Can you fit into an itsu-bitsy bikini? Image: Getty
Show Hide image

Will Self: Itsu is the perfect food for keyboard rifflers terrified they're turning into sludge

That food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience.

Itsu is a Japanese-inspired chain of some 40 takeaways and a brace of proper restaurants that are scattered across London’s financial district with a few outliers, including one in Oxford. Itsu – which is a Japanese prefix meaning “when” – was founded by Julian Metcalfe, who is also responsible for Pret A Manger, so you get the semantic synonymy.

I ate in a branch of Itsu near St Paul’s a couple of weeks agoD and for some perverse reason I so enjoyed the experience that I returned to see whether I had been suffering from a hallucination: the decor had seemed so pleasing, the service so light-touch and the food so deliquescent.

I had been hallucinating – on second pass, Itsu was just another fast-food joint with a shtick devised to part office porkers from their readies.

I suppose it is interesting to ruminate on this strange fact along with one’s Itsu salad box: that over the past 15 years or so, simulacrums of Japanese eateries have come increasingly to dominate British high streets, much as replicants of human beings will doubtless vault the boulevards of Los Angeles come the end of this decade. In City of Quartz, his fine work on the psychogeography of LA, Mike Davis hypothesises that the Asiatic hordes teeming through Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner were a sublimation of the anxiety felt by Hollywood during the early 1980s as more and more prime downtown real estate was snaffled up by the Japanese. Fair enough, yet this doesn’t really explain why British quants and financial traders are now so enamoured of rice noodle soup and sushi selections – unless, that is, they believe that by eating Japanese they will magically ward off the deflation that has bitten down on the once-tiger economy for the past 25 years.

The Itsu philosophy (if we can sully the word) is to respond to “years of listening and reacting to customer feedback” by “creating a low-calorie menu for the upbeat and the active”. But am I alone in detecting a contradiction here? The last thing the active and upbeat require is “butterfly-light, low-fat, nutritsu food”; I mean, if you’re properly active you can get away with more or less limitless stodge. As for the grim coinage “nutritsu”, this is of a piece with other bits of babyish signage stuck up in Itsu – ask not for a noodle pot but a “noodle potsu”, and (most yucky this) you might like to sluice it down with an “itea”. Combine with the life-size sepia shots of etiolated Japanese maidens in itsu-bitsy bikinis that adorn the walls and you get the picture: Itsu is aimed not so much at the high, male end of the City feeding chain but at female secretaries and keyboard rifflers whose sedentary drudging is – they quite reasonably worry – turning them to sludge.

On beige-vinyl-covered stools held aloft by mirror-shiny aluminium poles, with one’s Hello Kitty handbag shackled to the underside of the table by a purpose-designed strap (handy, that), you can squirt soy sauce from one of those dear little individual plastic bottles into one of those dear little individual plastic trays, then mix in the wasabi with the tip of your chopstick. Mm, it’s all so . . . diminutive. On reflection, I think it is this aspect of Japanese culture that most appeals to us at an unconscious level: the saccharine infantilising of the bitter pill of machine ordered conformity. We may have to work all the hours Mammon sends, but at least we can have our lunch break in cute surroundings, our fair cheeks brushed by the wings of the Itsu butterfly logo.

In fact, the food at Itsu is perfectly all right. Even close to closing time on a gloomy October evening the salad still had some bounce in it and the sushi some bite. As for the miso soup – which Metcalfe has insinuated on to the shelves at Sainsbury’s – it was a wholesome mixture and looked, as good miso soup should, like the beginnings of an attempt to see if life can be synthesised in a laboratory.

In a way, I find this most disturbing of all: that food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience. Every time I find myself savouring under such circumstances, I double-take, remembering Winston Smith looking up from the table at the Chestnut Tree Café to see the implacable face of Julian Metcalfe – sorry, I mean “Big Brother” – staring down at him, and returning that dictatorial gaze with . . . love.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Show Hide image

In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump