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Noodle-icious 

Total immersion in a Japanese film retrospective prompts a lust for soba and udon

Wednesday, Feb 15 2006
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I haven't really been living in the Bay Area for the past month. I've been wandering the streets of Tokyo: the neon-lit Ginza at night, the tiny residential lanes lined with fragile wood structures that look like they could be blown over in a stiff wind, the dense alleys of food shops clustered around the train stations. I shopped for new kimonos and had my pocket picked while looking at the wooden platform clogs (called geta) being hawked in the flea market. I rode trolleys, buses, and subways in town, and commuter trains between the big city and its suburbs. And, for eight minutes at the end of Sound of the Mountain, I strolled through one of Tokyo's most beautiful parks.

Which is to say that I didn't actually leave town to achieve all this. I've been dreamily immersed in the world of brilliant Japanese film director Mikio Naruse, thanks to a beautifully programmed retrospective of his movies playing thrice weekly at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Naruse, considerably less well known than the trilogy of fellow directors Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu, has been slowly elevated to join their ranks through a 1983 retrospective at the annual film festival in Locarno, Switzerland; another in 1998 at the yearly fest in San Sebastián, Spain; and now this touring show on the occasion of his centenary, which originated at the Cinematheque Ontario. Those who write about Naruse mention his melodramatic, women-centered plots, his subtle examination of family dynamics, his pessimism, even his patented storm scenes, but nowhere have I found any allusions to what entranced me: the continual emphasis in his movies on food.

Not only does every Naruse picture have scenes set in restaurants or in the kitchen and at the dinner table at home, but each also includes continual food preparation, ordering, delivery. In Wife, a friend of the woman and her husband arrives with an enormous fresh flounder, planning to prepare a meal of sashimi and talk her troubled pals into reconciling, but when she discovers the slovenly kitchen, with only one dirty towel and no sharp knives, she tells the husband to go right ahead with the divorce as she leaves. Sudden Rain begins with a man asking his wife, "What's for dinner?" and when she replies, resignedly, "Undecided," his sarcastic rejoinder is, "Let's have a feast." (Trouble at table is trouble at home.) Flowing includes an emergency at a geisha house in which the maid is told not to order a noodle delivery by phone, so she yells over the fence at the startled cooks in the soba shop across the alley.

Big bowls of steaming noodles get slurped up with alacrity in almost all of Naruse's films, and I do mean slurped: Japanese etiquette requires creating the kind of noise that would horrify Miss Manners, and here the requisite sounds issue forth from everybody, even the exquisitely beautiful and modest Setsuko Hara and the more gamine yet ladylike Hideko Takamine. I was inflamed by the sight of all these meals, and finally, after Sudden Rain, in which a call brings a bicyclist bearing two beautiful china bowls brimming with noodles (alas, the wrong kind: "We ordered soba," the long-suffering Hara says, "and he brought udon"), I could stand it no more.

I have lunch the very next day at Hotei, a snug spot in the Sunset. It doesn't quite replicate the cozy, dark wood-paneled feeling of the tiny Tokyo shops I've been seeing on screen, but it comes close, even with its pale wood. Hotei's multipage laminated menu (containing another multipage menu devoted to elaborate sushi rolls), though headed "San Francisco Japanese Noodle Cuisine," offers many dishes (from dumplings and fish cakes to teriyaki and tonkatsu) in addition to noodles. But there are two pages of noodles -- thin somen and fat udon (here the menu notes both are made with rice; they can also be made with wheat), soba (buckwheat), and ramen (thin egg noodles) -- topped with everything from the simplest offerings (chopped green onions and seaweed) to much more involved presentations (shrimp, scallops, baby squid, fish cake, and vegetables). You can mix and match the toppings and noodles: I ask for cha-su soba. First comes a sharply dressed little salad of iceberg lettuce, and then the big steaming bowl filled with the grayish, chewy noodles covered with several thin slices of roast pork, chopped scallions, bamboo shoots, leaves of bright green seaweed, half a hard-boiled egg, and slices of pure white fish cake swirled with pink, in a dark soy-based sauce.

Sunlight streams in the window. The place is almost full, and in addition to the bowls of noodles sitting on almost every table, I see heaps of tempura and plates of sliced sushi rolls. (The foursome discussing purchasing new flat-screen HDTVs at the next table are regulars who seem to have eaten through the menu.) Even though I wish the pork was a little more savory, the cha-su soba is exactly the dish I yearned to eat while watching Hara and Takamine, and I find it deeply satisfying. I love this neighborhood, too, the shopping street of Irving almost as crowded on this sunny day as those of Tokyo.

Another day, another Naruse, and my PFA-mates Mary and David mention Sapporo-Ya, the homey coffee shop-like noodle place upstairs in the Kinokuniya building in Japantown, as one of their favorites, and I agree. I add that I also like the more austere Mifune (in the adjacent Kintetsu food mall). Its name inevitably conjures that of Toshiro Mifune, whom we've just seen in A Wife's Heart, in which he lends money to a young wife hoping to open a coffee shop of her own, and dines regularly at the restaurant where she's learning to cook. But a newer noodle shop has opened on the ground floor of Kinokuniya, so Hilary and I show up for dinner late another night.

Suzu is a small space, separated from the mall by glass walls, with modern tables and chairs lined up in three tight rows. I'm mildly annoyed to be shown to one of the deuces, right by the kitchen door, when later-arriving couples are offered four-tops along the window wall, but my annoyance disappears with the arrival of our food. We start with hot steamed edamame and the simplest sashimi: unusually thick-cut yet still-buttery chunks of pale pink salmon and darker, rosy tuna, served with a heap of wasabi and julienned shreds of radish. A list of a dozen assorted preparations of udon, soba, and ramen tempts me with the uncommon tororo soba (topped with grated potatoes), but I go for the mabo ramen, on a separate menu of half a dozen house specials. Hilary chooses a combination: a bowl of udon, plus tasty, almost candied braised eel over rice (aka unagi don). My mabo ramen, in a mildly spicy broth -- though not as spicy as the little red pepper logo might lead you to believe -- is capped with custardy tofu squares and crumbles of ground pork that are so flavorful I wish there were more of them. Hilary likes my thin, curly noodles better than her fat, firm ones, which strike her as slightly wormlike, so I happily trade. The food is so sophisticated and seductive (not to mention inexpensive) that I impulsively order a plate of assorted tempura -- three shrimp; slices of eggplant, zucchini, and carrots; and whole green beans -- exceptionally fresh and delicate. At 10 p.m. our waitress snaps off the neon signs and brings us our check before we can ask for adzuki beans over green tea ice cream. Hotei and Suzu do Naruse's noodle shops proud.

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Meredith Brody

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