TJFF Review: 'School Meals Time: Final Battle' Is Delicious Directed by Maya Ayabe

Starring Hayato Ichihara, Rena Takeda, Taishi Sato, Hana Toyoshima, Tatsunori Tsujimoto
TJFF Review: 'School Meals Time: Final Battle' Is Delicious Directed by Maya Ayabe
Watching School Meals Time: Final Battle, it's easy to become incredibly envious of their school-subsidized lunchtime options. Comforting bowls of ramen, tender slices of beef, rich broths with hearty vegetables and soft noodles – droooool. Even as adults, the majority of us will be hard-pressed to put together something as tasty (and healthy) together for ourselves.

Mr. Amarida (Hayato Ichihara) is a school teacher comically invested in school lunches, going so far as to say that the only reason he's a teacher is for the meal. For Mr. Amarida, school lunches aren't just to be eaten in a cavalier manner. No — they are to be savoured and eaten in the most optimal order via the most effective process. One pupil in his class shares this enthusiasm, perhaps too much. Kamino (Taishi Sato) out-classes Mr. Amarida's every lunchtime move. Kamino is innovative in elevating the lunchtime feast, finding radical ways to serve up his dishes — using soft noodles as a base to create individual hors d'oeuvre-like canopies? Unheard of!

When the school board threatens to cut the funding to this lunchtime joy, Mr. Amarida and Kamino find themselves on the same side of the battle. What ensues is a surprisingly heartfelt turn of events that speaks to the joy of community and shared experiences.

School Meals Time is incredibly silly, but in the best way possible. The physicality of Mr. Amarida in particular is reminiscent of the slapstick humour of silent-era movie stars, only we get to hear the voiceovers of his humorous internal monologue. The quick-cut editing and anime-like sound effects add to the comedy with great effect.

Ichihara's performance is a great exercise in balance. While engaging in the wacky behaviour of Mr. Amarida, Ichihara injects an intensity to the character befitting of the seemingly straight-laced schoolteacher. His ability to convincingly play both will have audiences questioning if what they're seeing is in fact reality, or just how events play out in Mr. Amarida's mind.

For all of the goofy comedy, School Meals Time ends with a great deal of heart that is surprisingly emotional. This is in large part to Rena Takeda's joyous performance as Miss. Misono, another teacher at the school and Mr. Amarida's friend. Takeda is, at times, soft in contrast to Ichihara's over-the-top dramatics, and then forceful when Ichihara quiets down. The chemistry between Takeda and Ichihara is fantastic as they play off one another beautifully.

School Meals Time's message about community and the importance of school meals is compelling, but the hard pivot the film takes from delightfully silly to melodramatic is jarring and threatens to overpower the themes director Maya Ayabe seeks to explore. But while the tone can feel uneven, the emotional ending grounds the absurd and makes the comedy that much more comedic.

Like a thoughtfully put together lunchtime meal, School Meals Time balances the contrasts well, creating a rousing tale that will have you laughing out loud one minute and quietly tearing up the next.

The 2021 Toronto Japanese Film Festival runs online from June 5 to 27. (AMG Entertainment)