With the current media landscape facing increasing pressure to depict issues of diversity in art, “East Side Sushi,” featuring both high-definition shots of food and a challenge to traditional interpretations of race, seems promising. Unfortunately, the film suffers from a predictable script that shies away from controversy, rendering the film ineffective.
Enthralled by the artistry of sushi, Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres, “Private Number”) abandons her fruit vending cart in favor of working at a Japanese restaurant. One of the chefs, Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi, “Letters from Iwo Jima”), notices her agility with the knife and takes her under his wing. Aki teaches her how to pick fish, make sushi rice and, eventually, champions her talent. However, Juana faces backlash from Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama, “Mumford”), the stern restaurant owner who refuses to promote her to her rightful position as a sushi chef.
“East Side Sushi” could have used this story to make powerful criticisms of racial stereotyping in America, but unfortunately, it plays it safe and oversimplifies the issues for feel-good activism. Though recognizably true to life, the characters are distilled only to their ideologies — the oppressed minority fighting for her rights to career advancement, the racist villain, the ally, etc. — and dull scriptwriting leaves little room for character development. Its storyline unfolds mechanically, following a pattern of inspiration, problem, hard work, repeat, making the scenes predictable and leaving viewers antsy for the credits to roll.
The scope of “East Side Sushi” is inherently microcosmic, but its specific issue — Japanese restaurants keeping Latino workers hidden in the back to maintain "authenticity" — fails to feel relevant to the current national dialogue about racial profiling.
Mr. Yoshida’s character lacks nuance. In general, “East Side Sushi” 's melodramatic dialogue veers into the contrite, making it impossible for tropes to mature into multifaceted characters. The ending's racial tension is resolved too neatly to be impactful — Mr. Yoshida finally learns to do the right thing and ends the problem of racial stereotyping when really he is taking a stand and joining Juana and Aki in the fight.
Despite avoiding charged statements, the film does show an appreciation for cross-cultural awareness. In a key moment, Aki calls Juana “Konnichi-Juana” and the camera zooms in on their two cups toasting to each other. Juana brings Japanese food to a wider audience by adding Mexican flavors, leading her initially disapproving father to support her interest in a new cultural cuisine over the course of the film. Another great decision: unlike many films meant for an English-speaking audience, "East Side Sushi" uses almost exclusively Spanish (with English subtitles) spoken in Juana’s home. This bilingualism is a crucial aspect of the multi-generational immigrant experience that rarely finds its way on screen.
However, the impact of these moments still can't shine through the dull character development. The film serves up sound bites of popularly accepted ideas, content for the audience to vigorously nod their approval at and quote on Facebook when they return home, but nothing substantial. Not acknowledging how the full spectrum of race relations obscures the nuance in character motivations that would have made “East Side Sushi” the robust statement it wanted to be.