noodles, because it has a bar with seating and comfortable-looking wooden booths.

Cinematographer Daphne Qin Wu does a fine job of capturing the lonely atmosphere of Mama’s life, with muted lighting and the cozy shadows of a once much-loved restaurant.

“Oyakodon” lingers in the viewer’s memory with its well-crafted emotional narrative and performances that continue to resonate after the credits have rolled.

Roxy Shih’s “Oyakodon” (English, Japanese subtitled) screens Saturday, May 13 at 4 p.m. at the Regal L.A. Live at 1000 W Olympic Blvd. in Los Angeles as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s “Parenthood” slate of short films. Tickets: $16.79 (includes online fee): https://festival.vcmedia.org/2023/movies/oyakodon/. The film also screens Sunday, May 14 at 3:15 p.m. at the Roxie Theater at 3117 16th St. in San Francisco as part of CAAMFest’s “Mama Trauma” shorts program. Tickets: General: $15; Senior/Student/Person with Disability: $13: https://caamfest.com/2023/movies/oyakodon/.

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