With Fuel, Yu Araki does not really present a narrative in the traditional sense of the word but offers an atmospheric documentary-observation of the routine of a veteran griller. Shot within a span of two days, neither with a script nor a storyboard, Araki allowed his composition to be fully dictated by the tempo of Shizuko Nakajima’s style of grilling.
With Fuel, Araki offers a slow-paced exploration of the skill of an expert griller (Shizuko Nakajima) at one of the oldest robata-yaki restaurants of Japan – a restaurant in Kushiro, Hokkaido. Robata-yaki is a barbeque-like style of cooking in which different kinds of food, traditionally a mixture between seafood and vegetables, are grilled at varying speeds over hot charcoal. What is special about robata-yaki and differentiates if from other common grilling practices in Japan is that it uses a communal hearth, a wide and open fireplace called the irori, as a cooking place and a source of warmth.
Due to his minimalistic cinematographical approach – a slow-paced concatenation of temporally-long static shots with little to no sounds, Araki’s exploration of the art of robata-yaki does not only become soothing and contemplative, but also a piece of pure visual poetry.
The purified framing of the art of grilling allows the spectator to fully appreciative the process of grilling. In a certain way, Araki’s composition forces the spectator to pay attention to the respectful and gentle way of the master’s handling of food and the poetic interaction between fire and food.
It is especially Araki’s thoughtful approach to lightning, an approach emphasizing darkness within the narrative’s spaces, that enables him to emphasize and highlight the mesmerizing beauty of licking flames, sparks of fire, and the red-glowing charcoal and introduce the beauty of the art of grilling food to the spectator. One could even state that the lightning design enables the spectator to feel the heat of the hearth and imagine in a vivid way how it is to sit around the irori as costumer as such.
Araki’s Fuel, by framing a costumer (Satoshi Hata), also evokes certain food-related cultural practices of the Ainu culture. And the framing of the television depicting protesting environmentalists subtly echoes the tension between modernity and tradition, between ravaging earth’s resources and honouring those practices closely linked with nature as such (Narra-note 1). The framing of this sole customer and the subtle evocation of the environmentalists furthermore allows us to interpret the signifier fuel in three different ways. The signifier fuel evokes the aspect of the fire necessary to grill the food to perfection, the fact that food fuels the human being as such as well as the fact that the neoliberal system that sustains contemporary society puts the traditional practices in harmony with nature under severe pressure.
Araki’s minimalistic but visually powerful composition evokes in a beautiful way the poetry of the art of robata-yaki, allowing the spectator to get a taste of what this communal cooking experience is all about. Nevertheless, Fuel is not only a composition honouring the art of grilling and the joy of eating, but Araki’s narrative also functions as a subtle plea to protect this tradition, a tradition closely intertwined with the flow of nature.
Narra-note 1: The shot with the television depicting the incidents surrounding the movement of the yellow vests towards the end of the film, as Araki tell us, happened purely coincidental.