Come Back Anytime Director John Daschbach Makes You Hungry as He Talks Ramen, Japanese Cooking, and ‘The Master’ in This Interview

The human relationship with food is such a complicated thing. Some cultures and families bond over food, have their best times around the dinner table with or without financial stability. Some families only eat to live – who hurt these people? Food creates memories, good and bad, and sometimes accompanies the deepening or fracturing or healing of relationships. Sometimes the best friends are foodie friends, the kind who will go with you to the grottiest holes in the wall out of the way suburbs to have the most amazing meal and then talk about it in years to come. As my obsessed aunt’s profile and messages remind me, Netflix is rife with food shows that range from insufferably elitist to hilariously competitive to joyous celebrations of street food and home cooking. Amid all the anxiety around healthy eating and the reverence of highbrow food culture, occasionally it becomes difficult to hold onto that love, the simplicity of sensation and satisfaction.

Come Back Anytime is an independent documentary that seeks to get back to exactly that feeling. Its subject is slow food and the unpretentiousness of a small ramen restaurant in Tokyo run by self-taught chef Masamoto Ueda and his painter wife Kazuko Ueda. The regulars have been coming there for years and decades, returning for the unique flavours and their relationship with Ueda-san whom they affectionately call Taisho or the master. His enthusiasm for food and the natural world takes him and his customers on expeditions into the mountains or the countryside to dig for bamboo shoots, pick pears, or make mochi. Director John Daschbach and producer-interpreter Wataru Yamamoto filmed before the pandemic, and this documentary with its exploration of a slow content life makes for wonderful comfort viewing. The Japanese scenery and food are depicted with equal vividness, an excursion for the senses. Ultimately, the mood is one of community, and a sense of tranquility, of simple acceptance, being at peace with yourself and your small valuable place in the world.

Nisha-Anne caught up with director John Daschbach to discuss the importance of collaborative practice, the structural and technical challenges of documentary-making, the feeling he wanted to capture, and yes flail at each other about our favourite ramen.

Come Back Anytime is in select Australian cinemas from January 27th. Screenings can be requested with Demand Film here.

For more information, visit the Come Back Anytime website, or follow @JohnDaschbach or @ComeBackDoc on Twitter.


So, you met the master when you were invited on one of the food expeditions?

Yes, that’s how it started. Yeah, it was an interesting way in.

Tell me how that happened. And where did you go? What did you do?

So our friend who’s in the film – he works in the neighbourhood and so that was his regular lunch spot. And, you know, he had started getting to know the master pretty well and was invited on this. I don’t know if it was the first time he did one as well, it might have been. This is like back in 2013. And he called me one time and said, “We’re going to go foraging for mountain yams” – which is in the movie, we did that again for the movie – “with my ramen master, local ramen master.” I was like, “That sounds interesting. Okay.” Because I was still fairly new to Japan. And you know, any opportunity like that to hang out with a ramen master just sounded so unique. So I said yes immediately, and we went.

And the producer as well, Wataru Yamamoto – actually, it’s his old high school buddy that was the connection.

So we all went and did that, and it was great. It was a really fun weekend. And then we just started hanging out at the restaurant and I also had the ramen for the first time. I was invited to come to the restaurant before the weekend excursion to meet [the master], and I think for him to know who was coming and get a sense of – it was kind of a courtesy thing on the part of my friend who was inviting. But he had said, “Oh yeah, bring your friend” because he loves meeting people from all over the world.

I was going to ask you if you call him Taisho or if you call him the master, but obviously you call him the master.

I call him the master, yeah. Sometimes when I’m talking with Wataru the producer, we’ll say Ueda-san, Mr Ueda.

That first expedition when you went on — that mountain scenery was fantastic.

The mountain scenery was so beautiful.

And the way they were talking about the quality of the water and the quality of the soil and how different the food tastes up there. I thought that was so wonderful. Did you feel that up there?

Yeah, absolutely. That was what struck me immediately. Because I hadn’t really done that much. I mean, I had been down to Okinawa scuba diving so I’d had some sort of nature experiences in Japan, but never in the mountains. And so that’s just a totally different thing. Once you get off the beaten path, it’s pretty, pretty rural. And so yeah, that struck me. We camped out at that same site that you see in the movie. It was a place where the two older guys were making charcoal. They were basically baking the certain kind of tree – you slowly burn it and it turns into that charcoal that’s used in yakitori grills. And it’s really a dying craft. I mean, most of it’s now like imported from China and Vietnam.

