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The Seagull Diner

The women of the Seagull Diner.
AKA: Ruokala Lokki  
Japanese: Kamome Shokudo  
Year: 2006  
Director: Naoko Ogigami  
  Producer: Mayumi Amano, Hanako Kasumizawa, Enma Maekawa
  Cast: Satomi Kobayashi, Hairi Katagiri, Masako Motai, Tarja Markus, Jarkko Niemi, Markku Peltola
  The Skinny: A Japanese women opens a diner on the other side of the world in this delectable little confection from director Naoko Ogigami.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      Based on the novel by Yoko Mure, Kamome Shokudo (AKA: The Seagull Diner) is the type of film that defies easy categorization. Sure, director Naoko Ogigami's tasty 2006 offering is seasoned with plenty of humorous moments, but it isn't really a comedy. And while the main thrust of the picture deals with a trio of female characters, it's not necessarily a "woman's picture" per se. And although the movie tends to veer away from mainstream sensibilities and even contains some surrealistic elements towards the end, it doesn't feel like an art film either. But even if proper classification remains elusive in terms of the film's genre, a judgment of its quality isn't quite so hard to come by. Subtle and inescapably charming, Kamome Shokudo is the cinematic equivalent of a minor epiphany - small in scope, but no less revelatory.
     The restaurant that lends its name to the film's title marks both the starting and end point of this absorbing, altogether delightful filmic journey. Eschewing the typical sushi bar setup, Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) has instead chosen to open a more down-to-earth style diner in the middle of Helsinki, Finland. Pristine, beautiful, and inviting, Kamome Shokudo looks like a great place to go for lunch. The problem is that nobody's buying. Sachie's very first customer turns out to be a local named Tommi (Jarkko Niemi) a teenaged anime fanatic who uses his soon-to-be frequent visits as an opportunity to try out his limited Japanese language skills. In an attempt to make conversation, he asks Sachie if she knows the lyrics to the Gatchaman theme song, but it turns out that she can only remember the opening verse.
    While browsing a bookshop café, Sachie finds that the catchy tune is stuck in her head. As luck would have it, she encounters another Japanese woman, who introduces herself as Midori (Hairi Katagiri). In a coincidence to end all coincidences, this shy, lanky woman with a pageboy haircut not only knows the words to Gatchaman, but is willing to write them down for Sachie. But to remember the lyrics, it requires a sing-along of sorts, as the two end up warbling out the lyrics in the middle of the cafe. Unsurprisingly, an instant friendship is born.
     Of course, the question arises, how did these two Japanese women end up in Finland? Sachie constantly evades the question with humorous responses, but Midori gives a few more details. It seems that one day she just randomly put her finger on a map of the world and decided to go wherever her finger landed. It was as simple as that. But with the high price of lodging to deal with, Midori realizes she hasn't thought things through completely. Luckily for her, Sachie lives alone and offers her home to Midori, and it isn't long before her new houseguest takes up a job at Kamome Shokudo. Too bad there still aren't any customers, even after the two of them try out several schemes to drum up some business.
     But things start to perk up when a mystery man (Markku Peltola) enters the diner one quiet day and passes on the secret to making great coffee. And when the ladies decide to add some tasty cinnamon buns to the menu alongside that stellar cup of joe, business starts booming. Who was that mysterious stranger? A guardian angel? In a rare bit of explanation, the film reveals his origins to be far more earthly than one might initially expect.
     Around this time in the film, this dynamic duo of Japanese women becomes a trio of sorts when Masako (Masako Motai), an enigmatic, somewhat quirky older woman, finds herself stranded in Helsinki without her luggage. In parallel with the viewing experience of this reviewer, the moment Masako enters the enticing world of Kamome Shokudo, she finds herself hard-pressed to leave.
     As straightforward as Kamome Shokudo sounds, the film is not without its questions. How exactly is Sachie able to stay in business without any customers? Why did she really leave Japan? What made the other two women flee Japan as well? There are subtle hints and half-answers throughout the film, but answers - just like genre categorization - remain elusive. To its credit, the film develops in such a way that it's not really a problem that those questions aren't addressed definitively. In fact, it's that very tension between what we are told and we aren't told about the characters that works to enhance and inform each and every scene.
     Although the film contains a clear sequence of events leading to a cohesive whole, Kamome Shokudo dispenses with a traditionally structured plot. One could quibble that "nothing happens," but I don't read the film that way. There is a kind of "slice of life" realism in the film, as characters don't pour out their hearts to one another nor do they give specifics about their motivations. Subtlety is the key here. And while there's the suggestion of overt themes or issues - the search for a home away from home, the importance of following your dreams, the actualization of female empowerment - Kamome Shokudo cannot be encapsulated in such a way. Thematically speaking, it's not simply reducible to "a movie about X."
     What's most refreshing about that approach is that there's nothing pretentious about it. The filmmakers aren't trying to be arty; they're just presenting these people as they are and asking you to get involved with their lives. Beautifully shot and oddly compelling, Kamome Shokudo translates the camaraderie between women and the intimacy of everyday life to the big screen, but without getting overly sentimental about it. If you're anything like me, you'll find that it's a film that you'll find yourself wanting to watch over again because you know you liked it, but you're just not sure exactly why. To take the restaurant metaphor to its zenith: if Kamome Shokudo was a real place, I'd be a regular. It's a film worthy of repeat business. (Calvin McMillin, 2006)
Availability: DVD (JPN)
Region 2 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English Subtitles
Various Extras
   Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen