Kate’s obsession with Japanese soda is all-too-real
Lee Tran Lam on how the assassin’s quest to find Boom Boom Lemon speaks to her own adventures
You’re reading Scene & Heard, a weekly newsletter where I chat to a guest writer about the one scene from a recent Netflix release that left them floored. It’s part of Netflix Pause, a publication that’s all about hitting pause to reflect on the latest film and TV. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox every week diving into screen culture.
Hello! I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause, and when I first watched Kate -- an assassin-revenge flick set in Japan starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the titular Kate, who has 24 hours to seek revenge after she’s lethally poisoned -- I instantly thought of food writer Lee Tran Lam. She and Kate have a lot in common.
To be clear, I’m not insinuating Lee Tran is a ruthless killing machine -- on that crucial part, they differ. But throughout the film, Kate is fanging for a Boom Boom Lemon, a fictional fizzy drink that seems to be sold out wherever she goes (as you can see from its fictional ad campaign, it looks so damn drinkable). This is a quest I knew Lee Tran Lam would deeply relate to, as a Japanese snack and food enthusiast herself -- particularly when it comes to, as I found out, potato chips.
For this week’s Scene & Heard, she chose a scene where a bruised and bloody Kate is more frustrated by a vending machine’s lack of Boom Boom Lemon than the poison killing her from the inside out.
Okay, the most important question first: where is the petition demanding that Big Soda make Boom Boom Lemon a reality???
Right?! It would even come with its own in-built marketing campaign: “Boom Boom Lemon, the assassin’s drink of choice!”.
In Kate, this bottle of suspiciously orange soda is a running gag. At the start of the film, protagonist Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) uses it as a weapon while trying to thwart some henchmen in Osaka, tossing the bottle away to distract one villain before she attacks.
But when Kate returns to Tokyo, she can’t find Boom Boom Lemon anywhere. (I bet she really regretted wasting that bottle as a projectile so early on!)
While carrying out her mission, Kate keeps asking for Boom Boom Lemon throughout Tokyo – from strangers and vendors – and comes up short. One scene that stuck out to me is when Kate looks for it in a vending machine in an alleyway, and it’s sold out. It’s a multipurpose moment that not only repeats the “can’t find Boom Boom Lemon anywhere” gag, but also indicates the changing nature of her relationship with Ani (Miku Martineau), the niece of Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the criminal kingpin Kate is looking for. This is the start of Ani and Kate’s unexpected alliance, as Ani teases her for being a fan of Boom Boom Lemon’s nutritionally questionable flavours.
Not that Kate takes so kindly to being made fun of. Sure, she’s ruthless and overly efficient as a killer, but she is sensitive about her choice of beverage! In this scene, Kate’s the most vulnerable she’s ever been.
At the film’s start, she brags about her perfect assassination record noting, "I haven’t missed once in 12 years”. However, shaken by a job that doesn’t play out as planned, she decides she wants to start a new, less violent life.
But before she can seek that less bloody path, Kate is fatally poisoned and left with 24 hours to live. Instead of getting all Bucket List and appreciating her final hours in one of the greatest cities on the planet, she defaults to revenge. So, even Ani gently mocking her for being a Boom Boom Lemon stan makes her defensive and dismissive – even if Ani is trying to help Kate buy a shirt free of telltale bloodstains. Boom Boom Lemon’s pretty much the only thing that Kate shows any loyalty or affection towards at this stage (but like the availability of in-demand sodas, things can change – especially with Ani and Kate’s ever-evolving relationship).
I guess her obsession speaks to Kate’s lone-wolf nature as a hired killer – this soda is one of the few things she can depend on. Or maybe it just shows that Osaka has a way better supply chain than Tokyo. The two cities have always had an intense rivalry – very similar to Melbourne and Sydney – and Osaka is famously known as the Kitchen of Japan. Or perhaps the message is that assassins (even ones who can handle many bruises, wounds and near-misses from gunshots) still have to stay hydrated.
And as for when we might get Boom Boom Lemon in reality, who knows? But just days after Kate’s release, we’ve seen people drop a tea version and their own artisanal recipe (which frankly might not be in the spirit of the junk-food high)? I guess you could always improvise – just like they do with the makeshift weapons in the movie.
If only Kate had more than 24 hours to spare, she could have made a DIY drink. It would have been a very different movie, though.
Plus, so much of the fun of Japanese drinks is finding them just at the moment you need them – whether you’re stockpiling bullet-train snacks and sips as you walk by a platform kiosk, or chancing across an alley lined with soda-illuminated machines at odd hours (and odd hours seem to be the only kind that Kate seems to work).
When I first heard that there was a fictional soda in Kate, I assumed it would be a knock-off of Pocari Sweat, the ubiquitous energy drink, or perhaps a ramune soda. But Boom Boom Lemon comes from director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s love of C.C. Lemon, which he first became obsessed with in the 1990s.
I’ve definitely noticed the beverage during my seven trips to Japan, but its selling point – of featuring 40 lemons’ worth of Vitamin C – made me assume it was a health drink, like a fizzy Lemsip, so I always gave it a pass. Of course, now I’m curious and will definitely drop it into my shopping basket the next time I spot it.
This scene also plays into the movie’s neon-lit love of Japanese iconography: Kate features very recognisable aspects of the country – whether she’s stepping into one of its 50,000+ konbini (convenience stores), roaring down high-end Ginza with her glowing-pink stolen car, running by Shibuya Crossing or through Shinjuku’s alleyways, guided by the artificial brightness of high-watt signage.