But these guys in their eighties at the time were still doing it. They’ve since retired. It’s just a little too arduous for their eighty-year old bodies. But yeah, that really left a lasting impression. And then we started going to the restaurant fairly frequently.

It’s about half an hour away from where I live. So I don’t go all the time, but I would go as often as I could. And then over the years, we were invited to more things like that. He also has pizza parties. Because he built his own pizza oven at that country house that you see him gardening at. It’s in the background of a couple of shots, that pizza oven. And we actually filmed a pizza party. But you know, there’s so much we filmed that didn’t make it into the movie because we didn’t really know what the movie was going to be. We just decided to film for a year.

The thing that really struck me about the documentary – and I loved this aspect – was it really felt like you were getting away from the elitism of food culture. And you’re really taking it back to the grassroots of people teaching themselves how to cook. Ueda-san taught himself how to cook from a book. And you taught yourself how to choose lenses from YouTube. And I thought that was so cool.

What also struck me was there weren’t – like you got the musician talking about the history of ramen in the country. But there wasn’t like some food guru professor type. It was just the customers. Was that something that was important to you, that kind of independence of the project?

Definitely. I felt like it was suitable and intuitive as well for that kind of place. You know, that’s the point, right? Everything you’re picking up on is that he is self-taught, and he doesn’t need some expert to tell the world how great his ramen is, and I didn’t need it either.

So Tanaka-san, the bass player slash ramen fanatic – he is an expert. But he’s also a completely unpretentious one which is what we like. And he’s a rock musician who happens to love ramen, and that’s his kind of his side thing. It’s his passion. We decided we didn’t want to have like the lower third [title] that sort of declares that he’s an expert. I did want to make it clear that he did know what he was talking about, and that he was sort of the authority. But I didn’t want to single him out. Because ultimately, he’s just another regular there and we met him also through that same friend who – he’s the guy who hates onions and therefore doesn’t eat the salt-flavoured one. And he’s in the expeditions. He’s the one learning how to dig up the bamboo shoots. I’m not sure but I think he may have introduced Tanaka-san to the place as well.

So yeah, Tanaka-san is a regular first, and I don’t think he would have wanted to be singled out as the expert as well. I think he would have felt like everybody can speak to it. But he was a perfect person to interview because he knows how to speak about ramen in a way that’s – and he’s media [savvy]. He’s comfortable in front of a camera, and so he really was able to be a narrator of sorts at least as far as describing the ramen. We felt like we needed that.

We actually added him later as an interviewer almost six months after we had finished shooting everything else. We thought, you know, let’s get him. He was busy, we finally had a chance to get him and we were really glad we did. We sat with him for like an hour and it was tonnes of useful stuff that he gave us.

I did go to film school so I learned editing and all that in film school but it was partly I wanted the challenge of learning how to shoot something myself. But also the project kind of required it, because it’s such a small space and I didn’t want to have a big crew in there because it just wouldn’t have captured the same feeling. I wanted it to just be me. The master knew me, he was comfortable with me. He had been camping with me, you know. And so it was like everybody forgot the camera was there. It was just me and this little handheld Panasonic that’s used for like mostly YouTube stuff but you can shoot a feature on it.

I’m glad you mentioned what kind of camera it was and that was a handheld because I was going to ask you.

Yeah, it’s a Panasonic GH5 which is a really incredible camera if you learn how to use it and you put the right lenses on it. I mean, I did get some cinematic lenses that have this sort of shallow focus. Then I spent a lot of time on the colour too. I decided as a filmmaker – I thought it would be a useful skill to develop, to learn colour correction. Also, because we got the estimate from one pro place and it would have like tripled our budget. (laughs) So I was like, okay, I think I’m going to have to learn how to do this myself.

I also learned that online and using DaVinci Resolve which is this amazing – it’s an industry standard colour correction tool. And you know, it was really fun, I really enjoyed it. So I think the combination of a good camera like that. So far, most theatres still only project in 2K. We found we haven’t had a need for the 4K. But we thought, well we might as well shoot it – i requires more hard drives and stuff like that, but we shot it in high resolution so that it would look good on a big screen. And that, I think, was worthwhile.

