Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana in 'East Side Sushi.' (Blue Sun Pictures/Sparklight Films)
Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana in East Side Sushi. Photo: Blue Sun Pictures/Sparklight Films

By Tien-Tien Jong / Eat Drink Films

East Side Sushi, the directorial debut of Anthony Lucero, belongs to a select category of “food films” that strives to capture not only an array of photogenic dishes (in this case attractively plated sushi, nigiri, and sashimi, as well as tacos, enchiladas, and fresh mangos drizzled with Valentina), but also to convey the differences and seeming incompatibilities in the two cultural traditions, and the emotions and stories, behind those dishes.

Diana Elizabeth Torres stars as Juana, a young Mexican-American woman living in East Oakland who struggles to make ends meet for herself, her father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), and her grade-school-aged daughter, Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre), by taking on a number of odd jobs, including shifts as a custodian in a gym and helping with her father’s fresh fruit cart, all with little job satisfaction and underwhelming returns.

The first shot in the film, which is playing at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, is a close-up on Juana’s alarm clock, which begins her day at 3:50 a.m.. From there we see that Juana has a special talent for preparing food quickly and efficiently, through creative shots of fruit for her father’s cart being sliced and rolled in such a way as to evoke parallels with sushi-making. Her father stresses that Juana could excel in a taqueria, but that’s a path she’s been down before, which Juana sees as a dead end when she would prefer to keep her options open for herself and her daughter.

Walking home one day from work, Juana passes a modest Japanese restaurant, and when she glimpses plates of elegantly prepared sushi through the window, she begins to imagine a different life for herself and so makes the decision to change her own path. She applies for and accepts a job working in the back of the kitchen, where her responsibilities are initially limited to washing dishes, cleaning, and lifting heavy bags of rice.

One day when short-staffed, sushi chef Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) pulls Juana from her assigned tasks to assist him with some food prep instead. Recognizing both Juana’s competency and curiosity about sushi, Aki begins teaching her more about each step of the process, from how to select the best fish to how to appropriately season sushi rice. These scenes charmingly articulate the challenge and excitement of learning how to cook a new kind of cuisine for the first time, as well as the unsettling and comical experiences of working in an unfamiliar kitchen.

East Side Sushi manages to show cooking as a lovely process of both discovery and experimentation that will feel relatable to anyone who has ever experienced firsthand the surprise and gratification of making a foreign recipe one’s own. But as Juana’s interest in sushi grows into a passion, her new ambitions — to work in the front of the house as a sushi chef — are confronted by tradition, most directly in the form of the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), who refuses to consider Juana for the role given her race, gender, and lack of formal training.

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Tradition is a central theme in East Side Sushi, which manifests not only in the rigidity of roles in the Japanese restaurant, but also (more gently) in the questions Juana’s father poses to his daughter in their own non-traditional home. Juana’s identity as a single mother gives her a certain flexibility and finesse to navigate within the boundaries set by tradition, and the story is unabashedly inspiring in its focus on a female character who doesn’t allow tradition to circumscribe the limits of her ambition.

With the introduction of a reality cooking show competition in the film’s third act, Juana increasingly begins to resemble the Rocky of the sushi world, but the focus remains on Juana’s single-mindedness on changing her life by bringing her dreams a little closer to reality. Like many other food films, the pretty dishes on display in East Side Sushi belie a more complex human story. While most of the scenes in the film involve characters preparing, engaging with, talking about, or sharing food, the crux of Juana’s story is about the fulfillment that can come from seizing opportunities when they’re offered to you, as well as creating your own possibilities, even in environments that are otherwise indifferent or hostile to your thriving.

Yet even as the film is critical of the limits of tradition, East Side Sushi also expresses an admirable reverence for traditional methods and customs which gives the film a more measured and sophisticated perspective on the issue of tradition than a less nuanced film might. When Juana is asked if she believes that she is “improving on sushi,” she considers the question carefully before responding, “No. Sushi in its traditional form is beautiful….I don’t think I am improving, but just adding more options.“ This counter-perspective, for the significance and value of tradition, is also welcome in a film about making sushi, an activity where precision in following instructions and steps in tasks such as seasoning rice can be of great importance (as Juana discovers in one of the funny scenes of her early failed home-cooking experiments). As both a food film and a story about a woman forging her own path against traditional attitudes and expectations, East Side Sushi is hearty and gratifying.

This piece was first published by the weekly online magazine Eat Drink Films.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...