Food + Sato Takeru = watch. Voila!
Akiyama Tokuzo (Sato Takeru) is a good-for-nothing young man who loses interest in things quickly and creates trouble for his family. He is married off to a merchant household in Sabae to teach him discipline, and he and his wife Toshiko (Kuroki Haru) get along well. However, Tokuzo soon realises cooking is his passion and leaves the family to master the craft in Tokyo. Despite the hardship and humiliation he suffers, Tokuzo is determined to become the best cook in Japan…
I don’t generally watch currently airing dramas, so I’m always playing catch-up. Lately, this streak of “better late than never” is working very well for me and I’ve been able to find quality dramas from recent years that have ticked a lot of the right boxes for me. It’s always a pleasure to (re)discover actors and know that they have been worth their salt in the projects they picked, and even more so, that those projects have been worth every inch of the hype they received. Such is the case for Tenno no Ryoriban. When it first aired, I didn’t care much for it and almost didn’t recognise Sato Takeru in that crew cut. But now that I’m determined to work through his filmography, this drama became like a “must-watch”, for I was also curious to see just how good he was – Sato won acting awards for his role here, and the drama also garnered several other accolades and was well-received by the audience.
The drama is based on a novel of the same name by Sugimori Hisahide, which depicts the life of imperial chef Akiyama Tokuzo, who served two Japanese emperors, Taisho and Showa. Interestingly, he was born Takamori Tokuzo, so he took on the Akiyama surname when he married into the wealthy Akiyama family of Sabae in Fukui prefecture. Akiyama was somewhat of a legendary figure in Japanese history, for he was only 25 years old when he became Emperor Taisho’s master chef, and was influential in spreading French cuisine in Japan. Apparently, he was known as the “Japanese Escoffier”, and if you know your food, you’ll know how high a regard that is. Akiyama worked under Escoffier himself in Paris and later on also travelled widely to study the cuisines of other countries. He retired at the age of 83 in 1972 and died two years later. Such a remarkable figure was prime material for television, so his life and achievements were adapted into a novel, a few TV series and also a TV film. The 2015 drama tweaked some details, such as preserving the Akiyama name in another way or changing Toshiko’s occupation. At 12 episodes, it was a tad longer than the usual fare and I had wondered about the pacing, for half of the drama was spent on the few years before Tokuzo went to Paris, but I needn’t have worried. The drama made solid use of every minute of air-time and never felt draggy because each episode packed a punch and knew how to keep the viewer constantly engaged.
I’ve always liked food dramas as something about them goes to the core of the human psyche. Food is such a strong unifying (and sometimes divisive) thing, and the cuisines of the world are reflective of the people, history, cultures and traditions that shape them. A good food drama is more than just about the chef, and this is so for Tenno no Ryoriban as it goes beyond tracing Tokuzo’s journey to becoming a renowned chef and builds a solid world to draw viewers in. It is true that Tokuzo made it to the highest echelons of the culinary world by sheer hard work and determination, with lots of creativity and a dose of aggression, but all that could not have been possible without the many people helping him and giving him the support and push he needed. The drama showcases that beautifully with the depiction of a very lived-in world, from Tokuzo’s family in Fukui and his Tokyo chef colleagues, Tokuzo’s makeshift “family” in France, and then back again to Tokyo with Toshiko, their children, friends and mentors. These bonds were weaved so strongly throughout the drama that it was impossible not to get the feels (and I certainly felt their impact big time), and beyond wanting Tokuzo to succeed, I also wanted the other characters to get their day in the sun and overcome their personal battles. Each important character was so well-drawn that no matter the size of his role, it was easy to understand how he or she factored in Tokuzo’s growth and the web of relationships that spanned more than five decades.
