The Fabelmans, Apollo 10 ½ , and The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House

There are few directors whose work makes me feel as nostalgic as Spielberg does. Films that made an immense impression on me as a child include Jaws, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park. Later, there was Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s every new film release has been a treat, and so has his latest premiere (go and see it in the cinema!).  

In The Fabelmans (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️), a semi-biographical story, Spielberg recreates his own childhood to highlight the moments that influenced him most as a director. The story follows young Spielberg as Sammy from the moment when his vivacious mum gifted him a film camera until his first job in the industry in his early 20s. It may seem like a straightforward journey for someone from a well-to-do family with supporting parents. Still, Spielberg doesn’t forget to show that every great art comes from at least a little bit of pain, and even Sammy’s perfect world has to be tainted by some anguish. Antisemitic bullying and beating at high school, skeletons discovered in the family’s cupboard would later shape the stories he would tell on screen. His father (Paul Dano) is an electrical engineer and is madly in love with his wife. His mother (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist who ceased her career to become a stayed-at-home mum and look after Sammy (LaBelle) and his three sisters. This full of love and laughter household comes complete with integral uncle Benny (Seth Rogen), who is present at every dinner time and accompanies the family on holidays. While editing a video from vacation, Sammy discovers his mum’s secret, which eventually leads to the crumbling of this seemingly perfect family life. It is a joyful watch filled with nostalgia and longing for the golden age of cinema. While some may consider The Fabelmans a home movie made to popular taste, I believe Spielberg’s genius lies in the film’s simplicity, omnipresent charm, and directing actors to deliver unforgettable performances. 

Also, Linklater looks at his childhood, but he does so through the lens of rotoscoped animation. Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood (⭐️⭐️⭐️)  is his third feature produced this way, and the second after Boyhood (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️) focuses on things he has experienced (or thinks he does) when growing up. It is 1969, and NASA recruits a 9-year-old Stan to perform a top-secret mission ahead of Apollo 11 in a spaceship, which by accident was built a tad too small for an adult. Halfway through the training program, the action stops so the narrator can provide the context of this assignment. To do so, Linklater creates this essay-like piece, which meanders gently through the turbulent 1960s in America. Heartwarming family stories juxtaposed with historical events and references to pop-culture highlights are all equally significant and, to an extent, define Stan’s idyllic childhood in the Huston suburbia. Memories of harmless pranks, packed lunch ‘production’ and technical novelties of the 60s, such as push-button telephones, are intertwined with cultural references to films, music albums, and TV shows. I love how Linklater joyfully plays with a child’s memory, freely crossing the lines between history, nostalgia, and the collective memory of that period adding some elements of dreamy fantasy. 

This sense of family and nostalgia presented in the Fabelmans and Apollo 10 ½ is also prevalent in this recent Japanese series, The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️), written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. He is also known for Shoplifters (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️), Like Father Like Son, and Broker (in cinemas from the 24th of February 2023).

The series is contemporarily set in Kyoto and is adapted from the manga by Aiko Koyama under the same title. It follows the touching story of two 16-year-old best friends, Kiyo and Sumire, who decide to move to Kyoto to train as a maiko (apprentice geiko or geisha). They are warmly welcomed in the house by mothers (the managers) and sisters (fellow trainees) and soon start their training. It is a career very few pursue in 21st-century Japan. But for us viewers, it offers a glimpse of the Old Japanese traditions without sadness or regret at the passing of things. 

Contrary to what you might expect, you will not find evil characters, intrigue or competition here. In fact, there is very little drama at all, and the story is certainly not driven by conflict. The narrative drifts pressed gently by the simplicity of everyday life centred in the kitchen of the Maiko house. It is the place Kiyo falls in love with as soon as she arrives there. Unlike Sumire, who has a natural flair for becoming a maiko, Kiyo is rather hopeless. Luckily she finds her calling in becoming makanai (traditional cook), preparing and serving delicious home food for everyone in the household. A job that for some may be incredibly hard and exhausting, Kiyo performs with enthusiasm and joy. There is nothing she likes more than seeing people enjoy her food. 

It is a nostalgic peace celebrating Japanese culture and tradition in the best possible way through female friendships, community and finding pleasures in everyday life. There is no question that food preparation is a big part of it all. Many will warn you not to watch this series when hungry. It is probably worth mentioning that none of these traditional homecooked meals are fancy but easy enough to prepare at home. It makes at least parts of this magical world accessible to a viewer. 

Inevitably, the series made me think of a book I read a few years ago, Vanishing Japan: Traditions, Crafts & Culture (⭐️⭐️⭐️), by Elizabeth Kiritani, first published in 1995. One of the characters’ first meals in The Makanai is a sweet potato (yakiimo) grandma baked for their trip from their hometown Aomori to Kyoto. Funnily enough, the author’s favourite sweet potato vendor in Vanishing Japan is also from Aomori. The book is worth reading, although it can seem dry, unless you can look for references in films and series like The Makanai or, even better, real life.