Absolutely. It totally paid off, man. Because when it started and we were watching him prep, I was noticing the textures on the kitchen wall. And I was thinking that’s so great that the camera picked that up. I’m so glad you said about the colour correction too because I was noticing the cool richness of the blues and then the way you picked up the pale yellow of the bamboo shoots. I was thinking, “Was that in camera? Or was that like done in post?”

It’s all there. You know, the camera does a great job of capturing it. That’s the amazing thing about the colour correction – is like you can take that one thing and isolate that yellow and just saturate the yellow a little bit or whatever. So I did a lot of that. You can also almost like create a sense of – you can focus the light, you can mask things out. And if somebody’s face is not bright enough, you can just isolate their face and bring it up a little bit. Yeah, it’s just amazing what you can do. It’s really fun.

Technology. Love it. Now you come from a fictional narrative background and I noticed that you’ve written and directed your own films in a fictional perspective. And I’m a writer too, I used to write novels and I still write fiction. I know it was a bit of a challenge for you to move from fiction to documentary. Was it a relief as well? Or was it a bit more fraught than that? To get away from the tyranny of the three-act structure?

It was. It was hard to completely let go of it. It took me a really long time to find the structure. A lot of documentaries have a script, a sort of working script before they even start shooting, and they have a sense of how they want to tell the story. I didn’t do that. And it was kind of by design, I wanted to it to be a process of discovery. All I knew is that I wanted to try to capture the feeling of this place and recreate it for an audience, particularly for a foreign audience.

Because, you know, that’s the perspective I have – somebody who is a foreigner, an outsider looking into this, peeking into this world that not a lot of people get to see. And so that was my main goal and my driving kind of guiding principle: will it be interesting to people who are maybe already interested in Japan? Can I give them a window into this aspect of Japanese culture that maybe isn’t so well represented globally?

It gets back to the sense of unpretentiousness and laidback and friendly and playful. You know, MasterChef is not what you see. Jiro Dreams of Sushi – that’s very meticulous, obsessive. There’s a place for that. But I want to say, hey, you know, what I see, what I experience in my everyday izakaya, places when I go out to eat is Japanese culture as well. So I wanted to capture that.

Structurally, it did get a little daunting and it really took me a long time. And I kind of went through a phase of “I don’t know what to do with this” because I had eighty hours of footage. I resisted the seasonal structure for a while because I thought it’d be a cliche. And then I thought, you know what, it makes sense. It’s the best way to do it, make it a year in the life. And that really ended up giving me a way to structure the rest of it. Because I thought, okay, if we’re going to have this four seasons structure, then you can use that as a metaphor. You can have the four seasons of life, you get all this.

I also decided like the experience of getting to know a place like that and a person – it starts kind of on the surface and then it gets deeper. So you don’t really get to know the relationship between the regulars and the master until fall, because you have to understand the food first, right? Imagine if you hung out at that place for a year. It would take you a while to get to know people well enough that they might open up and tell you things.

That was also how we structured the shoot. We consciously decided to wait on the interviews with the regulars until the fall because then they knew us and they were comfortable with us, especially with Wataru Yamamoto, the producer who conducted the interviews. We kind of conferred on what I wanted him to ask. But he also he’s a journalist and he did a lot of his own research and had a lot of his own questions as well.

That seasonal structure ended up resonating – the Taiwanese distributor renamed the movie Four Seasons: Ramen Story. They really connected with the four seasons aspect. And they made a new poster for it that, you know, highlighted the greenery. They really liked the aspects of the outside, the excursions, and they really emphasised that.

I like the seasonal structure. And I really like that within the seasonal structure, you did a really good job of interspersing their history with the expeditions and what was happening [in the present]. Rather than one big info dump at the start, but instead getting to know his history and the history of the marriage as well. Did that structure come in the edit as well?