At its core, Tenno no Ryoriban was about relationships – Tokuzo’s with his family and friends, with cooking, with colleagues and enemies, and with himself. He started out as a good-for-nothing layabout who was the butt of jokes in his village in Takefu, and his family despaired of him ever coming good. Cooking inspired him to aspire for the better, and to make something of himself. For the first time, he wanted to persevere in making his elder brother Shutaro (Suzuki Ryohei) proud, and that brotherly affection would be a driving force to keep him going every time Tokuzo thought of giving up. I really enjoyed just how strong this bond was – no jealousy, no petty fighting, only lots of encouragement and support, and the appropriate dose of wisdom to keep Tokuzo’s temper in check. Shutaro could never fulfil his own dreams of becoming an outstanding lawyer in service of his country due to his illness, but it was heartwarming and sad at the same time to see how much he pinned his own hopes on his brother and took delight in Tokuzo’s every success. And although Tokuzo felt the burden, he also felt pride in being able to do something for his brother. I also love the bit where Tokuzo’s mother came to visit him in Tokyo and gently reminded him that fortunate people like him should work extra hard. Mom was always supportive and her words became motivation for Tokuzo to persevere in the face of difficulties. Dad had a foul mouth but a heart of gold and always wanted the best for his children, even if Tokuzo frustrated him to no end.
Also heartwarming was Tokuzo’s relationships with his colleagues, first at Kazoku Kaikan, then at the little diner Banzai, in France and finally in the imperial kitchen. I love that these friends were his pillars of support through the years, even though stuff happened and they hadn’t always kept in contact. I thought the redemption of Shintaro (Kiritani Kenta), Tokuzo’s erstwhile cook friend who had artistic ambitions but never made it as a painter, was really nicely done. Shintaro was pretty much a good-for-nothing who leeched off Tokuzo while they were in Paris, but he wasn’t a bad sort at heart and was generous with his time, especially when Tokuzo needed help looking after his children when Toshiko was ill and he still had to work. So Shintaro stepped up and made himself useful around the house, and it was lovely seeing Tokuzo, in an understated way, acknowledge that Shintaro had been a great help during that trying time, and Shintaro glad in the knowledge that his efforts were for once appreciated. Ditto with Tatsukichi (Emoto Tasuku), who was really a decent guy at heart and spent his life feeling guilty that he’d contributed to getting Tokuzo kicked out of Kazoku Kaikan, and then stepping in unreservedly whenever Tokuzo and his colleagues needed help with food preparation. It was bittersweet seeing how Tatsukichi kept trying to apologise to Tokuzo, only to realise some things are too late when they’re not said in time. I think Tokuzo knew, but didn’t want to make a fuss and make Tatsukichi feel bad again because he understood Tatsukichi hadn’t done it out of malice.
And how much do I love that Tokuzo’s mentor, Usami-san, was played by Kobayashi Kaoru? It was great to see him in yet another chef role, and to mentor the young Tokuzo and instil in him the right attitude towards food and cooking. I really enjoyed how that relationship was depicted and was happy to see that sustained well into Tokuzo’s later years. Usami-san always managed to get Tokuzo to reflect on his actions and do the right thing, and taught him how to appreciate and respect food, and the customers he was serving. For a chef should not only care about his dedication to his craft, but also the ingredients he uses, and the people who will ultimately enjoy his creations and understand the effort he has put into preparing them. Once Tokuzo got that right – and it took him quite a while, but Usami-san never gave up – it was so much easier for him make his mark and I’m glad that Usami-san’s teachings allowed Tokuzo to build proper foundations on which to expand his potential. I also love that Usami-san was never a mentor jealous of his protégé’s success, but was always supportive and ready to lend a hand professionally or otherwise. I also liked how Tokuzo handled his relationship with Miyamae-san, an established senpai cook at the imperial kitchen, and the rest of the imperial kitchen staff. It showed a maturing Tokuzo able to stamp his authority as the new head chef, yet appreciate all that Miyamae-san stood for.
But the relationship I love most is that of Tokuzo and his wife Toshiko. The trials and tribulations they went through and how they each overcame them felt logical and natural – you could understand, for example, why Toshiko chose to end their marriage so that Tokuzo could pursue his dreams unencumbered, and why Tokuzo would go all out to preserve their marriage despite strong opposition from her parents and the possibility of giving up his chef dreams. While Toshiko’s character was self-sacrificing and she was the sort to do her utmost to support her husband without complaint, there was no noble idiocy on her part because every decision she made regarding Tokuzo showed her love for him and her belief that he deserved every opportunity to further his cooking ambitions and skills. She never nagged him, and tried to be understanding of his disappearing behaviour even if it was clear she had gotten the short end of the stick when it came to their first marriage. I have to say I enjoyed their re-marriage more, as it was a slightly more equal relationship even with the clear division of roles. And it was adorable how Tokuzo was eager for Toshiko’s opinion as he worked on the celebration menu. However, the first part of their relationship was essential for character building, especially on Tokuzo’s part, and I was glad to see that even when they were apart, Tokuzo often wondered how Toshiko was doing and genuinely felt bad he wasn’t able to be a good husband to her.
I am frankly amazed by just how she and Tokuzo managed their family of five after their re-marriage, and the level of trust and understanding it took, especially from her, to ensure he was able to dedicate himself to work. Two incidents stick out: Toshiko insisting on keeping Tokuzo away from her when she was sick even when he wanted to take care of her, because she understood that hygiene was of the utmost importance for a chef working in the imperial kitchen and he shouldn’t be catching germs from her; and Tokuzo running a soup kitchen to serve the victims of an earthquake when he should have first checked on Toshiko and the children – the worry each felt for the other did not stop them from doing their respective duties, and the feels that came when Tokuzo realised Toshiko and their children were safe and how their son finally understood why his job was so important were incredible. The latter was one of the best segments of the drama and I love the tumultous, yet heartwarming emotions it evoked. Toshiko’s understanding, love and trust in Tokuzo were so crucial to allowing him to blossom into the person and chef he became, that it was incredibly sad to see him so heartbroken without her after she died. Even then, her advice to him on his anger management issues continued to help him keep his temper in check at key moments, and he was able to avoid certain career-killing pitfalls and keep his neck intact (the bells were a lovely bit of symbolism the drama used throughout, with great effect towards the end). I think the drama made a very smart move by not making Tokuzo remarry – in real life, Akiyama remarried a year after Toshiko’s death and had two more children with his new wife. In this way, Tokuzo and Toshiko’s love story was preserved and it is always nice to have a male lead who appreciates the sacrifices his wife made for him and who continues to love her long after she has left the world.
Acting was superb on all fronts, and I really enjoyed every performance. Sato Takeru was outstanding in a role that was so different from what he’d done previously. I’d been used to his mellower roles, so this came as a real surprise and it took me a while to get used to it. Tokuzo was loud, shouty and had a temper a mile long. His reaction to anything was extreme, such as his introduction to Western cooking and his unbridled joy and appreciation at the deliciousness of the cutlet Tanabe-san had him try. In time, I got used to Tokuzo’s outsized personality and it was entirely credit to Sato that he made all of Tokuzo’s mannerisms and loudness believable and true to character – it is all the more amazing when Sato confessed Tokuzo was so different from his usual self. You could really believe that Tokuzo was the village idiot, the rash man-child who was suddenly enamoured of cooking, the hyper Petit-kou keen to make an impression, the hot head struggling to control his temper and aggression, the confident and steady young man who was sure of his mark in Paris, the new imperial chef ready to make a difference in his career and life, and so on and so forth. At every major change in Tokuzo’s life, Sato stepped up so well that the transition was seamless and utterly believable, even when he had to slap on a moustache and age himself to portray Tokuzo in his later years. I was really impressed by how he’d inhabited every aspect of Tokuzo’s character and every bit of growth he went through, and how he was Tokuzo every step of the journey. I could not imagine any other young actor portraying Tokuzo to such an extent, and it was easy to see why Sato won an award for this role. I especially love his knife skills (impressive stuff with the potatoes) and that he hadn’t used a stand-in for the cooking scenes because he’d taken cooking lessons for months prior to filming. I respect dedication to the craft and Sato’s efforts paid off beautifully.
