Come Back Anytime follows a year in the life of chef Masamoto Ueda, lovingly nicknamed the Master for his ramen prowess, and his wife, Kazuko Ueda, the owners of Bizentei, a quaint ramen shop in Tokyo. The film is an intimate portrait of one man’s passion for life and his delicious bowls of hot soup noodles and chasu that grew a community.
Director John Daschbach’s documentary debut premiered at Hot Docs in 2021 and is back after captivating audiences.
“It’s been great fun,” says Daschbach. “You just need that lucky break. We were so grateful to Hot Docs because it changed everything.”
Daschbach, an American filmmaker living in Tokyo for the last ten years, had been searching for inspiration in his new home. He developed a friendship with the Master through a mutual friend and after a particularly magical evening at Bizentei, Daschbach knew he wanted to share this experience with the world.
Sitting down with POV via Zoom from his home in Tokyo, Daschbach discusses his inspirations for the film, how he created Come Back Anytime’s cozy atmosphere, and the time he introduced the Master to Lisa Loeb.
POV: Rachel Ho
JD: John Daschbach
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Let’s start from the beginning. How did you discover Bizentei and the Master?
JD: My producer’s [Wataru Yamamoto] high school friend works in the neighbourhood, and Bizentei doesn’t close after lunch for a break. It was this perfect place to go for a late lunch and he got to know the Master. After many years of doing that, he was invited to one of [the Master’s] outdoor excursions and he asked if he could bring some friends. [Our friend] said, come to [Bizentei] and meet the Master just so he knows who I’m bringing. That was the first time I ate there, eight years ago now.
We went to a mountain for the weekend and went foraging, which was a blast. I wouldn’t say I was a regular, because it’s a half-hour train ride from where we live, but I went fairly frequently. I was invited to more of these things, like fishing and pizza parties [where he cooks] with a pizza oven that he built himself, which we filmed but couldn’t fit in the movie.
POV: How did the relationship transform from eating at the restaurant to telling its story?
JD: After five years of hanging out, we went to a year-end party. It was the night before the new year when he closes for ten days, which is common in Japan. I had this amazing epiphany. One of the regulars—who’s in the film and a professional violinist—had just performed Beethoven’s 9th with one of the major orchestras. There was also a group of singers there — they always come to Bizentei, it was like a singing club. They spontaneously started singing and they got her to play the violin.
The next day, I thought, “That was so amazing. This is what I need to do.” I’d been trying to think of something to do in Japan for quite a while. I hadn’t made a documentary before, but I wasn’t feeling ready to attempt fiction because my Japanese is still not good enough. [Laughs.]
After he re-opened [after the holidays], we broached the question and he said, “Oh that sounds like fun, sure.” Some people ask, “How did you get access?” It was just by being around for five years.
Every time we saw him while we were editing, he was like, “I miss you! When are we going to do some more outings?” [Laughs.] We missed him, too.
POV: That’s very sweet! Building trust with your subjects is such an important part of documentary filmmaking, but it sounds like that just came organically.
JD: I think so. We didn’t know his wife at all because we always came at night and she’s there during the day. It took a little while for her to trust us, and for the regulars, too. I knew that I wanted to interview them. Knowing that we had a year, we decided to push all the interviews to the end, which was risky, because if something happened, we wouldn’t have anything. But we thought, “Let’s wait until they know us and are comfortable with us.” I think that made a difference.
And with [the Uedas], it looks like [their interview] was at the beginning, but it was one of the last things we shot. It was over the holidays and they insisted on getting dressed up in their nice holiday garb. They served us an amazing holiday meal after we finished shooting. I think having spent so much time together filming helped, because we got a lot closer during filming. We got to know him so much better. He was our driver half the time. [Laughs.]
POV: I read that when making Come Back Anytime, you wanted to capture a feeling. I felt very cozy watching this movie. Was there a particular feeling or emotion you were trying to chase, or was it just ‘come what may’?
JD: That emerged during the editing. I didn’t have any plan, I didn’t have a script. I just wanted to capture this place as I experienced it, which is different from how a Japanese person might experience it. I did see this primarily as a film for a foreign audience, and that’s what it’s turned out to be. We still don’t have a distributor in Japan. It’s just not as interesting to people here, I think. But that was always the idea: can I convey the feeling? That’s what ultimately guided me in my decisions in the editing room. Once I found a structure, I prioritised how it feels to be there. I wanted to recreate the experience of being there.