It did. We spent hours with them at their home until he got too tired. He just can’t sit still that long. You can tell, right? (laughs) Once I had that seasonal structure, it made sense to start – okay, spring is when they meet and get married. And summer is the obvious place to talk about opening the restaurant. And then fall is like where are they at now. It made it really easy. I knew I had these multiple storylines, right – you got the restaurant, you got the food, you’ve got the customers’ testimonials, the regulars. I had an Excel spreadsheet. I said, okay, that goes there, then that.

That’s so great. That’s fantastic.

It ended up being fun. But it was daunting before that.

But you made it work. But I love the fact that, you know, you say it’s obvious to you because it wasn’t obvious to me.

Well, it shouldn’t be, right? I mean, you don’t want it to be.

No, exactly. That’s a great thing about being a writer, isn’t it?

It should seem simple. If you’ve done it right, it should seem simple when in fact it isn’t. As a writer, you know that.

It should seem organic. So Yamamoto did all the asking of the questions. Do you speak the language as well, John?

I do. Not very well. But I understand it. I was also recording sound and camera and lighting everything myself. So I was really focused on making sure we captured it technically. But I knew what they were talking about. I didn’t know everything that was being said because there’s a lot of colloquial language that they’re using that was a little too much for me to understand. But I could sort of know where it was going and what they had covered, and I could make sure that I could also sometimes jump in when I wanted to follow up on something in the moment. So it was a good collaboration in that sense. I mean, for a time I said, “I think we should just [say] produced and directed by both of us,” and Wataru was like, “No, no, no, you’re the director.” Because he really did contribute significantly.

I love that both his and your credits are on exactly the same line. It’s equal billing, and it told me right up the start that this is a collaboration of respect. It was a really, really good decision there.

I felt like it really was, and it’s our film, it’s not my film. That was very important to me that we’re both on equal footing there. I think with documentary, it is important that the producer shares authorship. Because it’s such an important part of the film’s existence, what the producer does in the capturing of this footage. In our case, Wataru was essential in doing all those interviews and he was there as a waiter, you know, helping out. When we were shooting at night there, he was often tasked with bringing bowls around to the customers upstairs. He put on an apron to help out.

About a third of the way into the year, he had the insight that for these excursions – because the master was so into it. He kept saying, “Hey, let’s go do this. How about this? How about this?” And Wataru was saying, “Let’s keep it focused on things that can come back to the restaurant, let’s prioritise those.” So food that we know that we can tie back and visually connect it back.

The pears – we’ve had them [at the restaurant]. That’s how we thought of it. That regular [customer] hangs out there and everybody buys his pears when they’re in season. This guy, he comes and he’s got his little order book and the master is serving them to the customers.

That was Wataru’s idea. After an exhausting weekend of traipsing around the countryside and camping, we had to get up the energy to do one more day, to go into the restaurant and make sure we got the Monday night when everything is served – the spoils of the weekend shared with the customers. So we kept a little bit focused. Because there was like horseback riding expeditions and, you know, all sorts of other things that weren’t necessarily food-related. Wataru Yamamoto had the insight to do that.

That was a great insight and a great decision. Because I know when I was watching it, I actually felt it when we saw the bamboo shoots. And then especially when we saw the mochi, when you go from watching the mochi [being made on the] expedition and then seeing the mochi in the restaurant. I actually felt it. Like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.”

So you were operating the camera, doing the lighting, maybe jumping in with the questions every now and Yamamoto was doing all the interviewing. What was it like for you as a white guy in Japan, and you’d only been there for a few years? You said you were bringing that outsider perspective into it. Because I noticed there were no – firstly, there were no white people in the film, in the restaurant at all. It was just Asian people. Is that usual for that restaurant?

It’s pretty common. Well, before the pandemic, you know, he got tourists occasionally. And there was one guy who – during the time we were filming – I think he was – was he American? Yeah, it was an American guy, a young guy. I think he was studying, he was like a college student. And so we kind of got to know him, but he just never happened to be there when we were filming. Yeah, it’s a good point. There were occasionally some Chinese tourists. But like I said, you know, the master is very welcoming and always eager. And I think he’s just waiting for the pandemic to end so that tourists can come back who have seen the movie, especially Australians particularly and Canadians. A lot of them have seen it in festivals and such, and he just can’t wait to meet them. He has already met – the ambassador to Israel came. Because it’s showing on pay TV in Israel, and there was an article about it.