I loved Sato’s chemistry with his co-star Kuroki Haru, who played Toshiko. Slow-burn sparks are the some of the best variety of romance, and the love story of Tokuzo and Toshiko was one for the long haul, a contrast to Tokuzo’s fiery temperament but very fitting for Toshiko’s gentle and patient demeanour. Initially, I wasn’t used to Kuroki Haru in the Edo get-up and thought it did her a disservice as it made her look plain – she is actually really pretty – but Toshiko’s goodness just shone right through and over time I got used to her look and really enjoyed her portrayal of the character. She imbued Toshiko with kindness and old-world charm, patience and gentleness that were seemingly out of this world, and hidden steel that one would not have imagined for a soft-spoken young woman who had grown up sheltered most of her life. I really liked how Toshiko made a career for herself as a midwife and guided her children with wisdom and understanding. She was a woman of her times, and yet she broke the mould in ways that she knew how. Kuroki also won an acting award for this role and it was totally deserved, for she and Sato complemented each other well and they were both very generous actors, their on-screen chemistry and sparks unfolding much like how Tokuzo and Toshiko’s relationship developed.
I hadn’t realised Kiritani Kenta was in this, and was pleasantly surprised by his Shintaro. I think Kiritani works best for me in secondary roles, where he isn’t expected to carry the burden of the drama, and where he is not required to angst more than necessary. Shintaro was mostly flighty and aimless except for a desire to be a painter, but he was also happy-go-lucky and was a fairly endearing character despite his flaws. Kiritani did well with the character and was fun to watch, and I laughed at his constant reference to Tokuzo as “omae-san”. Emoto Tasuku was solid as Tatsukichi, earnest and decent at heart, and perfectly normal in feeling the prick of inferiority and jealousy over Tokuzo’s obvious talent. To his credit, Emoto never made Tatsukichi detestable, just a character to be pitied in his moment of folly, and it was lovely to see how the three friends stuck with one another through thick and thin. Kobayashi Kaoru was excellent as usual as Usami-san, a sterner and more mentor-ish character than Master, but evoking lovely memories of his Shinya Shokudo days all the same. He voiced what all of us had been thinking when he told Tokuzo plainly that “your wife was quite a woman”, and so she was. Suzuki Ryohei lost weight for his role as Shutaro, and it was really hard to watch as he fought a losing battle with tuberculosis. It got to a stage where I wanted Shutaro to spend more days in the sun than in the room, and stay alive till the end of the drama. I thought he did really well as the ever supportive elder brother – what a contrast to his muscle-filled role in season 2 of Seirei no Moribito.
The drama was filmed in various locations including Fukushima, Ibaraki, Kobe and Okayama, and also went to France for the Paris segment. I enjoyed hearing the dialect used in the Kinki region, the use of the suffix -yan, and the enthusiastic way Tokuzo would say “hai~!” It was just so singsong and happy, haha. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the French spoken by the mostly French cast in Paris (I definitely needed subtitles for the French spoken by the Japanese actors), but the English towards the end was meh and I wish the drama hadn’t shown Tokuzo writing in fluent English (thanks to having travelled a lot with the Emperor) but speaking like he’d never uttered an English word in his life. But that’s a nitpick I’m happy to overlook, because the drama was just so well-made overall. The theme song 「夢見る人」 was evocative and melancholic, a nod to the era depicted in the drama. The cooking scenes were well done and all the food prepared looked so yummy and gorgeous. I especially liked all the little creative ideas Tokuzo came up with for Toshiko when she was ill and couldn’t get much food down in her. Cats also featured in a few episodes, which was great, especially when one of them gave Tokuzo the paw slap for whining so much!
Overall, this is an excellent drama to sink your teeth into and spend some quality time with. It’s so nice to watch a drama and be assured that it is worth its hype and everything it stood for, from the acting to the production values and the messages it sent. I really enjoyed every minute of Tenno no Ryoriban, and more than once found myself chopping onions at the more emotional scenes. I am now convinced Sato Takeru delivers no matter the role, and am really glad that he was cast in this drama, for he made the role of Tokuzo his own and so much more. I will not hesitate to recommend this to anyone in need of a fantastic drama filled with goodies, as a showcase of what Japan can offer beyond the steady production of procedurals. For Tenno no Ryoriban gets to you right in the gut and warms the cockles of your heart. The feels, they are so worth it.