Junk Food*

Saturday, April 18, 1998

Author: Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: Janku fudo
Director: Yamamoto Masashi
Release Date: April 18, 1998


  • Production Company: Junk Food Connection (Omiya Visual Image Production, Stance Company, Transformer)
    Release: 18 April 1998
    Length: 82 min.
    Format: 35 mm
  • Color: Black and white


  • Director: Yamamoto Masashi
  • Executive Producers: Omiya Koichi, Sakaguchi Kazunao, Ishige Eizuke
  • Producer: Isomi Toshiro
  • Screenplay: Yamamoto Masashi
  • Photography: Ito Hiroshi
  • Music: DJ KRUSH, Machida Ko
  • Editor: Kakesu Shuichi


  • Miyuki: Iijima Miyuki
  • Yokoyama: Furuta Arata
  • Hide: Yoshiyuki
  • Ryo: Onimaru
  • Myan: MIA
  • Cawl: Ali Ahmed
  • Old woman: Yamamoto Shizuko
  • Miyuki’s boss: Yamaguchi Akifumi
  • Mariana: Esther Moreno
  • Sato: Tsuda Kanji
  • Sarym: Choudry Ikram Ul Haq
  • Hide’s friend: Kuwabara Nobutaka

Digesting the Junk of Tokyo

Street fashion is still in. Teens walk through Shibuya in Tokyo with baggy pants, knit caps, cornrows and so on, assuming the same style as the home boys in the ‘hood. It’s cool to look the outlaw, to present oneself as an outsider within Japanese society.

A film like Iwai Shunji’s Swallowtail Butterfly has celebrated this display of alienness. But even if Iwai’s decision to have his Japanese cast speak foreign languages may have presented the image of a multicultural Japan, in the end, the “otherness” the actors assume appears to be more of a pose than a reality. It is just as superficial as the Compton clothing rich Tokyo kids buy in the boutiques in Harajuku.

Yamamoto Masashi, who started depicting Japan’s outsiders long before Iwai, does it differently. When he needed someone to play a youth gang leader, he searched out the legendary Onimaru–the king of the streets of Omiya, Saitama Prefecture–and cast him and in his gang, along with a motley pack of real tattoo artists, musicians, street kids, and resident foreigners, in the new film Junk Food. The result is a bitingly real, unpretentious look at Japan’s other side.

Yet Yamamoto is not naive enough to think his cinema can expose the truth of the urban jungle. Instead of giving us a serious lecture about reality, he presents a variety of stories, both tragic and absurd, in a myriad of styles that acknowledge the artifice of the present while revealing its hidden underside.

The first extended story, in fact, depicts less the streets than the corporate office: the Tokyo Bay world of glass, chrome, and its facades. Miyuki (Iijima Miyuki), a junkie OL, wakes up in a run down basement apartment next to a man whom she promptly kills after getting her fix. Making herself up as if nothing had happened, she heads to the office only to spend most of her day trying to get her next dose.

Shot in a more professional style with professional actors, this section is appropriately the film’s most artificial. It presents a schizophrenic world split between a clean facade and perverse inside, encapsulated by Miyuki who, after all she has gone through, can still return home at night and play the wife to her blissfully ignorant husband.

After this daytime tale, Junk Food moves on to its centerpiece–the stories of the night. There is Hide (Yoshiyuki), in town to pick up the ashes of a dead friend, and have a fling a prostitute named Myan (MIA); Cawl (Ali Ahmed), a Pakistani who stole money to marry his Japanese girlfriend, but then kills her and a fellow Pakistani after his plans go awry; Ryo (Onimaru), a gang leader forced to look for the girl of an unpleasant acquaintance; and more.

Now using a rougher, more documentary form, Yamamoto skillfully weaves these threads together until Cawl and Ryo join Hide and Myan to help pour the ashes of Hide’s friend into Yokohama Bay. It is a touching moment–a temporary point of stasis in an urban world perpetually in motion.

The fact that the friend died on the Yamanote Line, circling round and round before anyone noticed, is symbolic of both Yamamoto’s whirling movie and a world that ignores the “junk” it creates.

The circle is the defining figure for Junk Food, in part because the two above “acts” are framed by short, video-shot scenes of a blind old woman (played by Yamamoto’s own mother) performing her unchanging morning routine. As one day comes to an end, another just starts the whole process over again.

The old woman is, in one way, the mundane that contrasts with the extraordinary events of the other stories. But she is sightless, a disabled figure whom society usually locks away. If she embodies how the alien can become the everyday, Yamamoto’s brilliant decision to turn the film back on itself–to have the stories encircle each other instead of moving linearly parallel–helps him to underscore how all that is “alien” to Japan is as much part of the normal as the facade that tries to substitute superficiality for substance.

Junk food, despite the bad rap it gets from the “good” forces of healthy society, is still food. And often tastes a lot better.

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 16 April 1998, p. 9

Copyright 1998: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow