by Bill Benzon
“I’m trying to treat her as an equal.”
– Moe, talking about Sutan
Of philosophy and food
Moe, the name has two syllables, is Moto’s wife and Sutan’s mother. Though it may also be a play on “a Japanese word that refers to feelings of strong affection mainly towards characters in anime, manga, video games, and other media [and] has also gained usage to refer to feelings of affection towards any subject.”
“Tan” is an honorific, roughly meaning small, and is used with babies, though I would say that Sutan is more a toddler at this point than a baby – at least in the usage common in my own (American) culture. She was a baby of 10 months when Moe started making Kimono Mom videos.
Moto, then, is Moe’s husband and Sutan’s father. When Moe started making her Kimono Mom videos Moto worked in the restaurant and hospitality business. But now he is business manager and partner in Moe’s YouTube business, which is centered on Japanese home cooking. And on Sutan.
Kimono Mom, though, is a cooking show in the way that Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown was a food and cooking show. Yes, Bourdain traveled all over the world and showed us the food of many different cultures. But he used food as a vehicle for revealing and reveling in human diversity, for talking philosophy in plain language, for fun. Think of Kimono Mom as a philosopher with Sutan as her Socrates. She uses the cooking video the way Plato used the dialog form. It’s a vehicle.
Let’s walk through the video at the head of this article. (When watching the video be sure to click the “cc” button at the lower right. That will give you English language captions for people’s speech. You can set the language with this settings menu, the small “gear” to the right of cc.)
Moe, Sutan, Moto.
Sutan, Moto, Moe.
Moto, Moe, Sutan.
Up and about
Notice the opening shot. Sutan has just woken up and is walking toward us. The camera is at her eye level, and so we’re not looking down at her. The third shot takes us to the kitchen where Sutan is climbing into the small “tower” she uses when she helps Moe with cooking. She’s trying to scoop out half of a cantaloupe. How old were you when you did that? Sutan is three and has some kitchen skills, and seems quite familiar with the kitchen, even showing mom (i.e. Moe) where the wakame is. She helps with the soup, which is typical. (Wakame is dried seaweed and is a staple of Japanese cuisine.)
I know you don’t need me to keep pointing things out that are right in front of your eyes, but I can’t help it. Sutan and Moe have eaten breakfast, gotten Sutan dressed, and she’s just wakened Moto so he can take her to daycare. At 05:15, where’s the camera? That’s right, at Sutan’s eye level – actually, as we’ll see, it’s a bit below. So what does she do (c. 05:25)? She runs up to the camera and sticks her eye into it.
Sutan is aware of the camera and plays to it. That struck me quite forcefully when I began watching Kimono Mom. How does Sutan think about the camera, how does she understand the whole process of making a video and seeing it on screen? I know when I was young, though older than Sutan, I thought the people on TV could see me; producers of children’s TV exploited that. But I never saw TV programs being made. Sutan sees it all the time. She’s in the show and actively participating. At the beginning of some episodes she’ll say “Hey, guys” along with Moe. At one point in some video she looks to Moe and asks “Is it time for ‘Hey guys?’” (It wasn’t.)
I wonder when she’s going to figure out that ‘reality’ is sometimes
stage-managed just like videos?
Now that Sutan and Moto have left for daycare, Moe can do the laundry. Moto has returned, Sutan seemed happy to be at daycare (unlike a previous day, where she was crying). Moe’s going to wear a kimono today.
She may be Kimono Mom on YouTube, but it’s not every day that she wears a kimono, and most Japanese women hardly wear them at all. They’re expensive for one thing, and they are elaborate and exacting. Liza Dalby, who wrote an excellent book, Geisha, based on her experience in Japan, explained that she had to have help getting dressed when she first started to wear a kimono. Moe, though, is an expert, since she had been a geisha when she was younger and wore kimonos every day.
Moe’s going to wear a kimono because she is going to visit a teahouse (07:15), “I’m going to escape from reality for a bit.”
How many women film themselves doing their hair and putting on make-up and AND THEN putting the film on YouTube?
I would like to match my kimono with the atmosphere of the place I am visiting today. (c. 09:40)
I like bright colors, so I like to wear colors that brighten up my eyes when I see them. But today, I wanted something that blends in naturally. It’s a little mature, isn’t it? [An elegant gray kimono with an off-white obi.] Since I’m not with Sutan, either.
Early in his career Marlon Brando once played a Taiwanese local in The Teahouse of the August Moon. While it is conceivable that I saw it in a theater when it came out, 1956, it’s certainly not a film I would have chosen. Most likely I saw it sometime later on TV. 20 years, 25, 30? I don’t remember, nor do I remember the teahouse. But I do vaguely remember Brando in Japanese makeup and dress.
