“Komori is a small settlement in a village somewhere in the Tohoku region. There aren’t any stores here, but if you have a little shopping to do, there’s a small farmer’s co-op supermarket and some other stores in the the village centre, where the town hall is. The way there is mostly downhill, so that takes about half an hour, but I’m not too sure how long the trip back takes.” —Ichiko
After encountering considerable difficulties with life in the city, Ichiko moves back home to Komori, a small rural village in Tōhoku. Far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city, Ichiko farms the land and makes the most of each season, using her knowledge of the land and local ingredients create simple but tasty dishes. Ichiko recalls stories of her mother in her childhood, who had left one day. The seasons pass in Komori, and Ichiko receives a letter from her mother. Deciding that living in Komori was equivalent to running away from her problems, Ichiko moves back to the city, but later returns to Komori permanently as a farmer upon realising that she’s come to love the way of life in rural Japan. The original manga was written and illustrated by Daisuke Igarashi; running between 2002 and 2005, it received a two-part live-action theatrical adaptation that was released in August 2014 and February 2015. A Korean adaptation loosely follows the structure of Little Forest and screened in 2018. The Japanese film will be the focus of this post: Ichiko is played by Ai Hashimoto, who delivers a very matter-of-fact performance in Ichiko’s everyday life in the country. Facets of life, from the preparation of foodstuffs, to subtle details in each season, are outlined in a manner reminiscent to Rena Nōnen’s performance as In This Corner of The World‘s Suzu Hojo (née Urano). Little Forest presents rural life as being very idyllic, slow-paced and earnest: one of Ichiko’s friends, Yūta, remarks that he’s fond of the country life and cannot stand urbanites because they are untruthful, whereas in the countryside, people are more honest and doers rather than talkers. The film is an ode to simpler living, in a world far removed from the connectivity and pressure of a scheduled, digital world; in a manner of speaking, Little Forest is a Japanese interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire; the Hobbits of the Shire live a very simple life, treasuring good food, a warm heath and all of the comforts of home above treasures and power. However, while one cannot be blamed for wanting to return to a simpler life, Little Forest also raises the question of whether or not escaping from the more complex, ever-changing world is the right way to handle one’s problems.
During her days in the country, Ichiko demonstrates a strong knowledge of the land and resourcefulness, looking after her crops and crafting meals with whatever is available to her. Her monologues show someone who is deeply entrenched in the land, and that she is someone who is definitely at home in the countryside. From simple bread, to the preparation of fried trout, duck, onigiri and home-made jam, Ichiko uses a combination of her mother’s knowledge and own discoveries to create simple but delicious meals. The past and present come together as she cooks; the passage of time infuses new knowledge into old dishes, suggesting that change is inevitable but gradual in all things. How much of Ichiko’s mother’s stories are genuine, then, becomes largely irrelevant, as she takes what is true and then combines it with her experiences to make her dishes work. The focus of Little Forest is in the realm of cooking, how recipes might change over time and imbibe the characteristics of the individual cooking them. While family recipes are often thought of as being immutable, a taste of an older time, the reality is that every cook will apply their own styles to it and create something slightly different. In this way, a particular dish can be thought of as ever-changing, for no two individuals will prepare a dish in precisely the same way. Change is then thought of as inevitable, applying not just to food, but to one’s life, as well; no two individuals will handle their problems in the same way, and ultimately, it is up to the individual to seek out and execute solutions to the challenges that they might come across within their lives.
While Little Forest presents Ichiko’s days of cooking and tending the farm as idyllic, her monologues are interspersed with thoughts of her past. It turns out that Ichiko’s had a rough time in the city; between a failing relationship and difficulties at work, Ichiko succumbed to pressure and decided to leave, regrouping in the countryside. While life back in her old home is peaceful, there are a unique set of challenges, as well; there are bears in the area, and insects get into the crops. Furthermore, her friends in the countryside occasionally remark that she’s running away from her problems in the city, retreating to Komori when her work and relationship takes a hit. This is true, and presents the audiences with a dilemma: if Ichiko returns to the city to face her challenges, then she’s suggesting that a simpler life in the countryside might not be as idyllic as one might imagine. Conversely, staying in Komori would signal to viewers that it’s okay to escape one’s problems. Ichiko’s final decision, to return to Komori after attempting to make life in the city work once more, neatly addresses Little Forest‘s theme: Ichiko does make another (presumably honest and whole-hearted) attempt to make her situation work out, returning to face her problems, and then with the knowledge of which life she feels that she could put a more complete effort towards, makes the choice to return to Komori. In the end, the simpler life prevails, but only after Ichiko has had a proper opportunity to face her problems once more. Having said that she has honestly made an effort to see if she could have made life in the city work, Ichiko’s return to Komori is not running away, but stems from a conscious decision that this life is what she desires.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Known for its scenery and climate, the Tohoku region occupies the northeastern side of Honshu and has a comparatively lower development level compared to the rest of Japan. Little Forest was filmed in the Iwate prefecture, which has the lowest population density of anywhere in Japan save for Hokkaido. The area has a hot-summer humid continental climate, and Ichiko opens by saying that the area is very humid in the summer, with the heat sticking to one.
- With its low population and relative seclusion relative to the remainder of Japan, Iwate is the perfect place to go to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Lacking the same melancholy as Inao in Nagano, where Please Teacher and Ano Natsu de Matteru is set, the rural setting for Little Forest is cozy, inviting and very laid-back even during the hottest days of the summer.
- The first dish that Ichiko creates is a stove bread: before we delve further into this discussion, I remark that my cooking skills are rudimentary at best. I have basic knowledge in food preparation and baking to the extent where I can prepare edible food that passes for a meal, but the more advanced techniques, I am less versed. The most complex dish I’ve made in recent memory was a sirloin-and-pepper stir fry with Dijon-mushroom sauce.
- While life in the countryside, the inaka, is very slow-paced for us urban-dwellers, Little Forest shows audiences that there is a completely different set of things that folks in the rural areas do during their day. Where we commute to work and sit in an office for a day, those in agriculture tend to their crops, maintain their equipment and spend plenty of time cooking, making use of their ingredients to make hand-made meals that city folk may not have the time to make.
- Ichiko recounts how her mother fabricated all sorts of tall tales during her youth. Her introspection of these memories suggests a bit of surprise when the truth came out, but otherwise does not convey any other emotion. The frequency that Ichiko brings up these stories suggests that despite her distance with her mother, she’s definitely appreciative of the effort her mother took in raising her, and indeed, the memories that audiences see from Ichiko’s childhood are simple, but warm.
- Ichiko lives in her mother’s old house, a rickety wooden building that nonetheless is very inviting. Having lived here for most of her life, Ichiko is familiar with the ins and outs of the countryside: by summer, all sorts of things come to life during the night, including various insects, owls and even bears. I am spoiled by the fact that urban dwellings are relatively free of unwanted visitors, and the thought of insects marching through my room while I sleep is a bit of a scary one.
- Besides tending to her crops, Ichiko also helps out around the village: as a part of a smaller community, everyone knows everyone, and form a close-knit group that is very friendly amongst one another. Here, Ichiko helps Yūta with moving trout around from their hatchery to a larger pond. The trout that are seen in Little Forest differ from the trout that I’ve had in the past year: during a business trip to Winnipeg, I had Steelhead Trout, which is characterised by its orange flesh and a more oily flavour: while not quite as distinct as salmon, it’s still quite salmon-like and is very tasty.
- Roasting fish on a skewer over an open fire is something I’ve seen in many series, whether its Les Stroud’s Survivorman or other anime. After the intestines and other inedible parts of the fish are removed, they are cooked over flame before being served. Little Forest has Yūta and Ichiko discarding the heart and liver from the fish, but these are edible and provide additional nutrients; Les Stroud eats those in addition to the fish during his survival trips.
- Yūta’s remarks about what makes people genuine struck a chord with me: he believes that people who are worth respecting are those speak from experience, who’ve done things rather than merely talk about doing them. Especially in the age of the internet, people often over-estimate the scope of their knowledge and make like they know more than they do. Fortunately, it is quite easy to spot when this is occurring: a few well-placed questions are often enough to determine if someone genuinely knows their stuff, or if they’re bluffing. For my part, I try to speak (and write) within the realm of what I know.
- For me, food is grown in the great plains surrounding my home city or else imported, and then it’s something I pick up at the supermarket. However, this is not something to be taken for granted; much like how it takes a considerable effort to make even a simple app work, the process of growing food is a very extensive one, and those in agriculture have my utmost respect. The Chinese have a saying: 飲水思源 (jyutping jam2 seoi2 si1 jyun4, literally “when drinking water, think of its source”): I am ever mindful of what it takes to grow the food on my table and strive to make sure no food goes to waste.
