It's not a spoiler to tell you that the final 10 minutes of "Flavor of Happiness" are almost completely silent--that’s the kind of movie it is. Matsuhiro Mihara wrote and directed it for adults; It’s the flipside of the coin from a formulaic and insipid film like “The Ramen Girl,” following roughly the same narrative ground but in a way which is fresh, calm, and most of all, believably human. I loved it.
"Shiawase no Kaori" (internationally known as "Flavor of Happiness", though a more literal translation might be "Aroma of Happiness") follows Takako (Miki Nakatani), an executive with a department store chain who is tasked with finding recipes for a new in-store Chinese restaurant. Her target is Little Shanghai, a small but well-regarded shop run by taciturn owner/chef Wang Qingkuo (Tatsuya Fuji) who has no interest in cooking for anyone unless he can see them enjoy his food. Takako is persistent, making the trip to eat his food for lunch each day for weeks, and in time earns a begrudging Wang’s respect. When he has a stroke and is told he can no longer work at the pace he’s accustomed to, the restaurant temporarily closes and Takako realizes that the food matters more to her than the potential contract, and asks him to teach her to cook.
None of that is interesting in and of itself―quite the opposite, it’s practically cookiecutter. But the magic of “Flavor of Happiness” is in the execution. Fresh off her award-winning turn in “Memories of Matsuko,” Nakatani does the bulk of her acting with her eyes, and there’s never a question that her Takako has more going on than what’s being verbalized. Likewise her onscreen sensei: Fuji, playing a Chinese immigrant (and speaking a steady and deliberate Japanese with a Chinese accent), is a model of coiled restraint. At times practically vibrating with inner rage at his inability to do the work he’s done all his life, he only unleashes it once―fresh from a stumble that sends him to the ground, he responds to the young attendant who helps him up by howling “DAIJOBU” at a volume that brings the hustle of the hospital to a halt. The movie features two characters who, despite daily interaction with others, lead solitary and insular lives. Each is at a crossroads, facing choices that are unwelcome but inevitable. Deeply sober and adult choices, made bearable only because of one another.
The film ignores the broader political overtones of its characters and their choices. A Chinese living in Japan may face challenges stemming from old prejudices; A woman choosing to leave the income and responsibility of an executive position to go work in a kitchen might strike some as a politically charged feminist anti-icon. But the film is so personal, so of these characters as individuals, that the greater world around them doesn’t creep in to inform their story. There are supporting roles and several of them are fun, but the intensity of the relationship between Takako and Wang―how they need one another in a specific, even symbiotic way―is what makes the movie work so well.
On paper, the arc of the film looks like any other “learn a skill, excel in life” Japanese feel-good story. It’s much more. Mihara has crafted a movie about broken people who heal as a result of their mutual need and mutual support; “Flavor of Happiness” is a quiet but completely satisfying tale of personal growth. The usual maudlin hysterics and joyous theatrics of the genre are completely absent, replaced with the calm of personal accomplishment and the quiet comfort of finding out who you are, and where you belong.