The best characters are little people with outsized ideas of where they should be. East Side Sushi, a small, low-budget indie, is populated with them. But the scale and proportionality is important – these are not people who aim to be astronauts, CEOs or leaders of the free world. A job with health benefits will suffice, thank you. That is, until the restlessness sets in, sparking an idea that shouldn’t be so controversial, yet is.
That idea is a job as sushi chef in a popular Oakland restaurant. But the journey doesn’t begin there – it begins with something more expected of a Latina single mother. Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) rises before 4:00 every day to help her widowed father stock and run his fruit cart. In the opening minutes of the film, we witness Juana’s deftness with a knife and her dedication to quality (she insists on topping the fruits with freshly squeezed lime juice instead of using concentrate). We also witness her being assaulted and robbed on the street.
Frustrated at her family’s low station (Juana tells her father, “I think you’ve always been content with us working but not succeeding at anything.”), Juana responds to a Help Wanted sign hanging in the window of Osaka, an always-packed sushi eatery. Her food service experience impresses Mrs. Yoshida, who hires Juana to wash dishes and prep vegetables in the kitchen. But circumstances conspire to first give Juana an appreciation for this unfamiliar delicacy, then a desire to join in its creation.
This story arc is not novel or surprising, but the unforced, natural way it proceeds is. Aki, the head sushi chef, senses Juana’s curiosity and shows her how to select and slice fish. One day, he’s late, and Juana takes it on herself to deal with the fishmonger. By the time Aki shows up, the day’s fish is ready to go. Then he and the other front-of-the-house chefs get slammed, and Juana insists on helping. Before long, Juana is crafting sushi in the back. That is, until the owner, Mr. Yoshida, tells her women don’t make sushi, and no one wants to see a Latina where they expect Asians.
If this sounds like an odd prejudice, especially in 21st century America, you would be right. And it’s that very strangeness that makes East Side Sushi both captivating and optimistic for an American audience. In the United States, it’s often necessary to cross cultural lines to succeed. Juana and her father will only go so far competing with the other Mexican fruit carts. But a Latina sushi chef, rolling rice and maki into a thinly sliced poblano skin? That’s a risk no one else is taking.
The other tension, very much implied, is between Latino immigrants and everyone else. There are no white characters of consequence (a fact I only realized long after the credits rolled), so it is Mr. Yoshida who represents American success. He owns two restaurants, with shelves boasting rows of loyal customers’ sake drinking boxes. After a (white) customer complains to him that Juana’s presence soils the “authenticity” of the place, Yoshida tells Juana to go back to her literal and figurative station. That’s the straw that breaks Juana’s back. “I’m trying to have an opportunity like everyone else! I deserve an opportunity – like everyone else!” she roars. But she’s not finished: “Behind every great restaurant here, there are great Latinos, in the back, in the kitchen, hidden, prepping the food and making you all look good. Well, I don’t want to be in the back anymore.”
This outburst probably gets applause at woke film festivals. Moments like this are dangerous, dramatically. Think of Katherine Johnson’s frustrated tirade in “Hidden Figures.” Would a black woman, however brilliant she is, raise her voice like that to a white male superior (especially about female bathroom needs)? Probably not, and the incident did not happen. For it to play, Katherine would have had to “earn” enough sympathy from her tormentors and the audience; the injustice has to be both real and realistic.
The injustice against Juana is real, and the woman who’s played by the rules all this time knows it. The Sundance crowd would be chagrined to hear this, but Juana is the very model of a conservative heroine. She’s hardworking and a dutiful daughter. She doesn’t quit her dead-end job at a gym until she’s offered her job at Osaka (and even then, she makes up a story about being allergic to the cleaners, indicating a certain shyness and reluctance to burn bridges). She’s persistent, staying up late practicing her sushi making for the better part of a year. She deserves an opportunity – not a job, just a chance unburdened by her heritage and sex. Black Americans were fed up at the back of the bus. Juana is done with the back of the house. If the filmmakers had superimposed an American flag over her speech, it would have been appropriate (if hammy).
There is an uninspired finale revolving around a sushi contest where the film’s basement budget shows itself. But for the most part, East Side Sushi is a warm, sunny film with lots of fruit and fish in a neighborhood where English is a second language to everyone. Diana Elizabeth Torres shines as Juana, with equal portions of guts and self-doubt. She doesn’t throw off her hairband and become a glamour queen. But on her one date with the kind, curious Aki (Yutaka Takeuch), she shows how nicely she cleans up. Aki, too, proves Japanese deference to elders goes a long way with Juana’s traditional father.
I watched this movie with my foodie wife and sushi-crazy son, and as the PG rating attests, East Side Sushi is appropriate for all ages. Sushi making is a performance, and the leads acquit themselves admirably with the physicality of cutting and forming art from rice, fish, and nori. But more than that, East Side Sushi is about characters with risky ideas and the chutzpah to make them happen, tradition be damned. “Green Diablo Rolls” offering a unique Japanese-Mexican fusion experience? Even Mr. Yoshida might have to concede it’s a risk worth taking.