Film Review: “Snack Sakura” Reflects Ambiguity of Japan’s Vintage Nightlife

Film Review: “Snack Sakura” Reflects Ambiguity of Japan’s Vintage Nightlife

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Title text for the documentary Snack Sakura.
In his new short documentary, "Snack Sakura," photographer Greg Girard embraces the retro charm and social ambiguity of Japan's ubiquitous snack bars.

In the new short documentary “Snack Sakura,” small, pink fluorescent signage glowing in the nighttime alleyways of provincial Japan leads to unique nightlife encounters. The film explores Japan’s ubiquitous, small-scale bars, often featuring hostesses, called “snacks” (スナック), through the lens of the accomplished Canadian photographer Greg Girard. Mr. Girard’s published collections tend to focus on East Asian nightlife.

The documentary features a personal dimension not reflected in the title. This is Greg’s nostalgia for snacks in their heyday of the 1970s and 80s, when his first encounter with Asia involved getting help at a snack bar of all places. Noticing so many snacks named after Japan’s emblematic cherry blossoms, he conceptualized a (still unfinished) project: photograph and interview people at a snack named “Sakura” in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. In April of 2024, he held a photo exhibition in Vancouver, which featured the unveiling of this documentary.

“Snack Sakura” offers a particular appeal for admirers of Greg’s photography, which has appeared in top periodicals. It allows its creator, an introvert intent on his work, to finally open up and narrate his thoughts and experiences through film. Of course, that audience would be too narrow without the broader content on snacks and sakura that viewers would expect from the title. Moreover, without a Japanese-speaking insider viewpoint, the documentary could not be deeply informative.

A figure in a blue blazer ascends steps in a white concrete building with a pink florescent signage reading "sakura" in the documentary Snack Sakura.
Greg Girard approaches the entrance to one of many “Snack Sakura” in his short documentary. The names of ten such snack bars appear in the credits of the film. Screenshot from film.

Along for the ride in Japan’s nightlife

Enter Wada Mimi, Greg’s guide to Japan, a co-producer and co-narrator who also appears in the documentary. Her role seems ambiguous until her actual job as Greg’s assistant becomes clear. At first, she seems to be one of the various featured hostesses. In narration, she describes how she once had a stint as a snack hostess, and could tolerate the male customers because she understood their circumstances. As Mimi is a family friend, I have witnessed her kindness and rare ability to explain Japanese ways in English.

The documentary touches on several themes during its short, 25-minute runtime. In descending order of screentime, we get Greg’s Japan reflections and photography, snack bars, and sakura. The time spent in snacks is most memorable, but perhaps the video cameras of New Yorker Jia Li and Canadian Joshua Frank were unable to accompany Greg and Mimi long enough to provide much footage of natural interactions.

There’s also a question of who was willing to be photographed. People in Japan are ordinarily camera-shy and concerned about privacy. A situation where mostly married men seek intimate conversation or contact with purportedly single hostesses could furthermore result in acute embarrassment with video as well as regular cameras present. There, too, it was up to Mimi to establish rapport, resulting in evergreen situations like hostesses saying one word of English and everyone laughing.

Wada Mimi is a major narrator in “Snack Sakura.” Screenshot from film.

Putting the “sakura” in “Snack Sakura”

Regarding the beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms, shown too in the documentary, Greg narrates that they represent the Japanese acceptance of things not lasting. Mimi sheds light on snacks by saying that, besides popular cultural attractions, there is a dark side that Japanese people do not show, like light and shadow. This is all very interesting. Concerning the social inequality that Greg mentions, Mimi clarifies that there is a double standard at play here. Men can go to snacks openly, but it is shameful for women to work in them. Such women would otherwise have to work for close to the minimum wage.

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As a professor, colleagues used to take me to snacks when I was single. I was well aware that hostesses would not volunteer much personal information and would say that they were unattached, when actually they were mostly divorced or single mothers. In the old days of snacks (which have since become retro), the male customers would drink, smoke, eat spicy snacks (hence the name), and cozy up to the hostesses. Now that I have a family, I can sympathize with the predicament of the mama-sans and hostesses. Viewers unfamiliar with Japan especially might enjoy traveling along to narrated scenes of beauty and nightlife encounters.

Florescent lights in the dark

The film production group HiLo is an international documentary collective led by New York filmmaker Jia Li that aims to highlight beautiful stories with Asian or intercultural themes. Detailed in the credits at the end of the documentary, they bring professional production values to the evocative images and narration.

Greg Girard photographing the snack land in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. Screenshot from film.

However, the ostensible star and narrator, photographer Greg Girard, does not appear in the credits, perhaps influenced by Japanese modesty. Similarly, Wada Mimi is listed as a producer, but her roles as co-star, co-narrator, and Greg’s navigator in Japan are presented ambiguously.

Viewers may thus find their tolerance for ambiguity tested, while their interest in Japanese aesthetics and nightlife is piqued. In Japan, where many important things are not explicitly stated, especially the sensibilities of the heart, people who stay here will need to learn to tolerate ambiguity in order to thrive.

You can view “Snack Sakura” for free here.

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Steve McCarty

Steve McCarty is a longtime professor, most recently lecturing for the government on Japan, and teaching Japanese-English Bilingualism and Intercultural Communication classes at Osaka Jogakuin University.

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