That turned out to be a lucky approach because people really connected with it, especially during COVID and shutdowns. It gave them that experience, which was so gratifying to hear people express. We had no idea whether that was possible. Especially since you can’t taste it, I didn’t want to obsess about the food. You have to show the food, and you have to explain why it’s important. But ultimately, that’s not what feels so great there. It’s him and the community. That’s what we really focused on and built towards in the structure. It starts on a superficial level, and as the film goes on, you get to know everyone on a deeper level. It starts with what do you think of the soup and then by the end, it’s [about] who the Master is to you personally.
POV: The idea that since we can’t taste the food, you want us to feel what it’s like to be in Bizentei is really interesting to me. You mentioned this is your first documentary, but you’ve made narrative films before. Do you think working in fiction first helped in executing this approach to the film?
JD: It probably did. I studied screenwriting primarily in film school. You had to choose directing, producing or screenwriting, and I chose screenwriting. But I also took a lot of editing classes. I took two great ones with Ralph Rosenblum, who’s Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet’s editor. That opened my eyes to the importance of editing and finding the film in the edit. This was a perfect way to apply that even though it wasn’t fiction.
I knew that I had to have a story, and if I could give myself a structure to hang it on, things would naturally come into place. I resisted the seasonal structure for a while because it’s kind of a cliché. But we filmed for a year and had all this footage throughout the year. It just made sense. Once I did that, I could think metaphorically about the progression of a day, the progression of a year and of a life.
I also was conscious of wanting people to feel like they were going somewhere. Giving people signposts along the way is something we learned in screenwriting — give people something to latch onto. We’re going to do a summer excursion, now we’re gonna do a fall excursion. We had two fall excursions, actually. One was Matsutake mushroom hunting and one was the wild mountain yams. We had to cut one and it was so painful. [Laughs.]
POV: The music in the film goes a long way in creating the atmosphere and mood. Could you talk about working with your composer, Michael Shaieb, to create the jazzy score?
JD: I’ve worked with Mike before. He scored two of my films, a short [Waking Dreams] and my first feature [Brief Reunion]. So we have a shorthand. I used to be a musician and he’s very tolerant of me micromanaging sometimes. [Laughs.]
We licensed a lot of the jazz. I put it in temp music from other scores to give him a feel and asked him to listen to it once and then forget it, which is common [to do]. Then he went at it and filled in everything. He used to be a professional performing classical pianist, which was perfect. I had all this classical music that I wanted, but I didn’t want to license. [Laughs.]
I wanted to be in sync with his score, too, in terms of tone and feel. So there’s Mendelssohn and Brahms — all that classical music is played by him, and there’s several pieces that he composed. The last 15 minutes of the film, from winter on, was all his score, which I love and was so happy with.
The only thing I said was, “Don’t give me anything that sounds Japanese.” [Laughs.] None of those tones. I think he subtly stuck some things in a very creative way. Some people have asked, ‘It’s all jazz and classical, what does that have to do with Japan?’ You’ve never been to Japan if you’re asking that. It’s everywhere here. Bizentei actually doesn’t have music [playing], but that was part of evoking the feeling because it feels like jazz. A lot of ramen restaurants have jazz, pop, or classical music playing. A lot of izakayas, too. Music is everywhere, especially jazz music. That was another part of conveying on a bigger, broader level, the experience of listening to so much jazz in Japan.
POV: That is one of my biggest pet peeves whenever East Asian culture is shown in movies! Adding in that stereotypical string riff that’s from ancient times.
JD: [Laughs.] It’s a contemporary movie!
POV: Exactly! [Laughs.]
JD: The other thing Mike did that was really cool, was we had a piece that we licensed from a Romanian-German performer from the ‘60s and ‘70s, Eugen Cicero. He used to do jazzed-up classical pieces with a jazz trio. Mike and I said, ‘Let’s do one of our own.’ We picked a Mozart piece, and Mike made a jazz version of it.
POV: You said you’re a musician yourself, what instrument do you play?
JD: I used to play drums and guitar. I went to college with Lisa Loeb and we were in a band for a while. In fact, she came on tour here and we brought her to Bizentei. The Master was so starstruck.
POV: I dread asking this question a little but, is Bizentei still open post-COVID?
JD: It is! He said to me maybe it’s a good thing [the film] happened because he might have just called it quits during COVID. I think he wanted to wait and see if some customers would come [after watching the movie]. As things slowly open up, he is getting people from Israel, Norway, and Taiwan where it’s been playing. All these people are coming because they saw the movie, which I think he really enjoys. But we’ll see how much longer [he keeps it open]. He’s trying to find that balance, which he talks about in the movie. He doesn’t want to work until he’s exhausted and then can’t enjoy retirement because he’s too tired. So he’s trying to make that decision and figure that out right now. He was 66 when we shot the movie and he’s 70 now, a very young 70. He’s still hard to keep up with.