Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Kimono Mom philosophy @ 3QD

Here’s the link:

A day in the life of Kimono Mom and Sutan

I just wrote it from start to finish, without much planning. Lots of preparation – a Kimono Mom post every day from Jan. 21 through Jan. 29 – but very little specific planning for that piece. I knew what I wanted as a theme, Moe’s assertion that she tries to treat Sutan as an equal, and I knew one of the videos I wanted to use, the one that ends with them synchronizing gestures at the end. Beyond that, I figured I use a couple more videos and weave some kind of story or argument through and around them.

But that’s not what happened. I wrote the introductory section on Saturday evening, ending with this paragraph:

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.

We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Late Sunday morning I began writing the rest of the article. I started by commenting on that video, figuring I’d make a few comments about it, and then move on to the next video, whatever it would be, for I didn’t have anything planned. As I started writing the commentary it just grew and grew and before I knew it, but long before I was done, I had all but decided that I would build the whole article around that video. Which I did.

* * * * *

Now, what about the paragraph I used to end the introduction? The comparison with Anthony Bourdain was a natural, one I’d thought of before I started writing the article. There are a multitude of obvious differences between his TV shows and her YouTube videos. I don’t need to waste time pointing them out. But there’s one similarity, a deep one. It’s clear that Bourdain had more than food on his mind. He was, for want of a better word, philosophizing and he was using food as his vehicle.

And it has been clear to me that Moe is philosophizing as well. I may not have realized that the first time I watched one of her videos – I forget which one – three months ago. But that’s certainly what drew me to watch another, and another, and to keep on watching them. By the time I’d posted my first Kimono Mom video, on November 9, I knew that Moe was a philosopher, even if she didn’t realize it.

What gives her videos a philosophical cast is not what she tells us about Japan and Japanese culture in the course of preparing food, although that is important. With nothing more than that, her shows are just cooking shows, perhaps unusually charming, but still, just a cooking show. No, what elevates Kimono Mom to philosophy and art – for they are the same according to the Keatsean formula, beauty is truth, truth beauty – is her dialog with her daughter Sutan.

Here’s the first Komono Mom video, from two years ago:

Moe is holding Sutan in the opening shot. She introduces herself, and then Sutan, who is identified on screen as her assistant. We get the title screen and then we see Moe chopping lotus root (00:25) as she begins to demonstrate how to make deep fried lotus root sandwiches. Sutan is nowhere to be seen. She’s napping, or something.

Sutan wakes up (03:23) and Moe leaves the kitchen to attend to her, leaving her audience watching a glass bowl of mashed avocado she’s been stirring. It’s for the sandwich filling. While we are watching the avocado puree in its own juices Moe says in voice-over:

You woke up? Already? even cooking, it is hard for mom during childcare. She literally follows me every time everywhere lately. I can’t do anything when she want me to pick up and crying. I often cook with her in one hand.

We hear her, still off camera, singing something to Sutan (04:20) and talking to her in motherese (a technical term I psychology). She returns to her cooking at about 4:31, leaving Sutan off screen. She talks of off-screen Sutan at 4:47, who makes some kind of noise in return. A bit later we hear some kind of music box playing while Sutan vocalizes as Moe continues mashing away. “You’re getting excited. Do you have a recital?” Dialog.

And so it goes until the lotus root sandwiches are ready to be deep-fried. At that point Sutan crawls into the kitchen – I assume that’s what she’s done as she’s too young to walk, but since she is below counter level we can’t see her – and Moe picks her up. Moe is holding Sutan in her left arm while using large spoon to coat the sandwich with batter. She picks it up with her fingers and lowers it into the hot oil.

The next shot looks down on a pair of sandwiches in hot oil. Then we see them on them cooling off on a rack and, for a second, we can see Sutan sitting on the floor (08:50). That’s the first time we’ve glimpsed her face since the opening shot. Moe plates two sandwiches and then begins to eat one, using chop sticks (09:30). “Mmmmmm” – with a rising voice tone as Moe smiles at us. She finishes eating the sandwiches using chopsticks while delivering a voice over commentary on how good the sandwiches are, “our family’s favorite dish.” No more Sutan.

And yet she was there in the opening shot. And she was identified as an assistant? What was Moe thinking at this point? Was she planning to involve Sutan in the process as she became more capable? I suspect that she was, but I don’t really know.

What I do know is that Moe is a skilled and sophisticated artist. What do I mean? She was trained as and worked as a geisha for, I believe, six years. She learned to dance, to play the shamisen, to have charming conversation with her customers, and I don’t know what else, but also how to dress. That means how to wear a kimono, one appropriate for the season and the occasion. Dancing and music, those are arts, but the whole geisha performance, it’s an art form. Whatever she had in mind when she made her first video, Moe's experience as a geisha has informed her video work, allowing her to develop it with philosophical skill and artistry.


  1. You'll remember from Alex Kerr's book his observation about China's substantial tradition of philosophical writings and Japan's lack. He points out that the Japanese way is the acts of doing that illuminate. Kerr discusses this in several passages. And, as far as her conversations with Sutan, the methods of her geisha training undoubtedly inform the ease of her question and answer philosophizing. How else would geisha houses have been able to develop such a presence in the culture that its "mothers" were the women who became financially savvy, able to weather different dramatic cultural shifts? It is more than knowing what to do; it is a resilience bearing testimony to the how, where, and when.