- I love tomatoes: refreshing and delicious, they are a fantastic food that are classified as a berry but utilised as a vegetable. The longstanding debate of whether or not a tomato is a fruit or vegetable is the subject of no small debate, but for me, tomatoes are a fruit hands down: science wins every time. I take tomatoes wherever I can get them; they are delicious in sandwiches, and the smaller cherry tomatoes are delicious on their own, packing a stronger flavour than standard tomatoes.
- The passage of the seasons runs throughout Little Forest – each of summer, autumn, winter and spring brings with it a different set of ingredients that Ichiko has to work with. As the trees yellow during autumn, Ichiko prepares her harvest and also picks chestnuts from the area nearby.
- The process of food preparation can take a good bit of time, and having tried my hand at cooking, I can honestly say that it can be a fun process during which time flies by. The night I prepared the sirloin and pepper stir-fry, it took four hours from opening the packages of meat and washing the vegetables, to enjoying said meal and then washing the dishes. Similarly, I tried my hand at making a chicken and broccoli dish that turned out to be delicious, as well.
- One of the things I likely won’t do for the short term, regardless of how delicious the outcome is, is frying battered meat in an oil using a pan at home. This is in the interest of preserving the air quality in wherever I am: the process produces a great deal of greasy smoke that clings to the air if done improperly (e.g. if the type of oil is poorly picked), so I would sooner learn to make other things, before attempting something like this.
- Sharing meals or snacks together with a dose of conversation may seem quaint for us city folk, but as it turns out, gathering to talk and eat is both superbly relaxing (a world apart from staring into the screen of a smartphone), and a great way to pass time. During the hot pot on Sunday leading up to the New Year’s, I spent upwards of 90 minutes with family, putting various meats and vegetables while sharing conversation, and during New Year’s Eve, conversation spanned two hours after the last of the cheesecake and flan were had.
- At home, Ichiko’s recollections often have her telling stories of her mother’s own recipes for common condiments and spreads, like Nutella and Worcestershire sauce. Her mother’s recipes yield a product different in taste than those of the commercial ones, and Ichiko is often surprised at the fact that these recipes are not original to her mother. As a side note, the original Worcestershire sauce from Lea and Perrins is a British invention, being used to season salads, soups and is a component of the Bloody Mary cocktail. However, it also goes great with the steamed meatballs served in dim sum.
- One part of Little Forest that really puts the perspective on fresh meat is when Ichiko is shown looking after ducklings that later mature into ducks; she states that ducks are useful around the farm, aerating the paddies and also consume any insects that may harm the rice plants. Audiences get to see the ducklings; their fluffiness and small size make them absolutely adorable, and one’s mind should be quite far removed from thoughts of eating them. However, as the ducklings mature into ducks, Ichiko takes the knife to one and carves one for dinner, roasting it over a fire.
- Meat cooking over a fire is a very inviting image for me, and the ethics of eating meat is not something I personally partake in debating – from a biological perspective, humans evolved bigger brains precisely from our transition to a diet with meat in it. The nutrients in meat contributes to the synthesis of materials involved in the brain, and in conjunction with cooking, we could now spend less time eating. The reduction in jaw muscles changed our skull morphology and also accommodates for increased brain size. Our evolutionary origins live on in me: when at home and meat-on-the-bone is on the table, I will take the time to gnaw any meat off the bones. Just yesterday, we had roast lamb on the bone to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and later today, a dijon-honey-mustard ham is on the table.
- Komori is a fictional town, but the locations are real, and the scenery of rural Japan is very beautiful. The open spaces between mountains are captivating, and for me, hold a certain appeal because they are a sight I do not often see. By comparison, the majesty of the Canadian Rockies are a familiar sight, and while certainly scenic, is not quite so special for me because I see them often. From the opposite viewpoint, the Japanese find their rural villages to be quite ordinary, and see our mountains as breathtaking; Japanese tourists in the Canadian Rockies are so common that our stores offer Japanese signs, books and menus for travellers to accommodate them.
- Everything that I know about cooking, I learned from either my mom or through courses I took during school. Things picked up from home tend to endure as a family tradition, and the one thing that I learned from home that schools will never teach is the proper process of de-veining shrimp. Most procedures will say that it is sufficient to make an incision into the shrimp from its dorsal side and then use a knife to pry the intestine out, but there is a hind gut containing stuff that one would rather not eat. Extending the dorsal incision into the tail allows for this hind gut to be removed, as well.