Then two Taiwanese students came because their parents saw it and they said, “You have to go,” and they’re here studying. So he’s been enjoying meeting new people. And he’s just so eager to go travel to a film festival or something too, but we just haven’t. We were hoping to be able to travel with it. Like it’s showing in south of France and Biarritz right now. You know, like we would just love to go there.

I was thinking more about your perspective as a white filmmaker telling a Japanese story. How did you feel the responsibility of that? Because I noticed you’re quite invisible in the film.

Yeah, I wanted to be.

And I think you’re mostly unheard in the film. I had to keep reminding myself, “Okay, no, remember there’s a white guy behind the camera.”

You know, it’s funny, because I didn’t really even think about it. Maybe it’s like white privilege.

Totally white privilege. (laughs)

Right? You know, so I’ll cop to that. Because from my point of view, I’m not trying to tell a Japanese person’s story. I’m telling my story.

Oh, okay.

You know, my story is look at this place that I experienced. Let me tell you what I know of it and what I saw, and that’s all I’m doing. I didn’t feel like I was representing the culture. It was more I was reporting on it. I hope that comes across. I just wanted them to tell me as much as I could learn about them and their culture and their lives and I wanted to share that with the world because I could because I was there. So I see it as sort of reportage in that sense, but a very personal one.

But honestly, I can’t stand – we call them “me me me” documentaries where the filmmaker’s voice is the narration and it’s all about them. I mean, I easily could have done that, right? But I hate that kind of documentary. And so I definitely wanted to be as invisible as possible.

We have like an outtake reel that we share on social media. It’s just him feeding me. That’s the only time you realise that I’m there. It’s pretty funny because he was always like “Hey, what about John?” whenever people were eating. He didn’t care whether he was like ruining my shot, he would just come right up and hand me stuff. So that was the only way that you got a sense that I was there.

I also think I trusted, you know, that Wataru was an equal partner in this, and he is Japanese. I could trust his judgement on what was kind of appropriate to ask of people and what wasn’t and just how to interact. I learned a lot about how to interact in situations. And so that was a real learning experience for me as well. I did pick up a little Japanese. Not as much as I had hoped. I thought, maybe if I just make a film in Japanese, I’ll really learn it. Not so much. (laughs)

When we were talking about the interviews, you said that you didn’t want to put that title up for Tanaka-san, specifically. At what point did you realise that you were not going to have any titles for any of the people?

I think it was, I guess, at some point pretty early on in the editing. We did talk about it. It was partly practical. Because again, I felt like my audience was primarily non-Japanese speakers, and that’s how I was framing it and thinking about it – and it’s turned out to be true. We still don’t have a Japanese distributor because a lot of Japanese people are like, so what? Because this is their everyday life.

So I thought the audience is going to be reading subtitles, and reading a subtitle and an ID at the same time is like virtually impossible and very frustrating. Do we freeze them for a second so that [the audience] can read it? And that’ll pull you right out of it as well, right? So I thought, you know what, we’ll have all their names at the end. Just so that their voices are acknowledged and who they are, and I think they appreciate that. But yeah, I decided it’ll become pretty clear pretty quickly if you’re using that technique of them saying how long they’ve been going there. You get who they are, you understand that they’re regulars pretty quickly. And that’s really all you need to know, you know?

And they all have their own style.

I did try to move around. We shot in like four or five different angles in that tiny space just to make sure that yeah, they didn’t all look like they’re in the same seat. I love that [the master] was – you know, he’s closed on the weekends. So he gave us free access to shoot all those interviews there. And I think that was also something that was a little bit practical because it was like well, we don’t have to rent a studio. But I also felt like it worked cutting back and forth between them being there interacting, the real documentary footage of them, and then being able to cut right to them in an empty place but in the same space – it kept it very connected in a way. I was happy that we made that choice.

So I have to tell you the most emotional point in the film – and you probably get this from everybody but it really took me by surprise how much it affected me – was the lady talking about her grief and loss. And, you know, I love that line that she said, “He let me cry here.” That just got me straight to the heart. Because I mean, I’m Indian, right? So I know what Asian culture is like with, you know, expressing emotion and expressing grief. And the fact that the master made that place for her to actually grieve in a kind of public/private area was really wonderful. I’m so glad she shared that with you.