Jidouhanbaiki (vending machines) are a big fixture throughout Japan. No nation on earth has more of them per capita – with five million units dispensing everything from coffee to tinned bread, there’s actually one vending machine for every 23 people in the country. You can even buy business ties from them. Maybe Kate could’ve snapped one up, had she been going for more of a formal assassin look; instead, she reluctantly lets Ani be her style advisor, and ends up with a kawaii (cute) top from the vending machine.
The use of Boom Boom Lemon and food stops reminds me of video games: Kate repeatedly heals/sustains herself in between battles with meals. We kind of do that while travelling, too.
In fact, Kate’s eating habits are like the food diary of a tourist on a last-minute trip. Sure, she could probably use her ‘negotiation’ skills to land a tasting-menu dinner at a hard-to-book kaiseki restaurant, but that’s not her dining style. Instead, she powers up at places that are quick and easy, much like someone would in an unfamiliar city: a yakitori joint you happen to find, a takeaway burger place close to where you were headed anyway.
To bring it back to Boom Boom Lemon, I can see how Kate’s quest for the soda could provide comfort and a sense of stability amongst the chaos – especially in a place she doesn’t know that well.
OK, so I’ve never had to outsmart understandably pissed-off henchmen. But I can relate to the thrill of hunting down an only-in-Japan treat, whether it’s the highly inventive line-up of Kit Kat flavours designed to drive you to konbini outlets (matcha tiramisu, yuzu sake, salted lychee) or regional specialty stores (like kikyo shingen mochi from the Yamanashi Prefecture – the flavour evokes mochi cakes sweetened with black honey).
I’ve spent way too long in airports and railway stations seeking these snacks out – although for me, the stakes were “can I fit them in my already overstuffed bag?” rather than “can I lose all the gun-toting killers that really are not fans of me?”.
Kate spends some of her last moments alive searching for this drink. What's your personal Lemon Boom Boom?
It would definitely be Japanese potato chips. My last memory of being in Tokyo is of being literally weighed down by the number of bags of chips I'd bought; it was a real struggle to get back on the train to my hotel and then do the necessary luggage Tetris needed to make everything fit into my suitcase. My favourite brand is Calbee and they have a specialty shop in Tokyo Station, with flavours highlighting special ingredients, like lemons from the Setouchi region, which are much sweeter than typical lemons (and maybe would’ve been better in a Boom Boom Lemon than a chip packet).
I once accidentally spent $70 on postage (I know, it still stings) after buying Calbee’s premium ‘Potato Farmer’ range of chips, which turn Hokkaido's famously great potatoes into these glorious thick-cut potato snacks that strongly resemble hot chips. I always buy 20 packs in the duty-free shops before I get back on the plane to Sydney and spend my pre-boarding time finding chip-friendly spaces in my luggage to tuck the packets into – this involves carefully cushioning my carry-on bags with light clothing, so the chips don’t get crushed by the time I get home.
During lockdown, I’m grateful to have discovered some local stockists that sell this style of Calbee chip online and the soy-butter flavour has been an iso-snacking highlight. It’s not quite the same as being in Japan: the “look at what I’ve found!” thrill of discovering something impossibly good while scanning a foreign shelf is very hard to match – a bleary-eyed online shopping purchase doesn’t have the same magic or romance. I guess having that fleeting chance to grab these souvenirs while you’re on holiday is what makes them so special. As well as coming across something so out of your usual realm, too. Like, I never knew you could find instant black garlic ramen that’s approved by a ramen critic for a few hundred yen from a noodle joint. Who knew this could even exist?! And yet, I saw it in Ginza, stashed it in my already over-constrained bag, took it home, and it was the best instant ramen I’d ever had.
Assassins and action heroes love taking a second off their mission to indulge in the finer things. I feel like Kate’s not the only one with a drink obsession?
Yes, she’s definitely not alone here! Her hunt for Boom Boom Lemon is a reminder that there’s just something about signature drinks in movies. You can’t imagine the Fast & Furious films without the crew reaching for Coronas, a ritual started in the 2001 original, where Vin Diesel’s Dom tells Paul Walker’s Brian: “You can have any brew you want … as long as it’s a Corona.” The absence of the beer in Fate of the Furious (the 8th movie) even merited a Vanity Fair investigation with writer Joanna Robinson pointing out that the weakest films in the franchise also happen to be the ones without Corona footage.
There’s also the mythology around the martini -- shaken not stirred -- in the James Bond movies. During an architecture tour on Jørn Utzon, I heard that the Sydney Opera House architect would walk around with that very cocktail at parties – even though he didn’t drink – because he was such a Bond fan. So, Boom Boom Lemon is part of a long cinematic lineage of keeping characters hydrated in memorable ways.
I’m sure there are practical reasons for these off-duty distractions, too. A movie can’t entirely be filled with adrenaline-spiking scenes of heroes in extremely life-risking situations (you need to give the stuntpeople a break, plus our blood pressure levels would max out with such relentless pacing). But I think it’s also an easy way to spark a connection with the average popcorn-scoffing viewer. We might not have the theatrical moves of a villain-defeating killer, but we can build a well-earned thirst, too.
God, I'd kill for a Boom Boom Lemon right now.
Hopefully not using any of Kate’s rather dangerous arsenal (or high-impact kicks or punches)!
While I absolutely do not advocate stealing any lethal moves from an assassin’s playbook, if you’re going to follow Kate’s lead in any way, it should be in her wholesome search for a much-coveted soda – and perhaps armed with some coins, not any DIY weaponry. And I’ll toast you when you find an available bottle. Cheers!
Lee Tran Lam is a freelance journalist with a sandwich named after her. She’s the editor of New Voices On Food and runs The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry podcast (plus Crunch Time on Patreon). She also presents Local Fidelity on FBi radio.