A man stands outside his house, a confused look on his face, as melancholy piano music tinkles in the background. He searches his pockets; he peeks underneath the door mat. Finally, he finds it — not his keys, but a big-ass yakitori skewer that the guy pulls out from inside his jacket before going in for a big bite. “No worry if you can’t find it,” reads the tagline. “We got you covered!”
So goes one of the whimsical commercials that Ippuku, the popular downtown Berkeley yakitori restaurant, has been posting on its Instagram page each week for the past five months — though to call them “commercials” undersells the videos’ production value and, in many cases, their unvarnished weirdness.
One week the short film might take the form of a yakitori-themed puppet show, with the restaurant’s chicken mascot introducing viewers to his friend “Turkey-kun” — a roundabout way to announce that the restaurant would be closed for Thanksgiving:
Another week, it might feature an original song, “Katsu Sando” — about a new katsu sandwich the restaurant had added to the menu, naturally — sung to the tune of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah:
And it’s hard to explain exactly what’s happening in this oddball piece of stop-time animation, except to say that the voiceover narration and sound effects alone make it hard to resist watching it on a continuous loop, several times in a row:
The films are the brainchild of Masa Sugawara, Ippuku’s general manager, who shoots and stars in all of the videos himself, posting a new one every Wednesday. During the coronavirus crisis, when joy and whimsy are in such short supply, the films provide a much-needed shot of pure, goofball energy. It’s no wonder that they’ve developed a kind of cult following, with some observers, including Berkeleyside Nosh editor Sarah Han, praising them as emblematic of the creative spirit that has helped restaurants stay afloat during these tough economic times.
Sugawara tells Eater SF that prior to the pandemic, Ippuku had no social media presence to speak of, largely because of owner Christian Geideman’s lo-fi sensibilities — the restaurant didn’t even have a Facebook or Instagram page, much less an active one. But when the initial shelter-in-place order came down in March, Sugawara and his team scrambled to figure out what to do, especially since the owner had left the Bay Area. Like many other Japanese restaurants, Ippuku shifted toward mostly bento boxes during the pandemic before slowly rolling out more of its regular yakitori offerings, but, according to Sugawara, doing just takeout didn’t really feel like Ippuku — a restaurant known, in large part, for its atmosphere and service.
So, in an effort to stay connected with the restaurant’s customers in a different way, Sugawara created an Instagram page for Ippuku, using it mostly, at first, as a way to share the restaurant’s daily menu. “I wasn’t good at social media either,” Sugawara says.
As it turns out, Sugawara has a background in film and acting; he has a small film company, MaSa3film, that he’s always done on the side, making occasional shorts and industrial commercials. Starting in August, he switched over to posting only films on Ippuku’s Instagram page, shooting them with his iPhone and a tripod, doing all of the acting and voiceovers himself, and then editing the videos on iMovie.
“A lot of people were putting up beautiful pictures,” he says. “That’s great, but I kind of wanted [to do something] to cheer people up.”
Within the Bay Area’s Japanese food community, Sugawara is a beloved figure. He started out as a food runner at Ippuku a decade ago, but eventually worked his way up to become the manager — “because he was so professional, and we were all so amateur,” says Shinichi “Washi” Washino, co-owner of Oakland’s Soba Ichi and a bartender at Ippuku when Sugawara first joined the staff. Tommy Cleary, who also worked at Ippuku before he became the chef-owner of SF’s Hina Yakitori, describes Sugawara as “reliable and pleasant.” “He really cares,” Cleary says. “That’s why he is where he’s at now. He’s a hard worker.”
Washino and Cleary both count themselves as fans of the Ippuku videos. Sugawara can be very serious in person, Washino explains. The films show his “fun side.”
Sugawara, for his part, says his one guiding principle is to never give the films any political message — or even make them overtly topical. It’s notable, for instance, that among all the videos Sugawara has posted since the summer, there aren’t any that make direct reference to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s by design.
In the same way that restaurant like Ippuku might offer customers the gift of a small respite in the form of a lovely box of takeout food, Sugawara’s films serve the same function. It’s very difficult to watch them without a smile on your face — without feeling ever so slightly better about the world.
“I just want people to get a little break from what’s going on in reality,” Sugawara says, noting that the name “Ippuku” itself means “take five.” “I’d be really happy if somebody is feeling down, looks at this movie, and thinks, ‘Oh, my life isn’t that bad; let’s keep going on.’ That’s my goal.”