- One aspect of Little Forest that was particularly standout for me were the use of frames and cutouts as transitions. They give the movie a very modern, elegant feel that stands in contrast with the decidedly more rustic lifestyle being portrayed within the movie. Clever use of these allow the film to illustrate Ichiko cooking from different angles, reminding viewers that cooking and preparing ingredients is a very dynamic process.
- The soundtrack in Little Forest is very minimalist; this is an appropriate choice given the film’s composition. The whole of Little Forest can be summed up as “a girl returns to countryside and cooks various dishes using local ingredients”, but outside of a short blurb, the movie is an excellent example of where less is more. Because Little Forest only gives a few explicit details, the remainder are implicit and so, leaves audiences to connect to the film in their own manner of choosing.
- A few of Ichiko’s conflicts are shown, whether they be with her friends or other farmers, but for the most part, Ichiko gets along very well with those around her. Scattered throughout Little Forest, they show that Ichiko is not entirely free of her worries and troubles when living in Komori, but the fact that Ichiko can handle them (whereas she ended up leaving the city because she was overwhelmed with troubles) foreshadows that Ichiko is at home in the countryside.
- Whether or not the foreigner that visits Ichiko and her mother was a real memory or not is ambiguous, but he is shown as having a fun character, playing with the younger Ichiko. Ichiko recalls her mother’s recipe for a Christmas cake here and notes that while they never really celebrated Christmas, the tradition of making a cake during the winter endured. In Japan, Christmas is celebrated with a different set of traditions; for one, KFC is the preferred bird of choice over turkey.
- Ichiko inspects some dried persimmons that she’d previously prepared. These fruits have a wide range of culinary uses, and can be eaten as-is; I’ve never actually had the dried variety before, but fresh ones are quite tasty.
- Winter in Komori is characterised with snowfall: winters in the inland portions of Iwate are very cold, and can be quite snowy, as well. When a fresh snowfall blankets Komori, the landscape is transformed into a winter wonderland resembling those seen in Canadian photobooks. Winter in Canada varies greatly owing to the sheer size of the country, and in the prairie provinces, winters are usually bitterly cold with some snowfall.
- Besides cooking, Ichiko also covers nuances about agriculture and harvesting, mentioning the details of looking after crops. One criticism of Little Forest was that the challenging side of agriculture, from pests to undesirable weather, that impact yields, are not shown. Little Forest is not a movie about farming, it is a story of discovery, and so, I would consider this to be nit-picking, since failing crops would not contribute to the narrative in a meaningful way.
- At this time of year, Alberta is typically quite cold and snowy, but the weather of late has been contrary to expectations, being quite warm and dry. Meteorologists are predicting that winter across the prairies will be warmer and drier than usual, but there could be some periods of extreme cold. With the winter holidays now past, the most miserable time of year is upon us as winter truly sets in, but fortunately, with no shortage of things to do, winter should pass by fairly quickly.
- Curry is a mainstay of Japanese cuisine; introduced into the Japanese Navy by the British as a means of combating beriberi, Japanese curry is much milder than its Indian counterpart and goes great with rice. Here, Ichiko shares curry and flatbread with Kikko, her best friend. The two get along as peas in a pod, and while they occasionally have their differences, always work things out.
- Rediscovery is also a theme explored in Little Forest, using cooking of greens as a metaphor. Ichiko initially wonders why her greens never have quite the same texture as those her mother made, being much stringy and fibrous in comparison despite being prepared with the exact same technique, using the same ingredients. She attempts a variety of cooking methods, but then figures out that removing the tougher fibres from the greens before cooking them results in a dish that tastes identical to those her mother made.
- Little Forest is made up of two separate films, each of which have two acts: there are a total of four acts, one for each season, and at the conclusion of each, FLOWER FLOWER performs an ending song. Of the ending songs, I’m most fond of Natsu: it’s a very happy, bouncy song whose personality reminds me of a friend of old. Each ending is accompanied with scenery in and around Komori.
- Tempura made from greens and vegetables is very delicious: last year, I had vegetable tempura made from things as diverse as broccoli, onions, yams and even pumpkin. During my visit to Japan, I was able to try both bakke and Fiddlehead tempura at an onsen buffet. I typically eat my vegetables steamed or stir-fried, since that’s the quickest way of preparing them, and so, whenever vegetable tempura is available, I savour it.
- A fresh snowfall is a double-edged sword for me. On one hand, there is no denying the beauty of a landscape blanketed in snow, silencing everything, but on the other hand, snow corresponds with traffic delays and either frustration in negotiating with poor road conditions or waiting long periods in the frigid weather for a bus to show up. Having said this, I accept that snowfall means soil moisture come spring, and so, I begrudgingly accept the inconveniences of winter for the most part.