It’s probably a good thing that I don’t remember the teahouse because, judging from the Wikipedia, it was a place where drinking and carousing took place, which is not at all what a Japanese teahouse is about. But then the American occupation of Japan had only ended in 1952 and you would hardly think that American filmmakers would have learned much about Japan during the seven years of the occupation. For what it’s worth, Gojira came out in Japan in 1954 while the Americanized version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, came out in 1956. That film I saw. It scared the bejesus out of me. Which is not at all what teahouses are about.
Is that film my earliest awareness of Japan?
Moe’s on a narrow street, stoops to greet a cat (10:37) basking in the sun, which is a bit closer to a proper teahouse mood than a fire-belching monster rampaging through Tokyo. A teahouse is a place to get away from the daily rampage, to rest, to refresh your soul.
It is not merely tea. It is also tradition, as is the kimono, which dates back 1200 years.
Moe is greeted outside the door (10:49), “Behind this short curtain is a place where you can prepare your mind and calm down, so I would like you to be aware of the sound of flowing water, and also of the fragrance that is wafting in the air.” This is a moment of transition, a brief passage from the (outer) world to, well, somewhere else? But it’s not so much the place, as the state of being in the place.
“Our kimono colors today are similar.”
Moe is to our left, kneeling comfortably, her back is upright. She is comfortable in that posture. She knows it well. Would you be? Her host is to our right. His grandparents had lived in this place.
I personally think it is a very luxurious time to concentrate on a drop of tea…I hope that you will slowly sharpen your senses and relax through this time of facing yourself.
Pssst, pssst…you know,
sometimes I’d rather face
Gojira on the rampage
But I digress.
Now we breathe, slowly in, slowly out. (12:40) Always the breath. It is both voluntary and involuntary. I’m told that breathing is the rope we lower into the well where we find the soul. I believe that’s from a different tradition. No matter.
The first tea is the first tea from Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture, and it’s a first-grade tea with highly aromatic brown rice tea. The feature of this tea is that it is usually made by mixing brown rice and tea at a ratio of 1:1, but I wanted people to enjoy the aroma and the sweetness of brown rice so I blended more brown rice.
It has a nice mellow aroma.
I’ll leave you to finish the tea ceremony without further interruption.
I think it is wonderful to master the tea culture as a craftsman, but when I talk with tea farmers, they are usually concerned about how to get young people to drink tea. The population of Japan is decreasing rapidly, then I think it is important to spread the word not only in Japan but also for foreign guests. (18:19)
I’m home (Japanese hand jive)
Moe returns to the “real world” (20:17) and will change back into street clothes, return her hair to an ordinary style, and pick up Sutan from daycare.
And Sutan is upset that her bread isn’t on the counter where she’d left it in the morning. Maybe Moe ate it, or Moto? Her upset passes.
Now we can get ready for the finale.
Moe: Who wants to eat the mochi?
Moe: Who stopped crying?
Moe: Who’s the one smiling?
Watch closely. It is going to surprise you. It surprised me. What’s about to happen is one of those things that cannot be described. Oh, sure, I can describe it, but it will take you twice as long to read my description as it will simply to watch it on screen, starting at, say, 22:06.
What’s going to happen – yes, I know, you’re watching and don’t need my description, but I need to write something to end this piece – is that the two of them are going to synch up in the flash of an eye. Well, not the quick, but still, you won’t see it coming. And when you do, you’ll realize that they’ve don’t this before. How many times? Who knows.
Notice the focus on Sutan, we’re eye to eye with her. Now the tea (notice the strawberries on Sutan’s cup; she loves strawberries). Moe joins her at the counter, they talk about the man at the tea shop while eating mochi. In a minute they’re be making synchronized hand gestures at one another. Here it is: 23:23. Sutan makes a gesture, pointing her index fingers at one another in front of her. We pause for a beat. Moe makes the gesture. We pause for a beat. They gesture together, once, twice, three times.
Do you recognize what that is? That’s right. That’s where we began, with the epigraph: “I’m trying to treat her as an equal.” They are equal.
Yes, they are very different, a young child and an adult. Treating Sutan as an adult would be absurd. One day she will become an adult. But now she is a child. She’s a human being. To treat her as an equal is to acknowledge her full human being, with autonomy, dignity, and freedom. Only by treating the child as an equal can the parent nurture her to adulthood.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
– William Wordsworth
* * * * *
I have written a number of posts about Kimono Mom at New Savanna. They include a number of her cooking videos. You can find them at this link. This post doesn’t have Kimono Mom, but it has three clips about pounding mochi, which is a rice cake. That’s what Moe and Sutan where sharing at the end of the video I discussed in this article. I included it because two of those clips feature a hand game based on mochi pounding. This post has a video where we see Moe, Sutan, and Moto all pounding mochi. Finally, perhaps my favorite Kimono Mom clip. Why? Because Sutan is singing her heart out on a Stevie Wonder song, “Don’t you worry about a thing,” while pretending a stalk of asparagus is a microphone. You also get to see her clean shrimp and her egg-cracking technique. If you watch the whole video you’ll see the Sutan does a lot of singing leading up to her star turn. The fun starts at about 06:51: