u m a m i is the YouTube channel of the artist, animator and musician Justin Tomchuk, who is based in Montreal. The channel is named after the “basic taste” umami, which was belatedly added to the reigning quadrumvirate of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter in 1908 by the chemist Professor Kikunae Ikeda. A little over a century later, in 2009, one study finally caught up with Ikeda’s heels in identifying the specific taste receptor that humans carry for umami. Anybody who is trying to compliment a meal for being umami-ish is so far handicapped by the absence of any such an adjective. Inexplicably, umami is only a noun. Still, you will be familiar with what the taste entails. Umami is a hearty, savoury flavour that is at home in broths, stocks, and cooked meats.
You do not need to be on Tomchuk’s channel for very long to encounter foods from umami’s empire. “McDrivin’,” the first ever video clip, shows the fast-food mascot Ronald McDonald speeding alone down a highway towards a setting sun. Such is the mood of this clip that the sun can be only setting. As Ronald drives, the sunset is gradually revealed to be – or else it morphs hallucinogenically into – a Big Mac. The Guardian’s Amy Fleming, in a 2013 article on “why the fifth taste is so important,” explored the “magical flavour-bomb maths” of cheeseburgers and noted that “the cooked beef, tomato and cheese… form a ménage à trois made in heaven.” In “McDrivin’,” an international ambassador for umami thus accelerates towards its epitome.
u m a m i commences with video portraits of the McDonaldland characters Ronald McDonald, Grimace, and the Hamburglar. Their stories, which feature Ronald weeping, Grimace depressed, and the Hamburglar incarcerated, are more obviously human than the plasticky antics within the original McDonaldland. They are a deeper, darker broth where McDonald’s had only ever sold sticky hamburgers. Perhaps these characters have matured or else they have no power source left in their lives other than nostalgia. The Big Mac in “McDrivin’” is a ghost on the horizon.
Ronald McDonald is lately out and about again. He is once again tickling the fancy of fashion, in that his image has been lifted by two of YouTube’s most innovative channels. He is the face of u m a m i and he is being also deployed on the raucous Australian slapstick series RackaRacka. Copyright infringement does not really come into it since from his earliest days Ronald had lived by this sword. The original McDonaldland adverts were famously sued in 1977 for helping themselves to pre-existing ideas and characters from children’s television. Unlike their own ineffectual Hamburglar, McDonald’s got away with it, ignoring the court’s ruling with insolence and aplomb. Who today remembers Sid and Marty Krofft’s Living Island, the native hunting grounds that were invaded, plundered, and renamed as McDonaldland?
Nonetheless, u m a m i and RackaRacka’s videos are not undertaken in any spirit of scorn or revenge. Their work does not in the end amount to much more than fan art or harmless, voluntary adverts for the franchise. Both channels take a largely innocent enjoyment in playing about with bygone McDonald’s imagery and its gorgeous quaintness. McDonaldland was closed down in 2003 and the corporation taxed the resources of fourteen separate international ad agencies to refresh its brand. With “I’m Lovin’ It,” they went for minimalist sophistication. The whole messy hierarchy of McDonaldland was gone with the wind and replaced with five, pert, whistled notes: da-da-do-do-dooo.
There is a peculiar tangle around the concept of umami. It is currently in operation as a buzzword and yet once you have poked a finger through the unfamiliar Japanese jargon, the trendy burger chain and the designer “plant based” Umami Burger by Jaden Smith, the newness drops away and melts instantly into nothing. An immense nostalgia was always there waiting for you. Umami encompasses soups that you eat when you are sick and McDonald’s meals that you seek out as comfort food when you are depressed. Flavours, in other words, from the core of your childhood.
u m a m i’s videos feed the hungry belly of our nostalgia and even fill it up. The mixture of synths, vaguely neon colours, and heartache in “McDrivin’”and “McFeels” reconnects you with McDonaldland in a way that watching actual footage of this world never could. These video clips somehow never look like parodies or pastiches. The sadness is not merely residual – something that you yourself bring to the videos – but it is surely active already in the colours and the music and the chemistry. The colour scheme in these videos, with its drugged throb of nostalgic longing, is surely the visual equivalent of those dependable childhood flavours.
Tomchuck has been recently recruited to Adult Swim, that fortress of internet Surrealism, but Adult Swim’s own Robot Chicken wages its boorish campaign against 1990s cultural references in a way that is always oddly un-nostalgic. Ronald and his chums always stroll out of the sniggering and flashy cynicism without a scratch. “McDrivin’,” on the other hand, freezes your nostalgia in a harsh light even as it spurs it on. The video looks like a beautifully enhanced scene from McDonaldland even as you are fully aware that it is a scrappy fake. It could be an authentic cartoon from the 1990s even as you can see perfectly that it could have been made only for YouTube.
This is the magic of u m a m i. “Thomas the Thermonuclear Bomb” makes me ache with nostalgia for the original show, one that I barely watched as a child, even as my eyes can see how crass and ludicrous u m a m i’s treatment of it is.
u m a m i’s joke adverts veer off on unexpected tangents and arrive at new places. “Big Smile’s Order” bears down on McDonald’s but it turns out to be referencing a scene from another and far fresher corporate monolith, Grand Theft Auto. “Grill Talk with Mark Zuckerberg,” a feast of umami flavours, dodges the CEO’s own corporation completely whilst the man enthuses witlessly about Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce, a decidedly more middling player than Facebook. In “The End of an Era,” a Scottish nineteenth-century gaudwife is hailed by her “soup son,” an incarnation of her own recipe. This is the equivalent of Ronald McDonald materialising in front of startled clansman two hundred years before the McDonald’s corporation was founded.
Like McDonald’s, GTA, and Facebook, none of whom are mentioned in these videos, the name of the future soup manufacturer remains unuttered. “McFelon” and “Have it Your Way” only manage to spit out product placement for “Burger Czar,” an alternative-universe competitor that has apparently driven the McDonaldland characters out of work. In “Barry Why,” the eponymous villain “hogs the doughnuts” and when that question of “why” comes, he peers through them as though they were spectacles in reply. Sweetness is a rival flavour and Barry’s icing-framed worldview is presumably a different category to that explored on u m a m i. In “The Dairy Dance,” the ghost, or remains, of David Lynch and the Ghostbusters appear dancing under the star of milk, another errant flavour.
I have focused on the short or minor videos on u m a m i because the consensus amongst commentators is to hone in on “Interface,” the channel’s supposedly more complicated series. In truth, Tomchuk has confessed that “Interface” comprises chance pictures and music, channelled using “instinct,” and that its plotting is mostly an afterthought. Mischief, the shape-shifting antichrist from “Interface,” is just an aesthetic device, like Salvador Dali’s melting clock, rather than being a personality with intelligible motives. The shorter videos strike me as possessing a unique clarity and power. u m a m i, like umami, should be enjoyed as a haunting flavour, a momentary sensation that feels as momentous as a crisis.