Me too. Yeah, it got us. I mean, we had to stop shooting. It still gets me, it was really powerful. That was credit to Wataru as well. That [space] looks a little bit bigger when you’re filming, but they were really close together. So he could really see that.

We call her Fumie-san. And she really was just so, so honest. We were really grateful to her and we wanted to respect – I mean, it got pretty teary and I decided we didn’t need to see all the tears. Suggesting it without seeing it is more powerful because the audience gets to vicariously experience it.

I also found just by accident – there’s a shot where she’s talking about it, and he goes outside and he’s kind of closing up and he pulls the door. I really wanted it to feel like she was in there at that moment. Which, you know, she wasn’t but that’s the fun of editing – you can make it feel like that. When she says “He let me cry here” and he’s closing the door, hopefully the audience feels like she’s literally in there even though she wasn’t.

Yeah, no, I definitely sensed that, I got that.

Thank you. It’s great to hear that that resonated with you. I think it does with a lot of people and it did with me when I was editing it. I was like, “If this is making me teary as I edit it as I watch it over and over again, this is going to work.” But you don’t know. We had no idea with this film, whether it was going to work and what people were going to think of it. But we got really good feedback right from the start that people got it, you know. So we were like okay, good.

Tell me about the score. Because I really loved how when it started with that prelude of the preparation, there was no music at all. And then the music came in with that first title, and the pace totally changed. And I love the fact that when the music is slow and graceful, you’ve got the slowed down visuals of him putting the noodles into the soup. And then you’ve got the energetic playful stuff with the speeded up visuals. I noticed that the music was performed mostly by Michael Shaieb?

Yeah. So the way that worked is I had a lot of music. Mike composed four pieces specifically for the film because I didn’t really have something for that. But I already had a lot of pieces, classical pieces that I knew I wanted to use – Mendelssohn, Brahms, Debussy. I had a rough cut where I was using those. And then all the jazz. We licensed that music, and I knew there were still places where it needed score.

Mike and I have worked on almost all my films together, we have a good working relationship. And I used to be a musician. I mean, I just do it for fun now, but I used to be in bands and stuff when I was younger. And so I know I have very particular ideas about what I want from music. And he lets me step on his toes in a way. (laughs) You know, because we know each other so well. I just knew he was the perfect person for it.

The other reason is that he’s a classically trained pianist. What I realised is that he could re-record all those classical pieces, and he did. He performed the Mendelssohn, the Debussy, all those. But then there were places like when the couple’s telling about [the master’s] troubles and the gambling. Mike composed a piece just for that. And for the ending, I knew I needed something that was really going to carry it from the beginning of the winter sequence through to the end. He composed all that. It was a great collaboration.

Also at a certain point, I decided that I would subtly distinguish between in the restaurant and outside the restaurant by using jazz in the restaurant and classical outside. So that’s another sort of structural thing. So the fast piece that you were talking about that’s early on with the fast motion footage which evokes the rush of the lunch is a piece by Eugen Cicero who is this pianist known for doing kind of jazzy classical in the Sixties and Seventies. That was Bach – Carl Philipp, the son of Johan Sebastian. That’s his piece. But it’s done in a jazz style, you know, and I liked that.

We found a Mozart piece. I asked Mike, “Will you do a version – you know, jazzy Mozart?” And so later on, there’s one that Mike did that’s sort of jazzy Mozart. But otherwise, it’s more traditional film underscore.

The only other note I gave him was I don’t want anything trying to evoke Japan or Asia musically, because you can go right into cliche very quickly if you do that. But now when I listen to it, I think he managed to somehow connect it to the rest of the score in a way that I never would have. Like he was evoking, I think, some of the classical pieces that we had already used, and there’s like very subtle ways that he worked those in, in a great way.

So yeah, he’s really wonderful to work with. And his producer, Brent – his husband actually – they do everything together. And Brent is like a technical whiz. They’re both musicians. But Brent is the guy who recorded it so well and produced it and mixed it.

I really loved the fact that you made the decision to include Kazuko’s journey. Because her name was in the opening credits as well. How did that decision come about to include her on her journey of self-actualisation and separating her identity from Ueda-san?

