Based on a comic by Tsuchiyama Shigeru, a specialist in so-called gurume manga (“gourmet comics”), Sukiyaki is about far more than the title dish, which is thin slices of beef cooked in a pot with other ingredients and commonly eaten with raw egg. It is in fact a prison dramady of a most unusual sort, though anyone familiar with Japanese prison rations may not think it far-fetched.
It begins in Cell 204, with the entrance of a new prisoner, a sullen apprentice yakuza (gangster) named Kurihara Kenta (Nagaoka Tasuku), sentenced to three years for assault and battery. His cellmates, including a professional thief (Katsumura Masanobu), a “host club” gigolo (Ochiai Motoki) and a beefy former sumo wrestler (Gitaro), are all hardened cons who eat the revolting food without complaint — and gladly take his when he can’t stomach it.
One reason for their relative contentment, Kenta soon learns, is a game they play as a kind of annual ritual. On New Year’s Day the prison serves traditional dishes, called osechi, that constitute the one decent meal they get all year. Prior to the big day, they share stories about the most memorable meal of their lives, with the teller of the best one getting his choice of delicacies from his cellmates’ osechi.
This contest is a lengthy, drawn-out process, judged by the oldest of the five prisoners, the bald, priestly-looking Gosaburo (Maro Akaji). Kenta thinks the whole idea ridiculous, but just as hunger drives him to wolf down food he despises, his cellies’ stories draw him in. Of course, he has stories of his own, centering on his long-gone mother (Tabata Tomoko) and a pretty waitress (Kimura Fumino) in his favorite ramen shop, who may or may not be waiting for him.
Though it may not have much to do with the grim reality of life in Japanese prisons, the film’s game is a good one. It serves as a frame for not only continuing gags, such as the hungry gulps we hear as the stories of former delights unfold, but self-examination of the most fundamental sort. The stories are about not just a scrumptious bowl of ramen noodles or plate of barbecued seafood but the most important relationships in these tough guys’ lives.
Most of the stories’ cooks are female, which is not fair, but given that the tellers are lonely guys in prison, only to be expected.
Also none of the food involved in the stories is of the type featured in glossy gourmet magazines. Instead it’s simple fare that all Japanese know, but some come to truly appreciate only behind bars.