- For the most part, the vegetables one can buy from the store are quite clean and free of bugs, so rinsing them in cold, fresh water to remove any chemical residues is often sufficient. Spinach and watercress can be a bit messier; a trick for cleaning watercress (which we use in a pork bone soup) is to soak it in salt water for a bit, and then rinsing the salt water off. The salt in water causes water to leach from the bugs, dehydrating and killing them.
- Noodles are a fantastic standby, being relatively simple to make and is very much delicious when one has extra ingredients. After our hot pot on New Year’s Eve, we ended up making yi mein ramen with shrimp and fish-balls, with a generous helping of hot sauce. As spring rolls in, Ichiko and Kikko sort out various greens, and make spaghetti with the extras. Grilling sea trout and mixing it in, Ichiko cooks a simple but tasty trout spaghetti for the two to enjoy. After watching Little Forest, I took a look at the original manga, and remark that the films are quite faithful to the source. Little Forest could have easily been adapted into an anime and still have carried its impact, but the choice to adapt it as a live-action film worked very well, especially with all of the closeups of the food that Ichiko cooks.
- The question of why I chose Little Forest for a New Year’s Day post was primarily because the movie does deal with new beginnings and choices. I originally watched the first part back in October during the Thanksgiving long weekend, and then finished the second part after my trip to Salmon Arm a province over. This was the low point in my year, when I was working on a project that was seemingly going nowhere. The combination of a weekend off and watching Little Forest made me realise that I would need to actively shape my future to pull myself out of this nose-dive.
- Two months of time spent reviewing data structures, design patterns and more details about the Swift language, resume updates and the sending out of cover letters later, a new opportunity had arisen right here in my home town, and I seized it. Like Ichiko, who struggles between leaving Komori to pursue her career and staying behind, I’ve become quite attached to Heart of the New West and was conflicted in moving elsewhere for work versus staying where I am. For now, this decisions been made, and I intend to put in my fullest and best efforts for my work.
- Where Ichiko’s mother went remains a bit of a mystery, and in Little Forest, Ichiko does not make a greater effort to visit, suggesting that a distance does exist between the two. The letter appears to be her reason for going back to the city and giving things one final shot, but Ichiko winds up moving back to Komori permanently. Little Forest has Ichiko return to the city to show that now that she knows both perspectives, and has put in the effort to make life in the city work, she can return back home having said that this was a measured decision, rather than because she was running away.
- With my first proper post of the new year nearly in the books, I look into the near future and consider what I will be writing; while a new job and the attendant new schedule means considerably less time (and resolve) to blog, this blog isn’t quite dead yet (sorry to those who were hoping otherwise!). I intend to wrap up my thoughts on Anima Yell! and also take a look at Battlefield V‘s Tides of War after a full month of experiences in it. Finally, January means that I will be returning to CLANNAD ~After Story~ and continue with my revisitation.
- It is not my modus operandi to grade live-action films the same way I do for anime, but I can and will recommend this movie to anyone looking for something that is highly relaxing, part cooking show and part life lesson. I would also like to thank The Moyatorium for recommending Little Forest to me. She was watching this film on a flight and recounted her experiences of the film to me, piquing my interest. As it turns out, Little Forest was exactly what I needed to gain some perspective and regroup during a tougher spot this year.
Little Forest seems a well-picked movie to watch for motivating a start to the New Year; the movie was particularly enjoyable for me because at the time of watching, I was going through a rough spot. As tempting as it is to retreat to the countryside and live there, this is not feasible for me: agriculture is a dedicated profession with its own skill set and challenges. As such, my only option would have been to face my challenge head on and make the most of things. This effort to handle the problem was met with an opportunity, and so, I am glad to have taken this approach. Aside from themes surrounding life, of dealing with problems and making life decisions in a measured manner, Little Forest excels with its general presentation of cooking and food: the movie is simple to the point of excellence, succeeding in captivating viewers despite being little more than a cooking show with elements from everyday life interspersed throughout the film. It is definitely worth a watch, and for folks who may have been going through a rougher patch, this film is something to consider, providing a perspective on what it means to regroup, recover and get back up to face a challenge. It helps that Little Forest embodies catharsis: watching Ichiko cook is superbly relaxing, and the film does offer interesting insight into Japanese cooking well beyond things like sushi, omurice and other foods more commonly presented in fiction.