I think that emerged – as we spent time hanging out, we started to realise a lot of people don’t know her because they come at night. She’s just there during the day. So the daytime regulars know her. And especially more recently, she doesn’t really come to the pizza parties anymore. She was sort of this mysterious figure to us. But eventually, we did get to know her. And then we did the couple interview with them at the end because we felt like we wanted to make sure that they knew us and were comfortable with us. I think that paid off because they really opened up and she’s just an open book, she is totally unpretentious, and was willing to share everything.

After we did that interview with them, I think we ate. She fed us. And then we went upstairs and he was not allowed. He was banished, and we had this private time with her and we really got, you know, her insights. And what we learned there, I thought we have to include this because we didn’t realise what an essential part of the whole puzzle she is.

But we realised that she has this whole life, so let’s share a little bit about who she is. Then once we got this sense that she had consciously carved out her own identity after feeling like she didn’t have one – to me, that was a really interesting part of the story that should be included. Because I mean, she’s been there, enabling him to do everything he does.

And, you know, he says at one point, “Whenever I wanted to do something, my wife bought me a book. I learned gardening and fishing.” So it seemed absolutely necessary that we include her voice and her story as well. And I’m glad people connected with it. It also explains why she’s not there for some of those excursions because otherwise you might wonder.

I also like this idea that, you know, an older couple can be so close and comfortable and connected that they don’t have to be together all the time, and that they can go and do their own thing and enjoy it. Her paintings are wonderful. They’re beautiful.

Gorgeous.

Yeah. She’s very humble about it. I love how she says, “Well, I hate to burden people with a bunch of bad paintings after I’m gone.” She’s conscious of that. It’s funny. But she’s like “I’m going to do it anyway.”

And from a feminist point of view, it was really great to see that. Because so often we get the tales of the great male artist whoever and the woman’s just the shadow in the background. So this was such a refreshing difference to that usual narrative.

You know, he guided us to that too, I think, because he kept saying, “Look, it’s all her.” He’s like “She doesn’t believe me when I say it, she thinks I’m just buttering her up.” But he’s like, “You guys. I’m telling you. It’s all her. I couldn’t have done this.” And she raised three daughters.

You’ve said that it was a feeling that you wanted to capture. When I was watching it, I very much felt that sense of – I mean, I know this is going to sound quite esoteric and wanky – but that sense of tranquility and of just acceptance, of simple acceptance. A person accepting their own place in the world and, you know, not desperate with ambition or the usual markers we have for a successful life. He has this small, pleasurable, valuable life, and I just found that so beautiful.

Contentment. He’s very content. And it’s a great thing to see and to witness and to feel and to pick up from him. It explains so much of who he is and how he behaves and how he interacts with his customers. He only does it because he loves it, and he could quit at any time.

I mean, it’s not entirely clear – maybe not in the movie – but they own that building. So they’ve been able to weather the pandemic for that reason. Because they don’t really need the money at this point. He just does it because it’s something to do that he loves, and he’s just going to keep doing it as long as he can.

I think that the film kind of made him ask himself. I’m glad that we got the film right before the pandemic because I think it’s got him eager to, like I said, to meet people who have seen the film who might come from abroad. And so he’s kind of holding out, you know. I think maybe with the pandemic, he might have just been like, “Okay, you know what, it’s fine [to retire now].” I think it’s motivated him a little bit to keep going. I don’t mean to take credit for it. I’m just saying I’m happy to see that he’s like – because we want him to experience that, because that’s going to be fun for him to meet people. Hopefully it will, at some point this year, maybe open up enough that people can come.

So that was the feeling you were trying to capture? Or was it more a sense of community?

I think it’s more the community. I think for me, it’s contentment and comfort. When you’re there, it just feels very comfortable. And so you’re talking about comfort food and slow food. It’s not just the food, right? It’s important. That’s why we did go into so much detail about the food, because it’s important to understand kind of what it means and that it is a comfort food to the regulars. And like the guy says, “My stomach brain tells me it’s time to go [to the restaurant].” And I’ve gotten to the point where I’m like I have to go have that.

But it’s tied together, that taste becomes inextricably connected to the feeling of being there in his presence and their presence. Especially if you go – we always try to go now at like two, just a little bit before she leaves so that we get to see her, and then we hang out sort of through the afternoon, a slow afternoon. And that’s the best time to go because he doesn’t close between lunch and dinner.

