Mio’s Cookbook stars Honoka Matsumoto in the titular character. In her childhood, she lost her parents during the great Osaka flood of 1801. There’s more tragedy in her life. A man tells her fortune as well as her best friend Noe, and they inadvertently separate afterwards. A decade later, Mio is a female chef, which is a hard thing to be in 2021 much less Edo era Edo. But she has her steady stream of customers, one of them singing the praises of Courtesan Asahi (Nao Honda). We know who Asahi really is, but will this film properly execute the reveal?
Mio’s Cookbook, though, temporarily abandons that a plot of the separation and eventual reunification of the old childhood friends and focuses on Mio’s own struggles within a world that continues to exist regardless of whether she succeeds or fails. The film’s transitions express this idea. During one scene, she looks catatonic, staring at her restaurant after someone burns it down. And the next scene shows a sunny day as she draws water from a well, as if nothing happened. These transitions, in vibrant and natural color, also express her resilience despite of the challenges that can physically destroy her.
Honoka Matsumoto’s performance isn’t going to be perfect and that’s admittedly due to prejudices against Eastern women. Some viewers will see her as too twee for the role, following the stereotyped conventions of contemporary Eastern films. But then she finds moments in expressing the pathos and rage of a woman with struggles. That includes her restaurant burning down. The film, as a whole, also speaks to a woman’s place. Women in Edo era Japan have ceilings like they do in this modern age. There are enough scenes here where women complement each other, which feels progressive in this film.