Films about minorities only spring up every so often, so it’s worthy of a celebration whenever one does receive a release. And films about two minorities, almost unheard of. So when a film like East Side Sushi comes along, it’s almost certainly a miracle and essential viewing.
East Side Sushi follows Juanna (pronounced wa-na and played by Diana Elizabeth Torres), a tough, hardworking single mother who works an unrewarding part time job and selling fruits on the dangerous, violence-ridden streets. Enter Osaka, a local Japanese restaurant looking for kitchen help. Enamoured with the restaurant’s aesthetic and exotic food, Juanna decides to apply, despite her dual status as both a non-Asian and a woman. Convincing the restaurant with her perseverance and quick hands from years of working in restaurants, she becomes a staple in the kitchen. Over time, she befriends Osaka’s sushi chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), and with hard work and determination, learns the subtle and difficult art of making sushi, and wants to become a sushi chef working up front at the restaurant. With everyone from the boss to her own family going against her though, Juanna decided to enter a sushi-making competition to prove her worth.
East Side Sushi works as a kind of homage and love letter to Japanese culture, using Juanna as a medium for viewers to be introduced to habits such as chopstick etiquette, how to eat sushi properly, and bowing. At the same time, by virtue of Juanna’s position as a minority and woman, it shows itself to be extremely progressive, and while respecting tradition, fights for the right for tradition to become accessible to more than just people from its place of origin. That of course, exemplifies itself in Juanna’s fusion sushi she uses as an entry to the sushi competition – a mix of Mexican cuisine and Japanese manifest in a maki roll, almost like her father’s description of ‘sushi burritos’. It’s both respectful and makes a strong case for progress, and it’s rare that films manage to balance both so well, when it’s such a hazard for offense at every turn.
Much of the film’s success hinges on Torres’ performance as Juanna. Torres constantly carries a look of grim determination, wearing the weight of her life on her face throughout most of the film. This is the look of a woman who has been through some tough times (she is held at gunpoint at the start of the film and even pistolwhipped), and has the capability and spirit to take her much further. Torres’ character is always working at improving herself to stand on par with the other chefs, double burdened by her status as the ‘wrong race’ and ‘wrong gender’, but is always humble and willing to learn, and it is this unique mix of traits that endears her so quickly to its viewers, such that one feels completely aligned with her when she finally loses her temper at her boss, knowing that she has worked harder than every other person in the restaurant to get to where she was, and absolutely right when she states she deserves an equal opportunity like everyone else. Juanna is a modern day heroine for women and minorities alike facing discrimination in the workplace and single mothers working against all odds to support their families, and representative of the very best kind of person one can hope to be.
Director Anthony Lucero’s filmography is simple and pared down, with no fancy Hollywood gimmicks or cinematography. There’s something refreshingly real and honest about the way the family walks down a street, or Juanna practicing her sushi skills at home in the kitchen, and the sort of sincerity that fills you with warmth and hope inside. And although it doesn’t reach Jiro Dreams of Sushi levels of food porn, there’s enough screentime lavished on the hunks of raw salmon, nigiri and California rolls to make your mouth water, and awaken an intense urge to visit a local sushi joint (no, not Itsu). East Side Sushi’s ending, while imperfect for Juanna, is kept realistic and hopeful, just enough to show viewers that tiny steps can be made towards equality and respect, and even if it’s just convincing the people around you, that’s an impact that goes a long way. Despite not making much of a splash at the box office when it opened in 2015, it’s important that East Side Sushi is finally making the rounds on digital streaming channels, and a must watch not just for food enthusiasts, minorities or feminists, but everyone, for its timeless message of empowerment and perseverance.
East Side Sushi, released on January 23rd 2017, is available to pre-order now through iTunes and the following platforms: Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft Xbox, Sky Store, Vubiquity.