Yeah, I think it’s comfort. And so I wanted to make a film and it turned out to be in a way good timing because I think it gave people a sense of comfort during the pandemic. You know, especially at Melbourne International Film Festival, that was like right when there was a shutdown in Victoria and so people really got a sense of comfort from it in this very frustrating here we go again lockdown. Yeah, so in a way I was glad for that. And it’s always heartening to see people on Letterboxd — thank you, by the way. I saw this morning that you’d written a wonderful thing on Letterboxd.

Oh my gosh. I was wondering when I when I wrote it – I was thinking, “Oh god, I hope John doesn’t see this before the interview.”

I did but I didn’t connect it until right before we started because I was like I just want to make sure I understood who I’m talking to. I tend not to read those just because it can be too much. But Wataru loves to read them and so he’s my filter. I’m like just show me the good ones.

I always go to look at the Letterboxd reviews as well, I’m a big Letterboxd fanatic. And one of my friends – he said that thing about how it’s such a wonderful comfort film.

Oh good. There was a time I think when maybe I was younger I would have sort of pooh-poohed the idea of a feel-good film, but I feel like this was free licence because that was the feeling I was trying to convey, a good feeling of comfort. And maybe we can all use that right now.

Absolutely. So my last question is: who’s the kid at the end? Who’s that incredibly gorgeous kid at the end?

(laughs) That’s their granddaughter. We got that much later. Wataru shot that actually, I’m in the back. And he shot it really well too, and so I thought we’ve got to find a place to use this. And I also liked it because it calls back to when we asked him “So why do you do this?” And he said, “Well, it’s really just for the feeling of when somebody – when a young woman drinks everything right from the bowl.” Which is kind of what a young Japanese lady is not supposed to do. He loves it when they do. And so when she did that, I was like “We’ve got to use that.”

Yes, absolutely. Because can I just tell you that bit fully distracted me from paying attention to the credits?

Well, that’s also what I wanted, because we knew we had tonnes of thank you credits that we had to include, but why not give people who have no interest in that something to watch? Also it was a little shameless – a friend of mine watched the rough cut. He’s like, “Man, that’s – boy, you put a cute baby at the end.” I’m like hey, I want to put a cherry on top, you know? Like I want people to feel really good when this film is over. And watching a cute baby eating ramen – what better way to top it than that?

Oh my god, totally. I was completely mesmerised.

You know, there’s a bonus area on our website with a few extra goodies for people to join us and tell us what they thought. We’re really trying to make the website feel like the place. It’s not slick and fancy, it’s just a place to hang out. So people should definitely come visit us on the website and connect with us and join the mailing list.

Visit the Come Back Anytime website here.

Oh, the last thing I was going to say to you was: I never used to like Japanese food. Until a couple of months ago when I was talking to a friend and her partner and they were trying to convince me. And I sort of went, “Maybe I’ve just never had good Japanese food. Maybe I should try it again.” And then this documentary came across and I was like I think it’s a sign from the universe. So the past four days, John, I have only been eating ramen so that’s your fault.

I’m so happy to hear that. That’s fantastic.

I have discovered that my favourite ramen is very spicy with a tonkotsu base. Is yours still the soy-based ramen with the extra chashu?

You know, every time I go, I’m like maybe I’ll have something else. The only time I have something else is like if we’re there and we want to photograph first. We were there recently for a photoshoot. We were like, well let’s each get a different one so that we can have a variety to film and I was like, “All right, I’ll get the miso.” But it’s hard otherwise, I’m like I can’t be here and not have that. Because that chashu – I mean, it’s just hard to beat. But I hope you’ll come eventually. You’ll probably like his spicy miso because it’s unique.

When he was talking about how he does the pork and everything, I was like, yeah. Yeah, definitely. I would like that.

I’m so glad to hear that you love ramen now.

I do, totally. Thank you so much for your time, John. Have a lovely afternoon.

You too. Enjoy.


Come Back Anytime will be playing in select cinemas across Australia from February. You can either book tickets for screenings already on sale or you can request to host your very own at a cinema near you. More details available at Demand Film.

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